Shipwrecked: the disaster of Lampedusa

As another deadly migrant boat sinking hits the news, filmmaker Morgan Knibbe sheds light on the refugee disaster plaguing our seas

Arts+Culture Q+A
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Shipwreck follows the aftermath of the deadly 2013 Lampedusa boat sinking

It's an all too common tragedy besieging the seas of this planet. Just over a week ago, a boat thought to be heading for Italy carrying 200 African migrants sank off the coast of Libya. History repeated itself when a boat bound for Europe with an estimated 100 refugees capsized. But when desperate refugees and migrants survive the perilous route, there's no guarantee they'll fare any better. 

Lampedusa is a small Italian island that also marks the southernmost frontier of Fortress Europe. It's where many refugees end up, coralled by Italian police in camps to await their fate. The island is also the site of one of the worst migrant boat sinkings in recent years – in October 2013, a fishing boat carrying over 500 people went down just half a mile from its coast. 366 people perished. 

Dutch documentary director Morgan Knibbe travelled to Lampedusa to film the mourners, the police reaction and the aftermath of the sinking. Watch an extract from Shipwreck below and read Knibbe's thoughts on the injustice of the tragedy, and the press circus that now surrounds the island.

What made you go out to Lampedusa to make this film?

Morgan Knibbe: The last two years I've been working on a feature length documentary about refugees at the borders of Europe. Most of the footage was shot in Greece, a country flooded by immigrants. I made a promo for this feature film, and was approached by a producer for Dutch online journalism platform De Correspondent. They wanted me to make a short film about the shipwreck and what was happening in Lampedusa. The boat sank on October 3, 2013. De Correspondent sent me to Lampedusa about 5 days later. The footage I shot for Shipwreck will also be used for the feature film.

What was it like reporting in Lampedusa at that time? How do you feel the residents of the islands responded to the tragedy?

Morgan Knibbe: The residents of the island are very sympathetic: they have a laid back culture and are very welcoming. Lampedusa is an idyllic island. It's not the fault of the residents that they are being flooded with immigrants. Although I believe the government is acting very strange. Fishermen are prohibited from rescuing refugees. According to the government, rescuing drowning refugees is similar to human smuggling. I spoke to a woman who saved a lot of drowning refugees, and wants to remain anonymous. She was on a fishing boat when the shipwreck took place. She woke up from the screaming of the drowning people and saved about 30 people. She saw many men, women and children die in sea because her boat was overloaded. If I am not mistaken, she is now being prosecuted by the government for helping these people, because it is actually against the law to do so. When the shipwreck happened, the coast guard did not do anything for over five hours, although they knew there were people drowning. I don't feel like I am in a possition to judge anyone, and I do not fully understand the decisions of the (European) government, but I think the decision to not help the drowning people is meant to be a warning signal for future refugees. It clearly doesn't work like that.

How did you experience immersing yourself in Lampedusa, amongst these people at such a difficult time in their lives?

Morgan Knibbe: Getting in contact with the refugees was very hard. Lampedusa was swamped with journalists and the refugees were fed up with them. Most of the journalists tried to force the refugees to do interviews, or they would secretly film them from a distance. There were too many of them and they were competitive with each other. It was very discouraging for me, and I felt like I was part of a sick media circus. What made me different from these other filmmakers and journalists? To the refugees, it didn’t make any difference at first sight and I strongly started to question my own legitimacy – what is my purpose? What do I want to do here?

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Abraham surveys the shipwrecked remains of migrants boats in Lampedusa

How did you get in touch with the main character, Abraham?

Morgan Knibbe: I decided to stay away from the main road, where most of the refugees (and thus also journalists) hung out. I took a walk to the refugee camp, about 20 minutes walking from the center of the town. It was overloaded, the refugees were everywhere. I took a seat, overlooking the camp from a hill and simply observing the scene. People gave me weird looks. After an hour or so, there where two boys of my age walking by and they took a seat next to me. One of them was Abraham. We started talking in some sort of sign language and we practiced some Arabic words and writing. We talked about the shipwreck, about their home country Eritrea, and about the Netherlands. We played some games and found mutual interests. There was a click. The next day I bought a football and we played some games together on a public football pitch in the town. The gesture was appreciated and soon I was playing football with a big group of refugees. The next few days, I mostly played football with them and talked about their lives. I was able to film Abraham and also do an interview with them, because there was a mutual interest. To me, it is important to level with people if I want to film them. I do not want to use them. I want to make something together. And when the subject is very delicate and fragile, it is not good to rush things.

The film has a very cinematic aesthetic. Did you decide on this approach before arriving at Lampedusa, or were these choices made whilst filming?

Morgan Knibbe: The audiovisual concept is that everything is seen from the perspective of a ghost – the ghost of one of the deceased refugees. The ghost is flying around and is able to observe, but not able to interfere. That's why everything is filmed using a steadicam. You know the term "fly on the wall"? Well, I have a new term: "fly through the air". I think it is important to tell these kind of stories in a very cinematic way, to give the story the power and mystic feeling of a fairytale. Because stories like that speak to an audience, contrary to seemingly objective documentary filmmaking.

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