Currently in the process of filming Reimagining Sicily, Mark Spano tells us why he felt compelled to return to the land of his grandparents and paint a new portrait of his ancestral home.
Can you tell us a little about the project and what inspired you to want to do it?
The inspiration is pretty simple; throughout my whole life, on my travels, whether in the States or Europe, it didn’t matter where, if I announced to someone I was Sicilian or there was some discussion about background and ethnicity, there was only a single response. Eventually that got a little tiresome. When I was young, it was a source of some jokes and fun; that was fine, but at a certain point I got to thinking that people don’t really know very much about Sicily and that I didn’t know very much about Sicily. So, after many trips, hundreds of books and lots of discussion, I took up this idea about three years ago.
It has been very much uphill. I have had more than one agent, more than one potential funder, more than one cable network executive say to me: “You know Mark, if this was about crime we would take it on”. I always told them that the idea is that it’s not about crime. It’s about everything else, which is a pretty big subject. What we’re talking about is a definitive documentary, and what I mean by definitive is not the last word on Sicily, but a pretty inclusive discussion of the place, its people and history – always looking at present day Sicily and what it truly is for Sicilians, not what people were told by great film makers whose job it was to create fictions and not to tell the whole story about the island.
I thought to myself that this really hasn’t been done. Nobody has tackled the whole subject, detailing why Sicily is as important a destination as Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Paris, Rome, Florence, London… the places we go when we say we are well travelled and we know our culture and the locations that have formed western ideas… Even the concept of western ideas is a little limited when we start thinking about that, as there are so many ideas from elsewhere. I felt there was a real deficit here, in what we might call the conversation in the global village.
That leads nicely on to the next question. You have talked about a blended culture; you have talked about Greece, the Italian peninsula. In what way do you see Sicily contributing to that stream of western or, indeed, Middle Eastern ideas? What kind of things would you identify as having been lost, let’s say lost in translation, over the years?
Yes, we could say lost in translation; in fact it’s interesting that you mention translation because at the height of the Arab world, in Baghdad, it was a very literate culture. Every piece of writing that they laid their hands on got translated into Arabic and, at that time, those Arabic translations came into Sicily. The texts were then translated again into Latin and moved into Europe from Sicily.
This was the time of Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, a man who was just about one step away from being wrapped in skins and carrying a club. He was a man who was actually illiterate; any notions of the Gothic movement or the Renaissance were not on his mind. These were the things that a much more evolved civilization concerns itself with, and that civilization was going on in Sicily, not only under the Arabs, but also under the Normans from Roger I. Probably Roger II was the most important and then, of course, through Frederick II. Sicily was itself, it wasn’t someone else’s possession, it was a Kingdom in those days. That being said, most of its history is related to absentee landlords and invaders. Before diversity was fashionable, Sicily was quite diverse. It was enforced diversity – of ethnicity, of languages, religions, culture, and all those peoples added or subtracted from Sicily. Some of the subtractions were pretty awful.
You’ve been in the Val di Noto area.
The Val di Noto is a great place because it’s so agriculturally rich. There are a huge variety of crops and a very specialized, organic, natural kind of agriculture. Because no one had meddled with Sicily for so long, it wasn’t drenched with a lot of chemicals, at least from an agricultural stand-point. This has created a popular interest in modern day organic farming.
Historically, Caesar Augustus clearcut Sicily, in a worse way than the state where I live, North Carolina. At one time, there were navigable rivers on the island. As a result of clearcutting, there are no longer any navigable rivers in Sicily. On the other hand, the Arabs were fairly clever about terracing, fields, irrigation and so forth, about introducing new crops to this area. They brought fruits and sweets with them and desserts. Sicily is still a capital of confectionary delights – although the sweets are not my greatest temptation here, it’s the bread; the bread is so terrific.
How do you see the Baroque fitting into all of this?
