Interview with award-winning Italo-Australian filmmaker Lisa Camillo
You are an accomplished filmmaker (with a degree in Criminology from the University of Melbourne, a Master in Anthropology with a special focus on International Development, and a Diploma in Film and Media from Sydney Film School) concerned with humanitarian and human rights issues.
Where does human rights as a driving force come from? Does it run in your family or is human rights a profound interest of yours that has developed over the years?
My family has always been quite political and quite active. We always grew up supporting charities and my mum used to vote Panella. She was a bit radical. But also, growing up in Italy and having to fight for everything since we were really young. And then coming here to Australia I got to learn about Aboriginal culture and this was really what got me interested even more to support ethnic communities that were struggling and try to do whatever I could.
Yes, it is an issue that needs shedding light on. What made you choose to become an anthropologist? You can see the influence from anthropology in your films.
Yeah absolutely. Well, you know traveling developing countries I came back from going around different developing countries and realised big adjustments needed to be done including closing the gap between rich and poor, and to do something about injustice in the world. So, for me filmmaking is a great tool to do this, you know, bringing huge problems to the surface and to big audiences.
Yes, filmmaking is a very effective tool, in fact often better than other forms of media.
Yes, because I used to work in Aboriginal communities on a one to one basis and felt this is not enough because unfortunately it’s the system that needs to be changed but unfortunately most audiences don’t know what these people are going through every day and they don’t care… Let’s make them care.
Absolutely. In your view, what elements must be included in a documentary for it to be effective and reach through to the audience?
It needs to be thorough. That’s why (in the case of Balentes) we spent four years doing it. We really needed to spend a lot of time researching and speaking the truth without being scared. There will be repercussions on myself but I hope not on the film. You just have to do it. You have to tell the truth no matter what it is.
That is very true and also very courageous of you. Let me commend you at this stage on the also very poetic touch in your films, visualised in, e.g., the opening credits scene of “Balentes” and at various stages throughout the film. And “Live Through This” (2013), which I would like to discuss soon as well, also reads very much like a poem despite its difficult subject matter. It has “forgiveness” as a theme at the very core of the narrative and defining also the musical soundtrack. It has been said about your work that it is “deep, meaningful, and heartfelt. It is poetry meeting visual experience.” This really comes across in your films.
Thank you so much.
Your mother is Italian and your father Australian. You yourself grew up in Sardinia and later moved to Rome. You speak of your reasons in “Balentes”, but please explain again why you left Italy in 1999?
There were no opportunities for work. My dad being Australian I always had dual citizenship and I thought, why not migrate back to Australia? And finally I discovered those roots which were amazing because Australia gave me so many opportunities and possibilities that I would have never gotten in Italy.
Thanks for explaining.
Your Australian documentary which I mentioned earlier, “Live Through This” has won favourable acclaim – it was selected for ten film festivals and won three awards. It is a personal story of initial hope and inspiration followed by sudden tragedy, subsequent grief and despair and ultimate forgiveness from a man toward his erring father. You take this personal story one step further and claim that “Live Through This” is “a unique insight into the personal struggles experienced by indigenous Australians.” How does this very personal, singular story ultimately reflect the struggles of and within Aboriginal communities in general?
Well unfortunately or due to the stolen generation, it started a lot of problems and I am not Aboriginal so I shouldn’t be talking too much about this, but having worked a lot among Aboriginal communities I found there is generally issues like domestic violence troubling communities in Italy, in Australia, and in countries across the globe. In other words, the fate spoken of in Live Through This is ultimately a universal story [and she gives as an example that “in Italy a woman dies by the hand of a man every day: “It’s shocking.”].
What was the reaction among Aboriginal viewers to this documentary?
I found a lot of people were really moved and were grateful that I narrated that story in a way that was really respectful.
Moving on to your remarkable and very important new documentary “Balentes” (“The Brave Ones”) which took four years to complete, it is being screened also to Melbourne audiences tonight at the Lavazza Italian Film Festival and is followed by a Q&A session with you. Congratulations. What was the effect it had on Sydney viewers when it was initially shown at LIFF in Sydney?
It was incredible, I couldn’t believe it. It was a sold-out show. Everybody couldn’t believe it. They were shocked, they were moved, they wanted to start fighting and they were asking: “What can we do to help you?” They loved it and keep writing me messages congratulating me on what a brilliant film it was. It exceeded my expectations. I couldn’t believe it and sometimes I still can’t believe it.
Totally. It had the same effect on me. First it comes across as a tourist documentary with references to the fortuitous arrival of Saudi Prince Agha Khan to Sardinia and the economically prosperous times to follow, but all of a sudden it turns and starts touching on much more serious subject matters…
Yes, because I kind of like that format in a documentary when they change and you kind of don’t expect it.
Who is, generally speaking, the main target audience of “Balentes”?
I think we try to target both millennials with cool music, with a cool personal story but also baby boomers and their story of migration. It touches on both millennials and also all the generations and we found that both groups really liked [the documentary] in different ways.
