Between big Hollywood movies like Hercules and the upcoming Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light, Dante Spinotti, ASC, AIC, has been working on a personal film titled Inchiesta in Carnia. Dante tells me that inchiesta is Italian for “journalistic inquiry.”
Carnia is a mountainous area in northeastern Italy, within Dante’s native region, Friuli, that was first settled by a Celtic tribe millennia ago. The Austrian border is about 10 miles away. Indicative of the region’s unique culture is Ladin, a local Romance language spoken in an archipelago of communities stretching from Engadin, Switzerland, to Udine, Italy. The language was born of the Romans’ encounter with local idioms and is not to be confused with Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language spoken primarily in Jewish quarters of ancient Mediterranean cities.
Dante made a 16mm documentary about Carnia more than three decades ago. His current documentary, about 80 minutes long, goes more deeply into the subject, with a number of passionate interviews connected by sequences of what he calls “cinematic poetry.” He explains, “I wanted to talk about these people and about how beautiful this area is. I bought a Panasonic AG-HPX250 and a couple of microphones, and I started to figure out how to do this. In a way, I had to learn how to become a journalist.
“I have to say that shooting a documentary is a lot of fun, first of all because you can decide what to do and when to do it. Do I get up in the morning at dawn to get a beautiful dawn shot? Yes, I do.”
Dante proudly calls himself a “one-guy operation,” noting that he uses stereo microphones and a lightweight fluid-head tripod that he received as a gift from Elisabetta Cartoni. “Haskell Wexler [ASC] inspired me, as he is a maestro on this type of project; he has done all these gorgeous and socially meaningful documentaries the same way. I have to say, it has been a great experience in terms of human knowledge, as well as from the technical point of view.”
Dante says the architecture and landscape in Carnia are gorgeous, the people are brilliant and the peacefulness does him good. “The problem is that people, especially young people, don’t want to stay there,” he says. “Emigration started 50 years ago. Following, at times, ill-inspired values instilled in them by TV, they abandon the culture and crafts they inherited from their ancestors. They go to work in the factories and other industries, looking for a more modern life, thinking it will be a better life. Now it’s a question mark, with Italy in a deep depression. In Carnia, the natural resources are there — wood, water, stone — and there’s knowledge of many ancient crafts that is very valuable.”
Once Dante began to shoot footage, he realized the project might never come to fruition unless he learned the basics of editing. He brought everything back to Los Angeles and started assembling dailies under the tutelage of Daniele Colombera, his DIT on Hercules. “Then, I did a very rough edit that was completed by a friend who is a very good editor,” says Dante. “He has a little postproduction and coloring setup at home.”
In late May, Dante was called to London to shoot a close-up of John Hurt that was needed for Hercules, and he took the opportunity to return to Carnia and shoot more material to round out his documentary, which includes scenes in all four seasons. He hopes to finish the film by midsummer and create a DCP.
“When used properly, this tiny Panasonic camera gives a very good result on the big screen,” he observes. “If [footage] is properly exposed and properly color corrected, and if the files are treated in the best possible way, you’re looking at something that is definitely better and more versatile than 16mm, especially when you consider the sound aspect. Of course, you can talk about the beauty of film vs. digital. But in terms of sharpness and detail, there’s no doubt it’s better.”
Dante cautions that maintaining such high image quality on the digital format is not easy. “You have to be extremely careful. It’s very complex and delicate. If I want to have a good result on every possible display device, I have go back and make modifications. You have to have somebody who knows how to do that and has very strict standards about how all the instruments and monitors are calibrated. But if you test, and you get it right, you can be proud of the results.”
I asked Dante whether it was difficult to switch gears from a vast and complex undertaking like Hercules to small-scale filmmaking. “What I tell students is that while technique is important, it is the easy part,” he says. “The challenge is what you do with your knowledge — your sense of aesthetics, of culture, your understanding of the story. From that standpoint, this project is extremely refreshing.
“I’ve been able to translate many things I’ve learned shooting movies into documentary filmmaking,” he continues. “And I also think that by directing and producing documentaries, you learn what really matters as a director. I would never think of directing a [fictional] feature film. I think you need another sort of knowledge to get there, one which has to do with dramaturgy and acting, and I’m not interested in that. I like to express myself with images.
“With Inchiesta in Carnia, I’m creating something social, an instrument of learning and discussion for the local population. This is what engages me the most. The pleasure of using the film instrument to reveal some truth about a place, a people and a culture — what could be more fascinating?”