Reopened City

Danish artist Maj Hasager’s new film We will meet in the blind spot (2015), which had it’s German premiere at Akademie Schloss Solitude, takes its point of departure from the architecture in and around the Esposizione Universale di Roma area – Mussolini’s utopian »Third Rome«. Today in the »White City«, which now mostly houses officials and businessmen, the Filipino migrant community, Italy’s oldest, is present as domestic workers, gardeners, chauffeurs, etc. – yet seemingly unnoticed at the same time. Hasager draws attention to this community in her project. – In conversation with poet and critic Thom Donovan, Hasager talks about her collaboration with the community, about the uncanniness of the setting, »slow art« and mapping of space through movement.

TD: Many of your films encounter a disenfranchised, displaced, and/or subaltern population in order to bring their existence into appearance and to consider their location within grand and often tragic historical narratives. In the case of We will meet in the blind spot (2013–), the community you have chosen to encounter (and »collaborate« with) is comprised of Filipino immigrants who have settled in Benito Mussolini’s utopian Third Rome. How did you come into contact with this community and decide to pursue this particular film project?

MH: The starting point for this project, as for many of my projects, was a contested site, in this case the Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR) district in Rome—also known as the never realised utopian site of Mussolini’s Third Rome. Today it is a quite wealthy district where a large group of migrant workers are present everyday as domestic workers, gardeners, market sellers, etc., yet somehow they seem invisible in the White City, as EUR is also referred to. I was interested in using the district’s architecture as a point of departure for a discussion on visibility and invisibility in an Italian and broader European context. This is in relation to notions of class, migration politics, and the hierarchies embedded both in the site itself and the current discourse surrounding migration. In this particular project I have been working with the large Filipino community in EUR in the production of a film that continues my ongoing research on memory and identity as connected to sociopolitical issues. The Filipino community is one of Italy’s oldest migrant communities and plays a significant role within the Italian context, but it is quite overlooked in any debate. I got in touch with members of the Filipino community through one of the local churches, where they spend a great deal of their community life and hold their mass every Sunday. I was interested in developing this work with an already established group or community that has been present in the area for a very long period of time—in this case more than twenty-five years. It is always delicate as a foreigner to enter a community that is considered precarious in terms of working conditions, but I am aware of the implications of privilege, hierarchy, and authorship and how all of these components become a part of the project. I’m interested in real people’s lives and their stories, and this makes ethical demands on the use of the material that has been generated through personal conversations. It is important to me that the participants in my projects feel heard and we mutually gain new knowledge or experiences from the project.

»We will meet in the blind spot« (2015), Maj Hasager, video still

When filming We will meet in the blind spot, we worked around the community’s limited free time, with Sunday afternoon being the only time they could participate. It defined the frame for the film production, which was inserted between work, community life, and church, and this limited schedule formed an important premise of the film. Most of the scenes in the film also came out of conversations with the members of the community and stem from things they talked about. One example would be that the boat scene in the film came about because Mr. Banella used to be a seafarer but had actually never sailed on the artificial lake in EUR. At the same time, there are strong links to Italian postwar cinema, since a lot of films from the ’60s onwards were shot in EUR, so the architecture was used as a backdrop and as a way of renarrating and reinterpreting the place and its identity after fascism.

One of the first questions some members of the community asked was: »Why us?«—and the answer was their unique relation to the site. Hardly any of the members of the Filipino community live in EUR, but still spend most of their time, both work and leisure time, in the area.

TD: How did your collaboration with this particular community differ from others you have collaborated with? For example, do you feel as though you became close to any of the collaborators? Or did you encounter problems while working with them, whereby your own complicity with the processes that you identify became particularly apparent or was brought to crisis? I ask this follow-up to my last question because, as someone who has attempted to work with others collaboratively and less often with people outside my immediate communities, these details interest me.

I also have the sense from the picnic at the very end of the video that the people sitting for you had a particular impression of you and your project. While they remain silent, their expressions tell stories. The man looks proud, content, and stoic; the first woman, bored, maybe even a bit annoyed; the second, sad, or in pain. I think of this as one way to encounter the film: as a portrait of both the place and the people, or a still life that has come more or less to life (a tableau vivant?). The subtle choreography of the camera—floating, gliding, coming in and out of focus—foregrounds this careful process of animation.

