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Issue 211

Yuri Ancarani’s Drifting Youth

Ahead of his new work, filmed on a boat in Venice, an interview with the Italian auteur

BY Barbara Casavecchia in Features , Film | 15 MAY 20

Barbara Casavecchia Your latest film, which has the working title Atlantide [Atlantis, 2020], is about Venice. What drew you to the city?

Yuri Ancarani It feels urgent to engage with Venice right now. In recent decades, the city’s population has halved but, until last year, the media fixated only on the overcrowding by hordes of tourists and oversized cruise ships. I wasn’t interested in making a film about that. I came up with this idea for a Venetian project around ten years ago, after noticing a teenage microcosm completely disconnected from the inhabitants we usually associate with the city: the ageing resident, the university student, the day-tripper, the cultural aficionado. 

It has been difficult, and not only because the city is an overexploited open-air set. We started filming in July last year. By mid-November, however, the exceptional acqua alta [high water] had reached a shocking peak of 187 centimetres. Soon afterwards came the coronavirus epidemic. So, I found myself shooting in a deserted Venice: the one I’d had in mind from the start, in fact. These emergencies suddenly made the urban desertion palpable.

BC So, your protagonists are teenagers?

YA Kids are the lifeblood of any city. As teenagers, they’re moving away from the adult world and its predictable routines, also in terms of gathering places. In Venice, it’s an even stranger stage of life because, in order to spend time away from their parents, they get small motorboats and race along the waterways to reach the smaller islands of Burano, San Francesco del Deserto, Sant’Erasmo, San Giorgio and Pellestrina. You can’t really understand Venice unless you consider it from the enlarged perspective of the lagoon, which is profoundly different from the fancy palazzi, churches and shops of the historic centre.

I am fascinated by this generation of young people, who seem to be drifting along with no sense of future. We filmed for 50 days aboard the barchino of Daniele, the main character. With him, I relived some of my own teenage traumas that, while seemingly insignificant, left some deep scars, which I still carry as a grownup. I wanted to capture how that moment in our lives is universally challenging because it’s the first time we have to come to terms with primary needs such as sex, power and money.

Yuri Ancarani, Da Vinci, 2012, from the trilogy ‘The Malady of Iron’, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Galleria Zero, Milan, and Dugong Films

BC As in your previous films, you didn’t work with professional actors. Is that related to the longstanding Italian tradition – cliché, even – of neorealist cinema? 

YA We need to have something we can believe in as being real – even if just partly. We are inundated with fiction as pure entertainment, which is an exhausting and paralyzing means of expression that switches off our brains. I love the experimentalism of neorealism, but it’s still fiction. I take a different approach, working in a non-fictional dimension that is difficult to categorize because it is usually perceived as either overly narrative by the art world or insufficiently narrative by the film industry. I cast real people but I frame their forms and expressions as if they were sculptures. This is why my 2018 Kunsthalle Basel exhibition was titled ‘Sculture’ [Sculptures].

BC Given the absence of dialogue, some of your movies could be almost described as silent.

YA I feel the images should do the talking; I use moving images to relay information that must be decoded. In Atlantide, the kids talk very little and, when they do, they usually say the wrong thing. One of the interpreters asked me to include on the soundtrack a song by Massimo Pericolo, a young, nasty trap singer from Milan, who says the wrong thing at the right time, with a lot of energy. And I think I will.

BC Noise, sound and music are very powerful in all your films. For your scores and soundtracks, you have worked with musicians like Ben Frost, Stephen O’Malley from Sunn O))), Lorenzo Senni, Mika Vainio from Pan Sonic and Wang Inc.

YA Sound is fundamental to my filmmaking. I have been collaborating for a decade with Mirco Mencacci – a sound designer and engineer. Mencacci, who is blind, invented a novel method of recording ambient sound – he calls it ‘spherical sound’ – which feels very realistic, even without special effects. He trialled it on Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Dangerous Thread of Things [one of the three segments of the anthology film Eros, 2004] and he’s used it for all of my films, from Il Capo [The Chief, 2010] onwards. Music can play on your emotions very didactically, while sound is always subtler. When you are sitting in front of a two-dimensional screen, sound immerses you in space, moves you through it and triggers emotions only you can interpret.

Yuri Ancarani, Atlantide (Atlantis, working title), 2020, production still. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Galleria Zero, Milan, and Dugong Films

BC Can you tell me about your process?

YA I work in quite a basic way, which allows me to shoot as if I were invisible. I continue to turn up on set like a filmmaker at his first job, with a light, carbon-fibre tripod that I open and close myself, a bag with six lenses and a camera. I’m not a tech fetishist; I use what I have. Compared to my eye, any camera is an inadequate substitute. What’s important is what you see, not how you record it. And I see images as giants that devour and possess me.

Mencacci often has more assistants than I do. I once heard him explain to one of them, who was upset at not having received a shooting schedule: ‘Yuri works in an open way. We never know in advance what we will do – or where.’ I use my intuition. A friend told me I have the instinct of a thief, which I took as a great compliment. For me, the best solution is to imagine and create at the same time – something I learned, in spirit, from the great Italian architect, designer and photographer Carlo Mollino, while shooting Séance [2014] at his home in Turin.

BC You mentioned Il Capo, the short film that marked your transition from video to cinema.

YA I was invited to participate in the 2014 Venice Film Festival with a new work just as I had begun shooting in the marble quarries of Carrara. Il Capo is the man overseeing the workers and the heavy-duty machines, who uses only his body language, like a conductor, to keep everything in sync. 

