by Gabriele Ottaviani
Just came back from a travel, Mo Scarpelli, who made Anbessa, seen in Berlin, answers to Convenzionali’s interview.
What is the message of your movie?
On the surface, Ethiopia seems to benefit greatly from globalization. However, rapid “progress” is actively leaving millions like Asalif out of the picture. While Anbessa is set in Addis Abeba, the ways gentrification, industrialization, and capitalism push so many out of the success story are truly universal.
Asalif’s own struggles for “home” and a sense of self resonate with me. I have never lived in a space where I felt like an insider; I have never really understood or identified with narratives posed for me or about me. This has formed in me a strong sense of independence but also a sense of rudderlessness. I covet dreams, and glean inspiration and self-actualization through fantasy, and I have always respected symbols and the ways they can inform our lives. But Asalif has deepened this respect, informed and challenged my own views of how good intentions and sleek narratives of modernity and “progress” are vastly more complicated than they seem. There is a quiet violence which modernization is impressing on all of us. I made this film because I myself needed a dose of his version of reality, I needed to inhabit the realms he does in order to survive. I see his perspective as not an escape mechanism but rather a unique and essential way of coping with the annals of modernization, with forces beyond our control which threaten our existence.
What is childhood for you?
Childhood is a time to form your sense of the world. Childhood is a time when creation and fantasy are symbiotic with life; you haven’t yet learned how to push that aside for the sake of “reality.” But this does not mean childhood is all fun and rainbows, no — a child (especially one like Asalif) is acutely aware of the adult tensions around them, the sadness, the fear, the insecurity, and all of these things manifest in a child’s artwork or stories or dreams. Childhood is about being on the knife’s edge of complete freedom, and complete isolation or despair because all is very visceral emotionally. To be a child is to figure out how to survive, and how you do that charts the way you will be and deal with things the rest of your life.
What is the importance of nature and traditions in our society?
I can speak to modern North American society, of which I grew up in, and the importance of nature and traditions are scarcely found or articulated. I think humans resonate with nature and learn how to “get back in touch” when they’re older, if they have the means to do so, but this is seen as recreation, not necessity. For people in many traditional cultures, nature is intertwined with life in such a way that there is no distinction between regular life and nature. Nature is an intrinsic part of Asalif’s experience in the world; it’s more than a setting, it serves as an active participant in his life. The animals around him, the wind, the sun, the forest — all of this has meaning equivalent to the humans in his life. Sometimes, nature is closer and makes much more sense to him than humans do.
The way for Asalif to understand his experience in the world, to grapple with and face the terrors that lurk in his consciousness, is to project them into stories. This is a part of traditional life that does not hold significance in North American families or communities. Stories are of course timelessly important; but the act of storytelling alone as a way to come together, as a sacred and entertaining activity, as a shared communal endeavor, is being swept away quickly by new technology which allows constant entertainment. Surely we will always have stories; people live and die and remember by them. But storytelling as an active practice is being replaced by the passive consumption of stories instead. Asalif and his mother are stretched as humans, are brought together as friends, are able to work life lessons through in their heads, through actively sharing and improving and building on one another’s stories. If they were to simply sit back and consume a story, it would have a less profound impact on their lives and their relationship to one another. We are losing this practice, we are not talking about how we are losing this, and I think therefore we can expect the active form of storytelling to disappear from the world, save in cultures that have isolated themselves from technology.
What can you do in your opinion concretely to protect the legitimate aspiration of every person to live the existence he desires?
Listen and trust that their experience is valid. Listen and try to see yourself in the other; when you can’t, try to see where the things they aspire for are coming from — deep down in there, maybe you are there, or maybe your projection of your own desires and aspirations is there.
What does it mean to be a filmmaker for you?
Asking questions about the world and yourself; trying to answer them in sound and images that are more profound than your words, the sounds and images that amaze you; and letting the iteration of the whole process turn it over, change it, work through it, until you’ve figured out maybe the ghosts of answers to those initial questions.
What are your next projects?
I’m in production on my next feature documentary. This one is disguised as a film about a film. It’s the story of an exiled Venezuelan filmmaker who returns to his crumbling country to make a fiction film about his father’s deadly experience in illegal gold mining in the Amazon jungle. He casts his real dad. He sets off to prepare making the film, which involves his dad playing his own alcoholic self and thus facing demons and unearthing family skeletons that no one else dare touch… the already disintegrating country slides into being on the brink of a deadly coup d’état, the jungle makes everyone crazy, the inflation screws the film budget, the father and son are pushed to a limit and a closeness they’ve never known before. And then… his film production only begins!
I have been filming their preproduction for four months, and will pick up again right after Berlinale, living in the violently beautiful Amazon jungle with the film team for two more months.
I’m filming in the most magical place I’ve ever been; there are bright guacamayas perched outside my window in the morning, light dancing in the greenest trees I’ve ever seen, and myths of phantasms roaming the jungle and sirens lurking behind the waterfalls. I am also eating so many arepas I’m about to turn into one. It is glory.