Cosima Spender • Director of SanPa: Sins of the Savior
“The documentary genre is experiencing a rebirth”
- We chatted with the director of the Netflix original docu-series which has encountered great success in Italy
SanPa: Sins of the Savior is the first Netflix original docu-series to hail from Italy. Developed, written and produced by Gianluca Neri , produced by 42, it clung on to its spot in the top ten most viewed titles in Italy for weeks. It took three years of sifting through the 180 hours of interviews and the raft of images hailing from 51 different archives to reconstruct the story of the halfway house for drug addicts, founded in 1978 in the vicinity of Rimini and run by the controversial figure Vincenzo Muccioli. It’s a story which divided the entire country in the 1980s, when Italy was inundated with heroin: on the one hand were those who believed Muccioli was a man saving hundreds of youngsters; on the other were his detractors who condemned the coercive methods he adopted, which ultimately led to murder. Cineuropa interviewed Anglo-Italian director Cosima Spender, a graduate of the prestigious National Film & Television School who boasts numerous documentaries to her name.
Cineuropa: How did you become involved in the SanPa project?
Cosima Spender: As far back as when the pitch had first been prepared. Nicola Allieta (a producer at 42) called me - he was a fan of my film Palio [+see also:
film profile] from 2015, which was bought by Netflix. Given that this would be the first Italian docu-series, 42 were looking for a trusted director who could ensure a positive result for the film pitch. I’d made films for Storyville (BBC Four) which is where Kate Townsend worked, who is now Director of Original Documentaries at Netflix. I’ve known Kate Townsend for many years, and Netflix had already bought my doc Without Gorky back in 2011. I was used to making films lasting a maximum of 90 minutes so I wasn’t very enthusiastic at the idea of making six episodes - it would be really challenging.
What convinced you to do it?
I lived in Italy until the age of 14 and I wasn’t familiar with this story, but my husband Valerio Bonelli, who’s the editor on SanPa (he also worked on Darkest Hour [+see also:
film profile] and Philomena [+see also:
interview: Stephen Frears
film profile]), encouraged me to do it because it’s a fascinating story which, 25 years on, we’re ready to reflect upon. When I left film school in 2001, everyone told me that the documentary form was dead, that it took three years to get the money you needed together, that the BBC would only give you £50,000 at best… It was all very doom and gloom, a rather bleak situation back then. Today, the documentary genre is experiencing a rebirth thanks to Netflix, which provides us with an opportunity to enter into these stories in depth, when 90 minutes just isn’t enough. The story of SanPa has always been seen in back and white, but with the docu-series format you can explore it in all its nuances. Given the success that it’s had in Italy, I think there will be a rebirth of the genre in Italy too, where it’s been somewhat disgraced over the years. In England, too, reality TV came along, with programmes like Big Brother swallowing up TV channels’ budgets, which would usually have been spent on factual works.
Someone wrote that SanPa is journalistic.
It is, in a certain sense, because we tried to show the story in all its colours, with plenty of archive footage to back up the interviews. But there’s also a lot of storytelling, which is expressed through the editing of the film, in its rhythm, which is that of a film and not a report. In this sense, we get to introduce Netflix’s younger audiences to a story about an older generation.
How did you achieve a balance between the many people who feature in this complicated and ambiguous story, without conceding too much space to accusations or defensive arguments?
Human beings are full of contradictions, of ambiguous emotions. We tried to broach the story from that point of view, trying to understand these characters by way of complex and interesting narrative arcs. I’ve always felt that the role of a documentary-maker is to present a situation and then leave it up to the audience to form their own opinions. It’s important that we empathise with all the protagonists, that we make the story as three-dimensional as possible and encourage the audience to think.
Was Netflix involved in all stages of production?
Yes, very much so. They help you to streamline the product. It’s a very Italian story but geared towards an international audience, and they helped us to find the right narrative in this respect. Now I’m getting phone calls from Italian producers telling me that they have no experience in making these kinds of products and asking me how to do it, from a directing viewpoint, too. I believe things are changing.
(Translated from Italian)
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