By Yun-hua Chen.
Agostino Ferrente, the director of Selfie, started this film project with the initial intention to document the story of the 16-year-old Davide Bifolco, who was mistakenly shot dead by carabinieri in the Neapolitan district of Traiano. After casting several teenage boys and girls, the director gave a mobile phone and a microphone to Pietro and Alessandro, good friends of 16 years of age, for them to document their everyday life in “selfie” clips. On screen we see their selfie-images filmed while riding a scooter, relaxing on a beach chair, gasping for breath while climbing stairs, barbering and singing. While residents in the region, often portrayed as “Camorra” stronghold, are usually hesitant to talk in front of the camera, the format of selfie taken from the local teenagers allows the camera to get close to their life and feelings. The collaborative documentary-fiction filmmaking method thus reverses the roles of the observer and the observed and gives agency back to these teenagers. Pietro and Alessandro, instead of being scrutinized and judged like what often happens in the mass media, are given the opportunity to tell their stories from their own perspectives and present an unstereotypical image of Neapolitan teenagers. The selfie-films, in addition, are juxtaposed with CCTV images from a wide angle which are collected from different shopfronts. Together, they weave into a picture about adolescence, friendship, stigmatization, social injustice, state despotism and grief.
We were happy to have a chat with Agostino Ferrente during the Berlinale.
Initially you wanted to do a project about the 16-year-old Davide Bifolco, who was shot dead by a carabinieri in the Neapolitan district of Traiano, and then the projected later evolved into Selfie. How was the process of envisioning the film? How did you decide to do it this way in the end?
I have already made films in Naples with young boys and decided not to make films like that anymore. When I make documentaries, I enter too much into the context and people’s life, and I suffer a lot. Then I read the news about the 16-year-old boy who was killed after a police chase. The family said that they had the feeling that the boy was killed twice, the physical death itself and also the memory of him which was killed because the media immediately defined him as someone coming from a difficult neighborhood and looking for trouble. I then decided to assume this challenge without bluntly describing what really happened. Instead, I searched for a different way to tell a story related to a city over-exposed in the media from the angle of criminality. So, I decided to transform these boys from objects to subjects and concentrate on their eye and their gaze to see what they look at and how they look at things. Rather than describing what happened or making a reportage, I put most of my attention on the context and the ambience of where everything happened. This is why I decided to work with two young boys of the same age as Davide when he was killed. I asked them to use the modality that they know really well, selfie, but at the same time to use smartphones as a mirror – not just to look at themselves but also to look outside and to include the context and where they live as much as possible. They have then become protagonists inside where they describe.
There was a casting process to look for protagonists in the beginning of the film. Why did you choose these two boys? What attracted you in these two boys?
I asked the father of Davide if he could introduce me to some 16-year-old boys, but he didn’t know any 16 year-olds anymore because his son was killed three years before the film. The friends and acquaintances of Davide were a bit older by the time of the filmmaking. While I was in the bar explaining the project to Davide’s father, I saw a young boy who was serving coffee in the bar. At that time the film was still at the stage of thinking and rather on the theoretical side. I decided to make an attempt and asked him if he would be willing to use his phone to film himself. He was in a hurry because he was going to the celebration of the Madonna in the neighborhood. Being a believer, he wanted to be there. So, I asked him if he would take the phone and film himself in this celebration. He did it. Even when he was moved by this event and started crying because he was touched, he didn’t stop filming himself and behaved in a very professional way, which really moved me. In the following day a young man with a moustache came to me, claiming that he was 16. I didn’t believe he was 16, so he showed me his ID card and he was in fact 16. As he was a really close friend of the boy in the bar, he had to be included in the film. Otherwise something would be missing from the first boy’s story. One of them alone would not be able to portray the full picture. In a way I haven’t been looking for them, but I can say that they have been looking for me. Then I decided to make other castings in the same way, by giving them portable phones. As I wanted to describe the context, some of the casting was even in the film. What I think is relevant to know is that I never asked them to be the directors of the film. They are my protagonists with a portable phone and in some ways also my cameraman, but not co-directors. It was not my intention and I never thought about giving them this responsibility. As in all of my documentaries, I directed the characters. And I tried to see who they are really and to go deeper into themselves. I helped them give these expressions of themselves in a nice way, in a beautiful way. To be clear, if at certain moments they said something that I felt unfitting in the dramaturgical ideas that I had, I asked them to repeat it. Or I suggested an argument to go into. After I have been living with them and known their life and so on, I decided where to shoot, which people to meet, which is the best way to meet them and to present who they are.
You were always with them in all the selfie-filming?
At the beginning I was constantly with them because it was a test period. When they started, they were learning in a way. They know pretty well how to use portable phones, of course, but they also had to learn to follow certain rules relating to this specific project and cinematographic ideas. The progress of acquiring the full possession of the instrument and the language was slow, but they did make some scenes alone. For example, they filmed when they were on the motorbike together and when one of them was in the bathroom.
You decided to cut CCTV images into the film since the beginning of the project?
Since the beginning of the project I had the idea of using these images because I was really touched by the archival footage of these surveillance cameras related to the event that killed Davide. I thought it was a very good idea to put together the selfies, which are very precise images with limited view, and CCTV images which provide a huge quantity of impersonal look at the reality. On those CCTV images, when you look at each person, you feel that they don’t know if at a certain moment something could happen to them. In a way, each one of them is a target without them knowing they were such targets. It’s like the big brother watching you. CCTV images show that you are constantly under watch at any moment, whereas selfie images are the images that you decide to make yourself.
Is this film your love letter to Naples?
Naples is for me something that is related with my childhood. I came from the south of Italy. Naples is, in a way, the highest exemplification of reality that I am accustomed to. But I am definitely sure that I could do the work that I do, as I did, in any big city or neighborhood in the world. Of course I don’t mean the middle class neighborhood, but rather the ones with poverty problems and in the periphery. What happens in Traiano of Naples could happen in Los Angeles, or in any city. For example, if you live in a difficult neighborhood in the United States and you are an African American, you immediately become the target of prejudice. And, the relation I have with all my cartels is that I really become a part of their life. I am not able to make the so-called observational documentary when you in some way become a spectator of the reality. I relate with the context I work in under the presumption that in a way I would be able to change it a little bit and to repair the problems that I see.
What do you think about cinematic representations of Naples these years, such as La Paranza dei Bambini / Piranha, in the competition category of this year’s Berlinale?
In the beginning Naples that has been represented in films in the best possible way, but at a certain point it became a new postcard in negative prints. Very often filmmakers tend to collect evidence to see negative things. Because of the way the reality had been told and seen everywhere, the image now belongs to everybody. That’s why I don’t want to describe what you can see, but rather to insist more what they see. There is a Chinese motto which says, don’t look at your finger, look at the moon. In this case I am doing the opposite. The moon has been shown so many times, so I put my attention on the fingers.
The protagonists also came to the Berlinale. What was their experience and did the film change their life in any way?
They are enthusiastic and very happy to see that their life can be of interest to someone, and that they became something more than just a number or a category. But they don’t seem to be willing to change their life or become someone whom they are not after the impact of the situation. They want to do what they wanted to do originally, a barber and a barman, what is usually normal but not very normal at all for that neighborhood.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.