Gosia Juszczak’s film, world-premiering in Sheffield’s In the World strand, tells a story both of exploitation within, and irregular migration from, the small African country of Gambia.
The irony is not lost one of the first characters we meet at the beginning of Gosja Juszczak’s Stolen Fish. “Fish for the poor is exported to feed the animals of the rich,” says a contributor at a Greenpeace conference on the fishmeal industry, for which fish are caught and processed in vast numbers on the coast of West Africa to feed industrial livestock in Europe and China.
The result is that fish populations in Gambia (and neighbouring countries such as Senegal and Mauritania) are ravaged, the local industry is decimated, locals are deprived of their primary source of protein and the marine ecosystem is severely depleted. The number of fish that 30 local boats can catch in one month equates to the amount gathered in one day within the nets of a Chinese trawler, we are told. All of which contributes to the very high rates of irregular migration from Gambia.
“The main topic, the bigger picture, was to analyse the drivers of migration from Africa to Europe, what makes people take this dangerous route,” director Juszczak told Sheffield programmer Agnès Wildenstein during an online Q&A after the world-premiere. “At the same time, I just happened by accident to meet a Gambian…where I live in Madrid, and he told me about this fishmeal industry in the Gambia, these factories, that he himself was also protesting about, [that] I had no idea about, so I kind of connected the dots and it all made sense suddenly.”
The film tells the story through the testimonies of three protagonists.
Abou, whose brother lives in Spain and whom he hasn’t seen for 15 years, beautifully illustrates his country’s topography using a stick on wet sand. Long and thin and oriented inland, the country has a very narrow coastline, which means that the local fishing industry already operates within restricted waters.
“Because Gambia is so tiny, it has a population of only 2 million people… there are only three fish meal factories, but their impact is so huge in the local population, on the environment [and] people’s livelihoods as well,” agreed director Juszczak.
Paul left Gambia a few years ago, embarking on an odyssey through eight African countries before ending up in Libya, where he was jailed for a year and a half (together with 22 prisoners in a 3-metre cell, including pregnant women, he says) before being deported back to Gambia. He tells how, as a first-born son, he felt obliged to go abroad to try and provide financially for his family.
“Paul – he fell from the sky, because apart from having this very heavy story to tell, he was just very natural in front of the camera, that was very important,” enthused Juszczak. “I have been covering migration as a journalist as well for some time now, but to be in the Gambia in the country of origin and to see it from the other side was such a discovery for me, personally, to see what people are saying, how migration is present in people’s everyday lives. Everybody talks about it, in every family there is somebody who has migrated or wants to migrate.”
The third witness is the vocal and charismatic Mariama who works in the local fish market, preparing and selling what meagre fish rations are left after the factory trawlers have, for all intents and purposes, emptied the seas.
“Mariama is a pillar of this fish industry,” said Juszczak, who further underlined that the description can apply to all the women working within it. “The fishermen catch [the fish] but the women process it, smoke it, salt it and dry it, and then they sell it. Every morning Mariama she goes to the market in Banjul the capital and then she comes back to wait for the boat [but] she never knows when the boat is going to be there because right now with the overfishing that the companies are enforcing there are less and less fish.”
The film is visually engaging as we take to the seas with the hopeful fishermen in their fantastically painted vessels. The beaches are populated by equally hopeful, bustling characters carrying baskets of produce in baskets on their heads. But we are always reminded of the malign industry that is the source of the dilemma (which is also described in a great rap song towards the end of the film). The beach may be beautiful but the huge newly-built fish processing factory is a horrendous eyesore. We also hear of a Chinese trawler that killed four local fisherman when it collided with their boat.
“The factories and the Chinese owner that came a few years ago to the region, they introduced this policy of divide and rule. They promised people jobs… they promised that they would build the roads, and readjust the roads to the port, and that they would build a market for women where they sell fish, and none of this happened,” said Juszczak, adding how potentially carcinogenic waste is being released into the sea at a depth of a mere 50 metres, as opposed to a recommended depth of one kilometre.
On a production note, Juszczak points out that the film was shot over five weeks in Gambia with a team of four (director/DOP/sound and line producer) with the help of a local journalist/fixer who helped in finding characters.