Tell us a little bit about yourself. Your academic background is in intercultural communications and you also teach screenplay writing and the history of cinema. What led you down that career path? Did your faith affect your decisions at all?
I became interested in the Church and was eventually baptized while attending university in Brussels. The first year in Belgium turned out to be a major adjustment for me insofar as I had been living practically all my life in Italy until my senior year in high school. My mother decided that we should move to Belgium as we had family living here on my father’s side.
That turned out to be a new chapter in my life in more ways than one.
I think it became my firsthand experience in culture shock and intercultural adjustment. Italy and Belgium—with their rather complicated and some might argue “artificial” histories—are similar in some ways but decidedly different when it comes to social relations and human contacts. I was leaving behind friends I had known for years and found myself in an environment I was unable to fully relate to at first.
I knew that in terms of my academic studies I wanted to do something that would allow me to draw on my interest in humanities in general, but I did not seem to be able to get a full grip on the local academic system. Eventually I settled for undergraduate studies in English literature and languages and I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland, which at the time had a small campus in Brussels. It was around that time period that I first met the missionaries and was baptized not too long after.
Around that time I also developed an interest in what for me was a new and fascinating discipline: intercultural communication. I was always partial to the arts in general—since I was brought up in Italy, it isn’t too difficult to understand why—and after a while I was able to combine my interest in literature, cinema, and communications by writing a thesis that allowed me to make the most of my interlocking interests. The thesis explored the cultural differences that appear when comparing and contrasting, say, a French film based on a famous or classic novel and its American remake. That allowed me then to qualify to teach screenplay writing and the history of cinema and to specialize in movie marketing.
Faith and my conversion certainly played a very important part in my academic life; for one thing, it gave me far more focus and in retrospect I would even go as far as saying that the initial malaise I felt when first arriving in the country proved to be the perfect opportunity—at least on an unconscious level—to be on the lookout for something else, something more. Little did I know it would turn out to be the restored gospel!
You’ve mentioned you are developing an increased interest in interfaith dialogue. Can you describe what this entails and why you think it is important?
I am particularly pleased to see the Church take a more proactive stance in the field of interfaith dialogue lately. I understand that historically the Church has gone through periods of “retrenchment” followed by spurts of outreach. I can certainly feel that creating a space for dialogue among denominations is a direction the Church is going in at this particular moment and I wholeheartedly welcome that.
I sometimes hear of members expressing the idea that the Church should not make too many waves and remain as discreet as possible, perhaps in the forlorn hope that the world at large will simply let us be. It might sound tempting, but ultimately that is not the destiny of this church.
At the same time there are so many dedicated and inspirational people from other faiths who have something to offer, such as a fresh perspective and precious insights. I was touched for instance by the way our Church authorities praised the attitude of the Amish in the face of terrible tragedy, and the fact that we as members are equally encouraged to learn from the strengths exhibited by our fellow travelers is something I personally find immensely appealing.
Ultimately we all need to recognize that there is strength in numbers and that all people who are genuinely willing to do good are worthy of respect and praise. Goodwill allows us to look beyond narrow confines and gives us an opportunity to draw strength from one another. I hope to somehow be able to play some kind of a role in fostering good relations with other communities.
You’ve created a LDS Film Festival in Brussels that is now in its fifth year. What gave you the idea to establish the festival? Can you describe some of the highlights of the past few years?
The idea came about when I found out that film director Christian Vuissa had created a yearly LDS Film Festival in Orem, Utah.
Because of my personal interest in cinema, I was of course already aware of the significant contribution that Mormons have made to the history of cinema throughout the decades, from Casablanca to Schindler’s List. Still, to know that there were artists and directors out there willing to create and produce stories that had a decidedly LDS slant was very exciting to me. Here was the perfect opportunity to make use of what can possibly be construed as the most effective medium ever devised, and certainly the medium of the last century, to tell our stories as well as our side of the story.
We started by simply setting up a DVD player and projecting films against a wall in the basement of the Institute of Religion in Brussels. At the time we had a wonderful missionary couple serving in the city—the Tolleys—and with their help we decided to give it a go.
I was of course hoping for the best but had no idea what the response was going to be. To jumpstart the process and hopefully generate some much needed word of mouth, since there was no budget to speak of, I decided to rent a small art house theater and screen States of Grace. The response on the whole was very positive and in some cases bordered on the enthusiastic.
I appreciate of course that the film may not have been to everyone’s taste, but in a European context it made far more sense for me to first showcase that particular movie. If the ultimate goal of the event was to show films that would attract people beyond LDS movie aficionados and sympathizers, it was important not to exclusively select films that might have rightly or wrongly been labeled as apologetic.
For one thing, I liked the fact that the director was not afraid to tackle real and at times admittedly disturbing issues. Ultimately, I responded to the film in a very personal and profound way and I can honestly say that it is the one movie that helped me fully grasp and appreciate the full power of the Atonement and how far-reaching that power truly is.
