Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 October 2003
Issue No. 661
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A family business

Italian film producer Renzo Rossellini, Cairo Film Festival jury member, tells Mohamed El-Assyouti about art and politics

In the 1950s, when Renzo Rossellini had just graduated from L'Academia degli Belli Arti in Italy, his father summoned him to Paris where he was living at the time. Roberto Rossellini was a pioneer of the neorealist trend in postwar Italian cinema, and Renzo started to work under his tutelage. When Rossellini senior was making Roma città aperta (Rome Open City, 1945), Rossellini junior was only four. His initial awareness of film was shaped by neorealism, then the beginning of his career coincided with the emergence of the nouvelle vague, a movement he considers an expression of the political leanings of his generation. Today Rossellini junior, a widely acclaimed champion of art-oriented cinema, teaches film production in Italy and occasionally in the US and Cuba.

The influence of Italian neorealism, especially the films of Rossellini senior, was apparent in the French new wave, he says. François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette -- the Cahiers du Cinema critics who turned to filmmaking -- all admired the cinema of Roberto Rossellini. Renzo Rossellini was introduced by his father to these new French directors, and learned a great deal while working as assistant to Truffaut and Chabrol, among others. "Living close to these French directors, with the aesthetic and cultural movement they created, made me impassioned about French cinema, and contributed to the development of my cinematic awareness," he says.

In the late 1950s, Roberto Rossellini was making Il generale Della Rovere, starring Vittorio De Sica. "This collaboration between the two founders of neorealism interested me, and I jumped at the opportunity to be my father's assistant," Renzo recalls. The film turned out to involve a major compromise, however, because the producer insisted that it should be screened at the Venice Film Festival in September. "We started preparing in May, and shooting in mid-July. We had to shoot and finish all post-production work in only six weeks," Renzo explains. Organisation was of crucial importance, and to continue shooting around the clock, Rossellini senior relegated directing a second unit to his son.

"Thus began what we call 'a four-hands' collaboration, with both the director and his assistant directing," he says. From 1957 until Roberto's death in 1977, Renzo was his father's right hand. "We were inseparable. Almost always we worked together, and occasionally he would start shooting a film, then let me finish it," he recalls. "If he was to leave the location for any emergency he would rely on me to proceed with the work because he was sure that I could finish his work the way he would have liked to finish it. On the set I used to think the way he thought, considering what he would have wanted to do. I never developed my own personality as a director independent of him," he explains. Consequently, even when Rossellini junior became a director in his own right, the legacy of his father cast its shadow over every film he made. "Little by little I understood that I was not a good director," he concedes.

Fortunately, in the last years of this father- son collaboration, Renzo started performing the role of producer. Becoming exclusively a producer was not a radical career shift for Rossellini. "The producer of the film is more like a father figure, while the director is like a son. So in our collaboration we reversed our family relationship. I was the kind Papa, and he was my good son during his last years."

Rossellini junior kept up with political transformations, particularly the de-colonisation movements in Africa and Latin America. "I was very passionate about politics, and found myself involved in these liberation movements," he says.

In Paris, he encountered a group of Algerian students, who were to become leaders of the liberation movement in Algeria, and he put his work in film at the service of their cause. At that time, Mohamed Al-Akhdar Hamina, who was to become the only Arab director to win a Palme d'Or, was heading L'Office des Actualités Algeriennes which produced weekly newsreels. Hamina filmed the progress of the revolution in Algeria but he had no laboratory to develop his material. "I arranged for him to use a lab in Italy, and the material would be smuggled from Algeria, through Tunisia, and into Italy. After developing it, the newsreel was smuggled back into Algeria by the same route to inform the public about the progress of the liberation movement," he reminisces, remarking that "for me this signalled the beginning of a process whereby the machinery of cinema became a militant tool."

From this point on Rossellini junior made several documentaries on liberation movements in Asia, Africa and South America. "I always found myself attached to the popular movements, and their cultural dimension, especially in North Africa and in Africa. I have a great personal love for the Islamic world. Through my experience of making documentaries I developed a knowledge of many particulars of the reality of the Islamic world, beyond the common prejudices of others. Due to what I saw with my own eyes I came to respect the Islamic world."

In Rome Rossellini junior started the first non-state-controlled radio station. When other independent radio stations emerged, he became an oft-consulted expert in the field. But his radio career did not undermine his work with his father. "When my father died, my life changed. He had always shouldered the economic responsibility of the whole family. Now I had to abandon the luxury of being politically engaged for filmmaking," he recalls. He went to work for Gaumont in France.

