Filmmaker Interview: Jonas Carpignano & Koudous Seihon (Mediterranea)

Filmmaker_Jonas_Capagnilio

‘Mediterranea’ is a profound drama of two African migrants facing an uneasy welcome in Italy.

Ayiva and Abas, close friends from Burkina Faso, determined to make it to Italy in order to find work and provide for their families. But even after they survive a harrowing journey (in which they encounter desert bandits, a treacherous sea voyage, and arrest), nothing can prepare the two men for the hostility and violence that awaits them. A gripping tale of survival told with vivid realism, Mediterranea immerses viewers in the heart of a humanitarian crisis that for far too many, is a lived reality.

We sat down with director’s feature film debut Jonas Caprignano and talented first-time actor Koudous Seihon, to talk about the charged relevance of the film in this day and age, the biggest challenge of portraying the true story, how their background influenced the process and more.

Mediterranea is now out in theaters. Find more information HERE 

With this year’s alarming death toll of illegal immigrants trying to cross from North Africa to Europe, did you develop this story beforehand?
Jonas Carpignano: It was definitely before the recent crisis happening in Syria, but at the time it was the hottest issue in Italy. Earlier on, in 2008-2009, Italy was a country that felt abandoned by the rest of Europe. This wave of migration was coming over and the Italian coast guard was left behind dealing with them, without any support or help of the rest of the EU. So Italy was very frustrated and the tension that was rising culminated in this riot. Italy felt alone to deal with this massive migration that we weren’t equipped to handle. So back then it was more charged for Italy then it is now. Not to say that we are desensitized or it’s old news now, but generally speaking in Italy, we accepted it as a reality. This isn’t going to stop, now Europe is coming in terms with how to deal with it.

Can you talk more about how you developed this unique story. Italian films, especially stories from Southern Italy, have usually a different similar context.
Jonas Carpignano: I always wanted to make a film about rational relationships in Italy. I’ve never seen a film about it in Italy before. My mother is African American, my father is Italian. So I was sensitive about what role a black person would be in Italy. Mario Balotelli, a black first famous soccer player and all of the push back he receives, for example. He’s Italian, but there is a whole wave of people that say he isn’t, he was just adopted by Italians. Recently, a female model of Moroccan origins, born and raised in Italy and parents are Moroccan. There is a group of people who refuse to let her be Miss Italy, because of her parents. It’s the first time in the history of the country that we have come in terms with a non-white Italian presence in the country. Being half Italian, half Black, I’ve always asked what my place was in the country. So it made sense for me to do a film that gave the word to the black community in Southern Italy. This community said we are here, things are happening to us and we are going to stay, we are not going to turn a blind eye on this and then the riot took place. That struck me, so I wanted to make a film about this, an Italian film within the black community in Italy, with people who are describing what their experiences are like.

How did you come across Koudous Seihon, to play the riveting lead character?
JC: For the one-year anniversary of the riot, Koudous was organizing a protest. I didn’t know him at the time, I just rolled off to this protest and said to myself I was going to find someone there to play the lead. When I showed up among 600 people I see him. He’s in the front of the protest march, with his megaphone in his hand, getting this massive group of people through the entire town, then dividing them among to buses so they could go 70 km further south to continue demonstrating, speaking multiple languages. He had this charisma that made people want to follow him. I thought if he could bring that to the screen, people will stay glued to him and it worked.

What was the biggest challenge for you in the film?
Koudous Seihon: The hardest thing was to act, as I never trained as an actor and never acted before. I didn’t have the techniques, but I had to figure out how to memorize the things I needed to say, how to maintain the scene and the energy. That was the biggest challenge, to keep myself in it, without any technique.

JC: When shooting a film with not a lot of resources, it was time. We are really a group of friends in this film set, so you kind of want more time to be out there and creating stuff with your friends, discovering things. Part of the magic in the writing process is allowing life to breathe itself into the script. Such as we go out in a given night, something happens and I think this was amazing and I write this to the script. Life gives you a lot. When you are shooting there is less space for that because you have such a tight schedule. Sometimes you wish you could open up, leave a couple of hours to see what happens. But you are always running against the clock. That was the most difficult thing.

I’m curious about your background.
KS: I come from a small town called Zabre, in Burkina Faso. My life is just like what you see in Mediterranea, It’s a story that is ongoing and I am trying to figure out how to create a life within the African community there because it’s not that everyone is from the same country. It’s interesting to try to create an African community from different African countries, to integrate that within an Italian community and at the same to be legal there, to get my documents. It’s a struggle, something that we are working on every day and determined to do. Especially, since it was so hard to get there in the first place. Traveling by foot, car, bus and boat, through Mali, the Sahara Desert, Algeria, Libya and the Mediterranean Sea and then eventually landing in Southern Italy.

How many languages do you speak?
KS: Ghanaian, proficient English, French, Bissa (tribal language), some Arabic and Italian obviously.

Considering both of your backgrounds, is Italy going to be your home now?
JC: For me, Italy is always my home in some way. When I’m back there, In Rome, now in this small town Rosarno, it’s actually when I’m feeling I’m not traveling anymore. You define your home as your bed. For the past five years, my bed is in Italy. That’s where I feel I can turn it all off and just be. It’s funny, I didn’t wake up five years ago and say I’m moving to Rosarno, this is going to be my life now, goodbye New York, goodbye Rome. In a way it didn’t happen that clean cut and dry. I went there, thinking I was going to make a film within a year and that didn’t happen. I got sucked in the place, found it incredibly interesting and I find it to be a community, where it doesn’t just take from you, it also gives. Your relationship with the town is reciprocal. Meaning, it asks a lot of me as a person, but also gives me a sense of comfort, a place to live, a familiarity within the town, that puts me in ease. That’s something I don’t find in New York right now. New York is such a hard place to live, it takes a lot from you and is not concerned about giving anything back. It’s like you have to pay. It takes a lot of energy, a rhythm I thrive on, but not in this moment. My grandfather was a filmmaker in Italy. When the time came for me to make my own projects there was never the question that it would be in Italy as suppose to America. I don’t think I have ever written a script for New York my entire life, my head always went to Italy.

KS: It’s hard for me to say Rosarno is 100% my home because my family is not there. My parents, siblings and daughter are still in Burkina Faso. That’s where my heart is. At the same time when I’m away from there, the only place I feel at home is Rosarno, because of the network of friends I have now.

The Italians of Rosarno, that antagonized the African community are non-actors. You asked them to reenact what they actually had done before. Do you think with this film you managed to change their perspective and actually created harmony within the community?
That’s a great question because that was the most special aspect about our process. In making this film, various factions of the community sort of were forced to have a common collective call. There were people from everywhere, the people who in the past had beaten up immigrants, people who also had not, but within the small group of people we incorporated in the film, real friendships and bonds were born between factions of the town that didn’t exist before. So Koudous can walk down the street now and a car will pass by and ask him if he needs a ride. The gypsy area where the little boy lives, there was a time no one would ever go down there, because it was a marginalized part of the town. Now we both go there regularly. That part of the world sort of opened up to people. We aren’t making miracles, but definitely the different communities are more integrated. In any given day, my house can have four people from the gypsy community, six Africans, nine from the town and everyone are friends. That’s something that didn’t happen before. So the film luckily facilitated that. I do think the town is moving in that direction but making the film with everybody working together, expedited this.

– Lia Fietz

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