Trailer of In questo mondo
Caterina De Boni performing for her flock in Veneto.
Photo by Anna Kauber
In questo mondo: Anna Kauber's Ecocinema
Laura Di Bianco, Johns Hopkins University
A rocky mountain landscape emerges from the mist rolling over it. A herd of sheep and goats grazes peacefully, seemingly oblivious, like rocks, to the changing conditions. The camera moves almost imperceptibly, framing in a long take a high-altitude pasture. Colors are tenuous, shapes are blurred, animals and stones, grass against soil.
A non-human soundscape fills the frames: bells jingling, wind blowing, insects buzzing. A few inquisitive goats acknowledge, for a moment, the presence of the camera, then climb gracefully on rocks, the sound of their hooves clattering. As the fog thins, a human figure appears, walking slowly with a stick, followed by dogs panting: the shepherd. She looks around and, talking to herself, or to the camera intimately close to her, says: “I might still find it.” The shepherd has lost a lamb. She sits on rock and observes the surroundings. She recounts the harshness of the environment in which her flock grazes – hard grass brings on fever, feet become tender, and the animals lose their vigor. She nurses them with medicine, and they are restored to health.
This is the mesmerizing beginning of Anna Kauber’s In questo mondo (In This World, 2018), a riveting and unselfconscious documentary film on the lives of women shepherds in Italy. With its slow and contemplative pace, it asks us to patiently observe and listen, while preparing us for more wonders and beauty that a rural journey through Italy brings into view. Enclosing the narrative in a circular structure, the film also ends with this dream-like scenario: a woman shepherd leading a flock.
A traditionally male job in a patriarchal rural world, pastoralism is embraced by the women portrayed in this film as a life of freedom and emancipation from the constraints of domestic and urban life, as well as symbiosis with nature and non-human animals. “My home is everywhere I go, from here to Friuli!” says a cheerful young shepherd who plays the violin for her flock while practicing transhumance. And despite the physical challenges, the meager financial rewards, and the difficult social relationships that their nomadic life style entails (not to mention the stench), many others – women of different ages, social backgrounds, and education – share the joy in the care of the animals, the continuous movement, the freedom from domestic constraint.
Kauber, a generous and humble artist, vividly communicates that happiness throughout the film, while accompanying the numerous protagonists in their daily lives, regulated by the animals’ needs, often harsh natural environments, and the change of seasons. A non-obtrusive, off-screen presence, she and her camera incessantly follow the wandering shepherds and their flocks through the high pastures and the valleys, taking us out to pasture, letting us witness the milking, the birth of a lamb, and even the bloody slaughter of a sheep. Sometimes she pauses to observe non-human animals, who often powerfully return the gaze. We are taken, through a choral tale, via the fine editing of Esmeralda Calabria, from region to region, with all Italy’s stunning landscapes and peculiar dialects.
In questo mondo is a beautiful example of what I call eco-cinema ars et praxis, which places the relationship between humans, nonhumans, and the environment at the center of film narration. It shows a modus vivendi outside the logic of profit and consumption, and coherently with the world it presents, it employs an environmentally conscious filmmaking practice. Kauber, in fact, is a one-woman-crew, who despite the budget constraints of a self-production, travels and films at a slow pace, eager to contemplate, listen, and share. What follows is just a part of the hours of conversation she and I had about her professional and creative path, the genesis of the film, her filmmaking practice, and the experiences she shared with the women shepherds and their flocks throughout Italy.
L: Anna, you define yourself as “a director, a writer, and a paesaggista (a landscaper). When did you start filmmaking and how did you become interested in the rural world?
A: I’m an architect. In my forties, I started being interested in gardens, as an amateur. I was in real estate construction. I did it with passion and satisfaction. For a long time ‘nature’ for me was a place where construction and projects took place. It was a container. Gradually, my attention shifted: the content was less and less important and the container infinitely more important. I started writing about and designing gardens while studying to expand my knowledge on the subject.
