Magic Alps Is the Only Italian Short Film Selected at Clermont-Ferrand 2018
Exclusive interview with the directors of one of the most unique Italian short film of the year
The Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival is one of the world’s most popular short film fests and the second largest in France. Magic Alps by Andrea Brusa and Marco Scotuzzi is the only Italian short film selected for the international competition at the 40th edition of Clermont-Ferrand (Feb. 2-10). We already backed the Italian short film (potential) industry and the under-representation of Italian works in the international festivals.
Marco Scotuzzi and Andrea Brusa are the exception. The two met in Milan back in 2006. Marco has shot ads and worked with ONG, shooting and editing short documentaries in Africa and South America. Andrea moved to LA, where he graduated in Screenwriting at the UCLA. In 2013 they have co-founded Nieminen creative group together with the producer Andrea Italia. So they started writing and directing several short films.
In 2015 they directed Nur, the story of a volunteer in an Italian shelter who finds herself in a tough spot when a Syrian refugee asks for help to find a smuggler who can reunite her with her family in Sweden. Their second short, Breath (Respiro), has been selected and won awards in international film festivals like Newport Beach Film Festival, Inter Film – Berlin International FF, Evolution – Mallorca International FF, Kitzbühel Film Festival, and Nastri d’Argento Awards. This thought-provoking and essential work makes the audience face up to the cruel trafficking and smuggling of refugees.
Magic Alps continues to follow this path, but varying in style. The short film tells the story of an Afghan refugee who arrives in Italy with his goat to seek asylum. An Italian immigration officer finds himself in a difficult position because he doesn’t know what to do with the animal. Based on a true story happened in 2011, the movie stars Giovanni Storti (part of the popular Italian comedians trio Aldo, Giovanni & Giacomo) as the refugee center officer in the complicated situation of dealing with the first case of an animal arriving in Italy as a “refugee.”
Rai Cinema has nabbed web and TV rights to Magic Alps, while Premiere Film has acquired worldwide and festivals rights. Looking forward to the premiere at Clermont-Ferrand, we had a little conversation with Andrea and Marco.
What were you doing when you have received news of the selection at Clermont-Ferrand? And how did you react?
We were on a train back from the Turin Film Festival together with our producer Andrea Italia. We had fallen asleep and as a good producer never sleeps, he awoke us enthusiastically by showing us the email from Clermont. It was the most beautiful trip on the regional railway Turin-Milan we could remember.
How did your collaboration come about?
We met more than ten years ago at the university in Milan. We started working together on university projects, especially small video productions. We had a lot of fun, but the result was almost invariably disastrous. We also enrolled together in a acting course. We presented in pairs scenes from the films by Aki Kaurismaki, a director we both love. Then our streets were a bit divided. Andrea went to study in the US where he graduated in Screenwriting at UCLA, while Marco specialized in filmmaking. We started working, one as a screenwriter and the other as a director in advertising, and three years ago we decided to join forces and to direct together our fiction projects.
The narrative power of Breath lays in its great economy. Magic Alps has instead a different style. Your filmmaking is still essential and stringent, but it opens to a magic and anti-informative realism.
Unlike Breath, in which we have constantly kept the narration on the most pushed realism, Magic Alps plays a lot on the border of the surreal. The term “magic realism” is gratifying us, it means that we managed to make the tone we had in mind when we fell in love with this story. Our direction remains essential, always at the service of the story. Aki Kaurismaki and Jim Jarmusch are basic references for us with their dry and never over the top lines filmmaking. We rarely feel the need to cover the scene from many points of view, we prefer to observe our characters for a long time from a few angles.
What was it that made you shoot with the unusual 1:1 aspect ratio?
Expressing our thoughts with our DOP Giuseppe Favale, we decided not to use a panoramic format mainly for two factors – a stylistic one and the other one linked to the place where we shot. The 4:3 size closes with more force the character in close-ups, it makes his experience more claustrophobic and helps the audience to get into his point of view right away. Magic Alps tells the encounter between the Afghan refugee Said, played by Hassan El Aouni, and the Italian immigration officer (Giovanni Storti). They are both at the mercy of a blind bureaucracy that puts them under increasing pressure. The 1:1 aspect ratio helped us to make the best of our needs. The place where we shot, moreover, favored this stylistic choice on an aesthetic level. We have reconstructed the rescue centre in the basement of a school in Limbiate, a town on the outskirts of Monza. These rooms were tall and narrow and lend themselves well to be filmed and enhanced with a ratio tending towards the square.
