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Into the Woods: Director Michelangelo Frammartino Talks About His Mesmerizing Installation Work Alberi

Alberi Alberi

Director Michelangelo Frammartino unveiled his latest project at Den Frie Center for Contemporary Art in Copenhagen in November. Alberi, his stunning 26-minute video installation, which first screened at MoMA P.S.1 last spring, was receiving its European premiere at CPH:DOX, a festival that awarded its top prize to his second feature, Le Quattro Volte, in 2010. Like that film, Alberi is a hybrid work that combines documentary and staged performance, but operates in the space between video installation and cinema. It describes a mysterious ritual from the southern region of the filmmaker’s native Italy that is well known but little understood. Said to be part of a springtime celebration, the pagan ritual involves villagers constructing elaborate full-body costumes out of leafy tree branches, resembling something out of The Wicker Man. The ritual may also have been a way for a person to obscure his identity in order to ask for charity from neighbors without suffering humiliation.

Alberi (which translates as “tree”) is a work designed to evoke the sublime. With its strange visions of vegetal creatures and spectacularly grand landscapes, Frammartino’s immersive work offers a unique experience — by turns playful, slightly menacing, and ultimately celebratory. Structured as a continuous loop, the piece begins and ends in total darkness. It’s a smart choice that immediately sensitizes the viewer to the world of ritual and nature through a powerfully tactile and elemental sound design. We then witness the director’s ambitious re-staging of the ritual that involves one hundred participants fully camouflaged in arboreal costumes. He transforms their silent procession from the forest to village into a series of hauntingly beautiful and surreal tableaux. Shooting digitally for the first time, the filmmaker has freely tweaked the images, strategically pumping up color saturation and taking advantage of digital’s unnatural sharpness in order to evoke an environment that feels at once naturalistic and otherworldly.

As with Le Quattro Volta, it demonstrates Frammartino’s interest in moving humans to the periphery of the drama, and developing narratives about the relationship between spirit and matter in its various forms. With its part installation, part cinema design, and its part-tree, part-human characters, Alberi may represent the fullest expression of a hybrid project. The director, 45, sat down with Filmmaker to discuss its origins, how he achieved the stunning visual and sonic effects and what it means to make a “cine-installation.”

Michelangelo Frammartino

Michelangelo Frammartino

Filmmaker: The De Frie gallery offered a unique space for Alberi.

Frammartino: I love circular spaces but the deformations of the building make it a bit difficult, and the sound was not perfect. In a space like this, you have to re-mix the sound on site with Pro-Tools. We made what we could in two days. With Tina, the festival director, the agreement was “If you can do it, do it.” So, we say, “OK, it’s not perfect but it will work.” It was the European premiere, so we wanted to make it a bit better.

Filmmaker: I like that you arrive at the installation after walking through a series of large empty galleries, like a procession to a secret show. Alberi first screened in a very different space at MoMA P.S.1 in New York.

Frammartino: It was in the dome and so the projection was circular, which was very good for this circular narration. The screen was the ceiling of the dome, so it was in some way immersive but very irregular. It was nice. I had the impression that people we’re enjoying it.

Filmmaker: What are the origins of the project and how did it evolve? Did you know about this particular ritual?

Frammartino: When I was making a movie in Calabria, I discovered albero rituals — celebration with trees. The movie was Le Quattro Volte and the third episode is about a tree. That movie is like an animistic movie, yes? There is a soul that crosses four different bodies. The third body is a tree. In the albero rituals, there is an element from nature, like a big tree that people bring into the center of the village. It’s almost like land artwork. For me, discovering this ritual was very interesting because in cinema, only [people] are the characters and [they] stay in front of the camera. Other things are behind them, in the background like vegetation and trees. Instead, in this celebration, the tree is the center and humans are the background. And this, for me, is like a visual revolution. So, when I shot the tree in the movie, I discovered that there was a land, a region called Basilicata, very close to the land of my family, Calabria, where there were a lot of rituals about trees.

Filmmaker: Did you know any of them when you were growing up? Did you hear about the rituals?

Frammartino: No. My family, they were not against the rituals, but there was a fight between the church and the communists in Italy. Rituals are like a way to control. So, in some way, probably, I was always a little suspicious about rituals, but I rediscovered [them] with art and now [they are] interesting to me. I discovered this ritual with the tree-man, the green man, the wild man that exists in many parts of Europe. I was stunned when I saw the image for the first time. I went to the village to talk with them.

Filmmaker: Tell me about alberi. What time of year does the ritual occur?