MH: It is a great and very relevant follow up question. It is one of the reasons why it is so important for me to work with already established communities or groups: so that I have to enter certain structures that are already existing. Hence being the outsider is challenged, with the best of situations offering a different perspective and the worst ending with us not getting anywhere together. I always feel very humble when communities or groups decide to enter into a collaboration—no matter what the format looks like. That they invest their time in this particular idea and so willingly share their stories with me makes me deeply grateful, but also very aware of the responsibility I am given. In this case, the collaboration somehow differed from previous ones in the sense of the very limited possibilities for any encounters, due to a tight work schedule for the community. There were occasions when the project was in crisis—due to precarity and fear of what it would mean for the community to enter the project. I would say that it was not until we finished shooting the last scene—the picnic scene—that I knew whether this project could be realised or not. So in many ways, the precarity of the situation very much affected me as well, and it became a condition for the production. I am a fond believer in risk taking and not knowing, since that is an unavoidable condition in this type of work. Of course, you can’t compare the two situations, one being exposed in front of the camera and the other being behind the camera, but it becomes about trying to create the best possible situation where something unexpected can take place.

In a way, the scenes played out very differently from what I imagined in terms of staging, and as always I aimed to give as few directions as possible while working with non-actors, since it is about creating a space in front of the camera that is as close to the person in front of the camera as possible—despite the fact that there is a whole crew looking at the ones on the »stage,« so to speak. In the last scene, where three members of the community look into the camera for a longer session, the directions were for them to reflect upon their arrival to Italy. So all of them went through different emotions depending on their experiences. Throughout the film, I constantly balance between visibility, in the sense of who looks at who, and invisibility, as in how the personal narratives are represented in relation to the site they exist within. The slowness of the film and the way we slide in and out of tableaux and follow the community mapping the spaces in EUR are intended to question and reflect the notion of visibility and invisibility. It is also my first real leap into a fictional narrative style in filmmaking—though still insisting on it being a document of personal accounts relating to a specific place. This did of course also complicate matters further.

TD: Another way that I think about this work is as a kind of ghost story. There is something uncanny about the setting, which is often deserted and not, it would seem, intended for habitation. Could you say more about Third Rome as a setting in film, particularly neorealist film, and how your own shots, locations, camera techniques, and editing may be in dialogue with a set of intertexts?

MH: EUR as a location and a site was originally intended as a showcase area for the World Exposition in 1942, in addition to celebrating the twenty-year anniversary of fascism in Italy, so it was not originally planned to be a site of habitation. Even though Mussolini’s utopian Third Rome was never completed, EUR is still a strong testimony of how Italy and Europe could have looked if World War II had had a different outcome. In the ’50s and ’60s, houses and apartment blocks were built on cheap land in the area, and the construction of the most iconic rationalist buildings was not finished until Italy’s hosting of the Olympics in 1960.

The neorealist movement in Italian cinema is one that I have been looking at when considering the crossover between fiction and documentary in my production. Italian postwar cinema brought with it a wave of neorealism, whereby films where shot on location, often with non-actors and natural light. Roberto Rossellini shot parts of Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City) in 1945 in EUR, which at that time still hosted the allied forces and was more or less in ruins. The break with neorealism in Italian film came in the early ’60s—and actually was brought about by some of the often referred to founders of that same movement. I have in particular looked at Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse from 1962, which uses EUR as location and lets the existential drama between the protagonists be reflected in the architecture of the surroundings. L’Eclisse showcases Antonioni’s ability to stretch our understanding of the cinematic narrative, which here somehow prioritises seeing over the plot and breaks with conventional cinema. This is something I find closer to the field of the art film than to the logic of cinema in a traditional sense.

In the film We will meet in the blind spot, I encouraged the community—which is already present in reality in EUR but often invisible in the cityscape—to claim the streets and inhabit the architecture. They are physical bodies mapping the space of what has been and still is deemed one of the most filmed locations in Italy. The camera floats with the movement of a person walking through the historical centre of EUR, and we move from exterior to interior and back again—ruptured by the personal narratives over the historical maps that both link the film to the documentary genre. The film slips in and out of fiction and realities, which may challenge the perception of what is presented to the viewer, so in this project it was really important to move closer to a narrative structure. I worked with the brilliant editor Lisa Rave, who I met at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart; this really pushed the material in new and exciting ways and challenged my documentary approach to filmmaking. Similarly, in the postproduction I worked with the grader and colourist Simon Möller, and we stretched the material into a much more fictional space in terms of the look of the film. Another element of We will meet in the blind spot is a sound composition or theme made by composer and producer Ask Kaereby, which is also a new element in my practice and, again, closer to narrative cinema. Another crucial component was the brilliant camera crew: Giovanni Piperno, Fabrizio Mambro, and Ginevra Natale. One of the dogmas I have when shooting a film is to always work with a local crew—to keep the funding in the country where we shoot—and it is always a tremendous learning process.

