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‘Mediterranea’ Is a Timely Drama About African Immigrants Making the Dangerous Trek to Italy

We met up with director Jonas Carpignano to talk about his new film that intimately portrays the difficult, dangerous, and human side of the West African immigrant experience in Italy.

by Aaron Hillis
Nov 24 2015, 6:15pm

Between the Paris terror attacks and Donald Trump's demanding surveillance over Muslims in America, anti-immigrant fears have continued to dominate the global conversation amid the ongoing refugee crisis. The timing couldn't be more unsettling, even profound, for writer-director Jonas Carpignano's vivid and vital humanist drama Mediterranea, which opened in theaters over the weekend.

Expanded from Carpignano's acclaimed 2012 short A Chjàna, Mediterranea intimately observes the perilous journey of iron-willed West African migrants Ayiva (Koudous Seihon, in a scene-stealing debut that was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award) and Abas (Alassane Sy) from their home in Burkina Faso to Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and ultimately Italy. Surviving hostile environments, bandits, and worse, the two friends settle in a shantytown on the fringe of Calabria, where they face further persecution from exploitative bosses and xenophobic locals. There are moments of levity depicted in their day-to-day life, but have these men, like many, ultimately swapped one marginalized life for another?

Back in May, during the film's Cannes premiere in the Critics' Week section (the same month hundreds of African migrants were shipwrecked and killed in the waters between Libya and Italy), I sat down with Carpignano. We discussed the film's blend of fiction and nonfiction, how technology like Facebook plays into immigrant stories, and how a pint-size hooligan became one of this year's most memorable supporting characters in cinema.

VICE: The European refugee crisis escalated dramatically this year. Obviously, movies aren't made overnight, but what was the initial spark for the story?
Jonas Carpignano: I'd always wanted to make a film about race in Italy, especially in the South. It's something I'd never seen before, and I feel like Italian cinema is moving toward—especially when we decided to make the film five years ago—this very commercial, factory-like, industrial system. It's improved a lot. There are many more interesting films, but I really wanted to make something that was neo-realist, essentially.

My mother is African-American, my father's Italian, and it's something that I felt very sensitive to. I thought maybe I could bring some personal experience to it, and show the story from another side. But when I got down there, I met the lead actor, Koudous Seihon. I immediately knew that I wanted to make a movie about him, about his experience in particular. I never wanted to make something overly didactic. I wanted to put a face to it, and have this character-driven story set within this larger framework and context. The idea was to have people attach to one person, and hopefully think about everything they're reading in the news in a different way.

How did the story evolve from what you learned about Kouduos's experience?
It all changed. The first time I went down there, I had an agenda, like I'm gonna expose things that are happening. When I spoke to him, I got to know the place. It didn't feel right to me to go down there with a foreigner's perspective and idea. Coming from Rome, from New York, to tell a story through that lens felt wrong. I changed my approach: "Let's make it about this incredibly charismatic character."

In the end, it's all [about] things that have happened to him, combined with stories that I've collected while doing research. I was in Africa for a long period of time, during a large part of that voyage. Some of the stories I had heard, I added to his experience. So, the boat situation's very true to his experience. The robbery is something I'd heard about from other people I met in Algeria, who had just been through something like that.

What I'm seeing in Calabria now are people who are ingraining themselves in the community. That's changing the social fabric of Italy.

There are many different migrant experiences. What was your collaboration like with Koudous, in terms of creative choices?
The first choice was to make the film with him. He's from Burkina [Faso], and those are the countries he went through to get there. I had to make it as true to his experience as possible, but I will say that the idea was never to choose someone leaving a war-torn country. We wanted to explore the pull as much as the push. When you're leaving a war-torn country, it's obvious why you're going to leave. Your life is in danger. There's an imminent stress, so you and your family leave. That seems like a natural thing to understand.

More relevant for exploring the creation of this African population in Italy, to me, is the pull. What draws them there, and what makes them plant their roots. If it's just about the adversity, you move to the next place. Whereas what I'm seeing in Calabria now are people who are ingraining themselves in the community. That's changing the social fabric of Italy.

Overall, these characters seem to have a blindly optimistic view of what Europe has to offer them. In some ways, it's a lateral move from where they came from. What do you think leads them to believe this path will be better?
That's something I think about all the time, something that's always been true to the immigrant experience. The same thing happened in Italy, when people were coming from Calabria to New York at the turn of the century. Someone must've said, "Hey, we're living in a tenement building with 15 people. I don't know if that boat ride, where you might get the plague, is worth it." People do it anyway, and fundamentally, I've come to think it's for various reasons.

