Early footage of an Italian journey to Australia

Rediscovered footage charting the journey of Italian migrants to Australia was central to Fremantle Festival '21. For the local musician who scored the festival’s music, it was also a chance to retrace his family history

Musician Pete Guazzelli created scores for numerous films on Perth’s festival circuit with the band Viola Dana. While searching for new material for the group, he discovered some old footage with a personal connection.

I was interested in seeing if there was an Australian silent film. There are some interesting early works. However, none of them felt right. When I came across a film entitled Dall’Italia all’Australia I thought that it had the potential to be something special and very different from our previous projects. The journey that my and so many families undertook in the first half of last century instantly drew me in.

The film reel – owned by Cineteca Milano – depicts the journey taken by migrants from Genoa to Fremantle in 1924. As Pete was watching, he realized he’d seen it before in video format at WA’s State Library. “I remember having watched it on one of their monitors and being spellbound,’’ he said. “Back then, I recorded as much as I could on a tiny hand-held video camera and took it home to show my father, who made that journey when he was ten in 1950.’’

Rediscovering the connection convinced Pete that this story should be shared with others.

Turning the footage into a fully scored film was a long process. It began with informal conversations about migration experiences fleshed out with background research.

The first place I started was to contact my own family and friends who had undertaken this journey. From there, I searched for books on the subject, specifically letters and correspondence, to get a better feel of what the people who undertook this journey experienced, both from their journey and on arrival in Australia. Later, while researching my own family’s history, I discovered that my paternal grandfather had made the journey to Western Australia the same year of the film on the same ship, the Regina d’Italia. This was an amazing discovery and made me look at the footage from a completely different perspective.

Pete spent the next six months writing the score. The musician and his bandmates drew on traditional Italian music and sounds inspired by the film reel itself. 

I started the process by researching traditional folk songs from Italy and my memories of hearing family friends sing as a small child. As the ship leaves the familiar shores of Italy, I also thought it was important that the music makes its own departure. From this point, I attempted to underscore the arrival at new lands – Port Said, Suez Canal, and Colombo – with sounds and rhythms that reflect the possible uncertainty of the new for these passengers. Once the ship approaches Fremantle, the first Australian port, I decided to compose more traditional song forms into the soundtrack.

After an initial postponement due to Covid-19, the finished product – renamed Tracing Family: From Italy to Australia – was presented at the 2021 Fremantle Festival as part of its Ten Nights in Port program. Looking back on the screening, Pete recounted that he had been inspired by the resilience and bravery of those taking the journey– not only Italians but also Yugoslav (as they were known at the time), Greek, Arab, and Jewish migrants – all on board the Regina d’Italia

The element that stood out to me from the stories was the courage that these travelers had to undertake an 8,000-mile trip by ship to a new country for the prospect of a better life for themselves and their families. Many were leaving a country in which they could not find work or faced political persecution, and although the land they arrived in was hostile and challenging, there were opportunities to be had. Once they had found work, many migrants sent most of their earnings back home to help cover the costs of running farms and supporting their families.

Pete’s rediscovery of his own family connection to the immigrants in the footage is the heart and soul of his musical score. It is stirring, layered, and rich in historical and cultural nuance. It elevates this important historical footage in a way that only an artist with an intimate emotional connection to the subject matter could achieve, paying homage to immigrants who, full of hope and trepidation, took the brave step into the unknown.

Cover Image provided by C. Smith: Viola Dana (Pete Guazzelli, Kathy Potter, Tristan Parr,Joe Grech) perform at the screening of ‘Tracing Family’ in Fremantle.