culture / Italie
In Naples, we practice inadvertent tolerance
Catherine Cornet - 22/06/2007
Michelangelo Servignini et Alessandro Di Rienzo
Alessandro di Rienzo hosts “il sito,” a pirate radio station in Naples dedicated to the culture of resistance and to the Middle East. Two years ago, he created the production company CaveCanem with a group of Neapolitan directors. In his film, he plays himself just as he is in real life—just as I find him during the interview: Hands in his pockets, he roams his city with the voices and music of the other side of the Mediterranean running through his head. He speaks primarily of the Middle East, and passionately. His lovely Neapolitan accent makes everything he says sound philosophical and warm.
Catherine Cornet: Istimaryya is a real declaration of love for the Middle East and the people you met there. How did this passion begin?
Alessandro di Rienzo: One day, a friend from Florence who had traveled to Palestine many times asked me to go with him on one of his trips. When I got there, I realized very quickly that I had a particular cultural baggage that allowed me to understand this country much better than, for example, this Florentine friend.
And where did this cultural baggage come from?
From Naples, of course, from its culture of ‘arrangiarsi’ [coping], its unchanging conservatism, its tendency for self-reflection, to remain closed on itself, not to make peace with its own history, its decadence, its glorious mythicized past. Its tendency precisely to refuse that the past is past! But also, more positively, because we share the same capacity to live together, with a sociability based on narrow alleyways, and even before the alleyways, the very threshold of the door. Because we experience the family in its broad sense, and not as the nuclear family imposed by the Catholic Church. There is a series of Neapolitan attitudes that could be considered resistance to Western culture and that are certainly closer to the other side of the Mediterranean than to Europe.
You had your first contact with Palestine through a refugee camp. Did you notice a connection there too?
The camps are an extreme phenomenon. The Palestinian camps are similar to the peripheral neighborhoods here: a heavy concentration of people brought together for a specific economic and social reason, or because they belong to non institutionalized groups. In the camps, the resistance groups are better able to organize themselves than in the cities of the countryside. In these extreme situations, we have a kind of sociability and aesthetic in common with the Arab culture: the ability to mix the smells in the same building, the willingness to show order and tidiness even in misery, the attention to a surface respectability. While I was with people who speak at least two or three languages—I barely speak one—I found myself almost better able to express myself than they were: a Neapolitan’s hands, his expressions, his attitude, work nearly everywhere in the world. With children, this works miracles.
From Palestine, Istimaryya ‘overflows’ to the whole Middle East. How did you negotiate this journey?
At a certain point, I found Palestine narrow. I realized that in the Arab world there are many Palestinians outside Palestine, so I went to find the Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan. I discovered the other Arabs that also live in subaltern relationships. I spoke with people who felt misunderstood and who have the feeling that they are not recognized for who they are. I abandoned my Florentine friend and went off on my own.
And in the Arab world, what parallel did you draw with the south of Italy?
By taking advantage of this superficial connection, I used my knowledge of the southern Italian question—which I had studied at university—to quickly understand the Middle Eastern question. We are simply in the presence of a land that must remain subordinate in relation to the other until it finally becomes dominant. And in this sense the south of Italy gave me the cultural tools to better understand these questions by allowing me to develop a strong empathy with the region. And then the wars started. During my first trip, they weren’t there. The war in Palestine, in Lebanon, in Iraq.
What did these various wars change for the film?
The Arab populations became publicly subordinate, even if in private they always had been. And during the war, the Italian media were making these populations more subordinate every day and began to talk about them as they never had before. But today there are alternative information media like blogs, a private and personal means of communication, but one that is well able to give an individual dimension. In Italy it is exactly this individual dimension of the Arab world that is the hardest to uncover and to understand. I began to communicate with my own individuality by using the empathy that I feel towards these other individuals.
And the film is based on precisely these connections: the link between you and the other people travels first along an Internet cable and then via images.
