Stolen Fish examines the devastating impact of overfishing in The Gambia. In this smallest country of continental Africa, fish are being caught and powdered by Chinese corporations before being exported to Europe and China to feed animals in industrial farming.
This powerful documentary, which saw its world premier at 2020's Sheffield Doc/Fest, follows three Gambians - Abou, Mariama and Paul - who each share intimate stories of their daily struggle to survive and their frustration that the fish that has long been central to their lives (for work and for food) is rapidly disappearing.
For many in The Gambia, their only hope is to migrate to Europe. However, this involves taking “the backway” - an extremely dangerous journey with, as we know all too well, a precarious destination.
Combining these moving stories with beautiful cinematography, Gosia Juszczak’s compelling film raises awareness of this urgent and important issue.
I was lucky enough to talk to Gosia, who also produced the documentary, about the making of Stolen Fish.
What inspired you to make Stolen Fish?
It was like the universe brought me to this topic. For a long time I have been involved in raising awareness about migration. I have written articles and created video pieces about this issue - focusing on Spain’s southern EU border, near where I live.
Many migrants come from West Africa - from Senegal and The Gambia - to Madrid. To earn a living, they sell merchandise on the street. They are called manteros. These migrants often come under pressure from the police. For example, three years ago a Senegalese street vendor, Mame Mbaye, was chased by police and, as a result, tragically died of a heart attack.
This incident sparked protests on the streets. There is a growing movement to support manteros because they have to work this way. The Spanish system will not let them work legally - even though many have lived in the country for years.
Meanwhile, Minority Rights Group International (the executive producer of Stolen Fish) asked me to make a film examining the drivers of migration from West Africa to Europe. There are many reasons, of course. However, some are not so well known.
At the same time, by pure accident, I met a Gambian in Spain through a friend. He told me about the fishmeal factories in The Gambia and explained that there are certain mechanisms in the country that make people's lives unsustainable.
All these connecting factors came together and led to the creation of Stolen Fish.
Why did you decide to make a short film?
That was the funding requirement from the producers. They felt that a thirty minute film would be easier to watch all over the world.
Now, having immersed myself in the topic, I think that the film could have been longer. However, at the start - as is often the case with documentaries - I had no idea how the story was going to take shape. Also, sometimes less is more, so maybe this was a good decision after all.
It felt like the perfect length to me. Stolen Fish includes more insight and emotional depth in thirty minutes than many films do in two hours…
The film was really created during the editing process. I had a wonderful editor called Adriana F. Castellanos. She did an amazing job in structuring the film. It was a lot of work to pick the right pieces.
In the end, we had this feeling that all the right pieces were there so that the viewer can both understand the issue and connect emotionally to the protagonists.
What was it like being on location shooting Stolen Fish?
It was really important for me to talk to people in The Gambia and understand what migration means to them. It was very interesting to see migration from the other side - looking at the people who want to migrate.
People there talk about migration all the time. Many people want to migrate and almost everyone has someone in their family who has migrated. It seems as if people are better off if they have a migrant in the family who can send some money back. It makes a real difference and it is worth noting that remittances make up as much as 20 percent of the country's GDP.
How did you choose your protagonists?
We found the film’s protagonists in a variety of different ways. One was introduced to us by a friend of mine in Spain and the other two we found via our fixer, Mustapha Manneh, who was an important member of our team.
There were many people that we talked to along the way that I thought could be potential protagonists. As a documentary director, you obviously need to have your script but you know that this script is only hypothetical because you have to see what the relationship will be like and there are so many different factors to consider.
Ultimately, you just have to feel that the person is right. The people who appear in the film are the ones who really wanted to tell their story to the world.
For example, with Abou Saine you can feel that he is really angry at the Chinese factory owners. Meanwhile, Paul John Kamony has had a very traumatic experience that I felt he wanted to share. He was such a natural protagonist - you want to follow his story and find out about his experiences.