I enrolled in a master program offered by the Nuova Accademia delle Belle Arti and the Polytechnic University of Milan, called “Extraordinary Landscapes: Nature. Art and Architecture.” The object of investigation was the landscape. And for eight years, every year I attended the summer school “History of the Agrarian Landescape” at the Biblioteca Archivio Emilio Sereni. I went from an urban-centered vision of green spaces and parks to an ethical approach to the landscape, and more specifically to rural landscape. As you know, wilderness doesn’t exist in Italy. We have created a magnificent agro-pastoral landscape.
L: We have created it, and we have been, at the same time, gradually destroying it. Please, continue.
A: Exactly. I had been interested in food as a form of expression, since I was twenty, now I’m sixty-one. At the time, the word ‘organic’ didn’t exist, it was called ‘macrobiotic.’ Around the age of fifty, I wrote a book on stories of farmers I met while doing research on rural landscapes. It was then that I directed my attention to women. I believe women have a special connection to the earth. I started interviewing women peasants. I also took an interest in the so-called orti-giardini (vegetable gardens) created in elementary schools, and seed banks. And I engaged in environmental activism with various organizations. After thirty passionate years as freelance architect, I gradually abandoned construction, I made the leap. I decided that I was done with cement, and I started a green regeneration. Unfortunately, the last decades the necessity for chance manifested dramatically. So here I am.
L.: Is In questo mondo derived from the archive of women farmers you are building? And what was your methodology of work?
A: Yes, I am collecting portraits of women in agriculture. At the beginning, this work had delimited geographical confines. At the time I was married, I didn’t feel like leaving my husband for months to do field research. My work is not about interviews. It’s based on “condivisioni” (sharing), mutual exchanges, and mutual questioning, among women. There is something direct about the relationship among women, there are no superstructures that change the narrative.
L.: Well, let’s say that you are able to establish that kind of relationships with the women you film.
A.: I am there, I’m never visible, but I’m present with my body and mind. So, without any training as an anthropologist, I engaged in field research. I collect stories, I go as an observer, with no preconceived ideas, without trying to reach conclusions.
In 2010, I read an article about female shepherds in Germany, which briefly mentioned that in Italy this phenomenon was also spreading. I clipped that article and saved it. I thought that the relationship with animals that one establishes through pastoralism was even stronger than that of farmers with land. The animal doesn’t allow you to rest. In the winter, you can leave the field alone, but you can’t leave animals alone. This was very interesting to me. I was also very interested in the mountain pasture lands, with all their environmental challenges: the hydrogeological instability, the abandoned villages, the buildings in ruins. In Italy there are marvelous villages, of great architectural and aesthetic value, completely abandoned. And the land, the woods that take over, and, on the other hand, the loss of vegetal biodiversity…
Filming mountains was a dream for me, going where fundamental destinies are played out. So, the years go by, and I get divorced for the second time. I went through a profound crisis. At fifty-four, I was no longer young. I had always been a great traveler. Now my house was empty, it was an opportunity… I closed it up and left.
L: When was that? How did the film project start?
A: The journey started in 2015 with my yellow Panda car running on methane. This was such a captivating story for journalists! I was interviewed many times during my travels. I launched a “Help wanted”, looking for women shepherds of every age, from every region of Italy. I had only two requirements: that pastoralism had to be their profession—not wives of or sisters of shepherds, but that they oversaw the flock; the second condition was that they were willing to spend time with me for at least a few days, from morning to night. They would complain: “But we have to work!” and I would answer: “I want you to work! I will be like a tick! We’ll go to the pasture together. You’ll clean the barn, and I will be there with you. Some of them were reluctant at the beginning: they thought I would interfere with their work. But in the end, they all accepted. I knew they would. I had already experience with my research on female farmers. I also knew I was good at this because I’m joyful, I like meeting people, and I like listening.
I reached out to all my Slow Food connections, to Legambiente, to various universities, and some local TV. I also relied on word of mouth. In addition, I had never used Facebook, but at the end of each day, even when I was exhausted, I would quickly edit a clip and post it. I started receiving calls from a little village in Umbria, or from a valley in Trentino saying: “We have some women shepherds here. At the end of 2015, I started traveling to the North, to shoot the shepherds who lived in an area close to Parma. Then, in 2016, I left my parrots with a friend and with my Panda car loaded with backpacks, boots and galoshes, happy as I could be, I left. I’m not making up stories Laura, I experienced two years of interrupted happiness. It was one of the most beautiful periods of my life.
