Seydouh (Seydou Sarr) and his cousin Moussa (Moustapha Fall) are teenagers living in the hustling and bustling Dakar, at the heart of Senegal. They are full of life and ambitions, and dream of making it to the Eldorado known simply as “Europe”. Locals warn them that the Old Continent is very cold, and large numbers of homeless people live on the streets. Seydou’s doting mother (in a brief and powerful performance by Khady Sy) is terrified that her son could die on his journey, or never return home. She makes him swear that he will never abandon her. But the teenager is determined to leave, having been saving money and secrety making plans in collusion with his cousin for a good six months.
Unlike in Mati Diop’s acclaimed Atlantics (2019), Seydou and Moussa’s journey from Senegal to Europe starts on land. They never attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean, instead opting to travel through the desert via Niger and Libya, before reaching the Mediterranean. They encounter cunning swindlers, conmen and human traffickers of all sorts along their quest, every single one of them keen to seize the little money that they possess.
A pick-up truck is loaded with refugees precariously hanging to the back. The vehicle races at rollercoaster speed and motion through the ardent dunes of the Sahara Desert. A man falls off, but the drivers never stop to in order to retrieve him, despite the other passengers’ desperate pleas for help. The hapless casualty is left to face an almost certain and horrific death in the inhospitable environment. Later, they must cross the desert on foot. A middle-aged woman collapses, but there is nothing the kind Seydou can do. In order to stay alive, they must forge ahead without blinking. There is no time for altruism. Seydou’s moving sense compassion is expressed through a hallucination, a consequence of extreme dehydration (as Garrone flirts with magical realism): the holds the woman by the hand while she flies across the desert. This is the movie’s most potent image, both visually and emotionally.
An older man advises Seydou and Moussa to hide the cash inside their butthole so that Libyan rebels don’t rob them: “that’s the only place where they won’t look”. The advice is not entirely accurate, and lands Moussa in hot water. The two inseparable cousins are forced to part, yet they remain convinced that they will meet again. The bond that they share is just as strong as their desire to reach Europe (namely the filmmaker’s native Italy). The story switches to melodrama mode as Seydou desperately scours the streets of Tripoli for his cousin (the Libyan capital is the last stop before Europe). The final quarter of the movie – just as the title and marketing stills suggest – takes place inside a boat packed with human beings – men, women and children of all ages – to the brim. Despite the complete absence of technical skills and his inability to swim, it is Seydou that gets behind the steering wheel (or the helm, to be more precise). He is one in charge of the lives of countless people. But can he handle the weight of such responsibility?
Matteo Garrone’s 121-minute film is a refugee drama of epic proportions. This is not sheer realism. Me Captain contains just the right amount of cosmeticisation and romanticism, without slipping into the mawkish victimisation of the leads. Paolo Carnera’s camera is bursting with vivid colours, and the artificial lighting is entirely perceptible. The imagery is beautiful yet palpable. This is not poverty porn. Garrone never fetishises extreme hardship and violence, instead sparing audiences the more graphic details of the ordeal. Nothing is gratuitous. The tragic developments include prison and torture, but don’t the Tarantino treatment. Violence is necessary narrative device; it is neither an aesthetic choice nor a driving force. The two young Senegalese actors deliver very honest and energetic performances, their innocent, large and pearly eyes burning with ambition and excitement. They retain their puerile ingenuousness even at the most extreme situations. It is impossible not to be moved by their agony.
This is a survival tale with a message of hope and resilience. Most crucially, this is a necessary film. One that asks us viewers to empathise with the many invisible refugees whom we casually walk past on the streets of Europe. The refugee experience is often a tortuous, traumatising one. They should not have to contend with racism and xenophobia upon arrival in their Utopian land of opportunities. It is international solidarity – not hate – that should prevail. I hope Georgia Meloni watches Me Captain. Unlikely though. Unless it’s Clockwork Orange-torture style (Stanley Kubrick, 1971).
Me Captain is in Competition at REC, Tarragona International Film Festival. The film premiered in the Official Competition of the 80th Venice Film Festival earlier this year, where it won the Best Director award.