And probably elderly people as well who can recognise the tragedy of Sardinia’s fate and sympathise with the people affected by the explosions carried out on the military testing grounds.
Has the film been screened in Italy yet?
No not yet. We’re screening it first in Australia making it really strategic, so the film is safe and I am safe too. One thing is targeting, you know, an unknown woman and another is targeting someone who has already got a profile.
“Balentes” is masterfully shot. Please comment on your cinematographic style as well as your choice of narrative style in the documentary, which is very sleek also from a technical point of view. You yourself have said that the film is “expository, observational, participatory, poetic and performative.”
Yes, very participatory. They call me the Erin Brockovich of Italy because there is a personal story involved, I take the audience into a journey of investigation, so it is biographical and investigatory all at once. It is a new genre that I think is developing more and more. It is quite trendy. Netflix loves it [and she laughs ever so slightly].
Yes, which means you are very much in vogue at the moment.
“Balentes” features very effective documentary footage where you cover the recent history of Sardinia – going from paradise to the population being exploited by forces from surrounding countries as well as from NATO (with Sardinia being used as a military testing ground also by countries like Israel, France and Germany, which has led to a suffering people also health-wise). So Sardinian people are still being exploited to this day?
Absolutely, now that it is September we are actually going to have the military again starting their training and it is going from March/April.
And you didn’t know about this before?
No, I had no idea. Not even Sardinians were aware. My parents heard something but because there is so much secrecy nobody knows much about it.
Yes, taking into account that it is such an unethical issue no one is going to know much, if anything at all, about it.
Yes, it is going to be really hard but we are gonna fight til we get some results.
So how did you actually manage to get these witnesses to stand up and tell the truth given that they would have been quite worried and concerned about their personal safety?
Yes, that was incredible and that is why I called the documentary Balentes – The Brave Ones, because they are very brave, they are people who have been affected so badly by this tremendous horrible problem so it was easy to get them involved but it was hard to get some other people who were too scared to talk because of possible repercussions on themselves and on their families.
What could be the repercussions for those who do appear in the documentary?
Being alienated by the community, being threatened, you know [and she gives as an example a woman who that very same day had had her car torched back in Sardinia]. Unfortunately, if you upset somebody local their reaction is quite violent. … Sardinia is great culturally but there is some roughness, some toughness, because of the way Sardinians have been treated over the centuries, by other colonisations, so people react quite strongly.
And now that you have chosen to move back to Sardinia, where is your heart – in Italy (Sardinia) or in Australia?
It is very difficult to say. My heart is split in two.
In one of the scenes in the documentary we see you walking on a beach in some of the areas used as military testing grounds (e.g. Monte Limbara, Cala Zafferano, Capo Teulada, Quirra…, with parallels being drawn to Sarajevo, Iraq and Afghanistan). Did you realise you were risking your life while at it and why didn’t you take more precautions? There are explosives everywhere…
Somebody had to do it, show the audience the reality of the situation, and if something would have happened [that would have been part of her work].
Has anyone else done a similar visual analysis before?
There was one called Materia Oscura (2013) but it was totally observational, filmed in the days when you could still do this, now it is all super hidden.
And in “Balentes” you draw a very effective and clever link between the dangerous substances in the air and ground in Sardinia (such as dust particles and many heavy metals like uranium, mercury, thorium, titanium and tungsten that have caused malformations in embryos, individuals and animals) and similar chemical substances – with Aboriginal Dreamtime stories including references to bad spirits hiding in the ground - in northern Australia, which makes this documentary even more relevant to Australian viewers.
Yes, people really found this part very interesting.
So we shall see what the future holds for Sardinia. You obviously want to cause a reaction amongst local people in Sardinia and also amongst Italians in general?
If people hashtag “I am Balentes” we should get a social media movement because right now it is the most effective way to get attention and to get communities to come together.
How do you think this documentary will affect people looking to settle in Sardinia now or in the near future?
It is important to highlight that you are reasonably safe in most parts of Sardinia but it is around those military areas that you are not. The rest is as dangerous as Melbourne, Sydney, Rome…, you know, because nanoparticles travel anywhere in the world. That’s the problem: It doesn’t stay in Sardinia, it doesn’t stay in Sarajevo, Afghanistan, it goes everywhere.
As one of the last questions, which may come across as a bit random: What is the most controversial thing you have heard people say about yourself?
No no, that’s great. Ah yeah, exploring Sardinia for my own gain. I wouldn’t be doing this for four years with no financial assistance, and starving to actually be making the film, I wouldn’t be doing this. I could have done something else to get people’s attention, not this [but the fact that she did reflects her dedication to the cause].
You are going to be forming part of the jury for the Bvlgari Choice Awards, as part of the current Lavazza Italian Film Festival. Would you even want to ponder what film you would like to see win this year?
It is actually very hard; they are all beautiful, great films and in different ways.
Thank you so much, Lisa, for your time and effort. It has been fantastic talking to you and congratulations again on bringing “Balentes” to our attention.
Thank you so much, you have done an incredible job, seriously.