Teaching Selam Mekuria‘s film Sidet: Forced Exile

By Christiane Assefa

I write this four months after the reconstruction of the Um Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan in November 2020, following Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s “law and order operation” in the Tigray region of Northern Ethiopia. In 1991 Salem Mekuria filmed her documentary Sidet: Forced Exile (1991) at this very camp during the end of the Derg military dictatorship in Ethiopia. Sidet’s cinematic focus is the agency of African refugee women, making it distinct from the archive of images of helpless, starving refugees that circulated across Western media in the late eighties and nineties. Documenting the lived experience of Ethiopian and Eritrean refugee women—capturing their complex personhood, self-determination, and dignity—the film shows how they navigate the limitations of humanitarian programs, lack of resources, illness, and the masculinist orientation of regional ethnic nationalist struggles for “liberation.” This is vital work required for the maintenance of everyday life, culture, and the future.

As a child of Tigrayan refugees who lived in Um Rakuba in the eighties, watching Sidet gave me visual images to pair with my parents’ memories. Yet what is part of my past has become reality for another generation of Tigrayans impacted by war and militarization, so Sidet’s exploration of the gendered experience of life in exile persists as a powerful pedagogical tool for educators. In this lesson plan, I am interested in contextualizing Sidet as a film that feminist educators can use to teach topics related to gender, race, displacement, and knowledge production.

Contextualizing the Film

How I Teach It

For the purposes of this lesson and film screening, I facilitate a discussion with my students about the everyday as a critical site of analysis that challenges sensationalist trends in news and media culture. Prior to our film viewing, students read two texts. “‘We’re All the Same, Coz Exist Only One Earth, Why the BORDER EXIST’: Messages of Migrants on Their Way” centers the walls of a bathroom, an intimate everyday space that satisfies the biological functioning of human bodies, as a site of knowledge production. These surfaces become a site where asylum seekers and refugees creatively resist subordination by exchanging messages, offering encouraging words, and creating space for recognition. Recognizing the bathroom as a site of meaning making, the authors deploy an everyday space as an opportunity to consider how places and activities that are traditionally overlooked or disregarded may actually provide valuable knowledge about the process of migration. Students also read Yên Lê Espiritu and Lan Duong’s “Feminist Refugee Epistemology: Reading Displacement in Vietnamese and Syrian Refugee Art” (2018). This piece provides the framework for a method of analysis that locates refugees as knowledge producers.

We unpack the following questions in relation to these two readings: How does the everyday situate the past, present, and future relationally? How does the everyday challenge the construction of violence as a “crisis” or “spectacle”? How does everydayness allow us to engage with intimacy, family, and private space as critical sites of analysis and knowledge production? How does the everyday allow us to observe both beauty and pain?

Situating Sidet in this context, we observe how the film depicts lived experience and theory as mutually constituted, and I encourage students to be attentive to the everyday acts, conditions, pain, and joys the film documents. One of my goals is that students will come to understand the everyday as a site of theory making and will come to locate refugee women as knowledge producers, orators, and agents of change.

Post-screening In-Class Discussion (using breakout groups)

Guiding Questions

Group 1: How do the individuals in this film enact their hopes, beliefs, and politics in their daily life?

Group 2: Looking beyond words, how did the film create meaning visually or sonically?

Group 3: What mundane things take place in the film that indicate the context of militarization, displacement, and war in which these women live?

Group 4: How is care mediated in this film? What is the role of care work and reproductive labor in this documentary film?

Evaluative Small Group Activity

Following the in-class screening of this 60-minute film, I divide students into four groups and assign each group one of the guiding questions listed above. They have five minutes to freewrite a reflection on the film and respond to the question assigned to their group. Following the freewrite, they spend 15-20 minutes discussing their response with group members. Each group has one notetaker and one speaker, and upon completion of discussion they return to the larger class to share the main points they discussed in their small group.

Take-Home Assignment

Advocacy and Education

This class/lesson plan is heavily invested in understanding the material implications of feminism as a theoretical, methodological, social, and political project that uses the past to understand the present and envision new futures. With this in mind, and having taught this class online, I assign students the task of sharing the following with their peers in a discussion board post (Canvas or Blackboard): one recent primary source about the present displacement of Tigrayan refugees and a 300-400 word analysis of an advocacy campaign, community organization, or humanitarian effort serving either the Tigrayan refugee population in Um Rakuba, or any refugee population of the student’s choosing.

Works Cited and Suggested Readings

Amin, Mohammed. 2020. “Tigray Refugees Recount the Horrors of Ethiopia’s New Conflict.” The New Humanitarian, November 19.

Derluyn, Ilse, Charles Watters, Cindy Mels, and Eric Broekaert. 2014. “‘We’re All the Same, Coz Exist Only One Earth, Why the BORDER EXIST’: Messages of Migrants on Their Way.” Journal of Refugee Studies 27, no. 1 (March): 1-20.

Espiritu, Yến Lê, and Lan Duong. 2018. “Feminist Refugee Epistemology: Reading Displacement in Vietnamese and Syrian Refugee Art.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 43, no. 3 (Spring): 587-615.

Kleinfeld, Philip. 2021. “EXCLUSIVE: Donors Accuse UN of Mismanaging Tigray Refugee Response.” The New Humanitarian, July 7.

Mekuria, Salem, dir. 1991. Sidet: Forced Exile. New York: Women Make Movies. 60 minutes.

Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Nadera. 2015. Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Christiane Assefa is a PhD candidate in ethnic studies at UC San Diego and the graduate research assistant for the Critical Refugee Studies Collective. Assefa’s research interests center feminist theories of knowledge production, Black Diaspora studies, and forced displacement. Her dissertation work is an interdisciplinary, community-based ethnographic project that documents the community organizing work of Black refugees in San Diego County. Her work is informed by her grassroots organizing work and commitment to the stories the women in her community share.