I first learned of filmmaker, Gia Marie Amella, through my friend Frances. Frances would rave on and on about her sister Gia, a Fulbright scholar who just spent a year in Sicily to film a documentary intended for public television, entitled, My Sacred Island. Even before I met her, I had already formed my opinions: intelligent, driven, intense. Then one late Sunday afternoon before our interview, when I caught my first glimpse of Gia Marie Amella– somehow I knew I was right.
We sat in her sister’s kitchen, me with my pen and notebook, she with a cigarette. Gia began telling me about her vision of the unfinished My Sacred Island, and her unforgettable experiences in Sicily. “I want to capture a day in the life of Sicily, both in the city and in the village.” Certainly, a tall order, Sicily has a rich, complex past of diverse civilizations. The Greeks, Normans, Arabs and Spaniards each laid claim to the triangular island at one point in its varied history. Today the imprint of each period is left formidably in Sicily’s architecture, language, and customs.
“I wanted to show what it’s like to live in a country that never really found its place,” she continues, “Sicily was once the crowning jewel of the Mediterranean. It was the center of culture, a center of progress, a center of thought. But because Sicily was located right between Africa, Italy’s mainland and Greece, everyone was fighting for it. It was like a ball passed back and forth between invaders, attracting assaults from the east and the west. And over time, it became a conquered country. Sicily was always a possession. It was never its own.
“And today, you don’t see any progress. You see the beautiful monuments that were constructed by the Normans and by the Arabs. But at the same time, you see the destruction. You see that many have not been cared for. Sometimes you see that it’s treated like a big garbage dump. You think, ‘How could people litter in this big beautiful city?’ Even the damage from World War II has not yet been repaired. The damage is so critical.”
The country’s neglect, undoubtedly, resonates among Sicily’s people. “There’s certainly a lot of bitterness, despair and frustration. There’s warmth, but very little hope. Sicilians are notoriously fatalistic.”
Notably, this unhappy sentiment is so deeply embedded, that it even exists in the language; Sicilian is the only European language that has no future tense.
Still, Gia loves Sicily. She finds beauty in the diverse people, religious parades, mosques and Moorish alleys. And it’s wonderful to hear her speak. When she comes to an Italian word or name, she delivers it sweetly with a passionate Italian accent, abundantly peppering her American sentences. She describes the piercing Sicilian sun that forces everyone to go indoors from one o’clock to four to observe pranzo, the big meal for the day. She talks about the Mattanza, a ritualistic tuna slaughter that takes place off the coast of Trapani. She shares stories of men playing cards at the sex-segregated piazza. And she describes the Church of the Spasimo, a roofless jewel of Norman artistry.
She tells me about her first impressions of the city that was her home while filming. “Palermo is like a big town. It has all the aspirations of being a big city, but it is in fact very provincial. Everything revolves around the marketplace, where there’s a lot of interaction among the people. It’s like being transported to the Kasbah. Exotic fruits that you’ve never seen, enormous lemons, swordfish with their swords sticking up inhaling the sky, spices and nuts, and knife sharpeners who call out to their customers to come into their shop. Vendors with their rhythmic chants, luring in shoppers as they pass by. It’s really like an old-world market, one big street spectacle.”
It would have been easy for Gia to spend weeks sightseeing, but shortly upon her arrival, Gia needed to get to work, which included finding a crew. Much to her good fortune, she met Sante Miceli, a Sicilian man whom she overheard speaking English in one of Palermo’s crowded nightspots. A designer by trade, Sante became Gia’s associate producer. “Sante was an essential part of the project. And in light of the Fulbright program promoting greater cross-cultural understanding, we were truly a cross-cultural team. He being Sicilian and I being American. He not only spoke Italian, he spoke Sicilian, so he was key in getting us some incredible interviews. He really knows how to talk to people. He cleared a smooth pathway for me, and helped through all the bureaucracy.”
And Sante’s help extended beyond mere practicalities. “He brought a whole different perspective to the project. He provided greater inroads into the lives of Sicilians. Without Sante, the documentary I shot would be a different documentary altogether.”
