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Lampedusa, An African Holocaust on Europe’s Doorstep

So, now that I look back at what happened in Lampedusa, I must admit that those days I spent on the island have sort of killed that numbness I usually develop when I watch disasters like the recent one that hit the island. I feel angry again. But what do I know?!

By Phil Sick - frankymachine@hotmail.com Photos by Luca Babini and Alterazioni Video

 

I tried scuba diving once, just to please a girl I was with and because my best friend was an instructor. I’ve always been weary of the sea, among other things. This was years back. The other day my friend calls me, telling me that a ship, more a dingy than a ship, carrying something like five hundred human beings caught fire and sank not far from the Island of Lampedusa. Hundreds died because many of them couldn’t swim, others probably succumbed to the fire. But, I’m pretty positive they all died of greed. Not their greed, that’s for sure, but the greed of those who made them pay thousands of dollars only to reach the bottom of the sea. These human traffickers who always seem to make it, posing as immigrants once the police or the Coast Guard stops them. A little detention and back to their profits.

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Luca Babini & Alterazioni Video

The tragedy that occurred last week is only the tip of the iceberg, since thousands have been swallowed by the sea after spending their life savings a few hours prior. Some fishing boats gave the SOS, and then some Coast Guard ships started to come to the rescue of those who were trying to swim for their lives. The other paradox is that once they rescue the survivors, they then charge them with a crime called “favoring illegal immigration”, the infamous Bossi-Fini law. Tonight, as I write this article, I learn that the president of the European Community Barroso was booed by the islanders. Lampedusa, an Italian island which is closer to the African continent than it is to Italian territory, is nonetheless part of Europe. Not everyone seems to remember this.

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Luca Babini & Alterazioni Video

Over the years, this place has become some sort of human lifesaver for those who risk their lives while attempting to reach this gateway to Europe on journeys which cost them, if they are lucky, a couple of thousand dollars. The bitter irony is that flying in a first class British Airlines seat it would probably cost them less. Of course war refugees do not hold the proper credentials to do so. The most recent accident, though, has really made it big in the news, through the sleepy and corrupt Italian parliament, usually busy bailing out its mafia members or raising their wages and battling over power…

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Luca Babini & Alterazioni Video

The boat full of war refugees (mostly Ethiopian) sank not far from the Isola dei Conigli (Rabbit’s Island), which is a natural resort in front of which there is a strip of land where tourists take it easy and drink the occasional five buck Corona while their kids build a sand castle, or whatever kids do today at the beach. Sand iPhones, sea Playstations? Italian parents tend to feed their children on the beach, especially in the south, they gorge them up with food until the kids roll over like sick whales when with the little voice they’ve got left they ask their loud mothers when will they be granted permission to go for a swim… After such feasts the kids will probably digest the food when they grow up, “So, dear son, after all that pizza, I’d say in five years’ time you can go for that swim”…

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Luca Babini & Alterazioni Video

But now, in October, these people are long gone, only a few lucky individuals can enjoy the weather, still very pleasant, and the unique landscapes. The Isola dei Conigli, once an exclusive paradise for sea turtles and all sorts of wild life, turned into one of the gates to hell last week: an inferno where scuba divers and rescue forces saved as many as they could, even helped by a few fishermen, until there nothing more they could but go fetch corpses, corpses of those who died as they tried to reach the European dream before it turned into an underwater nightmare. After wars and famine they were only looking for a fresh start…

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Luca Babini & Alterazioni Video

Or a cold end under water, where a scuba diver will have to come down and free you from the depths of the ship you died in, simply to embrace you (a scuba diver must literally hug a corpse in order to bring him up) and bring you all the way to the motorboat, when it is already too late. Word is the scuba divers were working frantically in order to prevent the bodies from bloating up and then floating to the surface. God knows where the currents would take them. I read about a scuba diver having to embrace the corpse of a young boy who was the same age as the man’s son. He had to stop the interview for a minute, because he was sobbing. Meanwhile, the hangar of the island’s airport is still being filled with coffins, normal sturdy wooden ones for the adults and smaller white ones for the children. They had numbers on them and no names so that when the survivors were finally let in for a brief ceremony to mourn their buddies, people were going “Which one is Assuf or Mohammed? Excuse me I’m looking for my brother’s coffin…” He’d have to pick a number by chance, or perhaps go by each and every one of those hundreds of coffins, brushing his hand on them as he walked on whispering a prayer.

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Luca Babini & Alterazioni Video

To be honest, I’m so used to hearing body counts in Syria, people dying on dingies headed to Italy and so forth, that I’m becoming kind of numb to all this death and misery. I still get angry, mind you. I get angry at third world dictators just the same as I despise western democracies who have been responsible, along with major corporations, for exploiting that developing world. I do all this hating comfortably seated in front of my lap-top, warm cocoa in my hand, happily puffing on a cigarette. But as I said, I’m becoming more and more desensitized. Besides, at the end of the day, other than saying “Oh fuck…” when some tragedy like Lampedusa arises and feeling bad about it for five minutes at the most, what do I do about this? I do fuck all, and I know I’m not the kind of guy who’d ever join some NGO to help starving kids in Angola or whatever. I write this shitty article and that’s it. And in some ways I guess this makes me feel even worse, but a few beers will wipe off this vague feeling of loss and anger… I’ll go to the park and play with my dog, and sure as hell, those coffins and corpses will vanish. I bet it is a lot different for those who survived and for the scuba divers who went down to grab the bodies. To the relatives waiting for their loved ones in Paris, Rome and Brussels.