L: You’re are transmitting that joy as you speak. I can imagine it was also physically challenging, wasn’t it?
A: Yes, but I had an incredible psychophysical energy. I would walk and shoot incessantly, (with relatively professional equipment) falling all the time, because I was not looking.
L: How did you organize the shooting, or the condivisioni, as you call them?
A: Let’s say I was heading south. I would search the region, and maybe return there once or twice. I would go to Naples, from there to Sicily and stop along the way. And so on. In three days, one day was for travelling, then one day for a new encounter, then on the road again. Everything was scheduled. I had directed construction sites, so I’m good at planning with a margin for a change. I have 1000 hours of footage, having interviewed one hundred women. I had to plan where to get the methane, because I wanted to take a green journey.
L: That’s interesting and coherent with the film you made. Tell me more about it.
A: Over 1700 km, I filled up the tank only 7 times. Sardinia, for example, does not have methane distributors, it was a record! I stubbornly searched for them even in the middle of nowhere, in the scary non-places where usually methane stations are. But it was all about suspension of reason… A journey in search of beauty and new encounters. Now I recognize the different breeds of sheep, the dialects, the idioms, the traditions… and in the evening these people would open their doors to me. The little old ladies, maybe just a little older than me, they would greet me and say: “Ma’am, are you going to the shepherd? Come to visit me tonight, I’m going to make this and that specialty…..” And I ended up filming them too. It’s amazing to remember it now…
L: At this point, did you have a film production company supporting you?
A: Film production company? Absolutely not! I was financing the project, and I was planning on editing myself, as usual. I’ve always done nice things, but nothing professional. I thought I was giving myself the gift of an incredible trip, but a real artistic project. But by the end of 2016, after eighteen months of traveling and shooting, I had already in my hands such extraordinary material. So, after returning to myself after this sort of ecstasy I had experienced, I said to myself: “I have an amazing material, it’s too beautiful, I cannot waste it putting together something silly. It’s too precious.” Well, I did not know if it was beautiful at the beginning. And then film editor Esmeralda Calabria, told me when I questioned its value: “Are you joking?” But I’m not a director, I’m an architect. Well, I know about composition.
L: Well, it’s common for architects to be interested in cinema. Antonioni, for example, studied architecture. After all filmmaking is the art of space.
A: Oh, wow! That’s a great precedent. Yes, architects practice the creation of three-dimensional space. We know about perspective, elevation, the right position of volumes, colors, and cuts of light. And you learn through art history. When you have the perfect compositions of ancient and modern paintings in your head... In my images, though, there is not much of calculation. I was always in movement. I had to decide in a second whether to get closer, or film from afar, to zoom in or zoom out, or to run ahead and film, I would make the decision easily. I never had the feeling that it was difficult, it was very spontaneous. I would take three seconds to decide: this is the shot, that’s it. I could not afford to do differently.
L: Were you managing everything by yourself, both audio and video?
A: Everything! Without a crew or a cameraman. I slept in the mountain pastures with shepherds. Without electricity and water. So many climbs trudging, but I tell you, Laura, I was a Super Anna! It was my journey and my own relationship with them, in sisterhood. Now Rai TV bought In questo mondo. They told me: “You can make another film, you can have a crew.” But I don’t want it. First, I wouldn’t have fun. Second, it’s not really my job. Or vice versa. I mean that I want full freedom and spontaneity. If you cage me in a production, then I get paralyzed. Whatever I am going to do next, it will be another self-production. Then, if someone likes it, as it happened with In questo mondo, that a small production here in Parma wanted it, and Esmeralda Calabria saw the material and got interested… I didn’t even know who Esmeralda Calabria was.
L: I am not surprised that Esmeralda Calabria admired your work and wanted to edit your film. She is very interested in ecology. Her own documentary film Biutiful Cauntri, broke silence around the issue of toxic waste in the Land of Fires. It was such important work.
