We had the chance to chat with the Apulia-born director Valentina Pedicini, who talked through the making of her successful documentary “Faith”, produced by Donatella Palermo for Stemal Entertainment and RAI Cinema, the film division of Italy’s largest pubcaster. Last November, Pedicini’s feature world-premiered in the main competition at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). Her work is now more timely than ever, as it explores the theme of isolation and invites the viewers to ask themselves important questions about the value of freedom in our society.
In detail, Pedicini follows the life of the “Warriors of Light”, a sect founded over twenty years ago and composed of around twenty people, most of whom are former martial arts champions. They live in full isolation in a remote Northern Italian monastery, adhering to a belief which is a puzzling blend of Kung Fu, Shaolin doctrine, house music and Catholicism, accompanied by a highly strenuous and athletic, daily exercise routine. Disciples dress entirely in white and most of them have a partially or fully shaved head. The camera follows the subjects up-close, catching a number of spontaneous dialogues, outpourings, conflicts and prayers. After its world premiere, “Faith” played at Berlin, Göteborg, Vilnius and Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, among other festivals.
On May 28, the documentary will have its Spanish premiere at DOCS Barcelona (May 20-30). It will be available on the Spanish VOD platform Filmin. You can watch “Faith” here: https://www.filmin.es/pelicula/faith.
DAVIDE ABBATESCIANNI: When did you start working on the making of “Faith”?
VALENTINA PEDICINI: My path started eleven years ago, when I had the chance to make a short about the Warriors of Light. It happened by pure chance, and at the time I was studying in a film school in Bolzano [the prestigious ZeLIG School for Documentary, Television and New Media]. One day, I saw one of their street performances. In particular, I was struck by one of the disciple, called Laura, who later became the protagonist of my feature. I was impressed by her personality, which was so strong and ambiguous. Therefore, my initial goal was to tell a story about sport. Back then, I already had developed a strong immersive approach, so I asked to follow the group of athletes while they were training in a gym. However, I soon realized that the tale I was going to work on was far from being one about sport. Instead, my tale should have focused on something much bigger, something linked with faith and with radical life choices. But I wasn’t ready for that yet, so for eleven years I’ve been working on other projects. Next, two years ago I decided to visit the community again. I felt that there was a big story to tell, that needed to be brought to an end. Furthermore, I was very curious to see how time had changed the characters’ world after eleven years. That visit marked the beginning of my work on this feature.
ABBATESCIANNI: “Faith” is undoubtedly a tale of isolation and the ongoing outbreak made it even more timely. Were you able to compare the viewers’ reactions before and after the beginning of the pandemic?
PEDICINI: I can mainly talk about my personal experience. I realized that I’ve made a film that is not only timely, but somehow “prophetic”. The setting, the characters’ isolation, the outer world considered as “impure”, through their lack of social contacts. They basically live under a permanent state of quarantine, it was a strange coincidence! I’ve decided to work on “Faith” right before this huge change that is affecting the whole world. Speaking about the viewers, I can tell that the film kept on traveling all around the world, but, since the beginning of the emergency, it was only screened online, obviously. I’m sorry that I can’t see the viewers’ reactions as I’d normally do during a live screening, but I’m sure it caused some kind of response.
As of today, “Faith” has had a greater impact on myself and the crew making the film. Once again, we have ended up living the experience of forced isolation we had while filming it, as we’ve already experienced several quarantines [laughs]!
ABBATESCIANNI: I can barely imagine how difficult it may have been following these type of subjects. What were the main technical and psychological challenges?
PEDICINI: The main technical challenge was finding the right approach to be factual, while maintaining a good cinematic quality. In my film work, I’ve been always trying to combine these two aspects. Many people believe that documentary is a sort of secondary film genre, where there’s no need to develop a proper grammar or language, and you just need to turn on the camera to start unveiling reality. Therefore, I knew it was essential – and very challenging – to tell such a hostile, uncomfortable truth through a proper cinematic perspective. My idea was to make a film without judgment but not lacking a perspective or a clear stance. Certainly, it was rather difficult to find this balance. In addition, the crew was small and we were mostly shooting in small interiors with many limitations and regulations. We had to adapt ourselves to this world in order to gain full access to it. And, obviously, a great psychological challenge was experiencing this type of isolation and entering this “other” dimension, very far from our everyday life. We have been following the group for about three, four months. We have been observing them for about 16-17 hours a day in the hope of filming one or two good takes. During that period, we were staying in a small apartment where our production could continue. We could re-watch our footage, take stock of the day and try to improve our work step by step. I must thank my producer, Donatella Palermo, who allowed us to dedicate the right amount of time on the project, and the film is the final result of this patient waiting.
ABBATESCIANNI: Tell us something about your choice of filming “Faith” in black and white.
PEDICINI: Filming in black and white was one of the first, most radical choices while working on “Faith”. I realized that it was primarily an ethical choice. I wanted to highlight the strong duality of these characters, who have divided the world into two categories. White represents purity and the Warriors of Light’s perception of themselves, whilst black embodies the darker, negative outer world. Moreover, my DP Bastian Esser and I agreed that filming in black and white would have allowed viewers to focus on the characters’ faces and eyes, whereas colors may have represented a dangerous distraction. Finally, it also allowed the film to gain a sort of “atemporal” uniqueness, which probably makes it even more timely today and for the years to come.
ABBATESCIANNI: How much footage did you shoot?
PEDICINI: I had a chat about it with the editor some time ago. We thought that we had shot much more, but actually we filmed about 80 hours. We observed the community a lot before starting filming and we tried to understand what was going to happen regularly and what would have not happened again. It’s all there, nothing is staged. For example, in one of the scenes, a woman wakes up and joins the others for a moment of prayer. We were in her room for about six hours, waiting for her to fall asleep and to wake up. We didn’t focus on the quantity of footage, but rather on its diversity.
ABBATESCIANNI: What women filmmakers do you find inspiring?
PEDICINI: Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman, Chloé Zhao and Andrea Arnold, just to name a few. Speaking about Italian auteurs, I’m a great fan of Alice Rohrwacher. “Happy as Lazzaro” is one of the best films I’ve seen in the last few years.
ABBATESCIANNI: What did you learn from “Faith”?
PEDICINI: I gained a new level of awareness. I’ve learned many things about me as a director and about my film language, so perhaps this experience will benefit my next projects. I’ve learned the art of being patient, not only as a professional but in a wider sense. I’ve both loved this film and suffered because of it. It still has a strong emotional echo on me, months after its completion. This also makes me think about the power of nonfiction cinema. You put yourself and your certainties at stake, fully.
ABBATESCIANNI: Are you already working on something else?
PEDICINI: I’m writing. I’m currently developing a hybrid film, based on a true story and mostly shot in exterior settings, perhaps as a reaction to my extensive work in interior locations during “Faith”.