Filmmaker Cosima Spender gets a rare behind-the-scenes look at all the wheelings and dealings taking place in the Italian Palio, the world’s oldest horse race. “Palio” focuses on Giovanni, a young jockey who faces a unique challenge upon meeting his former mentor on the track. What follows is an exciting build up of drama, bribery, and competition, all in the grand Italian racing tradition. Some jockeys will do anything to win, forging alliances and making deals for huge cash sums – while others are just in it for the love of the race.
What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?
The oldest horse race in the world, which turns one Italian city into a high-stakes battleground of strategy, intrigue and simmering machismo.
Now what’s it REALLY about?
The Palio has been around for hundreds of years in Siena, and there is nothing like it in the world. No film crew has ever been able to capture the incredible drama, the huge personalities, the astonishing backroom negotiations and the history of the race. We were privileged to earn that access and tell the compelling story of this race – from the jockeys to the ancient rivalries to the bizarre traditions. For the people of Siena, The Palio is a metaphor for life itself, illustrating how people try to control fate. Some cards are dealt by luck (the horse, the position at the start) and some you can control (the choice of jockey, the plots). The central story of this film is an epic, with a young hero and a reigning king battling for victory. It is complete with chorus – the retired jockeys – and adrenaline fuelled race sequences. Moreover, the Palio’s beauty, romance and corruption make it a perfect microcosm of Italy.
Tell us briefly about yourself.
I was born and grew up near Siena, Italy, in a family of English/American artists. At 14 I moved to England. I read anthropology and art history before specializing in documentary direction. I now live in London with my husband and two children.
Biggest challenge in completing this film?
During the shoot it was very difficult to get access to the jockeys as their strategies with the districts’ captains happen behind closed doors. The Palio is complicated in its rules and traditions, so it was hard to balance the amount of explanatory information we provide to the viewers without baffling them. There is so much that is bizarre about the race – the winner loses money, the horses are randomly assigned to the jockeys, and a horse can win even if the jockey falls off. But that’s what makes the Palio so incredible.
What do you want the Tribeca audience to take away from your film?
I hope this film gives them a glimpse into a very complex and ancient world, full of beauty and machinations. There really is nothing like the Palio in the world, so audiences are going to be exposed to something very few people have seen before. The Sienese people we met were all larger-than-life characters – a documentarian’s dream! – so their stories were very engaging and often hilarious.
Any films inspire you?
‘Roma’ by Federico Fellini,
“Il Divo” by Paolo Sorrentino,
‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ by Sergio Leone.
I’m writing a feature film that I’ve researched like a documentary. It’s based on my dad who at the age of 12 realized his father was homosexual.
What cameras did you shoot on?
Arri Alexa, Canon C300, go-pro.
Did you crowdfund?
If so, via what platform. If not, why?
We did not crowdfund, instead I was introduced to a creative entrepreneur, John Hunt, who also wanted to make a film on the Palio. He financed and produced it.
Did you go to film school? If so, which one?
I attended the National Film and Television School, UK.
Indiewire invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.