Zoppelletto… ‘African film is the future’
THE moment she walked into the newsroom of The Guardian, you could feel the number of heads that turned. Maybe, because she is white. Perhaps, not. But she looked every inch classy, tall and elegant.
Cecilia Zoppelletto is a scriptwriter, film producer and director. She worked as TV producer for the Italian national broadcasting company, RAI, and as TV host and writer for the Italian network, Antenna Tre Nordest before she found a new world in filmmaking.
At Antenna Tre Nordest, where she wrote, produced and hosted a number of programmes, from art and culture to the very popular Oasi Di Salute, a health series, with subjects ranging from gambling addiction to cancer, she developed an interest in filmmaking.
Her last programme for the network was the Saturday night talk show, Il Circolo, where she invited artists, actors, sportsmen and women, politicians to talk about culture and society. Zoppelletto’s debut film, La Belle at the Movies, was screened at the just concluded Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF) held in Lagos.
What informed the feature documentary?
She drew a long laugh and said the film came by chance. The idea of the documentary started when she went on holiday to Kinshasa. To her, “it was much more than a holiday. Just before starting my MA in Film studies, I took a holiday to Kinshasa. Like any tourist I look around and spot out the differences of the new urban environment. I was stunned to see that amongst all the city buildings, there were no cinemas and out of all the billboards, there wasn’t one promoting films. From that moment on, it became my repertoire at every lunch or dinner in Kinshasa to ask, ‘why aren’t there any cinemas’?”
Surprisingly, nobody could really provide answer. Some people volunteered guesses. She decided to come back to find out the real reason behind the no cinema scenario.
She obtained an MA in Film Studies from the University of Westminster. Her thesis was on the disappearance of cinemas in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which led her to the making of the feature documentary on cinema culture in Kinshasa, La Belle At The Movies.
Typically, Kinshasa, ‘Kin la Belle’, is a city of 10 million people without a single cinema. La Belle at the Movies exposes the decline of the cinema industry in DRC’s capital city, examines its genesis over the past decade and puts the audience in touch with audiences cut adrift from their beloved cinema theatres, who tell their stories with passion, insight and deep nostalgia.
“Through interviews with filmmakers, cinema owners, government officials and fans, we discovered a complex situation: The Minister of Culture explains that cinema is finally back on the government agenda, the President of the National Counsel for Audiovisual told us of new broadcast regulations designed to stop widespread piracy and entrepreneurs’ fight to keep the passion alive in the townships with VHS pop- up cinemas,” she said.
Zoppelletto added, “the documentary celebrates the Kinshasa cowboys of the popular 1960s Spaghetti Westerns and narrates preachers’ opposition as they have turned theatres into churches.”
What were the challenges of doing the film?
“I can truly say this film is a labour of love and personal finance. As a first time director, I did not find much support, most especially, because of the subject. I was not surprised to find that as soon as I mentioned Congo, people wanted to know about the war, the rebels. But I wanted to show that Congo has people who want to live a normal life, an average middle class life. Go to a bar for a drink and go to the movies at the weekend. I was supported by a group of people in Kinshasa, who believe there is more than one narrative to come out of Congo,” she said.
On the duration and location of the shoot, the thoughtful Zoppelletto recalled how she and Paolo, the cinematographer, spent a month in Kinshasa they were only able to shoot eight days.
Almost every time they had an arranged interview or shooting, they realised it was a dressed rehearsal. “We would turn up and have a preliminary meeting, not be allowed to shoot and have to come back for the ‘real’ interview. It made the process very tiring in a difficult environment of humid heat and blinding sunshine. A paradox, a Londoner should complain about that,” she confessed.
Interestingly, only one interview was carried out in Belgium where they met Robert Bodson, whose film of 1954 became at the time the Belgian Embassies’ official film on the African colony.
Of course, every production has its challenges and this production certainly had its own. I would never have thought that shooting a truck’s parking lot would almost get me arrested. My driver was in a panic and my fixer unable to fix. It happened that when we filmed the grounds where the city’s only drive in stood, we were assured that there was permission, but when we started filming, we were surprised when we were joined by a policeman and an area commander, who insisted that I should immediately go to the police station,” Zoppelletto remarked.
“It was about 5pm when it all started and because you are on the equator it goes from light to dark in a few minutes. I remember the driver turned on the van’s lights and thinking “Oh look it’s six o’clock”. Finally a couple of hours later they let us go, and it was not by bribing that we were let off, more begging. We returned two more times before we were able to take the shots. Looking at them now I am very satisfied with the tenacity we showed.”
What gave her confidence to shoot?
“I guess my background in TV gave me the confidence to shoot the film. “I have always done films but I never thought it was accessible for me to do this. But working with other film – makers who had background in film making open my eyes to the possibility that if others could do it, I. could also do it too. So I gave it a try and here we are,” she smiled.
She revealed that shooting the film was quite tough, because of the challenging African environment. However, she is happy with the opportunities presented by the film, the people she had to interact with and the fact that it opened up a whole new experience in film making for her.
“First, the experience was very practical and it was tough but it was worth it. I had never stayed out in the sun like that, my body was not used to it. Though, I had a permit, and the people were quite warm, interested and cooperative, we had to explain ourselves every to achieve results. This slowed down the process. And took a lot of time. There is a lot of bureaucracy probably because there is no set up yet. It’s just the organisation really,” she observed.
WHEN it comes to work and relaxation, it’s film, film and more film for Zoppelletto. She is so much in love with the motion picture and outside film; she loves to hang out with hers son. “He is the most funny person I know. That is why I have been encouraging him to write comedy, because he is really funny.”
She sees Nigerians as great people and easy to deal with. She recalled her interaction with intellectuals, filmmakers, entrepreneurs of high standing and loving every moment of the experience while it lasted.
For the beautiful lady, African film is the future. “It is developing very fast. And Nollywood is taken very seriously everywhere. It is seen as a feasible way to live. That’s a great job. There is something in the module here that works and African film is it.”
She paints the Nigerian woman as friendly and very direct, which she likes a lot. Pointing to the majority of those who run film festival in Nigeria as women, she said, “the ladies are great managers and great business people. It was nice working with them. Coming to Nigeria has been a complete experience. However, it’s not easy being a vegetarian in Nigeria. You always put Maggi cube in your fish. I can’t change Nigerians eating habits. Hopefully, by the time I come back, maybe I would have stated eating it. It’s been a beautiful experience. It’s been perfect.”