Published Saturday, October 24 2020 | Vincenzo Cavallo by theSystem *
Vincenzo Cavallo’s films are hard to classify. Somewhere between reality and avant-garde cinema, they’ve found audiences in both the art world and mainstream pop culture. It’s a testament to the uniqueness of Cavallo’s artistic vision that neither space can contain it.
Some people, however, will encounter Cavallo’s work online. Black identity and its representation is something he explores. Cavallo’s films, like the life that inspires them, demand to be played over and over. This is because he’s never telling just one story. His films operate on multiple levels simultaneously. On the surface, they offer the seductive pleasures and graphic visuals of classic videos. Cavallo has an eye for rapturous imagery and a penchant for gliding, hypnotic camerawork that transforms banal spaces into dramatic stages for kinetic bodies. It’s easy to stay in this sensual world. But Cavallo has a lot on his mind. An avid cinephile, his works are laden with cinematic references. It’s easy to recognize the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky and Spike Lee, among others. If his name remains unfamiliar, it’s because he prefers to stand back and let the work speak for itself. And the work speaks volumes.
Making a career as a film-maker requires painstaking determination, resilience and vision. It can be a tough road to travel. Film directors typically thrive on the strength of their track record making it very difficult for aspiring youngsters to get a foothold in the industry. The only way in which young filmmakers can build up a portfolio of work to attract potential producers and investors is to start off as an independent filmmaker. The award-winning director and producer, Vincenzo Cavallo, shares his insights and experiences as one such filmmaker.
Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background and how you got where you are now?
I was born in southern Italy in 1980 in a city called Napoli. It’s a very peculiar city. Full of creativity and craziness. I became a creative when I discovered skating, hip hop and black culture. At that time and even today Napoli is an hub for African people coming to Europe. I grew up playing with Senegalese and Ghanaian’s, listening to Alpha Blondy with my friends from Ivory Coast and learning from them about how diverse Africa is. Then I left Napoli to concentrate on my studies And I went abroad. First US then Spain. Then Latin America. Then East Europe. Then finally in 2007 I arrived in Kenya with a fellowship program. I worked for one year for the UN. After that I created an NGO focusing on Media For Development. In the meantime I made a documentary about Mungiki, about Somali Pirates, And many others for different types of clients. In 2012 I got funds to make my first TV series. A co-production between Kenya, Chile and Colombia. Something never done before. It’s a series about Afro Colombian music. And the African influence in Latin American culture. Then I made a feature film called Wazi?Fm, That won several awards among them Zanzibar Film Festival. Then I made 2 music films. With UkooFlani from Mombasa, one is called Maskaniflani, the other is called Twende Berlin. They are both about public space and creatives, About how we as creatives shape the cities and at the same time create economical opportunities. In 2012 I bought a double Decker bus and converted into a studio. We started at Muthiti Road n.80 then we moved to Parklands to help the start up of Alchemist. After that we moved to a quieter space to work with Canon on a series of workshops. In 2016 I met Brian of Black Rhino VR at the Alchemist before I had met him at the Goethe at a digital festival, And at Alliance and we became friends. I proposed to him African Space Makers and now after 4 years we made it. Ours is the first Kenyan film that was ever accepted in an official competition at Venice Biennial. The African premiere will be in November in Nairobi.
Sure, you have an amazing story, so tell me how did you arrive at the name Dr. Faras what significance does it have?
So my last name in Italian is Cavallo, which translate into Farasi for Kenyans or Faras for Somalis my friends and the people I work with call me Faras Or Dr.Faras because I have a PhD. I adopted that name as my African name. Unfortunately we don’t decide where we come from. But we can develop our identity in the direction we want. I’m kind of a strange type. Because I migrated towards the South. Instead of migrating to the North. Neapolitan people are usually known to be migrants because where we come from life can be very difficult. So I migrated to Kenya but unfortunately or maybe fortunately, I don’t know. I’m not considered as an Italian migrant who went to Canada or Australia would be considered. So even if I have all the papers, It will be difficult to obtain the citizenship
and be considered a Kenyan filmmaker. Which at the end of the day, It’s partially the reality because most of my films were made in Kenya.
