Moving pictures: travelling cinema takes stories of ‘departures and dreams’ to Senegal

<span>A packed house at the culture centre in Pikine, Dakar, watches Cinemovel’s showing of Io Capitano. It’s the first stop on Cinemovel’s tour of Senegal.</span><span>Photograph: Niccolò Barca/Cinemovel</span>
A packed house at the culture centre in Pikine, Dakar, watches Cinemovel’s showing of Io Capitano. It’s the first stop on Cinemovel’s tour of Senegal.Photograph: Niccolò Barca/Cinemovel

At about 1pm on Monday a 35-seater bus arrived in Pikine, a city east of the Senegalese capital, Dakar. A portable screen, projector, sound system and generator were unpacked to set up a temporary cinema in a lively neighbourhood where the scent of hibiscus and orange blossom fill the air.

Pikine’s cultural centre was the first stop for Cinemovel, a travelling cinema that is showing the Oscar-nominated Italian film Io Capitano in the streets and villages of Senegal. It is part of an initiative run by the Cinemovel Foundation, an Italian group that has been bringing a touring cinema to remote parts of Africa since 2001.

Io Capitano, directed by Matteo Garrone, follows two teenage Senegalese cousins – Seydou (played by Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) – as they risk imprisonment, torture and slavery across the Sahara and later the choppy waters of the Mediterranean to reach the shores of Europe, in pursuit of their dream of becoming musicians. The film is called Io Capitano (Me Captain) because Seydou, towards the end of the film, has no choice but to take the helm of a crowded boat and steer it to Italy.

“When the screening started [in Pikine], there were at least 600 people, mostly women in traditional dresses, young students, artists, who did not want to miss the opportunity to see this film and to appreciate the role of Moustapha Fall [who trained at this cultural centre],” says Elisabetta Antognoni, who co-founded Cinemovel with Nello Ferrieri.

“We will travel in a caravan to the villages of Senegal where cinema has never been before. We will show the film to those who usually leave, because it is important to raise awareness of the risks that migrants take on a difficult journey,” says Garrone, who is travelling with some of the cast and crew, including Fall and Mamadou Kouassi, whose story inspired Garrone.

After Pikine, the bus was heading to other suburbs of Dakar before going to Mboro, a town in the Thiès region in western Senegal and later to Casamance, the Senegalese region south of the Gambia. Its final screening will be on 27 April in Ziguinchor, near the border with Guinea-Bissau. In total there will be nearly a dozen screenings.

Aimed at bringing cinema to places where it has disappeared or has never existed, Cinemovel started its first African tour in 2001 in Mozambique, where it showed films but also carried out an Aids awareness campaign every evening, and in schools, markets and hospitals.

The itinerant movie theatre first visited Senegal in 2010, when it started the Mboro film festival, a community event organised in a fishing village. Cinemovel last travelled to Africa in 2018, visiting Ivory Coast and Mozambique.

“In its early years, cinema was also a travelling show,” says Ferrieri. “The itinerant cinema reached villages and countryside, a bit like Cinemovel does. We have seized the transition between film and digital to repurpose an itinerant cinema in this era.”

The Senegalese film industry once produced some of the continent’s most influential figures, including Ousmane Sembène, regarded as “the father of African cinema”. But after the golden age between the 1960s and the 1980s, cinema in the county declined, with the number of cinemas dwindling, even though there has been a resurgence in interest in cinema in recent years.

“Senegal, like many African countries, does not have a network of cinemas, which is why it is important to bring cinema directly to the people and to create access to culture first of all,” says Antognoni.

Cinemovel’s bus in Senegal is supported by a number of groups, including Acra, a Milan-based NGO that has been in Senegal since 1984 and Amref Health Africa, the continent’s largest health NGO headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, and present in Senegal since 2011.

Garrone’s film, produced in Senegal in the Wolof language, shines a light on some of the perils facings migrants and asylum seekers trying to cross the Mediterranean, including in Libya where foreigners are known to have been subjected to torture while kept in unofficial prisons run by competing factions in the country.

Cinemovel chose Io Capitano because, it says, the film is “a work that tells stories of departures, dreams and life-changing encounters” and “is a powerful tool for reasoning with the younger generations on the theme of migration”.

Related: ‘I woke up, he was gone’: Senegal suffers as young men risk all to reach Europe

Amara Cisse, 39, a Senegalese man based in Darou Khoudoss, near Mboro, who began collaborating with Cinemovel during the Mboro film festival in 2011, underscores the significance of showing Io Capitano to people in the country. A family in his town recently lost several of its members after their boat capsized in the Med.

“It is important to show the film Io Capitano to raise awareness among young people who want to go to Europe by any means possible,” he says.