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La Guarimba: The Tiny Italian Film Festival Ruffling More Feathers Than the Mafia

"The most powerful mafia in the world is here and people fight against a free cinema," said festival co-founder Giulio Vita.

“La Grotta”

Photo courtesy La Guarimba International Film Festival

In a forgotten region of Southern Italy, projected against a sweeping cliff overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, La Guarimba International Film Festival screens a dynamic program of boundary-pushing short films — all at no cost to an eclectic audience of Catholic nonnas and independent filmmakers from around the globe. Amantea is a tiny seaside town in Calabria, the poorest region in Italy and one of the poorest in all of Europe. Every summer, La Guarimba floods the town with young cinephiles and adventurous Italian tourists. But the provocative, inclusive, and avant-garde programming is sometimes more challenging than the audience may have bargained for.

Now in its seventh year, La Guarimba has played short films from nearly every continent, earned the support of the Ministry of Culture and U.S. Embassy, and showcased nearly 50 films that later earned a Vimeo Staff Pick badge, one of the highest honors a short can receive in the internet age. Frequent visitors to the grotto include the experimental video and sound artist Vincent Moon and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo.

With a stated mission of bringing “cinema back to the people and the people back to the cinema,” fostering community for artists and filmmakers while remaining committed to social justice is central to La Guarimba’s mission. Progressive politics are in the fabric of the festival, as evidenced by its name: “La Guarimba” comes from a Venezuelan slang word meaning political protestor. Before resettling in his grandparents’ hometown, festival co-founder and artistic director Giulio Vita fled Venezuela, where he was raised, after being imprisoned and tortured by the Hugo Chávez regime.

“We are obviously lefties. We are obviously anti-fascist, anti-racism. We try to program things that are against conservative politics, but we don’t try to shove it in your face,” said Vita, adding that to screen an LGBT film or bring a musician from Senegal is, for him, “like a big, big hit in the base of the power.”

Festival co-founders Giulio Vita and Sara Fratini with Senegalese programmer Keba Danso.

Photo courtesy La Guarimba International Film Festival

And the power base has taken notice. Vita and his staff regularly encounter roadblocks from local government, whether it’s not allowing volunteers to clean up the park where screenings are held or being forced to use a certain (more expensive) mafia-controlled rental chair company. The mayor of Amantea is a sworn enemy of Vita’s, going so far as to call him “an arrogant little boy” over WhatsApp.

“I don’t know why people, especially politicians, are so afraid of culture,” said Vita. “We live in the region of ‘Ndrangheta, which is the name of the mafia here. The most powerful mafia in the world is here, and people fight against some dudes that want to do a free cinema.”

The toe of Italy’s boot, Calabria is nestled between the more popular regions of Sicily and Puglia. The ‘Ndrangheta may not be as famous abroad as its Sicilian rival, but Italians know it as the most powerful and violent of the Italian mafias. Their presence, as well as Calabria’s economic depression, keeps the region off the radar of many tourists, even Italian ones.

“This is one of the poorest region of Europe and everybody leaves,” said Vita. “I decided to come back, back to my roots and do the festival here because I think that is a political act.”

According to Nils Clauss, a filmmaker whose work has shown at Cannes and who has directed music videos for M83 and Röyksopp, Vita is “like a guerrilla” when it comes to festival organizing. “Giulio’s political idealism is what keeps La Guarimba strong. It gives the festival a strong sense of identity, which makes it stick out in the big pool of cinema related events around the world,” he said via email. “He does not hold back being confrontational, and that shows not only in La Guarimba’s selection of political films, but also in big political statements which Giulio spreads during the festival.”

A full screening in La Grotta

Photo courtesy La Guarimba International Film Festival

One of those political acts is to hire some of the town’s refugees for film shoots, integrating them with Italians and providing documentation of employment. “The refugees have a document where it says this association that is recognized by the Minister of Culture is saying… he’s a good impact for the society,” said Vita.

The conservative Catholic region has accepted a significant number of refugees in the last 20 years; Amantea has 12,000 residents and has taken 300 refugees. But it has not come by its burgeoning multicultural status without friction. Through its wide array of international programming, La Guarimba hopes to open local minds to their new neighbors.

On any given night during the 2018 festival, audiences may have been treated to a surprisingly plaintive South Korean film about loneliness at a gay orgy, a disturbing hyperreal documentary about a cross-dressing photographer, or — if they could stay awake until 3 am — a beachside art porn screening. (Full disclosure: I served on the jury of the 2018 festival).

“It’s a tough undertaking to gain people’s interest in art cinema, especially if Berlusconi television has a daily presence in their lives,” said Clauss. “But what works is not only the fact that all the screenings are free, but also that La Guarimba is making a huge effort to make the community part of the festival.”

This democratization of art is the ultimate soul of La Guarimba, and is why Vita chose to set the festival in Amantea rather than Madrid, where he lives part of the year. “Nobody want to invest in Calabria,” he said. “Our culture is just in some places, just for the people that can afford it. … So, doing something like this, here, is a big impact.”

The 2019 La Guarimba International Film Festival takes place in Amantea, Italy from August 7-11. Short film submissions are open through April 6

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