In conversation with Jonas Carpignano

Italian-American film director, Jonas Carpignano. Credit: Diego Armando Aparicio.

This year, the ninth edition of the 28 Times Cinema jury took place during the 75th edition of the Film Festival of Venice. This initiative brings together the representatives of all 28 countries of the European Union in one jury of the section of the Giornate Degli Autori. As the Dutch representative, I took part in the three discussions that eventually determined the winner of the 2018 prize: C’est ça l’amour (2018) by Claire Burger. The discussions were led by Karel Och, one of the members of the selection committee at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and the president of the jury this year, was Jonas Carpignano (1984).

Carpignano is an acclaimed American-Italian director, whose first two feature films Mediterranea (2015) and A Ciambra (2017) won numerous prizes. Mediterranea premiered at the Cannes Film Festival’s Semaine de la Critique and received the award for the best directorial debut (the National Board of Review) and the Gotham Independent Film Award for breakthrough director. A Ciambra premiered at the Cannes Film Festival’s Quinzaine des reàlisateurs and won the Europa Cinema Label Prize for best European film. In 2018, the film was chosen to represent Italy at the Academy Awards, in the category of best foreign-language film. I interviewed him in Venice after the final debate and vote on the winner of our selection.

SM: While doing research into your films, your attitude towards cinema really reminded me of Nan Goldin and her approach to the photographic medium. Goldin mentioned in her essay The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) that she wanted to capture the meaning of the lives of the people she took pictures off, to offer them the strength and beauty that she saw in them. This way she managed to create images without glorification. Is that something that you wanted to achieve with your film A Ciambra?

JC: The idea of A Ciambra was to give a space to voices that were previously absent from the Italian cinematic landscape. Because I fundamentally believe that the image the world has of post-war Italy is something that Rossellini created with his films. He gave an image of Italy that was antifascist, that fought against the regime, a country where there was a fierce, strong resistance and social commitment. Although this was only partially true, Rossellini managed to reunite Italy through his cinema and created a particular and durable perspective, a sort of national consciousness. Cinema has the power to do that, to create a collective picture of a nation. And for me, it was really important to show some of the voices that have been missing from Italian cinema today. So with the decision to make a film about the new African immigrant population or about the Romani community, I wanted to re-examine the social and cultural landscape to show that these stories are also Italian and that these people are also Italian. They are worthy of time and space within the present cinematic medium.

That really reminds me of what you just said about the fact that through cinema you can create empathy. I was wondering, Mediterranea (2015) is a film about African refugees, and most people in the West grew up watching films that are usually an example of Western culture. Therefore, your film is confronted with an audience whose taste has been developed by Western cinema. How do you deal with that in your film?

Well, that is ultimately the challenge, isn’t it? To give an example, there is this very famous writer called Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian author. When he wrote his first novel – which was the first novel about that part of Nigeria – he wrote it in English. Everyone thought that that was quite controversial, you know: ‘Here you are trying to empower this group, this world, but you are writing in the language of the colonizers.’ That is obviously a very complex moral situation. In an ideal world, he could have written the book in his language, but that would have limited his audience. In some way or another, he wanted to enter the cultural collective memory and he needed to use, or adapt, the English language in order to do so. Now, I am not going to compare myself to Chinua Achebe, but I want, like him, to help shed the colonizers’ moral viewpoint and their ideological compass. And I can try to do so by using the available tools including the cinematic medium. And while I try to push the limit in some way and to experiment, ultimately, the films are confined to more traditional cinematic languages and tropes. I try to push against them as much as possible, but I am also adapting them because I want the film to be accessible. What is important to me is not so much changing the language, but changing the viewpoint. It’s not always easy. For example, in A Ciambra the gypsies are stealing. And if you look at that with your moral and ideological compass, obviously you are going to judge them negatively for what they do. But the film tries not to do that. The film simply tries to say: They do this because of necessity, and they are following a pattern in their lives as it has been passed down from generation to generation. I am not trying to say that all gypsies steal, I am showing a family that is engaging in this activity and I am trying to convey that we should not to judge them with our fixed moral compass. Because they have lived in different circumstances which have changed the way in which they relate to their community and their surroundings.

Yes, I think that eventually, your films try to show the audience that you can develop empathy for a group of people you might not know anything about or whose lifestyle you find questionable. To come back to Chinua Achebe and his use of language, that reminded me of the Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène. In his first short film Borom Sarret (1963), he imposed the colonialist (French) language on the Senegalese people. And when he showed it around the country, the reactions were rather negative because of that. I remember Haile Gerima mentioning that – during a Q&A after the screening of Harvest: 3000 Years (1976) at IFFR this year: ‘Banishing the African language is banishing the story’.

Well, there are a lot of young African filmmakers, at the moment, who say the same thing. And I do understand what they are talking about. But in order to arrive at a place where a different culture can reinvent the language and reinvent the rules, it is necessary to give more exposure and have more faith in those filmmakers. I believe that there are undiscovered filmmakers, in Africa and in other parts of the world, who can truly reinvent what cinema is. Partly it’s a matter of available resources and partly it’s the work of filmmakers like Ousmane Sembène, who was a great master of cinema and who was able to take on the system from the inside. By making films that were in some way palatable to a European audience, Sembène was opening doors for the next generation of young filmmakers from Senegal who will hopefully be able to experiment and take more risks. Unfortunately, history moves forward very slowly and we need some people to open the doors before the next people can break down the barriers.

