"Io Capitano" and migrant reality: "There is a lot of violence, but there is also a lot of humanity"

Io Capitano Cohen Media Group
Io Capitano Cohen Media Group
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The powerful drama, “Io Capitano,” which is nominated for the best international film Oscar, traces the arduous journey of two Senegalese teenagers, Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and his cousin, Mousa (Moustapha Fall), who leave home to go work abroad. Italian director and co-writer Matteo Garrone (“Gomorrah”) humanizes these immigrants and tells their story in ways that illuminate and devastate.

These two naïve young men are warned repeatedly about the dangers of leaving and that “Europe is nothing like Africa.” However, having saved up for six months, they take off — not even telling their mothers — because they believe they have “no choice.” They may feel guilty, but they also feel empowered to take control of their own destinies.

Of course, Seydou and Mousa face many challenges and encounter passport forgers, shady drivers and guides who take them through the desert. Everyone, from the Libyan mafia to the police, are quick to shake them down for any cash they have. There are also some kind strangers, like Martin (Issaka Sawadogo), who helps Seydou out of a difficult situation, and the extended solidarity of a community of Senegalese immigrants looking out for one another as they travel from point to point hoping to reach Italy.

Garrone depicts this world of human trafficking and illegal border crossings with an authenticity, while the film is beautifully lensed by Paolo Carnera (“The White Tiger”).  He also includes a few moments of magical realism that offset some of the more harrowing scenes, such as a torture chamber.

“Io Capitano” benefits immensely from Sarr’s expressive performance as a resilient teenager whose experiences are indicative of many immigrants making this perilous journey. Seydou has a morality and a sense of responsibility as well as a sense of hope that keeps him (and viewers) from despairing over the course of this intense film.

Garrone spoke with Salon about making “Io Capitano.”

This story is so topical, and your film seeks to provide an understanding of the lives of these African immigrants who feel they have no choice but to leave home in search of a better life in Europe. Can you talk about why you wanted to tell this story and tell it in the way you did? It takes viewers along for a very bumpy ride. 

We decided to do this because in Italy, we are used to seeing only the last part of the journey — when the boat arrives. We don’t see what happens before. In the last 10 years, 30,000 people have died on this journey. It is a dark page of our contemporary history. We tried to humanize the numbers and put the camera on the other side — to make a reverse shot and see this story from the point of view of the contemporary hero and the people who have this adventure.

What fascinates me about your film are the underground economies and networks that you depict that are designed to exploit these immigrants — the fake passport guy, the desert guide (in Mexico they are known as “coyotes,”) and everyone else Seydou and Moussa encounter during their journey. Can you talk about the research you did to make this immigration drama authentic?

There was only one way to make this movie — to listen to the immigrants’ stories and write the script together. All the extras on the set were real migrants, and they helped me recreate this world. Sometimes they were codirecting because they recreated something from their past. They were very proud to finally show to the world what it means to have this adventure. We worked for a year and a half on the documentation and research. We took a lot of videos and photos, and spoke to migrants who told us their stories. I am an intermediator. I put my experience at the service of their story to give voice to people who usually don’t have a voice.

What surprised you in your research and how did you respond to all you learned and saw? 

I watched a lot of videos. I saw video of torture in Libya. Unfortunately, you can find that on the internet, and it is very tough to watch. We wanted to recreate that and tell the story from the perspective of this migrant who is a victim of the system but remains human to the end. There is a lot of violence in the film, but there is also a lot of human solidarity. We showed there is light, not just darkness. It was very important not to lose the joy they have. They have this incredible desire to discover the world. Their energy and positivity in situations where there is suffering makes them brave. Sometimes they are naïve. But I like this aspect.

The film presents many harrowing sequences. Seydou, who is 16 and naïve, is always hopeful and moral, despite all his despair. A moving scene has Martin telling Seydou to “keep your courage.” Can you talk about his character?

It’s a coming-of-age story of a boy who becomes a man. He passes through moments that are tough and violent, but there are also moments that are very sweet, like when he says goodbye to Martin. We wanted to keep this humanity in the story because it exists. I wanted to be faithful to the real story; every part is based on truth. These immigrants follow their dreams and are ready to risk their lives for a dream that we know is sometimes an illusion.

We know how life is, and it often is different from what they thought. It’s not a story of a refugee escaping from war, it is a migrant that is poor, but they see our [European] world on social media. We create the possibility for them to live in our world virtually. It’s understandable when you are young that you want to discover the world. You think you are invincible. If you succeed, and arrive there, you can be richer, help your family and have a better life. We know this is an illusion sometimes, but how can you judge them? We did the same when we were younger. For us it was easier — you can take a plane — but they risk their lives. There is a system that is unjust. Some people can move and some cannot. The right to move should be for everybody. We want to give the audience an emotional experience without giving them an answer to a complex problem. That is what the cinema should do — bring the audience in another dimension and through the eyes of the actor. You, the viewer make the journey with them.

There are many astonishing sequences in your film, not the least of which is a chaotic episode near the end of the film on a crowded boat. What observations do you have about recreating this ripped-from-the-headlines image? 

We did a lot of research on documenting that. We worked hard to make the boat look like what we saw on the news. We had the privilege of working with migrants who really had that adventure in the sea. Sometimes, I was not the director, but the spectator because they recreated something they lived through. That was completely unexpected. I worked in an atmosphere that was like a documentary; I felt like I was filming something happening in the moment that I didn’t create.

Io Capitano
Io Capitano

This film connects with your other films, “Dogman” and “Gomorrah,” in that it shines a light on a world populated by dark characters. The hero in “Io Capitano” is optimistic, but he meets so many bad people. Why do you find yourself drawn to these stories in which decent characters are confronted with violence and evil?

I felt making this film there were a lot of things from “Gomorrah” in it, and also a lot of things from “Pinocchio.” It’s a fairy tale — Seydou is naïve, like Pinocchio, and at the same time there are moments that are very [realistic] like in “Gomorrah.” We wanted to show this journey without losing its violent and inhumane qualities. But Seydou remains innocent and pure and human to the end. This in an important lesson. It’s a road movie through Africa, and we show that in Africa there is a lot of violence, but there is also a lot of humanity.

The tone is optimistic, and hopeful. There is determination despite the violence. 

We know the reality is even more violent than the movie. If you do the research, you see that the people passing through the desert or on the boat are often dying. The landscape is a character in the film; it is so big and so lonely. It’s epic. This may be why the film is having a positive response in the States, because they are all migrants or descended from migrants, looking for a better life. They are familiar with the epic story and journey of a hero. That may be why we got an Oscar nomination.

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What are your thoughts about the film getting an Oscar nomination?

We are very happy and proud. It’s a great opportunity for the film to be seen and get more attention. We hope things go well. But we are happy to be one of the five nominees. The Oscar gives incredible visibility to the film, and when you make a film about migrants that is not easy to watch, anything that helps the film to be seen is a gift. That’s why we made the movie — to show it to the largest audience possible.

“Io Capitano” opens in select theaters nationwide Feb. 23.