Thursday, March 3, 2011

Cecilia Mangini, pioneer Italian documentary filmmaker

I had the great pleasure of hearing Cecilia Mangini speak of her life and filmmaking experiences last Saturday night. The occasion for this encounter with this legendary figure in Italian documentary filmmaking was the presentation of a book, Con Ostinata Passione (With Obstinate Passion), written by Gianluca Sciannameo, the founder of the Camera a Sud Cultural Association (where I'm taking my social photography course).

Mangini was the first woman to document on camera the reality of everyday life in Italy, particularly those situations that could be considered "troublesome," that the mainstream media were doing their best to cover up and/or ignore in the postwar boom period of the 1950s and 60s. She captured many portraits of people and ways of life that were struggling to survive or which were somehow passed by in the prosperous new consumer society. Her documentaries, made in collaboration with such Italian film greats as Pier Paolo Pasolini, have had both good fortune and bad: at times censored, they have seen both great success and have struggled to find distribution, and yet they have won international awards.

Mangini has Puglian origins: she was born in her father's hometown of Mola di Bari. Although her family moved to Florence when she was six, she spent her summers in Mola and she told us of how she was struck by the contrast between the lives of the working people around her in the two different regions. She felt the pain of the inequalities and injustices faced by the agricultural workers in the south, but came to love the warmth and solidarity of those people even in the face of extreme hardship and poverty. She believes that these early experiences were fundamental in forming her world view and in leading her to take a social exposè approach to her filmmaking.

Mangini, born in 1927, spoke of how she believes that she belonged to a lucky generation. A generation of young people with high hopes for a better future after the fall of Fascism and full of energy and intellectual ferment aimed at creating a better world. She admitted that things didn't turn out quite the way they had hoped, but that she is thankful to have lived in such exciting times. 

Image from "Essere donne" - 1965

Her approach to documentary filmmaking is to go beyond simply capturing the reality of a situation as it presents itself, but to create a visual work that tells a compelling story. She believes that a documentary filmmaker always takes a position and expresses it through his choice of images and sounds. She also thinks that her films ask and expect viewers to have a reaction to what they see on the screen.

Image from the Film "La Canta delle Marane" - 1962

Mangini is a living piece of film history. She was a key player in the transition of the Italian documentary film from the simple depiction of scientific phenomena or landscapes, newsreel reports of natural disasters, to a tool in the impassioned cultural and social struggle of the time. 

We watched three of her short documentaries on Saturday, each of which was breathtakingly powerful and emotionally moving. My absolute favorite was "Stendalì" which tells of the Puglian tradition of ritual mourning, expressed through group chanting and crying, and ritualised movements and actions. 

I feel truly honored to have met Cecilia Mangini. Not because she is famous or because she has made films, but because she is truly a special woman. Besides directing films she has worked as a journalist, essayist, photographer and film critic. She is 84 years old, yet sprightly, vibrant and extremely intelligent. At the same time, she is humble, charming and obviously open to and curious about new people and new experiences.

An inspiration!


Katja said...

Wow. That film was really powerful, despite (or maybe even more so because of) the fact that my Italian's rubbish and I had to keep pausing the opening credits to work out what the words meant.

I was a bit concerned by the fact that she had apparently put a camera *in the coffin*, but I'm guessing that was mocked up afterwards rather than happening at the time.

I'd be fascinated to know how true to life those rituals are today. Any idea if that kind of thing still goes on?

Couture Carrie said...

Fabulous bio!
How cool that you met her!


little luxury list said...

What a great opportunity to learn and hear from a pioneer!
Have a lovely weekend dear and loved your comment about the pet flamingo!

Chic 'n Cheap Living

LindyLouMac said...

She sounds an amazing woman!

Anonymous said...

The film was dramatic and heart admiration for Italians has always included their ability to exhibit passion about things they are passionate about.
Captured starkly and passionately by Cecilia Mangini. I was interested in the fact that the women stayed behind and the men took the coffin to the grave! I too wonder if there are villages in Italy that practice this same ritual today. How fortunate you had the opportunity to meet Cecilia Mangini. My blog "adopted" Livorno Italy to learn about for the year 2011, plus learning about Tuscany and all things Italian. I will be putting a link to your site on my home page!

Saretta said...

Katja - don't worry, she told us that the boy in the coffin wasn't really dead, he was pretending. A relief for me, too!

Carrie - It was an honor to meet such an interesting person, really!

Chic - I agree, it was a great opportunity!

Lindy - I think so, too.

T&B - I don't think these traditions persist today. I know that the walking procession to the graveyard has been made illegal. Thanks for the link!

Francesca said...

Amazing. This owes a lot to Ernesto De Martino's "morte e pianto rituale"

Saretta said...

Interesting Francesca. I had never heard of that book before. I wonder if the lack of these rituals in modern life leaves us somewhat unstablized in our moments of grief?