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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Shanti Das, Home affairs correspondent

‘I was so angry’: the man who inspired Oscar-nominated film recalls epic journey from Ivory Coast to Italy

Mamadou Kouassi, 40, on the beach near his home in Italy. Painful memories resurfaced when he watched the film based on his epic migrant journey.
Mamadou Kouassi, 40, on the beach near his home in Italy. Painful memories resurfaced when he watched the film based on his epic migrant journey. Photograph: Roberto Salomone/The Observer

The first time Mamadou Kouassi watched the Oscar-nominated film that was inspired by his life, he wanted to smash the screen.

He had spent “about 250 hours” speaking to director Matteo Garrone – initially via video call early in the pandemic, then holed up at Garrone’s home in Rome – about his brutal three year-journey from west Africa to Europe. Over food and drink, late into the night, they dissected every line of the 300-page script, fine-tuning details in a process Kouassi says “brought peace to my soul”.

But watching his story on screen for the first time was harder than he anticipated. Seeing an actor play a hopeful teenager, like the one he once was, leaving behind his “poor but dignified” home in search of a better future, and the violence and cruelty that followed, left him “shaking” and in tears.

“I was angry. I was frightened. I felt pain,” Kouassi, 40, said. “This was the life I lived for years. And to see that … it took me back to the life I forgot.”

Based in part on Kouassi’s story, Io Capitano brings to life the journey that tens of thousands of people attempt each year – from sub-Saharan Africa, through the continent and across the Mediterranean – fleeing war, persecution or poverty.

It follows two teenage cousins who leave their homes in Dakar, Senegal, in the dead of night – without telling their mothers, who they know would beg them to stay.

The protagonist, Seydou, is an aspiring musician who dreams of becoming a star so big that white people ask for his autograph. For Kouassi – whose journey began with his cousin Emmanuel in Damé in eastern Ivory Coast – the dream was to become a footballer.

“We were watching the television, cinema, reading books… and this idea came to us that maybe in Europe we can get a better life,” said Kouassi. “This dream pushed us to follow this madness, this adventure. We didn’t know the reality of what we faced.”

The film shows the cousins using the small amount of money they have saved – in Kouassi’s case, working on cocoa and coffee farms – to buy bus tickets and fake passports, before paying a broker in Agadez, Niger, to get them to Libya. Far from the new cars they are promised, they are given seats in the back of a pick-up truck that throws them around over sand dunes, in searing heat, deep into the Sahara desert.

Then, miles from civilisation, they are abandoned. During the painful, thirsty, two-week walk that follows, they see people die. At one point, Seydou sits with a woman who collapses, crying “help me, help me”, before having to leave her behind. In real life, Kouassi recalls a similar experience with a woman from Ghana who asked him to give a message to her parents: “Sorry, I couldn’t make it.” Eventually, he had to leave her. “You save yourself or you die,” he said.

Later the teenage cousins are separated and Seydou, as Kouassi was, is captured by a Libyan armed gang, who imprison and torture him. Then he is sold “like a slave”, for $400 (£320), into forced labour. Finally comes a treacherous trip arranged by people smugglers across the Mediterranean – the world’s deadliest sea crossing – in an overcrowded, unseaworthy boat.

The film, released in the UK this week, lasts two hours and two minutes, but for Kouassi the journey took three traumatic years. After he arrived in Italy in 2008, he was given a pre-paid phone card, and the first thing he did was call his mother. “She shouted: ‘You are alive! You are alive!’ She couldn’t even speak,” he said. “I said I’m sorry and gave an apology. And I said anyway, one day I hope I will be back in Africa to meet you to explain what happened.”

Over the next five years, Kouassi slept rough in Rome, found himself working in exploitative conditions on a tobacco plantation, and faced a long battle to get approval to stay. His mother died in 2009, before he was able to return to Ivory Coast. “I didn’t have any documents, so I couldn’t even go back,” he says.

Today, things are more settled. He has two children with his Italian partner, works as a cultural mediator and translator and has the right to stay in Italy long-term. Since being asked to work as a script consultant on Io Capitano – after meeting the director via a mutual friend – he has been to the Oscars, Golden Globes and addressed politicians at the European parliament. Speaking from his home in Caserta last week, with photos of his son and daughter on the wall behind him, he said life was “good”.

But he is haunted by his experience. “Sometimes I ask myself: how did I overcome this? Because it was not easy,” he said. For years he suffered nightmares, particularly about the torture that took place in illegal prisons in Libya. The film shows him being captured by an armed group that used extreme violence once; in real life, he says, he was kidnapped four times.

Some things were ultimately not shown in the film because they were “too graphic”, including occasions where sexual violence against women was committed in front of him. “There are things I can’t even describe, but it is something you can never forget,” Kouassi says.

“That’s why, when I watched the film, I was so angry at the way people are treated. People are still facing this situation. In Italy, in the last 10 years in the Mediterranean sea, about 30,000 people died. We are always counting the number of people dying – children, women.”

Just as he felt a duty to deliver the message from the woman in the desert, he now wants to “be the voice of people without a voice”. He hopes Io Capitano and his story will help persuade politicians of the need for safe, legal immigration routes so that people can stop “risking their lives” in the Sahara and at sea.

And he hopes it will help the wider public understand the realities of what migrants arriving in Europe go through. “A lot of people just see the boats arriving. They don’t see the journey they have had before that,” he says. “I have to let people know what happened to me and what is happening to people every day.”

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