TD: Related to this project is a video you made with the dancer Maria Concetta Borgese, which also features one of my poems, regarding the »commons.« I am very interested in the priority you give to movement, whether walking or dancing one’s way through EUR, in terms of what you call »mapping.« Do you think of dance/movement as a way of reclaiming or creating conditions for a commons? In the 2000s, in the US in particular, and in relation to the Global Justice Movement, I think that a lot of us lost hope in spatial practices as a means of revolutionary change. Occupy and other movements globally, in conjunction with very creative uses of social media, have given rise to new possibilities, obviously. I see dance as the avant-garde (if I can still use that term responsibly) of movement and spatial practice. And, therefore, as a practice we can look to for research and ideas. Could you discuss in more depth how you are thinking about the role of movement in this project, and particularly dance? Poetry partakes of movement, too, obviously, inasmuch as prosody reorganizes stress, and thus one’s proprioceptive relationship to language. Moving through the poem becomes a way of reconceiving the senses in relation to other forms of movement and expressions of sense.

»Bifurcating Futures« © 2014 Maj Hasager, video still (HD video, 9.46 min)

Maj Hasager: The architects of Mussolini’s Third Rome indeed had a thing for speed and the spatial experience of a city through movement. Even though EUR was never realised in its utopian layout, the sense of movement through its cityscape, preferably via car, is very present. In fact, the core of rationalist architecture is quite linked to movement—the same goes for the Futurist movement. I wanted to reclaim the space through different means. Perhaps it is quite idealistic, but I believe that we on many levels have forgotten the power of mobilisation of bodies in a space, and this was the starting point for the video Bifurcating Futures (2014), the title of which comes from one of the lines in your poem »The Commons.« Contemporary dance, improvisation, and the experienced female body was a way to test this idea, since dance with a Pina Bausch–inspired approach offers a different reading of space that stems directly from the individual experience of the dancer. The film became a visual argument, and the extremely powerful dancer Maria Concetta Borgese was in my opinion able to release some of the revolutionary power that lies within the body in a space, and somehow transcended the blurry politics of the space. Not in terms of a Situationist approach like psychogeography, but more as a direct response to a common space that needs to be activated, inhabited, and claimed. I tend to call it »mapping of a space through movement,« but perhaps it is more precise to talk about activation.

Another example of this would be a walk I organised together with the Italian architecture collective Stalker Walking School, titled »Utopia vs. Utopia.« It was a full day of activating the sites of EUR and its surroundings by inviting people to join us for a day of walking, talking, and thinking together in the space. We began walking at ten in the morning, and almost forty people turned up. Eleven hours later, approximately twelve people were still going strong, and for me the walk did transform the space into something inhabitable by a collective—at least for a moment.

To go back to the video Bifurcating Futures: I was intrigued by how dance was used as a political tool in the Futurist movement, in particular by F. T. Marinetti, from whom came the »Manifesto of Futurist Dance« in 1917. To me, he clearly did not have any relationship to dance. Marinetti was interested in dehumanising aesthetics and rejecting the art of the past as well as feminism (among many other things), and it made me wonder how feminist strategies would inhabit the space and architecture that reflect the values of the time of the Futurists. After attempting to solve the piece through the quite amusing Futurist dance manifesto, it became apparent that another contemporary voice was needed. Your poem on the commons in relation to movement just made sense when I first read your manuscript. And it emphasises the potential in dance/movement as well as becomes the echoing voice of the empty place with a contested past, present, and future.

Research studio 17 & 19 at Akademie Schloss Solitude, 2014/2015
Research studio 17 & 19 at Akademie Schloss Solitude, 2014/2015
Research studio 17 & 19 at Akademie Schloss Solitude, 2014/2015
Research in the studio at Accademia di Danimarca, Rome, 2013
Research studio 17 & 19 at Akademie Schloss Solitude, 2014/2015