Premiering Saturday, April 25 and running through May 2 at the digital edition of the Visions du Réel documentary festival, Swiss director Daniel Kemény’s “Sòne” is the autobiographical tale of a filmmaker who realized that sometimes you can go home, even if it’s not the home you remember.
20 years after moving away from Pietrapaola in Calabria, southern Italy, Kemény returns to the now nearly barren streets of a village that was home to nearly 20,000 inhabitants when he last lived there. Now it’s home to just over 200.
Using mountainous vistas, local music, ambient sounds and stories told by an intriguing teller who helps keep alive the oral traditions of a world whose popular traditions are dying off, Kemény brings life to a village which, from the outside, looks on its last leg.
Kemény talked with Variety ahead of the film’s premiere, discussing his own history with the village, the shift from sculpture to film and hopeful plans for future storytelling.
I believe this is your first film. Can you talk briefly about your background?
I studied art in Berlin. More precisely sculpture, but the approach was very experimental. In my works I always found it important to create a strong relationship with the audience. The social aspect has always been primary: This continued to be a leitmotiv in this film.
Depopulation is a problem in several once-thriving areas across Europe. Did you mean to tell a broader story about depopulation, or was this meant specifically to look at the issue through the struggles of this one village?
Depopulate means to disconnect from a specific territory, from a tradition, from a knowledge. The price paid by leaving is the loss of identity. I meant to talk about depopulation, but not in a nostalgic way. I showed how, with the right approach, an abandoned place with just a few people can be precious and worth being lived in.
How long was the shoot? And what was it like shooting in the village?
We shot almost seven years; it was a great experience. We managed to build a great sense of community and it became a collective project, this created a generous exchange with Pietrapaola and its people. An empty town is a good location to shoot, it gave us freedom to experiment without limits. The sound quality of Pietrapaola is amazing and I wanted to give big thanks to Christophe Giovannoni, our sound engineer and friend, that managed to capture this incredible sound quality. Unfortunately, he passed away last September.
When did you make the decision to return to Pietrapaola after so much time away? Was it always the plan to make this film? Or did you go back and realize that there was a film to be made there?
It all started in 2012. I went there with two friends to repair the roof of our family house. I felt I needed to take care of my past and reconnect with the place where my life began. Soon I realized I couldn’t leave it for somebody else to testify what it used to be and what it still is, there was no time left. Then I found Nicola and his cassettes, and he made me decide to make a film about Pietrapaola through his music and sounds. I said to myself that I would dedicate five years to the project, which became seven in the end. For me it was really a matter of caring for something I love.
This is not a fly-on-the-wall documentary, but rather one filled with stories, characters and events that were staged for the camera. How did you decide on the way of telling this story, and can you talk a bit about the screenwriting process?
We rewrote the screenplay several times in different stages of the project: writing, shooting and editing. It happened that in each one of these I worked with a different person. The most difficult thing was to combine my symbolic visual imagery, that comes from my artistic past, with the need to tell the story of real people in a cinematographic way. Another factor was that many things changed during these years: not only in the town but also in me. The writing was not only about this film. We were writing my own life story, and this was not so easy. I would like to thank the producers Michela Pini Cinédokké and Silvana Bezzola at RSI who made it possible to work in this way.
Do you have plans for your next film? This one had fictional aspects to it, would you like to do a fiction feature someday?
I think I will continue to work on the line this documentary traced. But I admit to having a story that absolutely needs to be told, and it can only be done in fiction.