by Maria Grazia Liguori & Francesco Calandra
Imagine a working class neighborhood built between the 50’s and the 60’s: apartment buildings that run like trains on two parallel tracks, cement on cement, separated from the good part of the city by a railway embankment.
Imagine that this neighbourhood was built for those people who did not belong on the sparkling avenues down-town: immigrants of every age, gypsies, the poor and good-for-nothings. And imagine how this neighbourhood has become after forty years of governmental neglect.
Now imagine a place where the people say hello to each other in the street, where the gypsies don’t live in wagons, but in their own houses, and where they participate in a charitable movement to rescue boys from the street.
You’ll tell me, “It’s another town”
I’ll tell you, “It’s the same one”.
Pescara (Italy): famous as “the city of Gypsies” and the setting of our story. Gypsies were the first inhabitants of its southern suburbs, the neighbourhoods of San Donato and Villa del Fuoco,. In these two communities ROMA and the “gagè”, that is people not ROMA, have always cohabited here, even if they usually ignore each other. The diversity, that according to everybody, is the cause of this state of things, seems to be like an unsurmountable wall that has always discouraged not only any connection between the two groups, but even the idea that it could be possible.
The Gym is a docu-fiction project born from director Francesco Calandra’s years of work in one of those neighbourhoods: his home of San Donato.
The idea of studying these neighborhoods emerged from his desire to contrast the “literature” that describes these neighbourhoods as simple breeding-grounds of violence and crime. Our intention is to illuminate how much beauty exists in the authenticity and genuineness of the majority of the people who live in these communities.
And what would happen if some ROMA and “gagè” guys found themselves participating together in an acting laboratory filmed by a film crew?
That was the challenge that the director and his co-workers had in the Summer 2007, when they decided to start working on their movie. They led an acting laboratory in which a group of professional actors participated along with some young “gagè” men who were not actors and three ROMA youths from the neighbourhood. The target was to work on the screenplay of a feature film that would tell the thwarted-love story between a “gagè” boy and a ROMA girl.
The laboratory experience lasted just a few months, but it was enough to call the whole script into question.
Director and co-workers decided that the movie would have to become something else.
The Gym is a fictional documentary that tells the story of a director’s attempt to make a movie about the ROMA people of his home town, or rather “with ROMA people”, as he himself specified. But, once he got in touch with their world, his project was called into question: their reality didn’t correspond to what he had imagined. Gradually, and not without resistance, the director enters a world that he had previously known only through stereotypes, and discovers its value and beauty.
The purpose is to tell what was experienced inside the laboratory: that integration is possible if we share the same experiences, if we work side by side for a common goal. Only through this kind of contact can one find out what is held in common regardless of the differences. These experiences allow us to get closer while understanding what really causes the distance.
The movie consists of three levels of narration:
- the main event: the contact between the director and the ROMA world;
- the compilation of interviews and testimonies inside the ROMA world that constitute the documentary report tout court;
- fictional scenes interspersed throughout the film with humor and inventiveness to illustrate the director’s family life and background,.
These three levels of intertwined narration set up the film’s style: interspersing the discovery of the ROMA world through interviews at the boxing gym run by ROMA people and the experience of the theater laboratory with the (fictional) comments and reactions of the director’s family, bringing to the fore the common prejudices and stereotypes Italians hold of the ROMA.
The film that the director had written remains a dream that follows him throughout his discovery of ‘his suburbs.’ The fictional format allows him to question and mock the self-satisfied omniscience with which he had started out. Unlike the world of the ROMA, which still escapes and baffles him, the world of his family is his. He can fictionalize it in ways that he cannot do with that of the ROMA.
Francesco, the director, is from San Donato. A dreamer with a candid soul, he is inspired to make a film about his neighborhood through the thwarted-love story between a ROMA girl and a local gagè boy, a talented and promising boxer. To give his film a sense of local authenticity he decides to organize an acting laboratory.
That’s when the problems begin.
First: no ROMA girl answers the ad for someone to play the love interest. As if that’s not enough, all his attempts to meet ROMA girls are vain.