You talk about what giveth and what taketh away in Sicily… there is something present here that does that… La signora, Mount Etna. Etna is this presence; there is no escaping it. Of course, all that volcanic soil, practically pitch black, is almost sexy it’s so rich. Anything grows in it – that’s why things are so fertile. The other side of having a volcano, an active volcano, is the amount of seismic activity. In 1693, there was a huge earthquake and unlike most earthquakes, where the aftershocks are always smaller, this one had an aftershock several days later that was bigger still than the initial event. It destroyed 60 villages in the Val di Noto. The viceroys at the time, who represented the King, weren’t great guys generally, but they came together to rebuild Sicily. They rebuilt towns in an advanced Baroque style. The Baroque existed elsewhere, coming from the “centers of taste”, but here it created its own very exuberant, very sensual variant, much more curvaceous in its architectural design. Certainly, the decoration and the painting were meant to strike awe in the faithful who, owing to the Counter-Reformation, were encouraged to be true believers, not to question and to remember exactly who was in charge. I think that we see plenty of charismatic saints, ecstasies, suffering Madonnas and broken sons. This was a pretty good lesson in how to keep the faithful in line.
It was also a period of some educational movements. The Jesuits were asked to come to Sicily and open a university, which they did in Messina. They led the way, somewhat, with the Baroque, not just in the Val di Noto, but all over Sicily. There are lots of places in Palermo, Catania and Messina that exemplify that. Something extraordinary happened here.
On the one hand, you have this wonderful, amazing, curvaceous Baroque flowering of architecture. On the other hand, you have this brooding presence of Etna. How do you think, psychologically, those two different things have affected the Sicilian mind?
Let’s add one more thing – the comings and goings of invaders; people who came to Sicily and frequently took or sent away the best resources that the island possessed. It had to create a people who were suspicious of most institutions, because those institutions were temporary and not on their side. That exists today. There is no love for Rome on this island, no sense that Rome has the best interests of this island at heart. You can get that from almost any Sicilian you speak to. The family is the most basic unit; it is the unit where there is the most trust, the most reliability, faithfulness and devotion.
We have questioned many people about why food is so important. Of course it is. Only the Chinese come near to Italians and Sicilians as far as their connection to food is concerned. Sicilians feel it, perhaps even more than Italians on the mainland. Food was, and still is, where one can express oneself in a very private way to connect with those one loves. In a people where religion and spirituality are based on an incredible sensuousness, amply demonstrated in the Baroque and the processions and feste; that kind of sensuality of expression is also going to exist in the food.
Do you think you can also trace historical influences through the food?
That’s interesting. According to John Dickie, food in Sicily is an urban phenomenon because the poor ate very plain and meagre diets. You can’t consider a meal of fava beans and bread haute cuisine. We’re talking about people who were hungry. In the cities, on the other hand, there were grandees, merchants, priests, bishops and cardinals. It was an opportunity for the best chefs and purveyors of food to put their products before the people who could afford them and enjoy them. It happened more in the cities and eventually spread with prosperity. Certainly, there is a great deal more prosperity in the poorest parts of Sicily than there was at the time of my grandparents’ emigration to America. My grandparents didn’t want to leave, no-one did, they left because they were hungry – simple as that. You look at the sky, sea and land and ask yourself, who would want to leave? Well, you leave because you’re starving.
You’re in a unique position in many ways. You’re a Sicilian American with strong familial connections to the island. Using that eye, as a film maker, you’ve talked a lot about the sensual nature of Sicily; of the architecture, the food. How do you put that on film?
Some of it you can get. As I told you when we met, what you can’t get is the smell. Remember, as humans, the olfactory sense is our oldest evolutionary sense. I think I told you that I’m the biggest Proust fan there is. The philosopher, Alain de Botton, wrote a longish essay called How Proust Can Change Your Life. I suspect I could write one about how Sicily could change your life. Proust’s initial memories involved a madeleine and chamomile tea, the taste of which invoked the sick room of his aunt. In the ensuing 7000 pages, interwoven with the misbehaviors of characters not unlike you and I, we learn how the memory is tied to the hawthorn blossom on a walk, the smell of roses, the appearance of the moon in a blue sky; memories tied to a sense experience.