As a film maker you must be quite a busy person .People outside the art and film worlds may not know your name, but they’ve certainly seen your work. you are not as active on social so clearly you don’t actively pursue personal fame but in a world where fame has become such a strong currency why do you prefer to keep such a low profile of yourself?
I would be a hypocrite to tell you I’m not looking for fame. The reality is that I would love to be recognized as part of the film scene in Kenya. But nobody really understands who I am and where I come from, majority think “he is just another funny funny Mzungu”, they don’t see or pay attention to my trajectory and background, so I just move on and try my best. Some people really appreciate what I do, some people ignore me, some people even hate me, It’s complicated but I’m grateful, because Kenya has given me many opportunities even if I think without citizenship It’s a joke.
How did you get involved with film and when & how was you first encounter with film that developed your interest in the industry especially in the African scene?
All my life is about black culture, Music and cinema, Spike Lee, especially the film Do The Right Thing
Inspired me. Bob Marley. Alpha Blondy. Southern Italians are addressed as the black people of Italy
And we are proud of that. There is a massive music and creative culture.
“Go and make your own film. Starve if necessary. Film makers are the people that make films” – Vincenzo CavalloTweet
What is it about Black culture and iconic figures like Bob and Blondy that fascinates you the most and how does that play out in your works?
The Mediterranean sea my friend. The fight for the voiceless. They are revolutionaries.
So in a sense you resonate with the black struggle and want to contribute towards that ....
I never wanted to become a business man. I love what I do. I’m the son of Napoli, An over exploited city, I was born in the struggle, I was arrested detained for political reasons in the 90s As part of the No Global movement I grew up in the squat culture, the black struggle the punk struggle. The internationalist struggle. We are all part of the same movements. Did you know that in Uk in the 70s Punk and Reggae were both part of the same scene?
Oh wow great , well i’m not familiar with that particular era of the European culture!
Sometime people on both side forget about Marxism.
I think a lot about the relationship between art and politics, or art and activism. Your work has a lot to do with expanding ideas of black representation and identity, which has a political dimension. For me, your work is defined by operating on multiple levels at the same time. It’s romantic, gritty, beautiful, painful, nostalgic, and futuristic all at once. Do you think of yourself as a revolutionary and whats your take on activism?
I’m a story teller an intellectual, I write script and academic paper at the same time, But there is one thing I want to say, we don’t need to be super wealthy to live well. We all need to reach a level of wealth that can allow us to live well in peace. I’m a socialist for sure, I want wealth to be reinvested
I don’t see the point of feeling pleasure In being super wealthy, Honestly I think people who dream about having a Ferrari are perverts, they should be dreaming about going to the beach with their
close ones play with the children and the dog not having to be scared about being robbed. People should be free, But not free to destroy others, To shit our planet, To exploit our brother and sisters
Freedom of choosing who to make love with, with his or her consent it’s freedom, Freedom of walking around at any time is freedom. These things will be possible only when we will be able to create a society which is not driven only by perverts. People who need a Ferrari to be happy.
You’re an independent filmmaker, what are some of the challenges you face especially with telling African stories?
African Stories are divided into two very different scenes
1. Africa Magic type
2. Art House films with a political agenda.
The first scene is part of pop culture. For example the workers, The house wives But also middle class consume it. The second is a whole world dominated by intellectuals and snobbish people, For me the challenge is to find a third way, A film scene that is pop but is also Artistic and unique. When I make films about human rights violation in Africa I am more likely to win an award at festivals, When I make something pop intellectual people kind of like it but they don’t take it seriously.
Why do you think this is so?
Because the narrative is always, In order to be relevant we need to see human rights abuses or people dying in a civil war or in the sea, on top of this I’m not black so this adds another layer of complexity. I’m struggling, believe me, I need to clarify my identity I’m too European to be African and I’m too Africanized to be European, A messy situation. My goal is to make absurd Films, Very crazy, Comedy drama experimental. I need to stand out with something very unique to be noticed.
How many films have you made so far and which was the easiest and which was the hardest ?
