Partners in life and in filmmaking, Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo, have always made documentaries that would spread awareness on social justice, human rights, the environment, and the arts. Their most recent work, It Will Be Chaos (Sarà il caos) is an HBO documentary, in Association with Film2, that depicts how life in the South of Italy is thrown into disarray as refugees arrive by the thousands.
The story is set in Lampedusa, one of the largest of the Italian Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean Sea, that in ancient times used to be a maritime base for the ancient Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Berbers. Those who are fond of literature will associate the island to the writer of The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, descendant of Prince Ferdinand Tomasi of Palermo, who acquired the island in the seventeenth century. Today this bewitching island is popular amongst those who are fond of its spectacular natural environment, as well as the rich archaeology and history that has been the stage of venturesome episodes throughout the centuries. Furthermore, due to its geographic position, Lampedusa, has gained attention for becoming a prime transit point for irregular migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia wanting to enter Europe. In 2011, more than 48,000 immigrants arrived on the island from Tunisia and Libya; and in October 2013, a boat carrying over 500 migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Somalia, sank off the coast of Lampedusa with the deaths of at least 300 people. This is where It Will Be Chaos (Sarà il caos) begins, following the plight of two families, fleeing from oppression and war and seeking a better life in Europe.
The Luciano-Piscopo duo shows great sensitivity in documenting the raw truth of the territories destroyed by the terror that these men have left, without ever getting intrusive or inopportune. The humanitarian crisis is shown with all its nuances, including the duality of the response of the locals from Lampedusa — some have an incredibly humane behavior, others are utterly xenophobic.
I sat down with the husband-and-wife team of filmmakers, to talk about the making of It Will Be Chaos (Sarà il caos) — winner of the Best Director Award at the Taormina Film Festival 2018:
What is your work process as a filmmaker-duo?
We both have a strong passion for socially engaged films. When we find a story that speaks to us we begin preliminary research to determine if it is feasible. In the first phase of the pre-production process, we need to establish the degree of access to the main players we can potentially achieve. Filippo gets in touch with the grassroots organizations working on the ground that are knowledgeable about the social-political environment in which the particular story takes place. Then we brainstorm on the information he gathered and decide how to move forward. We then travel to the epicenter of the unfolding story and meet all the players involved. Here the most delicate and complex task begins: to find the right characters to tell that particular story, a process that could take months. In terms of roles, we both co-direct and co-produce our films, but we also complement each other. Filippo is a skilled cinematographer and I (Lorena) am an experienced documentary editor. It is a learning process that allows us to move faster and get to the core of the filmmaking process without too many filters. At the same time, we really enjoy the collaborative filmmaking process and we work with talented colleagues in various fields, such as sound design and music composition that provide many important layers to the film.
Your filmography focuses on environmental and social issues, what is the element that makes you understand that an important subject matter can also work for cinematic storytelling?
As visual storytellers, when we become interested and passionate about a topic, we research it in-depth for months, but then forget the ‘issue’ and focus on the story and its main players. Documentary-filmmaking is not an essay nor propaganda, it is instead the creative process of visually crafting real-life stories that have a beginning, middle, and an end. What ultimately works on a cinematic level is the strength of the story and the characters that populate the film. Conflict is another essential element that makes the story move to the next stage. What is at stake? What are people looking to achieve or change? What are the roadblocks along the route? In ‘It Will Be Chaos (Sarà il caos),’ for example, we focus on asylum seekers forced to flee their home countries because of wars and repression. The stories you could tell in such an environment are endless, but for the Syrian section of the film we wanted to focus our narration on the family microcosm. What goes on inside the mind of a father fleeing his comfortable life in Damascus, to put at risk the safety of his family by boarding a flimsy boat towards a continent which doesn’t want them? The stretch of the Mediterranean separating Turkey from Greece, one of the main entry gates to Europe, is very rough and the weather is bad. Wael, the Syrian father, wants to cross that sea at all costs. It doesn’t matter that his relatives send messages from Lebanon imploring him to wait: he embarks on that boat anyway, in a sea crossing that could prove fatal and destroy an entire family in a matter of minutes. We ourselves follow the crossing through their WhatsApp messages and are terrified at the idea that the dinghy could capsize and take their lives, as it happened to many families in that extremely dangerous stretch of water…This is one of the highest moments of tensions in the film, which helps to cinematically move the story forward to a new chapter, but also to bring the audience closer to the main characters in the film.
How long was the process for the making of the film?
It took 6 years to make ‘It Will Be Chaos (Sarà il caos).’ Our first inspiration, as Italian residents in the US, was the refugee crisis hitting Italy at the height of the Arab Spring back in 2011. Suddenly, our native country was all over the news, with images of rickety boats loaded with human cargo of hundreds of people crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to seek refuge on the Italian shores. When we started witnessing the crisis, we decided to fly to Lampedusa to meet with the main players: the refugees, the fishermen, the locals, the humanitarian organizations on site. And we realized that this crisis was way more complex than we thought and than the media was portraying. In a way, everyone was telling the same story: boats full of people approaching the Italian shores, hundreds of them transferred to the migration centers.
