Interview to filmmaker Philipp Kaindl

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about a really interesting blog and documentary project called Sgarbiville that I had found, dealing with the town of Salemi and the art critic Vittorio Sgarbi, who is not Sicilian and does not live in the town, becoming mayor and putting some old houses up for sale at €1 each. As I mentioned in that post, I was interested in talking to the film maker Philipp Kaindl to know more about his project, I managed to get in touch with him and he was so nice to answer all my questions. Here is the interview for you.

When did your first hear about Salemi and the €1 houses up for sale and what captured your interest?

Actually, I first read about Salemi in the New York Times, in an article about Yongman Kim's collection of 55.000 films being shipped from New York to Salemi. The article also mentioned the Progetto Terremoto and the "Case a 1 Euro". All of which immediately caught my interest.

For a while now I've been interested in places around the world that have been abandoned or have declining populations. The earthquake of 1968 in the Belice area is another example of villages being destroyed and abandoned (for example close-by Poggioreale or Gibellina) and rebuilt somewhere else. Salemi wasn't abandoned, but most houses that were damaged by the earthquake weren't rebuilt either. Instead, a new houses were built around them.

I am curious to see, if the €1 houses will turn out to be more than just a marketing stunt. So far, no construction works are visible, as bureaucratic hurdles delay the legal process of ownership change. But the feedback has been enormous and there are more people interested than there are houses available. So it remains to be seen, if it works. Furthermore, there are several interesting ideas being developed by Oliviero Toscani and young people who get a chance to do an 6-month internship in the Assessorato alla Creatività.

Salemi has 11.000 inhabitants, a declining population and few job opportunities. Young people tend to leave once they finish school. So the question is, whether innovative and creative ideas can turn a trend around and revitalise Salemi. And that, despite its two main proponents, Vittorio Sgarbi and Oliviero Toscani. They are good at developing new ideas and attracting public attention, but their fondness of themselves and impatience with the locals seems to be more of an obstacle than a stimulus.

How did the idea of a documentary about it come about?

As I already mentioned, I was intrigued by all the news of what was happening in Salemi. On top of that, the new mayor, Vittorio Sgarbi, is a striking figure to say the least. Though he is not well known in other countries, he has a potential for scandals that matches that of Berlusconi. Someone who has fathered 3 children but doesn't believe in fatherhood (see the Italian Wikipedia entry on Sgarbi) and calls himself - in the interview we filmed - a saint who brings miracles to Salemi (obstructed and marred only by the lethargy of the locals), is certainly a unique and interesting figure to portray.

How did you plan your trip?

I read everything I could find on Salemi on the web. But there comes the point, when you need to go there and talk to the people to really know what's going on. So I decided to do just that. I found someone in Sicily who was interested in the story and the process of shooting a documentary and agreed to help me with the interviews and the translations (I understand some Italian, but not enough for this kind of task). Thanks Gabriele!
My budget for this documentary was very limited. However, I travelled with a friend and we shared the costs. And Sachtler in Munich lent me a camera light for interviews at night and a sturdy yet portable tripod, which was great.

What was the most memorable encounter from a film maker point of view?

There wasn't just one moment... all the people we interviewed were great and really added something valuable to the project. The great thing about Sicily is that once people start talking, they don't stop. Everybody had very strong opinions when asked about the development of Salemi and the new mayor. And they put their whole body into it: something which I had time to concentrate on when not understanding everything they said... Some people didn't want to be filmed, but they still really wanted to share their thoughts on the matter.

....and from a personal point of view?

Meeting Gabriele, who did the interviews and translations and helped with everything else. He was really great, without him I wouldn't have managed to get this far.

What are the main findings of your work?

Well, I already mentioned some things above. Personally, I think that some of what's happening really is a great opportunity for a small city like Salemi. And giving young people a chance to work creatively is something I would like to see happening in many more places. However, both Sgarbi and Toscani seem to lose patience if they don't see fast results. And they are not very diplomatic in communicating their disagreement. In general, their inflated egos seem to get in their way and provoke conflicts with the locals. It's a shame if good ideas don't get executed due to personal animosities and accusations. But we'll see what happens in the next months.

How did people react to you filming in the area?

Both Sgarbi and Toscani saw the fact, that we were there to film them as confirmation that what they are doing is right. Many other people were also proud to have a film team from a foreign country there. In many interviews, people mentioned this as Sgarbi's greatest achievement: making Salemi known beyond the borders of Sicily and Italy.
In general, people reacted very friendly. From a free peach at the fruit store to some free snacks along with a beer at the bar... people were very generous (but no worries, it won't tarnish my objectivity in the documentary :)

Where and when is the documentary going to be shown?

I wasn't really expecting to get everything I need for a documentary on the first visit, I had only planned to shoot some research footage, but now I've got more than expected. So I'll need to see what to do with it. If I get funding, I'd like to go back to Salemi and see how it develops, how the projects work out. But I might already edit a short documentary with the material I've got so far. Whatever happens, I'll keep you posted on

Did you discover anything unexpected about the story?

The discrepancy between what's in the news and what concerns the people is always striking. Of course, it's always the big announcements which hit the news (such as Sgarbi saying that he wants to open a casino and legalise prostitution:).
However, it's the little things that really concern the people. It's Sgarbi promising to give two sheds to a local football team who want to use them as changing rooms and then not following up on his promise. This "discovery" comes as no surprise, but it is an important point nevertheless. (But - no doubt - if Sgarbi should really legalise prostitution in Salemi, that would certainly be the talk of town. But so far, it's just another one of his provocative ideas...)

...and about Sicily in general?

Sicily was just as great this time as when I last visited the island about four years ago. And I love the smell of the herbs in the countryside... which only turns foul if you get caught in a sulfur cloud up on Mt. Etna.

As we are mostly a food related blog, the final question has little to do with film making. What is the favourite Sicilian dish you had while filming in Salemi?

Bernd (the friend who was travelling with me) had a dish of pasta with some green sauce. It tasted really nice but we couldn't figure out what it was. The next day, driving through the countryside with Gabriele and his brother, we found the plant: it's some herb that grows in the fields, about a meter tall. Bernd tried it raw... it was definitely the same thing... but he prefers it cooked! Do you know what it's called?

It could be wild fennel, but the Sicilian countryside offers so many wild herbs that it is a bit hard to guess based only on the common green colour.

Short Bio

Philipp is a director and independent filmmaker in Vienna / Austria. He studied Business Administration in England, then turned to filmmaking upon returning to Austria in 2004. In the same year, he founded kino5, an NGO dedicated to supporting independent filmmakers and part of the Kino movement which originates in Montreal / Canada. He has been experimenting with various film styles while producing no-budget short films. He has now turned to documentaries to combine his work experience in journalism with his passion for filmmaking.

Written on
July 28, 2009
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