Happy to share with you our conversation with Cesare Bedogné, the Italian photographer, filmmaker and writer. His three films ‘The Last Step Of An Acrobat”, “Story For An Empty Theatre” and ”Maria’s Silence” are available for streaming HERE in our catalogue. Cesare talked about how his photos and novel became a film, influences and collaborations through his career, and about a film festival he started as a co-founder.
ILLAMBRA: Tell us when and how did you get attracted to the medium film?
CB: I got interested in cinema when I started going to the Film Clubs during my university years, back in the ’90s, first in Pavia and then in Groningen, where I had joined my girlfriend Monique. Especially in Holland there were at that time many alternative and underground Film Clubs run by students’ associations and I started going to the movies almost every night, discovering the works of Ingmar Bergman, Tarkovskij, Fellini, Antonioni, Vigo, Mizoguchi, Dreyer, Murnau, Paradjanov and many others. I had also set up my first darkroom in those days, and I started to develop my first series of still photographs, entitled Innerscapes. At the same time writing also became one of my privileged means of expression and after Monique died, in 1998, I started elaborating on a book entitled “Oltre l’Azzurro” (Beyond the Blue), recollecting my Dutch years until their tragic end. At the same time this story was also developed in the darkroom, both directly and indirectly, when I printed pictures taken both in the Dutch hospital where Monique was given chemotherapy and in a deserted Sanatorium of the Italian Alps. This long process culminated many years later into the publication of both the novel and a photobook entitled “Of Ashes and Wind”, respectively in 2012 and 2014.
Shortly after the photobook was published, I was invited to have a photo exhibition at Gallery Incantations in Genoa, where I met the Russian director Aleksandr (Sasha) Balagura, and we immediately got the idea to make a film based on the novel, on the photographs themselves (we thought that their sometimes-multi-layered structure could be naturally transferred into the language of cinema) and on a theatre performance inspired by the novel which was also performed on stage in Genoa in the same period. We filmed with Sasha the theatrical representation, then I returned to Lesvos, where I was living at that time with Maria Frepoli (the main actress in the film) and I started to improvise with her some cinematic shots attempting to open up theatre to the vaster stage of Nature. In the meantime, I kept on sending my memory cards to Sasha, who was starting to develop his first ideas about the editing of the film. About three months later we all joined together in Genoa, where the final editing of the work (which we entitled “Story for an empty theatre”) was made. The editing of the film, however, and thus its filmic language and temporal flux, are almost entirely due to Aleksandr Balagura.
ILLAMBRA: You also write, could you tell us through which medium can you express yourself the most? Or is it working in different areas that you find the most inspiring and satisfying?
CB: It is not up to me to say, but I hope that in “Story for an empty theatre” lyrical prose, still photographs and filmic shots merge together gracefully in a unitary form (and if this is true, it is mostly thanks to Sasha’s editing), but afterwards I felt the need to liberate myself from words, at least cinematographically. My following two movies, “Maria’s Silence” and “The Last Step of an Acrobat”, made entirely on my own, are totally devoid of language. I will also keep on writing of course (last year I wrote another novel during lock-down, still unpublished), but that is totally another universe.
ILLAMBRA: An eye of the photographer dominates your cinematic work. You have great patience for the motifs you choose and pay attention to the slightest changes in atmosphere or movement. Your scenes eventually become living photographs. Could you tell us a bit more about the visual language that you’ve developed in your films?
CB: I believe that photography is an adaptation of vision to a spiritual necessity: the eye forms an image which in its turn, through its inmost resonances, refocuses and transforms the gaze itself, until the strange instant when interior and exterior, the eye and the things looked at, almost seem to dissolve one in another. I think that a similar aesthetic can also be developed through the language of cinema, where the main element however becomes time, the most mysterious element of all, a flow rather than the condensation of life in a timeless instant, so it is a totally different process in the end. And in fact, when I take photographs I cannot shoot movies and the other way around. But I loved your expression “living photographs”, thank you!
ILLAMBRA: The play of light and shadow enhances shapes and textures in your images, you give up on color to pursue black and white image photography. Is this stylistic decision also a narrative tool and how does it refer to the themes and motives of your films?
