Toward the end of the semester,
my 12th grade psychology teacher, Mr. Gibbons, called on me to comment on a film we had just watched. I sat in the back row and usually didn’t talk much so I think he was surprised that I had something to say. He listened and then bemusingly said, “Scott, I didn’t think you were paying attention. But now I see you just have been quietly taking it all in, listening intently to everything going on around you.”
I could feel my face flush as the whole class looked at me, but I also
felt a pang of pride at his observation, which turned out to be right on
A listener, it seems, is what I wanted to be when I grew up. It’s the reason I was drawn to documentary film work: I liked hearing people talk. Their voices and accents and laughter. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to listen to stories from Alzheimer’s patients in Minnesota, high schoolers in Queens, oystermen on Florida’s Gulf Coast and countless wonderful Mainers. More recently, I’ve worked on projects in Italy with my wife, Alexis Iammarino, who is an interdisciplinary artist and educator. After a successful commissioned film in Venice, we decided
we wanted to work on something of our own.
Last summer, we spent six weeks in the Salentine peninsula of southern Italy to start what would become a sprawling project. It was something we had talked about doing for years: a documentary film about the traditional music and dance of Puglia and its ritualistic origins. A simple story, right? Except there’s several centuries worth of personal histories and politics and religion wrapped up in it. We agreed that we weren’t trying to come back to Maine with a complete film, but instead wanted to take our time
to glean information, unpack ideas and listen to as many people as were willing to talk with us.
Working as a producer, the goal is to make sure schedules are confirmed, permits are secured and that people get paid. Showing up in the small city of Galatina last June was the exact opposite. We had an apartment rented and our equipment in tow, but we had no plan. We had visited here twice before, but that was as tourists. Now we were wandering around with cameras, asking something more of the people living there. More than ever, I was aware of our responsibility to carefully tell the community’s story. The reputation of southern Italians is one of deep suspicion and unwavering hospitality. A paradox to be sure. Luckily, I have a wife who has been traveling to Italy since she was a teenager, is nearly fluent in the language and is disarmingly charismatic.
So what was our story about? We knew it was about this place and how this part of Puglia is home to tarantismo, the spider bite possession ritual. This phenomenon, going back to the Middle Ages, involved women called tarantate who claimed they had been bitten by spiders in neighboring farm towns. On June 29 each year, Saint Paul’s Day, they would travel to Galatina and, in the church and in the piazza outside, they would ask Saint Paul to help them recover as they performed a convulsive healing dance, accompanied by repetitive songs played on violin, accordion and tamborello. In reality, there was no spider bite. They were ritual performances, public displays of nonconformity, giving a cultural meaning to female existential and social suffering.
The phenomenon essentially halted in the 1970s, but there’s been renewed interest in the origins of the music and dance. That’s what we were most curious about: Who, in 2019, was identifying with this ritual through artmaking and performance?
We had the good fortune of meeting Gigi Rigliaco, who had grown up in Galatina and who seemingly knew everybody. He would quickly become our unofficial fixer, helping us schedule interviews and sharing local knowledge. This relationship proved to be invaluable as he connected us with numerous community members, gallerists, anthropologists, dancers and musicians, many of whom were brilliant individuals working with DOMUS, a new artist residency Gigi supports as a gallerist himself. At one point, our friend and prodigiously talented Maine filmmaker, Daniel Quintanilla, joined us as a cinematographer and directorial sounding board. Interviews were conducted on church steps and rooftops, in garages and city parks. We befriended incredible, welcoming people who all offered a unique perspective on tarantismo.
Collaborator Daniel Quintanilla (left) and Scott Sell film in Galatina's City Park.
Photo: Alexis Iammarino
Jatun Risba was one of them. A Slovenian-born performance artist, we met her at a film festival after-party in Lecce. Shouting over the music, she said, “I consider myself a contemporary tarantata.” Jatun was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 20 and found that achieving a trance state through ecstatic dance healed her, both physically and spiritually, making her aware of the untapped energy in our bodies and brains. We realized that this story wasn’t only about this place and its traditions but simply one example of how people around the world engage with trance states: the whirling dervishes of the Turkish Sufis or practitioners of voodoo. There was a sense that the project was bigger than we imagined, with many global voices adding to the conversation.
The plan had been to return to Galatina for the same stretch of time this summer, to keep pulling the threads of this story, reconnect with our friends and make new ones. But, of course, 2020 happened. As we watched Italy suffer the initial brunt of COVID-19 in March, we knew it’d be inevitable that we’d have to stay home. Finding the silver lining, we’ve been keeping in touch with our amici and finding ways to keep the project going remotely.
That continues to be the through line in documentary work and what I find to be endlessly motivating: You come at it with one idea of what your story can be, only to find something completely different. Once you begin to build relationships and enter into co-creation, new layers reveal themselves with unforeseen resonance. The twists and turns that you couldn’t possibly have foreseen become integral to the story. You end up seeing how it all connects. And it all comes from listening closely.
Scott Sell is a filmmaker, writer, and musician living in Rockland. Together with his wife, Alexis Iammarino, they run Little Legs Productions, a creative company specializing in public murals and multimedia production.