If we talk about fiction, I’ve made a feature film, A web comedy, And 3 Mockumentaries. If we talk about documentaries 100% non fiction I’ve made many including a 12 episodes TV series. To be honest the more experience I gain the less difficult it becomes. The most monumental effort was to make the 12 episodes TV series it was crazy it took my life and soul Wazi?Fm was also crazy but less long.. and I did not expect the film to receive 3 awards at Ziff. The web series was also crazy too much work and very little reward. Two awards but we made too many mistakes so it did not become famous. Finally the VR film, It was crazy to write But honestly very fun And shooting and editing was also not that hard because I worked with the right people we got to Venice!
Few challenges but so far, One of the easiest for me And not because it was easy But because what I experienced in the past. Now I’m producing a Somali director making a film called Almost Somali, we shall finish by the end of the year And then I hope we will start to shoot Bufis maybe the film that will launch my career for real. I’m really focusing on this.
You have written , developed , directed and produced quite a number of films , i’m assuming because you’ve shot many films you must have some sort of financial template , can you tell us a bit about how you fund this projects?
The Rock and Roll approach, It can be TV or Cinema funds It can be development funds It can be music and art funds, you name it. When you have a good idea you just keep fighting.
Tell me about Bufis …
Bufis is an action comedy drama about Somalis living in Kenya in the 90s trying to get a green card to go to America, Its based on real facts. Bufis with 2 uu means the desire to go abroad for Somalis, It’s a word that was invented in Dadaab Basically it is the story of a great Somali scam which ended when the American Embassy introduced the DNA test, Nairobi Eastleight is the background. There is also the issue Of police brutality extrajudicial killings but it’s also very pop It may go on Africa Magic or Toronto Film Festival sindio?
Film distributing is a very complicated area for many filmmakers, can you talk a little about your distribution strategy?
I wish I could share about strategy, I think people like Wanuri could speak about that. I personally think that if you make a film you should not show it immediately try to get into festivals, They do look at it If you get selected in Venice Berlinale Locarno Cannes Toronto… you will find a serious distributor. Otherwise you will be struggling you can try with VOD (video on demand) non exclusive and push it online It may bring you Money It’s all about trying, the best option for me is to find many distributors In different territories do not give out everything to one guy and check well the contract do not give away the rights to publishing it unless they pay well in advance.
What do you make of the local film industry at the moment , by local meaning East African ?
I make nothing out of it, sometime we rent out some equipment. The films I make Wazi?Fm Twende, Berlin, African Space Makers, they are made locally It’s all done here African Space Makers was edited here but they did the final post in Berlin So I don’t know, Are my films local or not? I’m confused you see.
Is the industry here growing, what do you think of the progress of the local film industry?
Off course its growing but there are two problems for me
1. People are not free to criticize films in Kenya, Everybody is scared including myself I keep asking myself Can I really say what I think? Can I write what I think? It’s like criticism is not well accepted so for the industry it’s not good, In order to have a strong film industry you need freedom, Professional criticism.
In Kenya they teach how to use a camera but not cinema. Then the Germans come with their programs and their schools but we need a book of African Cinema East Africans in particular should study West African cinema, I receive interns from different schools most of them never watched a West African film they know nothing about the history of cinema, They know how to use programs in some cases, But where is the real culture? The one we develop by watching classics and discuss about
it? We need cinema culture and the culture of cinema.
How big is the East African cinema industry and what potential does it hold in the future?
Kenyans are intelligent they will lead the industry of Cinema in East Africa no doubt, It s a matter of time. It will grow.
What do you think it will take to rival Nollywood?
It will become better but at the end if people don’t go to cinema, Don’t pay for subscriptions you will always be less than others. What makes the industry big Is the audience.
I hope not I think Nollywood is not the model to look at I hope it will develop differently, you see the problem is always self confidence. Kenyan people should look inside themselves. The answer is there. Make your own cinema.
Whats your vision on this. how would you like to see the industry in say 10-20 years from now?
1. I wish Kenyan will embrace multiculturalism so I could be an Italian-Kenyan director working with
Somali-Kenyan director and be recognized just like any 100% Kenyan director.
