If we are to pick a word that would best describe the Italian born filmmaker Massimo Salvato, then this word would be “Deterritorialization”. With his critical approach to filmmaking and his propensity to transcend both territorial and cultural boundaries, Massimo creates pseudo or meta-narratives that depict marginalised and emerging communities in an attempt to strengthen their identity by translating their incongruity and displacement into a nomadic yet meaningful cinematic storytelling.
We had the pleasure to spend a few hours with Massimo on a sunny and an unusually warm day. He kindly invited us for a cup of coffee and showed us his workspace and the projects he’s currently working on. We then went for a walk along the canal, chatting about Peter Greenaway, Italian salsiccia, his love for the unknown and his interest in the “cinema of diaspora”. We later drove to Maindee Community House where we had the chance to see him in action directing a short film about hope and resilience featuring social activist Ismael Velasco.
“Being an artist in Wales is no different than being an artist anywhere else in the western world.”
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I find very difficult to imagine myself in the past. I have to close my eyes. It’s summer school holidays, finally. I see the reception area of the building where my parents’ apartment is. I am going out to play football in the street with my friends. It’s hot outside, but the reception area is cool, and I always look forward to walk through that in the summer. Three sounds are parts of my present imagination: the sound of my mother’s Singer sewing machine mixed with her murmured singing of Italian popular songs, the screaming of pigs getting slaughtered in the small holding of a neighbour, and my brother practising on his piano. The smell in the winter of chestnut marmalade which my mother used to make. The ‘sanguinaccio’ (sweet black pudding) at Carnival. The smell of those giant artichokes on barbecues during Easter holidays. The quantity of food at Pasquetta (Easter Monday).
“I’d fit everywhere I have the opportunity to do what I like.”
You’ve been living in Wales for more than 15 years. How do you fit in with the place you currently call home?
I don’t know how to answer this question. I am not a nostalgic, therefore in general I am adaptable to different cultures and I can be critical of my own Southern Italian upbringing stating that my decision of moving was the consequence of the fact that I did not really fit there, despite I have always returned there with pleasure and often dream of making some films there. I’d fit everywhere I have the opportunity to do what I like. Feeling at home has to do a lot with participating, feeling integrated and included. I seem to fit well within marginalised and emergent communities. Newport may not have the scale of the social and political issues of Naples, for example, but it shares with the Italian city the colourfulness of its inhabitants and a provincial dimension of the arts scene. Probably Newport represents to me the synthesis between Polla, the Italian little town where I grew up and Naples, the city where I studied and lived for ten years.
Throughout the years you have developed close ties with the artistic community in South Wales. Can you tell us more about the challenges faced by the local art scene? What is it like to be an artist in Wales from a filmmaker’s perspective?
Being an artist in Wales is no different than being an artist anywhere else in the western world. Artists’ motivation is to express themselves, and this clashes with the cost efficiency and profit oriented contemporary dominant culture. So, often there is a struggle in making a living out of it. Often artists have a job which pays the bills, but this leaves not much time to making art, thinking of it, and not much time to travel with the art you make. The result of this is a marginalisation and insularity of artistic communities. Tough choices for artists. Including filmmakers, obviously.
Was there a decisive moment or an existential turning-point that drew you to cinema and filmmaking?
I have been an eclectic reader since very young. I used to read encyclopaedias at home and later I read Italian and international classic and modern literature. It was an amateur theatre experience as an actor in Polla, together with the encounter with a couple of remarkably film educated people during my period in Naples which gave me the passion for knowing more and the confidence to actually try to make films.
What was your most meaningful collaboration so far?
The shoot of my short film Carmen in Southern Italy, my first film I wrote, produced and directed, happened thanks to the collaboration of some very talented colleagues from the MA Film at the University of South Wales (the former Newport Film School, now sadly moved to Cardiff). They injected in me confidence which has been invaluable for my following projects, and through their confidence I gained some knowledge of the filmmaking process (I didn’t come to filmmaking through a conventional route, as I had trained in Italy to be an economist). Collaborating with some of the EKRAN filmmakers from the Wajda Studio in Warsaw gave me the possibility to measure myself against some of the best European up and coming filmmakers. I had the possibility to plan, shoot and edit short films with some remarkable filmmakers and artists, some of them collaborated with me in cast and crew roles or as advisers in all of my following projects. In general, film is a collaborative art, and in each project I made, the people I collaborated with have meaningfully contributed to the final products.
Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
I am inspired by the worlds of Italo Calvino and the fictional journalism of Marquez, Sciascia and Rea. I love the idealist tradition of the Neapolitan school of philosophy of Benedetto Croce and Gerardo Marotta. Coleridge and Ian McEwan are my favourite British writers. I often go back to Borges, Emily Dickinson and Majakovski. I’d love to be influenced by the cinema of Bunuel, Truffaut, Kubrick and Tarkovsky. But I ended up making a short film which recalls David Lynch, whose films I hadn’t seen at the time. Maybe I am influenced by what I don’t know.
“I feel the constant emergency ‒ and pleasure ‒ of destroying, displacing, subverting narratives, and in so doing, hopefully to give space to new voices who live "in-between" and have to find expression.”
Your approach to filmmaking is both poetic and raw. Do you feel like you owe something to the Italian neorealist aesthetics?
