Do homes have a soul? Or better, what remains of the souls who used to inhabit them in there? And which is the real home when the geography of the atlas doesn’t correspond to our inner one?

These are some of the questions raised by Martina Melilli, video-artist specialized in documentary filmmaking, in her film My Home in Libya, selected out of competition at the Locarno Film Festival. Written and directed by Melilli herself, the film is in fact the story of her family. It begins in 1936 in Libya, when his grandfather Antonio was born from a couple of Sicilian immigrants (her father will be born there, too). The story continues up to 1970, when Colonel Gaddafi forces all the Italians to move back to their home country. The Melilli family must move, too. They re-settle near Padova, but their heart remains in Tripoli. The city soon becomes the idealized space of a mythical past (“When I was a child, for instance, I wondered why we were the only family in that small town in Veneto to eat cous-cous on Christmas day”).

Mellili dives completely into the waters of this mythical past, making a backward journey to piece together that portion of memory which she hasn’t lived, but that was passed on to her: “It’s been difficult to convince my grandparents to tell about their experience in Libya. It’s a memory that neither them nor my father wanted to share with me for a number of personal reasons. Before making this film, since I was missing their direct testimony, I worked on a more general project, Tripolitalians, a collection of memory of Italians who used to live in Tripoli. The materials I collected were so rich that I managed to organize an exhibition and multimedia archive about the Italo-Libyan community dispersed in Italy after 1970s. I used a lot of these materials for this film as well. The project expected me to go to Libya, but historical circumstances played against me and when I started organizing my travel, political disorders first erupted, and civil war then ensued. The journey couldn’t but become a full-fledged metaphorical one.”

Melilli discovers her “home in Libya” anyway, thanks to whom is able to do that journey on her behalf. Mahmoud, a boy from Tripoli she has known via Facebook, secretly takes pictures and videos from his car showing the old house of her grandparents, and proving how the idealized spaces of the memory have actually turn into something else. “Mahmoud is an invented name we chose in order to conceal his identity and don’t put him in jeopardy. His presence changed completely my idea on the film. He helped me make it more interesting by telling the present through the past, and the liquid concept of ‘home’. Mahmoud also represents the country he lives in, a Libya that is very different from the one remembered by my grandpa. It’s a country where many young people his age have grown up in a moment when the concept of collective identity disappeared. They live in a country torn between violence and opposing interests. Despite all this, they are still trying to find their way among the chaos. I think Mahmoud decided to help me because his journey is not that different from mine: I was looking for part of my roots; he, who has never left his country, needed to go somewhere else instead, needed to talk with someone he could trust to escape the claustrophobic and violent reality he lives in. He did it also because he had a curiosity about Italy, who is part of the history of Libya, and towards which the Libyans have contradictory feelings: it’s the country that invaded them, but it also marked a time when local people enjoyed a certain affluence.”

The figure of Mahmoud – a completely virtual presence both in the film and in the life of Martina – is also used in the film to explore the complicated relationship between the new generations and the social media, “that expanded the divide between what is real and what is imaged. On the one hand, it fostered a ‘sentimental consumerism’ that takes us to know always more people in order to find something even better; on the other end, it keeps us at distance from the true experience of human and sentimental relationships.”

For this same reason, “Mahmoud and I never met, and we haven’t talked via Skype either: we only write to each other. This creates a feeling of protection in which one feel freer to open up sincerely. The written correspondence protects us from the gaze of the other, from a real intimacy to be shared. At the end of the day, if one of us stop writing, it’s like if we have never known each other…” After three years of messages via Facebook and strictly written communications, Mahmoud – who graduated in engineering and now lives in Istanbul – will become real and will attend the Italian premiere of the film. “It’s a big change that scares me a little, but I am also looking forward to it. I am curious to see how it is to meet in person.”

The Italian premiere will take place in September at Visioni dal mondo, documentary film festival in Milan. The film is produced by Stefilm with ZDF, in collaboration with Arte, Rai Cinema, and the support of MIBACT and Piemonte Doc Film Fund. “After Milan, I’d love the film to be released theatrically. Deckert will distribute the film abroad, but we are still looking for an Italian distributor.”