Some say it's going to be difficult, but people love to project the image of success, wherever they are. That's what Facebook is, right? We all create ourselves, and put it out there. It's an ad for ourselves. You see that a lot in Calabria. Like, guys posing on cars that aren't theirs. Guys taking pictures with large groups at a party, trying to make themselves appear successful to the people back home. Just a little bit of that is enough to make people say, "All right. If they can do it, we can too." Koudous, for example, refuses to believe at any moment that things could be better where he was than in where he could go. All those dangers seem like calculated risks to him.

I hope that more people will concentrate, or change the conversation from, 'What are we gonna do about all these people coming?' to, 'What do we do now that they're here?'

The film has the immediacy of an activist documentary, but it's ultimately a fictionalized story. What do you hope audiences are going to take away it?
I hope there's recognition of the fact that this is not a fleeting thing. I hope that, especially the section in Italy, succeeds in showing that a real community and culture is forming. I hope that more people will concentrate, or change the conversation from, "What are we gonna do about all these people coming?" to, "What do we do now that they're here?"

Late in the film, there's an excitingly staged sequence involving a large-scale riot, inspired by the 2010 riots in Rosarno. Could you talk about some of the thrills, mistakes, and otherwise when filming scenes of that magnitude?
That's sort of our naïveté coming out in its strongest. We've been making short films for a long time down there, and we're of the impression that if we try real hard, it's going to work. We give ourselves one take to do things like that. [Laughs] We set it up, put the cars there, choreograph it for a full day, and then just roll the dice.

How did it go down in that single take?
The general filmmaking idea was to set up an event that has its narrative purpose, and then let it evolve. Let it become its own living thing. It happens with the smallest dialogue scene; it happens with the riot. We staged, more or less, where the people should be. We had to time the explosions, and people can only be so close. So you rehearse it, rehearse it, rehearse it, and the explosions aren't happening. Then when you actually do it, the explosions happen right in people's faces.

It creates an entirely different energy. When you see that guy run off and smash the pipe on the ground, or go crazy on that wall... that guy was actually fired up because he'd thrown this Molotov and it had just blown up right next to him. We stick to the choreography, but luckily, we're always looking for and ready to pick out that moment that's going to take it to another level—an unexpected blessing, as opposed to, "Damn, it didn't go right."

I like how you incorporate technology into the film, from hand-me-downs to hustling over MP3 players. When did that come into the story?
Very early. There was always this idea to emphasize the global culture. We're all slowly speaking the same language. That's where the pop music comes in. You take someone from a remote village in Africa, a little girl from Calabria, a film crew that comes half from New York and half from Rome, and everyone knows the words to the same song. It's the same thing with technology. We all know what Facebook is. So those were always part of the tale.

The part about the underground economy is the thing that struck me while living there. That's something that emerges with low wages and the black market, almost back to a bartering system. Like, that Moroccan stand in that place actually existed. I remember walking in there, and I was like, "All right. Here's the electronics store, there's the supermarket..." Everyone had their own space in this underground economy. That's one of those rich flavors that needed to be in the film, to capture that experience. I couldn't have him walk into a Walmart, or an Auchan that we have there [in Italy].

I have to single out one of your performers, because young Pio Amato plays the smoothest operator I've seen onscreen this year. He's a preteen gangster with the hottest stolen goods.
There was always a role for that person in the earliest drafts of the script, and it used to be this older Gypsy guy I knew who lives in the town. But the film kept evolving. At some point during the shooting of the short, one of our cars had been stolen, so we went to get it back. Essentially what they do down there, in that Romani community, is they steal your car and then rent it back to you. It's not a real theft. It's more like a kidnapping. We went down there to get the car back. I'd seen this world, and I was like, "OK. This place is unbelievable, I need to see if I can get in here." I spent a lot of time with the kids playing soccer, getting in that community, and that's where I met Pio. It turned out that his brothers had been the ones who'd stolen our car.

[Laughs]
It was like I had this shadow. I'd be walking around, this kid with a leather jacket and a cigarette constantly following me. One day—I'll confess, over a cigarette and a beer—we started talking, and he was like, "So, what's the deal with this movie thing, what's going on?" And I was like, "Why don't we make a movie together and see if you like this whole thing."

He hustled his way into a role, didn't he?
He hustled his way into becoming my friend. Four hours with that kid on-set, and he's done. He's like, "OK, I'm out of here," and he just walked away... So we made a short film, and had such a great time working together, I tailored the role in the feature script and added two more scenes because I liked him so much.

Do you want to continue telling stories in a similar cinematic vein, naturalistic and even neo-realist?
Absolutely. Right now I'm writing a feature script for that boy. It's about him, and about trying to make a couple more films in that universe. A lot of the characters we see in Mediterranea will also come back in this story of the boy. Eventually, there are three things I want to explore down there. It was the immigrant community, now it's the Romani community, and then the Mafia is very present down there. That will find its way into the second film, and hopefully become a third film.

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Mediterranea is now playing at the IFC Center in New York and Sundance Sunset Cinemas in Los Angeles, as well as on VOD.