We sat down with Writer, Director and Documentarian Gigi Roccati at the London Indian Film Festival, at which his feature film debut, Babylon Sisters – a relevant and heart-warming migrant tale of sisterhood and music –charmed and inspired the audience in equal measure.
How did you get involved with Babylon Sisters?
I met the producer, Sarah Pennacchi, who had the rights to the book 'Amiche per la pelle' by Laila Wadia, which tells the story of a group of women uniting to face an eviction - a sisterhood story. I immediately fell in love with the opportunity to tell a suburban story of solidarity and friendship in the face of difficulty, through the joy of living. We betrayed the book in many ways. We brought dance into the film, even though it wasn’t in the book and of course, I came into it with my love of drama - I really wasn’t expecting my first film to be a feelgood movie! I think we found a balance in writing a positive story but without avoiding conflicts.
Babylon Sisters has a great cast, which helped to shape the film. Tell us about that.
I’d always dreamed of making a film that I could write together with the cast, where their real life stories would come into it, which partly happened. The protaganists in Babylon Sisters aren’t actors, this is their first time on screen, although Nav Ghotra wanted to be an actress and she had a powerful personal story, which inspired her character, Shanti. I went to India to cast it but I realised it was a story of new citizenships and people already in Italy, so the characters really needed to fit. Instead, we looked for them in Italy, and we also found the building in a suburban neighbourhood, which became a character in the film. With the help of a local NGO, we presented the idea to the community and invited them to be part of it. I fell in love with them and told the story through them. In fact, the group of women dancing at the end is actually a group who danced every Sunday in the neighbourhood.
You didn’t expect your first film to be a feelgood story. What did you think it would be?
I always felt I would tell a dramatic story with love in it, although I came to Babylon Sisters from making documentaries. I’d lived in Beirut and written a film based on my ex-partner’s book, Beirut I Love You - a coming-of-age story about women retaining dignity in the face of war. After that, I was writing a love story that crossed time through a specific location, up in the mountains – I’m keeping that one in a drawer for the future. Babylon Sisters was the perfect opportunity to talk about issues that are close to me. Making documentaries has allowed me the opportunity to receive the hospitality of both the wealthy and the humble in different countries, and I’ve always been welcomed even though I was a foreigner. I’ve always felt that I’d like to break stereotypes through my films - ignorance generates fear, but curiosity and interaction can be a key to the future.
Where did your passion for making films and telling stories begin?
I grew up with cinema; I belong to a generation of movie devourers! I wanted to be a comic book artist in high school, I was always drawing. But at 18 I joined the army, which was a life-changing moment because then I realised I wanted to work, I didn’t want to start university immediately at 19. So I went to Milan and worked at an advertising agency. They put a camera in my hand and sent me to make commercials, and I got to work with professional editors, so I got my first taste of filmmaking. I made my first short film and I applied to the London Film School, from which I graduated.
What made you decide to study at the London Film School?
I felt that I needed to get out of my environment. I also knew that I wanted to become an international filmmaker – the world is much smaller now, even though walls are being built. The London Film School seemed like the ideal place to do it.
Do you think you would have become a filmmaker without studying there?
Yes, I think cinema comes from all walks of life and experience. In fact, even though I went to film school and had a successful graduation, it took me thirteen years to make my first feature. So maybe I could have taken any other path and still arrived here. It was a good experience, it was great to try everything and be exposed to the talent of my companions. The one thing it lacked was guidance to prepare us for what was to come afterwards but it all worked out OK, because I made the documentaries. I chose to do them as I wanted to explore reality before going back to fiction.
Tell us about your award-winning short film, Chloe Travels Time.
It’s a 25 minute film, a story between dream and reality, that I produced with the LFS and a production house in Milan. They believed in me even though I was just 24 and somehow I managed to raise 30,000 Euro to make it. The crew slept in my house and we filmed this incredible journey from London to Italy and into the hills. Chloe was my fifth short film and it gave my career a great kick. The award - an internship at Universal Studios – was amazing and very fortunate.