Fortunately, I do not belong to any particular current of thought regarding the ultimate purpose of LDS films, nor do I profess to know where the future of LDS cinema lies and what this still fledgling movement is supposed to signify in the grand scheme of things.
I simply enjoy the fact that LDS directors, writers, actors, and producers are taking chances and trying to honor their craft while at the same time framing stories from a uniquely LDS perspective.
I can enjoy and appreciate a gritty, realistic piece like States of Grace while admiring and feeling spiritually satiated when watching more classic films like The Work and the Glory or Emma Smith or comedies like The Best Two Years. If anything, the future of LDS films lies in diversity.
I think that having a somewhat eclectic taste in various artistic fields has allowed me to consider all kinds of options when working on the film programming of the festival, even though I purposely make it a point to try to select movies that will bring about what I hope will be a heartfelt and deeply personal spiritual response. A movie has the potential of strengthening one’s faith and offering insight into the lives of a people who have sacrificed so much for their beliefs.
One of the highlights was to have a director like Christian Vuissa come and present back-to-back Errand of Angels and Father in Israel, which has been renamed One Good Man for the DVD release. He also took time to animate a film workshop.
We were fortunate enough to convince Mark Arnett, who was passing through on his way to England to receive a prize, to stop by and show his wonderfully witty and immensely touching Baby Boomerang.
I would also count the fact that we have gradually been able to move from a basement to making use of some legitimate movie theaters in Brussels as a big step forward.
I remember showing Return With Honor in a “proper” theater as the closing film of the second edition and being impressed by the quality of the image on the screen, considering that we were relying on standard DVDs for the projection.
How do you think Mormon filmmaking fits into the industry as a whole? You’ve said you don’t know where its future lies, but what direction do you see it taking to get there?
As for the future of Mormon filmmaking, I am extremely and perhaps uncharacteristically positive despite how increasingly difficult it is to raise capital for films and the fact that the novelty effect has decreased. As Randy Astle pointed out in his recent comprehensive study on Mormon Cinema (“Mormons and Films,” BYU Studies), in reality the movement goes all the way back to the silent era.
Still, there is a sense that LDS filmmaking has started to truly come of age during the present decade and that it is slowly but surely beginning to forge an identity of its own. Music played a vital role in allowing Mormons to become more known in the U.S., and now literature written by Mormons in a variety of fields is also paving the way. It is certainly doing extremely well given that we regularly find LDS authors on the New York Times bestseller list.
As for movies, it is always interesting to notice how far-reaching the impact of a movie can be. In the last month alone, I have seen a number of dubbed French DVD versions of LDS movies sold in major stores in Belgium. I am probably the only one in the whole store who is even aware of the fact, but it is immensely satisfying to know that our productions can part of the “mainstream” and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that—quite the contrary, in fact.
Because of the very nature of our history, doctrines, and beliefs, there will always be priceless opportunities to focus on specific aspects of our history and experience and bring out the spiritual component.
You’ve recently renamed the festival the Mormon Arts and Culture Festival in order to expand its scope to include other areas in the arts. What other areas are now included?
At first we only focused on movies as most local members were not even aware that quite a revolution in the audiovisual field was occurring. The reality is that LDS film—in spite of its decidedly niche appeal—is clearly here to stay, but as we all have come to realize, we are smack in the middle of a readjustment phase, particularly in terms of business models and the selection of narratives.
I also have to consider that when I started five years ago, I could draw on the arguably best LDS movies that had been released between 2000 and 2005. Now, at this stage, I am almost running concurrently with the LDS Film Festival in Utah, and I may soon be in a position to screen a couple of movies next year that will be shown in Belgium before they are released in the States. I am thinking in particular of some up-and-coming European or Central or South American directors.
Still, from an outsider’s perspective, Mormons should not be considered worthy of interest exclusively on account of their movies. The festival also fits nicely into my communications/ public affairs calling in the Church—to let people know who we really are from a cultural/artistic standpoint, it is important to include concerts, exhibitions, lectures, and forums as well. So the Arts and Culture Festival (of which the Film Festival is still a prominent part) seemed like the logical next step.
How is the festival perceived by the public, both Mormons and others?
Over the years we have seen some faithful members come as often as they could, determined not to miss the opportunity of seeing the latest movie on offer. I think the experience has been positive.
For one thing, once the festival is over in Brussels, I am willing and ready to travel to other major francophone cities in Belgium and showcase them in chapels or cultural halls. Last year I was able to arrange a visit by Vuissa to the Paris Institute of Religion, so that was an exciting step forward and we hope to reiterate the experience every year and make a concerted effort to attract nonmembers as well.
For nonmembers I believe it can be an eye-opener. I remember being contacted a couple of years ago by a student who was writing a dissertation on Mormons and since it was around the time of the festival, I naturally invited him to come. He told me that the movies helped him gain a better understanding of who the Mormons were and how members live their religion in a practical, day-to-day way.
