In lieu of my weekly media round-up, here’s my review of the excellent new documentary, If Only I Were That Warrior, which premiered in the U.S. at the African Diaspora International Film Festival last weekend. Director Valerio Ciriaci excellently weaves together the stories of three people-across Italy, Ethiopia, and the United States-in order to craft an engaging retelling of the oft-overlooked history of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, as well as examine the subjectivity and significance of history and memory.
The town of Affile is reminiscent of the Hollywood-generated images of Italy Americans are accustomed to: a small town where everyone knows everyone. Elderly men gather to sip their morning coffee and chat at the local bar while nonnas visit the family-owned butcher shop to purchase meat for that night’s meal. Not known to many outside of Italy, the quaint city located a few miles outside of Rome made international headlines after the creation of a public monument to Rodolfo Graziani. A Fascist general under Mussolini’s regime and former Viceroy of Ethiopia, Graziani was cited for war crimes including committing massacres and using mustard gas on thousands of Ethiopians.
The film centers on the backlash to the monument from Ethiopians living in Italy and the United States. Through Issak Liptzin’s clean and crisp cinematography, the film moves seamlessly across continents as the focus shifts among the three protagonists: Mulu, Nicola, and Giuseppe. Mulu, an Ethiopian refugee living in Rome, leads the protests in the Italian capital city. Through her independent radio show, which she hosts in Amharic, and meetings with the Ethiopian Association of Rome, she organizes the local Ethiopian community around their end goal: removing the monument.
In New York, Nicola offers an Italian-American perspective as the grandson of an Italian peasant who, lured by Mussolini’s claims of the prosperity to be had by resettling and “civilizing” the country, moved to Ethiopia. The self-described “grandson of a colonist” who grew up with memories of Italy’s empire in Africa thanks to his parents, is now an activist. Along with Kidane Alemayehu, the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Justice, and other members of the Ethiopian Diaspora, Nicola participates in the American demonstrations against the monument.
The third, and most polarizing figure in the film, is Giuseppe. With sweeping shots of the vast, rocky countryside, we meet the coordinator of the UN’s Food and Agriculture project in Addis Abba. A long-time history buff, Giuseppe has extensive knowledge of the history of Ethiopia’s time as an Italian colony. Despite this knowledge, he insists on viewing the Italian occupation through a positive lens, colored by ethnocentrism. As he drives along roads built by the Italian army, he remarks that he “never feels alone.”
Similar to the mayor of Affile (who is currently on trial), Giuseppe engages in a bit of revisionist history that is even more infuriating due to his education. He argues that there are no good or bad people in a war and the Graziani-ordered massacres in response to an assassination attempt were overzealous, but understandable within this context. To add credibility to his claim that young Ethiopians don’t much care about the Italian occupation, he brings his friend Sara, a young Ethiopian woman, on-screen and she echoes his sentiment that “War is war” and it happened a long time ago. While Italian audiences, according to Ciriaci, wanted Giuseppe removed from the film, Sara drew most of the audience’s ire at the ADIFF screening. During the post-film discussion, many Ethiopian viewers quickly pointed out that her perspective was not representative of most Ethiopians living in the East African nation.
After a number of conflicting stories from both sides about the character and legacy of Graziani, archival photographs and a historical account from Ian Campbell, author of “The Plot to Kill Graziani,” provide a clear and condemning answer. As disturbing images of hanged people and burned buildings slowly fill the screen, we learn that over 1 million people were killed during the Italian regime and half a million churches razed. With the pain and hurt evident in his voice, Megabi Woldetensae, a monk who witnessed the Debre Libanos massacre in 1937, recounts seeing hundreds of people carted out of the church and shot in nearby hills.
With such blatant crimes against humanity, it is clear that the impact of Italy’s colonial empire has been radically understated. If Only I Were That Warrior shines due to its firm, yet non-judgmental presentation of an overlooked-perhaps purposely so-chapter in history. As Ciriaci noted after the film’s screening, very little is taught in Italian schools about the country’s short-lived empire, a fact he hopes to change through the distribution of the documentary. With a surge in migrants and refugees arriving in Europe and renewed talks concerning diversity and acceptance, now is the perfect time to reckon with Italy’s colonial past and what that means for developing a multicultural society in the future.
For more information about the film, including upcoming screenings, visit the film’s website.