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Letters from the Desert

About this film

Can you remember the last time you have written a letter? Or the last time you have received one? Can you remember how it feels to put thoughts on paper with a pen in your hand, making mistakes, striking through words, so that the letter becomes personal, something that identifies you as a person? Perhaps not many still use letters as their main forms of communication in the West, and Michela Occhipinti shows life before the email and mobile phone text era. In a small village, situated in India, Occhipinti follows the life of a postman, who, on foot or by bike, delivers letters across the vast desert. In beautiful long shots, the director shows the beauty of nature as well as the nature of being a postman as a link between villagers. He is more than a postman, he is a valued member of the village, a friend. But life is changing, technological advancement changes the way people communicate, and the postman begins to wonder what will happen to his job.

Nadin Mai (tao films)

Interview with the Director
Michela, as far as I can tell from your films and projects, you are very engaged in the theme of society. How do you find your subjects, and the subject for Letters in particular? Are you looking for specific themes or do you find your subjects by accident? Or do the subject even find you?

I am indeed very engaged in society. In all societies, in fact. In their similarities and in their multiple paradoxes and contradictions. The subjects find me, while I am looking for something indefinite that is floating in me and I’m searching for a way to put it into focus. In the specific case of Letters (it was way back in 2004!), I had just come back home to Rome from a long and slow 10 months travel to South America. I was suddenly overwhelmed by traffic, noise, quick pace, and more than anything a lack of horizon. After 10 months of open spaces, my gaze was blocked by buildings and consequently also my mind and spirit felt blocked. It was giving me a “malaise”. I wanted to find a way to express it through film and I bumped on a short article in a French magazine talking about the Thar desert postmen and their long peregrinations. I knew immediately that this would be my cure. Maybe it was by accident, but deep down I think that it was not just a coincidence.

Letters from the Desert contains numerous shot of vast empty landscape. Your shots are stunning and really bring home the image of the desert as a space. What role does landscape play in this film, in particular, and in your filmmaking process in general?

The space in which we live defines us and, to a lesser degree, we define the space in which we live. I strongly believe in this interaction. Also in my next film space (quite a different one) will be one of the two main characters. At the beginning of the whole process of Letters (which between research, preparation, scouting, filming and postproduction took around 6/7 years to complete), I thought the desert was an accidental location. Slowly, slowly I started realising more and more that it was the only possible space to tell this story. The desert in my film is the main character together with Hari (the postman), they could not live one without the other. Especially Hari’s life and job would not be the same if the space was a forest or the mountains for instance, it would immediately acquire a different meaning and shape his life differently. The desert is that space that is constantly redefined. By wind, by steps, by things left behind…It is vast and powerful, harsh and fragile, silent and deserted yet there is life and sounds everywhere. In the desert you feel nude. You have to come to terms with yourself. There is no emotional escape. It is an image in my head far too complex to be described accurately. It is metaphysical, it is transcendent.

Your film blurs the line between documentary and fiction. It doesn’t fall into either category clearly. Where does fiction end and documentary begin?

There is a lot of debate recently on defining and categorising fiction, documentaries, docu-films, docu-fiction etc. etc. … and it is not a debate that fascinates me because for me a film is a film, is a film, is a film. Then there is truth. But truth can be found, or hidden, or manipulated everywhere. It is a question of consciousness, and poetry. In the case of Letters I wanted to make a documentary at the beginning but while going to the Thar desert twice for 1 month scouting in the search of a postman protagonist, I stopped in endless villages and met so many postmen who told me so many interesting sides to their experiences that I wanted to convey some of them in my film. Then Hari is a real postman, his house and family are his real house and family.

Can you tell us a little about how you approached the actual filming? Was the shooting based on intuition or on a script? How did the locals, the protagonists, reacted to you wanting to film them and their lives?

I put together what had arisen during scouting and what was my story and poetics. Then there was part of life happening before my eyes and I captured it on film. I wrote a script based on those experiences and on Hari’s life with no dialogues that I then composed together with him and the other protagonists. It was complex yet fluid. All the people involved, especially Hari and his family, were curious, kind, understanding, content. When I left, Hari’s family told me I was the fourth of their daughters (they did not understand I could be their sister in fact!). I haven’t seen them since 2009, but I promised I will go back, and I will. I have been there 3 times and every time I told them that I would go back. I did not know when but I would, and I did.

Could one consider your film as a critique against globalisation and the persistent and speedy advance of technology?

The world is sinking. Our part of the world is depriving the majority of the world, it always has. It’s a fact. But now we know it and we are not stopping it so we are more guilty than before. Technology is a great thing, but I feel critical on how badly we use it. We have in our hands very adequate means yet we are inadequate in its use. And then yes, in general, things turn too fast for me, it makes me lose myself a little. Produce, fast, don’t stop. NO. Stop, breath, reset.

You are currently working on a new subject. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

My next film “Flesh Out”, on which I started working in May of 2011, and that, if everything goes well, I should start shooting in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, this coming winter, is about body obsession. It is a reflection on women and their bodies, on the gap there is between the freedom we perceive and our actual one.

Good luck with your new project and thank you for the interview.