Did you see Timbuktu (2014) by Abderrahmane Sissako?

Yes, I love Timbuktu. I love Sissako in general, I have seen all of his films.

In connection to Timbuktu, we hear about terrorism, refugees, and fundamentalists every day nowadays. Social media plays a major role in that respect and created a platform for it. In Timbuktu, the terrorists are enslaved to their mobile devices and they themselves make use of film and photography to proclaim their own truth. They use film as a weapon as well as we do. Showing that social media and film work both ways. What is your opinion on that?

Yes, we spoke about this the other day, this idea of cinema as a political or ideological weapon. I believe filmmakers are collaborators by nature and can create a sense of community. It is a fight to get your vision out there and it is always a struggle to make films and a battle to fight for what you believe. The film community consistently grows, and we can create something that in its own way can be an effective tool. Everyone is going to use cinema the way they want to and I would never want to restrict anyone’s ability to say what they want to say using this medium. However, I do think that some of these overtly politicized messages and content that circulate in cinema, speak to their own audience, but at the same time alienate others. I have a lot of faith in the viewer and, especially after spending all this time with all of you here in Venice. I have a lot of faith in how people relate and engage in dialogue with what they see on the screen. And, when things are overtly political, people know that the medium is being used to manipulate them, and they can discern it and ignore it or reject it. A less overtly political way of making use of cinema is to break down distances between people. One of the great advances made possible by media is the breakdown of the distinction between public and the private spheres. People have more access to each other, and we can use cinema not simply to teach but to reduce the distance. That sense of living with another culture, of living with another person for a long period of time, could create mutual understanding and mutual empathy. I have never really wanted to put my films in a social-political context. To me, filmmaking has always been about presenting a character, even a single person, to a public. And hopefully, if you can create a relationship or understanding or legume forte (a strong connection), it will change how one views people in general. Hopefully.

Perhaps that is what you see in Europe and the rest of the world at the moment, either already existing divisions or newly emerging divisions, and people who refuse to talk to one another because they do not hold the same opinion.

You know, we made A Ciambra in the small town Gioia Tauro, where I live. Progress is never fast, it’s always made of slow steps. Gioia Tauro was always left to its own. People never really wanted to go down there, and I think that one of the things that surprised people was that I was willing to spend so much time there. Not as a filmmaker, but as a person. I made friends there before I wanted to make a film. And when we eventually made this film, we screened it all over town. We just closed the last edition of our film festival, and every year we have the closing party in the Ciambra (the gypsy community where A Ciambra was filmed). And this year there were over 350 people. It wasn’t a mediated event, it was people dancing and having fun. But the fact that people felt that they could go to the Ciambra, and felt welcomed there, is partially due to the fact that they have increasingly been exposed, through the film and the festival, to what life is like in the Ciambra. This proximity has definitely helped shape the image and the reputation of people down there, and it has also created a great understanding. People are not afraid to go down to the Ciambra anymore. The opposite has happened as well, obviously, where people see the film and it confirms what they have always thought: ‘That’s exactly what they’re like, you see!’. If that is what you take away from watching this film, that is fine. But if it opens doors for you to delve deeper in that world, that is a success to me.

How did you manage to create such a space and atmosphere?

It is a small town and there is a lot of good will. Not many films have been made in Gioia Tauro, and the few that have been made there, are made by people who come in, shoot a film, make a mess and then leave. I never did that, because I moved down there, made a short film and then stayed down there, before making a feature film. I think the town knows that I am not just there because I want to make use of the town for its cultural significance, but because I am invested in the town and I like living there. That has given us the kind of sustained support from that we need to continue to organize events, like our film festival.

Was there a link between how people reacted to your films and the state of the debate around the refugee crisis at the time?

Well, the refugee crisis has been a very big issue in Italy for a very long time and in general, racial relations have always been a very sensitive issue in Italy. You know, my mother is African-American and my father is Italian. So I have always been very conscious and sensitive about racial dynamics in Italy. So for me, it wasn’t a new subject to explore and it was something I always wanted to explore. It just so happened that when I was actually able to make Mediterranea, we were in the height of the refugee crisis in Italy. The day the film came out, during the Critics week in Cannes, there was a headline about a couple of thousand people dying off the coast of Malta, I believe. The topicality of the subject matter gave the film a visibility that it might not have had otherwise. That said, I didn’t make the film because of its topicality. I have been following that topic my entire life, and when I tried to make the film, and we first got together to shoot it, it took four years before it actually came out. So it was never intentional and we never tried to ride that wave of topicality, it just happened.

How was it to be the president of the jury? Did you find it difficult to have so much influence on the jury? How to phrase your words?

I don’t think it was difficult, as I had a great time. This group is great and I truly learned a lot and had fun listening to everyone’s opinion. The hardest part, when you’re sitting there discussing films, is to avoid coming across as negative. I have been around in the film world for such a long time and therefore I have strong opinions, but to me, it was important that everyone was not thinking of me as the president. I didn’t want to dominate, influence or manipulate conversations. Because everyone had very strong opinions, it should just be enough to express your opinion and let everyone else absorb it. The winner, C’est ça l’amour, is not a film that is going to tear up the box office, or is going to be seen everywhere. Us giving it a push is important and valid because this kind of film can really benefit from the extra attention.

This Interviews article was published in December 2018