A: Oh yes! She was so excited while editing. Every now and then she would pause the image, put her finger on the nose of a little lamb on the screen and look at me. I spent a long time in Rome with her. We shared all the process, often killing each other, but always in a loving way. I’ll never forget her ecstatic expression, looking at the landscape, contemplating such beauty. We shared the same deep emotional involvement.
L: Can you tell me more about the shepherds? What is their social background? The most fascinating aspect of your film is that many of them chose pastoralism to be free. Some of them were born and raised in a rural environment and decided not to leave their birthplace. Others seem to have left the city. Are they really content with that hard life?
A: I can say with certainty that all women, including those who came from families of shepherds or from the rural world, they chose to be shepherds, except for the elderly, the lady from Cilento, for example, she started at the age of five. Even those who came from families of pastors, especially in the South, they had to fight to conquer that freedom, often against the whole community.
L: Why such hostility toward the figure of the woman shepherd?
A: She has autonomy, freedom. Something that is threatening. The pastoral world is an archaic and patriarchal world. Its rules are determined by a male culture, especially in the center-south. From the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines up, women have been more protagonists. But, make no mistake, they struggled there too. There are also young women with university degrees or someone like Caterina, who in addition to a degree in natural sciences, also has a diploma in music from the conservatory. She plays the violin. There are shepherds of all types. A mother, I guess, has some good reasons to discourage a daughter: “What the hell are you doing? Money: zero, hard work… a woman, who’s not in the film, was a teacher. In her early forties, she dropped everything and went to the Alps in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region to be a shepherd. She is happy. That makes you wonder. You live a crazy life, the economy is terrible, you work to exhaustion… did we get this right?
L: Did you ever feel during the interviews that there was something they were avoiding saying. Or is there something you consciously choose to exclude from the final cut of the film?
A: I collected stories by old women. A pastoralism à la Nuto Revelli’s Mondo dei vinti (The World of Vanquished), a pastoralism of poverty. Of all the rural jobs, it is the most damned. The old shepherds told their children: “Go to the city, study, don’t do this job! Shepherds smell like shit, they are nomads, rebels. Not even farmers stand them because they steal grass. They wander at night with their animals on the fields. These are stories from an ancient Italy. I have recorded these extraordinary stories. If shepherds were considered the last one of society, you can imagine their wives! They were often drunk and violent. I could not present an apologia of such a miserable, hopeless condition. I have this material.
L: It sounds very important part of the story, though. Why did you decide not to include it in the final cut?
A: This material, which I collected mostly in hospices for elderly people, is very interesting from an anthropological and historical perspective. It’s a different kind of material, with a different message. None of the women portrayed in the film would quit their job. As you saw, someone like Assunta says things like: “What a shitty job, I don’t have electricity...these fucking animals.” But you should see her at the pasture. She loves that life and even regrets not doing the transhumance, as she did when she was little with her parents. So, I’m not trying to show only the positive aspects of this world. It’s all very authentic.
L: What about loneliness? Isn’t this kind of life solitary?
A: Well, some of them had dramatic love stories. They youngest had a hard time having their partners accepting them as not feminine, or what some men think of as femininity, especially in certain environments. Some marriages ended. Other men, perhaps more educated, they showed a different attitude. A more educated person can understand this choice. As for the elderly women, sometimes their children impeded the realization of their dream for years. Maria says it: “I had to wait for the children to grow to finally become a wandering shepherd.” Being a wandering shepherd means not to have a home. Nomadic pasture is extreme in this sense. You live where you have to. However, I would not think of them as lonely, they maintain a relationship with communities.
L: So, they are tied to certain communities.
