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Enrico Masi on making politically coherent documentaries

His film “Shelter”, about a transgender Muslim immigrant is doing well in film festivals, but how to reach larger audiences? Masi is acutely aware of political and ethical issues in making honest documentaries. Music is essential to his films and he talks about the power of radio – the blind medium.


Graham Douglas


Our relaxed conversation for The Prisma continues as he jokes about the cultural contrasts between north and south in Europe, and then moves onto issues involved in socially conscious film-making. How to reach an audience beyond film-festivals, without being compromised by the need to raise funds and conform to commercial industry standards?

And the main character is a vulnerable person, between worlds. Pepsi is a name she chose for herself, not just for the film, and Masi says: “It’s perfect for dramaturgical purposes that she is not using her real name. We took care to hide her real identity, we have her refugee identity. And Pepsi as a nickname is a global brand. I think this is connected to destiny”.

Masi refers to the Joan of Arc story in relation to Pepsi, and although Joan was anti-Muslim, clearly Pepsi also symbolizes a female – or in this case a transgender – warrior. And one of the charges at Joan’s trial was cross-dressing.

Masi’s training in visual anthropology also creates a conflict between objectivity and empathetic story-telling. And he describes the origins of the film-collective Caucaso which he co-founded, and the importance of music in their work.

A cynical question: Are you quite sure she is not using you for this new trip?

No, not at all. Well maybe I’m being naïve, but that’s ok. She’s doing her best to succeed, and on 500 euros a month in France it’s difficult. But Pepsi’s mission is beyond that, she wants to see her family, make a journey around the world – even to the Moon she said! – it goes beyond the role of the refugee, to something representative of universal human destiny, even as survival. This journey is a reproduction of a relationship that is impossible for her because of gender problems or refugee problems – or because of her military status. Because if you live a military life for 20 years, it will always be in you, you are formed by it. But this goes beyond these things, so, even if she is using me it’s OK.

She felt freer in Libya. Does she like Europe?

She wants to be rich, to live a western life. Phillipine people like to serve, to help, maybe it has to do with being colonized by three countries. She liked Italy because it’s so clean.

Except when they don’t collect the rubbish…

Yes, but maybe we are dirty outside, but inside we are very clean – that’s the opposite of the north, very clean outside and very dirty inside!


It’s true, for us the bathroom in France or the UK, is the mark of an uncivilized society. We see the bathroom, as the place where you meet yourself, it’s a temple, and this is from the Byzantine culture, the Middle-Eastern culture, it’s a big difference within Europe.

In Bosnia it’s unbelievable, the majesty of the house, and not just for rich people, yet outside there is chaos, war.

Pepsi wants to be part of the western world, but at the same time there is a kind of alienation, maybe caused by traumas during the Moro experience. She needs help to enter society, and maybe she is a bit dyslexic.

She is better than most of us at survival, but we live in a bureaucratic society, maybe since Roman and Greek times. And there are other societies that are more attached to simple things, that in the end are not so simple, that we are now re-discovering for the future.

Such as?

De-growth, for example. In the West we are beginning to face the decay that we created, so first we need de-growth.

Sustainability is primitive, something which Pepsi shows us from the military way of survival.

I am interested in the flow of people from south to north Libya – Italy – France/Germany, in relation to a new project that is more connected to the Green Economy. I come from an artistic background which is freer, but I had a big lesson from Carlo Ginzburg, this micro-history professor who is 80 years old, and presented Shelter with me at another festival. And he said that anthropology is not about empathy, it is antiquaria, philology. But how can you be so restrained towards another person?

If you are empathetic towards another person, who becomes a subject, then a case study, then a play then a film, it’s a very complicated relationship – and maybe that’s why we should try to be philologists. To be very dry, like the Marxist approach to the study of history, we understand the context, then we can get into the topic.

Sometimes you let yourself be moved by empathy – the empathy with Pepsi was very strong, and I think also for her. I think that Shelter is somehow still open, not unfinished but connected to various peoples’ lives, and I’m proud of that.

Does Pepsi see herself working in the film industry?

I would say she does. I feel a bit possessive of people I have discovered, but at the same time I would be very happy. It’s very connected to the exploitation of the body.

Someone in the Q&A said: “She gave you a film, what have you done for her?”

We have helped in all sorts of ways, with documents too. We are friends in a very deep way, maybe I am mistaken but that’s how I live. When we have a difficult moment, we share messages.

You founded Caucaso in 2004

I was only 21, and it came out of the period in Bologna between high school and college. The battles in Genoa in 2001, was a very powerful moment for us, like our 1968, so with this movement in music, film and politics we got together and went on a wild trip through the Caucasus. I remember the moment when we were going through a mountain pass on the border between Georgia and Ossetia, and we decided to call ourselves Caucaso. Since then it has developed a lot, it is a spin-off of the Alma Mater Studiorum at the University of Bologna. The Town Council and the Ministry of Economy are supporting us, and we do a lot of exchange visits and education, a lot of work with big institutions, scientific commissions.

It’s a dream that we realized with a lot of work. Documentary films are the main thing but it’s also a kind of luxury boutique for our films, because we can make the kind of films we want to show, without having to be commercial, so our projects are always connected to social issues.

How does music play its part in documentary?

The music was composed by an important Sicilian jazz musician, and we worked with him for weeks on the final mixing of the music in the film, and I think you can close your eyes and appreciate the power of the sound in the film.

I started in music when I was five, with a blind teacher, and the sound editor for the film is blind too. We did the sound score with him for the previous film in Brazil, and this was another dream that I had when I was a child to make a film with this extraordinary guy, Teresio Testa.

We also collaborated with his son Giacomo. His lessons completely changed my education, him and a clarinet teacher.

They gave me an education, and from then I spent a lot of time in the underground music scene. Music didn’t make us a living, so we incorporated it into film-making, but it always kept this role for the sound and the score. I want to make art available to everybody, not just the elite. Radio is probably the most public broadcasting system we have, and in Europe there are many cool stations that are still going since the 70s.

Radio allows your imagination to work more.

Yes, cine is about the epistemology of the medium, different levels. I think that chanting, and also drawing, are the highest media of expression. Fellini draws pictures, he is an illustrator. The movement of a hand to make a fragile drawing, like Leonardo did, that’s the maximum form of art, and so is using the voice. Cinema is very caught up in a hierarchy, it exploits people through images. But when you have funding, cinema can allow you to reach a very large audience. Cinema is connected to so many things.

(Photos by Enrico Masi, supplied by him to The Prisma)

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