Bent on getting the actress he needs, Francesco begins to explore the ROMA world, a universe he had always been in touch with, but about which he knows almost nothing. He succeeds in entering in some ROMA homes and SINTI trailers thanks to the generous co-operation of the three ROMA youths who participated in his acting laboratory: Moreno, Enrico and Samira. Moreno is a university student, ambitious and determined, who pays for his studies by delivering bread early every morning; Enrico, Moreno’s cousin, has a fiery and tough personality and works as an apprentice electrician.
With their introductions Francesco is able to enter a world that had been hidden. Ever since he has been trying to catch a glimpse behind its curtain.
He learned that it is a patriarchal society, in which women still wear long skirts and the younger generation has difficulty finding a job. Their values run counter to those of modern Italian society. Yet they preserve a great pride in their traditions and way of life .
Still blind to the reality in front of him, Francesco does not give up on his movie. He wrote it wants to film it, a modern Romeo and Juliette story set in an Italian ghetto.
At this point the women of Francesco’s family enter the scene. Alarmed by a flyer they found in their neighborhood, in which a director with the same number as their Francesco announces that he is looking for a ROMA girl to act in his movie they wonder, did he fall in love with a gypsy woman? Did the gypsies put a curse on him?
Paradoxically, though marginalized, the ROMA community has undertaken its own charitable initiatives. Using a boxing-gym run by Guido Di Rocco, ex-boxer and father of Moreno, it attempts to rescue young men from the dangers of life on the street.
This is a reality that decisively collides with the stereotyped images of ROMA people addicted to crime and anti-social behavior.
Clueless and, sometimes, tactless, the wanna-be do-gooder Francesco moves as a bull in a china shop, ignorantly hurting the feelings of the youths and other people he meets along the way. Enrico in particular keeps challenging the director’s ideas, charging him with superficiality and the inability to tell the “truth” about their world. The primary bone of contention is Samira, a determined and strong-minded SINTA girl married to a gagè guy, who agrees to participate in their rehearsals. In Enrico’s opinion she’s too unusual, too emancipated to play the role of a ROMA girl properly. The result? After a tense argument for the umpteenth time between Enrico and Francesco, the laboratory blows up. All recovery attempts are vain.
Francesco is confused. He doesn’t know what to do. What’s more, if he can’t finish the laboratory, if he doesn’t make a film, he won’t receive the promised funding by a politician to pay for the film crew and all his work. So he decides not to give up: he joins the gym. In this way, Francesco hopes to keep learning about the ROMA world.
However his goal is transparent to the ROMA young in the gym. In order to unmask the director, Moreno, Enrico and Guido Di Rocco, the trainer and owner of the gym, decide that he won’t get away with it and certainly not painlessly. A partner in the crime, in spite of itself, is the film crew that documents everything as Francesco is subjected to hard and exhausting boxing practices that eventually lead him to face Enrico in the ring.
Worn out by the hard practices, the director is close to quitting. But then the merry mood in the club is darkened by outside events: the municipality wants to repossess the building it had granted to the club. Moreno and the others don’t know what to do. Then Francesco gets an idea: he will do something he really can do, something gagè!! He will make a promotional video for them, something that can testify to beneficial impact the gym is having on the community. He will use part of the fund for his movie to make it. Everybody is enthusiastic and ready to help.
The making of the video is overshadowed by events at the gym. If there a political agreement is not reached about the building, Guido will have to release his pupils so that they can practice at some other club.
The night for the screening of the video arrives. The last frames slide across the screen of the small cinema borrowed for the event. Then, thunderous applause from the many ROMA in attendance. The lights turn on. Down in front, the local authorities are whispering something between themselves. Working his way through the enthusiastic members of the gym, the politician-producer approaches Francesco to tell him that yes, the municipality will continue to provide the building, but he could forget about receiving another euro for his project which cannot any longer be considered a movie.
As if that’s not enough, Francesco’s family appears on the little cinema’s screen, giving him a discouraging and mean-spirited “I-told-you-so!”
The story ends with images of Enrico working as an electrician; of Samira living in her trailer where she came back to live; of Moreno taking Francesco to San Donato’s hill to show him the caravan in which he was born.
translation by Evan Haefeli