28 Oct International Law and Popular Culture Symposium: A Micronation on the Big Screen – Using Cinema in Class for Teaching International Law
[C. Ignacio de Casas is an Adjunct Professor of Public International Law and the Executive Director of the Human Rights Program at the Faculty of Law of Universidad Austral.]
I have a state, and I’m going with you as my lawyer. International law is your field. I’m offering you the adventure of a lifetime: to save an independent state. Will you come?
With that line, the young and idealist engineer Giorgio Rosa tries to convince his ex-girlfriend Gabriella to help him save his creation, an artificial island built right outside Italian territorial waters, where he had declared the independent Republic of Rose Island. And even if he failed to embark her in the adventure at that moment, he certainly got the attention and sympathy of us, international law lovers. (Despite having expressed, a bit earlier and in frustration, how “bloody useless international law” was, during a discussion with the transit police!)
Giorgio, the engineer, and Gabriella, the international law associate, are the main characters in Netflix’s Italian comedy L’incredibile storia dell’Isola delle Rose, based on the true story of that micronation. The film begins in Strasbourg in November 1968, when Giorgio goes to the Council of Europe, a forum that would resolve disputes between states, to present his case. There he explains the conflict he is already involved in with the Italian government, so we the watchers go over the previous events in flashback.
As an international lawyer myself, I couldn’t help but see the large amount of legal issues the film touches on, and decided that it would be a good idea to use it in the Public International Law courses I teach. The homework is easy: to watch the film on the famous streaming platform before class, and then discuss it collectively when we meet.
International Law Issues Treated in the Rose Island Movie
The starting point is to ask your students how many international law related issues they were able to identify. Spoiler alert: in the next few paragraphs you will be subject to a thorough enumeration of many passages of the film. The aim is to give you some ideas of what you will find in the movie and how you could use it to spark the students’ attention and raise many discussions that will enhance your teaching.
Gabriella, for starters, is an aspiring international law professor. We watch her giving a lecture at the historic University of Bologna. She’s talking about the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, positive and natural law, and the underlying discussion on whether to prioritize what is right over the law. So the movie showcases not only International Criminal Law, but also some classic jurisprudence.
Giorgio crashes her class, and the discussion that follows is probably when he first conceives the idea of building a world of his own. A couple of months later, he starts the construction of an artificial island off the coast of Rimini, a beachside town. And he has it all sorted out: he situates the construction exactly beyond the 6 miles line off the coast. “From this point on, we are outside territorial waters. We’re no longer in Italy, Maurizio. We’re in international waters. No one’s in charge here!” Law of the sea themes galore: maritime zones, their limits back in 1968 and now after UNCLOS, the application of the Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone of 1958 (ratified by Italy in 1964), the regime of the high seas, and the nature and status of artificial islands (for he thought of a sand island but found it technically impossible so he finally made it of steel).
—Can you imagine? Our own island, where we can do what the hell we want. Where we can live by our own rules. That’s why Giorgio and his friend Maurizio build the structure, with the help of under or even unpaid workers, which makes you think of their labour rights under Italian law, as well as the extraterritoriality of the human rights obligations of Italy.
A lighthearted dialogue takes place during the construction when an Italian coast guard ship approaches the unidentified island and requires them to immediately cease the activity of radio transmission. The coastguards were suspicious that both friends had installed an antenna, so even though the structure was outside Italian territory, they were concerned about the potential illegal occupation of public airwaves. The interchange can’t be more candid:
—Why are you in the middle of the sea?
—Well, because… To create an independent state.
—An independent state with or without radio?
—Without radio! A state without radio.
—Perfect. Thanks for your cooperation. Have a nice day!
Another element of the film that may be analyzed by students is whether the so-called Republic of Rose Island (at this point you may have realized that the name comes from the surname of its creator) complies with all the elements required to be considered a sovereign state according to international law. Let’s take, for reference, the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States (1933), that declares that a “State as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: a) a permanent population; b) a defined territory; c) government; and d) capacity to enter into relations with the other States.” Rose Island only has one permanent resident (a castaway), and one stateless person (a German deserter) who becomes the holder of the Republic’s first issued passport. However, when the island becomes popular, they start receiving thousands of letters of application for citizenship, which leads to the analysis of nationality and the renunciation to it, and the jus soli rule (for one of the members of the project is pregnant and they want her to give birth in the island). With regard to the requirement of having a defined territory, the question is whether international law can recognize an island as such when it is not a “naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water”. As per the government, Giorgio, Maurizio, the castaway, the deserter, and the expecting-mother, become the President and his cabinet, respectively. They also adopt a flag and a language (Esperanto), issue stamps, and have their own legal order (or mostly the lack thereof).
