Koudous Seihon and Nataal founder
Alassane Sy star in Jonas Carpignano’s
portrayal of the plight of African
illegal immigrants in southern Italy
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house for the world premiere of Mediterranea at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Director Jonas Carpignano’s first feature is a moving tale of two Burkinabe men who make the dangerous journey across North Africa and Mediterranean Sea to reach the shores of Italy in search of opportunity, only to be faced with resentment and discrimination among a marginalised community of undocumented workers.
Nataal founder Alassane Sy co-stars alongside Koudous Seihon, a non-actor whose personal experiences inspired much of the film’s plot. After five years of development, Cannes was the first time either of them had seen the final cut. “We were both so touched by it that we cried,” Sy admits. “It was painful for Koudous to see his life on screen and for every viewer the subject is difficult. It’s crazy how intimate the story gets.”
The critics agreed. The Hollywood Reporter praised Carpignano’s “unblinking, documentary-style gaze” while the Guardian called it a “rich, observational, ripped-from-the-headlines story.” Sadly the film debuts at a time when there has been a significant surge in the numbers of African migrants reaching Italy, Malta and Greece on makeshift boats having survived violence in the hands of traffickers. So far this year over 36,000 have arrived and upwards of 2,000 have died at sea. While EU proposals for quotas have been rejected, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is accusing the rest of Europe of ignoring the crisis, which has been largely fuelled by unrest in Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan.
“It needs someone stubborn
and strong in what he believes to
make a film with such a heavy
subject matter happen. Everyone
gave their whole heart”
But Carpignano’s motivations aren’t political, topical or even didactic. Having grown up as a mixed race child in Rome (his father is Italian and his mother is African American), he’d always wanted to make a film about race relations in Italian society. When Italy’s first race riots involving African immigrants erupted in the southern city of Rosarno in 2010, he headed down there to do research and has lived there ever since. “At first the community were impenetrable. But months later, the air cleared and they could see I was committed,” he recalls. He met Seihon at a rally, where his charisma shone through. “He’s not sad or beaten down by injustices. He’s courageous and does what he needs to do to the end.”
They became housemates and Seihon starred as Ayivi in his 2012 short film A Chjàna, which won the Controcampo prize at Venice Film Festival. Carpignano went to Burkina Faso to retrace Seihon’s journey to Europe via Mali, Algeria and Libya, and was then invited to the Sundance Lab to develop A Chjàna into a full feature script for Mediterranea. While the rest of the cast are non-actors from Rosarno “and playing themselves in one way or another,” there was one character missing. “My friends who live there had all accepted their reality. I wanted to find someone who would rage against it.” For that role, the rambunctious Abas, he found Sy. Having seen him in Andrew Dosunmu’s Restless City, Carpignano brought him to Rosarno and he integrated immediately. Sy’s own family had been forced to relocate from Mauritania to Senegal to escape civil unrest when he was a child. So on this and many other levels, he became close with his fellow West African co-stars.
“I got to know their home and the conversation was easy. But it was hard to see how they lived. They are intelligent people but their environment only allows for struggle,” says Sy of the ghetto they all live in on the outskirts of the city. “That’s why it was important for me that their reality is told. The local population wish it was different too but they don’t know who these people are, where they are from, what they had to go through to get there. But really they are just like any young people from anywhere else in the world, who want to become someone someday. That is the power of this movie.”
We first meet comrades Abas and Ayivi on their journey to Italy, driven on by false dreams of the good life. When the demeaning realities hit them upon arrival - this is a place where men’s only source of employment is the mafia-controlled and badly paid fruit picking industry while women are often subject to prostitution - their alternate outlooks come to the fore. “Ayiva is focussed on working hard and moving forward. Abas is rebellious and refuses to conform. That’s the tension between them.”
Shooting the film was intense. Carpignano’s guerrilla methods and collaborative approach guaranteed naturalistic results but asked a lot of his cast both emotionally and physically. “Jonas has no limits. He pushed everything to the extreme and it involved risks. After Mediterranea I think every other movie I make will be like drinking water,” Sy laughs. “But it needs someone stubborn and strong in what he believes to make a film with such a heavy subject matter happen. Everyone gave their whole heart.”
For Carpignano it’s a human story about his friends. “It’s not about the woes of immigration or imposing an agenda. It’s celebration of a community that is willing to go on despite the odds. By showing the lives of two people, audiences can access them as human beings. That way they can think about the bigger context and feel compassion. This is very real.”
The soundtrack is another tool he uses to break through cultural stereotypes. Rihanna’s SOS blaring from speakers in a small village in Burkina Faso reminds us that as global migration grows so the world around us shrinks. Common denominators such as pop music, spurred on by social media, increasingly blur the boundaries between perceptions of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Added to that is Mediterranea’s emotive score by Benh Zeitlin and Dan Romer, who also made Beasts Of The Southern Wild. Carpignano was assistant director for that film, an experience that greatly inspired his own organic directing style. Before that he’d worked for Spike Lee and had been brought up on a diet of Visconti and Fellini by his grandfather, who made Caroselli commercials.
He’s just completed a Cannes Cinéfondation residency in Paris developing his 2014 short film A Ciambra into a feature. It focuses on another character in Mediterranea Pio, a pre-teen Romani don-in-the-making. The two originally met when Pio’s family stole Carpignano’s car. Sy’s upcoming projects include the lead role in Ben Bond’s film The Drifters, as well as his own directorial debut in the short film Marabout, shot in Senegal, which is about the issue of koranic teachers who send the children under their care to beg on the streets for money. In the meantime, Mediterranea will be doing the film festival circuit over the coming months (Rekjavik, London, Stockholm, Melbourne) and cinema distribution is secured worldwide. But for both Sy and Carpignano, nothing will compare to screening it in Rosarno. “I’m looking forward to the hometown screening most of all,” says Carpignano. “It will be a three-day celebration.”
Photography courtesy of Jonas Carpignano