From tomato picker to contemporary Jesus. ‘We need each other to tackle inequality’
Yvan Sagnet is not an actor, he calls himself an activist. ‘I use cinema to address an issue.’ He refers to the pitiful working conditions of African migrants in the south of Italy, to pick vegetables that end up in our supermarkets. In Milo Rau’s The New Gospel, he plays the lead role of a contemporary Jesus. ‘Because this is modern slavery.’
Some people can barely watch a film that contains historical mistakes. History teachers for example. I remember someone like that: unsuspectingly he stretches himself out on the couch to watch Inglorious Bastards, a Quentin Tarantino film about the Second World War. ‘That doesn’t seem right,’ he mumbles from the first minute on.
Later on, he started rubbing his hands by watching so much historical nonsense. Long before the denouement, where Adolf Hitler is shot to pieces during an attack on a Paris cinema, the TV had been shut down.
I wonder what he would think of Milo Rau’s The New Gospel, a film in which accomplices of Pontius Pilatus arrive by car to arrest Jesus. Jesus Christ. In a car. Jesus, who, just like Judas and almost every other person from his entourage, is a black man.
Rau does not compromise. He is a film director with a trademark. Just like Tarantino, he upholds a thematic sentence for kooky freaks – in the case of The New Gospel outcasts — throughout his work. But Tarantino let them show up in service of wacky dialogues and violence, in Rau’s film they serve a more finely strung goal. They are not merely a stylistic exercise; they define the message.
That message is as simple as it is brilliant. The question is: what would Jesus Christ – if he would return a millennial – target today? About what would he preach? The Roman oppressor may have been gone for a while, but who takes the blows in the current system?
Rau finds the answer to that question in the seasonal work in the south of Italy. Migrants, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, work their fingers to the bone on tomato and fruit fields for small money. They survive in the margins of society, in slums and under bridges. They serve merely as almost free hand labour. Whoever is not able to keep up, can rot away. The system is called caporalata, like the so-called caporali, who serve as intermediates between migrants and landowners.
Matera, in the Italian heel, is a town that runs on the system of caporalata. The general public knows Matera as a location for films about Jesus. Among others, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was filmed here in 2004. In 2019, the town even became the cultural capital of Europe.
This beholds a hard to imagine cynicism. Because to get to know contemporary slavery, one can go to Mauritania, but also to Matera.
‘The difference between rich and poor exists everywhere, but in Europe, they are hypocritical about it. That’s the difference’, says lead player Yvan Sagnet through Skype from Rome.
‘We can no longer ignore the injustices of this world.’
Sagnet knows what he is talking about. As a Cameroonian engineering student, he left in 2007 for Turin to participate in a scholarship program. Italy! The country of Juventus FC and thus the country of his dreams.
It became a bitter awakening. After a computer science exam that went wrong, his scholarship was revoked. Suddenly he was on his own. Sagnet moved southwards to look for work and applied unsuspectingly for a job as tomato picker with the caporali.
Faced with the brutal reality, the fire of revolt soon ignited in his heart. ‘It took a few days. I was so shocked to see this happening in Europe. After a few days I organised a strike,’ he says.
Sagnet’s action grew into a mass movement dubbed ‘the Revolt of Dignity.’ The activists got loosely inspired by Thomas Sankara, revolutionary and former president of Burkina Faso. ‘We can no longer ignore the injustices of this world. If we keep on doing so, barbarism awaits. Sankara was an example, just like Jesus’, motivates Sagnet. ‘They were revolutionaries in their own time.’
Around the same time, Milo Rau visited Matera, in full preparation for his own film about Jesus, back then vaguely defined. He had found his Jesus: Yvan Sagnet, political activist, and student, not from Nazareth but Cameroon. Jesus from Douala.
In The New gospel, we see Sagnet as a demigod wrapped in cloth, striding across the beach towards his followers. A few of them still get instructions for acting. In the background we see tourists taking selfies. In another scene, inhabitants of the region are being cast for a couple of roles. It is all integrally filmed.
That way Rau meanders between the historical story of Jesus and his own making-of. In between, he throws the reality of today’s Jesus like a soaking wet dishcloth into the faces of his spectators. The result is in itself, already revolutionary and definitely captivating.
What is for you the biggest difference between The New Gospel and The Passion of the Christ?
Yvan Sagnet: The big difference is that in this film, Jesus is a syndicalist. We adapted religion to the current reality. This reality includes the life of immigrants and the troubles of farmers in the south of Italy.
I play Jesus, the son of God, who preaches about the Bible, just like in The Passion of the Christ. But in the meantime, Jesus from The New Gospel also fights for his beliefs. This is a fight for immigrant rights, the rights of the poor and of women.
Caporalata. What is it exactly, what does it mean?
Yvan Sagnet: it is a system constructed by caporali, the intermediaries between migrants and Italian farmers. For example: if a farmer needs fifty people to harvest, the caporal will look for them.
Whoever gets recruited, gets 3.5 euro for each filled box of 300 kilos. I could fill four of these boxes in a day. Besides, everything is being charged: transportation, food, even water. After an average working day of 16 hours, you are left with less than ten euros.
Add to this that temperatures of 42 degrees are no exception and you realize that those caporali are in reality slave drivers. It’s modern slavery. The sixteenth century’s chains are replaced by psychological manipulation. People are forced into the system because of their circumstances and migrants are the easiest target.
In Italy, various levers prevent migrants in particular from emancipating themselves, and therefore they become susceptible to such forms of slavery. Racism in the first place. The caporali know and exploit this.
The system of caporalata is linked to networks of landowners, caporali, politicians and the mafia. It’s a strong system and therefore hard to negotiate with.
What about your own experiences?
