The director on depicting the African migrant experience in Italy, moving in with his film’s lead, and the “common language” of pop music.
In 1957, Kent MacKenzie met a group of Native Americans who had left their reservations and were now living in downtown Los Angeles. Through their friendship and a series of interviews, MacKenzie eventually generated a feature-length film about their lives, The Exiles, an unidealized, holistic depiction of a marginalized group of people lost somewhere between home and a promised, idealized land. Nearly sixty years later, unconsciously replicating MacKenzie’s approach, half-Italian, half-American director Jonas Carpignano has created the smart and beautifully shot Mediterranea, a movie that fictionalizes the experiences of African migrants in Rosarno, in the southern Italian region of Calabria. After surviving the harrowing journey from Burkina Faso to Algiers to Libya and then across the Mediterranean Sea in a makeshift boat (during which several fellow passengers drown), Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) struggles to adjust to the cold weather while sleeping in a shack, finding work picking oranges, staying connected with his daughter back at home, and balancing the desires of his friend Abas (Alassane Sy).
Mediterranea, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Critics’ Week in May, has drawn extra attention recently because of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. However, as Carpignano is quick to point out, the migrants’ situation isn’t anything new: people from all over Africa and the Middle East have been settling in Italy for years, and, over the past two decades, at least 20,000 lives have been lost in attempts to cross over to Europe by boat. In 2014 alone, over 4,000 migrants died at sea; prior to a border crackdown in 2012, continents were also crossed via Turkey and Greece. Seeking financial opportunity and/or political asylum—Eritreans, for instance, are conscripted into military service without end by their government—these migrants have primarily settled in southern cities like Lampedusa. The riots Mediterranea depicts occurred in Rosarno in 2010, the same year that Muammar Gaddafi demanded the European Union pay Libya 5 billion euros a year—or else he’d “turn Europe black” by not cracking down on migrant routes inside his borders. (Gaddafi had signed a “Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation” with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2008, which netted him 5 billion of racial protection money.) As the film also shows, these routes are dangerous in and of themselves: the group Ayiva travels with in the beginning is held at gunpoint in the Libyan desert by bandits. Carpignano shot these scenes, for safety’s sake, in southern Morocco.
Despite these punishing social, economic, and governmental forces shaping migration, Carpignano’s film is ultimately a hopeful one. At heart an ensemble piece, Mediterranea earnestly depicts the bonds that are forged across generations and borders: aside from his friendship with Abas, Ayiva buys and sells hot electronics with Pio, a fast-talking eleven-year-old Romani boy who smokes, shares beers with Nigerian prostitutes (one of whom declares that Rihanna is her sister), and dines with his Italian boss, who is impressed by his determination to survive in Rosarno. The film was made almost exclusively with non-actors, many of whom had undergone similar journeys. Koudous Seihon, Mediterranea’s lead, came to Italy from Burkina Faso by foot and a boat he was asked to helm, and, over the course of working on the movie, became Carpignano’s housemate.
The fluidity of Carpignano’s approach is no doubt influenced by his unique upbringing: the director grew up in Rome and the Bronx, son of an Italian father and an African-American mother. After studying film at Wesleyan and New York University, he went on to serve as second assistant director for the 2012 hit Beasts of the Southern Wild and directed five shorts of his own. He has lived in southern Italy since traveling there to shoot the short, A Chjana, that Mediterranea grew out of, and recently won the Gotham Independent Film Award for Breakthrough Director. I spoke with Carpignano on a rainy afternoon in New York following this honor, and our conversation ran the gambit from EU asylum rules to hip hop—even though he was a little disappointed that I don’t speak Italian.
—Violet Lucca for Guernica
Guernica: Can you talk a little bit about the development of the film, and how you met Koudous?
Jonas Carpignano: I originally went to Rosarno to do research for a film about the riot that had happened there in 2010. I went down to do research immediately. And then, when I went back down there in 2011 to actually shoot the film, after spending a year writing, I wanted to find the cast. I knew I wanted people who had actually lived there and participated in the riot. I didn’t want to bring down trained actors of African descent from Rome or Milan. I wanted people who had actually been on the ground and lived those experiences, more of a neorealist vibe. There was a protest on the one-year anniversary of the riot, where there were people who had participated in it reliving what had happened and saying to the town: “Hey, this is what happened to us. Let’s not forget.” So I said to myself, There’ll be like 600 people who all participated in the riot in the center of Rosarno, this is the perfect time to cast. We’ll get extras, I’ll find the lead.
