Boris Pahor: a private meeting with the mighty mountain
Trieste, July 2017
To meet Slovenian writer Boris Pahor is to find yourself face to face with a mighty mountain. 104, born in Trieste, he witnessed everything I studied and wrote about, ever. The burning of the Narodni Dom in 1920 and the weeks of sudden attacks to everything Slav in Trieste. The burning of the books, the harassment of girls and women, the beating of boys and men. Not only. Then, came the closing of the Slovenian schools. One day you can communicate with your peers on the bus, on the road, at school. The next day, you have to use a language you do not know. If you refuse the new teacher can spit into your mouth…and more. These are only a few things. The readers of Boris Pahor’s autobiographical novels will get familiar with much of the silenced history I gave only a hint in my short films.
What followed was his experience as a political prisoner of the Italians (Fascists) and the Germans (Nazis), which meant ending up in a few concentration camps, one of which was Auschwitz. But he was able to survive! To come back home after an extended period of treatments and convalescence in a sanatorium. His destiny was to narrate it all.
A stubborn advocate of freedom, he ended up as ‘persona non grata’ both in Italy and in Yugoslavia. Hidden where the Italians from Trieste do not wonder, during the long decades of the Cold War, he often found refuge in the paper sheet in front of him. Page after page he became a writer, and what a writer! His courage, intelligence and longevity are undefeated!
I was lucky enough to be introduced to him by a Slovenian writer and director, Professor Tatjana Rojc. She worked with him on important editions, and she is a dear friend of Pahor’s. Everything happened with such ease. She picked me up and I found myself, loaded with camera and sound equipment while balancing a bunch of carnations (Boris’ favourite flowers), in front of Pahor’s tiny house.
He was waiting for me at his favourite spot, at the kitchen’s table next to his typewriter. And what a view he was, this Nobel candidate! He smiled, and I was speechless for a few seconds. Such domestic simplicity, such lack of pretension and arrogance. In front of him what we would find in every Slovenian home, a slice of potica cake. Next to him newspapers, books, a bowl of fruit, and a box of vitamins. A glass of water completed the writer’s working station.
My hands trembled in setting the camera, in turning on the voice recorder. I had prepared my questions but there, looking at his face, I wanted to say nothing. What could I say or ask him that he had not already listened to and answered thousands of times? I started, slowly. I let him talk. From that corner, Boris Pahor made me laugh and cry, more than once. I felt I was in the presence of greatness.
I am going to be forever grateful for his permission to record him, for the words he wrote in his books and for having survived. Boris Pahor IS the memory of the indigenous Slovenians of the northeastern part of present-day Italy. He knows it, he likes it. Yet, he is one of the most genuine, warm and direct people I met in my life. Thank you, Mr. Pahor.
Lunch with Family (Turina 2016) shortlisted for the AHRC Research in Film Awards
It has been a long process. More than 1500 images, 3 trips to Trieste, principal photography completed during the Spring and then, the silence. I had to take a break from Lunch with Family(Turina 2016) because it had invaded my life, obsessively.
Now, the film is shortlisted for the AHRC Research in Film Awards, and it feels really great! The decision on the winners will be declared at the BAFTA's on November 10th, in London.
This is a great honour for me. The film focuses on such a niche in European history that such access to the public was unimaginable when I started on the project.
Here the link if you wish to watch it: Lunch with Family (Turina, 2016)
2016 - In the Archive
There is the archive and then, there is working in the archive in search of a silenced history to produce a short film that narrates it.
In Trieste, as I worked in the archive, I became the ‘human fabric’ on which the documents worked. I started to record my own experience in discovering history, and people I would have normally been familiar with if history in Trieste was not silenced.
However, the impact of silenced history became palpable only when I confronted Vladimir Turina’s legacy, a rich archival collection. There, through the mending of broken links between family’s members, I found there was an inescapable connection between the cultural context that had been the target of persecution and my own childhood memories when places were visited without acknowledgment of their familiarity and customs were kept without recognition of their origins. When discovered and interpreted with the use of the documents in the archive, also in my case these “traces acquired meaning and enabled a new discovery of the past” (Jonker, J. and Till, E.K. 2009:303-335).
From the documents I found, I started to build the structure for a film that would allow me to express the sense of estrangement I felt in suddenly learning about Vladimir’s existence and the persecution he endured under Italian Fascism. Estrangement is a very challenging mental space to inhabit, where the words of Milan Kundera about Czech citizens opposing the communist regime resonate: “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” (1996:4), except that I contemplated the political amnesia created by Fascism first, and later on by Christian-Democracy (the leading political party in Italy from 1944 to 1994).
Similarly to Leo Spitzer’s reading of his family’s photos (2006: 229-252), my reading of Vladimir’s archive was ‘reparative.’ It narrates the trial of ‘putting life back in where only a vague memory or a bare trace was visible only to those who bothered to look’ (Gordon, 2008:22). The narrative I formed through the information I acquired, I cast a very personal understanding of the Italian ‘punitive missions’ against the Slavs that became particularly frequent after 1918 and contributed to the creation of what is known as the ‘Fascism of the border’. Additional documents gave me an overview on the events of April 3, 1920, when for the first time Slav shops, clubs, and houses in Trieste were simultaneously attacked and people were publicly harassed.
Reading Vladimir’s school records I could see how these events impacted upon his life. He had to move from town to town in an attempt to complete his education in the Slovenian language while schools were closed, and he was forced to enroll in an Italian University. To me, his personal troubles constitute the occasion for considering how the indigenous Slav inhabitants were not only denied the right to any form of public expression of their culture but also were not allowed to be anything else but Italians. The forced Italianization, the closing of the school, burning of any Slav heritage belonging to the city, and the existence of the Italian concentration camps had to be mediated within this context, as they resonated with me through Vladimir’s predicament.
Here a document I found. It orders the enlargement of the Italian concentration camps of Visco and Gonars, of which Gonars mostly for Slavs.