Iris Prize – The Red Tree
The Red Tree explores the persecution that a number of men experienced in 1930s Fascist Italy, when Mussolini made the island of San Domino a prison colony for gay men. It is one of a number of documentary films in this year’s shortlist that look at LGBT+ history, based on real-life experiences and first-hand accounts. The Iris Blogger caught up with writer and director Paul Rowley to talk about the film.
IRIS BLOGGER: I’d never heard about this chapter of Italian history before. How did you come across the story?
PAUL ROWLEY: It’s a history that’s really not very well known, even among my gay friends in Italy. I was curating a screening for a film festival about global issues impacting the LGBTQ+ community and I found a tiny snippet online about some activists going to the island of San Domino to lay a memorial for the victims of the fascist regime.
I started to dig deeper and found only references in passing to it in English and learned that none of the ex-prisoners were still alive. I did eventually find a marvelous book called La città e l’isola by Gianfranco Goretti and Tommaso Giartosio which was based on an interview from the 1980s which was fascinating. I went to Italy on a research trip, where I met with the two writers. Then I went to the island on my own in February, actually the perfect way to feel the isolation of the place.
The footage of the island that you see in the film I recorded at that time. I then went up to Milan where I met with Giovanni Dall’Orto, an LGBTQ+ historian who was kind enough not only to share his knowledge with me, but also showed me examples of the original police reports he had managed to get copies of back in the ’80s. And I met with the wonderful writer Luca de Santis, who I later ended up collaborating with on the narration.
IB: There are details in the narration that feel very intimate and authentic Is The Red Tree based on one particular testimony?
PR: The narration is very much a collage made from many sources. Luca de Santis had already written a graphic novel based on the history of the island (In Italia Sono Tutti Maschi / In Italy we only have real men), so he’d already done a ton of work poring over the original police reports, letters from inmates back home to families, letters from mothers to Mussolini begging him to release their sons. So although there were no survivors still living, we had a good amount of written texts to draw from, and we combined many of these sources into our narration.
Some of it was imagined. Parts of the story came from my visit to the island. During the summer it’s now a popular holiday destination, but while I was there pretty much everything was shut down except for one guest house. I walked the island on my own for hours every day, finding forgotten paths, empty houses, piles of rubble, abandoned lighthouses. A good amount of the story came to me during those walks. I really tried to put myself in the place of someone who had been ripped from their bed and finds themselves in total isolation. The story of the narrator and his friend Mimi especially came from these daily walks. I imagined what people would do to try and keep sane, how they would find support.
And then the other key decision was that we wanted to see this history from a contemporary perspective. We wanted our narrator to have lived through the gay rights movement and the AIDS epidemic, and also to have knowledge of present day assaults on our community. So the idea of a survivor returning years later to pay homage to what had happened to him and his friends evolved pretty early on as a way to encompass that.
IB: You’ve written and directed both documentary and drama in the past. Though it’s very expressionistic, I’d categorise The Red Tree as a documentary. Were you ever tempted to tell this story as a conventional drama?
PR: The Red Tree is a documentary; perhaps many would describe it as a hybrid film. It’s really is a mix of past and present in its use of materials. In addition to historical documents such as the police reports and archival texts we borrowed from, there are also scenes where we see the men of Catania dancing as they would have done back in the 1930s. We filmed that with lots of my Italian-American friends in Brooklyn. And the 3D digital red tree you see in the film is a replica of the actual tree that they guys used to congregate around in Catania.
So you have this use of contemporary filmmaking tools to tell a story from the 1930s again as a way to keep the story still alive in the present. I felt like that was the main goal, to tell the story in a way that would first of all preserve the history, but also to amplify the contemporary relevance.
I did think about the idea of making it a drama at one point, albeit with probably more of an experimental approach rather than conventional drama, but once I’d decided on the idea of the narration and having gone to the island, I thought the best approach was to have the voice take us through the history and all the way up to the present day. Because (Italian actor) Leo Gullotta’s beautiful reading is so good I could allow myself more room to experiment with the images, as a way to tell the story more visually in parallel to the words. The jumping backwards and forwards in time as he speaks is a good example of this, from the present-day ship journey to the scenes in the barracks and so on.
IB: What kind of process did you use to achieve that kind of stylised, poetic visual quality for a factual subject?
PR: I basically exported an image from every clip I shot on the island, and built a visual storyboard first from these images. It starts and finishes on the ship as in the film, and there were sections in between; for example, about the daily walks, the barracks, the violence. I sent these storyboards to Luca with some ideas for story, and he crafted the narration from what I sent. So there was a visual story outline that Luca wrote with as a starting point. And then we bounced the narration back and forth as the film turned from storyboards into an edit in the timeline. It was actually a great way to work together, from Milan to Brooklyn.
IB: You’re a non-Italian filmmaker telling a story that’s been practically brushed under the rug of Italian history. What kind of reception has the film had with Italian audiences? Is there much appetite there, with the rise of populist movements, to examine the Fascist era?
PR: I’m really happy that the film has had a wonderful reception in Italy. It’s already played at many festivals there and it’s been very well-received. I think it’s been accepted at about 90% of the Italian festivals we’ve sent it to which is incredible. I’m especially happy that the film has played at festivals outside of the LGBTQ+ circuit in Italy, so not only are we getting speak to our own community but to the public at large.
IB: Is there much appetite there, with the rise of populist movements, to examine the Fascist era?
PR: Making this film was very much inspired by this global attempt by Fascists to normalise their hateful views – so I wanted the film to be a reminder and a warning. A reminder that our freedoms are precious, and a warning that they have to be fought for way more than we might have expected.