Immigration and inclusion are the issues you address in your works. Your goal is to tell stories that show a different point of view on the topic of Italy’s migrant crisis.
Exactly, we are interested in stories that can offer points of view usually inaccessible to the audience. This is always our starting point. Then something else fell through, and Breathe and Magic Alps dealt with immigration because it is a deeply current and extremely complex phenomenon, often told in a rough and superficial way by the mass media. Hence the need to bring on the screen the hidden lives of people to whom paradoxical events happen, like the Afghan shepherd in Magic Alps. He arrived in Italy with his goat and his story highlights many of the contradictions of the Common European Asylum System.
Several short films deal precisely with this question of controversial international migration and transnational politics underlying the rise of right-wing populisms. Have you ever feared to fall into commonplace or rhetoric?
We are aware that the issue of immigration is a sensitive one. We hope that our films will be able to tell the unique experiences of our characters as well as possible. We never wanted to make an exposé or controversial films. We always start with stories. Where there is an interesting corner, an original point of view to tell a situation, there is a chance for us to find a story that interests us.
What (low…) budget did you have to realize Breathe and Magic Alps? How is it to work with your producer Andrea Italia?
Andrea Italia is able to realize real miracles. He produced all our works. We have never had significant sums to invest in the production of our films. Despite this, Andrea has always been able to guarantee us everything we needed – cool locations, high-level equipment, and above all fantastic cast and crew. He is an indispensable support on set. Andrea can make us work quite calmly even in the most chaotic and difficult moments. A mystery halo remains regarding the methods that he has adopted to achieve these results. There are those who say he has a master’s class bargaining power and there are those who say he has a huge charm…
What do you start from when you decide to create a story?
Our stories are very often inspired by facts that really happened a few steps away from us. Everyday reality offers incessantly stories that we believe deserve to be told in order to show new and original points of view on particular worlds and realities.
How did you get to know Zena Abram, the leading actress of your first two short films?
We met Zena Abram at the Central Station of Milan a few years ago, when the migrants’ transit from Milan was massive. She was working in a first aid facility that had been set up at the station. Thanks to her a few days later we entered a rescue centre on the outskirts of the city and there we met many migrants. The passion with which Zena told us the refugees stories she met immediately made us think about her when we were looking for the actress for the role of the refugee in Breath. Thanks to her, we then met her husband Hassan El Aouni, who also works as an operator in a rescue centre. He later became the leading actor of Magic Alps. We’re not afraid to let non-professional actors play as well if this can guarantee us more authenticity on the screen. Zena and Hassan have just had a daughter, Maria. Who knows if in the future she will also star in one of our projects…
And what about Giovanni Storti? He plays this rigorous officer forced to deal with the inhumanity of rules and his performance is as fresh as surprising.
Working with Giovanni was a fantastic experience. We wrote the script thinking of him for the officer’s character, even though we had very little hope of being able to really involve him in such a project. Instead, as a surprise, Giovanni accepted immediately and enthusiastically our proposal. He immediately fell in love with this story and entrusted himself to us with absolute willingness and complete confidence. It was a somewhat complex set due to the presence of the goat, but even when we asked him to repeat a scene dozens of times, because the animal combined small problems, he had an infinite patience. And then, in the pauses between one scene and another, all his vitality emerged and his irony overwhelmed anyone, creating a beautiful atmosphere for the whole team that worked on the project. Giovanni gave his character a depth and a humanity that really made the difference.
Have you ever wondered why you decided to become filmmakers?
We got to the direction from different paths. Andrea from the screenplay, Marco from photography and filmmaking. That’s why we are very well placed to work together. We are very complementary and as a couple we work well, also because we have been friends for a lifetime, since we had experienced the first catastrophic videos together at the university.
Are there any short films that have changed your vision on (and about) cinema?
There are many short films that have influenced us and that remain great points of reference for us. Let us consider two by way of example – Aissa by Clement Trehin-Lalanne and The Silence by Ali Asgari and Farnoosh Samadi. Films you must watch, re-watch and study in every single frame. The power of these two stories emerges thanks to the perfect scripts and rigorous and essential directions, which have exalted at all times the potentialities of the language of a short film.