Lambert Wilson, actor and musician, Master of Ceremonies of Cannes Film Festival 2014, said “The world is written in an incomprehensible language, but cinema translates it for us universally. Without its guiding light, each person would remain in isolated darkness”. Exactly a year later in May 2015, an Italian film “Mediterranea” directed by Jonas Carpignano, sheds a light into the trials and tribulations of illegal African immigrants in Europe.
The film follows the painful journey of two friends Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy) from Burkina Faso on their way to Italy trying to escape the harsh economy and poverty in their homeland hoping for a better future for themselves and for the families they left behind. Human trafficking and exploitation by dealers is only the beginning of their plight. Their journey through the desert and sea is horrifying; death is always an inch away, and only a few make it alive. Arriving in Rosarno, in Calabria they face racial discrimination, working without residence permits, earning minimal wages, and being forced to live a fragile existence in desolate slums. The local Italian community does not welcome the African immigrants and soon race riots and shootings force Ayiva to change his tolerant attitude towards discrimination. Using a semi-documentary narrative style, Carpignano based his film on true accounts provided by his friend Koudous Seihon (main character and actor in the film). The riots in the film are a reconstruction of the events that disturbed the peace of Rosarno in 2010 following attacks by local Italian youths against immigrant farm workers.
The film is a reminder of the human disasters such as the drowning of a boat near the Italian island of Lampedusa where 800 migrants lost their lives in 2013. Boats drowning in the Mediterranean Sea killing Iraqi, Syrian, and other Middle Eastern and African immigrants are regular headline news of late. Carpignano attracts the attention of the audience to this escalating humanitarian crisis, but takes the narrative a step further by portraying what happens to these immigrants once they survived the journey, and reached their dream-land. We also follow their families back in Africa who are desperate to join their loved ones in “paradise”.
There is an interesting contrast between the local African community in Rosarno who support Ayiva and Abas by providing them with money and shelter till they find a job, and the philanthropist Italian woman who calls herself “Mama Africa” offering meals to the African workers. The motivations behind each of them in their acts of generosity are open to speculation.
The ethical and moral distinctions between “what is right” and “what is wrong” are definitely blurred here as Ayiva steals a suitcase from an Italian man on a train to keep himself and his friend Abas warm in the bitterly cold nights. The market laws and survival instinct make child labour an acceptable everyday occurrence that is not frowned upon. In addition there is an overwhelming sense of indifference to social ailments that is forced upon the illegal immigrants; Ayiva and Abas turn a blind eye to their female friends in Rosarno engaging in prostitution as they can not offer them money to sustain them and keep their dignity.
Following its premier in Cannes 2015, “Mediterranea” is getting unanimously positive reviews for its authenticity and candid exposure of the impact of globalization on ordinary human lives. It reminded me of the tragic and heartfelt account of the Indian community illustrated in Katherine Boo’s Pulitzer Prize winner “Behind the beautiful forevers” http://www.behindthebeautifulforevers.com/
By exploring human suffering and our collective response to socially and economically disadvantaged communities, “Mediterranea” tells a universal story that is not kept in the dark anymore.
Review by Dr Khalid Ali, editor for “The screening room” at Medical Humanities Journal
Address for correspondence Khalid.firstname.lastname@example.org