Directed by Matteo Garrone, eleven people earn writing credits for Io Capitano (Me Captain).
The action begins in Senegal, where 16-year-old Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and his cousin Moussa (Moustapha Fall) have a good life. They have a loving family and good friends, and they enjoy making music. They are naively optimistic and fantasize about becoming music stars in Europe.
They earn what they think is enough money to get them to Europe. Despite warnings from Seydou’s mother, they sneak off and begin their journey by bus. It almost goes without saying that, at every stage, they are cheated and exploited in ways that get worse and worse. After obtaining fake Malian passports, they continue north. They are warned to hide their money before they are accosted by Libyan gangsters. Taking one man’s advice, Moussa sticks his cash up his ass. But the gangsters are aware of this trick and force everyone to take laxatives. When Moussa excretes his cash, they beat him and accuse him of trying “cheat” them.
Seydou and Moussa pay guides to lead them across the desert, first in a truck and then by foot. Other migrants don’t make it. The cousins are separated. When Seydou reaches Tripoli, he is forced into slavery and forced labor. He never gives up hope of finding Moussa, and he never gives up hope of making it to Europe. As horrible as his travails are, Seydou is also helped by kindhearted West Africans who teach him a trade and help him find Moussa.
The film itself is inspired by real-life events. Garonne came across the story of 15-year-old Amara Fofana who, lacking enough money to pay for his passage in a decrepit boat from Libya to Sicily, was forced to be the captain of the boat carrying 250 people across the Mediterranean. He made it and called out “I am the captain, I am the captain!”. Thus the film’s title. The other inspiration for the film was Mamadou Kouassi, who spent 40 months in a Libyan prison.
If the violent treatment of migrants in Libya portrayed in Io Capitano seems extreme or exaggerated, it isn’t. The docu-novel Little Brother: An Odyssey to Europe by Ibrahima Balde and Amets Arzallus Antia describes the same brutality experienced by Ibrahima as he searched for his missing younger brother in Libya.