The film "Strange Fish", playing in this year's Global Migration Film Festival, tells the story of a group of fishermen in Zarzis, southern Tunisia, and how their lives have been affected by the migration which criss-crosses the waters in which they fish. InfoMigrants spoke to the film's director Giulia Bertoluzzi and one of the anonymous heroes, fisherman Chamseddine Bourassine.
Beautiful, yet discordant, music plays as "Strange Fish" opens. Out-of-focus photos of people on board ships, overcrowded, hands held up in supplication come in and out of view. A black screen cuts across the photos, with white writing: "Since the late '90s, more than 34,000 people have died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to join Europe."
Director Giulia Bertoluzzi's film focuses on the people who find these 'strange fish' -- the bodies that float up on the shores of Zarzis and other ports around the Mediterranean. Migrant deaths have become all too common-place for those who fish and work around the borders between Europe and Africa.
"On the one side, like in the song 'Strange Fruit' [a song about lynching in the American south which evokes bodies hanging from trees like 'strange fruit'; sung most famously by Billie Holiday and written by Abel Meeropol to protest American racism in 1937]; we are so used to seeing a public hanging they are no longer people, they are objects, they are not human anymore," explains Giulia Bertoluzzi.
"The same thing is happening in the Mediterranean," Bertoluzzi continues. "We are so used to seeing people crossing, and dying, in the Mediterranean, that they are almost not human anymore. So I used this title to stress the indifference [that is present] but at the same time I wanted to talk about the story of a small group of people, who were not indifferent, I mean, they couldn't be indifferent."
That small group of people is formed by the fishermen and ex-fishermen of Zarzis, in southern Tunisia, not far from the Libyan border. Bertoluzzi is a journalist and publisher and spent time in 2017 filming the fishermen, their community and families. The film she made, Strange Fish, draws the viewer in to the intimate rhythm and feelings of the fishermen at sea and on land, just as they draw in their nets after hours spent waiting and watching the miles of deep blue sea.
‘May day, may day’
A picture of a body, fully clothed, floats face up on the sea. The camera focuses and refocuses, jumps away but always comes back to the body. The sounds of a May Day distress cut through the jarring insistent string music.
"This is the story of Chamseddine Bourassine, Salaheddine Mcherek and Chamseddine Marzoug, and the fishermen of the Tunisian town of Zarzis, who have been saving thousands of lives from the sea with their own means."
"From 2002 to 2011 we were alone in the Mediterranean," explains Chamseddine Bourassine in Arabic. "Only the fishermen were there."
'Rescuing is hard'
Bourassine explains that at that time, there weren't all these NGOs and rescue boats. The task of rescuing largely fell to them. And that's difficult explains Bertoluzzi, who has been on board the private rescue ships as well as sailed with the fishermen. "Even when people are trained it is difficult to rescue people at sea," she underlines. If you have no training and only a small craft, full of the technical equipment you need to fish and make a living, the task becomes even harder.
Sometimes, she explains if people have been at sea for days "they are really desperate. And when they are desperate, they panic." Bertoluzzi recounts the time the fishermen tried to rescue a craft full of people in trouble in 2015 and one man was so desperate he fell in between the boat he was on and the rescue boat.
'A man at sea is a dead man'
"But they know better than anyone else how the sea can be," says Bertoluzzi. "You have to rescue; a man at sea is a dead man. So as fishermen and sailors, that is the most important law they can follow but [rescuing] was risky, because they constantly feared being put in jail."
Chamseddine Bourassine actually did go to jail. In September 2018 the boat he captains was filmed by a Frontex plane apparently towing a smaller boat towards Italy. A few hours later, the Italian coast guard and tax police were mobilized to intercept his vessel. He spent a month in an Italian jail and was initially charged with smuggling. His boat was confiscated for three months. The charges were later dropped and he is now free and back in Tunisia but his trial is yet to be held.
Bourassine told InfoMigrants that he had a hard time in prison. "We saw bad things in prison. They try and stop us rescuing migrants and tell us to keep our mouths shut if we see boats. But we are Muslims and we will not stop helping them. In fact, our association is supporting fishermen to be braver about rescuing migrants."
Bourassine remains undeterred even a year later. That doesn't stop them being scared when they see a boat though, says Bertoluzzi. Bourassine explains that they have had some training in rescues now and Bertoluzzi adds that they have more protocols to follow. So they know that first they have to contact the Tunisian coastguard and mostly they are asked to stay near and monitor the situation until a proper rescue ship or coastguard can come and offer professional help, she explains.
The fishermen's life is hard. They face quotas of how many days they are allowed to fish and restrictions as to where they can fish. All this has cut down their livelihoods significantly. In some cases, fishermen have sold their boats to smugglers, some have even tried to make money themselves from the exodus, according to Bertoluzzi. The fishermen in her film, on the other hand, have decided to form their own association in order to stand up against the authorities and big unions, which only represent industrial fisheries.