According to the declarative theory of statehood, as explicitly stated by Article 3 of the Montevideo Convention, “the political existence of the state is independent of recognition by the other states.” Certainly the Italian government (and the Holy See) refuses to recognize the island as a sovereign state. Yet our friends seek recognition, and they ask for it from the United Nations and the Council of Europe. And here’s where the government gets pissed off and we watch the Minister of Internal Affairs in action declaring to the press that “They may be in international waters, but they are Italian citizens, and their safety is our main concern.”
A momentous conversation takes place when Giorgio Rosa and the Minister talk on the phone. The latter tells Giorgio that he also created a country, for he was one of the members of the Constituent Assembly that drafted the Constitution of the Italian Republic, so they both are founding fathers. But the difference between his own 40 million people nation and the tiny island is that Italy has an arsenal that can blow up the island to pieces. When discussing this in class my students said this bit reminded them of the Melian Dialogue: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War).
The thrilling part of the film that follows gives us lots of other issues to consider, both of JAB and JIB: the use of force and its threat, war powers, rules of engagement, prisoners of war, and, as the film comes to an end, we witness the one and only invasion committed by the Italian Republic.
I could go on mentioning plenty of scenes and dialogues that raise issues for discussion, such as when a new government takes office in Italy (and wonder about recognition of governments, and if it is due when there is a constitutional transition); the bizarre dialogue between the Italian president and the cardinal Secretary of State at the Vatican City (which leads to the consideration of matters such as public morals, common good, equality, may be jus cogens), and many more.
Finally, I think that the class discussion could explore what students think about an assumed tension in the film: that (international) law can be repressive when it tries to control all aspects of life, however idiosyncratic they may be, versus whether (international) law can leave gaps in the regulation of those aspects.
Why are Movies Useful for Teaching International Law?
This movie has loveable characters as well as a fantastic soundtrack, and the script combines witty dialogues with humor —unlike any international law textbook that I am aware of. As Marshall McLuhan first put it in a pioneering study, The Gutemberg Galaxy, new technologies extend our senses outside us into the social world. “It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And (…) what had been vague or opaque will become translucent.” McLuhan (who coined the expression “the medium is the message”) argued that new technologies exert a gravitational effect on cognition. Using different media (other than texts and speech) to explain or approach the law certainly has an impact on the way our students approach the knowledge we are trying to convey.
Jerome Bruner, a psychologist who made significant contributions to human cognitive psychology and cognitive learning theory, argues that there are two forms of thinking: the paradigmatic and the narrative. The former is the method of the sciences and is based upon classification and categorisation. It is the approach adopted by many master classes, and many scholarly articles and textbooks. In contrast, the alternative narrative approach, explains Bruner, organises everyday interpretations of the world in storied form (Actual minds, possible worlds). The use of a story to transmit ideas (and in no traditional format, but on film) gives the learners more information, while withholding some of the answers, which they have to seek and think by themselves. Stories provide “possible worlds”, in Bruner’s terms. And the more perspectives/views you hold in your imagination, the more ways of understanding and solving problems you will have. More possible worlds would allow students to exercise prudence, like a laboratory of law, in the style of the case method. In fact, a great sociologist, Howard S. Becker, argues (in What About Mozart? What About Murder?: Reasoning From Cases) that imaginary cases allow us to describe in detail the fundamental characteristics of a given reality, even if it has not actually happened, allowing us to better understand society based on “what could happen”. Let alone the case of Rose Island, that actually happened!
Was using cinema in class for teaching international law any good? In my experience it was useful, and fun. And I want to believe that some of the lessons (or better, the ideas) learnt will be more lasting than if delivered in a more traditional form. As Giorgio Rosa would say: “You have to take risks if you want to try and change the world.”