When Jonas Carpignano was looking for someone to play the part of a man who finds himself negotiating with a Romani family who had just stolen his Fiat, he looked no further than his father — or for that matter, the Amatos, who were actually responsible for the theft of the car.
“They stole our car a long time ago and my father was there when we had to get it back, so I immediately wrote that scene for him because I knew he could do it because he’s done something like it before,” Carpignano says, letting out a hearty laugh as he explained why his father, a non-professional actor, has such conviction in his cameo in the director’s enthralling second feature, “A Ciambra.”
The slight sense of incredulity that accompanies Carpignano’s sly smile as he says this suggests I’m foolish to think he’d consider any other alternative. After all, there is little in “A Ciambra” that doesn’t have some basis in reality, and it was after the Amatos unwittingly drove off with all his camera equipment that was inside his production designer’s Fiat while shooting the 2011 short “A Chjana,” making it even more important to negotiate for its return, that Carpignano first realized he had a family of movie stars in his midst.
Over the next six years, the writer/director would visit the family in Giola Tauro, a village near Calabria in Southern Italy where organized crime has kept the lights on for a community long marginalized in Italian society because of their ethnicity. Every time Carpignano would meet with the Amatos, he took detailed notes of their interactions and stories, naturally told in gregarious fashion, ultimately channeling them into a narrative around one of the youngest members of the family, Pio, who was 14 at the time of shooting “A Ciambra.” While Carpignano creates an extraordinary character study of a young man coming up in a life of crime, deciding whether to embrace the family business or attempt to pursue a life outside of it, the filmmaker also draws on the migrant crisis that swept Italy while the he was developing the story, building upon his first film “Meditarranea,” which followed the harrowing journey of African refugees seeking asylum, to ask how the Romani would welcome – or more likely, reject – a group as diminished and displaced in larger society as they are in introducing Ayiva (Koudous Seihon), an immigrant from Burkina Faso who has found a hustle in stealing TVs and electronics that Pio wants in on, being considered too young by his own family to work higher-end heists.
There’s an unbridled energy from the unmistakable authenticity Carpignano gets from having a cast that experienced most of the scenes they are reinterpreting for the screen, but there’s also distinctive verve in the director’s style of filmmaking, as restless and vivacious as Pio. Brimming with vibrant contemporary Italian pop music and having cameras constantly roving to locate the strongest point of emotion in any given scene, “A Ciambra” always feels just a heartbeat away from exploding and given the passion that Carpignano pours into every moment, those eruptions can be filled with love, danger or a mix of both for the young man at its center. But the unpredictability that makes the Amatos so electrifying as subjects also made them unusual partners to make a film with and as the film arrives on American shores, Carpignano spoke about somehow making a movie even more dramatic than the actual production of it, having to calm the nerves of rival families in Giola Tauro, placing the film on the shoulders of his young star Pio Amato and working with a cast that knew their lines better than he did, even if they never saw a script.
How did this coalesce around Pio? Did you focus on the family from the start and hone in or did you know he was your star from the beginning?
We were the first to really connect. Like you see in the film, he’s the kind of person who is very open to exploring other places and other cultures and he lives within the rules of the Ciambra, but he’s also willing to explore worlds outside of it, so he immediately gravitated toward me and that made me gravitate toward him. While I knew people tangentially, he and I were developing a serious bond while I was first ingratiating myself to people in the community and then when it came time to make a film, his parents saw the relationship that he and I had and they opened their doors to me. I got into the whole family one by one because of that.
Did you actually have a story to tell from the start or did it evolve over time as you got to know the family?
It’s definitely both. Once I had a structure, the rest of the research and screenwriting was about the textures – I always say coloring in the lines – but even the structure itself came about by knowing them, the ending of the film in particular. I was always very interested in the beginning [about] this parallel between the Gypsies and the African community [since] I see a lot of similarities there. In many ways, the African community feels like what the Gypsy community must’ve felt like when it just arrived. They’re living in barracks and tents the way gypsies lived in caravans and tents, so I wanted to look at [whether there] could be a solidarity between these two groups. And the more I got to look at that question, the more the structure became clear to me. That’s why the ending came about because if it’s a film that’s ultimately about the potential and limits of the relationships between these two – Pio and Ayiva – by being honest about that relationship and showing it through the building of the relationship, the end came to represent the closeness the communities can have, but also the point after which they can’t go.