Along with the festival invitation, you received a technical sheet containing strict specifications: 35mm film, high definition, Dolby Surround, etc. It helped me think about how to make films that complied with such rules yet employed the bare minimum of equipment. I wanted to produce films that could be screened in cinemas but also in museums – a mode of presentation I’m very fond of because it respects the quality of images far more than in a lot of art-house movie theatres. I’m also happy for my works to be streamed on platforms such as Amazon Prime.

Yuri Ancarani, Il Capo (The Chief), 2010, from the trilogy ‘The Malady of Iron’, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, and Galleria Zero, Milan

BC Another turning point was your first feature, The Challenge [2016], a 70-minute film shot over three years in Qatar, which focuses on falconry as an ostentatious form of entertainment.

YA The Challenge won the Special Jury Prize at the 69th Locarno Festival, which was awarded to me by cult director Dario Argento – what a moment! Later that year, the film was shown at the Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement in Geneva and at many film festivals around the world. The idea for The Challenge came to me during a residency at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2014. I wanted to make a film about the desert as a trope of absolute void, reflecting the mental space we all need. So, I started my research by visiting the most iconic deserts of US cinema – from California to Nevada and Texas – and my field trip coincided with the campaign that led to Donald Trump’s presidential election. Although shot in Qatar, The Challenge is a film about Western decadence: falcons travel on private jets; a cheetah sits in a black Lamborghini like a Hollywood star; bikers ride gold-plated Harley Davidsons; Hummer SUVs race up and down dunes. These exaggerations of the American dream, with its macho rituals, reveal the distortions of capitalism. Living abroad helped me understand that I needed to look at such contradictions through the lens of an extremely recognizable place, too, like Venice.

BC The Venice you depict in Atlantide is not naturalistic: the landscape is often abstract, almost eerie, and many scenes are nocturnal.

YA Sometimes, in the darkness, you see things more clearly. We shot at night with an ultra-light camera, the RED Monstro 8K, which has the same sensor as a Panavision camera, is higher resolution than HD and allows you to work even in the absence of light. All our shoots coincided with the full moon, following the rhythm of nature and tides.

BC Another Italian city you’ve focused on is Milan, where you live and work. San Siro [2014] was shot inside the iconic football stadium while San Vittore [2018] is a portrait of the city’s main prison, as seen through the eyes and drawings of the children who visit their incarcerated parents there.

YA San Vittore premiered at Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin alongside an unfinished version of a new film, San Giorgio [2019], which records my visit to a Swiss bank vault. Since I couldn’t reveal the bank’s true identity, the title pays homage to the first European public bank, the Banco di San Giorgio, which was founded in Genoa in 1407. I shot mesmerizing stacks of gold bars and sealed bins full of shredded confidential documents, whose disposal must follow a strict protocol. These three films form a new trilogy, titled The Roots of Violence [2014–19]. The stadium, the prison and the bank are all institutions emblematic of patriarchal societies, guarded by iron bars and regulated by mechanisms of power. Moreover, ball games [San Siro], drawing [San Vittore] and paper cutting [San Giorgio] are three classic didactic activities. And I think that violence is often rooted in the education we receive, as kids.

Yuri Ancarani, Atlantide (Atlantis, working title), 2020, production still. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Galleria Zero, Milan, and Dugong Films

BC At the 2013 Venice Biennale you presented Da Vinci [2012], the last chapter of an earlier series, ‘The Malady of Iron’ [2010–12]. Why do you often work in cycles?

YA To be honest, it’s only in retrospect that I realize I’ve completed a cycle. I first heard about the ‘malady of iron’ from a sailor on an oil extraction platform, where workers spend months in isolation, longing for home. Yet, as soon as they move back, they are consumed by the desire to leave and feel that vertigo of distance again. That malady became a metaphor for a progressive detachment of work from the human condition. This led me to the mountains to follow the extremely dangerous work of quarrymen [Il Capo], and then to the bottom of the Adriatic Sea [Piattaforma Luna, Luna Platform, 2011], where scuba divers carry out risky underwater operations for oil extraction, spending days in hyperbaric chambers. And then I observed a robotic surgical operation on a human body [Da Vinci]. The film owes its name to Leonardo da Vinci, who designed a mechanical knight for chivalry games capable of raising and lowering its arms thanks to a pulley system. Now appropriated by a remote-control robot, this same pulley system enables the surgeon to perform an entire operation at a remove from the patient.

BC Ricordi per Moderni [Memories for Moderns, 2000–09] is a series of 13 short videos that forms one of the most striking portraits of Italy at the turn of the millennium, when Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister.

YA I released my first artist videos, one by one, quite late in my career, when I was already in my 30s. Ricordi per Moderni was the collation of that body of work. The films all focus on my home region, Emilia-Romagna, which used to be one of the most inclusive, popular and transgressive places in Italy. Then, things started to change. Despite the dazzling spectacle of televised democracy, toxic elements started to encroach. My videos record the horrors of building speculation and the arrival of immigrants, forced to live in ghettos so that integration was nearly impossible. I documented how unfashionable tourist resorts, such as Lido Adriano, where apartment blocks had an air of Soviet-era mass housing complexes, suddenly became international towns, with dozens of different ethnic groups and record birth rates. I tried to reflect the disorientation induced by these changes by shooting in surreal locations, often at night. Just as I still do today.

Translated by Barbara Casavecchia

Yuri Ancarani is an artist and filmmaker. Earlier this year, his work was on view in ‘REAL_ITALY’, MAXXI, Rome, Italy. In 2019, he had solo exhibitions at Castello di Rivoli, Turin, Italy, and Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland. In 2021, he will have a solo show at Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, Milan, Italy. He lives in Milan.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 211.

Main image: Yuri Ancarani, The Challenge, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, and Galleria Zero, Milan

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator based in Milan, Italy.