“Trieste shines at night”. A waking nightmare

Interview with director Andrea Segre, author of the documentary film Trieste shines at night on illegal police operations against migrants at the border between Italy and Slovenia. The last deception at the end of ‘The Game’

Here we are, again. How many times we said that words matter? And that every life matters? Nevertheless, today we are still here to talk about human rights violations and the use of sweet words that mask a harsh reality. At the borders of EU Member States, the same fundamental rights that shape the European Union are constantly violated. The victims are people who arrive after an exhausting journey along the Balkan route, seeking international protection. It does not matter whether by violence or deception, at external borders or internal borders. Whether pushbacks or ‘informal readmissions’, we are talking about survival of the fittest institutionalized by the State. And about oppression of people whose only fault is to seek a better future, migrating. The only thing that the human being has been doing best since immemorial time. We talk about all this with Andrea Segre, one of the three authors of the documentary film Trieste è bella di notte (Trieste shines at night). This is an opportunity to put the spotlight and take a stand on the least known illegal practice of the entire Balkan route. If Trieste shines at night, what about in daytime?

Trieste Shines At Night

Borders and deceptions

Has there ever been a moment of happiness in this journey? “This is the almost absurd question we decided to ask the protagonists of the film, to offer them the opportunity for a different narrative”. This is how Andrea Segre, one of the three authors (together with Matteo Calore and Stefano Collizzolli) of Trieste shines at night, explains the title of the film produced in 2023 by the interactive and participatory distribution network ZaLab. This question was asked – but only after building “an atmosphere of sharing and participation” – to migrants “who went through the Balkan route and arrived in Trieste, where they were pushed back”.

Segre recalls that “someone said there were no moments of happiness, someone could not answer the question, others told something”. Among those who decided to tell something there is “Daniel, one of the protagonists”. His moment of happiness “was on the hills above Trieste, after crossing the border between Italy and Slovenia, when he saw the lights of the city over the gulf”. There, he stopped and thought ‘Trieste is very beautiful at night’. It is a “very simple sentence, but it suggests that there is something else, without the need to make it explicit”. According to the three authors of the film, “in its simplicity it has the strength to become a title, because it contains a creeping doubt: ‘What happens during the day?'” This is it. What happens in Trieste in daytime?

Andrea Segre Trieste è Bella Di Notte Trieste Shines At Night
Andrea Segre (credits: Simone Falso / Itaca)

Between Italy and Slovenia – two Schengen States where checks at internal borders have been abolished – migrants coming from the Balkan route risk being stopped by Italian law enforcement a few kilometers from Trieste and pushed back. From Italy to Slovenia, from Slovenia to Croatia, from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Without identification and without being allowed to apply for international protection. Even if these are two obligations for the Italian State and two rights for anyone arriving at the borders of an EU Member State.

Since May 2020, the Italian Ministry of Interior has been calling these law enforcement operations ‘informal readmissions’. As Segre points out, this is a euphemism: “They cannot be called pushbacks, because refoulement is illegal”. Yet, this is what we are talking about. Measures aimed at forcing people out of their territory while obstructing access to applicable legal and procedural frameworks. This is also established by a historic ruling by the Civil Court of Rome. “This expression contains all the contradictions of the European securitarian policies”, the Italian director denounces: “Until a few years ago, it happened mainly along the EU external borders, but now these policies are slowly eroding the democratic fabric even in the EU internal borders”.

After the ruling by the Civil Court of Rome, “informal readmissions” were suspended for a year and a half. But on 28 November 2022, the new Minister of the Interior, Matteo Piantedosi, reintroduced them. How do these operations take place? “Through deception, there is no other way. Otherwise, they would have to take place through violence”. Just think of what would happen, if you openly denied the possibility of applying for asylum to people coming from “all they can have experienced in Afghanistan, and then in the desert of Iraq, in Turkey, in Bulgaria, the truncheon blows in Croatia”. And all that The Game involves, trying to cross three borders from Bosnia to Trieste without being intercepted by the police. “For sure, they would start screaming and trying to escape. There would be no other way than violence to send them back”.

This is why “the only way is deception“. In practice, “people are loaded into police vans, telling them they will be taken to a reception center. Instead, they are brought to the other side of the border, to Slovenia, and once there it is difficult to refuse to get off”. Or “these people sign some documents, telling them they are applying for asylum. Of course, this is not true”, Segre continues. All this considered, “if you ask Has there ever been a moment of happiness in this journey? to a person who has just gone through the Balkan route, they may rightly upset”. But if the same question comes «after a dialogue, the intensity of this attempt to deal with contradictions and moments of hope and happiness – that could have been experienced during such a long journey – can emerge”.

Firsthand voices and images

For the documentary, everything started in January 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The President of the Italian Consortium of Solidarity – Refugee Office Onlus, Gianfranco Schiavone, called me and asked if I knew what ‘informal readmissions’ are”, Segre reminds. “I had no idea, so he replied that I had to come as soon as possible to Trieste to meet some people”. The first trip to the border between Italy and Slovenia, to Casa Malala reception center, took place a few months later, when “I began to understand that this narrative has its own power“. Because “it contains all the pseudo-democratic contradictions shown by the European States, when they claim they can stop “the invasion” through an impossible dialogue with the right of asylum”.

