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Matteo Garrone on 'Io Capitano,' his Oscar-nominated film about an immigration journey


Seydou and Moussa are two teens in Dakar, Senegal, who work day jobs in construction and play music at night.


SIMON: And they dream of escaping across the sea to Italy. They're sure they'll be acclaimed, famed, rich, and send money back to their families. The story of their journey across deserts and detours into prison and the acts of human courage, cruelty and kindness that will test, save or savage them is told in "Io Capitano," Matteo Garrone's film, who won the Silver Lion award for best director at the Venice Film Festival, and the film is an Oscar nominee for best international feature. Matteo Garrone, who also directed the live action "Pinocchio" in 2019, joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

MATTEO GARRONE: Yeah, it's my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: Does this film tell what's often considered the missing story of migrants?

GARRONE: The idea start from the desire to finally give visual form to a part of the journey that we don't see. I mean, in Italy, we are used to see from here's the boat arriving in Sicily when they succeed to arrive, and the ritual count of the people alive and people dead. We know that in the last 10 years, 30,000 people have died trying to reach Europe. And so with time, you get used to listen numbers. And we wanted to humanize this number. We wanted to put the camera on the other side in a sort of reverse shot and finally give voice to people that usually don't have a voice.

SIMON: I gather you heard a particular story about a 15-year-old that moved you.

GARRONE: Yeah, all the movie is based on true story. And we made the movie together working with the real migrant that made this odyssey. And so the last part of the story is based on this real fact that happened to a boy, 15 years old, that - he had to drove a boat and became captain without know how to drive a boat and without even to know how to swim. And he was 15, and he had to save the life of 250 people with also women and kids and bring them in Italy. It's an epic journey, and it's also a coming of age. It's a story of a kid that leave his country, Senegal, dreaming about reach the Europe. And during this journey he will change. He became a man.

SIMON: Yeah. The two cousins are so beautifully played by Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall. How did you find and cast them?

GARRONE: We made casting in Senegal. Moustapha was making a school of theater, and Seydou was living in a small town called Thies, a one hour from the call. The mother of Seydou and the sister of Seydou were actors and so pushed him to go to the casting. His dream was to become a football player, so he didn't want to go. He didn't want to go to the casting, but the sister pushed him. And really, the way how he entered in the movie is something really unbelievable and also a little bit magic, because the day of the casting, the - he went to play soccer instead to go to the casting, and someone from the casting said to the sister, Seydou didn't arrive. So the sister went to look for the brother, and he found him when he was playing, and he took him, and he brought to the casting. When they arrived, the casting was full and was too late, and when he was going back at home, he discovered that he lost the key. He lost the key. And the key is very symbolic for me. It's very magic. He lost the key, so he came back for look for the key. And when he was looking for the key, someone from the casting noticed that he was still there after a long time and said, OK, if you are still here, come in, and you will make the casting.

SIMON: Wow. (Laughter) And a star is born.

GARRONE: It's really - I mean, it's something that if you put in a movie, it's not believable. But...

SIMON: Exactly.

GARRONE: ...It happened. It happened like this.

SIMON: Yeah. You see scenes of migrants moving across the desert and then the Mediterranean and almost have to remind yourself this isn't computer graphics. Real people do this every day. How did you film in those conditions?

GARRONE: I had the privilege to work on the set with real migrants. All the extra behind the actors were real migrants that help us to recreate this world and also help Seydou and Moustapha to understand what you feel when you make a journey like this.

SIMON: So the extras would tell you this reminds me of something, this - let me tell you how to do this, that sort of thing.

GARRONE: Yeah. They were co-directing sometimes because they were telling to me details that is difficult to know from the side. They were very proud to have the opportunity to show finally to the world, what does it mean to make this journey? And I remember also sometimes I was the first spectator because there were scene where they recreate something that they lived in the past. So I was completely surprised by what was happening in front of me. So more than directing, I was a spectator sometimes. And also there were other moments where I felt, shooting a scene, that they were disappointing by the - an actor because it was not strong enough, you know, compared to what they lived in the past. So when I feel this, I change the actor. Once happened, I change an actor that was not strong enough, and I put another one. When he - the other one was really strong, and when he act at the end, there was an applause of 100 migrants that applause because say this is the real one. This is the one that we face in the past, not the other one.

SIMON: Wow. You have someone in Dakar tell the cousins Europe isn't as great as you think it is. It's cold, and people sleep in the street...


SIMON: ...All of which is true. And the International Organization for Migration says more than 27,000 people have gone missing at sea trying to make that migration since 2014.


SIMON: Why do so many people risk their lives to come?

GARRONE: For the right of move, for the freedom, for the desire to have a better life, for an illusion. We shouldn't forget that we send image to them. They have social media like we have here. They chat every day with people in Europe or in the States. We - they start to live virtually in our world, and our world make a lot of promise to them. They see a part of the - of our world, but they don't see the background that we know. You think that maybe, going there, you can become richer and help your family, but it's following for a dream. And the dream, the desire to be free is more power than any other things.

SIMON: Matteo Garrone - his film, "Io Capitano" in theaters this weekend - thank you so much for being with us.

GARRONE: Thanks so much. Thank you for your time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.