This was a period when Gaumont developed a policy of connecting with European cinema and analysing its problems, notably its dependence on American cinema. "We needed to create a defence mechanism against the aggression of American films. We thought of opening representative offices of our major companies all over the world, not to sell films but to distribute them directly." The Italian film industry was in crisis; there was a pressing need to help eminent filmmakers finance their films. Through Gaumont Rossellini junior began to produce Italian films. The first was La città delle donne (City of Women, 1979) by Federico Fellini. This was followed by films by Michelangelo Antonioni --Identificazione di una donna (Identification of a Woman, 1983), for example -- and Mario Monicelli, Ettore Scola, Francesco Rosi, Ermanno Olmi, Lina Wertmüller and Nanni Moretti. He worked with directors from elsewhere in the world too: Joseph Losi, Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky. Of the latter Rossellini explains that, besides producing work of outstanding artistic quality, "the aim of making his film, Nostalgia, was to help an artist express himself outside a system that was repressing his creative freedom." It was the only way to get him out of the USSR, to which he would never return until his death in Switzerland a few years later.

In 1981 the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan. Ahmed Shah Massoud, head of the French-based resistance, had found out that Rossellini launched the first independent radio station in Italy. "He contacted me and I went to create a system for an independent Afghan radio, Free Kabul Radio (FKR)," he recalls. This was his last political act. Rossellini junior first came to Egypt in 1967 while directing with his father a 12-episode TV series entitled La lotta dell'uomo per la sua sopravvivenza (The struggle for survival), on the journey of humanity from the birth of Adam until the modern age. There was a section on Ancient Egypt and Pharaonic civilisation. When the bombings of the Six Day War began, the Italian Embassy evacuated all Italians from Cairo and the Rossellinis had to abandon shooting against their will.

"I remember we stayed at the old hotel Semiramis, and we had a suite which overlooked the Nile on one side, and had a view of Muqqatam Hill on the other. We were preparing to shoot a few scenes in Saqqara that morning. While I was trimming my beard on the terrace, I heard a noise, and then saw aeroplanes bearing the star of David come from the south, cross the Nile, drop a few bombs on Muqqatam -- where there was a radar station -- then turn back and disappear where they came from. We departed from the port of Alexandria where a ship belonging to the Italian government was transporting its citizens from Egypt. It was a difficult but very memorable trip," he recollects. Since then he had not been back to Egypt. "I'm glad I'm on the jury of this festival, because it has brought me back to Egypt after 35 years," he says.

Rossellini junior believes that the Cairo Film Festival should focus more on building an international market where films from Egypt and the Arab world are made available to European distributors and vice versa. "This is the importance of any festival in my opinion. It is not just about seeing a few films for a few days, but about exchanging cinematic culture on a regular basis," he contends, adding that "a festival is about a market and networking because markets bring producers and distributors from all over the world." He adds that there should be an opening of production channels between Europe and Egypt. "I don't think there is a co-production agreement between Egypt and the European countries."

Rossellini speculates that the battle against American film may have been still raging a few years back. But now it is lost, or almost so. "In the mind of people film is an American product. Whatever we do will always be seen by people as something other than what the majority considers a film: an expensive product, very comprehensible, with everything explained in a very simple manner. Therefore, when the film language is poetic, philosophic, or ethical and moral, as is the case with our cultures, we make films that the masses don't understand. American films to which they are addicted are never ethical, moral, social or poetic, or they very seldom are. This has thus become the model, which is truly an operation of cultural colonisation." The problem, in Rossellini's view, is no longer one of creating economic and industrial structures, but of starting an operation of cultural decolonisation.

He believes that the EU, representing a different political and economic reality, can create the structures that will counter American cultural predominance. But these structures are currently lacking. Rossellini regrets the fact that there is no one company distributing in all of Europe, and many films have little opportunity of being screened in other European countries. "To make a film that will find sufficient audiences in all of Europe means that such a film has to appeal to the various cultural sensibilities and backgrounds of the very diverse European people," he warns. However, he adds, "if European cinema achieves autonomy and respect vis-à-vis American cinema, it will be able to help African cinema very significantly."

Rossellini junior likes some independent American films. He sees their independence of the capitalist system as a way of achieving freedom of expression, because a film that is free economically is also free artistically. He hopes that the Cairo Film Festival will organise special rounds for independent US cinema and Italian cinema in the future rounds, to follow in the footsteps of this year's focus on French cinema. Of American cinema he says, "This grand industry is so aggressive that it becomes inimical, it produces many bad, but also some good films." With respect to the better, independent films, Rossellini suggests that the Cairo Festival should collaborate with the Sundance Festival for independent American films. "There should be a section for Sundance films in the Cairo Festival. Even if some think of them as experimental, growth comes with experimenting," he says.

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