CB: Actually, there are some color shots in my films, but very few indeed, you are right… For some reason, I have never been too interested in color and it is hard to say why. Black and white is more an instinctive choice to me than a thoughtful stylistic decision. I feel black and white leaves more room for imagination, and for this reason it is often perceived as more realistic and truthful to life. But this is of course only a debatable point of view. And I also feel that black and white leaves me more freedom during editing, it can be pushed easily to extremes and still feel natural. You cannot do that with color. But, as I said, I occasionally felt the need to introduce some color. As in the first part of Maria’s Silence, for instance, where for a few seconds the sea under snowfall turns into azure. It is hard to rationalize these choices fully, but I probably felt that that particular tone of blue could give the right emotional reverberation to the scene, and that it would be remembered unconsciously and thus persist secretly in the viewer’s mind throughout the rest of the film.
ILLAMBRA: Your works are non-linear, associative, meditative… What are your guidelines when it comes to the editing and creating the flow of your films?
CB: Among my three short films, I feel allowed to talk exclusively about the two works that are entirely mine also for the point of view of the editing, that is Maria’s Silence and The Last Step of an Acrobat, and the only thing I can say here is that there is no guideline whatsoever. Or, to be more precise, that my only guideline is instinct, a way of perceiving how images uncannily attract one another and in this way bring associatively the visual narration further. I always try to follow this inner need, a mysterious rhythm rather than conscious thinking. Nothing was ever planned in advance and, when I started each of these films, I didn’t know where they would end. They were a journey in themselves.
As I wrote in the introduction of Maria’s Silence: “The film rather appeared to us like a dream, not a nocturnal dream, but one which unfolded day by day while shooting. A dream shared between the photographer-director and the actress (or, better, the woman portrayed in the feature), which nevertheless seemed to follow its own, enigmatic necessity through which the daily shots joined almost magnetically, interweaving in a pattern of superimposed layers that unceasingly merge and dissolve one in another, in the constant flux, crystallization and reshaping of psychic interior”.
I think it was Buñuel who said somewhere that cinema is the art form that comes closer to dreams. I think that it is deeply true.
ILLAMBRA: Tell us about your work with the actors/models in your projects. How intense is their input and how much do you let it influence your original intentions and “screenplay”?
CB: I have worked with only one actress so far, Maria Frepoli, and our collaboration was always deeply intense. She comes from Anthropological Theatre and when we were making the first two films she was focusing her work mostly on Japanese Butoh theatre, so I tried to give her as much improvisational freedom as she needed and her input was always very strong and at times decisive. Some shots, as the one under the dry seaweed in Maria’s Silence came straight from her own inspiration, I just followed her and recorded the performance. But her input was especially strong when she started practicing as an Equilibrist. I wanted to make another film back then, actually, but she resolutely refused leaving her slack rope, so I had no choice. Especially when I found some almost mythological dead sea creatures close to places where she was practicing and felt how deeply and enigmatically their fate crossed and interlaced with the Acrobat’s one.
ILLAMBRA: How much is the improvisation important for your work?
CB: It is fundamental, in a way I always remained a photographer who simply looks and instantly reacts to what he sees and perceives. An eye, as you said earlier. But improvisation has nothing to do with randomness and many apparently accidental events, at a second thought, might not appear random at all…. For instance, when we were shooting The Last Step of an Acrobat and I was searching for an appropriate soundtrack for the film, one of the stray cats that often visited our garden, a black demon with sulfurous yellow eyes, jumped from the open window straight on my laptop’s keyboard. At first I swore at the poor animal, but then I suddenly noticed on the screen the YouTube page of a record I had never heard about before, played on the Armenian duduk. I listened to the music and realized it was the perfect soundtrack for the film. From that moment on, the cat became my editing assistant, he is also mentioned in the end titles: Jack Black.
And also, towards the end of the film, when I was attempting in vain to express visually the idea of the Acrobat flying away, which seemed to go too far for my basic technical means, all of a sudden my tripod (which was put on unstable ground) fell on the sand with the camera. Instead of throwing away the shot, at home I watched it closely and understood that, by the relativity of motion, this fall could also be perceived as a taking off. Or even better, something at the ambiguous borderline between falling and taking off. So, I dilated as much as I could that half a second or one second in slow motion to convey this illusion.