The solidarity between them is palpable. At one point in the film, they band together to paint banners to ban a boat chartered by right-wing groups from entering their port. At other times, they sit mending nets or hauling the nets up, a group working as one and landing thousands of sparkly silver and blue fish on to the peeling wooden decks of their boats.
Apart from fears of arrest, the fishermen also face the threat of piracy. The Libyan militias and authorities act as de facto pirates sometimes, says Bourassine. He says the Libyans and the Italian mafia are the ones smuggling migrants and making a lot of money out of it. He thinks that maybe 70-80% of the Libyan coast guards are also making money out of human trafficking and selling humans.
The fishermen, says Bertoluzzi, have a fellow feeling with everyone at sea; both the sub-Saharan Africans and fellow Tunisians who also try to cross the Mediterranean quite frequently. "Many young Tunisians want to migrate to Europe," Bourassine told InfoMigrants Arabic. "If they have no prospects and there are no developments in Tunisia. Young men find it hard to find a good job which means they can't marry. So, in order to find a solution to that problem, they tend to migrate to Europe."
Burying the dead
Chamseddine Marzoug is a former fisherman. Since an accident, he can no longer go to sea, but the sea continues to dominate his life. Now, his days are spent reclaiming land in which he can bury the bodies that continue to wash up on the shore with a regularity which is only matched with his determination to give each and every person a decent burial.
"All around this Gulf is where we find corpses," says Marzoug in soft French. "Every fisherman has been finding corpses since 2002-2003."
On the beach, his sandals pressing softly on the seaweed covered sand, he picks up a baby's shoe. "Do you see the shoes of babies and children?" Marzoug asks rhetorically. "It is horrible. Who wore this shoe? A girl or a boy?" Marzoug recalls the time on the beach when they found a child washed up, around five years old. He says the compulsion to give people a decent end is stronger than him. Even when he doesn’t want to go out, his feet somehow take him towards the beach.
Before he started campaigning, there were just family cemeteries in this area, explains the film. After a lot of work, Marzoug convinced the authorities to donate some land, on an old rubbish dump, where he began burying people. He gives each person a number, in case their relatives came back to look for them. In 2017 in just four months Marzoug buried 66 bodies. In 12 years, he has buried more than 400. "We are all human beings," he says sadly, before wiping away tears.
'You know when there are bodies, because of the smell'
"You know when there are bodies, because of the smell," confides one fisherman. "It’s unbelievable." Slowly, Marzoug takes the viewer with him in a small boat. They approach a boat graveyard just off shore. The hull of a larger wooden boat lies partially on its side. Marzoug climbs on, and the camera looks beneath deck.
"Maybe their souls are still in the boat, and they are sad," says Marzoug poetically. "That’s why you can feel the sadness, that something went wrong here." He points out how the smugglers cram people in to every inch of the boat, under the deck, on top, clinging to the sides, all in the hope they will reach Europe.
Marzoug is an old man now. His own son migrated illegally to Italy. His father only found out about it when his son rang up to tell him he had arrived safely. His father was not happy but his wife and son had tried several times to obtain a visa for him via legal means, before he gave up and caught a boat.
Bertoluzzi explains that getting a visa for many young Tunisians is almost impossible. Illegal migration seems like the only option for many. Marzoug's own wife admits that they lost thousands of dinar trying to get appointments for visas, all of which failed.
The rhythm of the sea
"I think we need to be more scared of the living than the dead," says Marzoug as he sets about building a sign for his cemetery. Giving the dead a dignified burial has become his life's work. Everything washes back up eventually, he reflects.
The fishermen set out for another few days of fishing. Bourassine says that when he is at sea, despite the dangers, many of his problems fade away. "With the sea, with my group," he smiles. His boat chugs slowly out of port.
Bourassine keeps a watchful eye as the shoreline slips away. The sea is calm here but the music becomes more agitated and the calm blue of the sea above and below cuts to footage of a rescue. Migrants are filmed jumping off an overloaded ship, or floating, orange lifejackets bobbing towards a rescue ship. Some of the rescued women sit on deck, their gold blankets rustling in the wind, as they sing a hymn quietly in the dark. Still more people are helped out of life rafts aboard the larger rescue ship. The rhythm is frenetic, the sea the black of night. The last shots show those climbing on board the German private rescue organization Jugend Rettet (Youth rescues).
In the last year since the film was shot, Bertoluzzi has kept in touch with her protagonists. She calls the Mediterranean a "cross-cultural sea" emphasizing the similarities across borders. She tells InfoMigrants that Marzoug has acquired extra funding and help for a bit more land to bury more people adequately. A proper cemetery, she says pleased.The fishermen's association is still working too, although recently under a new president. Bourassine is still determined not to be silenced. He speaks to the media so that people "know what's going on at sea." He thinks that "as long as there are wars, dictators, repression, coups etc. the immigration will not stop." He and many other fishermen, he said, are determined to keep building new ships in order to make sure that they can continue their fishing, and rescuing souls lost in the Mediterranean.