When I rolled up to the protest, the first person I saw was Koudous. He was standing in front of the march with a megaphone in his hand, speaking like five different languages. He was literally parading people through the town, and then organizing them onto buses to the capital of the region, which is fifty kilometers south. In this whole group of people, he was by far the most charismatic. So I thought to myself, If that guy can bring that charisma, we won. That’s the guy we want. When I went to ask him to be in the short [A Chjana], he said, “No, man, can’t you see that I’m busy? Now’s not a good time for me to do a television interview.” He really didn’t know what we were talking about. He just thought [we were] more guys coming down from Rome with cameras, and there had been tons of those.
It’s a good thing that he said no, because as a result of convincing him, we became very, very good friends. Over the course of a week and a half, him coming over to where we were staying, intensely talking about what I wanted to do, we bonded and realized that we could be friends outside of a work relationship. And then our relationship got even stronger as we were making the short film. Almost immediately we decided that we had to make a feature, we had to do something longer together. As he was telling me his life story, I realized that we should base it around his experiences. After the short film was done, he sent me down to Burkina Faso to spend time with his family and to retrace his footsteps, and I used all of that to write the film. A year passed; the short film went to Venice, it had some success, and we felt like it was a good time to get this feature rolling. We decided to get a house together so that we could be working on it full time, [and we] got a little development deal with a German company.
So, I can’t say that back in 2011, when I went down there, that I knew I was going to be living there forever. It wasn’t a decision [like], “Okay, I’m going to move to Gioia Tauro, this place inspires me, I’m going to live in Rosarno my whole life.” I let life pick me up and drag me. And it wasn’t like Koudous and I said, “Oh, we’re going to become best friends and live together and become brothers.” It evolved organically over the course of five years. The obstacles we overcame brought us closer together. I went to Burkina Faso two other times, spent time with his family. We just got even closer because we were tackling this film together. Now we’ve found our home.
Guernica: And how is that going?
Over the course of living with Koudous, we got past the point of it being about him sharing stories about his life; it was past the point of me going to see his family. It was not a relationship where “I need your story to finish the film,” but [one where] we’re just friends. Because the film stopped and started so many times, there were periods when we weren’t living together to work on the film, we were just living together. At the time, that was the worst thing in the world: “Oh, my God. We’re not making this film. Have we been wasting all of this time and energy on this? What’s the deal?” In hindsight, that’s what made the film. We got to know each other much more intimately than in an actor/director relationship. It allowed us to have more intimate knowledge of each other, and helped shape the performance in the film.
Just being roommates, I know what his eyes are like when he’s mad about something. [In] fighting about cleaning the fridge, or just the little things in life, I was able to start to read him, and to know how to elicit those emotions. These nuanced understandings of his emotions definitely enriched his performance in the film.
Guernica: In every account of the 2010 riots in Rosarno, there’s always mention of how the mafia was involved in the exploitation of migrant labor, and that the migrants were rebelling against them. You don’t include the mafia in your film at all, and instead show the townsfolk’s hostile reactions to the migrants. Can you talk about why you made that choice?
Jonas Carpignano: Here’s the thing: we all know the way Italian newspapers are, but instead of getting into a discourse about what’s wrong with the news media in Italy, [I’ll say that] the fundamental problem I had with the way that things were being covered is that it put the entire riot into a context defined by Western values and Western ideas of the way society functions. That frustrated me, because the whole reason I wanted to make the film was to acknowledge that there’s another perspective on this continent, in this country, that is not ours. People [in the media] were saying that the immigrants will save us from the mafia, because they’re the only ones who have the courage to battle against them. They saw the immigrants’ actions through Italian eyes, and that’s the exact thing we were trying to avoid when making this film. At first you think: “Okay, I’m going to make a movie about the intersection between immigrants and the mafia. That’s sexy, that’s fundable, people want to see that.” But the fact is that no one down there is thinking like that. I’ve been living in Rosarno for five years. Ask anyone who participated in the riot—I spoke to the guys who smashed the first car, the first guys to pull the tires off and light them on fire to block the road—they didn’t have the mafia in their mind in any way.
