Arts & Culture News

Tonight At Barry Whistler Gallery, Campania In-Felix Takes On Italy's Troubled Land

While filmmaker Ivana Corsale was growing up in Sicily, the Camorra crime network was slowly transforming a region just north of her home, known as the Campania felix, into a toxic wasteland with decades of illicit dumping.

The environmental degradation of the land the Romans named the "happy country" is the backdrop to Roberto Saviano's 2006 book Gomorrah, which was also the basis for the gritty 2008 urban crime film of the same name.

Now, Corsale and photographer Matt Nager -- her fiancé and an occasional Observer contributor -- have taken a 45-minute look at the environmental impact of the Camorra's dirty business, in Campania In-Felix (Unhappy Country).

It's the story of ranchers and other rural Italians who've watched their homeland transforming within their lifetimes, living amid the fallout from the dumps -- and 8 p.m. tonight at the Barry Whistler Gallery may be your last time to see the film in Dallas for a while. Corsale and Nager will be submitting the film to festivals this summer -- a cause for which they're still accepting contributions as well -- but they're moving to Denver this weekend. We caught up with the filmmakers yesterday to hear more about the film -- read on after the jump.

Ivana, are you from this region in Italy, or is it a place you had much to do with growing up?
Ivana Corsale: Yes and no, I'm from farther south in Sicily. And Campania is a little bit north of Sicily, so it was kind of like stepping into new territory for me. I had never spent that much time in the region. I had spent some time in Naples before, but really I didn't necessarily grow up in that area.

In Italy, of course people know what the Camorra is and what they do, more or less, but really the book Gomorrah made people talk about the issue and organized crime. So it just created some sort of momentum -- the writer himself, he got himself in a little bit of trouble. Not necessarily because it was a book about organized crime -- there are so many books about organized crime -- but because it reached so many readers.

In terms of the issue of toxic waste, the majority of the locals didn't know what was going on. It was very much covered up. The first effects of the environment were really visible when the animals started dying. That was maybe 15 years down the line.

How did you guys handle the mafia ties while you were preparing or shooting the film?
Matt Nager: During pre-production we kind of joked about what it would be like -- we even foresaw threats or possible threats. We talked about how far we'd be willing to take the project if we did receive threats.

Really we didn't have any interaction -- it was just a non-issue. People there even joke about mafia, it's not like a thing where people can't mention it. They just didn't care what we were doing, honestly, it's not a secret, so they just don't see us as a threat.

Now, if we were doing investigatory -- trying to document dumping, certainly it would've turned into an issue. But that wasn't our mission ever. We were trying to show how this was effecting the people who were living there, rather than catching someone in the act.

It must've been tough to take these long chemical names and complex health disorders and turn them into a dramatic visual story -- how'd you go about that?
MN: So at the heart of the documentary, we're telling stories about these people and how their health has been affected, as well as their connection to this land that they've identified with for their whole life and how that identity's changing.

Throughout the film, you see portraits of these people in addition to hearing them talk. So you'd see maybe a voiceover in addition to a portrait, and I tried to fill it in with environmental scenery, especially of that incinerator that you see -- it's such a visual way that represents what's going on.

IC: The idea was really to emphasize the dichotomy between beauty and ugly, happy and unhappy land, and of course that comes with the title, Campania In-Felix -- Campania Felix is really the nickname given by the Romans to the region meaning happy, fertile land.

I think seeing that incinerator in the middle of farmland really emphasizes that contrast. You see this lush vegetation and green all around, but then you see these contrasting images of piles of trash dumped at the side of the road in farmland.

Did you come up with the name for the film, or was that a joke you heard while you were out there?
IC: People were joking about it -- everyone knows why it's called Campania Felix. In many instances the subjects we were spending time with would say, "Oh this, is not felix anymore, it's in-felix."

That score -- by Ryan Connor -- is another of the most dramatic pieces of the film. How did you work with him to make it all fit?
MN: He's the brother of one of my best friends, and he's actually a pretty well known musician in Japan. He makes a lot of this ambient noise music. He did a fantastic job. A lot of what he does is field recordings. He'll record a fan and digitize it. I think he's going to be releasing the soundtrack.

IC: I never worked with a musician before, especially on a longer film like that, and I have zero music background. I had to really tell him, "We're going for this particular mood." He'd sketch something out and then we'd go back and work a little more. I think he got the idea of the film pretty early on. He did some really unique compositions for this particular film. There's a scene where he composed the sound of metal -- you see the sheepherders in front of the incinerator, and the metal really fits the mood of that scene.

So do you feel like there's any momentum behind changing things right now, or is it really just more of the same?
IC: It's kind of more of the same -- the situation seems to be getting worse and worse, but at the same time the local communities seem to be completely resigned to the issue. There was a big moment in 2008 when people were protesting on a daily basis, really getting tired of the situation and they really saw very little result from the protests.

When we were there we could see a lot of resignation from the people. Basically their mindset was we're done, there's nothing we can do at this point. There is activism among some local communities, but the activists who are really committing to the issue seems to be really isolated. I think that's where the main problem is.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patrick Michels
Contact: Patrick Michels