You mentioned earlier that you teach screenwriting. Do you have any general advice for others trying to make it in the film industry?
The old adage “practice makes perfect” still applies. While some may be lucky enough to strike gold with their first attempt and might end up selling their script to the highest Hollywood bidder, it is important to keep honing one’s talents. Learn from the masters and the superior craftsmen.
As a professor, I always try to encourage students to acquire knowledge and an appreciation of the major master storytellers of the past. Unlike painting, cinema is a relatively new art form—barely more than a hundred years old, in fact—and there is much that can be studied and mastered.
While it is tempting to just focus on the latest blockbusters or home-grown productions, it is also important to open up one’s mind and learn to appreciate “foreign” filmmakers. It might take a while, but it pays off nicely in terms of becoming partial to other narrative approaches.
Where are the Rossellinis, the Bergmans, and the Kazans of today or tomorrow? Potentially they are everywhere. True, technology has made it easier to simply go out and shoot with a digital camera, but all the clever paraphernalia cannot replace good and meaningful storytelling. That is why Italian neo-realistic movies are still riveting, notwithstanding the rather crude techniques and technical equipment used.
How do you think your heritage plays into your work? Do you think being a Mormon artist in Belgium differs from other places in the world? How about being an artist in general?
One of the big differences between being a member in Belgium, and in many other European countries, for that matter, is simply related to numbers. Once I completed my undergraduate studies, I went and lived in California for almost three years and I could immediately sense the difference as a result of the sheer numbers of LDS people who typically congregate on a Sunday.
Not that the smaller size is a weakness per se—after all, it can be argued that members here may have a more pronounced pioneer spirit, so to speak—but since there are simply not as many members in Belgium, it does limit the number of members who are actively and professionally invested in the arts in general.
There are some interesting developments, though. In the last few years we have seen local members get their work published—whether they are specifically Mormon-centric or not—and musicians are slowly rising through the ranks. My hope is to be able to gradually tap into that reservoir in the future, especially now that the festival is meant to encompass so many art forms.
Living in Brussels is also interesting insofar as the ward I attend is truly multicultural in nature. As a matter of fact, we recently merged two wards and now conduct services, give classes, and teach in both French and English. Institute is offered in other languages as well. The congregation is composed of a veritable constellation of nationalities and cultures. Obviously, being in the capital of Europe helps explain the amount of diversity; it infuses a lot of the things we do and it helps tremendously in fostering patience, tolerance, and understanding, which are godly qualities after all.
I think the artist has a very specific and unique role to play in society. At his best, an artist can bring voice to and become a conduit for a whole range of emotions that cannot be expressed otherwise. I like the fact that the Church from its very beginning always found time to combine spirituality with proper education while not neglecting the importance of art in all its expressions.
What has been your favorite project so far?
I like to think that my favorite project is yet to come. My hope is that as we build the festival and give it a veritable identity, we will be able to travel throughout the major European cities and share some of the great spiritual experiences some people have had.
I am particularly happy about the fact that we were able to contribute a number of subtitled films for a major symposium on Mormonism that will take place in Canada the first week of November and is organized by nonmembers. The program is truly excellent and I certainly want to learn from it myself.
I would also love to open up the festival and invite local non-LDS people to participate and contribute shorts, for instance. Obviously, we will set out a number of parameters and expectations regarding content, but as I said before, different sensibilities and approaches can only enrich a receptive audience.
Care to share any of your current or upcoming projects?
One interesting element is that I decided to add theatre to next year’s program mix. We have some local professional LDS theatre actors and we have been working on a play—or I should say a dramatization—based on the letters exchanged between Joseph and Emma Smith. I got in touch with a BYU professor who was kind enough to send me all the existing copies of the letters and I went ahead and translated them into French before passing them on to Jean-François Demeyère, a Belgian director who will stage it. The idea at this point is to actually involve a number of members as well. I am anxious to see what the end product will look like and am hopeful that it will be the first of many theatrical projects to come.
At some point I was urged to write a play relating the encounter between renowned author Victor Hugo and Louis Bertrand, the French translator of the Book of Mormon, when they met on Jersey. It’s one of the projects I keep on the top of my wishlist. With theatre, there is a certain “return to one’s roots” feeling about it, for me at least.
The first time I ever entered an LDS church, I noticed a rather large but definitely inviting stage. My first reaction was that I wanted to stage something and I actually did. It was A Christmas Carol, and I would probably cringe if I were to watch the old VHS tape that recorded the performance, but it was a start. Eventually I staged Oliver!, Tom Sawyer, and Fiddler on the Roof, which were so well received that we were asked to perform them again.
At this point, I do not consider myself an “artist” per se. I see myself playing more the role of a facilitator. In fact, it has become kind of my personal mission. ❧