For me, the purpose of Mediterranea was to give the real perspective of these migrants who had come over, people who were my friends. It was important to let our individual contexts bleed away and focus on what’s important to them. It was about not devaluing the perspective of Ayiva/Koudous by injecting what I see of the world into his story. Because if it’s not important to him, then it shouldn’t be important to the movie.
The riots were about the living conditions and people being constantly pushed out of the center of the town. But the actual catalyst, what actually sparked the riots in the moment, was the alleged shooting of two African immigrants. Like in the film, people heard that immigrants had been shot in the streets, as if [for] sport. And everyone decided to start this riot and erupt. In fact, they weren’t killed, they were shot and injured by air guns. There was more violence then toward immigrants than there is now. The scene [when Ayiva and Abas first walk toward Rosarno], with the car swerving past them at night to scare them—[this was] happening regularly.
Even if it’s just a little thing, something like a song, there’s still that sort of common language, that common denominator that we can all relate to.
Guernica: Part of what makes Mediterranea interesting is that it captures that discourse between Italy and America, Italy and Africa, and then, with pop music, a larger sense of the African diaspora. One of the most poignant moments in the film is when Ayiva’s daughter plays Rihanna’s “We Found Love” over Skype. How did you approach incorporating all of that?
Jonas Carpignano: That’s something that people take out of the film when they’re looking for it. It came through that same decision I was talking about before, which is to be faithful to someone who’s living in that world. The diaspora, the more globalized communities that we have, is a reality of our everyday. I definitely wanted to highlight that with pop music, because to me the biggest mistake would’ve been to have a soundtrack with African drums going. Or, like, the calabrese tarantella playing the whole time. Because that would ignore the globalization, not just of the world but of culture. I think that’s the most fundamental change that we’re experiencing. I don’t want to make it sound as if there are no problems in southern Italy, but the steps that have been taken in the past five years, like the massive sensitizing campaign done in many schools, are because there’s a more common language between people. Fifty years ago, someone from Burkina Faso rolling up to Calabria would have nothing in common with anyone there. Even if it’s just a little thing, something like a song, there’s still that sort of common language, that common denominator that we can all relate to, that I think starts to dissolve the boundaries that we put up. That was also the goal for me in making the film: to have it be one of those things, so everyone can see it, really see something of themselves, and have it dissolve boundaries in the place where they’re living.
Guernica: The film comes at a fitting moment: there are so many more people being displaced now by the ongoing war.
Jonas Carpignano: We made this very specific film, and everyone’s like, It’s very, very timely, and it’s true—but for us it’s not really the most timely thing in the world. The refugee crisis is separate from the immigrant crisis. But I think the film, by being very specific to one person’s experience and bleeding out context, sort of letting it be in the background, has [arrived at a] universality that allows it to be appreciated as a refugee story. People are seeing this tension between the locals, they’re seeing the disoriented nature of coming over to a new country. People are [seeing] it in Hungary, Germany, all the northern countries as well, and they’re able to identify with it. I think that’s one of the benefits of being specific—it helps it become universal. Had we been a little more broad and made it more about the Italian context, I feel like it would’ve been an Italian story as opposed to the story of a migrant coming through. So that universality has made me very happy.
Guernica: On the subject of the Italian context, would you say that migrants arriving in, say, Milan versus Lampedusa have a different experience?
Jonas Carpignano: I don’t spend much time in the north so I don’t really know, but Milan’s a place which, in some way, shape, or form [hides] where people are from, because everyone blends into the city. That’s sort of what’s beautiful about a city. So a lot of those confrontations are less drastic and violent because there’s no threat to the social structure of the city, in a way. Even though there’s a huge wave of people coming in, no one knows if you’re staying or going. When you have a small town where all of a sudden there’s 3,000 black people living in a neighborhood where there were never black people before, that’s a more dramatic change. I’m not sure how much the people in the north are acknowledging that this is a permanent phenomenon, that it is going to change the social fabric. In the south that’s something we’re forced to do. We have to come to terms with the fact that there will be a black presence in Calabria, probably forever. And it hasn’t happened yet, but we’re probably not far away from having black Calabrians. That’s what keeps things regional: the effects of something like this on a small town can never be compared to what it is like in a city because of its transitional nature.
