Filming Rescuers at the Peak of Europe’s ‘Migration Crisis’

(by Alessio Baldini, University of Leeds)

Interview with the director Michele Cinque (file audio)

Soundbite from Iuventa (soundtrack). Courtesy of the director


On Wednesday 14 June 2023, a shipping vessel capsized and sank in the early hours of the morning off the Greek coast (Varvitsioti 2023). The boat had set off from Tobruk in eastern Libya and was sailing towards Italy. According to the survivors’ testimonies, several hundred people were traveling on the vessel with estimates ranging from 400 to 700, including 100 women and children. At the time of writing, 78 bodies have been recovered and 104 people have been rescued, while hundreds are still missing. This is one of the deadliest incidents in the Mediterranean, but it is unlikely to be the last one. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM 2023), 1,289 people have gone missing or died since the beginning of the year in the Mediterranean. Since 2014, the total number of people who have been recorded as dead or missing by the IOM is 27,047. The root cause of such tragedies has been known for years. Despite the tough approach to illegal migration from successive EU or UK governments, people have continued undeterred to embark on such dangerous journeys because there is no safe and legal route to apply for asylum in EU countries or in the UK (LSE 2021).

   Still image from Iuventa. Courtesy of the director

   To put this recent tragedy in a long-term perspective, we are publishing an interview by Rachel Johnson with the Italian film director and human rights activist Michele Cinque (Cinque 2020). This interview was recorded remotely on Monday 9 March 2020—just a few days before the UK entered its first lockdown—as part of a collaborative and interdisciplinary project entitled Challenging National and Social Imaginaries through Cinematic Art, which was led by Alessio Baldini and brought together an interdisciplinary group of Leeds University researchers, the Leeds Asylum Seekers’ Support Network (LASSN) and a local independent cinema (Hyde Park Picture House). The research project was supported by the Leeds Cultural Institute.

In this interview, Cinque talks about his experience of filming and distributing the documentary Iuventa (2018) while getting involved with the campaigning of the people whom he had filmed. The documentary tells the story of the Iuventa (‘Youth’), an old fishing boat that the German NGO Jugend Rettet (‘The Youth Rescues’) had bought through a crowdfunding campaign and turned into a Search and Rescue (SAR) vessel. Jugend Rettet was founded in 2015 by a group of young German students and activists as a response to the tragic events of ‘April’s Black Week’ (Heller and Pezzani 2016), which marked one of the most dramatic moments at the peak of the so-called Europe’s ‘migration crisis’ (Crawley et al. 2018). Between 12 and 18 April 2015 more than 1,200 people had died on their way to Europe in two shipwrecks shortly after sailing off the coast of Libya. It was the highest death toll ever registered in a single week in the Central Mediterranean, which was already thought to be the deadliest migration route in the world. These tragedies were the consequence of the termination of the SAR operation Mare Nostrum, which had been launched after another series of deadly shipwrecks and was run by the Italian Navy between October 2013 and October 2014 (Heller and Pezzani 2016).

In July 2016, the Iuventa was about to set sail from Malta when Cinque managed to join the group of young volunteers from Jugend Rettet who formed the first Iuventa crew and started filming them. In the first part of the documentary, we are on board of the Iuventa during its first SAR mission (named ‘Solidarity’) in the Central Mediterranean, which lasted for 2 weeks between July and August 2016 rescuing 1,388 people at sea (JR 2023). Then, we follow three members of the first Iuventa crew—the funder of the NGO, the ship captain, and a photographer—as they head back to Berlin, participate in a meeting held at the Jugend Rettet headquarters to discuss future plans, travel to two detention camps for refugees in Italy, and finally split each trying to go on with their lives. After a year of filming, Cinque was ready to edit the footage when the unexpected happened. On 2 August 2017, the Iuventa—which was in with a new crew for another round of SAR missions—was asked to dock the Lampedusa harbour for routine checks. In fact, the Prosecutor of Trapani Amabrogio Cartosio had ordered the boat to be impounded as a pre-emptive measure and had launched an investigation to establish whether members of the Iuventa crew were responsible for aiding and abetting illegal migration (Camilli 2017), which is a crime according to Italian law (D. Lgs n. 286/1998). The impounding of the boat Iuventa needs to be seen in the context of the attempt by the Italian authorities to limit the SAR operations carried out by NGOs in the Central Mediterranean, which followed an inquiry conducted by the Defence Commission of the Italian Senate in May 2017 (Senato della Repubblica 2017). The main argument motivating this enquiry was that the presence of NGO boats in the Central Mediterranean represented a ‘pull factor’ for smugglers and illegal migrants (Heller and Pezzani 2017). At this point, Cinque rushed in to resume filming as members of the new Iuventa crew awaited trail and Jugend Rettet prepared their defence strategy. The documentary ends by closing in on a demonstration to claim back the boat organized by Jugend Rettet in September 2017 on the streets of Berlin.

