03 January 2010

State of Exception, An Exceptional Documentary About A Long Forgotten World War II Massacre, My Interview With Its Director, Germano Maccioni

A monument to Monte Sole's victims.

Nearly 65 years after World War II ended the war continues to haunt us. Such a cataclysm, claiming as it did, tens of millions of lives, echoes into the second decade of this millennium. Clearly there are still lessons unlearned and healing not yet finished. We are still finding some previously unknown or long hushed tragedy with a new set of villains.  We thus are exposed to new dramas and further contemplating the complexities inherent in human behavior.

If we are lucky the any  new story about the war is presented to us thoughtfully and in a manner meant to heal rather than merely shock. One such example is the outstanding new documentary Lo Stato Di Eccezione (State of Exception) about the absentia trial of the perpetrators of the September 1944 Monte Sole massacre in Northern Italy. German soldiers, with the collusion of Italian fascists, massacred 770 Italians, including the elderly, women and children. The killings were a retaliation against alleged acts of resistance. In subsequent war crime trials the leader of the massacre, SS Officer Walter Reder was sentenced to life in prison. But with the intervention of the Austrian government he was released in 1984. No one else was brought to justice for the Monte Sole massacres and the Italian government filed away documents related to the incidents in what is called the armadio della vergogna (closet of shame) until 1994.

Not until 2007 were seventeen Nazis brought to trial for the massacre. As none showed up, and indeed only one hired a defense attorney, they were tried in absentia. State of Exception is about that trial. The title refers to the notion of suspending legal niceties in the event of a supposed state of emergency. The title also refers to the “exception” of there having been no trial conducted against the soldiers for over 60 years after the bloodbath.

Germano Maccioni, a young Italian filmmaker from Bologna, which is just south of Monte Sole, directed State of Exception. The documentary has been a huge success in Italy playing at numerous film festivals. Mr. Maccioni showed it last year in New York and it will be screened in California and Oregon later this month. He is currently in San Francisco Bay Area with my niece, Maijastina Hourula, who did the English translation for the film’s subtitles and their two month old daughter, Sofia Alba. Mr. Maccioni recently completed his second documentary, My Main Man about the vibrant Bologna jazz scene.

State of Exception will be shown in Portland, Oregon on January 16, in San Francisco at the Italian Cultural Institute on January 27 at 6:00 P.M.,  and in Berkeley on January 28. It will also be shown in Santa Cruz at a day and time to be determined. (More details on times and places will be posted on the film’s website and on this blog.)

State of Exception does its important story justice. Mr. Maccioni has done a masterful job of cutting from scenes of the trial to interviews and present day footage of the sites of the massacres, (which includes a chapel). He displays a deft touch that one would associate with a veteran documentarian. Without, in his own words “showing a drop of blood” the story is powerful and dramatic. We feel the pain of the witnesses who testify but somehow we never grow uncomfortable. Done wrong, such a documentary could make audiences feel that they are intruding upon the private sorrow and anguish of the witnesses. State of Exception is exceptional in this regard. The story has more of the cathartic feeling that was the aim of Greek tragedies. The film introduces us to new horrors but only to inform and illuminate. Judgments are left for us to make. Mr. Maccioni's delicate editing choices do not pursue a point that is obvious to all. He make the choice that all good filmmaker's do – that audiences are capable of drawing their own conclusions.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Germano Maccioni for Riku Writes and some of that conversation follows.

Germano Maccioni.

RW: What drew you to this story?
GM: I got interested in those events by going to the actual place which is not far from where I grew up. I used to go there but I didn’t know what happened. So once I learned what happened and that what happened was so incredibly bad I thought, “why didn’t they teach me this in school? Why didn’t people tell me this?" Once I found all the reasons for the government hiding files and acting in denial of this whole thing I thought it was extremely necessary to make a film about such a subject. I thought that it would be difficult to make a film about that topic but I could do a film about the trial because I was kind of like the observer and the people in the community were the characters. So for me the border between fiction films and documentary can sometimes be very thin.

RW: The documentary film maker Errol Morris once said “If you know what you’re going to say before you say it, why bother?” What do you think of this quote in relation to your film?
GM: Life is so unpredictable that even if you have a film written and a set and everything is settled, you still have that element of mystery that can happen. Like an actor could easily turn in a way that you didn’t expect so you maybe light the scene in a totally different way. So if you’re filming a documentary you have that feeling that anything could potentially happen. I think its amazing because for a film maker, a documentary maker, it's the greatest luxury. If you have the freedom to do the story the way you want it’s a great opportunity. Why do we like cinema? Because in a subconscious way it relates us to this big mystery of life, reality and the way you feel reality. Life is very exciting because it’s happening live, its unpredictable. When you’re shooting something good I can tell when it’s happening because you get that vibration. With that film there were moments I could observe and edit at the same time.