Guernica: There are a lot of rules that are not just specific to Italy but dictated by the EU by which you’re required to declare asylum status in the country that you land in. A lot of Africans don’t get their fingerprints taken when they arrive, and the police aren’t forcing them into doing it. They’re trying to have this flexibility of maybe moving on to more skilled labor in other countries. What does this look like in Calabria?
Jonas Carpignano: There’s a heavy African population where we live in Calabria, but it’s never been a place where lots of barci [boats] are arriving, because Sicily’s first—there’s a lot of land to hit before us. About two years ago, this container ship headed to Gioia Tauro picked up this boat, so all these people came. And you know, we did the best we could. People set up a refugee place in this old industrial zone: tents, food, water, the whole thing, just trying to help everyone come in. They were mainly Eritreans, like 300 people altogether. But we didn’t have any kind of infrastructure to really regulate this thing, so in an arc of five hours, all but six just ran away because they didn’t want to be registered in the Italian system. They wanted to keep going north. So literally for a week we would be driving around seeing groups of people who had no idea what to do on the side of the road. Can you imagine? They had no idea where they were, or even which way north was. We were picking them up and taking them to Rosarno, helping them get something to eat, taking them to the trains, buying them tickets… I remember Koudous was really involved in this, and would go out looking for people. It was just a free for all. It was a crazy eight days.
Sicilians, Calabrians, Neapolitans—there were real differences between them, and then all of a sudden they’re all living in the US, and then they’re all Italians.
Guernica: As the film shows, people from all over Africa use the same routes to get to Italy, and then coalesce into communities wherever they arrive. Does Pan-Africanism exist in these communities? Is there a “Pan-African” culture emerging there?
Jonas Carpignano: I think it’s incredible. What’s weird is that there’s a solidarity from being from the same continent, which I don’t necessarily think is felt while you’re on that continent, but all of a sudden people start to feel when they’re in Rosarno. So obviously there are some divisions where houses have only Burkina people in them, or only dudes from Mali in them, but that’s mostly because people come to find their friends and relatives. When you go to a bar, everyone’s in there, and there’s certainly cliques, groups, and crews. But Koudous, for example, has learned all his English from those Nigerian girls that you see in the film. They’re his best friends, and there’s a real, real bond between them as Africans. The borders have sort of dissolved because they find themselves in a similar position. It’s sort of like the position Italians were in in moving to the US at the turn of the last century. Sicilians, Calabrians, Neapolitans—there were real differences between them, and then all of a sudden they’re all living in the US, and then they’re all Italians.
Guernica: How are biracial people or people of African descent depicted in popular culture now as opposed to when you were growing up?
Jonas Carpignano: I know Rihanna’s from Barbados. But I bet you could ask people in Italy and they’d be like: “I don’t know if she’s American, I don’t know if she’s British,” because of this globalized culture that we have now. Pop stars exist in a different space, one not necessarily tied to a patriotism. So Rihanna is everyone’s. She doesn’t just belong to America, even though she’s a creation of America. It definitely wasn’t like that when I was growing up. Hip-hop music existed as this American thing. If you listened to it you were listening to an American subculture, whereas now you’re just listening to pop music that everyone shares. I think that’s big.
Guernica: That idea, where America doesn’t feel very distant, seems present when Ayiva’s boss tells him about how hard his grandfather’s experience was in the US, and how it has shaped his sympathy toward migrants. Ayiva’s experience with the boss’s family is really refreshing. There is even a scene where Ayiva looks lovingly at his boss’s daughter through a window, and there are no horrible repercussions.
Jonas Carpignano: A lot of that stuff comes from Koudous’s actual experience in this place. On the one hand, the boss isn’t a saint and won’t just give this guy the documents and say, “Hey, come live with my family!” He’s definitely taking advantage of immigrant labor to further his cause; that’s just a reality of what’s happening. But what’s more important is that he’s opening up a space for the boundaries between his daughter and this African man to disappear. He’s happy about his daughter’s curiosity, and their curiosity about each other. They have this pop culture thing they share, and that to me is the key to moving forward in this region.
