#20 – Come and See With Your Own Eyes
#20 – Come and See With Your Own Eyes
Opening virtually the new season of Italian TV series, Lampedusa – Dall’orizzonte in poi (RAI Fiction/Fabula Pictures), a 2-episode miniseries directed by Marco Pontecorvo, son of the great Gillo and best known as cinematographer (Letters to Juliet, Firewall, Game of Thrones), was broadcast by RAI 1 on September 20 and 21, in prime time. Like two productions released last year, Anna & Yusef and Le nozze di Laura (Laura’s Wedding) , this social drama shows again all the political, cultural, language limits Italian TV series run into when confronting with issues of migration and multicultural society. Easily predictable, the failure of Lampedusa is the result of a chain of responsibility involving only ultimately the director Pontecorvo jr., who didn’t even took part to the screenplay, written by Andrea Purgatori and Laura Ippoliti. What we have here is an industrial deadlock: I happen to think that, given some prerequisites in the script – the point of view as prerogative almost exclusive of Italian natives, the systematic asymmetry between individualized Italians and immigrants reduced to clichés, the adoption of Italian for 99% of dialogues – the result will be inevitably calamitous for modes of representation. The only good news is that Lampedusa was a flop too for the ratings, despite RAI 1 won both the evenings: the first part was followed by 4.169.000 viewers (17% share), but for the second one on five was gone, as only 3.298.000 were left (13,4%). But let me add another one: at least, broadcasters had the decency to avoid airing it on the 3 October, when the third anniversary of Lampedusa migrant shipwreck recurs, resulted in the death of 359 immigrants. Most of them were Eritrean born, just like Nadira and Badu in this plot, as you will notice, but it seems a information thrown around.
The action takes place in the summer of 2010. Marshal Serra of Coastal Guard (Claudio Amendola), a valid commander but averse to military hierarchy, is relocated to Lampedusa apparently for disciplinary reasons and finds soon after to manage yet another crisis produced by the arrival of irregular immigrants from Libya. During his first mission, Serra’s unit rescues a damaged boat of immigrants, and the official is hit by an unaccompanied Egyptian boy, Dhaki (Venji Liam Alessandro Servina), apparently very attached to a Palestian man, Nemer (Ahmed Hafiene). The reception center on the island, directed by energetic Viola (Carolina Crescentini) takes on all the time survivors gathered by patrol boats but, despite the complaints of the mayor Giordano (Rosario Lisma) to the prefect, the hosts are kept there for months, waiting to learn their fate. Furthermore, in the island, although Don Bruno (Marcello Mazzarella) strives to keep the community together, people start to listen to Santoni (Ninni Bruschetta), an hotelier angry at immigrants as responsible for the drop in tourism.
Dhaki runs away repeatedly from the center, aiming to go back to Libya in order to reconnect with his mother Fatima (Nina Gary) and his little sister Sana (Sylvia Savy), lost while he was taking the boat. Serra and Viola take him under their wing but the situation at the center gets worse quickly, as landings go on and on. Nemer, a decent former teacher, together with some others organizes a hunger strike but many others threaten to raise a revolt. The necessity to face the emergency at the center bring Serra and Viola together, but she gets out of a relation while he didn’t get through a terrible loss. They will witness more arrivals but also tragic shipwrecks. Serra rescues Nadira (Martina Sammarco), a young pregnant Eritrean woman, whose husband Badu (Simon Makonnen) was killed by traffickers and who was part of the same group of Dhaki’s family. Risking an unauthorized bailout, Serra keeps out of trouble a fisherman who found himself in Libyan territorial waters, and is suspended for disciplinary reasons by his superior, Tenente Ragusa (Peppino Mazzotta). But one stormy night, in which several vessels crowded of migrants find at the same moment in danger, all the units of Coastal Guard and fishing boats will be needed to try and save a maximum of lives.
Announced in June 2015, at the beginning of shooting, on the island, in Civitavecchia and not far from Rome, Lampedusa was a project eagerly desired by the lead Claudio Amendola, star of TV series I Cesaroni: he was struck by the tale of an official who managed in a stormy night in 2008 to rescue in the waters of Mazara del Vallo more than six hundred people on five boats, with the help of Coastal Guard personnel. During the preparation, as underlined by Pontecorvo in his notes of intention, the plot was deviated from the historical facts, but a setting in the past was left for «the will to stick to the reality» and «tell the story with a retrospective distance». Too bad, as was noted by Nora Moll in an intervention on her Facebook account, in the summer of 2010 Silvio Berlusconi was Prime Minister and Roberto Maroni was Minister of the Internal Affairs: both were responsible already in 2009 for the launch of a criminal politics of collective refoulements in high seas toward Libya even involving unaccompanied minors, settled with the death at sea of beyond 2.200 people (data Fortress Europe) between 2009 and 2011 and a condemnation for Italy by the European Court of Human Rights in February 2012. An important film by Stefano Liberti and Andrea Segre (Mare chiuso/Closed Sea, 2012) documented the devastating effects of this politics, giving voice to its victims, hosted in a UNHCR refugee camp at Shousha, Tunisia. It the main aim of this miniseries was supposedly to exalt the priceless work of Coastal Guard and, more broadly speaking, of Italian navy in the effort of saving a maximum of lives at sea, the only reasonable choice was to set the drama between October 2013 and 2014, when Mare Nostrum mission was put in place. But not by chance that was avoided.
The bad choice of time setting is only a clue of the general approach, a totally superficial, condescending and careless one, showed by the screenwriters at first, with the complicity of producers, and by the director at last in the preparation of this miniseries. They all strictly respected instead the whole series of conventions characterizing the narrative of irregular migration from Africa in Italian miniseries and in the majority of theatrical productions. We evoked them before. At first we have the adoption of a perspective that is strictly given to Italian natives: here to give a reference is obviously Serra, who furthermore tell the story in the first person through a maudlin and redundant voice over. Far from what happened in the terrific Mediterranea (Jonas Carpignano, 2015), never released in Italian theaters and having a Burkina Faso native as lead, Mediterranean middle passage continues to be told in the perspective of Italian natives, possibly born in Lampedusa, a family of fishermen (Terraferma, Emanuele Crialese, 2011) or a boy shuttered in his own world and his doctor (Fuocoammare, Gianfranco Rosi, 2016).
Rarely the option of the point of view of a subject belonging to the meeting society is without effects on the degree of complexity of the characters of migrants, and the history of at least 25 years of film and TV narratives on immigration is here to confirm that at large. Privileging, while presenting the voice of immigrants, the perspective of an Egyptian 10 years old boy, on which you barely know he has a mother, a little sister, and learnt Italian thanks to a Neapolitan cook based in Egypt (!) is only to foster a rhetoric of good will in the tradition in melodrama from the Fifties. The character of Nemer, given to the refined Tunisian naturalized Italian actor Ahmed Hafiene (The Right Distance, The Stranger), is caged in a “positive hero” box reminiscent of colonial faithful Askaris or, if you prefer, that of “good Indians”, against those rebel to the authority of the administrator of the sheriff, here represented odiously by the Moroccan Marouane Zotti, in the shoes of a “Maghrebian” guest at the center (one more cliché), always ready to take advantage of anything to light the flame of revolt. Shall we have to add some more about the trafficker Adid (Farid Elouardi)? He was sacrificed on the altar of a toxic and widespread rhetoric aimed at unload on the shoulders of the traffickers the responsibility for the prohibitionist and genocidal politics of the European Union, that this traffic set up, regulated and verified for decades, alimenting a whole sector made of emergency operators, in and outside the law.
Lastly, the choice of a monolingualism making way only to slight vernacular inflections – the Roman one for Serra, the Sicilian one for the Lampedusa natives, the Neapolitan one for Cannavacciuolo – determines, like was the case also for miniseries Anna & Yusef, a few ridiculous situations in which the immigrants shift from the Italian to the Arabic language with no plausible reason, or start to talk in Italian even when no Italian is in view. Recently, at the presentation of a performance produced by the Catania-based collective Isola Quassùd, the director Andrea Segre mentioned how he was forced to apply three times the Ministry for his first film Io sono Li (Shun Li and the Poet, 2011) in order to have a support, as the commissioners thought there was an “excessive” use of Chinese language. Also the project of law 2287 on film and audiovisual industry actually in discussion at the Senate, states at art. 5 that one of the criteria for the recognition the “Italian nationality of the opera” is the “direct sound entirely or mostly in Italian or in Italian dialects”, even though in the areas where historic linguistic minorities are present (the reference goes to those protected by the law n. 482, 15 December 1999), these languages are equated with Italian. It seems impossible that the deputies don’t realize how these norms are not only discriminatory but totally anachronistic, as they aim to promote a monolingual and monocultural Italy that doesn’t exist anymore since the end of 1980s and maybe never did actually exist, despite the wishes of Massimo D’Azeglio.
