Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Filming the Occupation. Director Saverio Costanzo presents Private

This article first appeared in Italian. To read the original click here

It’s unfair, everyone knows, to blame the sins of the father on the son – and thirty year old Saverio Costanzo must at least be aware that his surname carries a history like a trademark. Mediaset, da daa da daan, P2, the shirt with moustache etc. etc. [Translator's Note: Maurizio Costanzo, his father, has had a long illustrious career as one of Italy’s most prominent broadcasters]. So when Saverio won the Golden Leopard prize at Locarno, hands up who in Italy, modern and prey to cronyism as it is, didn’t think straight away of the most powerful tele-journalist (together with Mr Vespa, obviously).

But after, watching his film, Private, and hearing him, the prize winner and proud director of this gem, talking about it, you’ll be convinced that there’s a real talent, and whether he’s been aided by his surname or family is irrelevant, because he’s made a first-class work, both from the point of view of content and direction.

Shortly after his twentieth birthday, and freshly graduated in Communication studies, having added to his CV radio presenter, screenwriter for telefilms on RAI [the Italian State broadcaster], and a couple of advertisements, he landed in the United States, where he dedicated himself to documentary, working first as an operator, then assistant director and finally director, after which he returned to Italy where he put to use the fruits of his trans-atlantic apprenticeship, filming the docu-fiction for TV Sala Rossa [Red Room] set in the Umberto I polyclinic in Rome.

Three years later, his big screen debut arrives in the form of Private. Set in Palestine, it is a metaphor for the great conflicts and the forced cohabitation that these generate. “The idea isn’t original, but comes from a true story that happened in the Gaza strip, and recounts the ‘coerced’ cohabitation that started in 1992 when the house of a Palestinian intellectual, an English teacher, head of a secondary school, was occupied by the Israeli army, because a settlement was to be built five metres from his house. In the film we changed lots of truths from the real story, naturally, to make a film”, explained Costanzo when presenting his film in Bologna last January. A sort of documentary then, or in Costanzo’s own definition, a psychodrama (“I call it ‘psychodrama’… maybe Moreno [Editor’s note: Jacob Levi Moreno, founder of the ‘Spontaneous Theatre’] would take it badly, because we didn’t specifically adopt his pyschological method, but I call it that because inside the film there’s lots of the new psychodrama”).

“For security reasons” it wasn’t possible to film in Palestine, and as a result Costanzo and his crew had to fall back on Calabria in Southern Italy. One wouldn’t notice the trick if you didn’t already know, as the external scenes are limited (and the Calabria of Private could well be Palestine, Lebanon, Greece, Albania, … – one face, one race – a poor, dusty, mediterranean country, arid from the sun). “Probably had we been in Palestine or in Israel,” continues the director,” we would have been distracted by checkpoints, by armoured cars. Staying in this house and having nothing outside except Calabria forced us to find the narrative subterfuges not only in the writing phase [Editor’s note: Costanzo did, though, spend six months in Palestine/Israel collecting material], but also during the shooting, and they [the actors] had to give to the living room, and the bedroom, the air of Palestine or of Israel, they had to refill it with the spirit of their own country.”

And there you have the ‘psychological method’ adopted by Costanzo to prompt his protagonists, an intense Mohammad Bakri and a splendid Lior Miller in the front line, as well as Tomer Russo, Areen Omari, Hend Ayoub, all the way down to the children to call forth their own emotions, to give the film a realistic character and to remove it from its Italian-ess (the crew, as well as the location, were all Italian): “In general in the cinema you give reference points to the actors as to where the cameras are. We ignored the rules, giving the actor a space like a theatre, a free space in which they could move and then it was for us, with a very light technology, with the camera on our shoulders, who went to look for the emotion. And because the script was in Arabic, and we didn’t speak a word of Arabic, it was a bit like a continuous translation, that, with the movement of the camera, we tried to make for ourselves. We weren’t so interested in a cinematographic language – even if the film has a certain cinematic style/form – we were more interested in a human language. We wanted the people to be the protagonists, not the director. It’s because of this that I say the film isn’t a director’s film: the emotions aren’t constructed through technical details, with wide shots, with close ups… you can build them by getting an actor to improvise. I think it’s one of the few films […] where there’s no close up. Our work was to collect the emotion in each scene. Yes sometimes we had a face, but if at other times we had a back, that back also had, in some way, something to say. Bakri acts with everything, he doesn’t only act with the face, and his voice. So we used these tracking shots without interrupting the emotional flow that had to be prized over the technical level, and then editing we had the third writing of the film – the first was the screenplay, then the shooting, and thirdly the editing – to search for what the eye must, out of habit and logic, see, and that’s a shot, a reverse shot, an action, a movement [so that] the action is not too static”.

So the actors were asked to be themselves during the shooting, following a script yes, a stage-managed narrative, but fundamentally expressing their own emotions, their lives as Palestinians and Israelis, and each one acting in their own language apart from a word of English here and there, when the two groups, the family on one side, and the soldiers on the other, meet each other or collide with each other inside this living space. With the crew and the director following them with the camera, not understanding a word; as Costanzo admits, almost moved, during his description of those days in Calabria, “even though we didn’t understand, I mean we knew the sense because we had written it, but because we didn’t understand Arabic or Hebrew, we managed to be touched, and it was like a small miracle”.

All the characters are consciously stereotyped, “monochromatic, without shades”; the intent is to make them “become a metaphor for something else”, to come to a point in which they become symbols for all conflicts and the film ceases to relate “to the Territories, to Israel, but rather relates somewhat to all wars. We [Editor's Note: as well as Saverio, Camilla Costanzo, Sayed Qashua and Alessio Cremonini were co-scriptwriters for the film] while writing partly immagined that we were writing an Italian story about the Nazi occupation. We didn't want to tie in with the cultural identity of the [occupied] territories, trying to universalise the emotions. The fear for example doesn’t have to be the fear of a Palestinian child, but can be simply fear, so whether French, German, or Palestinian it doesn’t change”.

The predominant presence in the film is that of the family, and Mohammed Bakri has the principle role within the family, as his character would have in real life: it’s the father in fact that takes the decision on which the whole story is based. When the Israelis invade the privacy of his house, of his family, the father “holds that peaceful resistance, meaning remaining in the house, is a life lesson for himself and his children, that in this way they won’t hate themselves, they won’t hate the Israelis, or their parents. He believes that at the moment that you become a refugee, you’ll hate for t
he rest of your life not only those who forced you to leave your own house, but also yourself”. A pacifist then, that, with the fear and idealism of pacifists, carries out his own personal revolt against the occupation, not only of his house and his land, but also of his very existence and that of those dearest to him.

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