The rising filmmaker Jonas Carpignano discusses the heavy burden of being the torchbearer for modern Italian neorealism, his cinematic championing of Mezzogiorno, and gaining the trust of the Romani community in Gioia Tauro.
Gaining a critical following right out of the gate can be overwhelming. It certainly isn’t made for everyone–no matter how much talent there is to mine and showcase to critics and the public. From the stress of continually living up to expectations to the self-doubt that undeniably begins shadowing much of your subsequent work, finding appraisal on your first project can be a curse just as much as it is a triumph. There are few individuals who find that they can hold up that gargantuan weight on their shoulders, overcoming all the newfound tribulations to continue to exhibit art that is not only high in quality but, most importantly, honest to themselves and their artistic inclinations.
Jonas Carpignano is one such artist, having come onto the arthouse circuit with force with his short films A Chjána and A Ciambra, which he followed with his feature debut, the Cannes-favorite Mediterranea. All three focus on fringe individuals who occupy Gioia Tauro, a small coastal town in Calabria, a state in Southern Italy. The Mezzogiorno has seldom been cinematically explored in mainstay Italian cinema, with films like outsider-based A Bigger Splash and Naples-set Gomorrah forced to stand in for a region that is much larger than Sicily and Naples. Carpignano steps away from these largely represented cities to explore a different side of Southern Italy, settling instead on the tiny town of Gioia Tauro, a town of a mere 20,000 people. Here, Carpignano has found his muse, using the town as a means of exploring larger-than-life issues that occupy everyone’s life, regardless of locale.
In his ten years in the town, Carpignano has found no reason to leave, having moved and lived in Gioia Tauro ever since his first film. Continuing in the same vein, Carpignano has once again offered another facet of life in Gioia Tauro, this time from the perspective of the oft-overlooked Romani community with his newest feature A Ciambra (which shares the title with his second short film), Italy’s official submission to the this year’s Academy Awards. Carpignano has stepped in to examine this oft-overlooked slice of Italian life to showcase a much larger humanistic portrait that is seldom investigated in such a spellbinding and heartrending fashion. The Knockturnal had the opportunity to chat with Carpignano about his time working on his newest film, settling in with the locals of Gioia Tauro, and building on the diegetic world that he began five years ago with his first film, A Chjàna. Check out what he had to say below.
I was pleasantly surprised to see you continue this journey in A Ciambra that you started with Mediterranea and you even started before that with your eponymous short film. Now it seems like you’ve become this sort of unofficial torchbearer for modern Italian neo-realism or some sort of re-imagination of it. How do you feel about that moniker?
Jonas Carpignano: I understand where the similarities come. It’s definitely too heavy of a torch for me to carry. You know what I mean? The weight of that tradition is a lot. It’s been a lot in my life. It’s something that I’ve grown up with and loved my whole life. I’m obviously flattered and honored that people would use these terms to describe the films that we’re making. But, it’s definitely not necessarily a conscious thing. I didn’t set out to say, “okay, the goal here is to keep neo-realism going.” I think that I always wanted to tell certain people’s stories. Maybe it was always to bring different voices, different faces, different bodies, different expressions to cinema. The language that came most natural to me through osmosis was this sort of neo-realist “real” cinema—cinema del reale, is what we call in it in Italy. You know that’s a real language because I think it corresponds well with the subject matter. I think it’s using the right kind of center and the right grammar for the story we’re trying to tell and it just happens to line up.
We’re there any processes that you altered between Mediterranea and A Ciambra?
Carpignano: I think on the surface it all looked very similar, but I think we had to work with many more people in A Ciambra. It’s more of an ensemble in the sense that there are many scenes of multiple people whereas in Mediterranea that’s much more limited to the story of these two guys. We had to develop a new approach like working with a family in their space. You know in Mediterranea we sort of went to a lot of spaces and because of the way things happen in that town, camps are always moving. We often have to go with the new spaces that were similar to old ones, but it was sort of like more like going to work on a day to day basis. A Ciambra was more like a live-in film. The whole thing was kind of like a fever dream. There was a blurred line between when we were working and when we were preparing and when we were just hanging out there. So that was certainly a big difference. It made the shoot much longer but, I also think it helped keep everyone at ease.
When you were making Mediterranea did you already have in mind that A Ciambra would be your next project?
