Interview with Michela Occhipinti

In 2010, filmmaker Michela Occhipinti made the brilliant and yet subtle slow film Letters from the Desert – Eulogy to Slowness. I have reviewed the film in an earlier post. I have contacted her to conduct a mini interview with her about her film and her filmmaking. A big thanks goes out to Michela for this, and good luck with your new film!

1) Where did the idea for Letters from the Desert come from?

“The idea of the film came while I was trying to understand how to tell a paradox of our society that deeply touched me. The intent though was to tell it through an equal but opposite symmetry, with a different culture. After having read a short article on a postman in the Thar Desert and on his long peregrinations it was clear to me that that was my story, I just had to bring it into focus.”

2) You are a filmmaker from Italy and gave your film the interesting tagline “Eulogy to Slowness”. Have you been inspired by the Italian Slow Movement, or is this a mere coincidence?

“It has nothing to do with it. I just wanted to celebrate slowness vs velocity. Because in fact in our society the latter is considered the positive between the 2, while for me it is exactly the opposite. We tend to easily classify dichotomies like light/dark, light/heavy, fast/slow, tending to confer the positive pole to the former and the negative one to the latter. There are so many nuances in between though…”

3) Is your film a personal comment on the speed in current society?

“Absolutely. It tells in an antithesis what I perceive as being a far too fast society.
It is a reflection on progress. It is my personal view on the concept of time and space. Of time in space and space in time.

Of the fragility of beauty. A small melancholy. A sort of freeze-frame of a world that is dying out. The photography of a moment of transition. The frame of the precise moment in which a foreign body arrives bringing transformation.”

4) The film is relatively slow. It contains a lot of long takes, and wide shots are a dominant element. Was the use of long takes a deliberate choice from the beginning, or has it come naturally to you once you were in India and became more involved with the subjects of your film?

“It was a deliberate choice from the beginning because I thought it was the only way to capture slowness, to convey it into images. And also to make the audience be in that time and space, dragging them into it.”

5) What significance do you as a filmmaker attach to the landscape in your films? Letters from the Desert is not only about a postman, who loses his job because of the foray of modernity. You have put emphasis on his natural surrounding. Why have you done so?

“The desert itself is not a casual landscape in the film. The most basic depiction of time is the hourglass that contains sand that pours into it marking time, and also here, the wind moves the sand changing the shape and structure of the dunes and the landscape, and thus, metaphorically, also of time. The desert also as a metaphysical place where we go to find ourselves and make silence.”

6) Retrospectively thinking, your film reminds me of Nicolás Pereda’s work. I feel as if you blur the line between documentary and fiction. What is your film, actually? How much fiction is in your documentary?

“I started off wanting to make a pure documentary. I wanted to choose a protagonist and follow him with the cameras.

Once I left for scouting though, I met so many postmen and each one of them had so many interesting stories that I conveyed some of them in the one of my chosen protagonist Hari. So I wrote a script based on these experiences but with open dialogues that I then composed together with my characters.

Also leaving some space to the unexpected.

Therefore the work on the film is not merely of a documentary approach. Letters from the Desert lays in a territory between reality and imagination. India in my film works as an “elsewhere” as opposed to the world from which I, director, come from and where I live in. It is the starting point to develop something that moves on a different territory, the one of fiction, of the cinematographic mise-en-scène and that exactly thanks to this leap transforms into something universal, but also absolutely personal because the subjective filter is me, my work as a director.”

7) Are there any directors that have influenced you in your work as filmmaker?

“I love cinema and watch a lot of films weekly and there are so many directors and films I am really passionate about that to name a few would not do justice. I also do not think I was influenced by some particular filmmaker. Of course, once I started thinking about how to make my film I did watch a lot of documentaries and films most of which were suggested to me by the brilliant D.o.P. who worked on Letters from the Desert, the Spanish Pau Mirabet. Those were suggestions he gave me once I explained what was my vision of my film.