RW: I was really intrigued by the old man who broke down. I thought it was an especially nice technique that you used. When he was being sworn in you were interspersing shots of him sobbing so it prepared us for what his testimony was going to be like. Tell me about deciding to do that.
GM: That’s probably the most intense scene, that man in particular to me represents the community, the archetype who disappeared. So somehow the Nazis won because that community doesn’t exist anymore and that’s a matter of fact. Having a chance to talk to and actually listen to this old man who grew up on a farm and probably didn’t go to school at all and all of a sudden he sees this crazy thing happening like all his family...they took his family and all of sudden started shooting them. Why? He doesn’t even know what the political reasons were. Having a chance to see him 60 years after, first of all he’s a survivor. That’s the moment when you understand that no matter how many rules you have in the courthouse there’s always going to be something more intense. In fact they had to stop the trial because it was too much, not only for the old man but for everybody. I did not put in the film the whole thing because it was way more intense because he started to freak out he started saying a lot of things to the judge, he was crying, I tried to edit it. It was very traumatic for me because I had to watch it over and over again. I thought I should put the whole testimony in. But then I decided it would be more powerful this way. It was total instinct that drove me to this.

RW: Was it hard for you to watch the trial?
GM: It was painful and new at the same time. I’d never been in a courthouse before. So at first it was new but once we started to hear all the tragic stories...every half an hour I’d have to go outside and breath because it was too painful. But then slowly I became part of that community. These people learned to somehow trust me (the witnesses). The most painful part was the editing process because I didn’t use an editor. For months it was basically me and the material. It was so painful, I was like crying. I had to experience the compassion. It was very painful but it was a good pain. And I hope it's a good pain for the audience, instructive.

RW: What kind of research did you do?
GM: I made a play (wrote and directed) performed on the site on Italy’s celebration of the liberation from the Germans and the fascists. I had the audience follow the actors walk. After that I started to study more about the events. Then I heard there was a trial going on. So there was no time to ask for funding or anything. I had the urge to do it. So we started to film without any funding. (Funding was attained during filming).

RW: What was the reaction to the film?
GM: It was always good. I was surprised because it’s not an easy film (to watch). They’re showing it at a lot of high schools in Italy. I was surprised in New York because I thought that people would not care less about something that happened so far away and they didn’t even know what it is. But maybe that story tells something more universal. Something that maybe could touch anyone.

I though it was important to remember what happened especially because in Italy we have such a bad government because people tend to justify the fascism. We need to remember that part of the responsibility for that massacre we have to attribute to fascism; there is a responsibility. Italy is such an amazing country but such a strange country. We still have the fascists and communists (such extremes) and people who don’t care about anything. They don’t vote, they don’t care about their history. Stories have the power to heal. That’s why the Greek tragedy. Like a cathartic power. The community would go to the theater, cry out and they would get clean. I saw that in the trial, I saw that happen.

RW: You talked to one of the defense attorneys. Did you talk to others and why did you just show him?
GM: I decided to have him because from the beginning he was very cinematographic he was that kind of actor -- uh,  actually he was lawyer, to be a good lawyer you have to be a good actor. From the beginning he was the one looking at me. Then I found out that his father was defending the super left extremists and he was a partisan and he comes from a very left family. He was the only one hired by an actual Nazi. So I decided to choose him because you have to make a summary. He was the most intriguing and also the whole trial was very complex I’m sure it was very painful for the lawyers to have to defend these men who never even showed up. I thought it was very important to give an idea for how complex it was.

I felt that I always needed to keep the audience awake. Also, I had the chance to do this in an old movie theater which is where the trial took place. A story told in a movie theater, in a theatrical ritual which is a trial where everybody has a role. All you had to do was be alert. Things like that for such an intense topic which many people would think was boring – maybe these kind of things help.

RW: It’s an easy story to get wrong because trials are not necessarily interesting because it's people talking. But you managed to find ways to keep it moving.
GM: I never showed a drop of blood. You never need to show anything, like in Shoah you didn’t even see archive footage.

RW: What’s next?
GM: It’s been released on DVD in Italy, apparently it is going really well. It’s been in a lot of international festivals and it played in New York and recently at Lisbon’s prestigious festival. Now we’re going to try to bring it to Germany;  a lot of German people have been very interested in it. We’re also seeing that there’s quite an interest here in the states. So we’re going to do Berkeley, San Francisco, Portland and Santa Cruz for now.

RW: What about the jazz documentary?
GM: It’s finished and being released now. It’s called My Main Man. As soon as the English subtitles are done we’re going to try to have screenings all over. I’d found out that the city I live in also has a huge tradition of jazz. Bologna has been one of the jazz capitals of Europe. People like Chet Baker lived there. He even went to jail there. I got some never-before-seen 8 millimeter footage of Baker from the summer before his arrest. He was very big there because he could find all the drugs he wanted. Thirty-five per cent of this documentary is archive footage that I discovered.

RW: This must have been fun to make.
GW: Yes, so fun and we filmed it between Bologna, Rome and New York. I discovered a new world. I think it's a great metaphor for life. The fact that it’s unpredictable and completely improvised and life is completely improvised. As we quote in the film, [Jazz is] "an art that somehow is so close to life’s unpredictability." It’s very powerful and significant art and it's also fun and dirty and full of drugs and full of nice people and bad guys.

RW: Ermanno Olmi who directed Il Posto started out doing documentaries, are you interested in transitioning into fictional films?
GM: I just need to finish the screenplay. There’s one I’m working on but I’m not quite done yet.

RW: What about acting?
GM: Acting is fun. I started out as an actor. Recently I played a role in a film based on the events of State of Exception.

RW: Last question, does everybody in Italy read my blog?
GM: I hope so now.
RW: Me, too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nicely done, mister.