Went to the Barbican last night to see Napoli, Napoli, Napoli, the new film by the maverick U.S. director Abel Ferrara, a man whose public persona can best be described as (to quote one recent blogger) “batshit crazy”.
He was present for a Q&A session afterwards, together with several of his collaborators on the film – which is a documentary about Naples, featurng interviews with inmates of the city’s Pozzuoli women’s prison, as well as re-enactments scripted and performed by Neapolitan writers and actors including Peppe Lanzetta, Gaetano Di Vaio, and Maurizio Braucci.
Now, directors’ Q&As are usually sedate affairs. A deferential chairperson says complimentary things and asks questions to which the director makes smooth, intelligent replies. The audience ask more questions, which are either further compliments or film-student allusions designed to show off. Someone always asks what the director is working on next, and he or she evades this question urbanely. It ends with fervent applause, and satisfaction all round.
Last night was different. The film itself is brilliant, confrontational, often moving, and completely absorbing – more for its extraordinary interviews than for its embedded mini-dramas. The women of Pozzuoli are honest about the crimes that landed them inside: thefts, muggings, burglaries and above all drugs. Some are addicts; some took the rap for husbands or offspring, and others just seem unsure what went wrong. Most emphasise how little choice they had: they live in brutal housing developments in areas with 80 percent unemployment, and when they come out of jail they have even less to go back to than before. One of the most affecting interviews was with a woman from Nigeria, who had come to Europe to earn money for her family, but had to pay back her debt to her people-traffickers, and was given a choice between prostitution and drug-dealing. “So how do you find life in Italy?” asked the interviewer (Gaetano Di Vaio, a man who himself spent years as a Naples prison inmate). “How can I say?” she replied with tears in her eyes. “I have been here five years, and have spent four years in prison. I just don’t like to say.”
After the film came the Q&A. A troupe of writers and actors arrived on stage, seven people in all, including a very personable chairman, William Ward, and Abel Ferrara himself. He shambled into view like Charles Bukowski on a bad-hair day. Sitting down and dragging his chair forward so everyone else was a pace or two behind him on the stage, he pulled out a handful of loose change and jangled it nervously throughout the session, dropping a coin every so often.
The others found seats as best they could and tried to sort out who was translating what and for whom. (In the end, Ward did most of the translating himself.) The questions began – and good questions they seemed to be too, except that within five minutes they had been swept away by an atmosphere of chaos. Whenever a question was put to Ferrara, he would reply by yelling “Ask him!” and pointing to one of the others. If it was put to someone else, he would interrupt loudly, or emit loud barks of laughter. It was messy and fascinating.
There seemed to be no time for audience questions – until a loud voice arose from the back of the cinema. “I have to say this now, because I am going home soon and if I don’t say it before I go, I will have a nervous breakdown.” (I’m reproducing all the dialogue as best I recall it.) “The Mau Mau [a slang term for the crminal poor of Naples] – The Mau Mau in the film: that is me. My mother is in that prison. Now you go in and you spend two months in the city. What can you know about it? You “give a voice” to someone who already has a voice, and .. ”
Abel Ferrara: “WHAT? What did you say?”
Man: “You give a voice to someone who already has a voice!”
Abel Ferrara (almost rising out of his seat): “What is this shit!?” And, as the questioner continued, in English, he began yelling “Speak Italian! Speak Italian!” and pointing to Gaetano Di Vaio– “Speak Italian so he can understand! A film is not made by one person! He wanted to make the film. He brought me in to help.”
“I don’t want to speak Italian. I want to finish my point,” said the man – and now other audience members weighed in as well. One woman, standing on the stairs, shrieked louder than anyone. “Speak fucking Italian!” yelled Ferrara meanwhile. Di Vaio could be seen whispering “Eh?” and making the Italian “What the hell is going on?” gesture with pinched thumb and forefingers to his translator, who struggled to keep up.
The whole of the back row seemed to be surging to its feet and shaking its fists in the air. It looked as though there was going to be a surge of protesters down the stairs – if Ferrara didn’t charge up them first. William Ward tried, in his nicest way, to bring it under control. Barbican officials appeared on the sidelines and made urgent throat-cutting movements. “Ahem, well,” said Ward, “I’m afraid that’s all we have time for.” Ferrara swore and raved. “Time is running short, unfortunately,” said Ward.
At last, the microphone was taken by Peppe Lanzetta, one of the authors and actors in the film, and a man who had so far contributed not a word to the discussion. Quiet, solid, calm, shaven-headed, unflappable, Lanzetta said: “This is a film. Abel Ferrara makes cinema. He is cinema. Cinema is art. And art does not have to justify itself. A work of art just is. You can like it, or not, but a film is there, and that is that.”
This got a great round of applause. And somehow, eventually, we did what audiences normally do at these events. We filed out, chatting. We stood around outside, we had glasses of wine, and then we went home.
The excitement of the Q&A seemed at first to be taking over from the film, and I felt moved both by the intensity of the audience man’s objection (no wonder he felt that way!) and by Lanzetta’s defence of art. Waking up this morning, though, I find it’s not the debate but the film itself that stays with me.
Especially the women. They spoke simply; they often smiled, and many of them were missing teeth. I suspect this didn’t come from eating too many sweets. I think they had been hit, a lot, by many people. They all had their stories to tell, and they very definitely told them in their own voices.
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