Vittorio De Seta: Africa will save us
by Camillo de Marco
Lettere dal Sahara (lit. “Letters from the Sahara”) is the title of a collection of essays/articles on Africa by Alberto Moravia, published between 1975 and 1981. Twenty-five years later, the great Sicilian documentary filmmaker Vittorio De Seta has used the same title for a film suspended between fiction and reality.
Lettere dal Sahara tells the story of a young Senegalese student, Assane (debut actor Djbril Kebe), and his immigration to Italy after the death of his father, beginning with his clandestine journey, a shipwreck and his arrival on the island of Lampedusa.
Assane finds a temporary job in Villa Literno, then stays in Florence with a cousin who works as a model before moving to Turin. There he finds a stable job, thanks also an Italian teacher. However, racist aggression forces him to consider the impossibility of integration without giving up his own culture and dignity. He decides to return to Senegal and his family and face one of his elderly teachers.
The story is a contemporary one, which we could easily read about in a newspaper. “We discovered the meaning of the film as we were making it,“ said De Seta, 83. “Faced with the unstoppable phenomenon of immigration, there are two possible choices: deny everything and divide people, or else opt for communication and comparison. The latter is obligatory, or else we’re done for. We will be saved by foreigners”.
Is there some sense of responsibility to shooting a film based on events that take place every day? “Eight years ago, when I wrote the first screenplay, the clandestine boats were already arriving in Lampedusa. Certainly, it’s a lot of responsibility, because we need to tell the truth. Many films and television programs move along a virtual plane, conforming us to those standards. Sixty percent of the film is the Senegalese language because our characters speak amongst themselves”.
De Seta has a lot of experience in the field of documentaries yet fictional elements blend with the real in this film. “I first wrote a planned-out screenplay and then adapted it to reality, working off of the actors and settings. I’m an evolutionist, not a creationist, the idea a filmmaker has in his head is always a work in progress. I worked with debut actors and Senegalese actors, we often didn’t understand each other, but in the end I thought it was the right approach, that way they had to participate in constructing the story. I don’t believe in the director-creator”.
The Ministry of Education intends to show the film to students as well. “This document of reality is an opportunity to show children their future classmates”, explained Vice Minister Letizia De Torre.
(Translated from Italian)