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Discovering the Spiritus Loci: Simone Rapisarda Casanova on The Creation of Meaning

The Creation of Meaning

The primary subject of The Creation of Meaning — the second feature by the delightfully named Simone Rapisarda Casanova — is the equally delightfully named Pacifico Pieruccioni, who lives in a village at the very top of the Tuscan Alps. He makes a living by selling his goats’ milk, walking briskly from his home down to a tiny locker built into the woods so customers don’t have to walk all the way up the mountain to him. In the dark forest, it seems as if the liquid is glowing, as if the light bulb Hitchcock put in a glass of milk in Suspicion had been employed here.

This isn’t the only odd visual effect in Meaning, a decidedly digital film that skirts the self-parodic edge of slow cinema while finding idiosyncratic modes of differentiating itself. A slow opening pan over the mountainous terrain clad in mist appears to flicker, as though nature’s V-control were slightly out of wack. There are brief pillow shots of insects and plants to balance out some heroically extended static scenes, with the comic highlight being Pacifico placidly going about his morning routine while political talk radio provides a caller-in with the platform for a hilarious, endlessly profane anti-Communist/pro-Berlusconi (!) rant. The climactic sequence, which clocks in well over 10 minutes, has Pacifico chatting about issues of national identity with a bilingual German who plans on buying his property for his family but letting the old man stay on.

This lengthy shot, with the camera effectively the fourth person at the table, is routinely disrupted by the German’s noisy infant, whose presence provides randomization during a conversation that could otherwise turn deadly static. Here, the recurring thematic emphasis on the legacy of World War II is explicitly foregrounded, with the German man remarking that only in Italy did he for the first time feel “ashamed of speaking my tongue to my son.” While his self-identity is inextricably tied up with a sense of national guilt difficult to bluntly articulate in mixed circumstances, Pacifico is similarly concerned with his own country’s ongoing dysfunction on every level: as he says, “They sell us fireflies for lanterns.”

The German man isn’t actually going to buy Pacifico’s land, and the two scenes in which they interact, while nearly bookending the film, were filmed right after each other — Casanova is right on the contemporary curve when it comes to his approach to documentary filmmaking, staging sequences with non-actors to arrive at his version of the truth of the region he’s shooting in. The results are suspiciously lulling in a rural idyll way, unexpectedly/organically funny and admirably cohesive. I spoke with Casanova while he was in New York for his New Directors/New Films screening; Creation of Meaning has since won Best Feature Film at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, a testament to how Casanova’s experimentally-derived working methods have made his film as at home at that avant-garde-oriented festival as it would be in any other narrative context.

Filmmaker: I know you grew up in rural Sicily and were both a computer scientist and a freelance photographer before coming to filmmaking.

Casanova: I was a freelance photographer and at the same time was studying and working in computer science. Then I quit both for filmmaking.

Filmmaker: Why computer science? Was it a purely pragmatic career decision or did you feel drawn to it in some way?

Casanova: I just wanted to find some order in the world. I come from a family of scientists — my father was a physicist — and they were all pushing for me to go into physics. Going into computer science was my little rebellion. Then I realized there’s no order to be found in this mess, so I gave up.

Filmmaker: What kind of photographic work did you do?

Casanova: Computer science was driving me crazy. I needed some real connection with the world, so I started taking pictures in the street. My girlfriend at the time was studying art and liked them a lot, so she said “I’ll show them to my teacher.” He asked for a meeting; afterwards, he asked me if I wanted to be his assistant cameraman. I said, “I don’t know anything about photography.” “It doesn’t matter. Keep shooting like this.” Most of the time, I was shooting with him on the weekends; the rest of the time I was able to study. There were a couple of personal exhibitions — one in Italy, one in Spain. The photos were published in a few magazines in Europe. I never considered it seriously, it was more something to keep me grounded. Cartier-Bresson was my meat at the time.

What made me switch from photography and jump into filmmaking — well, there were two reasons. I realized that by doing street photography, I was really stealing the souls of people. Often when you go visit remote areas of the world, people don’t want you to take their pictures. It’s really something that was bothering me. I love street photography but you have to do it without people’s permission. The other thing that made me realize I had to go into filmmaking was the fact that I had started juxtaposing pictures and turning them into books, because I felt like one picture was not enough. I wanted to start telling stories. I started playing with movement and long exposure times. When I realized these two things, I thought I should go into filmmaking, because you can tell stories through montage, you can juxtapose pictures and experiment with movement. Also I think I’m a bit of a control freak, so I had a problem with pictures. The meaning of pictures can easily be manipulated, depending on what other pictures they’re associated with, what text accompanies them, or just the title. It happened a couple of times when people used my pictures with my consent, and then I didn’t like what they wrote to go with it, which changed the context and meaning of what I wanted to say. I thought that by making films, I could somehow be shielded from that.