So I saw a lot of Herzog, Humbert & Penzel and many other films of the seventies, especially East European. Thing is that, when I was young, I wanted to be a writer, only to discover very soon that I was no good. So I started to work in advertising, documentaries and cinema sort of by chance and after many years, when I finally found the courage, I went off to South America on a very long trip to direct my first documentary. In the end, I am still telling stories but just through a different media: a visual one rather than a written one. That is why, I think, even though I love cinema, in a way my visual references, as strange as it may sound, also come from literature.

And, although I even talk alone, I think in images. So I would not even define myself a director or filmmaker, but just someone who has something to say on a particular subject and decides to express it by filming because those images of the film are already in her mind. So when I will feel I have nothing to say on a particular subject, I will just stop filming, just as I started.”

8) Are you working on a new film at the moment? Or, will your next film be another slow film?

“I am working on a new film right now. Started with the idea and writing nearly 3 years ago…talking about eulogy to slowness!!

It is a totally different subject, dealing with women body, body transformation, social conditioning that should be shot in Mauritania as soon as we find the financing and international co-producers, but at least I do have a good Italian production. It will not be as slow as Letters from the Desert and also the photography will be different because the subject in my opinion requires a different visual approach and pace. But defintely no thriller!”

Eulogy to Slowness

I was fortunate enough to be able to watch Letters from the Desert (Eulogy to Slowness) yesterday. It’s a poetic documentary by Italian director Michela Occhipinti. While other slow films, that have been widely discussed, are seen in the light of slow vs fast because we project it onto them, Occhipinti’s film is addressing this topic directly. It is the only slow film, to my knowledge, that can be regarded as an explicit stance in the slow-fast-dialogue.

Letters tells the story of a postman in an Indian region which is still very much true to its (untouched) nature. The film starts with images of a bustling city. The camera is in constant movement, the cuts are fast. The noise is overwhelming. A young man writes a letter, and we go on a journey with a train. The train’s sound, again, is overwhelming. It’s juxtaposed with images of the Indian landscape; vast, natural spaces. Quiet spaces. Quiet spaces you are, in fact, longing for as a viewer after having been through all this noise. The train rushes past a station, and what follows is one of the most remarkable transition I’ve seen in film: the camera remains with the station, and once the train has passed, we hear nothing but silence. It’s auditory beauty, if you wish, and you go “ahhh, finally!” in your head. Then we cut to a postman on his bicycle.

Letter1
Letters from the Desert (2010)

Fom this moment onwards we’re traveling with him through the desert to deliver letters. In many scenes he appears to be a small, lonely figure surrounded by the vast desert around him. It’s beautifully photographic, and highlights the interplay of space and man; an interplay that shapes both.

Letter2
Letters from the Desert (2010)

A mobile tower is erected in his village, which is the beginning of the end of his job. It changes both the natural landscape and the landscape of communication. People write less and less letters. “Letters are more expensive, and they take longer.” People don’t have time, or rather they have been given a medium that delivers messages much faster and they are happy to save a bit of time. Towards the end of the film, the postman has a mere two letters in his bag. A third one announces that there would be job cuts due to the declining numbers of letters sent. He is forced to open a market stall in order to support his family, as his salary isn’t sufficient anymore.

There is more to this film, however, than a simple statement about the effects of modernity arriving in even the remotest areas. There is also more than it photographic beauty. Overall, the film is multi-layered and addresses several issues.

There is, for instance, an underlying theme of illiteracy apparent. In many cases, the postman reads out the letters as the recipients cannot read. It thus blurs the line between private and public. And yet, it is a ceremonial event. Usually the whole family gathers together when a letter is read. This is changing with the arrival of mobile phones. Ironically, the postman himself, while struggling with a declining salary, receives a mobile phone by post, which his son has bought for him with his savings. This sets up a poignant juxtaposition.

Earlier in the film, he had received a letter from him and the whole family was around to listen to what he said. But when he phoned his son, he was alone. High up on his house’s walls in order to receive a better signal. It feels as if communication has been reduced to mere technicalities.

Interestingly, the son cannot talk at that moment. He is busy, and his father has to hung up. Besides, the signal isn’t allowing for a smooth communication.

A letter would have made it possible to communicate…