Moreover, the sharing of perspectives went both ways. “When I first met Sante, he was feeling a little distant from his country and not really appreciating it. It’s very difficult to find work in Sicily. Unemployment is high, almost 25%. Even if you’re educated and have contacts, it’s not very easy there. It wasn’t easy for Sante. And I think through this project, Sante gained a new appreciation for his country and his people, because he was working with me. I was seeing things that he didn’t see. It was a real symbiotic relationship.”
Through compelling testimony of ordinary citizens, My Sacred Island aspires to invite viewers on a unique journey to rediscover Sicily. Inevitably while filming, Gia encountered many Sicilians who would forever change her life and cause her own unique journey. She became especially close to a young boy named Vintenzo. “He was a street boy who lived near my house. He came from a poor family. Vintenzo was a wisp of a thing with huge brown eyes and a freckled face. He was so small I would have guessed he was five, but it turned out he was 11. “Every time I would leave my house he would be outside waiting for me, sitting against the wall. Then he would run up and hug me. He would always ask me for a piece of chewing gum or a couple hundred lire so he could buy something to eat. And he didn’t speak very good Italian, perhaps because he was ditching school a lot. He would probably grow up to be a thief. This is one street kid who won’t be saved.
“Vintenzo really had an impact on me. This is the reality for kids who come from these big families where maybe the father is in jail, and the mother has too many children to care for. He has no parks to play in, he’s not going to school, and he’s bored. But he was this warm little boy who would just latch on to you. All he wanted was affection and love.”
Gia recalls Vintenzo’s excitement at the Fiesta of Santa Rosalia, Palermo’s patron saint. “All the city is ablaze with lights. There’s a huge procession that ends by the water with a fireworks display. A group of college kids brought Vintenzo there. He was so happy to be amongst all these people, yet terrified by the fireworks. I knew that if the college kids had not brought him to the water, Vintenzo would have spent the day in an alley begging for money or just playing ball. I was just watching him with his eyes wide open in disbelief. His worldview was so limited that it really amazed me. Just walking a couple of blocks down the street was such a journey for him.”
Another Sicilian who strongly intrigued Gia was a woman named Maria. This 50-year-old mother from San Biagio had been through a great deal of suffering because of problems with her legs. “I remember people telling me that she had a beautiful voice. But she had a very hard time walking, her legs were like elephant trunks, she’s suffered a lot, spent a lot of time in bed, and had to go through many operations. But radiating from this woman was a strong faith and a love of life. She told me about her pain and her belief in God. It was incredible for me because I’m not a very religious person yet I was so moved by her faith. Her faith was so unshakable and so pure. I was in tears just talking to her.”
Maria lived a life typical of many women of the Sicilian countryside. But earlier on, she had an opportunity for something different. “Maria had an extraordinary voice. She even had a chance to sing in the opera in Palermo. Sadly, her mother wouldn’t let her. So instead she got married and had a child, then went on to live in the village. Perhaps she feels as though she missed her chance in life, but amazingly, she’s still happy. She still brings beauty into the lives of others with her singing. She has the most beautiful voice I ever heard. I felt so fortunate, to be in the presence of a woman so strong.”
And there were many others who have greatly touched Gia. “So many Sicilians have caused me to reflect on my own life. People who might not be so educated yet so wise, I’ve learned so much from them.”
In creating My Sacred Island, Gia hopes to communicate the contradictions that coexist in Sicily. The adorned Byzantine gateways that stand next to badly neglected dark alleys, the intensity of the colors in the marketplace and the rich flavor of the food, the overwhelming affection from the people and the pessimism that taints it all. My Sacred Island will “recapture the mystery of the island’s continuously evolving spectacle both in celebration and in mourning.”
For Gia, a third-generation Sicilian-American, the completion of this documentary represents the culmination of a decade of work that began when she first visited Sicily. “I was just blown away. I understood back then that this country needs to have its story told to audiences abroad.” Since that time, Gia has worked on several award-winning television projects and has lectured in the Radio-Television Department at San Francisco State University. Certainly accomplishments within themselves, she feels that her previous work has served simply as preparation for her upcoming documentary on Sicily, a country that is sentimentally her sacred island, her sacred home.
To learn more about Gia Marie Amella, please visit www.sacredsicily.com.
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