Since this has been in the works for seven years, did the spectre of the migrant crisis actually make that relationship come to the fore or was the theme of an immigrant’s life always there?
It’s both. I’ve always been very sensitive to race issues in Italy. My mother’s African-American and me father’s Italian, so growing up in Italy, I was always very conscious of the fact that there were no other black people in our social circle. And once the immigrant wave started to come, I looked at it with a lot of interest because you could feel even from the beginning that in some way this was going to alter the social fabric of our town and of our society and I wanted to make a film and look at ways that portrayed Italy not as this monolithic Italian group, but also as a place that’s ultimately a little bit more mixed than images in mainstream media project.
So I looked at the migrant crisis with more attention because I was fascinated with the changing social demographic of Italy, and then of course, it got much bigger because it became a phenomenon that’s been covered internationally. But my interest in making a movie was never necessarily about the topic , but more about the person I got to know because I’m hesitant to start from a topic or theme and go towards the characters. I think the opposite is a lot easier or at least rings more true when you show the ramifications of what’s happening on a global scale through its effect on one single human being.
It was fascinating for me to hear that because the Amato family was illiterate, you never even had the option of giving them a script. Did the process of talking through scenes actually have benefits? And do you even create a physical script?
Yeah, there is a script and it’s very important for me to have it because of the dynamics of shooting in a place where there’s not a [traditional] structure, I have to be very careful not to lose myself in the amazing things that are happening right away. Maybe something cool or insightful will happen and I will alter course and say, “Let’s capture that,” but [I realize] that will be a detriment to the film project as a whole, so I have this script as a reminder of what’s really important for the story is that we’re trying to tell.
But of course, [the actors] can’t read it, so I normally use it as notes to remind Pio or the family of what’s happened before or after [the present scene we’re filming] on a very basic level and what they’re feeling in that moment, and the last thing that comes is what they say. Generally, because I wrote things [into the script] that they’ve said in the past, once I’ve given the parameters of what the scene is, [they play a scene as what really happened]. For example, [when Pio’s mother describes seeing an African breaking glass in the village, contemptuous of the community, saying] ”He’s just dishonored your word. Instead of bringing in the car, he wouldn’t return it himself, he’s too young and he’s coming back to brag…” – when I tell her that story of what the scene is about, she automatically ends up saying the things that I had written because those are the things that she would actually say. Then if she goes off-course a little bit, I’ll say, “It might be a little more concise if you say it like this…” because I don’t want it to take eight hours. But it’s reminding them how they feel and then normally what they say grows out of what they feel.
The reactions around the room in any big family scene are priceless. If they aren’t so prescribed, how do you cover them?
In the group scenes, I always try and put the camera where I feel like I’d be standing if I was there. And it’s always close to Pio in some way. So when we’re doing the dinner table scene, we blocked it out where we knew where everybody would be sitting. We shot over three days and every day people sat in the same places and said their lines, but we had our places where we’d be sitting if we were there. When we did that, covered the scene and saw how it worked, we saw the dynamics of it and then from there picked up pieces of it that we knew we would need to edit it. So the basic point of view was just where one would be if they were at the table and after that, it was making sense of the space.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Many. The Amato family had this thing where they realized that they were the center of attention and because of that, they could control things that were going on, so the second day of the shoot, my [assistant director] was choosing extras and the Amatos were like, “No, they can’t be in the film.” We weren’t thinking too much about it [then], so we were like, “Okay, they shouldn’t be in the film because the Amato family doesn’t want it.” That family got very, very offended, and so they just started playing music really loud in the middle of the scene with their car. And I’m like, “Alright, this is a problem. Let me just go deal with it.” And Pio’s brother, the one who gets arrested in the film, is like, “Don’t worry, I got this.” And he goes over to them with a shovel and he’s like, “Turn the fucking music off.” Which just started an epic brawl. The entire Amato clan came out. This guy’s whole family came out. They were like face-to-face, shovels were flying. People were screaming at each other and at one point, I grabbed the crew and was like, “This isn’t as crazy as it looks. This happens quite often, but please go inside.”
