Reflections: Interview with 'Gaetano Capizzi', Director of Cinemabiente

Ellise Fuchs

"Cinemabiente means films that reflect the world, or act like a mirror of society. At the same time, they cause the viewer to reflect."

For many years, Torino has been considered the car and industrial capital of Italy. More recently, the city has also been crowned a center for modern art and design, technology and innovation. Along with these titles, Torino is upgrading its environmental status as well. Cinemambiente [Environmental Cinema] is a model film festival, combining screenings of environmental features, documentaries, and animated movies with debates and panels. In 2007, the Festival celebrated its 10th year of presenting "films that reflect." Gaetano Capizzi, the founder and director of Cinemambiente, is a part-time high school computer science teacher with a deep background in film and film history. Every year, he manages to find funding for an inspiring five-day venue.

PopMatters spoke with Capizzi regarding his vision and his dedication to Cinemambiente.

Let's start with the title, Cinemambiente: Films that Reflect. Describe the significance of the title and the variety of subject matter you include under this heading.

The use of the word "environment" is not at all casual. Cinemambiente is a broader, more encompassing term than, say, "ecology". Ecology is about the relationship between man and nature, as if he is part of nature. "Environment" is everything that "surrounds" man, including nature, the city, types of human reactions, war and conflict. We preferred this title, which is a little more Italian, to one such as "Ecocinema".

Our idea is to tell about human relationships, whether with the environment or with nature. The title's meaning is also twofold. It means films that reflect the world, or act like a mirror of society. At the same time, they cause the viewer to reflect. Our idea of cinema requires involvement on the part of the spectator. Our films are not meant to entertain. The viewer needs to make a sort of commitment with respect to the films being viewed, in the sense that it is an interactive cinematic experience where one also has to think.

We are different from a series of festivals that exist throughout the world. We screen various nature documentaries and we often have a focus on "Special Problems". This section is great, but it can be very difficult sometimes, because the viewer doesn't always want to sit for three or four hours to watch such heavy films. But there are lighter moments within the Festival, between other types of screenings, animation, panel discussions, and the awards. We have gambled a bit with this format and have been penalized in a way by not having an enormous public, but, on the other hand, our work has a lot of value.

You founded Cinemambiente ten years ago. Tell us about your role as the director and how the festival has evolved.

In 1996, there was the ten-year anniversary of the disaster at Chernobyl. I thought it could be interesting to show a series of films with a nuclear theme, so we put together a mini-festival. It was apparently a good idea because a lot of people attended. We did a rather in-depth cinematic search worldwide, and were able to bring together some important ecologists and environmentalists, along with some very interesting films. From that point, there was a natural transition of thinking we could treat a series of environmental themes.

Over the years, we have had countless collaborators. I came to this project with a lot of cinematic, critical, and organizational experience and have survived the difficulties throughout the years. Unfortunately, it has not been easy economically. I have had to pay for some things out of my own pocket, because we haven't had much money with which to work. But I have found myself in front of the historic creation of this venue and fortunately, I have had the opportunity to carry it forward. We were the first of our kind in Italy and, with this format, we were also the first on an international level. We were interested in putting together something other than what was already out there, and figured there were both filmmakers and an audience.

I have seen a tremendous growth in interest. It's true the problems are larger and more serious now, but there is definitely more involvement recently regarding the environment. My role has been establishing and maintaining relationships with businesses, institutions, and organizations, as well as researching potential sponsors and funding for each year. I am also responsible for creating the theme and the program of the Festival, working closely with the staff, collaborators, and even friends. We usually meet over the year to discuss possibilities, and eventually "the line" of the Festival develops. There is also the creative research part of the job, locating films to screen. Over time, many of our collaborators have gained experience, so problems can be resolved by others, making my job more that of a coordinator.

How do you select films for the Festival? For competitive juried sections, filmmakers submit their works, but otherwise, how do you find movies for the thematic sections?

We have a specific "idea" about cinema. The films must speak about environmental problems, however, they must be films that are valid, well made, and innovative cinematically. This is the formula which has kept us on our feet, which has allowed for the growth in our Festival. These requirements render our job very complicated because, often times, for example, TV programs are interesting but don't hold up as films in a theater.

The films are basically chosen in the following manner: For the competition sections, a few hundred preview copies are sent to our office. Then there is the active research part, where we attend other festivals such as Cannes and Venezia or festivals that specialize in documentaries, such as Amsterdam, Lyon or environmental festivals. Once we have found some interesting films, we contact the directors directly. With this method of research and viewing around 500 movies, we select films for the various competitions and we are able to shape some topical themes, such as waste, nuclear energy or overpopulation, about which we can make some special programs.