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Luca Babini & Alterazioni Video

Anyway, I’m only writing this piece because I’ve been to Lampedusa. In the year 2011, Alterazioni Video alongside Luca Babini decided to make a turbo film on this very island. I tagged along with my laptop and a suitcase filled with Hawaiian shirts. Now, a turbo film is basically a low budget flick where improvisation, gonzo mojo and situationism give birth to what I call rock ‘n’ roll cinema. All right, forgive me, I sound like a third rate intellectual ranting about… Since I am a second rate one, I’ll simply carry on with it and tell you that in turbo films the location, whether it is a city, in this case an island, and therefore the territory all together become the true lead character on screen. Moreover, writers, actors, artists, pimps, phonies, socialites and what not all contribute to a cinematic beast, which will grow within the one or two weeks of shooting. I had the pleasure to take part in a few turbo films, as well as one that was called Black Rain, actually shot in Lampedusa. AV had a hell of a time working with those Africans who had snatched their small share of Europe, those who made it out of the camps, making a few bucks selling inflatable crocodiles, necklaces and fake ray bans to tourists. Back then the island wasn’t new to emergencies, tragedies and water supplies being at risk because of the bad weather at sea. The fishermen would find human body parts in their nets. Now, I must admit that I did not enjoy making this movie because I was suffering from an inane illness, I’ll spare you the details, alongside the fact that I despise warm climates, and do not really find myself at ease near the ocean because of a moronic shark phobia I developed in a Los Angeles pool at age six, after Steven Spielberg simply killed it for me with “Jaws”…

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Luca Babini & Alterazioni Video

Nonetheless, Black Rain was one of AV turbo movies to be praised the most. Some said the collective video group shared an interesting perspective of this African rock, surrounded by Italian waters. Others said it had a quirky kind of poetry to it… Well, why not. Now, you’d expect a writer, even a bottom feeder like me, to actually participate in the writing of the script… And I even did so to some extent. Truth is, the way a turbo film rocks, the screenplay is only something to attract producers; something they can fan themselves with when it’s too hot. Sweet. Also, when you find yourself in exotic locations and you hide behind a biblical bush, the script is a natural substitute for toilet paper. So basically, a screenplay has many unconventional uses. A producer pacifier, a good screenplay can also always justify excessive bar tabs, exotic dancer receipts, camera and sound equipment rentals, hash and bribe money…

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Luca Babini & Alterazioni Video

The rest is pure improvisation, the movie will unfold gingerly as people are met and stories are told. Luckily, during Black Rain there was Alessandro Maggi, a Milanese producer who was basically raised on the island by his parents and was some sort of human crowbar that would unlock the hearts and the homes of charming locals, aging dons, somber fishermen and the variegated and enthusiastic community of Africans who made it out of the immigration center, or simply escaped from the prying eyes of the authorities. Some of them became the undisputed stars of this movie. They gave us happiness, we gave them money. Fair trade. They were elated the day AV showed them the post-production miracles that turned their athletic jumps into super hero like descents to earth. With a muscled shaman, draped with a plastic armor cut out of an inflatable boat in the background, the black rain phenomenon occurred… Many black men and women landed onto the island, others hit the sea. But they all made it safely to Europa. The irony here is that this manufactured heroism mimics the real bravery it takes to make this journey in hopes of living a “better” life, which most of us take for granted.

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Luca Babini & Alterazioni Video

There was a lot of laughter and a lot of cheers. I was merely the reluctant cantor of this beautiful island, which from time to time is reached by waves of horror. But as long as I live, I’ll never forget those days of shooting, as I laid floating at sea like a bloated Christ embraced by a black Madonna. At some point as the water was filling my nose, and my aching bones were hitting the rocks, a mild suspicion started to sneak up along my brittle spine. Someone had to be getting back at me for all my boozing, my darkness, my vices. All of which I carried onto the island despite the African heat and the nerve wrecking wind, perhaps a distant relative of the Ghibli. I hated Lampedusa at the time, though I actually hated myself more for being there. As I climbed onto a rocky hill, sweating like a pig, the others and I were confronted my Italian military personnel. They didn’t want us to film the immigration center, which rested beneath the hills we climbed, into a cemented valley.

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Luca Babini & Alterazioni Video

“Jesus, look at these guys. What is it? Area 51? We’re simply bird watchers… give us a break…” “Yeah, what are all the cameras and the sound gear for?”
“To film the goddam birds, and record their fucking humming and singing…”
We managed to avoid being arrested. Sure, I found myself a lot more at ease the following year when we shot “Fred” in Berlin. The weather was just cold enough, the perfect climate for beer and bratwurst. Thus I fit perfectly, this time in priest garments and with a midget always at my side. Actually, the guy was the only professional actor who worked with AV in a long time. Peter Brombil, I recall him dearly. I even chucked the heavy little guy right into the ribs of Ragnar Kjartansson, valued artist who turned opera singer. Do the Pavarotti….

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Luca Babini & Alterazioni Video

So, now that I look back at what happened in Lampedusa, I must admit that those days I spent on the island with Alterazioni Video have sort of killed that numbness I usually develop when I watch disasters like the recent one that hit the island. I feel angry again. But what do I know?! I write silly stuff, star in turbo films making phony accents as I drink myself silly. The truth is I, unlike those who died at sea a few days ago… despite all my scars and all the bullshit… am a lucky bastard who grew inside the fat belly of the West. I hope to grow into something better than a mole, perhaps a small literary cancer even. While my cells do this, I’ll write myself to sleep hoping to dream of a beautiful Nubian queen, who’ll rescue me from shark infested waters, as well as from boredom, politicians, accountants and tofu lasagna. Cum Animo et Libidine…

Photo © Icarus Blake

Photo © Luca Babini and Alterazioni Video

One Response to “Lampedusa, An African Holocaust on Europe’s Doorstep”

  1. pippo says:

    for Black Rain’ s turbofilm: http://youtu.be/pBOuwrVUfv8

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