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Migrant’s 3 brutal years trying to reach Italy inspired the Oscar-nominated film ‘Io Capitano’

CASTEL VOLTURNO, Italy — Mamadou Kouassi’s searing, epic journey over African deserts, through illegal prisons and across the Mediterranean Sea in a smugglers’ boat informed Italian director Matteo Garrone’s Oscar-nominated film “Io Capitano.” Some episodes that the Ivorian migrant witnessed on his three-year odyssey were too strong to make the final cut.

Garrone’s film, which is nominated in the best international feature film category, traces the journey of two teenage boys who follow the migrant route from Senegal across the Niger desert to Libya, where they board a rusty smugglers’ boat packed with migrants.

Smugglers force one of the teenagers to “captain” the boat, because as a minor he won’t be jailed in Italy.

In the movie, no one dies on the perilous passage. But on Kouassi’s boat, “people died. And I was lucky to survive.”

Kouassi, who completed his journey in 2008 and advised Garrone on the film, provided horrific details of torture that contribute to the film’s powerful message, including prisoners being burned and beaten, as well as his experience as a slave laborer working as a mason on the desert villa of a wealthy Libyan.

More graphic episodes were cut, including repeated rapes of women by traffickers along the route, or scenes of migrants who can’t provide family contacts for traffickers to extort being driven back to the desert and left to die.

“Matteo removed it because we want the film to reach a wide audience,’’ Kouassi explained.

Garrone’s previous films include the 2008 organized crime drama “Gomorrah,” and the 2019 fantasy “Pinocchio” starring Roberto Benigni. The Italian director cast two Senegalese high school students, Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall, to play the teenage protagonists. Sarr won the Marcello Mastroianni prize for best emerging actor at the Venice Film Festival, where the film premiered.

In the film, the boys are lured to Europe by a dream of becoming singers fueled by TikTok videos. In real life, the actors had little knowledge of the horrors of the migrant route before they began filming in their native Senegal.

“Matteo made this movie to let you see what happens in fact, the reality of what we (Africans) suffer to come to Europe,” Sarr said.

Sarr and Fall’s lives have been overturned by the sudden success of the film, and have been splitting their time since filming between Garrone’s mother’s beach house near Rome and touring cities promoting “Io Capitano.” Both nurture dreams of continuing in acting and Sarr hopes to become a soccer star.

The 40-year-old Kouassi, on the other hand, has continued his work as a cultural mediator in the city of Castel Volturno, near Naples, helping immigrants get work papers and health care. He already has a sequel in mind: his life after arriving in Italy, where he was among the legions of young Africans exploited working 10-hour days picking tomatoes and oranges for as little as 10 euros a day.

His dream is that “Io Capitano” will influence migrant policy around the globe by focusing public attention on the often untold-horrors.

He notes the attention placed on the thousands of people who die crossing the central Mediterranean each year, while no one knows how many people die in the deserts. “And these prisons, nobody knows how many people are dying inside,″ he said.

Kouassi, the two young actors and the director are currently in the United States promoting “Io Capitano” in its Oscar campaign. During recent screenings in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, he said audience members were moved by the movie’s depiction of migrants’ hardships, many walking away with the determination that “something must be done.”

“We think that this film, ‘Io Capitano,’ should be one of the powerful instruments for governments, for the whole world, to change the policy of migration,” Kouassi said.

In addition, Kouassi has been invited to schools in Italy to talk to students after screening the film.

“I have to be the voice of people because if nobody starts to let people understand what we face before coming to Europe, people would think that we just take the boat and we enter Europe,” Kouassi said, “So for me it was important to explain the beginning.”

For him, getting the message out is worth more than any industry award.

“To win, for example, the statute of the Oscar is important. But change is more important,” he said.

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Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

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