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The instruments of my profession

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Ermanno Olmi

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- Modernity, history, the countryside, women and children. The vete-ran Italian director talks about his latest film and his ongoing search for a place to "sing behind the screen"

Ermanno Olmi

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While surfing the net to find out both what Ermanno Olmi has revealed about the film he is currently shooting at the Roma Studios (formerly known as “Dinocittà”) but also what other people think of him, I came across an audio interview of his. Ermanno Olmi wrapped his latest film, Cantando dietro i paraventi (Singing behind Screens) on a turbulent and troubled set in Montenegro.
”Nurseries are concentration camps for children,” exclaimed the director vehemently.
While this has nothing whatsoever to do with the film I am here to talk to him about, I could not conceal my curiosity about the reasons for this furious reaction against an institution that we women have always considered to be a social blessing. So that is how our conversation began, and indeed, that is where it will also end, as you will find when you read on...

“I came across that concentration camp in 1983 while making a film about the great capital cities of Europe. It was an ensemble film with Angelopoulos covering Athens, Ken Russell London, and I Milan. Milan is also my hometown and I visited every place where social life is played out, places that you perhaps have never seen. Including nurseries, these prisons to which are Innocents are dragged against their will every single morning a few minutes after 6 a.m. They are snatched from the warmth of their homes, pulled away from their mothers’ breast. Once deposited, the child is picked up twelve hours later. I felt abject shame that the city I consider home was able to treat children in such a way in order to fit in with industrial schedules. The odd grandparent would occasionally and voluntarily alleviate the suffering of these poor children, because they must have realised that the little ones needed at least one adult presence in their lives that represented memories and make the children feel wanted and desired. But the grandparents who lent themselves were fought over fiercely because each child wanted their very own exclusive grandparent. They simply did not care for the teachers, who tried their best to be substitute - and shared - parents.

I bite my lips and avoid broaching the issue of women’s rights to make their own free choices because I don’t perceive any reactionary thoughts in either Olmi’s opinion of nurseries or his body of work. It would be fairer to say that despite the undeniable ambiguity of his words, I feel Olmi is really criticising our lack of judgement in accepting modern innovation and those who accept it unconditionally sic et simpliciter because they believe it is progress. His opinion is also a challenge to the generalised presumption of omnipotence regarding the criteria according to which we evaluate civilisation, and its efficiency – criteria that Olmi questions readily and quite openly.
I cannot say whether this is how I have always perceived Olmi’s films. Now that the “No-Global” movement has taught us so many things, and we are so scared of the way in which our world is developing, I feel that I can appreciate Olmi’s message better. I also understand his insistence on a rural way of life. This is an area of society that has been partially concealed and which is only coming to the forefront of public attention now that we have discovered that agricultural issues are probably the most modern and fundamental questions humanity should address. When he made Albero Degli Zoccoli, Olmi’s presentation of rural life was almost a provocation: he made that film about country folk at the apex of industrial development and technological innovation, when most people thought that peasants or country folk were a species on the verge of extinction.

“I was born at cross purposes,” he informs me. “A city dweller because my father was a rail worker but also a countryman because of my mother. Since my father was also fiercely anti-Fascist and ended up losing his job on the railways because of that in 1934, I spent an awful lot of time with my maternal grandparents where there was always food on the table. I remember the smells of my childhood because in the countryside, every season has its own smell. Milan has just one smell: car oil. The countryside became a part of me because that is where the community survived and therefore it is the place where I feel safe. It may seem that I want to rationalise feelings that have nothing rational about them, but the point I want to make is that man is more tree than computer, and his odour is more reminiscent of stables and green pastures than of loo deodorants. Goffredo Parise once wrote that sounds and smells are the vibrations of the soul and for that reason, all the more persistent. I miss the countryside when I am in the city: I cannot hear the women singing, or smell the woods and the fields, reassurance that no amount of Prozac could ever give.”

Does your insistence about listening to women singing have anything to do with the title of your latest film, Cantando dietro i paraventi?
“Lots. The film is about a woman who makes an extremely difficult choice – in wartime – but she and her friends always find the time and space to sing albeit behind screens. That is the only way they know to express themselves and the joy of being alive. It is a story of the past. Today nobody sings anymore, not even women. We consume song instead.”

Why did you make another war film right after The Profession of Arms? Is it true that once again your protagonists end up as cannon fodder, the everyday instruments of conflict for the poor devils who have to fight, and that notwithstanding everything, this too is a story about weapons?
“Like the former, this film is not exactly a war film even though the deadly cannons are a feature of the story. Don’t forget that the pen is a mightier weapon than the sword or cannon, and if I were to approach you while carrying a gun, you would suspect something was up and be afraid. You would never be scared of my carrying a pen, though, would you? All of us are still living with medieval weapons of all kinds – all of which are harbingers of death when communication fails and harmony no longer exists. When there’s no longer any place behind the screens to sit and sing. I am only able to find the will to sing again if I stop using guns and pens as weapons because I live in harmony and no longer have to defend myself.”

Where did you come up with the idea for this film?
“I had read English texts about Chinese pirates who operated between the 15th and 17th centuries. These texts were stored in the Beijing Archives. The pirates in question weren’t just criminals, many young men from good families joined their ranks and piracy was a normal job for them. They simply gave no thought to the potential consequences of their “work” just like today’s stockbrokers or bankers who assign tenders to build chemical factories (the owners of the Bhopal factory that blew up in India are still considered to be highly respectable citizens). Amongst those latter-day pirates there were many fascinating characters like the Abbot Caracciolo who wanted to build Utopia and did so on a small island. Getting back to your question... I examined this Chinese material and came across the Widow Chin, a woman pirate, who travelled with her children on a ship, almost as though it were farmhouse in Lombardy. A famous Chinese poet celebrated these women pirates who turned warrior when necessary and after the fighting was over, would return to singing behind the screens.”

What about your cast?
“Chinese to a man except for a couple: Carlo Pedersoli (Bud Spencer), who plays a pirate as though he were a contemporary soccer player. But be careful, the film is not a re-evocation of a moment in history, of the past, but rather a story that will entertain those who will see it. It does refer to events of the past but brings them forward to the present day. But the aim is to entertain, or rather: a moment’s emotions that also transmit a message. Let’s say the film is a useful “pro memoria”: “Perhaps it’s time to start singing behind the screens again”. This film portrays women who manage to reassure their menfolk even if they, the women, are the protagonists and even warriors. Jun Ichikawa who plays the widow even commands her very own army. And there aren’t any nurseries!”

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