Director Michela Occhipinti makes films about faraway places and unusual topics perhaps because they are a reflection of her life, which has been nothing short of extraordinary. An Italian filmmaker, she was the only one in her family to actually have been born in Italy. Her father, the son of a French-Algerian mother and Sicilian father, was born in Tunisia. Her mother was born in Switzerland and her brother was born in Cairo. Her father was a diplomat, so the family was constantly on the move. Occhipinti spent her childhood moving through Rome, Hong Kong, Geneva and Congo. When she was 14, she returned to Rome where she stayed for about 9 years and then moved to Milan for two years. That’s where her professional life began. She started working in a publishing house and then as a copywriter at an advertising agency. But she felt the desire to go abroad again. That desire took her to London where she found a job working on documentaries. She had set out to be a writer but then found that it really wasn’t her calling. She knew that she somehow wanted to tell stories, so she found the better medium through documentary filmmaking because her instinct is to think in images.
Over time, she worked on many productions before moving back to Rome. When we spoke during the Tribeca Film Festival, she told me that one day, she went to an interview with a production company and the AD asked her, ‘What do you eventually want to do?’ She said, ‘I would like to be a director.’ He said, ‘But you’re too old.’ She was 28 at the time and didn’t understand where he was coming from. So she forged ahead working for another seven years on other people’s movies and documentaries. “I’d been traveling a lot and I did a lot of documentaries as a producer in Africa, Palestine and Iran. I’m a great traveler,” she explained. “And then when I was 35, it was thanks to the change of currency that I finally took a chance to do what I wanted. I used to earn well but I didn’t have a life anymore. When the euro came, it was half of what it was before. So I told myself, this is the perfect time to follow your two dreams: One—to take a year off and just travel somewhere without knowing when you will be back. And two—to try and be a director because now that you are 35, no one is going to knock on your door. So it’s better that you just go and get it.” That’s when she set out for a 10-month sabbatical in South America. She spent her time traveling on buses and ended up shooting a documentary in Argentina. When she returned to Italy, she began working as a television reporter before transferring to Milan where she made another documentary. That’s when she realized that filmmaking was truly her path. She wanted to be a director who told different, unique stories. Shortly thereafter, she began to work on her documentary feature about an Indian postman.
Letters From the Desert (Eulogy to Slowness) was completed in 2011. The film follows a postman who works in villages surrounding the desert. As the world moves in a continual fast pace, Hari takes his time. His worn-out shoes cover long distances to deliver messages that are contained in letters. They are hand-written mementos addressed to the inhabitants of remote villages in a forgotten land. The letters talk about love, events, news, births and deaths. The letters that bear news of death are recognizable and Hari often weeps at the sadness of a life ended. Occhipinti captured a world in which time moves slow and there is no shortage of it, a world in which people communicate through a pen and piece of paper. The film was an international success and was shown at film festivals throughout the world. It is currently available to stream here at Tao Films, a great resource for independent and arthouse films.
Her latest film, Flesh Out, which is in competition at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, explores gavage, an old tradition in the West African country of Mauritania that involves brides-to-be undergoing a substantial weight gain. In today’s society, with technology connecting the world as it does, young Mauritanian women are ever so conscious about their appearance and are not embracing this old custom as their mothers and grandmothers did. The idea for the film was born out of Occhipinti’s own issues with aging and the lines she was seeing on her face when she looked in the mirror. “I thought, why does it bother me to have lines? I know that the life experiences that I live will leave traces in me, in my spirit. Why shouldn’t they leave them also on my body?” She went on to explain that this custom is not so different from what we do in terms of losing weight and wanting to change our bodies. “Then by chance, I bumped into a small article in an Italian magazine that talked about the Mauritanian women and gavage. It drew my attention immediately. At first, I thought they are crazy but one second after, I said, but we do the same thing. You are changing your body. Whatever shape you are trying to obtain doesn’t really matter. It’s really secondary. What’s really very similar even if the details are different is the process of obtaining that shape. It’s the same lack of acceptance and lack of freedom.”
Fascinated by this custom, she traveled to Mauritania in 2012 to research the story and do some location scouting. While she was there, she met a young woman, Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche, who would be her lead actress. “When I found her, I knew right away that she was the one because her eyes were so expressive. It was the same thing with the postman in my first film. When I found him, I knew it was him. It’s like an attraction.”
Upon returning to Italy, Occhipinti was able to secure funding for the project, although she describes the budget as “very low.” Three years later, she went back and reconnected with her lead actress and the rest is history. Varida, as she is also named in the film, gave a chilling performance, perhaps because she went through a similar story in her own life as Occhipinti explains. “She was promised a marriage to a man and she underwent gavage. In fact, in two scenes of the film, the strongest ones, the one when towards the end, she was touching the veil and started crying, she told me that she was thinking about the past. And also in the scene where she shouts to her mother and her mother gives her a smack on the face, we tried it a few times and it was ok and then we walked out of the house and talked for a half hour and I told her that I knew it was very painful for her and I was sorry for asking but that she should dig into what she felt when it happened to her and that’s when it really came out.”
If you are in New York, don’t miss this unique and captivating film. The next screening will take place on May 4 at 11:30 AM at the Village East Cinema in Manhattan. Click here to purchase tickets. Follow Michela Occhipinti on Instagram, Twitter, and Vimeo.
Jeannine Guilyard has been a correspondent for Fra Noi Magazine of Chicago since 2005. She travels to film festivals across North America and Italy to talk one on one with Italian filmmakers.
She is also a video editor and won Emmy and Peabody awards for her work on ABC’s Special Report, September 11, 2001.
The following year, she wrote and directed the short film, Gelsomina, which was selected for the Screenings Program of the 59th Venice Film Festival.
Last year, she made the documentary, Return to Lucania, a finalist in the Russo Brothers 2018 Italian American Film Forum. The film traces the socioeconomic development of Italy’s southern Italian region of Basilicata, in particular the city of Matera, which is the 2019 European Capital of Culture.