Chats belong first of all to the phenomenology of seduction, but they are useful for many other things. I remember my first chat. It was when Clinton was president and the United States was bombing the former Yugoslavia. An American in the chat room was saying, “It’s hell over there. We’re going to free them from hell.” And I asked him, “But how do you know?” It was a first disagreeable impression, the impression that I just wasn’t able to understand. After that, the chat became the medium through which I worked, communicated with friends, expressed my feelings.
Once I’d met my characters in the Middle East, I naturally used the Internet and e-mail to stay in touch. So in my film you meet two types of people: those whom I first met in person and whose friendship I continued to cultivate thanks to the Internet, and those whom I met first in chats and e-mails and met in person only later. Shady, the main character of the film, I met first in person through contacts in the PFLP in Damascus. And now, via the Internet. [note: he just says “front populaire” in the interview; I think he means the PFLP, and that it would be useful for readers to know the full name of the organization, but if you think it might be wrong don’t include it].
When you’re talking about injustice of this magnitude, the response can only be political. The frustration and despair that are jostling one another in the Middle East are so obvious. The subordination is so clear for everyone. The middle class and the huge proletarian underclass are united in saying there is serious subordination in relation to the West.
You also present your documentary as a fiction, with characters and collections of stories around a unique character. Why this slant?
When you wind up with twenty hours of film, you have to give everyone space and you have to choose a story that contains all the others, that doesn’t take anything away from anyone but that also doesn’t tell anything untrue. But the main reason is to protect people. Some of the situations described in the film could create big problems for young Syrian or Lebanese citizens. So for the journey to Iraq, I chose a person who hadn’t been there, but who tells the story of someone who could have. It’s also a question of synthesis, to not make the film into a big soap opera.
Yes, even if it is an indication of your enthusiasm, the film is a bit too long.
In general, the documentaries I’ve seen on the Middle East—and I’ve seen many—describe microcosms to give an idea of the macrocosm. They describe, for example, a school where Palestinian and Israeli children work together to signify the possible dialogue between the two peoples. It means for the most part choosing small examples that point to a bigger picture than the one being shown. In contrast to this, we tried to describe sixty years of Arab frustration. How do you tell that story? Whether or not we succeeded, I can’t say, but we tackled something immensely bigger than ourselves.
And after these “anthropological detours” through the Middle East, do you feel like making a film at home, in Naples? There are many immigrants from the Arab world here. Is the city hospitable to foreigners?
It’s still not the moment for me to do a film in Naples. I would say that Naples is, at first glance, not very hospitable. It only speaks its own language, and the practice of monolingualism suggests a desire to show that you’re immune to the other’s language. But then, Naples is welcoming because by being defined precisely that way, it isn’t afraid to mix. I would say that it contains large contradictions that make it simultaneously intolerant, racist and hospitable. Nothing is institutionalized in this city. It’s the city of fake bags, of counterfeit. The city where the fake is more real than the real. It’s the main port of arrival for counterfeit goods, but also for immigrants who want to arrive in the West, but perhaps try to get in more quietly. The immigrants stay here when they don’t have the economic means to live elsewhere. In Naples, you can have many people living in one apartment and it doesn’t seem strange. The first ones to do it are the Neapolitans. But to say there’s acceptance and intermingling . . . I wouldn’t go that far. There’s also a certain amount of rejection because current immigration calls to mind the misery of Neapolitan immigration. To accept the former would mean being able to put yourself in question, and Naples is too proud, too arrogant, too sure of itself to take such a step. It’s a city that is inadvertently tolerant. A sociable city that likes to move. But from that to really accepting the other . . . .
Can you say that Naples is a multicultural city?
No, I don’t believe so. As long as everything is illegal, it’s fine. But then... Even in the midst of crime there’s the question of being recognized as part of the community. During a carnival, for example, where anything goes, the boys from the area attack foreign students with oranges and rotten eggs. They would never do that to native Neapolitans.
Doesn’t this rejection come out of southern frustration?
Yes, it comes, I believe, from a way of living an identity and aesthetic values that are not recognized by others. There are more murders in Naples than in Palestine. It’s a statistic that I usually tell to my mother only when I go to the Middle East, but it’s significant figure...