– The French filmmaker discusses his highly original second feature film telling the story of a family of Italian immigrants, and his approach to stop-motion animation
Unveiled in competition within the 41st Annecy Animated Film Festival, No Dogs or Italians Allowed [+see also:
interview: Alain Ughetto
film profile] is Alain Ughetto‘s second feature film after 2013’s Jasmine [+see also:
film profile]. The director spoke to us about his highly original film which tells the story of his Italian migrant family, and his stop-motion animation approach.
Cineuropa: What made you want to make a film spanning a century and revolving around your Piedmont family who immigrated to France?
Alain Ughetto: I thought it would be good for me to bear witness to some of what our ancestors went through. Because we remember our fathers, our mothers, and our grandparents, to some extent, but beyond them we don’t know anything. I researched my family name, and I came across a story. It’s the story of a family like hundreds of others and I was able to trace it back through time, interweaving a private tale with a historical evocation. I thought it would send a strong message if I made a personal film which was unique, engaged, enraged even: a testimony movie. The sign “No dogs or Italians allowed” is evocative of a particular era, but it clearly resonates with the current migrant issue too.
The film looks back on a very difficult way of life, and it’s not short on tragic events either. But it never loses its sense of humour.
It’s in the spirit of Italian comedies by Scola, Risi, etc.: we can laugh about terrible things too, up to a certain point, obviously. That sense of humour was really important to me because it’s resulted in some wonderful films, like Bread and Chocolate and Ugly, Dirty and Bad: they’re abominable situations, but we’re still able to laugh.
Why did you center the narrative around a dialogue between you (off-camera though sometimes present in the form of a hand) and your grandmother as she shares her memories?
My grandfather’s hands passed on their knowledge to my father’s hands, and they passed it on to mine in turn, and I needed to remember that. My father was a real handyman; I am too, and given that this is a highly personal story, it was really important that I incorporated all of that into the film too, and that you could see my hands. My hand becomes a character, a character who shapes that world, who works and asks questions. And I wanted there to be a dialogue with my grandmother. Like in all stories, the grandmother tells her grandchildren about her experiences.
Does that hand act as a link between the grueling work carried out by your ancestors with their shovels and picks, and your incredibly artisanal approach towards animation?
Yes, there’s a direct link. I drew inspiration from Michel Serres’ work: in French, the word “maintenant” (“now”) is a combination of “main” (“hand”) and “tenant” (“holding”). My hand is all over the place and I thought it would be interesting to see it taking part in this journey back in time, to see what happened in the past, and for it to act as a guiding thread. And animation is a technique requiring nimble hands which brings characters to life, image by image, and which lend them body and soul.
You’d already worked on a stop-motion animation in Jasmine. Why did you decide to use puppets this time round, whilst also bringing objects into the story, lumps of sugar, for example?
First and foremost, you can express a lot using puppets, but there’s nothing human about them, despite the fact they share our proportions, and I find the distance afforded by puppets really interesting, because they can do things which don’t necessarily fit with reality. And as the real characters whom the film speaks about are no longer around, I tried to imagine which objects might have come with them: charcoal, broccoli, chestnuts, sugar, etc. I thought it would be good to use everything they spoke about as decor.
How did you develop the film’s mise en scène with the puppeteers?
I stepped outside of my comfort zone, but I did ask them if it would be possible to see the hand entering into the frame, and that encouraged them out of their comfort zone. There were some lengthy discussions involved: “how do we do it? They’re not in the same format”. Everything was included in the storyboard, and then we filmed different attempts at the movie, with a camera, with green backgrounds, etc. We had to find a way to tell this story in the same way that it was written and there were a lot of questions and discussions involved, as well as research. In any case, when it comes to animation, all projects take time: five or six years minimum. And stop-motion animation is nothing like cartoons.
Why did you choose Italy’s Nicola Piovani to compose the film’s music?
I’d listened to some of his music and thought he was incredibly talented. So I wrote him a letter and he agreed to it, because the story moved him and he really liked the half Italian, half French aspect. He’s a wonderful man and working with him was a fantastic experience.
(Translated from French)