What story did you want to tell?
It had to be a panoramic approach from the ground level. It was crucial to widen the angle and tell the bigger picture. We spent the following year meeting locals, getting to know the Coast Guard and befriending the fishermen, as well as working with the humanitarian workers, getting access to the refugee center and asking questions to the human rights lawyers on the island. We pursued the true vision we had shaped on location: the cacophony of stories, the tale of two crises with the refugees’ on one side, the locals’ on the other. We chose the latter. Fast forward to 2013. The crisis is even bigger, the boats are filled with more and more refugees, and the death toll continues to soar. We meet Eritrean refugee Aregai, who survives a tragic shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa and is saved by a fisherman, Domenico. Their story allows us to shape the mosaic we have in mind for the film, which features the asylum seekers as well as the locals left alone to manage an unprecedented refugee crisis. Fast forward to 2015. The crisis, now of epic proportions, shifts along the Balkan route, bolstering nationalist parties in Italy and inspiring protests in many countries. During the editing process the greatest challenge was to intertwine different stories and geographies to create a unique story that would flow but that would also be firmly anchored to the facts, and eloquently narrate the global migration crisis, a crisis as ancient as the world, of which we are protagonists and spectators at the same time. The film we made is true to what our eyes have seen over the years working on location. It reflects our own passion and struggle to make this documentary, as well as the passion and struggles of the many people we met and we worked with. What came out of it is a multi-character story that zig-zags through time and space, plunging the audience into the middle of things, where the bigger crisis unfolds in real time.
Your film follows the life of specific families of refugees, how did you choose their stories amongst others?
After the tragic shipwreck of October 3rd 2013 we flew to Lampedusa and we were plunged into a situation of immense pain where the relatives of the victims came from all over the world. We met a series of survivors disoriented by the shock and chaos that reigned on the island. When we met Aregai, we realized that his mastery of the English language allowed us to break down a huge barrier, the linguistic one, and establish a more direct communication with him and his story. It took some time to win his trust, but eventually we succeeded, respecting his grief of losing the three cousins at sea. He realized that giving his testimony in the film was also a way to leave to posterity the image of his cousins, swallowed by the sea. In 2015, we were contacted by a UN official, Sara Bergamaschi, who became an associate producer of the film, and offered us to follow a Syrian family waiting to cross the Aegean to get to Greece. Six months earlier, Sara had already helped another member of the Orfahli family, Thair, the younger brother of our co-protagonist Wael, to save herself in Germany. Thanks to the teamwork with our colleague filmmaker Niccolò Bruna and with Sara Bergamaschi, we succeeded in establishing a relationship of mutual trust with the Orfahli family. As the journey progressed we identified with that middle-class bourgeois family because we felt it could have been us, we have two children and a similar social background.
What was the biggest challenge in the making?
The choice (and challenge) of ‘It Will Be Chaos (Sarà il caos)’ was to portray the individual and collective mosaic of immigration without being rhetorical and without using voiceovers or talking heads. We are passionate about the kind of cinema that captures intimate and unexpected scenes, makes people talk and interact. The recipe is simple but not easy: you have to make your characters forget the presence of the camera. Only then can you capture the viewer's attention: telling the folds, but also the conflicts, that make a human and universal character. One of the biggest challenges was embarking on an extraordinary film journey in 2015 to follow Wael, Doha and their four children as they cross the Balkan route to find shelter in Germany. A journey made on foot, aboard trains of refugees, in the tents of volunteers together with a million migrants in the depths of the umpteenth humanitarian crisis. Wael and his family, like all asylum seekers with limited resources, had to move quickly, traveling day and night jumping from a train to a bus. They could not risk remaining without money and stuck in a country where they did not want to be. We had to adapt but it was difficult because there is no physical time to recharge the camera’s batteries, download the material that we shot, and often we could not rest more than a couple of hours per night…For those who make these kind of documentaries, being in the midst of tragic situations during filming and having to tell the bigger picture is the greatest challenge. When on the pier of Lampedusa, in 2013, a huge crane of the army lifted, one by one, the coffins of the victims in front of the eyes of the grieving families. Deciding to film that scene was not easy. We tried to chronicle that pain without being sensationalistic, respecting the pain of the victims and at the same time trying to turn it into a story that would survive the media buzz.
As Italians living in America what is your perception of the new wave of xenophobia that is occurring in both countries?
Lorena says: In this historical present there are opposing stances from both sides of the ocean: on one hand the rise to power of strongly anti-immigrant and populist governments that rely on bad information, and on the other the widespread presence of people and associations active in the area that implement beautiful projects with the few resources they have. This must be stronger than the reactionary waves. Everyone in their own field must do something to make sure their voice is heard through their work: the doctor, the teacher, the journalist, the singer, the writer, the lawyer, no one is excluded .
Filippo adds: It is difficult to be optimistic during these hard times, but we cannot succumb to pessimism. We must be overwhelmed by the many people who do a fabulous job with the migrants providing support, legal and medical advice, logistics organization, family reunification and so on. There are so many realities throughout Europe but also in the USA that work every day in favor of the rights of immigrants and are an example that raises people’s spirits.