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Alessandro Stellino • Artistic Director, Festival dei Popoli

“The documentary form isn’t a genre but an approach, a way of making films in the present tense”


- We spoke with Alessandro Stellino, the new artistic director of Florence’s Festival dei Popoli, about the upcoming edition of the event which is unspooling entirely online between 15 - 22 November

Alessandro Stellino  • Artistic Director, Festival dei Popoli

In the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, even Florence’s International Documentary Film Festival - Festival dei Popoli has had to don new robes and venture online for its 61st edition, unfolding 15 – 22 November. We spoke about the situation with the new artistic director of the event Alessandro Stellino.

Cineuropa: This is your first edition as director of the Festival dei Popoli: it’s a unique year to be embarking on a new adventure, to say the least, given the pandemic that’s underway and the cinemas opening and closing... What has been your greatest challenge, in this sense?
Alessandro Stellino: To begin with, the challenge was to organise the best edition possible: the Festival dei Popoli is the oldest documentary event of its kind in Europe and, together with the other members of the selection committee and Claudia Maci - who is our managing director - we’d been working since the early months of this year on putting together a programme which would best reflect the wealth of outlooks and languages characterising “cinema du réel”. But the pandemic transformed this challenge into an odyssey, more on the practical front than in terms of programming, it has to be said, because the latest round of cinema closures, just one month ahead of the festival opening, resulted in a huge amount of extra work which had to be carried out in a very short space of time.

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How will the 2020 edition of the Festival dei Popoli look? What is your view on online festivals?
I believe that festivals have a fundamental role to play in creating communities and dialogue based around film. In times such as these, it’s inevitable that we rely on streaming platforms, but the centrality of films is lost outside of the cinema setting, as is the connotation of an event and the immediacy that it offers, and festivals become something else entirely: an expanded event which, to look at it in positive terms, widens our pool of potential audience members. We’ve organised Q&A sessions with all our guest directors, as well as other meetings, but the electricity created by cinema screenings and the life that reverberates in and outside of these auditoriums during a festival is irreplaceable.

In terms of the selection, what guided you in your choices? Did the pandemic have any influence on your film choices?
The pandemic had a direct influence on the larger part of the films, which had been made on the topic of the pandemic and which were, more often than not, improvised and very superficial - I get the impression that very few filmmakers had the ability to really think about what had happened or what is still happening. That aside, there was a significant slowdown in the submission of works: anyone who hadn’t finished their film by the spring subsequently experienced long production delays, and those in the editing phase also struggled to finish on time. And then there are films which, despite being ready by the autumn, have decided to wait until 2021 in the hope that the situation will be markedly improved. For our part, we tried to put the programme together in as open a fashion as possible: my background interlinks with genre cinema and I’m hugely passionate about classic cinema, as I am about experimental film. I believe that the documentary form should be considered within a 360° cinematographic universe, free from boundaries or language barriers. For me, it’s not a genre but an approach, a way of making films in the present tense.

New to this year’s event is the section dedicated to younger audiences (Popoli for Kids & Teens) and “Doc at Work - Future Campus for the Education of Young Film Talent”. How did these initiatives come about?
First of all, we enhanced Doc Explorer, the non-competitive section dedicated to experimentation and the hybridisation of languages, by including bold and original works by filmmakers such as Ben Rivers, Mike Hoolbloom, Sofia Bohdanovicz and other lesser known names. I’m a great believer in integrating audiences and in involving schools, especially the younger generations, and that’s why the Doc at Work - Future Campus section will offer up the very best movies put forward by film schools from all over Europe.

Music has a strong presence at the festival, thanks to the Let the Music Play section but also the opening film Patti in Florence. Why so? 
I’m a great lover of music, but the subgenre of musical documentary biopics is terribly formulaic, so we chose a small group of films which were able to break down its coded nature. We felt that the film about the relationship between Patti Smith and the city of Florence, starting with her historic concert in 1979, was ideal for celebrating the opening of this year’s edition, which is all about rock and civil engagement.

A few of the festival’s sections will be re-launched once cinemas re-open. Which are the projects falling under this category?
We have over one hundred films on the programme and in this initial online phase we’re only screening half of them. For example, the films within the Doc at Work - Future Campus line-up will be streamed in the week following on from the festival, whereas the retrospective dedicated to Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, and the focus on Radu Jude, will form part of the “Popoli Reloaded” project and will be screened again in cinemas in the presence of the relevant directors in the early months of 2021.

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(Translated from Italian)

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