It was also important for me to include a woman in the film. Mariama Jatta is a powerful woman. She knows what she is doing and she is very strong. Women are an important part of the fish industry in The Gambia. The women process and sell the fish. They work very hard while raising their families at the same time - as happens in many other parts of the world.
How did you build relationships with Abou, Paul and Mariama?
We tried to first build trust - this is an obvious step in documentaries - crucial if you want people to share personal stories with you. Initially, we just spent time with people. We watched them and drank coffee and ate with them - learning some basic Mandinka and Wolof along the way.
During our first two weeks in The Gambia, we didn’t take the camera out anywhere. We just spent hours in the fishing port with the villagers and visited people’s houses. We talked to people and gathered information.
After establishing these relationships, it wasn’t difficult to encourage people to tell their stories. They wanted to share them because they want this topic to be known all over the world.
The interview with Paul was the one that I was most anxious about because his experience is so traumatic and I didn’t want to go too far. However, he was really open about it and I also realised that you don’t really need the details. From what he describes in the film, you can imagine the rest.
Have you kept in touch with Abou, Paul and Mariama?
We have kept in contact via social media and we talk occasionally. Mariama doesn’t speak English so we talk through mutual Gambian friends and Mustapha can translate for us. They know that the film is out there.
Did you try to talk to the Chinese owners of the fishmeal factories?
The factories do not want anyone to film them. The Chinese owners get very angry when they see anyone filming. They are also not willing to give any interviews.
We tried to talk to all three factories that are in The Gambia and none of the owners would talk to us. They either said no straight away or they said that the factory boss was “out of the country”.
What do you hope that audiences will take away from Stolen Fish?
Stolen Fish brings together a few topics - migration, fair trade consumption and neocolonial power relations.
I hope to raise more awareness of the consumption habits in Europe and the global chain of supply. We need to start checking where our meat and fish has come from. How has it been produced?
It is good to be aware that a product may be inexpensive but, along the way, someone else is really paying for it - eating cheap meat can mean taking food out of somebody else’s mouth.
The problem is that the trajectory of fishmeal is obscure. Compassion In World Farming - who co-financed the film - has written a report about this called Until the Seas Run Dry. They are trying to establish those links so that we can know exactly what company is importing fishmeal from which region.
Meanwhile, I hope that after seeing Stolen Fish audiences will look at migrants in a different way. I hope that they will keep in mind that each migrant is a person who has a life story and a family to feed.
Stolen Fish is very cinematic. There is a particularly breathtaking sequence at the end of the film where your camera follows a man as he runs up the beach with a large container of fish. Can you tell me more about how this shot came about?
When you get to Gunjur Port and see the factory on the beach, you realise that it is not a particularly impressive building. However, what impacts you is the movement. There are people selling, people buying, boats coming in, boats going out and women carrying the fish.
Then you see these people running up to the factory and back into the water. It is very impressive. These box runners are paid by the box. They do not earn very much but the more boxes they deliver, the more money they will be paid.
They are given no personal protective equipment, contracts or social security by the factories. Many are migrants from other African countries who are not even aware of the long term effects of these factories operating on Gambian soil. They have more important things to worry about - how to survive day to day.
We filmed this shot a few days before leaving The Gambia. We waited until people recognised us, trusted us and felt comfortable with us being there. It wasn’t easy and I wasn’t sure until the last moment if we could film the shot. No one thought we would be able to capture this moment.
I stayed out of the way as I wanted to limit the crew to the minimum. It was just our cinematographer, Filip Drozdz, and our sound engineer, Igor Klaczynski, running up the beach after the man. I was really happy with the result.
What projects are you working on next?
For now, I am really busy promoting Stolen Fish. Then I think I will need some vacation time! However, I definitely want to be involved in more projects of this type. I am sure that my next project is going to revolve around social issues, social justice or migration. This is what drives me.
I would like to thank Gosia for making such a powerful film and for being so generous with her time. Stolen Fish is one of my favourite documetary shorts from 2020's Sheffield Doc/Fest.