Frankly I would avoid too many words on the formal package of this miniseries. That Pontecorvo was a brilliant cinematographer, we knew it already, isn’t it? We get out of this Lampedusa miniseries with the unpleasant impression he overvalued his own ability of director, presuming to play his own cards right on the set, skipping even to get his hands dirty on the script. The result is a tour de force that is questionable as for an ethic of audiovisual mise-en-scene, especially while shooting the rescue scenes with the display of shots taken from the drone and from the helicopter (as in Detective Montalbano notorious miniseries), topwater shots, oversaturated sea sunsets, “African” establishing shots in earthy tones. The maximum of paroxysm is to be found in some underwater shots exasperating the aesthetic approach by Crialese in Terraferma, where this is reduced to a special effect: one wonders if, after fishermen, children, doctors and coastal guards, rather than giving back to the immigrants the reference point of view, in the next Mediterranean middle passage tale, they may seriously consider the perspective of Nemo or Dory.
There’s another aspect that I consider dangerous in the main discourse of this miniseries. Not only it is implied that the majority of viewers of Lampedusa in the last ten years lived in a cave somewhere, ignoring completely what’s happening every single day in the Sicily Strait, actually turned into a real cemetery. It is implied as well, for those who have some information – even if distorted by decades of toxic information and single thought opposite to the recognition of an essential human right like the right to free movement –, that these daily massacres happen for a somewhat painful series of circumstances that belongs all the same to the plain order of things. If you set in the end Serra/Amendola saying that before judging everyone should came to Lampedusa and watch with his/her own eyes, after choosing a perspective that presents immigrants as if they were “just” immigrants and didn’t have, each and everyone, a country of origin, a story, a different destination to reach. If you avoid any allusion to major financial interests that are at stake every day at the expense of these people, it is as if you would say, even to those who would like to know more, that in the end there is nothing to understand, that everything is right there, that reality is self-evident, that you have just to open your eyes and look.
Let me advise instead those who would really like to get clean and out of the self-comforting and castrating tunnel fostered by this narrative, to go and reconsider some Italian documentaries that in these ten last years have lifted the veil on the responsibilities of Europe, giving voice to the protagonists of these terrible voyage of hope, from Come un uomo sulla terra (Like a Man on Earth, Andrea Segre, Riccardo Biadene, Dagmawi Yimer, 2008) through To Whom It May Concern (Zakaria Mohamed Ali, 2012). And to the authors and producers of this new attack to the ultimate mission of Italian TV public service I suggest humbly to come and watch a little immortal film, shot in 1972 by an Egyptian director exiled in Syria, Tawfiq Salah’s Al-makdu’un (The Dupes), inspired to a classic work of Palestinian literature, Men Under the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani. Telling the story of three Palestinians decided to move at all cost to the rich Kuwait, Al-makdu’un teach us, among other things, a basic truth, this really a self-evident one: if you really want people to understand the reasons of an immigrant, who is being stolen his/her basic right to movement, you have to tell his/her story, see exactly where he/she comes from, highlight the factors that pushed him/her to a move so radical to jeopardize his/her life and the life of his/her loved ones.
I’m not saying this in the hope that they can learn something for the future, I mean authors and producers mentioned above. Italian TV and film industry – and a miniseries such as Lampedusa is a plain demonstration of it – need desperately a strong injection of diversity. Solid issues and even balanced scripts are not enough, we are in need of men and women living these our times in the streets of the world and not in the antechamber of a producer.
NB. The original, Italian version of this article was published by Cinemafrica-Africa e diaspore nel cinema.
Contributors: Leonardo De Franceschi
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