In a great interview we had with a local cookery teacher, she explained that at first she thought her job was teaching people to cook, then she realized she was helping people to get in touch with some part of themselves. I think, even if you’re not Sicilian, the hands on experience of getting your fingers into the dough is a very important thing, especially in this high-tech world when we are becoming less high-touch. In Sicily you touch, you smell, you taste. People hug, they kiss. Men are very affectionate to one another in ways that, if we saw them on the street in the United States or the UK, we’d take notice and think they were gay. They’re not; they are just people who care about each other, who show some affection, probably family members. It’s pretty extraordinary to see mother and daughter going shopping, for instance, walking arm in arm.
What would be your Sicilian madeleine, your sensory touchstone?
There are several, but it would have to be an apricot from my youth. These days the apricots in the United States look nice, but they taste like cardboard. The first time I tried one on the island of Favignana, they were a bit over-ripe, but so sweet and full of so much flavor. It brought back a time when my grandparents would bring home fruit from the market and say, “Here you go”. That’s the madeleine for me. That’s my trigger for film making. The other part of my inspiration being the important cultural material, some of which we’ve discussed, that people don’t associate with Sicily. It’s a really sad fact – that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s been the best and the hardest job I’ve ever had.
Do you have any concerns for the island’s future?
I was speaking to a Sicilian-Australian who has a lot of concerns about what is being lost, in terms of family, artisanal food and the respect for it. My only response was to say, “Yeah, buddy”. I’m in the United States and we led the way in plastic food.
There is the odd Burger King and McDonald’s in Sicily now…
Actually, I’m not so concerned with that as I am with the issue of time. Sicilians spend a lot of time preparing and eating, tending their plots. When we look at Sicily, we are concerned about the levels of unemployment. The number of Sicilians in London has more than doubled in the last three years. They have chosen London because it is an easier move than the United States. There are more hoops to jump through to get into the States these days; London is a free move. They want jobs. What’s the difference between Sicily and California? California is bigger, but Sicily has everything California has and I think Sicilians are better looking! Why isn’t Sicily as economically robust as one of the most robust areas on the planet?
Do you see a particular direction that could be followed for the benefit of Sicilians that hasn’t been looked at up to now – in terms of jobs and fruitful employment?
They are producing really well prepared, bright young people and they are leaving. In North Carolina, where I live, they built the Research Triangle Park between the three local universities so that the graduates from the universities wouldn’t be on the first bus out of town. It would encourage them to stay where they were raised or educated. There is still an on-going discussion about the Etna Valley. It has been on and off; now there is talk of revitalizing it.
One of the women we interviewed had a PhD in a science subject. She took over her father’s organic produce business just outside of Syracuse. It’s a big operation, a tough business, run successfully by this very Sicilian, fashionable, attractive woman. Everyone thought that when her father died they would sell the business, but no they didn’t. It’s an ability to look at Sicily differently. That’s where the hope is.
I had an interview with the kids from Addio Pizzo. I have a bit of a reputation, amongst my cameramen, for making my interviewees cry from time to time. The people from Addio Pizzo made me cry during the interview because they are so brave. The notion of doing such a thing in my own hometown at their age would have been remarkable. These young people know what the whole world is like; they want a different Sicily and I want it for them. It’s their world now and as film makers, writers, teachers, scholars; it’s not our job to say this is how it was and this is how it should stay. It’s my job to say, “How do you guys want to live and what can we do to get you moving in that direction?”. So, here I am, trying to do that.
Do you still have plans to write this experience up as a book?
My agent’s principal involvement is the book, but he also understands that the book has to be tied to the film. We are working in a new way. I hope we can manage to make it all happen.
Visit Mark Spano’s Indiegogo site and help him fund his second filming trip.