Interview: Io Capitano director Matteo Garrone on transcending language and social barriers; “This is a document of contemporary history.”

Longing for a brighter future, two Senegalese teenagers embark on a journey from West Africa to Italy. However, between their dreams and reality lies a labyrinth of checkpoints, the Sahara Desert, and the vast waters of the Mediterranean.

And much like the characters at the centre of Io Capitano, director Matteo Garrone experienced a case of art imitating life and life imitating art as he navigated uncharted territory telling a story that he wasn’t sure if his point of view was the correct course.

Talking to Peter Gray ahead of the Academy Award-nominated feature’s release (it earned a nod for Best International Feature at this year’s ceremony), Garrone explained why he eventually chose to tell this story, the difficulties in shooting with a script not of his cast’s natural tongue, and his hopes for the film’s eventual audience.

Congratulations on the film.  Freshly off the Oscar nomination too!  When I was reading about the film, I noted that you almost didn’t want to make this at all?  What was the ultimate factor in deciding to tell this story?

I was very scared about the risk of making a movie about a migrant from my point of view as an Italian, you know?  I just thought this movie would be more natural if it was made by an African.  It took almost 8 years to make this movie, and how I decided? Honestly, I don’t remember.  The movie chose me.

When I was working on the movie, from the first moment, I knew that the only way to make this was to make it with (lead actors, Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall).  In every part of the process, the creative process, I was with them on the script, with editing… we were always together.  I was sort of an intermediator, you know? I put my experience at the service of the story.  I was always listening (on set) to what they were saying and watching what they were feeling.  All the extras were real migrants too, which was an incredibly privilege for me.  I felt like if they were happy about the scene, or they were disappointed, they could say that.  I often saw them as co-directors.

One of the things I really loved about the film was the visual whimsy that was injected.  It was a very real, raw story, but there was this almost fairy-tale quality to it at times.  Was that always an intended aspect?

When I was listening to the story, I realised that there was something that made me think of dark fairy-tales.  I didn’t want to lose that aspect.  We were trying to find that balance between a documentary and a fairy-tale.  So there was always a combination of those two.  Like, in the scene about the dream, I wanted to connect to desire and show the audience what (the characters) are feeling inside.  The wound of the soul of the character.  I wanted to show that character’s trauma and the change in him.

And I understand that the script had to be orally translated?  How was that to navigate on set?

It was difficult for me, because I just speak Italian, so we wrote the script in Italian and then translated to French.  And then, day by day, we would translate to Wolof (the most widely spoken language in Senegal), but I could tell from listening to the tone of their acting if they were in the scene or not.  Something I didn’t know at the beginning was one of the risks I ran in making this project was entering into another culture.  It’s very dangerous.  And I was worried.  But I directed this almost as a silent movie.  You can understand this movie without the dialogue.

You shot this chronologically too?

They say it helps the actor without an academic background.  Both of them were acting in cinema for the first time, so it was important to include logic the actors could follow.

Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall, their performances are incredible!  Do you know if acting is something they want to continue pursuing? Have you inspired them?

Yeah, I think so.  I think so.  The real dream for Seydou is to be a soccer player.  That’s his dream at the moment, but if he has the opportunity to continue acting, I think he’ll be happy to do it.  It was a big challenge for me, but it was even bigger for him.  To act in this movie without any experience? It was tough for him.  It was really tough.

I can imagine that the Oscar nomination brings the film more attention too? How have you found the reaction since?

It brings more eyes to the film, which is important, but what’s more is that the distributors are working with schools.  I hope the Australian distributor does it.  In Italy and France we have seen from a very large part of students, thanks to the help of the teacher, who are ages between 14 and 18 who don’t usually see this type of movie.  So it’s reaching an audience that is very fundamental for society.

We’ve been screening the movie in front of thousands of students.  They always think they’re going to see something boring about migrants, but they immediately realise what is happening.  That the character is the same age as them, and it becomes something very close to them.  They want to travel the world, they have dreams, they worry their parents…so many things in common.  And the film is an adventure, so it’s very accessible to the younger audiences.  This is a document of contemporary history.

Io Capitano is screening in Australian theatres from March 28th, 2024.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.