ILLAMBRA: Can you tell us about the influences on your art?
CB: I have quoted in this interview quite a few film directors that have been very important to me. I would say that masterpieces like 8 ½, Mirror or Persona gave me the first spark, watching them over and over again I understood I had to find my own way in life through photographic images, no matter if still or moving, I discovered how deeply they could penetrate into the space of consciousness. Literature was also a deep influence in the beginning, particularly the novels of Kafka and Dostojevskij, some poems of T.S. Eliot, Seferis or Yannis Ritsos. And many others which would be impossible to recall here, of course. In photography, I have been particularly touched, among the others, by the work of Robert Frank, Bill Brandt, Aaron Siskind and Josef Sudek.
ILLAMBRA: You are the founder and organizer of the FLIGHT Film Festival? What is the idea behind that project and how did your first year go, considering the current situation in the world?
CB: I am not the only founder and organizer; this is a project I developed in close cooperation with Sasha Balagura, who is the artistic director of the Festival. If you look at our web-site, you’ll see first of all the animation of one of Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic sequences (Pigeon Flying), made many years ago by Sasha when he was still living in Kiev, and appearing almost always in his films.
Muybridge aimed at capturing movement by means of photographic sequences, anticipating the birth of cinematography, and his characters, the first inhabitants of this world of images now appear to us as archetypical figurations, timeless, eternal and universal – icons of a new universe and of a new sensitivity, described only by their own presence, by the light that illuminates and permeates them.
FLIGHT, the Mostra Internazionale del Cinema di Genova, is inspired by the purity of this first gaze.
The Grand Prix of the Exhibition is thus dedicated to Eadweard Muybridge, and precisely to that Pigeon Flying that appeared to us almost as an image of cinema itself, of the soul in flight.
Here I am quoting literally our Manifesto, which you can also find on the Festival’s web-site: “The artist’s soul, flying towards the unknown: we would like the works presented in the Festival, or at least some of them, to be faithful to this native spirit, to its freedom and mystery. To a sincerity where beauty appears immediately as truth, a manifestation of a unique and unrepeatable world, thick with wonder and amazement, harmonic or disruptive, magical or terrifying, the author’s inner world”.
Because of the Covid pandemic the Festival was postponed many times, until October 2020 when the first edition finally took place with live screenings in different theatres, cultural institutions and art galleries spread throughout the town, amid fears of incoming Covid-second wave, with theatres on the verge of closing and guests stranded in airports due to cancelled flights. Sadly, I couldn’t be there in person, as I got stuck abroad because of the same problem and the strict quarantine rules required on immigration.
But I have been told by Sasha that, considered the very difficult circumstances, it all went very well. Many international directors came over from all over the world to introduce their works and meet my colleagues in Genoa.
ILLAMBRA: What other projects can we expect from you in the future? A new film maybe?
CB: You know, I lived for about ten years in Greece, first in a remote location in Crete where I mostly dedicated myself to writing, and then in Lesvos’ western barren edge, where I shot all my three films. That volcanic, desolate and mysterious spot on earth was absolutely essential to me; I would probably never have attempted any film-making if I weren’t there, I just happened to resonate with the place. Anyway, just after we finished The Last of the Acrobat, due to particularly painful circumstances we had to leave Lesvos on a hurry and return to Italy. Now I live in a lovely village on the Italian Riviera, not far from the beautiful town of Genoa, and in many ways, I am happy to be here, but creatively speaking not much happened after I left the Aegean Sea.
Probably I just cannot find here the harshness and the bareness I deeply need. And the freedom. Maybe, when travel will be possible, I will attempt to get somewhere else to shoot another work. Or perhaps I should look for a completely new filmic language, it is now clear to me that what I did in Lesvos belongs to the mystery of Lesvos alone. I just couldn’t try to repeat elsewhere without betraying myself. Yes, I guess it is now time to embark for another journey, I still don’t know where the road will bring me.
Thank you for the interview!
The films of Cesare Bedogné are available for streaming on Illambra – click HERE to watch