To make "Mad Max: Fury Road," the director George Miller eschewed the usual filmmaking shortcuts in favor of shoots in the gritty Namibian desert.
Jonas Carpignano adopted a similar mindset, but for a very different movie. To prepare for "Mediterranea," his new scripted film about boat refugees to Europe, the first-time feature director thought about simply interviewing the people who made the treacherous journey of hundreds of miles across Africa to ports in countries such as Morocco and Algeria. Instead he decided on another approach: He took the journey himself.
Beginning in Burkino Faso at the country's southern border with Ghana, Carpignano spent three weeks trekking north through lawless parts of Africa with refugees, facing the same hunger, thirst, bandits and disease they encountered. He peeled off only when was warned, in Algeria, of an Al Qaeda presence in the area.
"I got on the phone with my father at one point and told him what I was doing, and he said 'Are you ... serious?'" said the 31-year-old filmmaker. "He went on the State Department website and looked at the advisories, and it was red, red, red, red."
What understandably worried Carpignano's father might, however, satisfy filmgoers. The director is at the Cannes Film Festival this week unveiling the fruits of his mission. The fact-based film "Mediterranea," which is set to premiere Tuesday in the festival's Director's Fortnight section, transports viewers to a place where they'll see both the banalities and perils refugees face, a kind of quiet drama with explosive bursts.
As the crisis intensifies over Europe's so-called boat people – at least 1,500 have died since January, and officials estimate 1 million people are waiting on North African shores hoping for the chance to make the crossing – "Mediterranea" takes their plight and examines it from the inside. In so doing, the film shows how prestige cinema, contrary to perceptions, doesn't have to exist in a rarefied real of first-world problems but, with the right ambition and touch, can address and advance the cause of a global crisis.
"Mediterranea" tells a dual story. It first follows migrants through lawless lands as they are robbed, attacked and faced with natural dangers, and undertake the perilous journey on rickety boats, where more die en route. There is little exposition about how the system works; the viewer becomes a fly on the wall during their journey, at times, by design, as disoriented as the characters.
The film then shifts the focus to those who survive the sea voyage and must try to build a life in Italy's poor southern region of Calabria, where as you might expect they struggle to assimilate and get jobs, and are maligned by the locals. (A deadly riot in 2010, in the town of Rosarno, brought these concerns to the fore.)
The result is a genre hybrid of sorts, the open-seas peril of a "Captain Phillips" with the immigrant preoccupations of "The Visitor."
Though scripted, the film draws heavily from real-life events. Carpignano based many of the dangers on what he heard or experienced. A moment when the migrants reached the port, for instance, becomes uncertain when it's clear that those arranging the trip don't have anyone to pilot it. This is common, the director said, and something he heard often from those who made the trip -- smugglers have little incentive to find a professional captain who then would be stuck on the other side, so they force refugees to figure it out for themselves.
Meanwhile, the absence of police in most of where they're forced to trek means attacks are regular occurrences.
"I think it sounds very practical — you walk across the desert and get on a boat," Carpignano said. "But most people in Europe or the U.S. don't think about the nuances. You think, 'well, yeah, there's a lot of sand and it's uncomfortable.' And that doesn't really describe what they go through."
A biracial Italian American who grew up in New York and Rome (his father is Italian and mother African American), Carpignano moved to Rome permanently after graduating from Wesleyan University about 10 years ago. He traveled to Calabria in 2011, hoping to spend six months there before shooting the film. But money fell through. Rather than return to Rome, Carpignano stayed in the southern region, and has lived there ever since. In the intervening years, he came to know the immigrant community that would form the basis of "Mediterranea."
He shot the feature, which cost a little over a million dollars, in Southern Morocco — a location in Libya would have been ideal, he said, but proved too dangerous. He used almost exclusively non-actors, many of whom had survived the journey themselves; indeed, watching some of them on screen, such as lead Koudous Seihon, with the knowledge that they actually endured what they are depicting gives the film an added charge.
Seihon arrived in Calabria in 2008, having made the journey from Burkina Faso by foot and eventually by boat. Carpignano cast him after coming upon him as a community leader in Italy and thinking he had the resolute qualities that would suit one of the lead characters, named Ayiva.
"It wasn't very therapeutic making the film because it meant reliving all that had happened," Seihon said in an interview Tuesday night via a translator, noting that he had been told he had to pilot the boat on the crossing despite having no experience in that department. "But I want people to understand the frustrations we had, and still have in Europe -- how African women are mistreated, how we're not given the paperwork to allow us to have jobs, how we're kicked out of our homes."
Another actor, Alassane Sy, recalled preparing to shoot in Morocco and meeting dozens of extras who had just made the treacherous walk from several countries away and were hoping for a coveted spot on a boat. "We said, 'We're coming from a place in Italy with a lot of immigrants -- do you know what's going on over there?'" he recalled. "And they said, 'We don't care -- we know it will be better than here."
Carpignano said there were a few moments when he questioned his own undertaking, particularly when it came to the water scenes. "We knew we had bitten off more than we could chew, and we didn't have the resources," he said. He had used an abandoned boat to shoot the scene; many of the vessels are reclaimed by the Italian coast guard if they make safe passage.
The danger was more imminent on a scouting location, during which Carpignano traveled to a dangerous part of Algeria. He took out a large camera apparatus to begin shooting but learned quickly it wasn't such a good idea.
Carpignano, who has a dreadlocked ponytail and an outgoing manner, grew "Mediterranea" out of a short he made several years ago, "A Chjana," which concerns some of the same characters. He's been developing ideas in this world ever since, and even got a producing boost on this film from Hollywood veteran Chris Columbus.
His larger goal, he said, is to build a cinematic universe around Europe's growing migrant community. The director has since shot another short, and is working on a sequel about the family from "Mediterranea" that explores what happens when one gets caught up with the Mafia, which has a strong presence in Calabria.
"There's something about the word 'migrant' that we hear and it sounds abstract, like a statistical problem for a bureaucrat to deal with," Carpignano said. "It's very hard to have an emotional engagement with them. But if you give people a specific person or idea to latch on to, they start thinking about it differently."
He continued, "I think it's important this isn't some transient, fleeting thing — the migration of the 2000's or whatever it will be called. These people are building relationships and becoming part of the social fabric. I want to step into their world and bring other people with me."