Frammartino: This is a very delicate because it was disappearing. It was very potent in their memory, in their feelings, but dressing [in tree branches] is very hard work. You have to get the wood and cut it down. You need two hours to dress properly. When I visited the towns, I found that no one did it spontaneously anymore. They dressed up for me. Then, they asked me, “Can you help us to make alive again this tradition?” So, we changed it a bit together. In the tradition, the man is a lonely man dressed up like a tree and he enters the village alone. It can be five or six men, but not together. Even though they were trying to protect tradition, they had already changed it and were dressing the children in groups. I thought: why not re-make it in the forest [with a large group]? We talked with people who knew the tradition and everyone was OK with this change. But what is nice is that the year after, they were so happy about [performing alberi] that many people are doing it and the ritual has returned.

Filmmaker: What’s your understanding of the meaning of a ritual of it? You mentioned the myth of the wild man.

Frammartino: They don’t know. When you ask people in the village, they say, “We always did it.” And this is fantastic. Some think that probably it was a way to ask help without losing your dignity. In the winter, you could have very bad days. When you were in a really bad situation, this was a way to ask for help in disguise. This is a very touching interpretation, but they don’t know for sure. What we know is that in this area, there are a lot of albero rituals that are connected to the arrival of spring and the connection between man and nature. This is beautiful because you see that in the image of a man dressed in same material as nature. It’s something that I completely believe: we are part of the world. We are made of the same material.

Filmmaker: The images of the men dressed head to toe in branches are both beautiful and quite haunting. How are the costumes made?

Frammartino: They use very long branches, more than two meters. They close all branches like a shell using wire. It’s a lot of work. It took nine hours to dress 100 people. The first person ready had to wait eight and a half hours for the shooting. Usually, they lie down and wait in this way. It was very hard. We shot the celebration with 100 people in the square in only one day. The scenes in the forest were easier. We had to dress 10 or 20 people only. We were ready in about one hour and we shot for three days. But the most difficult thing was the celebration in the square. You cannot ask a performer to be dressed 13 hours, but they wanted to do it and I’m so happy. I was dressed to understand how it feels and after 20 minutes, it was enough.

Filmmaker: Your film is almost a performance right?

Frammartino: Yes, I’m happy that you say this. In the celebration scene in the square, everyone started doing this [stomps foot on ground]. I didn’t ask them to do this. They did it because they were reacting to the situation, and they were so happy. The sound was so strong. It was very moving for us. You control some things and many things you don’t control, and this for me is interesting. It’s why I work with animals. You have to wait. As a director, you cannot work with this idea of man being in the center and then try to control everything.

When you make a documentary, there is a reality you try to capture, and the documentary arrives at this reality. In this situation, we documented something that was arriving. Because now, [the] forest exists. So, it’s strange, this connection between image and reality.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the shoot.

Frammartino: It was [shot on] digital for the first time. I used video for installations when I was young but when I made my movies, I always used analog cameras. Le Quattro Volte was 35mm. This project was like a land artwork in some way, no? Digital is perfect for this because the filming and post-production are discontinuous, in some way. When you work in digital and you want to change this part of the image, you can. When you work on film, you change everything or nothing.

Filmmaker: You mean was there substantial postproduction work beyond color correction?

Frammartino: Yes. The mountain behind the village during the celebration wasn’t that green and I wanted to have the village in a green landscape because it’s about making green the center. So I put in a different mountain behind there. It’s very normal in digital, no? But it’s very in continuity with what we were shooting. Moving forest, moving things. So, I decided to use digital and to experiment with digital in this way. I’m trying to understand how to use it.

Filmmaker: There’s no dialogue in Alberi and the soundtrack plays a huge role in defining the environment and the space of the narrative.

Frammartino: I’m very lucky because I worked with a very fantastic sound engineer who helped create the immersive sound. There is this moment when the film is in total darkness, and you are completely part of it. You are in the movie. And it’s like when you see the character in the forest: you cannot distinguish between the character and the landscape. In the darkness, you feel like this because there is no distance. In Le Quattro Volte I worked a lot on sound, but in a different way. The meaning of the movie was behind the image, no? You see a goat but there is a soul, there’s something behind it. So I used the sound only behind the screen to give the audience the feeling that you have to look behind it. It’s like in an installation, but you are in a cinema. Here, I wanted to work on this strong connection with the physical image. We had to be inside.

Filmmaker: Was there a lot of on location sound recording?

Frammantino: The image crew would leave at 5pm, but Paolo [Benvenuti] and Simone [Paolo Olivero] would record sounds until 11pm. We did the film’s post-production in Berlin and now the sounds are in Berlin for everyone. They are fantastic because they have [such] a big passion for sounds. They work with many different microphones, because I wanted the sound to have many layers and to put us inside the image. Usually in cinema, you don’t do another take when there’s a sound problem, because the image thrives. In Alberi, when they said the sound is not good, we did it again and my camera operator and my d.p. knew this. The eye is not more important than the ear. This is very important. I don’t use dialogue because the human voice [dominates]. My image editor, Benni Atria, is a sound editor. Many times, we decided how to connect things with sound. Traditionally, you edit the image, lock picture, and then go to sound. This means that the texture of the movie, the connection, the language is made by the eye. Working our way, the ear is balanced with the eye.