I am not sure I have one approach to filmmaking. As soon as we decide to record images, we automatically position ourselves within aesthetic and ideological traditions. My approach to filmmaking, which, from a production point of view, is often based on the integration/clash between industry and community practices (professional and non-professional actors, script and improvisation, conventional narrative and avant-garde, fiction and documentary), is still in formation. I like to be aware of the filmmaking tradition I follow when I think of an image. My formation as a filmmaker has a lot to do with the filmmakers I loved when I was a student in Italy, especially Pasolini, Godard, Kubrick and Truffaut. I would automatically think of how they would do it every time I think of an image. Once I manage to read my imagination in the context of a filmmaking tradition, then I feel more confident and excited to express my voice out there.
You openly declared your ambiguous love for narrative films whilst attempting to deconstruct the narrative structure of a film by unfolding the in-between space/time. Can you tell us more about this in-between space/time?
This is a real problem to me which I started to be intellectually aware of and interested in after I made my short film Muse. I do love narrative cinema, which is the cinema I watch and enjoy most of the times, which it makes me feel like there is a ‘home’. However, my work (documentary and fiction) is part of a tradition of “cinema of diaspora”. As a southern Italian who relocated in Wales, a cosmopolitan country, I exist in a state of tension and dissension with both my Italian and Welsh ‘homes’, the so-called ‘diaspora anxiety’. Narratives are seducing and poisonous like drugs or the femme fatale of noir films, or Ludmilla in Muse.
Let’s go a bit deeper into the question of cinematic narrative. The historical fact is that cinema was constituted as such by becoming narrative, by presenting a story and by forging a conventional causality. Where would you situate yourself in relation with this burdensome tradition? Are there any creative and conceptual strategies that enable you to disperse the narrative boundaries whilst assembling an alternative cinematic language?
I feel the constant emergency ‒ and pleasure ‒ of destroying, displacing, subverting narratives, and in so doing, hopefully to give space to new voices who live “in-between” and have to find expression. My films are created working independently, outside the mainstream film industries; they use interstitial and collective modes of production that critique those mainstream film industries. Within this context, I don’t know where I am situated, but maybe I will be able to answer when I will have made a few more films.
You spent some time in Poland studying at the Andrzej Wajda Master School of Film Directing. What is the most meaningful learning experience you carried with you over the years from that time?
In Warsaw I had the possibility to see a lot of different filmmakers creating their own work, which speak of itself in terms of learning.
Before moving to Wales you also lived and worked in South America. Can you tell us more about that experience?
I mostly travelled along Brazil. When I came back to Italy I felt I had made a mistake. I just loved travelling with no destination. Maybe there I really found out that I couldn’t just stay in Italy and get a normal job.
You are running a film club in Newport, can you tell us how this started? Is this a continuation of the cultural association you used to run in Italy?
I like screening films, and paraphrasing Godard, I think that cinema should be brought where there isn’t. I was keeping my eyes opened for starting some screenings in Newport, and had the possibility to use a beautiful little venue which is also sometimes used as a private jazz club or live experimental music venue. It is only a private film club, but it is still going every Monday since 2009. We started with a retrospective on Herzog.
You are also a College lecturer in Film Studies and, as an educator, you have the privilege to take the cinematic pulse of the younger generations. What can you tell us about their interest in cinema and film studies?
It is beautiful to see the enthusiasm of some teenagers who enrol to the course hoping to know more about how films are put together, the different meanings they can generate through the combination of technical elements, how films are a mirror of the society and culture that create them. What saddens me, though, and I also think this is an important reason for many students losing that initial enthusiasm, is the fact that they have to increasingly deal with very tight and frequent assessment tasks, therefore less and less pure ‘experiencing’ time is dedicated to the development of that ‘wild’ enthusiasm.
Do you think that is still possible for filmmakers to invent new cinematic values and to discover new territories for experimentation?
Since the beginning, the dilemma of the filmmaker has been: “where to put the damn camera?”. But then there is the post-production... and then the sound. The possibilities are endless.
Do you have any new ideas or aspirations that you would like to work on in the future?
I would like to work on a documentary style road movie, exploring the idea of border crossing and home. I would like to do this as a personal contribution to the academic research on transnational cinema. I would like to write more screenplays for feature films, film ideas, articles about films and film culture, essays. I would love to be able to make a film in Italy, but I didn’t find yet that distance which helps writing a script that would really excite me.
Do you have a fetish object or an obsession for certain things, imaginary or not?
As far as I am aware, I don’t. But if I would, I wouldn’t dare tell the public!
What are your 3 all-time favourite films that every cinema lover should watch?
I have no idea how to answer this question! The most asked questions of all... I never know how to answer because ‘favourite’ movies are so changing and the choice depends of so many momentary factors. Anyway, there are movies which have been important to me at some point but which are not necessarily my favourites now. I am referring to Jules et Jim by Truffaut, Citizen Kane, Annie Hall, The Seventh Seal, Umberto D., Pulp Fiction, Close-up, Uccellacci e Uccellini... They are more than three. But any cinema lover will watch more than three films!
Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
I still see myself battling with myself to get my next film completed. But it is a fun life, most of the time.
Can you recommend us:
A song: “Coda di Lupo” by Fabrizio De André.
A book: Underworld by Don DeLillo.
A film: À bout de souffle by Jean-Luc Godard.
Thank you, Massimo for the vivid insight into your creative and personal world.