Opinion | ‘Io Capitano,’ Italy’s Oscar Nominee, Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

But does he get to tell it? The film leaves Seydou with the thundering helicopter, tailing off precisely where many would have wanted it to continue. Because what happens next to people like Seydou is arrest, interrogation, often lengthy trials and, in most cases, prison. Anyone who assists a boat crossing the Mediterranean with irregular migrants onboard can be accused of people smuggling, whether they are humanitarians on a rescue mission or migrants who, for whatever reason, have taken the responsibility of steering the boat to safety.

This is no small issue. There are currently over 1,000 foreigners imprisoned in Italy for helping people cross the country’s borders, many of whom arrived in the same manner as the fictionalized protagonist of “Io Capitano.” Indeed, the film is partly based on the story of Amara Fofana, a teenager from Guinea who only narrowly avoided spending years in prison, though he still had to perform community service. Many others were not so lucky.

My organization in Italy, Porco Rosso, has been following such cases for almost 10 years. We’ve met people from across Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe who have been imprisoned simply for driving boats to shore. One of them is Bakary Cham, a young man from the small West African country of Gambia who, just like Seydou, took a flimsy vessel from Libya to Italy in 2015. On arrival he was accused of being the captain and a people smuggler, and sentenced to eight years in prison.

I got to know him two years later, when a friend of his — another Gambian asylum seeker — told us about his case. We started exchanging letters. Mr. Cham wrote to us about his vain attempts to prove his innocence, the difficulties he faced in prison, his fears about what would come next. With time off for good behavior, he was finally released in 2022. Thanks to some excellent lawyers, he is now happily settled in Palermo, helping us write letters to some of the many other West Africans who have been arrested.

Others have been given far longer prison sentences. One of them is Alaa Faraj, a man from Libya who dreamed of being a professional soccer player in Europe. He took a boat in 2015, fleeing the civil war in his country; packed into the hold by the unscrupulous organizers of the journey, almost 50 people died from the engine fumes. Italy wanted a culprit for the bodies that arrived in port, and Mr. Faraj and a group of other Arabic speakers onboard were later accused of being the crew. Mr. Faraj was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He has already seen his youth pass by in Italian cells.

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