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(cover picture) Borelli, Caterina
2008 Asmara, Eritrea. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.

Notes: DVD, 63 minutes
Reviewed 3 Jun 2010 by:
Thomas Stevenson <>
Ohio University, Zanesville Campus
Medium: Film/Video
Architecture - Eritrea - Asmara
Asmara (Eritrea) – History
Asmara (Eritrea) - Social life and customs
Asmara (Eritrea) - Buildings, structures, etc.

ABSTRACT:    Asmara - capital of the East African nation of Eritrea - is recognized as an architectural gem. In this film Asmarinos from different walks of life guide us through the streets of their city and bring us to places of their choice. In doing so, and by talking about 'their own' Asmara, each person locates personal memories in public spaces investing the urban environment with individual meanings. Through their narrations - a chorus of different experiences embodying the nation - the country's history from colonialism to independence comes to life.

After more than 30 years of war, in 1991 Eritrean forces defeated the Ethiopian army and took control of the government. While Eritreans rejoiced, there was hollowness to the victory. Most of the cities of the fledging state were heavily damaged, the detritus of war was everywhere, and much of the countryside was mined. Only through the fortuitous happenstance of a coup in Addis Ababa and the precipitous evacuation of Ethiopian troops was Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, left virtually untouched by the conflict.

Situated on the edge of a mile high escarpment, Asmara is an unusual African city. Owing to its recent past, the city is not overcrowded. There are no slums. Most days are sunny, yet the temperatures are moderate. The core of the city has no new buildings; all recent construction is on the outskirts.

In design, Asmara is often described as a southern Italian town. Indeed, today’s central city was largely built by colonists at the direction of Mussolini during the1930s. They instituted a segregated grid pattern but the resulting city incorporated many existing aspects. As a result Asmara had both indigenous and Italian neighborhoods. Today the city has traditional Tigrinya style houses, Art Deco buildings and contemporary homes and villas.

Major parts of the city not only resemble Italy, the lifestyle is also reminiscent of Europe. Cafes abound and seem packed most of the time. Residents routinely take evening strolls along the palm-tree lined main boulevard. Restaurants offer Italian pasta along side Eritrean spicy zigni. The population is diverse; a small number of Arabs, Indians, Greeks, Sephardic Jews and the remaining Italians live with Tigrinya and other indigenous peoples.

It is this unique city, its history and some of its residents that Caterina Borelli introduces in her video. To establish a timeframe and place Asmara in context, viewers are given a brief, snappy visual history lesson that traces the city from its original four villages, to its occupation by Ethiopian Amharas, colonization and development under Italian occupation, and its designation as Eritrea’s national capital.

Building on this time frame, Borelli subtly retraces the city’s history, beginning with the Italian colonization. Each phase of life is constructed around strolls through parts of the city with a variety of Asmarino guides and serves to reveal facets of the city’s past. For example, viewers see the variety of architectures characteristic of the Italian areas of town as well as the nearly invisible and no longer used synagogue. The video highlights the extremely fine details that characterize many of the homes and buildings as well as the prosaic, like a public latrine.

Similarly viewers are introduced to indigenous neighborhoods and the unique architectural features of these houses and churches. Along the way are conversations with locals often explaining how they came to live in Asmara and why they never left. What emerges is more than images of a unique place, but also people’s connection and affection for the place they live. Inevitably, it also conveys a sense of the past.

The U.S. military maintained a radio intercept base on the edge of the city for thirty years. In the absence of former soldiers or Eritreans who worked on there, Borelli relies on photographs to highlight the life of the soldiers. These are supplemented with interviews highlighting the impact of the soldiers on Asmara.

The reshaping of Asmara is evident as the video progresses. It opens with a diversity of older, non-native voices. As the presentation progresses to the present, the guides increasingly are Eritreans.

Although Asmara and Eritirea’s history has been replete with intrigue, occupation, and rebellion, the video does not dwell on these issues. There are a few references to the oppression of Ethiopia’s DERG, bodies found in streets and unremarked images of Asmara’s Tank Graveyard, a remnant of the war of independence and now advertised as a tourist attraction.

Life since independence has not been what many people expected. Eritrea is extremely poor. The only real indication of this is a scene of women queued to obtain cooking oil. Asmara has fared better because of remittances from Eritreans abroad, but as the video shows, the textile factory and brewery are antiques. The railroad does not operate.

Despite hardship, Borelli emphasizes that Eritreans are trying to rebuild their country and preserve their capital. Two residents are planting flowers and trees. Viewers tour one of a number of new Scandinavian style houses built for returning migrants.

The film concludes with the jarring, sobering scene of people saluting the lowering of the national flag at days end. The voiceover recounts people’s disgust with the government and its failure to fulfill the promises made at independence.

Technically the video is very well produced and edited. The images are sharp, exterior shots are uniformly bright reflecting Asmara’s seemingly never-ending sun. The soundtrack is engaging and smoothly integrated with the visuals. The pace is leisurely, an accurate reflection of life which is unhurried. There never seems to be trash and indeed this is not the result of selective editing. Litter is a rarity and the national practice of reusing everything insures clean streets.

Modern life with its emphasis on mobility means that most people don’t feel an attachment to place. Asmarinos retain a strong affection for their city. Borelli’s video succeeds in conveying this. This may be enough, but how to use this video in an academic setting? Cultural geography, African peoples and cultures, colonization, anthropology of film, and urban anthropology are some likely courses where this video would make a unique contribution.