In the following years, Cinque would bring his documentary Iuventa around the globe (Iuventa 2023) merging his artistic practice with human rights campaigning, thus becoming an ‘artivist’ (Cinque 2020). In this interview, Rachel Johnson and Michele Cinque explore how art, activism, and politics intersect, and reflect on the documentary Iuventa in the context of current trends of so-called ‘migration cinema’.

On 4 March 2021, the Trapani’s Prosecutor officially pressed charges against 21 individuals and 3 NGOs for aiding and abetting illegal migration to Italy (ISS 2023). Among them, there were 10 crew members of the Iuventa. 6 out of these 10 defendants were acquitted while the remaining 4 are still facing trials. The next hearing is scheduled for 23 June 2023 (IC 2023). The accused crew members of Iuventa face hefty fines and up to 20 years in prison. The three contested episodes were reconstructed by researchers of the Forensic Oceanography and Forensic Architecture at Goldsmith, University of London (Heller and Pezzani 2017).

The boat Iuventa was destroyed while it was still in the custody of Trapani’s Port Authority (Pressenza 2023). On 12 February 2023, the crew filed a criminal complaint to the Trapani Prosecutor’s Office for negligence in custody. At the time of writing, the Iuventa crew members are still on trial. On 7 February 2023, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders (2023) and other UN experts communicated to the Italian Government their concerns over alleged due process violations and other worrying developments related to the ongoing trial of the Iuventa crew in Trapani. The Italian Government responded to the allegations on 28 April 2023.

The Iuventa case is still ongoing and migration is still one of the political issues that dominate the public debate in the UK and in Europe. We think that this interview with Michele Cinque explores pressing and important questions about the intersection between politics and cinematic art. We hope that you will enjoy listing to it.



Camilli, A. 2017. Tutte le accuse contro l’ong Jugend Rettet. Internazionale. [Online]. 8 August. [Accessed 20 June 2023]. Available from:

Cinque, M. 2020. Interview with R. Johnson. 9 March 2020, Leeds—Rome.

  1. Lgs n. 286/1998. Testo unico delle disposizioni concernenti la disciplina dell’immigrazione e norme sulla condizione dello straniero. Gazzetta Ufficiale. 191 (18 agosto 1998) (Supplemento Ordinario n. 139). [Online]. [Accessed: 20 June 2023]. Available from:

Crawley, H. et al. 2018. Unravelling Europe’s ‘Migration Crisis’: Journeys over Land and Sea. Bristol: Policy Press.

Heller, C. and Pezzani, L. 2016. Death by Rescue: The Lethal Effects of the EU’s Policies of Non-Assistance [Online]. [Accessed 20 June 2023]. Available from:

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Pressenza: International Press Agency. 2023. Iuventa ship destroyed in Italian custody: crew files criminal complaint 2023. [Online]. 19 February. [Accessed 20 June 2023]. Available from:

Senato della Repubblica. 4a Commissione Permanente (Difesa). 2017. Sul contributo dei militari italiani al controllo dei flussi migratori nel Mediterraneo e l’impatto delle attività delle organizzazioni non governative. XVII Legislatura, Seduta n. 9, 16 maggio 2017. [Online]. [Accessed: 20 June 2023]. Available from:

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders (UNSRHRD). 2023. Italy: alleged due process violations and other worrying developments related to the trial of HRDs in Trapani and the regulation of civilian search and rescue (joint communication). [Online]. 3 May. [Accessed: 20 June 2023]. Available from:

Varvitsioti, E. 2023. Anger mounts over Greek response to migrant boat before disaster. Financial Times. [Online]. 16 June. [Accessed 20 June 2023]. Available from: