Interview: Arianna Lodeserto, The Houses We Were (Italy)

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Ahead of her film The Houses We Were, screening as part of the Bill Douglas International Competition, GSFF spoke to award-winning filmmaker and photographer Arianna Lodeserto about her use of archival footage, gentrification and the effects of capitalism on urban environments. 

A lot of your work tends to focus on urban environments.  What is it you find so engaging about this subject matter?

Urban forms have been around for almost ten thousand years.  Since they (still) contain humans, they are both attracting and hyper-frightening.  But we could be interested in the city for different reasons. As a photographer, I was often captured by the urban “third landscape” and its inhabitants.  Yet, the beauty of Roman Council Estates moved this project at first.  For a long time I have dreamt of a photographic project to depict the history of modern Roman architecture through the visual story of public housing, that hides here some architectural jewels. Then I had the chance to discover and study the funds of The Audio-visual Archive of the Democratic and Labour Movement (AAMOD), that led me to a city forever fighting with and against itself.

I found the use of archival footage really arresting.  What attracted you to this format?

I thought that this particular material had a very cinematographic and powerful impact, and those audio-visual fragments could synthetize the genesis of a struggle that is becoming more and more urgent nowadays, when gentrification is overwhelming and a regular flat became a luxury item. Since this endless fight is long to be accomplished, the short movie displays a choral demonstration using both the ancient and the present archival images, and not only found footage but also silent reportages, propaganda films, anonymous movies, simple dailies, unfinished films, documentaries and even three experimental arthouse movies.  One of the challenges was persisting in using a “disjunctive editing” (separating and then recombining image and sound), creating something that, at the beginning, was perceived as somehow confusing. The biggest challenge was to respect and return the complexity of the building speculation and the peculiarity of the gestures of struggle by using almost only examples of self-representations of the fight.

The “archival journey” can be a pure and simple storytelling tool, or an instrument to investigate the past in different ways, with the intent to show not a story but a multi-layered hive of different times and different stories, narrated not by a single (art-house) voice over but many, not by a single protagonist but by the mixed up generations of children, old people and young, women and construction workers all still waiting for a home.

We don’t get, here, “something new”, but a new order for things kept together by the archives, intended as a “radical format”: a device that allow an open construction, a gigantic window that holds together infinite, multiple constellations and consents, here, to narrate the individual need to inhabit a land as much as the collective criticism to the current urban state of things. The archive is always “a film that is not a film, but it is a lot of films at the same time”, and, often, many stories at the same time. Bearers of different instances, they will need more aesthetics, more optics, more facades, and more voices in order to be told.

One of the most memorable phrases from your film, which really drives home the central theme is: “Let us learn to read in the city of bourgeois: “Not a single brick was laid with you in mind”. Do you this is changing at all, or is it only getting worse?

It is, indeed, the very “catch phrase” of the film, taken from Of conscience (1968), a medium-length film by Alessandra Bocchetti on power-knowledge in the bourgeois education system.  Perhaps today languages are less diversified by a “class society” composed by classes that are more difficult to recognize (but no less cruel).  I’m also convinced that, in the “roaring 70s”, the so-called convergence of struggles was not just a slogan but a fact, or at least a real attempt, although today forgotten, or ignored.

What also disappears is the awareness that a home should be a right (for everyone), and a fair rental price too.  Not just unaffordable rents, but also mentality and social awareness are increasingly worrying. Also, thanks to the so-called “sharing economy” such as Airbnb and its ambiguous rhetoric, which has made even the ordinary living a private business, an “experience” to be sold in small plots at a high price, but always with the certainty that “it is never our direct responsibility if gentrification increases and the price of a single room rises disproportionately in every city”, and if “the experience of living” is taken from the precarious tenants and migrants in favour of wealthy tourists, millionaire landlords and oligarchs.

Another element that stood out for me is this disconnect between the idealised version of Rome that most international audiences will have in their heads and the stated reality for most of its’ inhabitants.  What is something you feel people usually miss when it comes to their perceptions of Rome?

According to the latest surveys, Rome is increasingly poor and hard to live, and stifled by its eternal lack of adequate services (transport, health, housing, etc). For most of its inhabitants, which means temporary and unemployed workers without state aid. Rome is an immense and dispersed agglomeration of neighbourhoods, so far from that extra-terrestrial city centre.  The ordinary Rome is an underdeveloped city of spontaneous construction, of mediocre and inconspicuous architecture.  Then, in the archives, you meet a city protagonist of an housing emergency that is not just a recent or passing “crisis” but a structural issue – a cornerstone of urban administration. So, no terraces or little attics here, but the greyish and pale infrastructure of the most boring classism, the building abuse and the agonising habitat.

What emerges through the archives is a Rome of slum-dwellers well aware of the space in which they live: of the denied decent homes, of the good houses that they’re building (for others), of the urban forms that they have to invent and improvise, and of the areas that will be taken away from them when the improved lots will acquire market value thanks to their work. If cinema and literature seem to replace architecture in designing and representing it, then there is also a Rome that in the cinema can narrate itself, a Rome that asks the cameras and tape recorders to “give them a house”, which should be like pointing at the finger, but it still perceived as asking for the moon.

A notable motif in your film is how rapidly shifting populations can lead to exploitation and the hands of industry.  How do you think we can learn from this lesson in order to prevent it happening in the future?

The archives deliver many unfinished lessons. We can learn to build something different from the dominant collective imagination.  Some documentaries, used in my research but not edited in the film, show that even in the painful years of the “reflux” (the early ’80), in a very popular district like San Basilio (of which even today we always try to speak badly), the low-income inhabitants were not at all victims but proud (proud of not being part of the dominant culture, because “the bourgeois culture should not even be considered “culture”, but subjugation”, they said). Taking home awareness of the possibilities of fight hidden in our history, which involves also the fiery desire of being something else that casualties of (virtual or real) capitalism, would be so much already. 

Interview by Joe McFarlane

The Houses We Were screens in Bill Douglas Award 1: Four Walls on Thursday 14 and Saturday 16 March.