Cannes part II: Jonas Carpignano of 'Mediterranea,' 'The Sea of Trees' & 'Mustang'

ScreenerBlog

Recent international events have rendered writer-director Jonas Carpignano’s debut feature, Mediterranea, extraordinarily timely. The film that screened yesterday as part of International Critics Week here in Cannes follows two friends from Burkina Faso as they leave their home in search of a better life. Lured by magazine ads and Facebook photos, they do as so many are continuing to do, and strike out for Europe.

But their voyage in a boat their guide refuses to captain, the squalid living conditions they encounter once in Italy, the paucity of employers willing to sign their working papers, and the racist hostilities of the Italian locals leave them feeling disillusioned in short order, and then, dangerously angry.

Carpignano was partly inspired by the 2010 race riots in Rosarno, Italy, to shoot A Chjana, the short film he expanded to feature length for Mediterranea, and which played to acclaim at the Venice Film Festival and SXSW in 2011 and ‘12.

But perhaps more important for being the “main thrust” of his story is the director’s other inspiration: the life of his lead actor.

Mediterranea is based “almost entirely” on the personal experiences of Koudous Seihon, who plays protagonist Ayiva. “It’s very timely now to a lot of people,” Carpignano says of his film’s subject matter. The European Union is publicly struggling to regulate and deal humanely with an influx of African migrants, and just last month, nearly 900 Africans drowned when their ship bound for Europe sank off the coast of Libya. “But for us,” he says of himself and his African friends, “it’s been timely for years and years now.”

In fact, because Seihon emigrated in the early 2000s, “we were slightly worried we were telling the story too late.” Not that Carpignano ever intended to sound a warning call. By shooting Mediterranea as a character study rather than an ad hoc vehicle for a political agenda, the director believes he was “able to make a film that wasn’t overly didactic.”

Of course, the intrusion of politics in such an instance perhaps cannot be helped, and the film’s sympathetic portrayal of its fact-based events does make an implicit case for the plight of its characters. Even more so when one considers that Carpignano worked with a cast of non-actors, men and women who do in fact lead the difficult lives of shanty homes, demeaning work and discrimination rendered in Mediterranea.

“Five years ago, it was a bit of a problem,” the director remembers of his introduction to this community. The Rosarno riots had just occurred and generated much attention among the international press. Journalists from all over the world arrived to press the local African population for their stories. Many obliged, often to the disapproval of their employers. Then the journalists left. Those who had opened up were now “left in the open” and feeling not a little betrayed.

“I went down there and they were very mistrustful,” Carpignano says. But, in hindsight, he reasons, their initial wariness only made their dedication to his films that much stronger, once they realized “I was in it for the long haul.” 

Given that Carpignano had no intention of filming a documentary, why take such pains to woo the locals? Why not do the research that needed to be done, and then hire professional actors?

The filmmaker says he likes the “element of surprise that you get from real people and real things.”

His grandfather filmed Italian commercials and introduced him to the work of Luchino Visconti, whose 1948 La Terra Trema, a film likewise populated with Italian non-actors, had “the biggest impact on me at a young age.”

But for all the esteem in which he holds Visconti and fellow countryman Fellini, the half-Italian and biracial Carpignano says he had “never seen an Italian filmmaker tackle race relations in this [Italian] society” before. His own mixed heritage gave him “an insight into both worlds,” which he could use to his advantage in telling this story that had not yet been told.

The buzz Carpignano earned with A Chjana and his second short film A Ciambra (2014) has not been so much noise. Thanks to a moving performance from Seihon and camerawork that is both impressionistic and controlled, Mediterranea is memorably affecting. The film’s climax is not its portrayal of the Rosarno rioting, but rather a quieter scene with Seihon, whose face as he Skypes with family back in Africa is impossible to recall even days later impassively. It’s small wonder the film was chosen for Critics Week, a showcase for first and second features, and is in competition for the Camera d’Or, an award designed “to reveal and highlight the importance of a first film shown at the Festival de Cannes, whose qualities emphasize the need to encourage the director to undertake a second film.”

Carpignano plans to shoot his sophomore effort just as soon as he finishes this summer’s Cinefondation writing residency in Paris. It’s a program sponsored by the Cannes festival that will add yet more luster to a resume that already includes the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Lab. His second feature will star the same characters as A Chjana, Mediterranea and A Ciambra, and will focus specifically on the protagonist of Ciambra.