Carpignano: I did, because you know luckily as you mentioned before, I was able to make A Ciambra, the short film, before Mediterranea. So, A Ciambra the short film was a film I made when I couldn’t find money to make Mediterranea. You know like it wasn’t happening. I was there forever and I was like I should make something new and I made that short film and the second I made that short film I was immediately like, “Okay, I’m really into Pio. I love his story.” Which is something I haven’t seen in a giant cinema. I think that he has that gravity—that weight—to hold a film. So the ideas already started blooming in my head. Then I made Mediterranea knowing that I would always go back and make A Ciambra right after that.
Right, so you always saw Pio Amato as a character that you wanted to explore further even before Ayiva. You always knew that you always wanted to return to Pio Amato.
Carpignano: Yes, it was always about returning to Pio right after Mediterranea. I mean the Aviya character was conceived of first because I moved in with Koudous as soon as I began living in Calabria. So, you know that was always going to be the first feature which we made a short of before that was called A Chjána. So it was all very confusing but they have rolled into each other and in that same way you know I’m rolling into the third feature the same way. It’s just another person that I met in that town. This young girl was deciding if she wanted to stay or leave Calabria and her family was very much going to be the center of the next film that I make. So it’s sort of like this ongoing process of meeting people being interested and seeing that it shifts well together in this mosaic—a glance of Italy.
In that vein, could you tell us some more about your next upcoming project?
Carpignano: Yeah, it’s about this young girl whose father decides to go away for work reasons and she’s left with this choice of “do I want to go and explore what’s happening in other places?” Do I want to be a part of what my father is a part of?” or “do I want to sort of come into the more traditional roles of the women in my family have lived for centuries.” She’s from a family that’s like from Gioia Tauro for generations and generations. So it sort of explores the relationship that young people from Gioia Tauro have with their city, the roles that are expected for them to play within that city.
It’s interesting you use Gioia Tauro so intensely. The town is a character in itself. it breathes life like any of the other characters that we meet during this entire time. How did you envision creating such a personalized physical space that had this collective life to it?
Carpignano: It’s just because I moved there. The approach generally with a film like this is, go to a place, live there for a while, make the film, go back home. During that process, that became home for me. You know what I mean? By the time we were shooting the first film and especially the second film I was never looking at it from a “oh, I have to show this because this is what the town is like.” I was able to doubt that perspective of “well I live here and as someone who lives here that’s not important to me so it’s not important to show in the film.” So, then there are the post card scenic shots that just try to give context because that’s something that I don’t think is important to the characters and because I’ve lived there for so long it became less interesting to me. So, I think that, luckily—not luckily—that’s just a process. That’s just a result of the process, the result of the life emerging that’s happened with these films.
It’s interesting because you use Gioia Tauro as sort of a way to look at these larger than life issues that surround Europe and to a larger extent, the whole world. I know you’re not originally from Calabria, but I was wondering what actually drew you to Gioia Tauro specifically?
Carpignano: Fates a thing, you know what I mean? It was very serendipitous. I went down there because of that race riot you see at the end of Mediterranea. For me I wanted to make a film about like the newly arrived sub-Saharan African immigrants. I wanted to try to look at what the black experience in Southern Italy was because that seems to be the place where, I won’t call it integration but, it seems to be like the place where people are becoming sedentary—certainly more than other places. It’s always been interesting to me. My mother is African American, I’ve always been curious of what the black experience in Italy means and I’ve only seen it through her eyes and I wanted to see it a different way. When I got down there I immediately met Koudous Seihon [who plays Aviya] and we decided that we were going to make a feature film together. We were like “alright let’s do this” but through his story. I wanted to get to know him so we moved in together. That was seven years ago now and I just never left. Part of it was because, in the beginning, it wasn’t a choice. In the beginning, it was like “okay, I have to sit here so the film is done” but the money never came. Three years passed and I was like “oh, shit I live in this town now.” This is when I realized “all my stuff is here. I don’t have an apartment anywhere else like I’m here now.” Then it went from a thing that happened on accident to something that I started to embrace because I realized I was actually quite happy being there. Those three years flew by. It never felt like torture, it never felt like a sacrifice to be in that town. It felt great and it still does. It’s just luck and it’s like when you put on a glove and it fits, you’re like “this is my glove,” but it just kind of happened.
Right, and do you feel that helped you integrate yourself into Gioia Tauro? I know it’s a very close-knit community so I can imagine it would be pretty difficult to gain the trust to the extent that you did with the townspeople. How did you manage to do that?
