The Non-Places of Migrant Cinema in Europe

Time for some rapid fire quotes from my most recent delve into the journals. In The Non-Places of Migrant Cinema in Europe (Ponzanesi, 2012 p675–690) Sandra Ponzanesi analyses three films; Dirty Pretty Things (Frears, 2002), Last Resort (Pawlikowski, 2000) and Io, l’altro (Melliti, 2006) as case studies of the way in which cinema represents migrants through non-place.


Ponzanesi looks at non-place as defined in Non- Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Auge, 1995):

[…] where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions… where a dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces is developing… a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporal and the ephemeral. (Auge, 1995 p78)

She suggests that these non-places are spaces in which:

[…] individuals function as passengers or customers or both at the same time, immersing themselves in the chance anonymity of a space without history, as if trapped and frozen in a time unmarked by events happening in the present. (Ponzanesi, 2012 p675–690)

And she links this idea of non-place to Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, which is described as “sites with no real place… [with] a direct or inverted analogy with the real space of society (Foucault, 1986 p22-27)”.

Ponzanesi notes this is similar to, but not the same as, Auge’s concept of non-place. She goes on to describe heterotopia as:

[…] space that organises otherness and difference, […] a means of escape from authoritarianism and repression […] spaces of otherness, neither here nor there, that are simultaneously physical and mental. (Ponzanesi, 2012 p675–690)

She suggests that in Western Europe “the colonial space could also be defined as a heterotopia, a place where regimes of otherness are organised and enforced (Ponzanesi, 2012 p675–690)” and in this way heterotopia is connected to migrants, asylum seekers and other conventionally undesirable elements of society.

Ponzanesi writes that in the three films that she analyses:

[…] the bodily inscription of the postcolonial subjects, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers becomes marked as other, and therefore socially ordered elsewhere through their physical displacement to the outskirts of society, into liminal spaces that function as waiting rooms or holding areas for the ‘legal’ Europe […] However, these zones of marginalisation and exclusion, heterotopias or non-places actually become places of semi-belonging and transformation. (Ponzanesi, 2012 p675–690)

The key locations in which all three films that Ponzanesi analyses all fit Auge’s definition of non-place:

[they are] all non-places in the sense that they do not offer places of identity, relations and history. People are trapped by anonymity, immobilised in a time without events, stripped of their humanity. They are set within the constraints of society at large […] that uses these non-places to contain and control otherness […] for postcolonial migrants, refugees and asylum seekers these non-places are zones more of stasis than of transit, of entrapment more than consumption, and of exploitation more than resistance. They actually embody what Foucault meant by heterotopia, as opposed to the ‘not-here’ of utopia, a critique of modernity derived from an immanent yet disturbing relation to the here and now, a perspective on what mainstream society labels as ‘other spaces’, relegated for the construction, organisation and management of otherness. (Ponzanesi, 2012 p675–690)

One of the most recurrent symbolic non-places, which also appeared in Climates (Ceylan, 2006) is the sea. Analysing Last Resort Ponzanesi writes:

[…]The sense of entrapment and imprisonment is reinforced by the grey presence of the sea that constitutes a natural barrier […]Another interesting liminal non-place that can be turned into place by the migrant communities is the beach, which, as an interstitial zone between the land and the sea, defies spatial categorisation and can be seen as a border as well as a place from which escape is possible […] The boat used for the escape represents the tool of connection between the entrapment of the land and the freedom of the sea. (Ponzanesi, 2012 p675–690)

Similarly about Io, l’altro she writes:

[It] is interesting in that it is almost completely shot on a boat in Tunisian extraterritorial waters. The boat becomes a metaphor for larger personal and political dynamics taking place around questions of media, migration and terrorism. The setting, a boat on the sea, is remarkable not only because it constitutes one of those non-places described by Auge, a means of transport disconnected from national or societal identification, but also because it is an uncanny location where the ground rules of legality, hospitality and survival operate differently from on the mainland [It] is a metaphorical rendition of our world in a boat. (Ponzanesi, 2012 p675–690)