That would be Pio, a pre-teen, chain-smoking, hustling Don-in-the-making, whom Carpignano met shortly after he arrived in Rosarno several years ago. The boy’s family stole his car and held it for ransom, something that often “happens to people without local plates.” When Carpignano went to retrieve his kidnapped vehicle, he says he and Pio “instantly became friends.”

Carpignano calls his current interest in filming multiple projects that feature an overlapping cast of characters “world-building.” Although he has no desire to “own” a place as a filmmaker, in the way that Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and Sidney Lumet “own” New York (a city in which he’s lived and calls too much of a “Millennial setting these days”), he would like to do for Rosarno what David Simon and “The Wire” did for Baltimore.

“People have a sense of that place,” he says of the Maryland city, another location much in the news these days. “You see how it’s all connected. You get a sense of that whole world.” Recent headlines may have raised international awareness of the world that moves Carpignano, but few news reports do as the filmmaker did with Mediterranea, and “engage with the most emotional element.”

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It would appear Gus Van Sant was trying to do something similar with his The Sea of Trees, only with a bit, a bushel, or several-barrels-full-of-explosives more force. Indeed, tickets to the film screening in Competition ought to come specially printed with their own warning labels. The movie may prove so trying to one’s patience that one may be moved to pull at one’s hair until a resemblance to that picture of a skull that typically adorns hazardous materials is convincingly met. It is not a good movie.

Trees recounts what happens when Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) visits Japan’s “suicide forest” and encounters there another lost soul (Ken Watanabe) who also happens to be literally lost among these woods. As Arthur tries to help his new friend recover the trail, flashbacks explain the series of events concerning Arthur’s wife (Naomi Watts) that have caused his spirits to dip of late.

What I found to be so grating about The Sea of Trees was not that it was mawkish or contrived. I don’t think the desire to seek satisfaction in a good weeper or a neat resolution is reprehensible. But the lazy films that exploit that desire certainly are, and The Sea of Trees is an example of reprehensibly lazy writing. The characters are stock and the dialogue is lamer. Every cliché about marriage, illness, depression and the beauty of life are thrown against the wall, only for the camera to be trained on the slimy trail they leave behind them, for they do not stick.

The premise of The Sea of Trees is promising, but I don’t understand what about the resultant script by Chris Sparling (Buried) attracted Van Sant and this talented group of actors. I hope the movie will be forgotten soon.

I also hope as many people as possible see director and co-writer (with Alice Winocour, who directed the Un Certain Regard selection Maryland) Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, which, like Mediterranea, is screening as part of International Critics Week and competing for the Camera d’Or. The synopsis for the film makes it sound like a Turkish Virgin Suicides, but although the plot parallels to that Jeffrey Eugenides novel and Sofia Coppola adaptation are striking, Mustang is more visceral than either of those coolly detached if coolly rendered works.

Five sisters ranging in age from pre-teen to somewhere in their late teens are being raised by their grandmother in a remote seaside town in Turkey. Their parents are dead and their overbearing uncle wields great influence over his traditional mother. This pair decides early in the film that the girls have grown too wild and need to be bridled. So begins the summer of their captivity. The five are shut up indoors, a development to which they do not submit easily.

What begins as a standard coming-of-age tale and social critique takes a dark turn that, in hindsight, seems inevitable, and that, in the moment, catches you up in its course. The movie’s shift in tone is wonderfully subtle and seems to mirror the youngest sister and protagonist Lale’s own evolving awareness of her situation.

Mustang has moments of levity, and the five newcomers who play the girls are engagingly watchable, especially when they’re interacting all together, but it will lay you low. Many in the theatre were crying after the movie’s evening premiere, including the director and her actresses. They earned a standing ovation that lasted minutes. A spotlight was turned on them while they hugged and wept in the middle of the applauding crowd. It was a Cinderella moment, or better yet, a Sabrina moment, as in the 1954 Billy Wilder film starring Audrey Hepburn, a moment in which value is suddenly recognized and embraced.

There’s hype, there’s Sea of Trees and then there’s Mustang and the reception it received. There's the magic of the movies.