Carpignano: I never thought about it, but now that you say it like that, I think that could be the case. I do think that I certainly have a willingness to be there that many other people who came down over the years did not have. The first integration of producers in Mediterranea when the film didn’t take off, they didn’t want to stick around because they were from other places and they said “alright well it didn’t work this time let’s try to get it going again, let’s reset.” In the reset period, they all went home and kind of found other things to do. Sometimes crew members will come in and then they’ll enjoy it very much, but a certain time will come when it’s kind of like this is cool but not exactly for me. So, I think if it feels like people are going there just for a job. They have their guard up a little bit more. It’s more of a virgin. It’s harder to integrate. When you don’t want a place, the place doesn’t want you. It’s like a symbolic relationship between places and people. I think that because I was very happy to be there and very comfortable there, people felt that. People felt that I actually wanted to be there. I think people noticed I was there when other people left so they were kind of like “Oh he really likes being here, he gets this place.” That made it easier for me because people wanted to help me understand Gioia Tauro even more. So it became this cyclical thing and I think you just said it right because I was into it, people were into me.
I’m assuming it even got easier with A Ciambra because at that point you had already established yourself with the locals with Mediterranea. Was it more difficult when you were first making Mediterranea because you were still relatively new in town? I mean you had already made the short films A Chjána and A Ciambra and but was it still relatively difficult to integrate yourself into the community with Mediterranea?
Carpignano: You’re 100% right, there’s no way we could have made A Ciambra if we had not made Mediterranea. It’s like not just with the community but especially with the Romani—the gypsy community. The first time they ever sat through a show in a movie theater was to watch the scenes that appear in Mediterranea. That was the first time they had ever sat in a movie theater, so for them to see what it was that we were going to do after made a huge difference. They can see what the end goal was, what the end game was. They can imagine what it would have been like at the end of it, to have everyone sitting and watching them on screen. So they knew what it was more, they knew what we were working for. Which I think was an important through line for them throughout the really long shoot.
Do you ever see yourself leaving Gioia Tauro for other projects, or do you see yourself kind of grounded there at least for the time being to really see through the story that you seem to be expanding in this almost magical realism way? There’s this onslaught of characters that I feel like by the end of your time at Gioia Tauro, will rival something from One Hundred Years of Solitude. We’re going to know the whole city just as well as you do it seems.
Carpignano: Yeah, you know I’ve never been good at trying to predict the future. I feel uncomfortable about that. Never say never you know. If you asked me eight years ago if I would be living in Gioia Tauro now I would have said “no way!” I never would have predicted ten years ago when I was first working on film sets that I would be living in Gioia Tauro for seven years. So it’s like never say never. You never know which way life is going to take you. I may very well find myself in a different part of Italy. But for now, I’m very happy in Gioia Tauro. I’m very happy there, I love it there. Things are good, I’m making another film there, I could foresee myself making other films there. These last seven years I’ve been in Gioia Tauro and pretty much never left. That being said, this past year I spent a little bit more time in Palermo. I go to Palermo every so often because we edited some of the film there. It just really intrigues me, so if it’s a film that continues to intrigue me maybe I’ll make a film there also one day. I don’t know but for now Gioia Tauro is definitely the home base with Palermo hovering around it.
Well that’s awesome, you’re bringing a lot of cinematic resurgence to Southern Italy which I think is often overlooked in narrative tales of Italy. Particularly if you look at something like The Great Beauty which only celebrates the decadence of Rome and other Italian metropolises.
Carpignano: Yeah, I think that’s like an important part of the world to show, it’s important to show this different side of Rome compared to what people have normally seen. But like you’re saying, yes, there are other parts of Italy and I think that films like this need to contribute to the image that people not in Italy have of Italy. I just don’t want people to be shocked when they roll up and there’s like, a young black person who speaks fluent Italian.
I was wondering how did Martin Scorsese become involved as an executive producer?
Carpignano: Luckily, we’ve got these great Brazilian producers who also have the big hit Call Me by Your Name this year. They have this fund with Emma and with Scorsese that’s for emerging filmmakers. They passed the script onto him and sent him this look book I made. Then they sent him our short film and he was into it right away. He was like “Oh I would like to see a feature version of this, I would like to see this world on the screen.” For all the right reasons, he signed up.
Catch Carpignano’s latest feature A Ciambra in select US theaters come January 26.