Filmmaker: Then you went to York University and got an MA.

Casanova: I was working in Montreal as part of a team that worked with Apple on a project meant to make Final Cut play effects in real time. This was in 2002, so I already knew Final Cut Pro and Premiere inside out from the programming side. I was in charge of developing QuickTime components for that project. I applied to film school and thought, “Well, if they pick me, I’ll go. Otherwise, I’ll try to make films in my spare time as a hobby.” I was accepted to Concordia in Montreal for a BFA in film production. After that, I worked a few years as a director of photography on several independent productions in Canada. Then I decided to get an MFA from York.

Filmmaker: What do you think you learned from these programs?

Casanova: I’m not sure. My technical background was very strong, so on that side I didn’t learn very much. As I was new to Canada, it was very important to meet other people who were interested in filmmaking. Where I really learned a lot was in the film studies courses. All my additional credits I took in film studies. Most of the courses in film studies I would sit in even if I didn’t get any credit, because they were very interesting. The film production part — it’s funny, because it was the time of transition from film to computers. My teachers were coming to me to have me explain how these new editing systems worked.

Filmmaker: When and why did you leave Italy?

Casanova: In 2000. Italy is a place where, to do what I wanted to do, to get where I wanted to get, I would have had to make compromises with my ethics and values that I would not have forgiven myself. Italy is a very corrupt and nepotistic country. Actually, as of this year, it’s the most corrupt country in Europe. We were all laughing a few years ago when Romania and Bulgaria were considered the most corrupt countries. Now, finally, Italy has the lead on that. I would never have been able to make films there because I don’t have any friends or family [in high places]. I could’ve easily landed a in science at a university, but I didn’t want to use those open doors. I guess you have nepotism and clientalism and corruption in every country, it’s human nature, but there are countries in which there is a level, a tipping point, at which the country stops working and everything falls apart. Italy has passed that point. Canada is not there yet, and the US (laughs) I don’t know, I watch it from afar, so I can’t really tell.

Filmmaker: Part of the reason I ask is that several other Italian documentarians, including Roberto Minervini and, until recently, Gianfranco Rosi, hadn’t made their films in Italy.

Casanova: I think it’s a big problem. In the wide panorama of Italian filmmaking, what’s coming out now is very, very mediocre. Even me: I think I’m a mediocre filmmaker compared to what we had in the past. It’s not because there are now less bright people in Italy. It’s just that there are historical moments in which the rigid fabric of a society like the Italian one is shaken and talent can flourish. Thanks to that, amazing films were made in the decades after WWII. But now, I’ve met so many incredibly talented people, and they just aren’t allowed by society to make films, as they lack the right connections. They survive on crappy jobs and don’t know how to pay the rent at the end of the month. I think my luck is that I had the intuition to leave, while they were too attached to their country to leave. It’s really sad to see all these extremely bright people keep having their heads pushed under the mud.

Filmmaker: Your first film, The Strawberry Tree, was shot in Cuba. How did you arrive at the decision to return to Italy and make a film there?

Casanova: The Cuban film played at Locarno. Some people from the Turin Film Festival watched it, invited me and encouraged me to make a film in Italy. On my way back to Canada, I stopped to visit my mother, who lives in the village below Mount Pania. She almost never sees me — just for a couple of days every year or so — and she said “Why don’t you go visit this guy? I think you can make a film about him.” When she told me his name, I was intrigued; it’s a beautiful name. My mother told me that if I wanted to make a film, I could stay with her over the summer. I think she was very happy to have me. It’d been more than 20 years since we’d spent more than a couple of days together.

I did some research, which called for other research. At some point, I said, “I think something can come out of this experience.” I work in a process-driven way, so I didn’t write a screenplay. I started filming, not knowing what was coming or how the film would turn out. Process-driven filmmaking is a way of working taken from experimental filmmakers. I had applied this in a very fearful way on Strawberry and it worked, and now I was more confident. It’s great, because not writing anything allowed me to keep my eyes open to all the magic that was happening. I filmed for two months. I actually wanted to film more, but I had this contract to teach in Haiti, so I had to fly. As I was teaching there full-time, I would edit the film on the weekend, but I was never totally confident I had enough material to make a film.

