In Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea (2015), Aviya (played by Koudous Seihon) makes a harrowing journey from Burkina Faso in search of economic opportunities in Europe, only to find hardship and violence in a hostile Italy. Director Jonas Carpignano – the son of an Italian father and African American mother – spoke with ScreenPrism about political cinema, the timely and timeless nature of immigrant narratives, and the transcendent universality of Rihanna.

What was the genesis of this project?

You know, it’s funny - I get asked this question all the time and I could answer it a million different ways because there are so many different things that got this film going. I think that the real genesis of Mediterranea - the inception of the idea came when I met the lead actor, Koudous. I’d gone down to Calabria to shoot a short film, and, when I was casting the film, I got to know him right away. I got to know him and convinced him, after a long process, to be in the film. And as we were making the short film, we knew immediately that we were going to try and do something longer. So, he told me his life story. We moved in together, and, right after that, the whole four year process started.

In one scene, the character Rocco talks about Italian immigration to the United States, which touches on both the universality of the immigrant experience and how starkly different each experience is. What parallels were you searching for with that?

It’s funny, for me, that scene speaks to not just the universality but the timelessness of the immigrant experience. Right now, the world is up in arms about this refugee crisis. But it is very much a refugee crisis. It’s one of those instances where the push factor is much stronger than the pull. It’s very easy to understand why people leave their country when their lives are in imminent danger. If buildings are being blown up around you, you need to get out of there. That makes sense, right? But it’s a little bit different when people leave everything behind in search of a different life, or in search of promise that is being sold to them from people that have already reached a different place, like El Dorado, so to say. To me, the timelessness of the immigrant experience is always the cycle of leaving because you’re told something’s better, and then disillusionment when you get there. I think that’s something that happened when the Italians immigrated - when we immigrated - a century ago. And it’s shocking to me that memories are so short in many ways, that we didn’t really see until recently that the same thing’s happening in our country. So, that was really the moment that jumped out. Someone who had been through that cycle as a descendant of someone who had lived it is now faced with people living it firsthand.

So, I think it’s safe to say that this is a political film, with a specific didactic purpose that you’re pursuing. When you’re making a political film, how do you balance your message and the other demands of a film, like aesthetics and story and character?

I don’t actually like to think of the film as being didactic in terms of bringing an issue to the foreground. I chose to leave a lot of the social, political context in the background. To me, it wasn’t about explaining how difficult it is for immigrants coming in. We wanted to let that bleed into the background, in order to concentrate on the humanity of the issue. For me, the main idea was, instead of being overtly didactic, to present the audience with someone they could feel very close to. And not to tell the audience who this person was, but to let them sort of come to conclusions themselves just by falling into step with him for a period of time.

So, given that that was going to be our approach, all of the aesthetic choices were born out of that desire. The idea of always staying close to him, the idea of only seeing what he sees, the idea of focusing on what’s important to him and not what’s important in the world at large very much comes from this idea that his perspective is very, very valuable and enough to create sympathy for the migrant living in Europe right now.

There’s a storm scene in the film that really captures that subjectivity - while most of the film feels really realistic, it’s really abstract and rooted in subjective experience. How did you film that sequence?

On one hand, it’s a very technically demanding shoot. In thinking of how to render this - how to make this boat ride visceral, but, at the same time, to keep it squarely in his perspective - the question I asked myself was, “What would it be like to be on that boat?” So, ok, we’ll just focus on what it’s like to be on that boat. We’ll only see what they can see. And with that came the idea of having these lightning flashes. Now, it just happens to be that lightning itself is a very beautiful and surreal thing. So, it automatically takes on this element where it feels very different from everything else in the film because it’s spectacular, but it’s born out of this same desire to be specifically ingrained in this perspective.

Benh Zeitlin did the score, which is very spare. The film is so non-manipulative and really lets the audience simply experience what it’s like to be there, but I liked the occasional emotional touches the score added. How did you decide when to bring in that extra element?

Well, you know, that was a process because film scoring can do many things: it can manipulate time, it can make time feel as if it’s going quicker, it can slow it down. For us, the main idea was to highlight those key moments where the movement of the characters was happening outside of a controlled time - like when they arrive, when he gets on the back of a boat, when they get kicked out of their place. These are those moments where there’s a lot of movement going on, and we want to accent how they feel but at the same time not bombard the images with overly specific emotions. Also, Ben had a very intimate knowledge of both the script and the edit. He read the script multiple times. He saw more cuts of this film than anybody else, except for myself and the editors. So, he could feel the places, as a spectator, where he needed more movement. So, it’s more about moving time than hammering over an emotion.

Speaking of music, I love the use of Rihanna songs in the film. But why Rihanna?

Well, why Rihanna is because she’s my favorite. My mother’s family is from Barbados, so, when you go to Barbados a lot there’s a lot of cultural pride in that. So, Rihanna was always going to be the pop music in the film. But it was fundamentally important for me to have pop music in the film because it’s sort of symptomatic of the dissolving of boundaries that’s happening because of social media. We’re making a film that’s about the combining of cultures, the creation of a new culture in southern Italy. And one of the things that’s become the common denominator is popular culture.

You know, there’s two ways of looking at the omnipresence of pop culture. Some people have this lamentation for the disappearance of local and traditional cultures, and I understand that argument. But, at the same time, pop culture has sort of taken on this universality, which gives human beings in remote parts of the world a common language. So, I was in Libya doing research, I was in southern Burkina Faso, I was in southern Italy, I was in this ghetto in the eastern part of southern italy - I was everywhere. And everywhere I went, even if I couldn’t speak the language, if that Rihanna song came on or that Sean Paul song came on, we all of a sudden had this common language. We were all dancing to the same beat, trying to sing the same words.

So, the emotional connection I had to certain songs - something as simple as “I remember where I was when I first heard that!” - can lead to connections between people that could never have existed seventy years ago. I can’t imagine being in Burkina Faso fifty years ago, trying to hang out with people. The gap in our cultural knowledge and collective memory was so big that it would have been harder to see yourself in them and harder for them to see themselves in you. And that, to me, is something that’s omnipresent right now, but it’s also something that I think is alleviating some of the tension with integration.

So, you’ve said you didn’t want to make a didactic political film, but this film does deal with issues that directly affect people’s lives in serious ways. When you tell a story like this, do you have a specific goal? Are you trying to spur political action, or encourage dialogue, or just tell a story?

For me the ideal goal wouldn’t be to change policy. I wouldn’t even know how to do that. There are plenty of people more qualified than me trying to figure this problem out, and it’s obviously a complex issue. The simple thing that we wanted to do by presenting the audience with this character was ask people to think twice when they see three black dudes on the train who don’t have documents. Or if someone comes to them asking for work. Don’t just see them as a blanket group of immigrants coming over, but as individual people who you might share something with. A real problem with the image of the immigrant today is this concept that they are coming to take - they are coming to use our resources, take our jobs, occupy our homes, which is a really counterproductive way of thinking, when they can actually be enormous assets both culturally and economically to any culture that they come into. So, hopefully, when people are watching this film they’re like, “Oh, we need Ayivas in our small town. We’re happy he’s here.” That’s ultimately, to me, the angle. Not change public opinion, but just make people think twice before deciding they know the person they see.