The shepherd Maria, for example, was treated with hostility at the beginning, but when I showed the film in her village in Basilicata, she had her great moment of glory. The mayor and the carabinieri, there were all there with the guest of honor coming from the North – the director (that would be me). They had ignored her for forty-seven years, but then they kept saying: “This is our shepherd.” For me, they are contemporary women. (Contemporaneity does not happen only in the city!) Yes, of course they spend a lot of time alone, but they are not isolated. And they are so active during the pasturing, they have a multitude of animals to take care of. In rural environments, there’s a different kind of sociality. Some of them chose to go to mountain places, to engage in new social relationships. Because these small communities represent for them the possibility of a smaller but more intense and perhaps more balanced kind of social relationships. In some places, they practice barter: you give me a piece of caciotta cheese, I fix your sink, an old kind of economy that is gradually returning. When I asked a Venetian shepherdess: “Why did you come here?” She answered: “because I wanted my children to live in a better environment, not in the city.” She and her husband were both educated with positions in high-level public administration. They quit: “Venice no longer represents us, we’re looking for a different community.” They experienced something like what is represented in Giorgio Diritti’s film, Il vento fa il suo giro (The Wind Blows Around). At first, they were rejected by the local community. Mountain folks can be tough. They suffered a lot for not being accepted by this small community in Friuli. But they didn’t give up, they moved to another village in Tuscany. There are different kinds of rural environments. Tuscan rurality is not the same as that of certain depressed alpine areas. It will change there too, also thanks to these new presences. The Italian rural culture hasn’t ended. I think there are positive signals.
L: Going back to your filmmaking practice. You’re always off-screen. Can you talk about this choice?
A: I didn’t want to be there, or to hear my voice. Esmeralda did not entirely agree with this choice. She was complaining about a lack of authorship. She wanted to do something like Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte. For me, that is an authorial, poetic, philosophical manipulation—nothing to object to—of the rural world. I didn’t want to do that. My way of being the author is about not being the author. I remain two, three, twenty steps behind. At the beginning, she didn’t know how powerful these women could be on the screen. She would complain: “They always look at you.” But I knew, in the end, people would have been captured by their eyes and expressions, as it happened to me during the filming. The viewers will be in my place, they will become all silent auteurs with their own cameras, looking at those eyes. I made many close-ups and details, because we were physically so close and looking at each other’s all the time. Now that exchange of gazes will be with the audience. I knew they were powerful and ‘authorial’ themselves, in their exceptional spontaneity.
L: You mentioned that you interviewed one hundred women. How did you select them?
A: Obviously, I could not include all of them. For me it was important to build a choral tale with a great variety of women. The editor proposed that I choose two or three ‘characters.’ For me, that it was out of question, I wanted many, and no protagonists. That complicated the montage. But she did an exceptional job calibrating all the entrances and exits. I believe a collective narrative is much more in tune with women’s way of investigating the self. In a chorus, you hear so many voices, and you are confused, in a good way.
L: Tell me more about the circulation of the film. How was the film received?
A: Mainstream cinema ignored it. But it was loved by a myriad of organizations, villages, the environmental organization Legambiente, Slow Food, and small local groups. I immensely enjoy joining small associations that raise money to host a screening, or the universities. It was presented at the Turin Film Festival in 2018, but its life began in 2019. This little film, with no money. I am the mother lion who takes care of and protects it. It has circulated and earned some money. In January 2019, at the Nuovo Sacher, Nanni Moretti’s theater, 250 people gave it a standing ovation. I took the shepherds with me, it was so moving. I cry every time, especially if one of the shepherds is there. I can’t even speak. They never go to the movies, they don’t even leave their territory. Their daughters accompany them. Assunta, for example, had never left Latium. Her daughter took her to Turin for the film screening.
L: How was it received at international film festivals?
A: The film has been well-received in different places, from India to Stockholm. It conveys a universal message that goes beyond Italy. When I was asked by the Italian Embassy in India to present the film in New Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai, I was worried. I was afraid they were not going to understand it. But spectators cried and laughed in the same way they did in Italy. I felt that if the film surpassed its cultural specificity, it meant I had done a good job. I always felt there were universal theme in there.
L: You’re reluctant to define yourself as a director. Yet you made such a wonderful film, don’t you think that makes you a filmmaker?
A: You’re right. My friends tell me: “Stop saying this. You’re a good filmmaker!” But you know, I am old and attached to the academic title. Not that you need an academic title to be a filmmaker. I don’t feel entitled to say “I am…” I feel more a writer. But I know what I am talking about. I have done some deep thinking and study about the subject of my film. But the world of film doesn’t know me. Nevertheless In questo mondo managed to overcome barriers. So, chapeau to it.