Filmmaker: You’re a one-man crew, both sound and camera. Tell me about the camera you used.

Casanova: It’s a Panasonic GH2 that I hacked so I could get 3GOP footage. It was the first time I used it, and I spent quite a bit of time getting familiar with it and making a lot of tests, so I wouldn’t have trouble and could think about something else when I was shooting, focusing on my actors and not on solving technical problems. The images it makes are quite good. It’s a really small and unobtrusive camera, so it’s not intimidating. I used a small camera in Cuba and learned how good it is with the authorities, because nobody takes you seriously when you have a small camera. Having this small camera helped me in Italy as well, because there too nobody was taking me seriously, so I could do what I wanted. But I had to make some sacrifices on the side of the lenses.

The film I shot in Cuba I shot with a small video camera with a 35mm lens adapter and Nikon lenses that I loved and used during 20 years of photography, a 20mm and a 50mm. In Italy, because of the versatility I needed, I decided to use micro-four-thirds lenses from Panasonic and Olympus. They’re really small, the only drawback is manually focusing with them as they’re really made for auto-focus. I mostly shot in hyper-focal to keep the biggest depth-of-field possible. The marks on those lenses are kind of useless if you shoot like this, because then you have to have your smartphone to calculate the right hyper-focal distance every time. So I spent some time making a nice graphic that I print and stuck on the back of the camera, and that allowed me, every time I turned the camera on, to nail the hyper-focal distance in just a couple of seconds. This allowed me to be very fast. That’s where my scientist background rescued me. [Click here to see the graphic.]

I’ve been building equipment over the years with advice from other filmmakers. I invest a lot only in gear that can stay with me for a lifetime. For example, I use Schoeps microphones, which I think are used in Hollywood for all the big-budget movies. It’s a German brand created to record classical music; all the Deutsche Gramaphone recordings are made with Schoeps microphones. Their sound is incredible, even if you keep the microphone at a distance. I Also have a really good sound recorder. I have a small but sturdy tripod, a good fluid head, and all this other gear that if you treat it well it will last forever. On cameras, I try to spend as little as possible, because I know every two years I have to change it, but all the other gear will stay. It’s strange: sometimes we think the way we do things is natural, that everybody works the way we do. So I often think everybody shoots films the way I do, but then when I buy equipment or look for it, I realize the things I want are never exactly the things that are available. So most of my equipment is custom modified, like the tripod or the wireless mics. A friend of mine has a machine that molds metal — not the classic drill, a big machine. He’s an engineer, so we’ve spent countless nights modifying all this stuff.

Something I cannot stand in documentaries is when the camera points down, as the angle is not justified by the shot or what you want to say, but just by the height of the shoulder of the cameraman. So I like to put the camera at the level of the subject when I’m shooting or to put the camera very low, so I invented a nice low [tripod] mode to have the camera at the ground level while still being able to pan it with the fluid head.

Filmmaker: Some of the effects the camera creates are very distinctive and striking. For example, there’s a long shot of milk being carried through the forest, and it’s almost as if it’s glowing and lighting the shot. Did you notice these effects while shooting and try to harness them or only see them when reviewing your footage?

Casanova: This is the nice thing about working without a script or crew. When you write a script or work with others you have to verbalize and explain, because otherwise the crew cannot work together. Working alone, I realized I don’t have to do that anymore. You’re asking, did I seek these effects out? I can say yes. Consciously? No. Part of the research involved, when I started thinking about how I wanted to the film to look, was to have it be a homage to the Italian Renaissance. That was also in part because of laziness, because it’s the same people in the same places in the same light, so it’s really easy to do it there. At the same time, it’s also because of all the things I wanted to talk about. In a way, I didn’t want my film to be too pessimistic and hopeless. The Renaissance comes after the Middle Ages and involved hoping things could change for the better, which shows in the way Renaissance painters were using natural light, especially the Florentine School. I tried to take inspiration from the early Renaissance but also from the late Renaissance — I used Caravaggio’s work as a model for the interiors, so it was less naturalistic and a bit mythological, with this source of light that you can see is natural, but there’s still something strange about it. He tweaked it a bit — not like Raphael, Titian, Leonardo or Michelangelo.