2. I wish the Kenyan Government will put money in the film industry like Koreans did so that we will not end up like the backyard of Nollywood.
3. I wish the Kenyan Government will support co productions and sign agreements with other countries like South African did.
4. I wish we could have affordable cinemas everywhere and that Kenyan people will spend on cinema tickets the equivalent amount they spend for nyama choma and drinks.
5. I wish Kenyan cinema will lead the regional industry by investing in creating the best film schools in the continent, these need to be public funded schools for few very talented people that can teach the real thing not how to use software.
Thats quite the vision man , how do you think the media or publishers like us can support the film industry and forge that new era of cinema in East Africa that sounds far fetched yet very possible if the proper measures are put in place?
I think you need to criticize films without fearing to Be negative If you talk bad about a film because you think the film is not good It’s okay, If you explain why it even better but in order to do so you need to know a lot about films, So study hard to become a good film journalist, Maybe write a book about East African cinema.
Who inspires you and where do you draw most of your inspiration for your work and where do you reference the most?
Spike Lee even if I did not like his last film for me he is the number one because he is wild and crazy as a director should be. Ettore Scola, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Federico Fellini, Because I grew up with their films And they are the pillars of Italian cinema Then we have, The director of Karmen Joseph Gai Ramaka that blew my mind.
Are you familiar with Arthur Jafa and Khalil Joseph?
Daughters of the Dust.
Incredible film. But not pop, The style is not close to my taste.
Those two are my favorite film makers of all time though
You have my absolute respect. They are both masters I will try to watch everything about them I may have a limited knowledge I need to study more thanks for sharing.
Man you definitely should , make sure you watch Love is the Message by Arthur and Until the Quiet Comes by Khalil, tell me what you think when you watch those if you haven’t.
Great I have my homework.
What classifies one as an independent film maker?
When you don’t work under a major brand such as Sony Warner Bross bla bla!
How would you characterize the way you use digital means of production and how do they correspond with you verses how they might correspond with other film makers today , and what do you think of film in the age of digital production ?
I play with all the types of media all types of format I like to experiment If something new comes up I like to find a way to play with it for example African Space Makers, I made an interactive mockumentary that makes fun about interactivity.
Yeah i saw that , it was beautiful!
So you like the excitement of experimentation?
I like to play like children do that’s when you get the best of it. But now I need to stop playing and make a masterpiece, I’m getting old.
Tell me about this project , whats your aim in the long run with it?
To produce new episodes Dakar Joburg Kinshasa …. Lagos But I want to produce them Not direct them, I want to be the show runner!
How did you get into virtual reality and how important has it become for you as a tool to tell your stories?
It allow us to put the space at the center of narratives the space is the protagonist I wanted to make a story about space making when I met 360 video my mind clicked, I though this is it.
Collaboration is at the heart of film making , can you say something about the collaborative nature of film making? and how you find the process …..
It’s beautiful but also painful, It’s like sharing your girlfriend with a friend, You think ‘she is not mine’
And he is a good friend But at the end when you go to sleep you think, ‘He is mistreating her, He is not taking care of her, He does not understand her, He does not deserve her,’ But you need to fight against these misogynistic thoughts, She is not yours but you think he is mistreating her, his not taking care of her, She is not yours, She has her own life, She can’t become a real woman unless you let her go you let her be If they don’t deserve her she will come back to you and ask for help Let it go. Collabo is about letting it go. Understanding our own limits, If we want the film to become big We need to think big.
We can’t be possessive.
True and you also gave us a story there.
I think everyone thinks the same. But some people just state the obvious you know…The collaboration was great. We had challenges but we managed.. The usual things. Again I’m trying to be real.
Film makers typically progress on the strength of their track record , what can you say to young people out here trying to pursue something similar to what you do?
Be focused! If you are young remember you work for someone who is paying you but you think I shall
make my own film. Go and make your own film. Starve if necessary. But if you don’t make your own films. Then you can never become a filmmaker. Film maker = someone who makes film.
Focus. Don’t find excuses!
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