Part-documentary, part-fictional reimaging of the Passion of Jesus, The New Gospel is a topical hybrid film that casts refugee, non-professional actors and Jesus is played by a social revolutionary battling against the exploitation of refugees in Italy.
It’s an ambitious hybrid that opens digitally, in cooperation with select cinemas, on December 17 at http://www.dasneueevangelium.de. Viewers can buy their online ticket and select a cinema that they would like to share the proceeds of their ticket; the cinema then receives 30 percent of the digital ticket’s price.
We spoke to Swiss multimedia artist Milo Rau, the film’s director, about how he tackled the migrant crisis, addressing the plight of those who are enslaved on the tomato fields in southern Italy, and how he created a political campaign – The Revolt of Dignity – alongside migrant workers.
Like Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mel Gibson before you in The Gospel According to St. Matthew and The Passion of the Christ, you’ve set this in the Italian city of Matera.
I was asked to participate in Matera’s European Capital of Culture celebrations in 2019, and I immediately thought I could do a Jesus film there, too. I knew about the existence of refugee camps there but I had never seen them, and I was confronted with this context of exploitation. I thought that the location was perfect in terms of iconography but also thought that there should be a transposition of the real revolt of Jesus, which was a revolt of landless people against the Roman Empire, to what is happening now. I wanted to adapt the political and social reality to the New Testament. Step by step, with the help of Yvan Sagnet, who is a political activist and labour organiser, we organised the Revolt of Dignity, which is a revolt for rights, housing, better conditions and documents, and in parallel, we shot scenes from the Gospel. The project has different layers that unite in talking about the same fight.
You’ve called The New Gospel a “utopian documentary”. What does that mean?
A documentary is usually a film that follows reality and the best could be the “fly-on-the-wall” approach, where you observe without interfering. But here, it was less a question of documenting and more about creating – creating the idea of a Black Jesus and the campaign for the rights and the dignity of the people. I mostly come from a theatre background, and in theatre, there is no reality – there’s a black box, and you create everything within that. I’m coming from that perspective, and it’s not the mix of fiction and non-fiction that is interesting for me. It’s more interesting how fiction or political engagement can become reality.
Would you say it’s a statement about the state of Europe today?
For me, it’s a very beautiful and even ironic metaphor that the European Capital of Culture last year was in the middle of the biggest economic disaster, or you could say, the true face of European economy. The system is a perfect circle – you produce cheap products in the south of Italy thanks to the slavery of people who flee Africa because of our import and export practices that destroy their own economy, and they come to us to produce it here. It’s a neo-liberal circle, and perhaps the European commission made a joke with this particular choice of city for their capital of culture.
In your film, Christ is played by Cameroonian activist Yvan Sagnet, who organised the first strike in agriculture in Italy, which led to increased labour protection laws
When I met Yvan, he struck me as a very intellectual person who is, at the same time, very humorous and sensitive. He’s a great leader and simultaneously a bit paranoid. If you would say “Sorry Yvan, I don’t follow you, I have another opinion”, then you are dead to him. He also has this side of being a crazy leader. I didn’t see why I would have an actor playing Jesus when there was this person who unifies, who also rises up against systems, and who isn’t pretending.
You held open castings for the apostles and other roles?
Yes. Activists, farm workers and normal citizens play leading roles. Some apostles were strategic choices, of course, as we wanted to include different camps and different nations. Because this is one problem of any revolt and within the refugee milieu – organisations like the Mafia play groups against one another. For example, they play the people from Sudan against the people from Cameroon or against the people from Congo. They never usually work together or collaborate. There are different groups that live in different parts of the camps, and that’s one thing our campaign does. It unites them and creates a network for one cause.
The economic violence and exploitation shows that racism lies within capitalism.”
There’s a moment when a Matera local – a white man – is auditioning for the role of a Roman soldier and he mimes a racist attack, getting lost within the role. It’s an incredibly disturbing sequence.
I made my own analysis, asking myself whether we should show that. As you say, he is lost in this moment, which shows that racism is something that is accessible for us all instinctively. It is something that you can get lost in. It’s interesting how in this audition, he levels insults at his black victim, who has “no education and no job” – it’s interesting to see how economics and the system we live in has intermixed race with the financial. From a Marxist point of view, it’s very interesting to see the structural power of racism. So, with regards to the audition, I had to include it to show the violence, to mirror the violence against refugees in our society, and how having a Black Jesus is the materialisation of racist and capitalist violence.
The film was made before this year’s rise of the BLM movement, but the film becomes a topical metaphor for this too.
In Italy, you really have the economic degradation linked to race, which is linked to state violence. And what is going on with the refugee minority in Italy right now is exactly what the Bible was describing concerning the Jewish minority during the Roman Empire. There are also many parallels to be made with Black Lives Matter, but it is important to underline that there is an economic and structural system that produces racism that goes beyond police brutality, one that is used to maintain exploitation. The economic violence and exploitation happening in the fields of Southern Europe shows that racism lies within capitalism. Because if you don’t need racism, you don’t have racism.
You’re no stranger to polemic, as your 2017 film The Congo Tribunal brought together victims and perpetrators of the Congo War, creating a global economy tribunal which stirred some controversy. Have you faced any for The New Gospel?
Of course, there has been some blowback about having a Black Jesus, and there was a quote in a right-wing Italian newspaper stating that “if Africans could walk on water, we would have big problems here in Europe.” There’s also the fact that none of the apostles are of Christian faith – some of the apostles are female and most of the apostles are Muslim. But the major scandal is the situation we describe, and what happened after the film – the impossibility of integration that many still face.
The film has gone on to have an impact in the real world. As you show at the end of the film, a consequence of the Revolt of Dignity is that the first “Houses of Dignity” were founded around Mater.
Yes, the “Houses of Dignity” are where those previously homeless can now live in dignity and self-determination. Even if one part of the film shows the miserabilism of filming the violence against refugees, I didn’t want to make the film a tool of political activism itself. I wanted it to be something that would not only document a reality but something that would, in a certain utopic way, transform reality itself.
You’re a white European addressing the situation of non-white refugees. Were you concerned about the pitfalls of a potentially colonialist gaze?
Of course, but it is included in the film. Not only about myself, but also concerning the white farm workers or unionists. For example, there is a moment in the film where a white unionist dominates Yvan, even if Yvan then gets stronger and takes control. I worked on a level of partnership with Yvan and that creation of mutual trust throughout the campaign and the script is visible the film. It is not my fight but they have used this film to strengthen their own cause, and I always kept in mind the desire of not creating more problems that weren’t there before. That’s why we said it was about real revolt, and real housing, and about making changes to make things better than before.
The New Gospel opens on December 17 at http://www.dasneueevangelium.de