Around ten minutes into When You Can’t Go Back, a documentary illustrating the struggles of a young Syrian student as he acclimates to life in Europe, there is a scene showing the protagonist, Obaida Hanteer, on a tram in Rome. The Colosseum and the city’s ancient walls pass by in the background during a voice-over of him reading from a letter to his family.
“Since the last time we saw each other a lot of things have changed in me,” he says. “Now I have cornetto and cappuccino for breakfast instead of tea, zaatar, and olives. I look forward to eating pasta and pizza, as I used to look forward to yabrak, kibbeh and shish barak when I was with you. Now I express my surprise by saying ‘Mamma mia!’ instead of ‘Ya yoom.’”
The contrast of cultural touchstones elicited laughs when the film was screened recently to Italian audiences. But to the documentary’s director, Leonardo Cinieri Lombroso, the scene represents a turning point.
“Getting used to the food, the expressions, it’s an important part of getting used to a new place,” Cinieri Lombroso said. “When Obaida recognized that change in himself, it meant he was settled in and really living in Italy.”
Learning a New Culture
The film starts several months before, with Hanteer’s arrival in Rome. He was forced to flee the violence in his home country in order to continue his studies, after he was accepted into a special program at Rome’s La Sapienza University. When he first arrived in the Italian capital he marveled at how similar Europeans were to Syrians: “They walk like us, they laugh like us, they have the same faces and the same expressions,” he said. “Why did I always think people in Europe were from outer space?”
The documentary, whose title in Italian is Quando non Puoi Tornare Indietro, goes light in discussing Hanteer’s academic struggles and focuses more on his cultural integration and his longing to be with his family. In the end, it offers a rare view of a Middle Eastern migrant’s success in a Western country. (See a related article, “A Journalist’s View of Europe’s Refugee Crisis.”)
Over time, Hanteer in many ways becomes one of the people he once viewed as alien. He learns Italian, finishes his master’s degree in computer science, and even participates in the Italian version of The Voice, a popular television talent program. (He makes it through two rounds, singing songs in Arabic.) Just as importantly, he creates meaningful relationships: In an interview, he said that Cinieri Lombroso and Dina Madi, who has a supporting role in the film and was in charge of the production’s musical elements, remain two of his closest friends.
Hanteer also manages to help some Italians understand Syria better, whether in small ways, such as pointing out a Syrian lira banknote posted on the wall of a coffee bar, to more substantial ways, such as enlightening Italian classmates about what life was like in Syria, with bombs exploding nearby, fearing for his life, living without electricity, watching his nephew grow up via Skype.
But at the same time, the film is melancholic. Also seeking to escape the warfare in Syria, Hanteer’s family moved to Turkey, but he was denied a visa to visit them there (he cried when telling them the news). That meant Cinieri Lombroso traveled to Turkey alone to film what was supposed to be a reunion scene. While in Rome, Hanteer laments that he can speak Arabic only with Madi, who is Jordanian.
The story ends with Hanteer moving to Denmark, where he finds more Syrians and works to complete his doctoral studies. For the second time, he left his home for a new country, personifying Italy’s role as a place where many migrants fleeing warfare and poverty land but few stay long enough to put down roots.
“I miss Italy, I owe what I am now to Italy and the opportunity it gave me,” Hanteer said in a telephone interview. “But I also knew I had to move on in order to grow.”
Eight years after he left home, Hanteer, now 30, was finally able to reunite with his family in Turkey, though that happened after the film was completed.
Cinieri Lombroso funded the bulk of the production costs from his own pocket and a crowdfunding campaign. He also received support from the Mediterranean Universities Union and the Patamu intellectual property registry.
The film has screened a few times in Italy at a time when the country is going through an intense national debate about migration. A strict anti-migrant government collapsed in August, replaced by a new government promising to be more in line with European Union policies. But opinion polls still show a country split on its views toward migration from Africa and the Middle East. (See a related article, “Germany Struggles to Integrate 1 Million Refugees.”)
Cinieri Lombroso, who specializes in documentaries involving the intersection of multiple cultures, said the film will soon appear in a handful of documentary festivals. After that, he plans to look for a home on an Italian television network, and perhaps at least one non-Italian network.