The documentary was realized through interviews with people who suffered refoulement: “We shot it on the border between Italy and Slovenia, and in Bihać, one of the transit points for migrants from Bosnia to Croatia”. Two more interviews took place in Rome. One with Judge Silvia Albano, “responsible for the ruling by the Civil Court of Rome on the ‘informal readmissions'”, and one with the Prefect of Trieste, Annunziato Vardé, “who represented the Italian Ministry of Interior, by decision of Minister Lamorgese”, Segre points out.

The documentary shows two main features, that characterize “all ZaLab’s documentaries on migration since 2008”. The use of footage directly shot by migrants and the absence of a voiceover. “The 30/40% of the film is shot through smartphone videos, edited even from TikTok and Instagram stories”. This feature gives a firsthand view of the journey along the Balkan route from people who really made it.

The second feature is “an editorial line and ethical and aesthetic positioning”. As Segre claims talking about this choice, “people must be able to speak in the language they decide, whether it is the mother tongue or another one they feel comfortable with”. The person, not the director, is at the center of the interview. “I may not even understand”, to the point that “there are situations where we do not have translators or mediators”. However, when it is possible to have one, “we look for them in contexts of the protagonist’s experience”. As in the case of Trieste shines at night: “Ismail Swati, a Pakistani migrant who arrived in Italy and who is now a cultural mediator at ICS, collaborated with us”.

In any case, “we do not ask the mediator/translator to interrupt the flow of the story, as journalists usually do for reportage, because it has to become a first-person narrative”. This is how “for long minutes we listen to Farsi, Pashto and other languages that we do not understand, somehow following the emotional and narrative flow”. Segre underlines that “the respondent has more power than the director, controlling the narrative”. In this way, the audience is also impacted: “They feel to be the recipient of a story and not an inquiry conducted by someone else”. Ultimately, “the voiceover is no longer needed“. All the work of interview unwinding, translation and editing is enough for the production of the documentary.

Border Italy Slovenia
From Trieste shines at night

Institutional and civil responsibilities

At this point, we are forced to jump to the other side, the side of those who illegally push these people back. And the first question concerns the institutional responsibilities. “Responsibilities are totally bipartisan. From the government led by Giuseppe Conte to the one led by Mario Draghi, starting again with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. We are talking about a strategy that brings together all political parties“, Segre reports.

This is another factor that “makes the story very interesting, because it tells of an ontological tension in the European States – not only Italy – as they act against their own democratic Constitutions and legal system”. In other words, “things that can never be done to their own citizens are the same put in place against others, because European governments decide that these people have less rights“. There is no word other than “discrimination” to describe all of this. If we stop to think for a moment, “we risk doing again what happened in very dark moments of our history”. Because this is not ‘protection and defense of territory’. “If the difference between people who cross the same border is the skin color or the passport, we are discriminating against rights”, the Italian director makes it clear.

From Trieste shines at night

The ruling by the Civil Court of Rome defines three responsibilities at the legal level.

“Firstly, by the Italian Constitution and the EU laws, no person can be expelled from the national territory without a legal act”, Segre points out. Readmissions are ‘informal’, and this means that no one has signed anything to take responsibility: “However, there can be no administrative decision or law enforcement operation not including an official act”.

“Secondly, no person who applied for international protection can be expelled without first examining the application“. And in any case, “without first verifying that the expulsion does not put the person in a condition of risk”.

“Thirdly, the Italian authorities know what happens to these people“, Segre concludes. The Italians take them to Slovenia, the Slovenes to Croatia, the Croats to the middle of the woods on the border with Bosnia, beat them up and deport them. “Everyone is absolutely aware to be part and complicit in this chain of violent extra-Schengen refoulement“.

There is one sentence that reveals all the hypocrisies hidden behind these illegal operations by EU Member States. In a sequence of the film, one of the main characters very seriously says: ‘At this point, maybe it makes more sense for Europe to stop having asylum legislation‘. “If this is what really happens, just don’t gives us the hope that you are the land of protection and asylum”, the Italian director paraphrases the concept. Because all the people who leave their countries “know what Europe is supposed to be, a land of protection and asylum, compared to the places they come from”.

The role of European citizens is even more crucial after watching a film like Trieste shines at night, becoming aware of an almost unknown reality and denouncing it in all institutional and non-institutional occasions. “There is still a huge amount of people who have no idea what the Balkan route is, because all the attention is on the Mediterranean routes”, Segre explains. He also confesses that “we were all amazed by the fact that at the end of the screenings so many people said that they knew nothing about the Balkan route or The Game“. In the midst of an endless quantity of other thousands of news, content and images, “maybe they even heard about it”. But watching it on a big screen, in the darkness of a movie theater, together with many other people is a whole different experience. Definitely more impactful.

“We at ZaLab believe that cinema has the power to create attention not easily and quickly consumable“, one of the six film-makers and social workers who form the collective underlines. “By settling down, it can give rise to groups and communities of attention – ‘resilient minorities‘ – that are crucial to people’s lives”. Especially for those who see their rights denied every day. In the midst of sweet words that mask the harsh reality of human rights violations.

Trieste Inglese