A tree that’s no longer there: An interview with filmmaker Simone Rapisarda Casanova

Simone Rapisarda

Simone Rapisarda Casanova / courtesy photo

Filmmaker Simone Rapisarda Casanova set out to capture what life is like in a remote fishing community and ended up chronicling life in the small village of Juan Antonio, Cuba. What he actually accomplished, however, is much more. Shortly after filming came to an end, Juan Antonio was destroyed by a hurricane. Now, El árbol de las fresas stands as a historical document of a community that no longer exists and a film that bridges the gaps between documentary, celebration and anthropological text.

“I wanted to make an ethnographic film about people practicing subsistence fishing who at the same time were educated and smart enough to have an understanding of the western gaze on the “others” and of the colonialist enterprise of which classic ethnography was only a facet,” said Rapisarda.

“I imagined that if such a place existed, I could find it in Cuba. Once there, it took me more than three weeks to find Juan Antonio, first using documentation about fishing villages provided by the Centro de Antropologia in Havana and then, when this documentation proved to be obsolete, just driving all along the coasts of the island and following my intuition about where fishing villages could be located, Rapisarda said.

Rapisarda said he picked the fishing village for very particular reasons, but finding it was an adventure that began with paperwork and ended up being based on pure intuition.

“I was born in Sicily and grew up next to the sea, so I kind of knew what to look for. In all cases I arrived too late, as each village, for one reason or another, had disappeared or changed status. In the case of Juan Antonio I was lucky enough to arrive just before its disappearance. I had almost given up my quest by then, as I had driven along more than 80% of the coast. In fact, even if I cannot be completely confident about this, I think that Juan Antonio was the last fishing village on the island,” Rapisarda said.

The Cine Las Americas website describes the documentary as one that “tests the boundaries between anthropology, documentary and reverie.” For Rapisarda, who considers himself an experimental filmmaker, the amalgamation of genres was not a surprise.

“I am not an anthropologist nor a documentary filmmaker,” said Rapisarda. “I am an experimental filmmaker and, as such, I knew that the final film would drastically depart from the canons observed by individuals belonging to those two professions. I did not know exactly how that would happen, but I knew that my high dislike for canons would have prevented me to strictly follow any of the established conventions vis a vis the documentary or the ethnographic genres.”

El arbol de las fresas

El Arbol movie poster

Being an experimental filmmaker also meant that Rapisarda ended up wearing many hats during the making of the film. Rapisarda acted as producer, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor and sound designer for El árbol de las fresas. Despite all the work that it entails, he said it’s a choice that pays off when it comes to putting his vision on the screen.

“Experimental filmmakers mostly work alone or in small crews,” said the filmmaker. “It is often a choice not solely dictated by the budget, but also, and more importantly, it’s a choice that allows for the greater degrees of flexibility and of intimacy with the subject matter.”

Having El árbol de las fresas screen in Austin is an opportunity that Rapisarda is happy to have. The city’s diverse population means that viewers will probably have a background that helps them understand the cultural implications of the film as well as the unique circumstances that the residents of Juan Antonio faced.

“As Austin hosts a pretty diverse population and a large percentage of Latin America migrants, for me it’s a great opportunity for the film to be appreciated by audiences that have first-hand experience of both the so called “developed” and “developing” world,” said Rapisarda. “For this reason I am sure that the Q&A at the end of the screening would have been a very interesting one, as the one in Miami was. For this reason I’m sad that the previous engagements I had here in Europe are preventing me to attend the festival.”

El árbol de las fresas won Honorable Mention in the Knight Documentary Competition at the Miami International Film Festival and is part of the Documentary Feature Competition at Cine Las Americas International Film Fest. Meanwhile, Rapisarda is working on a very different project.

“I’m about to start production on a film in my native Italy,” said the experimental filmmaker. “It’s about a failed state, and the promise of a democracy that never materialized. It’s an experimental comedy, but the subject matter is pretty disheartening, so I don’t know if I’ll succeed.”

For those of you who are contemplating watching the movie, Rapisarda said the type of shots and their pacing work best on the big screen.

Gabino Iglesias

Gabino is an Austin writer and journalist. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Business Today, the Austin Post, San Antonio Magazine, Bizarro Central, Divergent Magazine, El Nuevo Día and others.

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