Film

Io Capitano director Matteo Garrone on why a refugee's journey is so much more than small boats

The new film aims to help audiences engage with migrants as people, rather than statistics

Image: Greta De Lazzaris

Last year was the deadliest ever for migrants, with almost 8,600 people dying worldwide. At least 3,129 people were lost crossing the Mediterranean, according to the United Nations’ International Organisation for Migration. As broken-record Rishi Sunak repeats “stop the boats” with increasing desperation, Europe seems powerless in the face of the crisis.

Repressive tactics have proven not only callous, but ineffectual. Can the Oscar-nominated drama Io Capitano change minds where arrests, the threat of deportation to Rwanda and the risk of death has not?

The film’s director, Matteo Garrone (known for 2008 mafia film Gomorrah and his 2019 live-action adaptation of Pinocchio), and script consultant Mamadou Kouassi certainly hope so. Io Capitano tells the story of Seydou and Moussa, two naïve teenage boys who leave Senegal with dreams of adventure and music stardom in Europe, only to face extreme peril and brutal violence as they cross Africa.

Seydou Sarr as Seydou. Image: Greta De Lazzaris

It’s an antidote to the Eurocentric view of migration that only starts with boats on the Mediterranean – but Garrone and Kouassi want to do more than change minds on these shores. This month, they’re traveling the roads of Senegal on an unprecedented tour to put on free screenings in the communities of the real-life Seydou and Moussa. They’re banking on education rather than intimidation.

“If I had seen this movie before I left my country 20 years ago, maybe I would have had the awareness to say, it is dangerous to go through the desert, to go through Libya. It is better to stay in my country,” says Kouassi. “We know in the last 10 years, 30,000 people died in the Mediterranean Sea. We don’t even know the number of people who died in the desert.”

Acutely aware of his status as a European, Garrone knew it was vital to work closely with people like Kouassi, who had first-hand experience. “I was very worried about the fact that I’m not African,” admits the Italian filmmaker. “I realised from the first moment that if I was to make this movie, it was fundamental to make it with the real migrants. For them, it was very important to finally show to the world what it means to make this journey. Because often they are not believed.”

Seydou Sarr, left, with Moustapha Fall. They play two teenage boys on a terrifying journey. Image: Greta De Lazzaris

It took Kouassi three years to make his own epic journey from the Ivory Coast to Italy, where he now works advising refugees. His experiences made sure Garrone’s film is true to life, even in its most shocking moments. Scenes of torture in Libyan prisons, women dropping down dead of thirst and exhaustion in the Sahara, children forced into slave labour – all are founded in reality.

By travelling village to village with the film, Garrone and Kouassi hope to raise awareness among would-be migrants, opening their eyes to the reality of the journey.

“We know that a movie can’t stop young people from following their dreams,” says Garrone. “But we hope at least to make them aware of the risk.”

In an incredibly strong Oscars year, Io Capitano was beaten to the award for Best International Feature Film by Jonathan Glazer’s chilling domestic drama set in the shadow of Auschwitz, The Zone of Interest. Both movies shed light on the roots of contemporary issues. Garrone remains hopeful the nomination will encourage a global audience to watch his film and engage with migrants as people, instead of statistics.

“We tried to humanise these numbers,” he says. “We tried to put the camera on the other side. To give the audience the possibility to finally live the emotional experience of making this journey through the eyes of the real protagonists.”

Just as with the screenings in Senegal, Garrone and Kouassi are looking to the younger generations in the countries where migrants end up, hoping they will be the key to changing attitudes. They’ve screened Io Capitano for thousands of school children in Italy and France and want to do the same in the UK.

Image: Greta De Lazzaris

“Since September, we have been going to schools to watch the movie and speak with the students. They are curious to really understand the journey,” says Kouassi. “I believe that we need time. Step by step, we can touch the youth’s hearts and also the consciousness of the people.”

It is a long-term goal, Garrone agrees. He has little faith in those currently in power. The story is unlikely to change their minds, he says, since they already know migrants are dying in droves. They continue with populist policies nonetheless. But he still believes the next generation can be better.

“The young are our future,” Garrone explains. “What is moving is they can empathise. They can immediately see that behind the numbers, there are kids like them with the same dreams, the same desires. So they see this tragedy from a different angle. I think that is very important.”

Io Capitano is in cinemas from 4 April.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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