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LBB Film Club: The Other: A Familiar Story


Tinygiant director Maria D. Rapicavoli on evoking the uncanny to tell a true story of the abuse and oppression of migrant women, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

LBB Film Club: The Other: A Familiar Story

Maria D. Rapicavoli’s work often explores power dynamics, gender violence, migration, alienation, invisibility, and displacement, through a critique of global socio-economic and political systems. Regularly drawing from her native Sicily as a geographical gateway of migration, she questions historical narratives and disrupts assumptions of the post-war era, weaving individual narratives with international politics. 

Her film ‘The Other: A Familiar Story’ is currently screening as part of the ‘Neither Here Nor There’ exhibition in New York City, and is based on a true story passed down orally by the women of her family. The work raises issues related to gender violence, abuse, alienation, dislocation, invisibility and migration, portraying the struggles of not just the lone Sicilian woman protagonist, but all migrant women, as they experience hostile patriarchal societies.

LBB’s Ben Conway caught up with Maria to discuss the project in detail. 

LBB> The film is inspired by a story passed down through the women of your family. Why was it time to tell this story in film? Tell us a bit about the story and how you wanted to tell it!

Maria> The story is about a woman, Mena, a member of my extended family who had an unfortunate life. She had a violent and abusive husband who raped her, forced her into a marriage, and forced her to leave her children to move to the US with him. My mother told me the story when I was a child, and my grandmother did the same with her. Mena's story has always been part of my family's history and, at one point, I was ready to deal with it, so I turned it into a film. I started collecting materials, interviewed other women in my family, and went to Boston to meet the only relative who has met Mena in person: her granddaughter Millie - a wonderful and strong 97-year-old lady. By putting together different perspectives of the story, I gave voice to a woman who never had a chance to speak for herself.  

LBB> The film also approaches wider topics like gender violence, dislocation, power dynamics and alienation - how did you want to communicate these, both visually and in the voiceover?

Maria> The story at the centre of ‘The Other’ embodies multiple forms of oppression that are widespread in the history of humanity and still dramatically contemporary. I intended to combine personal memories with collective ones to depict a larger, more universal condition. The situation for many women is no different today than it was over 100 years ago.

By starting with a real story, the work brings the viewer into a timeless, displaced journey by discovering physical and psychic structures of lived experience. The ocean is an essential element of the narrated story, seen as a temporal and geographic gate where the experience of separation begins. It carries dreams and hopes and contains the uncanny materiality of a new reality.

The domestic scenes are performed in an aseptic place with basic tools. The use of close-up shots of objects and body details helps to recreate the state of mind of domesticity in a reconstructed, familiar environment that is, in fact, fake and artificial. In contrast, other scenes are shot at a wide angle, showing natural landscapes as flashbacks of a previous life. The mental and physical trip is synchronised in a non-linear narration and connected through a voice-over that follows a script recounting thoughts and feelings based on word of mouth and rotten memories.

Since this story is based on oral memories, it is full of gaps. Memory is an operation of the unconscious, of desire, and keeps only some details and scenes while removing others, where temporality is condensed and merged in a non-chronological timeline. The film also narrates historical events that Mena witnessed, like the Spanish Flu and the Bread and Roses strike that took place in 1912. 

LBB> How did you find and utilise the different locations? There's a beautiful mix, from luscious orange groves and volcanic landscapes, to the New York skyline and warehouse interiors.

Maria> The film was shot both in Sicily and the US (in New York and near Boston). The Sicilian locations - Mount Etna and its surroundings - are where Mena and I grew up. The orange grove belongs to my family and the house covered with lava is close to my family's house. Some scenes were filmed in a natural volcanic cave to represent the protagonist's psychological drama metaphorically. 

In the US, when I visited my relatives in Lawrence, Massachusetts, I discovered that the textile factory where Mena worked still existed and that I could use that abandoned building for my film. So I decided to make the domestic scenes over there. The graffiti shown at the end of the film is dated from the early 1900s and was made by the factory's workers.

LBB> What was your equipment set-up like for this film? 

Maria> We used an Alexa Mini and three Zeiss Super Speed lenses. 

LBB> How did you cast Lucia Cammalleri? What was she like to direct and work with on set, and as the narrator?

Maria> Casting Lucia Cammalleri was easy because she had what I was looking for - a strong and determined, yet sad and melancholic aspect. Although she doesn't look like the real protagonist of my film - nor does she resemble a typical Sicilian woman - I thought she could represent white European immigrant women of the 1900s. Her appearance could have been associated with several women's ethnicity; she could have been Irish, English, or Polish. Not many people know, but red hair originated in Central Asia. Red hair also symbolises strength and temper, both qualities I liked to imagine in Mena's personality. 

LBB> The film develops around the alienation and invisibility of women within a patriarchal society and abusive relationships - but in the film, no man is seen (only shadows or mannequins). Is that a deliberate choice? 

Maria> My protagonist has never been allowed to talk and, therefore, be listened to. I thought it was time to focus on her. The mannequins in the lunch scene are the children of the protagonist. Their eyes are covered because I hoped they would not see and absorb all that suffering. A dark green silhouette, visible behind the actress, represents Mena's husband. I deliberately chose not to have men act because I wanted to keep the attention on her.

From a patriarchal point of view, a woman must be fragile so the man can impose himself and control her. The film's title is based on ‘The Second Sex’ by Simone De Beauvoir. It explains how in a patriarchal society, women are seen as ‘other’ compared to men that are ‘absolute’ - and therefore authoritarian and dominant beings. This duality becomes more significant when the ‘other’ is also a stranger in a foreign country. Like many other women in her situation, Mena never had a role in American society aside from being a wife and a mother (she gave birth to three more kids in the US). She spent most of her life at home, within a dislocated domesticity made of invisible labour.

LBB> For you, what are the most impactful or satisfying scenes from the film?

Maria> There were many challenging scenes, like the running one in the orange garden and the scene in the crater early morning on a cold winter day. The bed frame scene in the factory was probably one of the most challenging because it was filmed in a very restricted place with limited lighting. I was fortunate to have worked with a talented crew: especially Lucia and our cinematographer Giacomo Belletti. Both are unstoppable and highly professional.

The bed frame in the film is my actual bed frame, the same one I carried up three floors of stairs to put in my tiny apartment in Manhattan a few years ago. One night, I dreamt about the whole scene, and that's how it became part of the film. It can be the metaphor of an empty frame or a constrained space the protagonist did not want to share with her husband - a prison she wanted to get rid of… Something she was carrying around that never fit in her life. 

LBB> What was the hardest creative challenge you faced on this film - and how did you overcome it?

Maria> The film deals with notions of alienation, dislocation, and invisibility in relation to being the 'other' in an abusive relationship and an uncanny place. According to both Marx and Freud, ‘the uncanny’ describes the condition where there are both states of estrangement and familiarity simultaneously. Probably, the biggest challenge was to recreate this dualism. I tried to do so by using eloquent images and immersive sound that would generate a sense of estrangement and familiarity at once. 

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Tinygiant, Fri, 31 Mar 2023 16:38:00 GMT