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In This Heroes’ Tale, Real People Risk Their Lives to Get to Europe

WorldAfricaIn This Heroes’ Tale, Real People Risk Their Lives to Get to Europe

At the end of “Io Capitano” (“I Captain”), Matteo Garrone’s harrowing contender for best international film at next month’s Academy Awards, a map tracks the journey taken by the film’s two teenage protagonists: over 3,500 miles from Dakar, Senegal, to Sicily, via the scorching Nigerien desert, horrific Libyan prisons and a nerve-racking Mediterranean crossing aboard a rickety vessel.

Such perilous voyages, taken each year by countless Africans seeking a new life in Europe, is “one of the great dramas of our times,” Garrone said in a recent interview, and “Io Capitano” is framed as an epic, modern-day Odyssey, with protagonists no less valiant than Homer’s hero.

“It’s a journey that’s an archetype so that anyone can identify with it,” said Garrone, who is best known to international audiences for the hyper-realistic 2008 drama “Gomorrah” and his dark and fantastical “Pinocchio” (2019).

“Io Capitano” is also, he said, a “document of contemporary history.” This month alone, over 2,000 people reached European shores by crossing the Mediterranean, while at least 74 died, bringing the number of people who have gone missing in that sea in the last decade to more than 29,000, according to the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency.

Many Europeans learn of these landings, and deaths, from short news segments, often accompanied by clips of lawmakers pledging to stop illegal migration. Garrone’s film, which won the Silver Lion for best directing at last year’s Venice Film Festival, goes beyond the statistics with a plot based on stories of real people crossing the Mediterranean.

Garrone, who lives in Rome, said he had been inspired to write “Io Capitano” several years ago after visiting a Sicilian center that assists minors and hearing the story of Fofana Amara, a man from Guinea who was only 15 when — unable to swim and with no nautical experience — traffickers in Libya compelled him to pilot a dilapidated ship carrying 250 people to the Sicilian port of Augusta.

As the vessel neared Sicily, Amara recalled, a helicopter passed overhead and he began screaming to get its attention. After being rescued, he was arrested as the ship’s captain and spent two months in prison before being released, given that he was a minor. He was given two years on parole.

Hearing Amara’s tale, Garrone said, he “immediately thought of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Joseph Conrad.”

In the film, Amara’s story is told through the character of Seydou, who leaves Senegal with his cousin Moussa, driven by youthful enthusiasm and the prospect of musical fame in Europe. After a series of calamities and setbacks, Seydou is forced to captain a ship of migrants across the rough Mediterranean, despite never having sailed before.

In a recent interview, Amara said he hoped the film would help viewers “understand what we go through.” It’s now been 10 years since Amara made his trip, and he said it was painful to see such dangerous, and often fatal, crossings still being made, and still being met with general indifference from the European public.

“People still come, people die, some make it, others don’t, some we don’t know their fate,” said Amara, who later trained as a skipper at a nautical academy and then moved to Belgium, where is waiting for his asylum request to be evaluated.

To write the script, Garrone spoke to dozens of others who had also made the Mediterranean crossing, including Mamadou Kouassi, whose story became another of the film’s principal narrative sources. Nearly two decades ago, Kouassi left the Ivory Coast at age 19 and embarked on a traumatic three-year odyssey through deserts, Libyan camps and a sea crossing in which three fellow passengers died.

“I call myself a survivor,” he said in an interview.

Speaking to audiences while promoting “Io Capitano,” Kouassi noted that people had been moved to tears by the film. “I say it’s not only my story, but the story of many people who undergo that tragedy to come to Europe,” he said in the interview, adding that some things he had witnessed were too gruesome to include in the script.

Kouassi now works in a city near Naples as a cultural mediator, helping newcomers from Africa and elsewhere navigate the ins and outs of a continent that is generally unwelcoming to them.

“It is human to want to travel,” Kouassi said. “People were made to move — no one can stop it. It’s like the sea: You can’t stop water from flowing.” That has particular resonance in Africa, the continent that has the world’s youngest population, with 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 30.

Garrone said that he hadn’t set out to make a political film, but that “Io Capitano” “inevitably became political” as it spoke to the belief that everyone should have the right to “freely move, to discover, to experience new worlds.” It was important for the director that the film’s protagonists aren’t leaving home because of war, famine or climate change, but instead go in the hope of a better future.

“Io Capitano” was shot in Senegal, Morocco and Sicily in 2022, and migrants worked on the crew and as extras, letting Garrone know when they felt the story didn’t ring true. “We know that cinema is a collective art form,” Garrone said. “In this case it is even more, because we really made it together.”

The director kept the film’s Senegalese lead actors, Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall, in the dark about their characters’ destiny. He shot chronologically, and they weren’t given an advance script. “I wanted them to maintain a constant pressure without knowing whether or not they’d arrive in Italy,” he said.

For the actors, who were both teenagers during filming, it’s been a life-changing experience.

Fall said that while he hadn’t known anyone who made the Mediterranean crossing, he very much felt the “responsibility to be the voice of those who don’t have one,” he said. “It wasn’t easy.” Since shooting started, he has amassed over a million followers on TikTok, many of whom gush over his sense of style. “My dream is to see my own designs on the streets one day,” he added.

Sarr, who won an award for best young actor at last year’s Venice Film Festival, said that “Io Capitano” was “important for Africa, and for Senegal.” Although he hopes to continue acting, he said that, most of all, he wanted to become a professional soccer player.

Asked whether he hoped to pursue those dreams in Europe, he immediately responded: “Oh, yes.”

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