And it was the second day of the shoot and the crew’s a little bit like, “What the fuck is going on?” It was that moment of like in deciding to make this film, there’s a whole diplomacy that we need to implement in this place in order to survive 13 weeks. And that was a really crazy day, but also really informative because it dictated how we organized hiring people for the rest of the shoot. From that point on, we made sure we took a certain amount of people from each house and each family every day and every week.
It looked like the whole town came together for the massive funeral scene in the film.
One of the crazy dynamics in the Ciambra was jealousy amongst people who weren’t the Amato family for who got to be in the film, not because they wanted to be in the film, but very practically speaking because people were getting paid just to sit inside their houses, just as extras [because] we were never going to bring extras in. We wanted to keep it organic to the place. So when we shot the funeral scene, it was one of those few days where we were like, “Everybody’s in. And that ended up making the atmosphere very collaborative and it became one of the easiest scenes to shoot because everyone felt involved. None of the side tensions that happened in the Ciambra were present for that scene.
Dan Romer’s score for the film is amazing and while you worked with him before on “Mediterranea,” since he’s not from the region, were there any instruments or musical ideas you may have encouraged? You’ve said you were very specific about the Italian pop songs you used around the score.
What we used for the diegetic music in the film is very specific to the place where we’re shooting, so that song you suddenly hear in the tent with Africans, that’s the music I’ve heard in that tent. Even that last song you hear in the Ciambra, that’s the music I’ve heard in the Ciambra, so in that sense we try and ingrain that music in the actual world of the film and the score is more about stepping outside of it and mirroring Pio’s inner emotion through music. So we didn’t ground it necessarily in sounds and textures from the region. We ground it very much in where Pio’s head is and where his heart is, so generally I put in temp music which I think is evocative of how Pio is supposed to feel, which in many cases mirrors the rhythm of his heartbeat, and then Dan writes a score that is more cohesive. He’ll introduce instruments to me that I’ve never heard of before that recur throughout the whole thing like the dulcimer, the thing that’s ticking or some of the drones he uses are actually some drones he used in “Mediterranea” and he does a lot of work to put an overall flavor on [the music] and then marries them all together.
Having made “Mediterranea” as a first feature, did it give you more confidence in making your second?
I don’t know, man. [laughs] If directors say that, I don’t know what they’re talking about. Every time you go into it, it poses a completely different set of challenges and you can be confident — obviously I knew my way around a set and I had to do less to inspire confidence in the crew and people, but on one hand, you can be very confident in your decisions, but also making sure that you’re not so confident in your decisions that you’re not giving yourself space to be open to collaboration or other things that could enrich what you’re working on. So there’s never a moment of like, “I got this.” It’s always like, “I think I got this, but do I?” That moment of reflection I think is key to keeping movies alive.
What was the regional premiere of this like?
It was a lot of fun. It felt like a homecoming party. Everyone in the town came and was very excited for the film. But it was great because people went in seeing it not knowing about the legs it would have. Obviously, the film’s gone very far – it came out in August [in Italy] and it’s still in theaters. But no one was expecting that, so the general enthusiasm behind it wasn’t this sort of fake articulation of oh we know this is good because people say it’s good. No, people in town actually felt it. And that was the best reward – no one felt they had to cheer for the film because it had success. They cheered for it because they were actually having fun watching it.
Since this is about a traditionally marginalized community in Italy, was being selected as its representative for the Oscars especially gratifying?
“Meditteranea” didn’t even get distribution in Italy and here we are 180 degrees from that representing the country, so it’s pretty surreal that there’s been this change. To me, the goal of making these films from a cinematic point of view is always to bring certain voices to Italian cinema which had been previously underrepresented or ignored. So the fact that a film where there are very few white Italian characters is representing Italy is very important. It goes a long way towards a more diverse dialogue or representation of what it means to be Italian, if this is the film that represents Italian cinema.