Growing up in the Bronx in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Jonas Carpignano–whose debut feature film, Mediterranea, just hit theaters and the web–felt caught between two worlds. Carpignano’s father was Italian, his mother African-American. In the Bronx, Carpignano was one of the lighter-skinned people in the neighborhood, and his father was a minority. But in Rome, which his family visited for months each year, it was his dark-skinned mother who suddenly stuck out. As Carpignano grew to love film, studying it at Wesleyan, he kept an ambition to someday explore Italian race relations on film in the back of his mind.
In 2010, Carpignano moved to New Orleans to work on a film being shot there by Wesleyan classmates. The film’s director, Benh Zeitlin, initiated a wild atmosphere of freeform creativity; the cast and crew’s ranks were filled with people who had never made a film before, but whose passion was unbridled. Though his title was “second second assistant director,” Carpignano insists his main role was to babysit the child actors on set. And though he hardly could have predicted it, that film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, went on to become a breakout hit and Oscar contender.
Beasts catalyzed something in Carpignano. “It inspired me,” he recalls. “The ambition of the project was matched only by people’s desire to see it through. Because people cared so much, you were able to get past insurmountable challenges.”
That same year, an event in Italy caught Carpignano’s eye. In Rosarno, a small working-class town in the Calabria region of Italy, race riots erupted. Someone had fired a pellet gun at one of the many African migrant laborers who worked in the town, and it wound up being the spark that set off a powder keg of resentment. Fed up with ill treatment, migrants thronged in the streets, destroying cars and other property, and triggered a national conversation about race and the underground economy in Italy.
Carpignano packed his bags and headed to Rosarno, intent on researching the riots and making a short film on the subject. He spent the summer living in refugee camps, sleeping in abandoned buildings along with migrants, and slowly gained the trust of the community there. Not until early 2011, though–during a march commemorating the one-year anniversary of the riots–did the project coalesce. Because that’s when Carpignano met his muse.
As a group of migrants marched down the street, Carpignano’s eye was immediately drawn to their charismatic leader, Koudous Seihon. A young migrant who had left Burkina Faso years before in order to provide for his daughter, Seihon had been chosen in part because of his command over several languages: Italian, French, Arabic, and the Burkina Faso languages of Moshi and Bisa. Carpignano approached Seihon, got his number, and soon began hounding him about appearing in a short film re-enacting the riots.
Seihon initially resisted. “I said, ‘I’m just here to pick oranges. I know nothing about making films,’” recalls Seihon from the Manhattan office of the film’s publicity team. (He’d just landed in New York–his first time in the U.S.–days before.) “But Jonas convinced me, and told me why it was necessary to do.”
After shooting his short film, Carpignano went to Rome to edit it. “I was watching one scene specifically, looking at Koudous on a bench, and I thought, ‘This dude can act. He doesn’t know it, but he can act.’ He wasn’t saying anything, but all these emotions were playing on his face. A light went off in my head. ‘This guy is really good.’” Carpignano invited Seihon to live with him, and soon it was difficult to see where their collaboration ended and their friendship began. “It wasn’t filmmaker/subject anymore,” says Carpignano. “That boundary was dissolved.”
That dissolution of boundaries had been another tenet in the making of Beasts, whose crew lived in New Orleans before tackling its post-hurricane subject matter, and it became central to the making of Mediterranea. The film’s first segment chronicles the dangerous journey of Seihon’s character from Burkina Faso to Italy, via Algeria and Libya; the rest of the film deals with the struggle to find humane employment and a semblance of integration in Italy. Much of the film’s latter segments were based on experiences Carpignano and Seihon wound up living through together; the rest Carpignano researched more diligently than most professional reporters, visiting Seihon’s family in Burkina Faso and retracing many steps of Seihon’s migration throughout North Africa. When it came time for production, Carpignano reunited several people who had worked on Beasts of the Southern Wild. Zeitlin himself wound up cowriting the film’s music.
Mediterranea is challenging, raw, and memorable, with Seihon’s nuanced performance one of its many strengths. Carpignano says that the central creative lesson of working on the film was the importance, again, of dissolving boundaries: between work and life, and between creative departments in the crew. In a film set in Rome, he says, you’re constantly being told not to touch things. He imitates: “‘Only my team can touch that. That’s the way the union works.’” But on his own set, as on Beasts, he made sure to surround himself with those who were passionate about the work.
In the midst of our current migrant crisis, the film is more timely than ever, one reason it has been embraced on the festival circuit and in many European countries. The film makes vivid that even when immigrants succeed in setting foot in a dreamed-of country–hardly a given, in light of recent sentiment in many places–their struggle has often just begun. “We arrive in Europe and see that so many things, the cars, the pretty houses, are not for you,” says Seihon. For his part, Seihon is focused on sending remittances to Burkina Faso; he then hopes more roles in Italian films might be forthcoming, and that he might soon reunite with his daughter, living a life between both countries.
It would be the latest dissolution of boundaries in a personal story–and a movie–full of them.