Yvan Sagnet: I was a student who needed money. I got into it through the reasoning that it was a normal, regulated job, with a wage and a contract.
It soon turned out I had become a slave. When it turned out that the farmers and the caporali didn’t respect our dignity, I started to rebel. I organised strikes. I told the 1200 people who lived in our camp that we would liberate ourselves. The strike went on for two months. I got death threats during this time.
‘I want to use cinema as a tool to address the problem.’
In the meantime, caporalata is forbidden by law, but it’s still being implemented?
Yvan Sagnet: it’s indeed forbidden by law. Just like the mafia, but they too keep on existing. Like always, society needs time to completely eliminate it.
Every day, we need to fight to get rid of it. On top of that, we need to fight efficiently. Only the law is not enough. Arresting the caporali will put an end to it, there will be new ones. We need to change people’s way of thinking, their culture.
With NoCap you founded an organisation that sells slave-free products, as an alternative to the mafia-type system of the caporali.
Yvan Sagnet: NoCap of course means, No Caporalata. I founded the organisation because I understood that slavery is inherent to the system, it’s provoked by it. The supermarkets are the cause of this. If we really want to tackle the issue of exploitation, we need to focus on them. Otherwise, it will remain to muddle along in the margin.
Why supermarket chains? They buy products from the south of Italy to sell them all over the world. This is accompanied by a continuous fight for the lowest price, by which supermarkets dictate the rules of the market. ‘This year, tomatoes will cost nine cents per kilo’, is the message the farmer gets. ‘Take it or leave it.’ The pressure on the weakest link in the chain increases because the landowners want to remain part of the system. The one who cultivates the land pays the bill.
We founded NoCap in the first place so that people would ask themselves more often where a tomato comes from. Who planted it? And under which circumstances? This is called: creating awareness. In the NoCap-system every step is being controlled and everyone is properly reimbursed. This way, the consumer can make a conscious choice.
Two historical figures are widely discussed in The New Gospel. Besides Jesus, we also see Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary president of Burkina Faso who was killed in 1987.
Yvan Sagnet: Sankara fought to liberate the African people from multinationals, exploitation, neocolonialism. He wanted the right to self-determination for his people. Jesus did exactly the same. Jesus’ struggle was about helping the poor and the oppressed, people who suffered under the reign of the Roman Empire.
The use of language and the habits of both persons are very different from each other, but I see a lot of similarities when it comes to the content of their message. ‘Love thy neighbour’, did Jesus say. Sankara said: ‘respect your neighbour, do not exploit him.’ It is the same message. And not unimportantly: both were killed by the ruling class of their time.
Milo Rau had his reasons when he chose you to impersonate Jesus. We live in another time with a very different system. Are you the Jesus or rather the Sankara of our time?
Yvan Sagnet: I don’t want to compare myself to them. I’m a follower of Jesus and my frame of reference consists of people like Thomas Sankara, Karl Marx and Martin Luther King. I want to continue the work of these illustrious people, but I don’t want to compare myself to them.
We strive for a global movement with this film. It concerns all of us. I do it through the struggle, others do it by consuming consciously, by writing about it… It should be normal to refuse something that is known to involve slave labour.
Do you already see things in Italy that herald a positive change?
Yvan Sagnet: In Italy, we’ve now been working for ten years. There are small changes. Sometimes, the police arrest caporali. There is the law. The debate is going on, and I notice a growing awareness among the population. But still, a lot of work remains. The struggle continues and is waged on the political, economic, and cultural level. We have energy. We can do it.
‘We all need to be on the same side to tackle economic inequality.’
How contradictory do you think it is, that in the cultural capital of Europe of 2019 there still exists something like slavery?
Yvan Sagnet: It’s cynical. So much exploitation in a place that of all things wants to celebrate the culture of Italy. It coexists. Milo Rau saw that very well. These are the contradictions that Europe must contend with.
Poverty exists all around the world, but inherent to Europe is hypocrisy. It seems that European politicians have the reflex to hide poverty, to cover it up. People in Belgium are unaware of the existence of the caporalata because it is hardly discussed in Italy.
There are reasons for this. The system cannot exist without cheap labour. Political and economic power go hand in hand. To talk about it, to address the problem, means to undermine your position of power as a politician.
Not an actor but an activist
You’re a man of many faces: engineer, political activist, knight (Sagnet has been knighted in Italy for his work for migrants), social entrepreneur. Are you an actor too?
Yvan Sagnet: I am not an actor, I am an activist. I answered Milo’s question because I want to use cinema as a tool to address the problem.
Since when have you had this activistic reflex?
Yvan Sagnet: As long as I can remember I have had a political consciousness, but for a long time I didn’t do anything with it. My choice to study engineering science is partly motivated by the desire to help my country, Cameroon, and the African continent move forward.
Fate brought me to Italy where I discovered exploitation. I experienced it myself, and it got under my skin. It changed my life and directed me towards activism.
Do you still like football?
Yvan Sagnet: (Laughs) No. Barely. I have other things to do now.
What message would you like to give the Belgian people?
Yvan Sagnet: Whether you are Belgian, Italian or immigrant, we all need to be on the same side to tackle economic inequality. This is not evident because inequality is inherent to the system. The real problem lies with the multinationals, the rich. We must forge a coalition against that system, and that can only be done together.
People like Matteo Salvini say that migrants are the cause of this problem. That’s not right, never. Immigrants fled a war that has been started in an attempt to rob Africa of its natural resources. When they arrive in Europe, they are exploited by the same system that made them flee Africa.
The New Gospel will be online from March 31 (Wednesday before Easter) at Cinema Bij Je Thuis, Sooner and Dalton. This interview was originally published in Dutch and translated into English by Hanne van Regemortel.