L: You made it. So, chapeau to you! One of the things I love about your film is when the animals look at the camera. Their gaze is so powerful! They stare at us.
A: Mamma mia, that’s true! The goats, the sheep, and the cows too. They’re always looking at you. At some point, Maria Pia’s cows stare at me, then they look away, and they leave. And the geese do the same, and even the pig looks at me. I mean, they look at the audience. When it happens, you can see smiles on people’s faces. I think that gaze connects you with them, and they share my empathy with those marvelous creatures. I was there among them, smelly and blessed by that wonderful bestiary. I feel my involvement reverberates in the room when people watch the film. And there are the landscapes and the wind… we used very little music. I loved the scratchy sounds of the wind in the camera’s microphone.
L: I love that too! I’d like to talk a bit about your green filmmaking practice.
A: I walked a lot. As I mentioned I traveled by a car running on methane, stubbornly wasting, so to speak, a lot of time searching for the gas stations, but I also walked a lot. I don’t like the method “hit and run,” I mean having an accelerated schedule to stay within the budget. If it rains, it will be a mess to shoot. You’ll hear: “Toc..toc..toc,” everything gets wet.. But I didn’t care! My work required an immersion in the natural environment and continuous movement, regardless of the season. I never spared myself. If I had to get soaked, I got soaked.
I filmed a mountain pasturing at an altitude of 1,700-2,000 meters in Carnia (Friuli Venezia Giulia). It was March, there were still icy areas. We walked all day with about eighty goats. It took two nights to climb to the higher pasture. We slept in a civil protection cabin. The goats were more scared than me. The rocks are slippery, and with their little hooves they don’t have much grip. We had three days of rain, gosh. And you know, I’m not that young! I feel a hero, in that sense. I have done some crazy stuff for this film, and I absorbed everything that was happening around me like a sponge. I experienced such an emotional turmoil.
That time, when the fog rose in Valsesia in Piedmont…When the fog rolls in, it envelops everything. The flock gets quiet because there are predators, and it tries not to be heard. They are vulnerable. Everything, even the tiniest blade of grass disappears in the fog. Everything is muffled. And then, the fog rose. Maria Pia emerged and the flock was no longer scared and started moving again. When I turned off the camera, I was astonished, like in a sort of trance. My heart was exploding with happiness, and I thought that if I could render 30% of what I felt, I would have done the most beautiful film in the world. And that’s how the film begins and ends.
L: To conclude, I love the title of your film. It is hopeful and it speaks to the extraordinary ordinariness of these women’s experiences, who, as you said, are truly contemporary women. How did you come up with it?
The research project was initially entitled Pastore: Femminile Plurale (Shepherds: Female Plural). A play on the gender and number of the word shepherd. (In Italian, the word pastore is masculine singular but also feminine plural). That title asserted that there are also women shepherds. When Esmeralda joined the project, we started thinking about a title for the film, but could not come up with anything good. We then showed a rough cut to director Giuseppe Piccioni, and he loved it. When we asked for help finding a title, he proposed “Another World,” and Esmeralda like it. I absolutely rejected that idea. The term “other” is associated with “alterity” and the fundamental premise of my research is that these women are not ‘others’ to us. Their life experiences belong to this world. After a while Esmeralda asked me to reconsider. And again, I repeated that the intent of my film was not to say that they are aliens. One day, during a break from an editing session, we were preparing lunch. I was stirring the pasta when she went on the attack: “You know, ‘Another World’, it’s a good title.” I lost it. I started screaming: “Enough! Don’t you understand? That’s the political message of the film! What happens there, happens in this world, not in another world! In this world! Don’t you get it? And she looks at me and goes again: “In This World.” And I repeat, irritated: “Yes, in this world! And she says: “I mean, In This World is the title!”
To quote, please use the reference: Di Bianco, Laura (2020): «In questo mondo: Anna Kauber's ecocinema» Gynocine Project, Barbara Zecchi, ed. https://www.gynocine.com/interview-kauber