I don’t think that anyone can see anything happening overnight. Letting there be some sort of communication between that culture that’s just arrived [and the one that already exists there]—if that’s going to happen, it’s going to happen in situations like this. The character of the boss’s daughter was the same in the short [as in the feature], because it’s something I see. Koudous loves children, so has a very good relationship with kids all over town. In the beginning, when we were living in our first house in Gioia Tauro, there were these kids who had never known African people, ever, and all of a sudden two were living next to them. These kids were at our house every single day. Koudous was no longer “that African dude,” he was Koudous. Those kids go to school, and they’re like, “No, not all Africans are fucking thieves.” Those kids actually have a personal relationship to an African man and can fight against stereotypes and prejudices. The more that happens, the better off things will be. And that’s happening.
Guernica: When Ayiva mentions to his uncle that he wants to bring his sister and daughter to Rosarno, he’s dismissed with a single line: “You know what type of work there is for women here.” Can you talk a little bit about how the limited female presence shapes these communities?
Jonas Carpignano: There are women, it’s just that Ayiva and his uncle don’t want to bring their family over to do what those women are doing. But I do think that’s something that will change once people start being able to bring their families over because they have stable work and housing. In general you find there’s a very masculine vibe. The women here are great, they’re my favorite fucking people. It’s funny, what I said about language before—a lot of these women [who are doing sex work] are Nigerian, and I’ve never met a woman who does that work who comes from Burkina Faso or Senegal or any francophone African country. So that in itself shapes the language, in a sense: every African dude knows how to speak openly in English because they are interfacing [with these women] all the time. Koudous, who before coming to Italy spent most of his time on the Ivory Coast, a little bit in Ghana, a little in Burkina Faso, now knows a lot about Nigerian culture; that’s one of those things that happens because of the makeup of the community.
Guernica: I’m wondering about how these migrants are going to integrate in a professional sense. For instance, in Italy there are certain types of government jobs that are basically only open to relatives of people who already have those jobs, or, more rarely, their friends.
Jonas Carpignano: When the Romani people came and settled in Gioia Tauro in the ’60s and the ’70s, they took over a neighborhood much like Africans are doing now that became like their “ghetto,” so to speak. Obviously, there are immense differences in Romani culture—there is more of a distrust of the outside and less willingness to integrate that stopped it from happening. There are almost no examples of Romani politicians now. The illiteracy rate is still very high, and they are still very much keeping themselves sectioned off from the rest of the community. I don’t think that’s going to happen with the African community. We are in the first generation, but we’re seeing a lot of people in the African community making efforts to study and to get more involved in these things. When I met Koudous for the first time, he was involved with the GGL, which is like a union, and other various movements.
That’s the sort of thing that makes me think that there might be a political future there. But there’s no way of knowing that yet, just as there’s no way of knowing how much of what happened to the Romani was self-imposed and how much was pushed on them. So we have to wait and see how the town is going to react to the emergence of this black culture. But already I can tell that there’s more osmosis culturally, meaning you see more kids in the town hanging out with African dudes, and being cool with it. So it’s happening, and there’s less of that with the Romani community. The next film I’m making is trying to explore what’s going to happen with the Romanian community and the African community. Is it possible for there to be some sort of bond or union there that helps them normalize their position in Gioia Tauro? I’m super curious.
Guernica: Would you say there’s a culinary crossover happening on some level?
Jonas Carpignano: One of the biggest dishes in Sicily is couscous, and there’s always been a North African influence on Italian culture, culinary culture there. I’ve been to Burkina Faso like four times and I haven’t seen a pasta place. I will tell you that if you come to my kitchen and watch Koudous cook, it is fucking crazy. It’s a mix of things he learned from Burkina Faso, what he’s seen in these Nigerian women’s houses, and straight Italian food, making a mess of it. We all just sit there watching him, like, “Holy shit!” Then he’ll feel us watching him, and turn around and say, “As long as it ends up in my stomach!”
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