Interview with Giulio Melani and Nicola Gurrieri, creators of ‘Black Fish’

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‘Black Fish’ is the most genre-defying, evocative and charming film of this year’s LRIFF selections. It is part documentary, music video, experimental film, sci-fi, adventure, drama, and work of poetic realism. It is shot on an aesthetic 16mm black and white. We caught up with its creators Giulio Melani and Nicola Gurrieri to learn more about their extraordinary odyssey.

J.R:  We hear that you made ‘Black Fish’ while in artistic isolation on a boat off the coast of Tuscany. Was the shoot largely improvised?

G.M. & N.G:  In the summer of 2020, we escaped in the city during the pandemic and spent a few days on a little boat with the idea of shooting a short film around the theme of isolation from society. We had in mind this figure of an alien, coming down to earth looking for a place that he expected to find, but could not. There was no written script to it, so improvisation was definitely part of the creative process. We drew inspiration from the places and atmospheres we were living in. What we experienced in the moment became our work, impressed on film.

Nicola Gurrieri (AKA singer/song-writer Giugno)

J.R:  Your film is wonderfully playful, yet serious, surreal, yet real. How did you impart these contradictory ideas?

G.M. & N.G:  We liked playing with contradictions. These came up spontaneously while working on the film. The places we were discovering were intricately and utterly contradictory themselves: abandoned, monstrous factories in the middle of beautiful natural landscapes next to the seaside. We decided to take this further by juxtaposing different images, to add another level of surreality to the film.

J.R:  The first minute of ‘Black Fish’ has a narrator talking about his impressions of the sea’s colours, how it evokes in him notions of Atlantis, etc. Is it possible for the viewers to say, definitively, what ‘Black Fish’ is about?

G.M. & N.G:  We wanted to leave the viewers space to imagine and interpret the story, which could be understood in different ways and on multiple levels. The narrator is a tool to set the story back into a real place. Through his first-person, real-life narration, he describes a set of observations of events, contrasting with the more surreal, mythological or emotional aspects that are evoked or connected with it. We asked the narrator, Nicola’s uncle, to talk about this one place on the Tuscan coast, Piombino, from the point of view of a local. We turned the microphone on and let him talk without interruptions, perhaps something close to cinema verité. We liked the spontaneous character of this oral document and put the more evocative, poetic parts together as an intro, intermezzo and outro to the film.

Giulio Melani

J.R:  The song ‘Black Fish’ is catchy and happy, an unusual (if pleasing) accompaniment to the visuals. Can you tell us more about this song?

G.M. & N.G:  Nicola (Giugno) wrote the song a few years ago, after moving to Milano. The lyrics describe the feelings of someone coming to a new place, looking for directions, trying to find orientation. It is also about loneliness and the feeling of being a small creature within a bigger whole, someone who, momentarily, manages to blend into the chaos of the modern city. The music is part melancholic, part happy, creating a contrasting atmosphere. The song was recorded in Berlin in a studio on Hauptstrasse. From its windows one could see the building where David Bowie and Iggy Pop would live, and we believe that this proximity influenced the music in some ways.

J.R:  That’s very cool indeed. We suspected that your protagonist, the androgynous, binocular-clad alien, was inspired by Bowie in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” a film that has a lot to say about otherness and the act of looking. Was that your aim too?

G.M. & N.G:  Our protagonist inspects the landscape that is foreign to him, analyses it and observes it through the lenses of binoculars. Thanks to this instrument, he is able to take part in a new world that he needs to understand. Disappointed by what he has been able to discover, he eventually returns to the abyss from which he probably emerged. The optical element physically separates the eye of the solitary alien from the earth’s realm. By using this device, this filter, the protagonist consciously defines himself as “different”, from a reality that he cannot interpret except through the use of a specific instrument. In a similar way, the author or cinematographer produces his/her works. He/she estranges him/herself from the world and looks at “the other”. Perhaps is it necessary to become alien in order to try to clarify the confusion that surrounds us?

J.R:  Your cinematography juxtaposes the grandeur of ancient architecture with the industrial wastelands of the present. Can we find beauty in modern ugliness?

G.M. & N.G:  Beauty can be found everywhere. A shack in the favelas or an abandoned factory can be as exciting as a baroque palace or a modern villa. It depends on the viewer’s sensibility and aim. In our film, we did not judge or glorify the architecture that we found. We decided to portray the ruins of modern industry or the wind turbines because they raised some interest in us. We were fascinated by the way things can acquire a different aura around them when extracted from their usual context and put in an environment that might feel wrong. We found beauty in the feeling of estrangement. This works for many forms of art. Juxtaposing images of ancient Greek columns with modern-day industrial chimneys was a formal technique to create a narration through time, a tool for the alien protagonist to travel to another dimension, creating tension between different eras and spaces.

J.R:  You cite the influence of Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luigi Comencini and Alice Rohrwacher. It also made us think of Godard (Le Mépris), in your framing of Greek statue; a sense of nostalgia for the ancient world, and wonder mixed with horror at the industrial modern landscape.

G.M. & N.G:  Some great cinema authors certainly had a big influence on us: particularly those deep, black and white movies, realist or magic, that leave a lot of space to imagination even when they portray very simple life scenes. We are quite nostalgic and longing for these old-fashioned, poetic ways of making cinema. One of the references that was in our heads while shooting our short was the “Pinocchio” by Comencini. It is a six-episode miniseries produced by Italian national television (RAI) in 1972, when high-quality cultural production was still possible on TV. The movie is rough, real, moving, and its characters are genuine and tragic. The scene in our film when the protagonist grows a fish fin on his back, and then jumps in the water is in a way a tribute to Geppetto, the father of Pinocchio, who dramatically leaps into the stormy sea, without being able to swim, to seek his lost son.

J.R:  I’d definitely like to watch that. As part of that nostalgia, we noticed that you rejected digital, in part, to make a stand against the medium’s ‘instantaneity’. Is digital all bad, and how was your experience of shooting in 16mm?

G.M. & N.G:  We do not reject digital per se. We of course live in our present times, where digital technologies are a big part of everyday life and work at all levels. For such artistic projects, however, we decided to use the medium of 16mm film for different reasons. Film is less accessible for economic and technical reasons. Through its value, one is confronted more responsibly with the medium. There is some kind of mutual respect and more of a physical relationship between the film and the filmmaker. You do not want to waste material, so shots are often thought through and prepared more carefully. Nevertheless, we shot this project with a Bolex camera, with a more free-hand, almost documentary-style approach, capturing moments and scenes as found. Our experience with filming on 16mm was overall very exciting, with all kinds of technical difficulties, unforeseen events and unexpected results, that made the work even more special and unique in the end. Having almost no control on the medium might seem a limit at first, yet we see it ultimately as an added value to the creative process.

J.R:  Will you pursue your collaboration? What are your next artistic projects?

G.M. & N.G:  We definitely want to and will pursue our collaboration further. So far, we have been working on a few music videos together. Giulio is responsible for the visual part of the music project called Giugno, which is Nicola’s creative outlet as a musician and songwriter. We are currently working on two new short movies, a documentary and a fiction. Giulio was directing, while Nicola starred as actor and curated the soundtracks. We are excited to show them and send them to festivals next year as soon as they are completed.

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