Italy’s Oscar Nominee Is a Great Film, but It Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

Of all the offerings this Oscar season, one stands out: “Io Capitano”. A nominee for best international feature film, the film is a visually stunning and often harrowing account of the journey from West Africa to Europe. Based on many real-life stories, it shows the horrors of the perilous route across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea that more than one million people have taken over the past decade and along which thousands have died.

At a time when Italy’s far right is in government, introducing draconian anti-migrant laws amid a flood of poisonous rhetoric, “Io Capitano” represents an important intervention by its director, Matteo Garrone. Well known for his 2008 film about the Neapolitan mafia, “Gomorrah”, and for his faithful, magic-realist retelling of “Pinocchio” in 2019, Mr. Garrone has now cemented his reputation as one of Italy’s most prized directors.

Italy’s Oscar Nominee Is a Great Film, but It Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story
Illustration by Sam Whitney/The New York Times

The film makes several bold choices. It focuses not on someone fleeing a war zone but on a young so-called economic migrant from Senegal. Wolof dominates the script, claiming a place for a language that, though present in Italian society, has been nearly absent from Italian cinema. And moments of magic-realism provide the viewer — and the protagonist — with some momentary relief from the tortures of the desert and detention, weaving a Muslim angel into its visual world. All told, it is a worthy Oscar nominee.

Yet for all its achievements, the film doesn’t tell the whole story.

“Io Capitano” owes its title to the final scenes of the film in which the Senegalese protagonist, Seydou, is strong-armed into helming a rusty fishing trawler that takes him and hundreds more from Libya to Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island. His heroic actions save everyone’s lives, and the film ends with him screaming “Me, Captain!” over and over again, as a helicopter whirs above the boat. Here, Seydou is a hero just as much as Walt Whitman’s celebrated captain — “The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won” — but survives to tell the tale.

But does he get to tell it? The film leaves Seydou with the thundering helicopter, tailing off precisely where many would have wanted it to continue. Because what happens next to people like Seydou is arrest, interrogation, often lengthy trials and, in most cases, prison. Anyone who assists a boat crossing the Mediterranean with irregular migrants onboard can be accused of people smuggling, whether they are humanitarians on a rescue mission or migrants who, for whatever reason, have taken the responsibility of steering the boat to safety.

This is no small issue. There are currently over 1,000 foreigners imprisoned in Italy for helping people cross the country’s borders, many of whom arrived in the same manner as the fictionalized protagonist of “Io Capitano”. Indeed, the film is partly based on the story of Amara Fofana, a teenager from Guinea who only narrowly avoided spending years in prison, though he still had to perform community service. Many others were not so lucky.

My organization in Italy, Porco Rosso, has been following such cases for almost 10 years. We’ve met people from across Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe who have been imprisoned simply for driving boats to shore. One of them is Bakary Cham, a young man from the small West African country of Gambia who, just like Seydou, took a flimsy vessel from Libya to Italy in 2015. On arrival he was accused of being the captain and a people smuggler, and sentenced to eight years in prison.

I got to know him two years later, when a friend of his — another Gambian asylum seeker — told us about his case. We started exchanging letters. Mr. Cham wrote to us about his vain attempts to prove his innocence, the difficulties he faced in prison, his fears about what would come next. With time off for good behavior, he was finally released in 2022. Thanks to some excellent lawyers, he is now happily settled in Palermo, helping us write letters to some of the many other West Africans who have been arrested.

Others have been given far longer prison sentences. One of them is Alaa Faraj, a man from Libya who dreamed of being a professional soccer player in Europe. He took a boat in 2015, fleeing the civil war in his country; packed into the hold by the unscrupulous organizers of the journey, almost 50 people died from the engine fumes. Italy wanted a culprit for the bodies that arrived in port, and Mr. Faraj and a group of other Arabic speakers onboard were later accused of being the crew. Mr. Faraj was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He has already seen his youth pass by in Italian cells.

The arrests continue to this day. As many as 200 people were arrested in 2023, including Maysoon Majidi, an Iranian women’s rights activist arrested on the last day of the year by the police in Calabria. She too faces years in prison if her case goes the wrong way. These arrests are part of the fight against people smugglers, which might seem like a benign endeavor. But it has become a central weapon against human mobility, deployed by governments in Europe and America to block migration. In a large majority of cases, it is migrants themselves — not shadowy people smugglers — who bear the brunt of the crackdown.

Yet the distinction between the bad smuggler and the good migrant is suspect. Shahram Khosravi, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Stockholm who was himself smuggled out of Iran in the 1980s, has written compellingly about how smuggling is intrinsic to migration. Often “local communities do not associate smuggling with crime but rather see it as necessary for survival”, he wrote in the collection “Seeing Like a Smuggler”. By targeting those who facilitate border crossings, governments don’t stop people from coming — but do make their journeys worse.

Mr. Khosravi is not alone in speaking up against such policies. A United Nations report on migration to the Canary Islands — en route to which 6,000 people died last year — stated that “a crackdown on migrant smuggling on certain sea routes can lead to increased use of alternative routes, worsening the risks for people who are smuggled by sea”. The harm done by human traffickers is undeniable. But far from protecting migrants’ lives, the criminalization of people smugglers can end up contributing to maritime disasters.

“Io Capitano” portrays a simpler world, in which Europe’s own role in hardening borders is sidestepped rather than confronted — and in which the punishment of captains is covered over by the credits. This is not to cast it aside: When Bakary Cham went to see the film, he laughed out loud at the comic moments. Yet we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, whether the film wins at the Oscars or not, Italy continues to jail the people who should really be taking an award home.

Richard Braude is a translator, writer and organizer based in Palermo, Sicily.

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *