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Still from "Mediterranea"Courtesy of the filmmaker

This film lifts the lid on the migrant crisis

Capsized boats, asylum seekers – this Cannes film charts the real-life experiences of a desperate African immigrant

With capsized migrant boats in the Mediterranean dominating the news recently and signalling that pressure points of injustice cannot hold on indefinitely in Europe, indie director Jonas Carpignano’s feature debut Mediterranea, which premiered at Cannes, is raw and all too relevant. It follows two friends as they risk the journey from Burkina Faso to Italy, through trouble at sea to the realities of exploitation and xenophobia and some hard choices about compromise and retaliation.

With Dheepan, French director Jacques Audiard’s hard-hitting take on illegal Sri Lankan immigrants adapting to a gang-run housing estate, taking the top prize Palme d’Or, it signalled immigration is an issue to which we better open our eyes. We met with Carpignano on a blazing afternoon near the Croisette to talk Mediterannea – and why he just had to have Rihanna on its soundtrack.

With April’s boat sinking in the Mediterranean prompting a flurry of debate about European policies on immigration, there’s a strong urgency around your film. Was raising awareness or influencing public opinion at the front of your mind when making it?

Jonas Carpignano: Absolutely. It’s a complicated question because I personally don’t think that people like being spoken at, so I think that when we bombard people with images of these injustices and are preaching in this format, people almost turn a blind eye to it and turn off. The facts are very, very true but it can be misleading because it doesn’t get the result that it aims to. On the other hand I feel like emotions can be very real, so the idea was to make a film that’s not overly didactic or preachy, that just shows you one man’s journey and hopefully through the compassion that you eventually feel for him you are more sympathetic to the situation.

“When we bombard people with images of these injustices and are preaching in this format, people almost turn a blind eye to it and turn off” – Jonas Carpignano

How did you decide on Calabria, Italy, for the location?

Jonas Carpignano: My mother is African-American and my father’s Italian, and I always wanted to make a film about race relations. In 2010 this very big riot happened in the Calabrian town of Rosarno, and it was the first time an immigrant community spoke up there about the injustices they felt were being done to them. I went down there to prep a short film about the riot and that’s when I met the lead actor Koudous Seihon, who plays Ayiva. That’s what turned it into a feature film. I thought I’d make the film in Calabria and go back to Rome after and that would be that, but it took three and a half years to make and over the course of those years I ended up moving permanently to Calabria.

You describe your filmmaking process as “guerilla”. Can you explain?

Jonas Carpignano: We didn’t want to do things by the book. Obviously, we’re making a film about illegal immigrants, and obviously it’s hard to hire illegal immigrants, so there’s a conflict there because I didn’t want to go to Rome, do a casting, and bring down the same 40 faces you see whenever there are black people in Italian film. So we had to make our own rules and go via a different path to get what we wanted to do done. We just really had to invent it as we went. I was lucky enough to have participated in the Sundance Lab, and they sort of opened that world up to me of not going through traditional structures.

The cast are playing themselves. How much real experience merges with fiction here?

Jonas Carpignano: It’s a collaboration, which is something I really like. The screenplay evolved over three and a half years and things that happened to us on a day-to-day basis were then put in the film. We’d look at each other and say, this is emblematic of the experience here and needs to be in the film, and I’d find a way to make it work. The most obvious example is the scene where the guy slaps the girl’s ass and then the big fight breaks out – that happened to us two years ago and that person who slaps her in the film is the person who actually did it. It deteriorated into a very, very violent fight, and the way things work in Calabria apologies were made, people started talking, and fast-forward to two years later and we’re friends now, so we got them to come back and do the same thing they did then.

“What really struck me when I was travelling around smaller African villages is that pop music is the common language. When that Rihanna song comes on, everyone knows the words, and everyone starts jumping at the same time” – Jonas Carpignano

There’s a scene where Rihanna is referenced and it seems there’s this clash between celebrity or dreams and the realities of the immigrants’ situation.

Jonas Carpignano: You just stated the significance particularly well. So, yes. And deciding Rihanna was harshly selfish because I love Rihanna. She’s from Barbados, and my mother’s family’s from Barbados – she’s the queen of our island. So I particularly like her, but what really struck me when I went to do research and was travelling around smaller African villages is that pop music is the common language. Very often I’ll see people I cannot communicate with, but when that Rihanna song comes on, everyone knows the words, and everyone starts jumping at the same time. It’s like this global language or rhythm that's being forced on us, but the good thing about it is it enters us and gives us this common denominator. So for me there was no way to make this film without music that everyone in the audience would also know.

How did you trace the immigrants’ route from Africa to Italy?

Jonas Carpignano: I’d actually done the journey, I left Ayiva’s hometown in Burkina Faso and went up into Mali and started to do that walk across the desert. I went over into Timbuktu and that’s where I met a lot of people who were sharing their stories because they were stuck. We did a leg of the journey together but we reached the Algerian border and things got particularly dangerous – I had to turn back. A year later I went to Libya. That was the easiest place to collect stories because it has a much less clandestine feel. There are illegal immigrants but there are tons of them everywhere and they’re very acknowledged, so people felt very comfortable to open up to me and tell their stories. I tried to get as much of the physicality of it but there were some stretches that I couldn’t do and for that I relied on stories.