Joel Stangle’s “Acqua fuori dal Ring” (“Ring of Water”) parallels the lives of 2 boxers, outside of the ring. What seems like would cinematically culminate in a match between these boxers, becomes an intimate portrait of their fight to survive, day to day. Unfolding in the city of Catania, one boxer is a Sicilian native, and the other a Tunisian migrant. There is a cycle of poverty they are trying to break, but like a centrifugal force the women in their lives bide the inevitable.
At the Starz Denver Film Festival, I had the opportunity to ask Stangle about “Ring of Water.”
The genesis of the film began in the overwhelming issue of migration, and not immigration, as you said. The film breathes in the personal narratives, without being drowned in conveying such a complex issue. What most do you want audiences to take away from these personal stories?
I don’t think staring complex issues in the face is always the right way to understand them. Also too many people bring prejudices to the table. The film also doesn’t pass judgments on either side. Yes, this is a film that talks about a society split between those who live there, and those who migrated. The issues that arise with this are just the context that influence their daily lives. I thought it would be more constructive to show that the different cultures, Sicilian and Arabic, have many similarities. But, we don’t really need to even tie it to culture – on a human level the aspirations of people are so similar. So in the end the film boils down to people essentially striving for the same thing, to make something of themselves, to make a life for their family.
I want the audience to just feel like they are part of these lives for 90 min., to see and feel what that is like, and they can do what they will with that experience.
The film harkens back to the Italian Neorealist movement of the 1940s and 1950s. You filmed on location, using non-actors, focusing on the working-class and impoverished. Did you draw upon any particular filmmakers, films or elements of the movement as a direct influence?
I learned most everything about acting and composition from (Michelangelo) Antonioni’s films. I’m not so influenced by the subject matter of the early Neorealists as it seems, that is coincidence. But I am influenced by the way Antonioni gives subjective expression to convey a reality. For me Antonioni was able to get actors to express internalized emotion, and that is what I try to do. I am also trying to find a way to express reality, because showing reality is impossible; you need to filter it, through a character, through a location, sound, and feeling.
However my reasons for using non-actors and locations is different. I find locations, and find people and see what story that creates when I put them together. For me locations have so much to say, why create one. I think authenticity comes from experience so I need real people with stories and pasts to give me the authenticity.
But this philosophy was born from necessity. When I began filming I was making no budget films so I was writing for locations and people I had at my disposal. But from that I began to see that there is a magic that happens when you do that. Now it is my method.
There were interesting obstacles for you as a director: filming in often-risky locations, using non- actors and crew who spoke different dialects and languages, to name a few. Though, you’ve mentioned this allowed you to focus on the purely visual. How was this liberating as a filmmaker?
I don’t care too much for the standard method of making films. I think the process creates the results. Too many films are made the same way, and that is why they are often the same film. I like to expose the filmmaking process to the elements and see where it goes on it’s own.
As for working in a different culture, yes, when you are outside of your comfort zone you are given a new perspective, which I think is what we need to do as filmmakers – present new perspectives, so it is helpful. Often words get in the way of understanding… if you don’t believe me, next time your girlfriend is fighting with you think about if anything she is saying has anything to do with the way she is reacting. Filming in a different language I am concentrating on physical reactions and tones, not words. If those other aspects are real the words don’t matter.
Boxers as characters have clear cinematic appeal in the lexicon of great movies, but migrants offer a plethora of roles for a film. What personal, creative, or thematic choices went into focusing on boxers?
I was thinking about the migration situation and the cultures of the Mediterranean and for an unexplainable reason I felt boxing had something to do with it. Later in researching I was reading a two thousand year old text from a roman historian, Polybius, and he said to understand the conflict between two cultures you need to think of it as two boxers fighting in a ring. For me history is repeating, and today’s issues are similar to those of the past. If two thousand years ago they used the analogy of boxing, I think it applies today as well.
But, it goes back to letting the story find its way. Boxing was part of the neighborhood I was filming in, and I had an intuitive feeling it was right. When you listen and follow what you are given while filming things connect. It is the connections that I am looking for, when they are there I feel like I am on the right track. In this situation it connected to a two thousand year old historical text, so I felt that I was on the right track.
There is an incredible visual sequence where Toscano (the Sicilian boxer) runs alongside a black horse in slow motion. It seemed a feat, both technically and in choreography, what can you tell us about shooting it?
It is very hard to get some shots if you over think getting them. My recipe for getting good shots is a combination of stupidity, luck and resourcefulness. I told my cameraman to stick his 50k camera outside of my brother-in-law’s moving van – 9 takes later the horse ran just the right speed.
In revealing a spoiler, I want to ask the significance of seeing the 2 female characters, separated from their men in the end. It felt as if they were empowered in their decisions, and there was something being said about the plight and survival of women in their situation. What was behind making that creative decision in how to end the film?
Well, back to using real people as actors. The two women I had, showed me something about the strength of a woman. In their lives they have a quiet strength and help carry their families. I just let that play out on screen. I molded the ending to fit their real personalities. It is what I know these young women would do, so it is truthful.
That is the discovery I think is important when filming. I am really just searching. Looking for a truth, the truth of a situation. It seemed like the men I was filming with were dreaming about their lives, fighting to attain something. The women were more grounded in reality, trying to make something of what they had. Those are two distinct philosophies in how to live a life, and in reflection I think it is a fundamental difference between men and woman.
The film is very male dominated, as is the society, but the woman are actually the stronger characters. The history, the politics, and the people are all stuck in a cycle – those women, who in a society outside of their control quietly take their own life by the reins represent a way out of that cycle. It isn’t glorious like what the boxers and men want, but it is real, and it is powerful and has an effect beyond their lives.
Stangle is also the writer/director of a number of shorts, the feature “Profumo di Lumia” (“The Smell of Lemons”) and was the cinematographer on the Denver-based feature film, “Colfax & 15th”.