Paolo Taviani

The legacy of Joris Ivens

it's obvious that by working with a director like Ivens you learn lots of things that become part of you. You don't even remember any more what you take from it. One key thing, as we've often said, is that when we worked with him, we realised we weren't documentary directors. So much so that when we were filming in Sicily – because he couldn't come to Sicily to do the shooting, he had to quickly edit the other two episodes: only Vittorio and I went and shot the Sicilian episode – he said, after seeing the material: ‘This is more for a fiction film than a documentary!’ In fact, going down there, we had invented lots of stories, passing them off as true. I remember at a certain point during the trip from Nuovo Pignone as far as Gela, I saw a band playing in a village. We stopped ahead and I said to the assistant: ‘Go to that village there, listen to this band, then put them on a truck and tomorrow we'll head down, that way you'll get them to cross our path: we'll do the filming while they're passing by, with the band playing’. When Ivens saw it, he asked: ‘Is it real?’ And I replied: ‘Of course! We came across them on the street and then told them to do it all over again as a favour!’ ‘Ah, good, very good’. Now, Ivens said so, but also in its cinematic ‘truth’, it was all true and all false – true and false, but in the right way! And maybe this is what we have taken from it. Even he saw the poverty when he came to the South – where there are also true documents of the rooms where people live, of the pictures on the walls, the flies, etc. – he did the same thing. You'll have heard the story of the olive tree that fed the two families who lived there. None of it is true! In fact, when we were talking, we saw a beautiful olive tree and he came up with the idea of creating this story that isn't true… or rather: it's ‘true’, essentially quite true, and yet it's not. If you go and check, you'll discover I went to choose the characters there myself. Together with Tinto Brass, we went to choose those who could play this part. So it isn't actually ‘true’, but this is also the truth, that is, the truth is very often invented. And he, a great documentary maker, was one who documented and invented even reality itself in order to make what he told even truer.

How important is the European Foundation Joris Ivens today?

It's very important! I'd say especially at the moment with a revival of interest in documentary filmmaking, which had quite been forgotten. This comes from someone who doesn't make documentaries, who has always made fiction films: when we were young we did indeed love the film history of the great artists I mentioned before, but we also loved documentaries. We didn't consider documentaries a ‘lesser part’ of cinema; it was the kind of filmmaking Eisenstein or John Ford did. Then instead, little by little, this focus was lost and the fault, particularly in Italy, lies with the governments we've had: because we didn't like making documentaries? Because we were forced to keep within the 10 minutes, since they were combined with films; and in 10 minutes any idea is contracted! This is why we made documents that were ‘film tasters’, neither documentaries nor films, so hybrids that occasionally turned out to be pretty good, but essentially weren't satisfactory. It was a way to discourage the production of documentaries. Vittorio De Seta, one of the greatest Italian documentary filmmakers, was an exception! Then, recently, as you've seen, a documentary won an award in Venice. This is a major event. I haven't seen it yet, but I've heard it's a good film. But what's particularly good is the choice made by Biennale director, Alberto Barbera, to include this film in the Festival and that the jury then selected it for an award. So right now, it is very important to rediscover the maestro who has created the greatest documentary works, Joris Ivens, and then to make him known, in various circles, not only at the Cinémathèque Française, but everywhere. This is the aim of the Ivens Foundation. It would be nice to go back to China, where Ivens was; it would be interesting to see the relationship between his China and the China of today. Or to South Vietnam – not North, because that would be complicated. It would help understand. Let's take Terra di Spagna (The Spanish Earth, 1937): it would be important to go to Spain and reproduce this documentary, among other things written by Hemingway, with a commentary by Orson Welles – in short: it also has a fine cast, and presents itself well! So the force of Joris Ivens' films is once again current, precisely today, in the battle that's being fought for documentaries in the film world.

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