Melliti’s choice to use the boat in extraterritorial waters as a non-place, in which national identities and prejudices are played out in a small claustrophobic space, highlights the importance of local events within global politics. (Ponzanesi, 2012 p675–690)

And finally of the sea itself, she writes:

The Mediterranean Sea […] functions as a non-place with multiple meanings, beyond the law of the soil, but also as a fluid barrier that costs the lives of many illegal migrants trying to make it to European shores […] Like the sea in Last Resort, the Mediterranean represents new opportunities, but also innumerable dangers […] This liquid non-place, to paraphrase the ‘liquid modernity’ coined by Zygmunt Bauman, represents the alternative to the enclosure of detention centres and exploitative hotels but offers no greater guarantee of security and hospitality. (Ponzanesi, 2012 p675–690)

Another commonality with Climates lies in the use of tourist destinations. Last Resort is set in the faded seaside grandeur of Margate and one of its locations is an abandoned amusement arcade. Dirty Pretty Things sets itself in a high class hotel in central London, outwardly “familiar from glossy tourist representations (Ponzanesi, 2012 p675–690)”.

Another trope common to these films is the use of phones to contact the outside world. This reminded me of the numerous phone conversations held by the virtually house-bound mother in Wadjda (Al-Mansour, 2012). Of Last Resort, Ponzanesi writes:

The telephone on the seafront, for example, which only works with pre-paid cards, is a crucial symbol of escape around which the asylum seekers and refugees gather, queue and fight in order to gain access to ‘other spaces’ and ‘voices’. It becomes a desirable non-place for achieving connection to the outside world […] Interestingly, the mobile phone, which, it is claimed, is the most popular technological tool for Third World people and postcolonial migrant youth alongside satellite TV, is totally absent from the film, placing the asylum seeker communities in a kind of suspended Neverland, probably in order to emphasise the non-agency of asylum seekers who would, had they the use of new digital media, participate more in the creation of an organic society, and therefore of a more integrated space. (Ponzanesi, 2012 p675–690)

And as in Wadjda, the individual story is prioritised, trusting that the audience will see the politics behind it:

The director [of Last Resort], who is better known as a documentary filmmaker, privileges here the individual story above the mass of anonymous asylum seekers who are left in the background (no names, just faces) while the more established fiction film recipe of one major story line, plot–crisis–happy ending, flavoured with a love story, seems to work more effectively for wider audiences. (Ponzanesi, 2012 p675–690)

Looking for how Ponzanesi’s analysis and theory might relate to my own investigation into Third Cinema I found her comment on the work of Hamid Naficy interesting. Perhaps I should look at some of his work next:

Hamid Naficy has explored in great detail the elements that characterise exilic and diasporic cinema, which he describes as ‘accented’, to express how the origin of the film-maker impacts on not only thematic but also stylistic aspects of film. Accented cinema might be characterised by questions of belonging and identity (travel and journeys, borders and confinement, a nostalgic longing for ‘home’), by language use (multilingualism, orality, acousticity, accents and inflection), modes of production (interstitial, collective forms of production, multi-source funding and co-production), narrative style (autobiographical and epistolary, using voiceover, letter reading, telephone communication, and more recently e-mail and SMS texting), and the addition of haptic elements (structures of feeling accented through the senses of touch and smell). (p676) The above could be considered to be the common denominators of what is specific to migrant and diasporic cinema. (Ponzanesi, 2012 p675–690)


Al-Mansour, H., (2012), Wadjda, Razor Film Produktion GmbH

Auge, M., (1995), Non-place: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London: Verso

Ceylan, N. B., (2006), Climates, NBC Film – Pyramide Production

Foucault, M., (1986) Of Other Spaces, Diacritics, 16 (Spring 1986) pp. 22–27, Translated from the French by J. Miskoviec

Frears, S., (2002), Dirty Pretty Things, BBC Films

Melliti, M., (2006), Io, l’altro, Sanmarco Film

Pawlikowski, P., (2000), Last Resort, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

Ponzanesi, S., (2012), The Non-Places of Migrant Cinema in Europe, Third Text, 26 (6), pp. 675–690


One thought on “The Non-Places of Migrant Cinema in Europe

  1. Pingback: Houria | TRANSNOCTURNAL

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