The role of Italian Americans in the mainstream media is often a confirmation of negative stereotypes that recycle the same unflattering images time and time again. One possible solution to end the perpetuation of this cycle and to eliminate these ideas is to focus more attention on alternative sources that offer new perspectives on the same concepts. Independent film can establish a counterbalance to the images of Italian American culture proposed by mainstream Hollywood-financed films regarding family, the domestic space, and the role of women in professional contexts.
These issues, amongst others, were discussed on November 8
at Montclair State University in the course of an event organized by the
Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies, in which two strong
female presences in independent film, Nancy Savoca and Marylou
Tibaldo-Bongiorno, shared anecdotes and personal experiences of growing up in
Italian American families in New York and New Jersey. Thanks to the presence of their husbands Rich
Guay and Jerome Bongiorno, whom they work with regularly on their films, the
evening also approached the interesting angle of what it means to be partners both
in life and on the set.
Nancy Savoca is one of the most important women in independent filmmaking today, having directed films such as True Love (1989), that Entertainment Weekly called “one of the best 50 independent films of all time,” Household Saints (1991) and the recent Union Square (2012). Savoca explained that her films do not follow the conventional themes of mainstream movies; however, this is not necessarily a conscious choice. She commented that her method is simply to remain faithful to the storyline and to the characters themselves. This honest approach renders her characters more genuine and relatable. Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno and Jerome Bongiorno have worked together both on films (Little Kings, 2003) and documentaries (Mother Tongue, 1999), with the latter being nominated for an Emmy in 2000. The Bongiornos spoke about their personal and professional ties to the city of Newark, where they currently live. They discussed technical aspects of filmmaking in relation to their most recent film New Work: Newark in 3D (2012), a project commissioned by the Newark Museum that makes visitors feel as though they are inside the three-dimensional projection of the city.
Over the course of the evening the four panelists explained with passion and sincerity to the audience of Montclair State University students and community members from both New York and New Jersey the difficulties of becoming a director and in particular the complications of doing so for someone from an Italian American or immigrant family. Many students present were interested in beginning their own careers in this field, and the guests openly discussed how much determination and faith in one’s own work is required in order to succeed in one’s chosen field and to overcome the inherent financial difficulties.
Organized by the Inserra Chair in collaboration with the Coccia Institute for the Italian Experience in America and with the Amici della Cultura Italiana Club, the meeting with these directors and producers illustrated the various steps of their creative journey during a lively discussion moderated by Professors Teresa Fiore (Dept. of Spanish & Italian), who is teaching ITAL345 “Italian Americans in Film” this semester, and Roberta Friedman (Filmmaking Program), the coordinator of Film Forum on campus.
Through the screening of various clips, the filmmakers explained how their work subtly engages with the inherent tension between tradition and innovation. In one clip from Union Square, Savoca creates an effective contrast between two sisters from an Italian American family in the Bronx. Jenny, who is ashamed of her roots and hides her past from her Waspy fiancé, cooks tofu with Indian spices while Lucy, who cannot understand why her sister denies a part of her identity, throws open the window in the middle of the winter because she can’t stand the smell. Along the same lines, a clip from the Bongiornos’ film Little Kings introduces three brothers who argue about what it means to be Italian American. They throw around ideas of models that range from Al Capone to Michelangelo, all the while cooking tomato sauce and testing pasta for readiness in their mother’s kitchen.
This interesting mix of directors, producers, and experts of
both cinema and Italian American culture sparked a conversation that crossed
disciplines and engaged a large audience interested in filmmaking and the representation
of Italian Americans in film. Professor
Teresa Fiore, the Inserra Chair, commented that “thanks to a collaboration
between the Italian and Filmmaking programs on campus, students from different
backgrounds saw their interests intersect at this event. Judging from their comments after the
evening, in the future it would be interesting to organize an event with some actors
that have played stereotypical Italian American roles. Through the generosity of the Inserra Endowment
we are already looking in this direction.
For more information on this and other cultural events
organized by the Inserra Chair, please see www.montclair.edu/inserra.