“Why don’t you come around for dinner?,” Barcelona lifeguard Gerard Casals (Dani Rovira) asks his boss, Oscar Camps (Eduard Fernández), at the beginning of “Mediterráneo: The Law of the Sea.”
“I’ve got other plans,” says Camps. Cut to his sitting on his sofa, eating a warmed-up microwave dinner watching TV on his laptop.
Then Camps catches a news report featuring the horrific images of 3-year-old Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, his lifeless body lying on a Turkish beach, washed by waves, after the dingy he was in capsized.
Two days later, Oscar and Gerard are sitting on a beach in Lesbos, Greece, looking across at the hulking headlands of Turkey, just seven miles away across a strait that separates Asia from the European Union. “People are dying in the sea; we’re lifeguards,” he says. So begins Camps and Casals’ life mission, which becomes the now celebrated NGO Open Arms, an open sea migrant search and rescue mission that has saved some 60,000 lives since 2015.
Sold by Filmax, “Mediterráneo: The Law of the Sea” is a true-life origins story, how Camps and Casals encounter first opposition from locals and the Lesbos coast guards, cowed into inactivity by an E.U. diktat to dissuade Syrians fleeing from civil war in their homeland to try to make it into Europe.
It is also, however, Camps’ personal redemption tale: How a man estranged from his wife and daughter, a former alcoholic, finds his place in the world, respect and self-respect. Boasting a top-notch Spanish cast – Fernández (“Smoke & Mirrors”), Rovira (“Spanish Affair”), Anna Castillo (“The Olive Tree”), Sergi López (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), Àlex Monner (“The Invisible Line”) – “Mediterráneo” is produced by a pedigree posse of Barcelona-based companies – Lastor Media (“10,000 Km”), Fasten Films (“The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy”), Arcadia Motion Pictures (“Blancanieves”) and Cados Producciones – plus Greece’s Heretic.
Variety talked to director and storyline co-creator Marcel Barrena (“100 Meters”) after “Mediterráneo: Law of the Sea” made Spain’s three-title Oscar submission shortlist, and proved a hit at Rome’s MIA Market.
Following Oscar from his life in Barcelona to Lesbos creates a strong sense of empathy, which helps immerse the spectator in the film and feel all the more Oscar’s own sense of frustration and drive to save human lives at sea. Could you comment?
My intention was to show the birth of the heartbeat which compels people to do something great with their lives. To see the first of the steps. It’s impossible to save 60,000 lives all of a sudden. Everything began with wanting to save one. Then another. Like Oskar Schindler. How can you show you can change the world starting with small things? We can all do something, using our vocation, or our profession.
“Mediterráneo: The Law of the Sea” is in essence a family drama, about families that are separated or decimated by the sea, while others reunite, including Oscar and daughter Esther. Again, this also adds a human dimension to a global tragedy. Could you comment?
It’s the story of ruptured and reunited families. A struggle to keep our heads above water, to stay together. As families, as humankind. A parable showing we’re all equal, that we all feel the same basic things, despite our differences. Love is universal. This film is a story of love of humanity, of good people who do good things. If we understand that we all feel the same, empathy winds and labels disappear. If my family one day has to cross the sea, I hope there are no doubts in the minds of those who have to rescue them that they won’t let them die.
Oscar is the emotional axis of the film. He is also a man who hides his real feelings. In two crucial scenes – after he’s seen the Alan Kurdi news report, when everybody’s left for the airport and he’s alone in the car – you just train your camera on Eduard Fernández and let him capture Camps’ conflicting emotions…
Oscar opens up alone. He feels comfortable at sea, which is the medium that he controls, but on land he has to struggle with emotions and his errors. Like a doctor with his patients, he can get involved emotionally with the refugees but, on his own, the cracks in his heart begin to open up. These two sequences form the base of the character. The last scene was the fist that I wrote. I wanted to show his pain, his weakness, which is basically being human. A close-up of Eduard Fernández transmits highly complex worlds. He understood Oscar from the beginning. I’ve never seen an actor like him.
Could you explain your main guidelines when directing “Mediterráneo: The Law of the Sea?”
The basic instruction for cast and crew was that this wasn’t our film. We had to tell the story with the greatest realism possible, counting on more than 1,000 refugees who were not actors. That was the base for treating the subject with the maximum of dignity and respect; and the actors – Spanish, Greek, Syrian – were everything. We had to capture emotion through them, not techniques. They would give us the truth, so it was an all-in realism but, when it came to the acting, always within a framework of trying to make an open film for the public. That balance wasn’t easy.