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Italian drama 'Io Capitano' depicts African migrants' harrowing journey to Europe

Seydou Sarr, from left, director Matteo Garrone and Moustapha Fall pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'lo capitano' during the 80th edition of the Venice Fi   -  
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Vianney Le Caer/Invision


Gustavo Zerbino and Mamadou Kouassi have two major things in common.

They both survived horrifying ordeals -- one endured 72 days in the frozen Andes by eating human flesh after an infamous plane crash; the other suffered brutal imprisonment, extortion and slavery on the African migrant trail to Europe.

And they are both the inspiration for major new films playing at Hollywood's AFI Fest this week, ahead of their submission for next year's Oscars.

Zerbino drew an extended standing ovation in Los Angeles following a screening of "Society of the Snow," Spain's official entry for the Academy Awards, which will stream on Netflix in January.

"This movie lets you contact with the deep part of your soul, and feel exactly the spirit we had in the mountains," said an emotional Zerbino.

The film portrays the "Miracle of the Andes," when a plane carrying an amateur Uruguayan rugby team and their family members crashed on the way to Chile in October 1972.

Thirty-three of the 45 on board survived the initial impact, but only 16 were left after a ten-week ordeal on an Andean glacier without food, shelter, or even warm clothes in -22 degrees Fahrenheit (-30 Celsius) weather, at an altitude of some 12,000 feet (3,600 meters).

The survivors had to resort to eating the flesh of their dead comrades to stay alive.

It has previously been dramatized, most famously in the 1993 US film "Alive," starring Ethan Hawke.

But the new version, from director J.A. Bayona, recounts the story in Spanish using local actors, and places the emphasis equally on those who died and those who survived.

"In the Andes, we needed to build a caring society. When all the things belonged to everyone, and the only goal was to survive," said Zerbino.

"We did not fight each other, because we were fighting death," he told AFP after the screening.

- Slavery in Libya -

"Io Capitano," Italy's official entry for best international film at the Oscars in March and due in US theaters early next year, had its North American premiere Saturday.

Director Matteo Garrone, best known for mafia drama "Gomorrah," tells the harrowing story of African migrants before they have even reached the perilous Mediterranean crossings that occupy most Western headlines.

His script combines the real-life ordeals of three migrants including Kouassi, who trekked across the Sahara from Ivory Coast around 18 years ago.

"We spent about one month [going] through the desert. You can see people dying in front of you, children dying because of a lack of water. And you cannot help," he told AFP before the screening.

Even when they reached Libya -- a major transit country and crossing point for migrants -- their ordeal was far from over.

"We Black people, they used to catch us and put us in prison," he said.

Once behind bars, "they asked you to call one of your family or relatives to bring money to pay for your freedom. At that time I didn't have anybody."

The film portrays graphic scenes of torture, and Kouassi recalls fellow inmates "killed in the prison, in the cells."

He escaped only after being sold "like a slave" to a local who needed workers to complete masonry work on his property, and eventually freed him.

- 'Love, friendship, solidarity' -

Despite the trauma of reliving their ordeals, both men are helping to promote their films, and expressed hope that audiences will take away important messages.

For Zerbino, his story is "not a tragedy, [though] it has a lot of tragedy; it is not a miracle, [though] it has a lot of miracles."

Instead, "this is a story of love, friendship, solidarity... a very important message in this difficult moment that the whole world is facing."

Kouassi hopes that his film can help "people understand what we faced before we arrived in Europe," and even lead to a loosening of the travel restrictions on people from poorer countries that force them to risk their lives with illegal crossings in the first place.

"It is a complete disaster," he said.

"This film has very powerful information to spread all over the world."

AFI Fest runs until Sunday.