Filmmaker: I was interested in this idea that you mentioned about the individual and the collective. As you say, there’s no single character in either Le Quattro Volta or Alberi. Is that a way of working with narrative that you will continue to explore?

Frammartino: I love Bruegel paintings. It’s fantastic how free you can feel watching a painting like that, no?

Filmmaker: Because you edit the narrative yourself as you look across the painting?

Frammartino: Exactly. And you feel part of the work. That is very, very interesting for me, especially working on wide shots where there are many elements at the same time. I’m really worried about this problem because in Italy, images are so connected to power. There is no freedom in images, so I feel it’s important to work on the freedom of the viewer. And this is one of the possibilities. There is a shot [in Alberi] with the village with all the people coming out and I love this shot because there are one hundred people all together, but it’s like one person coming out of a house.

Filmmaker: Is there a difference for you between cinema and installation?

Frammartino: Absolutely. Yes.

Filmmaker: And could you see Alberi working as a short film?

Frammartino: I prefer not. I can do but I prefer not. What I can say is that I totally respect video artwork. When I was young, I studied Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman, Peter Campus. Personally, I think that video art [has contributed more to] visual thinking in the last 50 years than has cinema, so I totally respect that work. I think that Alberi is not a movie. It is something a bit different. I don’t know what it is. Probably it’s a “cine-installation,” but it’s not a video installation. It is an homage to cinema in some way, but it’s not exactly cinematographic either because there is an idea of freedom, of circular narration. I have the impression that if you enter in at a particular moment, there is meaning, and if you enter at another moment, it is a bit different. And this freedom I like it. This is not exactly cinema. I remember that when I was going to the cinema with my father in the ’70s, we could enter in the middle of a film. The first time that I entered a cinema, I saw a cartoon from the middle and I remember that it was a bit strange at first but then I liked it. We’d wait until it started again, and my father would say, “Now we see the beginning.” So, the experience was circular and in some ways, it’s an homage to this freedom in cinema. Now, you cannot do this. You enter at the beginning, and then you leave. You see the movie one time. If you want to see it two times, you pay two times.

Filmmaker: In a way, that experience of cinema is closer to the way we experience video or installation art today.

Frammartino: Probably. Often, when I make movies, someone says, “I like it but it belongs to visual art world.” When I make installations they say, “Yes, but there is too much cinema.” [Laughs]

Filmmaker: Both worlds have their prejudices.

Frammartino: What I can say to you is that we are going to install Alberi in Milan at the Manzoni Cinema — a very large cinema that’s been closed now for about 10 years. It’s very ancient and has 1,000 seats. It’s like a monument the last century, to the visual world of the last century. I decided to take out 300 seats in the center and to put cushions on the floor, so people will decide if it’s a movie or something else. Those who will sit on the cinema chair think that it’s a movie. Those who want to lie down think that it’s art.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the name Alberi.

Frammartino: It’s an homage to an Italian artist, Giuseppe Penone, who made a work that is called “Alberi.” He makes incredible work. In this piece, he took an old wood beam and carved down to the circular core of the original piece of wood. It’s possible to do. If you work very carefully, the tree is still inside. It’s fantastic to see. It’s something that cinema must learn from him. He’s a sculptor but he’s not imposing an idea to the wood; he’s revealing something that’s inside. Do you understand? And it’s like when there is a way to work with reality — the camera is revealing reality.

Filmmaker: That process reminds me of the charcoal dome in the last segment of Le Quattro Volta. Both that film and Alberi focus on making handcrafted things.

Frammartino: The charcoal burning process is something very, very delicate that you cannot control. [As a director] you are deciding to go into a situation [which is] out of control. You want to make a perfect movie but you know that this is your problem, and you go in situation where you cannot control things. So, it’s always this.

Filmmaker: It’s a process requires a lot of patience.

Frammartino: Yes. Personally, what I do is watch a lot before. I spent two years with goats before shooting Le Quattro Volte. You have to stay there to be part [of the world]. After months with goats, you know —

Filmmaker: [Laughs] How to read them.

Frammartino: Yes. You know which one is the leader, and if this one does this, you do this. So, they drive you.

Filmmaker: Did Alberi begin as a commissioned work? I was curious about the financing.

Frammartino: There were many parts. I’m working with Philippe Bober who is a producer in Berlin and so we had money from different institutions. Basilicata helped us a bit and Cinema Italian Tradition helped as well. There is not one institution that [gave us a lot of money]. I always use money from many different sources, maybe 20 or so. This way, no one is losing money. It’s the only way to work today. Le Quattro Volta was sold in 50 countries. That is really incredible for an Italian film, but you never know what is going to happen so it’s important that there are many parts. It means that you are free. No one is waiting for money. It’s not easy, because you have to go to festivals to pitch and try to win a part of the money, and then you have to wait three years to put it all together. But in the end, this is a way to work that assures you freedom.

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