I would also like to hear about the attention to young viewers and makers at the Festival, through such sections as "Ecokids".

Ecokids, a section dedicated to screenings for elementary school through high school-aged kids, was established the first year of the Festival, a kind of Festival within the Festival. To me, cinema has a huge educational potential for everyone but, above all, for young people, who by now are used to certain languages of visual communication and quick messages. After every film, there is an in-depth talk, either with the director or with an expert on the issue.

These meetings are always very positive and the kids discuss things. The discussions are stimulating also for teachers, showing ways to continue studying the issues in the classroom. Ecokids is also distributed to schools outside of the city, in small town theaters or at the schools themselves. We have developed workshops where the kids can study an environmental issue and make their own small documentaries. Therefore, they become mini-directors of cinemambiente.

Do some of your staff members work directly with the schools and teachers?

Yes, we have people who do two types of jobs. They either show the films and hold group discussions afterwards, or they run small workshops on video production. These activities take place throughout the year.

This is the second year featuring an international animated film competition section. What are our views on the relationship between environment and animation?

Over time, the Festival has changed in order to find its definitive form. Just as documentaries have matured recently, animation has also grown, to become one of the genres most attentive to the environment. These films are not tied to representing reality or to a filmic reconstruction of reality like documentaries or feature films. Animation directors invent their own worlds. We include traditional as well as more avant-garde computer-generated films.

With the program Flash, many animators are making films at home without the backing of a studio. It's gotten to the point that we can even make small films on our cell phones. In fact, this year we are offering a competition through our site called Ecotribe, in which one can submit cell phone films. We think it's a nice way to invite people to reflect on environmental problems and make them understand the importance of these pocket-sized technological instruments for denouncing an injustice or understanding something about the world.

At this point we can say that a majority of the population understands that the planet is truly in trouble, especially the public that attends your Festival. During Cinemambiente, I've read headlines such as, "The World that Suffers" or "The Devastated Planet in which We Live". I wonder where you find hope and what you consider to be the message to your public.

I must say that after seeing a few hundred films a year in which environmental problems are at the forefront, one feels rather doubtful. However, if I can add something personal to this interview, I have to say that this experience of working for Cinemambiente has changed my way of living.

The problems are truly large. Climate change has occurred because of man along with the emission of carbon but one's habits can change in some way. Being able to understand the consequences of one's way of life could maybe change other attitudes. Without sounding like a pessimist I have to believe that the only way is to be aware and to act accordingly thus making one's imprint on the planet lighter.

It seems you have built up a faithful audience over the years. And despite some negative articles in the newspaper, they continue to come to your Festival.

Certainly we are aware that there are festivals that may be more fun than ours. We have made a moral choice by screening films that show things as they are. This may be a message that is very difficult for some to handle. But it's also thanks to some of our screenings that some issues have been raised and written about in the newspapers.

For example, when there was the problem of mad cow disease, there was a documentary at our Festival that demonstrated how here in Italy, there was some meat that arrived from other countries and it was not controlled properly. Through the newspaper La Repubblica in Torino, there was an investigation. This is an argument that's a little unpleasant, but it's a reality.

Or there was another time when we showed a film about an English vessel that went along the coast of Sicily and proceeded to leave behind a huge nuclear deposit that contaminated a large part of the sea around the island. This leakage created a problem that still exists today. Many sustained that the problem didn't exist, however, in this film one can see the vessel with its name on it. Those who saw the film realized that it was not a ghost, that it existed. From that point on, the Italian press reopened that case in order to discover what happened.

What are you featuring in the 10th edition of Cinemambiente?

One thing I can say is that through our research we found numerous films this year about climate change. Some were very well made and some less so, but we couldn't ignore the issue, so we decided to dedicate a special section to this very important theme.

In our International Documentary section, we are showing films from such countries as Mexico, Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, USA, Germany and Greece. The subject matter ranges from working conditions and human rights to energy and global warming. In the International Animation section, there are films from as far away as Australia, Brazil, and Kazakhstan. We are featuring a special non-competitive section that deals with human rights in Iraq, Palestine, and Israel. The program is quite rich and we have some international guests, including Charris Ford, of Grassolean Solutions LLC and Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, the Iraqi protagonist of Laura Poitras' My Country, My Country.

I think anyone who attends the Festival this year will walk away with some questions and insight regarding his or her surroundings.

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