What was your first short film experience like?
I filmed my first short when I was 19, with my friends, using a small handy cam. It was a wild existential story called Iguanas. It was a generational film, the story of someone who struggles with daily life. He has a terrarium with five iguanas and each one mirrors him and becomes one of the characters of his life; the film observes the dynamics inside the terrarium. A production house in Milan agreed to let me use the machines at night, however, when the owner saw what we were doing, he got really upset with us because it was very raw and wild. He thought I was going to make something clean and polite.
How did working on shorts prepare you for bigger projects?
I learned a lot from making short films, including my way around a set. It’s a necessary step into becoming a feature length filmmaker because you have to try narrative storytelling of a shorter length before you can take on more responsibility. You face most of the same problems with shorts that you would with a big production; cinema is made of the unexpected so something will always go wrong. You have to learn to be prepared and know how to react and think quickly. You are freer and more independent with documentaries, so you learn how to react and shoot fast, as well as learning how to frame and tell a story. However, the dynamics and craft of filmmaking can only be learned through filmmaking.
You’ve made documentaries, short films and a feature film. Do you prefer variety?
Yes, I’ll always work in different things. I think the line blurs between them. My aim is to make films that merge reality and fiction, to combine those two formats together. I think it’s key to my search for happiness!
Do you ever see yourself making something more commercial? For example, if Star Wars came calling, would you do it?
Sure, as long as I could write it! I always want to contribute to the writing. I also believe in pop culture and having a wider audience. Take a film like Children of Men – it’s commercial cinema but it’s so prophetic, especially right now when we’re talking about Brexit.
How did your documentary, The Road to Kabul, come about?
I did mandatory military service at 18, just before the new decade of wars – those of economy - triggered by September 11th. I wanted to go and verify what the Italian army was doing in Afghanistan after eight years of omission - what were we doing there? Were we building or were we destroying? That initially pushed to me start the project and then I followed the stories of the Italian Army, the Red Cross, and the civilian families and communities - I wanted those three aspects. It was a great opportunity to talk to a wider audience on national television and investigate what has been going on in a country that has suffered so much.
Does your inspiration come from your travels or vice versa?
I’ve been travelling through work, which enables you to cut through the layers and get right into some stories. I was based in Beirut before the war in Syria, which was a great platform to travel in the Middle East. In Lebanon, my weapon of choice was to make music videos; music is a direct and immediate media to reach audiences through the web. I was able to show the beauty that surrounded me and I could give back some of the thriving cultural scene that I was witnessing without having to explain it: the first all-girl punk band in the Middle East; another singing about the president and being arrested because of the lyrics. It was great!
Any new projects in the pipeline?
I’m working on my second fiction feature, which I’ll film in October. It’s set in the mountains in the deep south of Italy, very remote and rural, and it’s the story of a young mute girl who witnesses the fatal clash between her farmer father and those polluting his land; the magic journey of redemption. It’s about nature and protecting the earth, but it’s also a story of two worlds colliding, a rigid, traditional past with a modernity that devours the future. The protagonist is caught between these two forces. I’m hoping to film another project in the UK, too, but I can’t say more about it at the moment.
Babylon Sisters has been really well-received. How does that feel?
It’s amazing! It was wonderful to bring it to the UK and France, which are the two countries that I love the most for their cinema. We were so warmly welcomed in both places. We’re working on getting it to other theatres including Italy, and we’d love to take it to the States.
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
Keep working – don’t wait for the perfect project. Shoot music videos, make short films with your friends and then when you’ve done a few, stick to one project like a hawk to its prey and don’t let it go. Film it even if it’s wild and low budget – just do it! It’s an endurance game but at the same time, you must practice. Don’t just tell the story of a character that wakes up and leaves the house, don’t be boring and banal – you have to read and write in order to find out what you have to leave out of the story. Make unconventional choices, and be personal. Be courageous!
You can follow Gigi on Twitter: @GigiRoccati
Watch the trailer for Babylon Sisters here.