Filmmaker: In your Cinema Scope interview, you mention that you feel like you only have one shot at a scene, and if you don’t get it the first time you’re not going to attempt to get it again. So let’s talk about one of the most striking scenes that seems difficult to pull off, at the outdoor picnic table towards the end of the film when everyone eating starts singing, seemingly spontaneously, in group harmony.

Casanova: That was stressful, because I knew that I would not be able to put all those people together again. Luckily, they were there enjoying themselves and they sang several songs. I knew that that’s something they do, but I didn’t want to impose anything on them. The first song they sang, I realized the camera position I’d chosen wasn’t the best one to get what I wanted. Luckily, it wasn’t a song that I liked much, so then I was able to move the camera while they took a break between songs. I moved the camera just in time. I think for that shot, I was really rushing. Luckily, the microphone was hanging from a tree, so they weren’t moving and the sound was OK. There was a guy sitting there and I didn’t want to send him away, but then he went away on his own because he was the one cooking and he went back to the kitchen. Then this wonderful place opened up for me and the camera. So there’s plenty of luck in everything.

Filmmaker: What about the big conversation at the end? It sounds like they’re hitting some elements in the conversation you wanted them to hit, but you’ve also introduced a disruptive element in the form of an uncontrollable child.

Casanova: I think I’m a bit of a masochist, and sometimes I like to take risks. Including the child was too tempting. Beforehand I had talked to the farmer and the visiting stranger individually. They had just met. First we recorded the first scene, and then the German changed his clothes — he’d come up with his wife and two children — and then we recorded the second scene. I wanted them to talk about plenty of things, but I didn’t tell them in what order, and I didn’t tell them “You must talk about this.” What I did was more collaborative. We talked a lot. Before that day I talked with Pacifico, and I tried to discover this person, so I’d know a bit what the person thinks, what his take on something is, if he has some interesting stories to tell. Then I found ways to remind them of these things. So on one hand, they know what I’m asking them is nothing really special; they just have to talk about what they would normally talk about. But if they know they have a choice between one argument and another, they’d know I’d prefer them to talk about one more than the other.

I let them go and the magic happened. They talked about these things for the first time. I knew I wanted them to talk about a lot of things, and it was going to be a long take, and it was going to be very boring. That’s why I asked the German guy if he could come with his family. He’s a friend of a friend, and luckily he was able to come with his children. His youngest child is a very quiet child, I would not have used him otherwise. Actually I had a choice between him and the older one, but the older one would’ve killed the scene. The idea there was to create this triangle, so the eyes of the spectator would feel free to wander, it was meant to be a distraction for the spectator and them as well, so they could easily pause and switch topic if they wanted. It worked. There’s a bit of “Yes, I was there, I put this together, I directed it,” but at the same time, aside from having these intuitions, you cannot take more credit than that, because the magic doesn’t really belong to you. You were there to witness it if you’re lucky.

Filmmaker: Psychogeography is definitely a subject of your film, but I’m not sure if you thought about it in this exact term.

Casanova: No. Something that’s maybe an ancient version of psychogeography that interested me in this film and also in The Strawberry Tree is what my ancestors called the “spiritus loci,” which means “spirit of the place”. It’s a spirit that lives in a place, its soul. It’s all that happened in that place, which is somehow remembered by this spirit, which is somehow the guardian of the place. All the killings, all the people making love, even the animals or whatever else, belong to the spirit inhabiting this place. When you visit a place, it welcomes you there. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience. It’s really strange. Sometimes you go into this empty space and there’s this energy, and you don’t know where it’s coming from. That’s a myth that always fascinated me. So in this and other films, I always try to get a glimpse of what the majestic memory of the spiritus loci can hold.

Filmmaker: Do you know where you’re going to film next?

Casanova: I started shooting a film with my students in Haiti last summer, and now I’m looking for completion funds. I hope I’m going to be back there soon to finish it. Then I don’t know. After making my last two films by myself, during this one I went back working with a big crew, but it was a crew made up of my students. A year before, they didn’t know anything about filmmaking, so it was very moving and funny at the same time. “You taught us to do it like that!” “Yes, yes, but now we are working differently!”

This new film is about the passage of ownership of a country and a people from one empire to another, from the French empire to the American empire. It’s a very simple, flimsy story, which is more of an excuse to capture this passage of ownership. That’s what’s occupying my mind at this moment, and — maybe I’m really bad at looking for funding, but also maybe my films are unfundable. I don’t know.

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