The writer-director of this delicate backwater migrants’ story talks transnational intimacy and the revival of Italian neorealism.
Heeding Tolstoy’s advice – “If you want to speak to the world, write about your village” – writer-director Andrea Segre choose to set his delicately observed debut feature Shun Li and the Poet (Io Sono Li) in the Veneto lagoon community of Chioggia. The latter was his mother’s hometown, and it was where he spent his childhood summer holidays. Several years ago he called in at the town’s Osteria Paradiso, a tavern frequented by the local fishermen, and was taken aback to discover that the woman serving espressos and grappas behind the bar was a Chinese immigrant.
“You have to understand the significance of the osteria for these fishermen”, he explains. “It’s the equivalent of their living room. And the relationship with the bar-woman is very important – she’s often the only woman in this environment. The newcomer didn’t speak the local dialect, and it’s a big change for the customers. There was something dream-like about this Chinese woman’s presence. I wanted to imagine her life in this region, and I thought the osteria was an interesting metaphor for the big changes in Italy today in terms of migration and immigration.”
Shun Li and the Poet actually begins in the multi-ethnic Roman suburb of Torpignattara, where the filmmaker now lives. Played by Jia Zhangke’s regular collaborator and wife Zhao Tao, Shun Li is working in a textile factory, hoping that her Chinese handlers will eventually allow her young son to join her in Europe. She’s suddenly transferred to a bar in Chioggia, where she encounters the widowed Bepe (Serbian actor Rade Serbedzija), a soon-to-be-retired Slavic fisherman with a penchant for rhyming verses. The friendship that develops between these two outsider figures, however, is strongly disapproved of both by Shun Li’s Chinese employers and several of Bepi’s colleagues.
Like Ulrich Seidl’s contemporaneous Paradise trilogy, or Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas films, Shun Li and the Poet can be viewed as a work of fiction within a documentary setting, drawing on authentic locations and a mixture of professional and non-professional actors. The self-taught Segre’s own filmmaking background lies in campaigning documentaries. Whilst studying for a PhD in the Sociology of Communication at the University of Bologna, he began travelling to Eastern Europe to study patterns of immigration from the Balkans to Italy, recording his research with a digital video camera. At a documentary festival in Salina in 2008 his Like a Man on Earth (Come un uomo sulla terra), which highlighted the shameful treatment of African migrants held in Libyan detention camps, caught the eye of the acclaimed cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, best known for his work with Paolo Sorrentino.
“He told me that my story was interesting but that I didn’t know how to make a film,” recalls Segre. “He then offered to teach me, and so we began working together.” Their partnership led to The Green Blood (Il sangue verde), which chronicled the exploitation and persecution of African agricultural labourers in Calabria, and to Closed Sea, which exposed the Italian government’s policy of refoulement, namely the maritime interception and forcible repatriation of African migrants back to the then Colonel Gaddafi’s regime.
Whilst these documentaries are explicitly political interventions, aimed at raising the consciousness of viewers towards social injustices, they also foreground the creative contributions of the participants themselves. Some of the most remarkable images in Closed Sea are of the perilous sea crossing undertaken in an over-crowded rubber dinghy, filmed on a mobile phone by an Eritrean migrant called Semere. (At one point an Italian helicopter circles overhead, and the starving passengers begin singing and dancing, assuming they are about to be rescued.) Segre himself co-founded the distribution network ZaLab, which ensured these documentaries weren’t restricted to playing on a handful of screens in big cities. To date both Like a Man on Earth and Closed Sea have been screened over 500 times around the country, as well as being broadcast on the TV channel RAI 3.
So what inspired Segre’s focus on Italian immigrants? “I think it’s because I grew up in a mono-ethnic Italy, and it has changed so much in the last two decades,” he replies. “The politicians and the media always present the story of migrants from an Italian point of view: as a problem, an invasion. I don’t deny it has created some problems, because changes do create difficulties. But if you only speak about immigration from the perspective of the person at the receiving end of a particular phenomenon, you don’t understand the complexity of the phenomenon.
“It’s a key issue in Europe at the moment,” he continues. “How can we call ourselves human beings if we are developing these kind of policies towards people coming to Europe to work? We’re co-operating with undemocratic regimes, and giving them our dirty work, sending these people back to detention camps where they can be traded by fixers and people-smugglers.”
Segre sees Shun Li and the Poet in terms of reconnecting to Italy’s post-WWII neorealist tradition, a heritage he believes has been ignored the Italian filmmakers of recent decades. “We’ve been trying to make international films, and in the process lost our basic character. I think though that there is a new relationship between documentary and fiction in Italian cinema, a sort of New Wave, which has had the courage to go back to the neorealist past: you can see this in films like Leonardo di Costanzo’s L’Intervallo (The Interval), Alice Rohrwacher’s Corpo Celeste, the Taviani brothers’ Cesare Devo Morire (Caesar Must Die) and Pietro Marcello’s La Bocca del Lupo (The Mouth of the Wolf). If Rossellini were alive today, he’d be glad to be making films with a digital camera.”
In taking Shun Li and the Poet to festivals around the world, Segre has often been asked about the transition between his documentary work and directing such experienced actors as Zhao and Serbedzija in a piece of fiction. “It was a big challenge,” he admits. “Yet when making my documentaries, I was often trying to find in a ‘real’ person an ability to be an actor and tell his or her story. With this film I was trying to find out how an actor could become more like a ‘real’ person in their performance. That’s why the actors came to Chioggia three weeks before shooting and rehearsed with actual fishermen and Chinese workers. For my next feature, La Prima Neve, which I’ve already finished shooting, I got the cast to move to a small mountain valley in northern Italy before we began filming.”
The director too benefitted in an unexpected way from the experiences of his chosen actors. In developing the character of Bepe, Segre had originally thought of casting someone from Naples, until his eightysomething aunt, a resident of Chioggia, suggested it would be more realistic if the character was Croatian, given its proximity across the Adriatic. He decided to chance his arm and write to Serbedzija, even though his producer had told him they couldn’t afford a famous actor.
“The next day Rade phones me back from Los Angeles,” recounts Segre, “and says, ‘How did I know he was a fisherman in real life?’ I had no idea that was the case, but it turned out he a holiday home near Pula on the Croatian coast, an area that had been occupied by the Venetians centuries ago, and he relaxed there by fishing. I think Rade really enjoyed how we made the film. He’s used to playing a villain in Hollywood, where he’s expected to turn up on the set not knowing the person he’ll be acting with, and being told ‘This is the woman you have to kiss’ or ‘This is your best friend of the last 13 years – now kill him’. With us he could appreciate the atmosphere of Chioggia.”