Abandoned since 14 years, the movie theater America was a cultural highlight of the Roman neighborhood of Trastevere destined to become an apartment facility and a parking lot. Following its upcoming destruction announcement, a group of about fifteen young students decided, on November 13th 2012, to occupy the building to save it from its sinister destiny.
We meet Valerio Carocci, the instigator of the occupation, and one of his comrades, Sharif Elfishawi, in a terrace of a bar right by the cinema America on whose façade has been posted “occupato”. “At the beginning we were just a group of students searching locations to meet for cultural activities. In Rome there are many abandoned places and we have discovered that 70% of those were movie theaters”, starts Valerio. In 10 years, 42 cinemas have closed in the Italian capital, drastically reducing the cultural offers. The choice of the movie theater America wasn’t a mere coincidence. If the building is an architectural gem made par Angelo Di Castro, it’s also because it’s located in the neighborhood where Valerio’s former loved one used to live. He had then convinced the gang –whose members were aged between 16 and their twenties– to set their heart on this cinema.
What we did was illegal, but it was right. We were a group of friends, and we all believed in it, and when you believe in something, nothing is impossible.
The group spent three months organizing events to get people of the neighborhood involved and gain their confidence. “We did not want to do anything without being sure that we would be accepted by the people of Trastevere.” On November 13th 2012, the neighborhood being committed to their cause, they broke the chains of the movie theater and started occupying the building. The first screenings were organized with the means at hand, each member bringing a part of the necessary equipment: a projector, some speakers, etc. If the occupation was indeed illegal, the group of young people made a point of honor to renovate the place little by little, upgrading it to meet the regulation for receiving the public with the money coming from the screenings receipts –offered at open pricing– and donations. “We wanted to put this cinema back into the life of the neighborhood.” The organized activities have gone beyond cinema screenings with book presentations or debate about documentaries. The spectators are welcomed to participate to the programming, via email or simply by stopping by the movie theater to mention a movie they’d like to see. “The key is to stay close to the people, in constant contact.” Once the film has been picked, the organizers start to look for the rights. At the beginning of the adventure, the distributors’ responses were divided, some, seduced by the initiative, authorized the screenings, others refused categorically. In the latter case, the illegal screening took place anyway. “We tried to contact the right holders first, and if they did not agree, we switched to pirate mode.” The immense success of Cinema America Occupato, along with a wide plebiscite from part of the profession, including Nanni Moretti, Paolo Sorrentino, Bernardo Bertolucci, Ettore Scola, and even a letter of support from the Italian president –Giorgio Napolitano– prevented them from trouble with the law. In July 2014, the Minister for Culture published a decree stating that the building could no longer house anything but a movie theater, beating the owners who wished to transform it into a lucrative luxury apartment complex. Still, on September 3rd 2014, under the owners’ pressure who registered a complaint, the cinema is evacuated by the police, putting an end to the occupation.
The gang however did not let this decision stand in their way and started occupying a former abandoned bakery close to the movie theater to organize screenings and debates. The Cinema America Occupato team then started to look for money to make a takeover offer of the cinema. With donations coming notably from personalities supporting the project, they managed to reach 2,5 millions euros. “We don’t settle for complaining about the situation, we act, and that is what convinced people to help us.” The offer was nonetheless rejected by the owners who demanded double of the amount. The team pursued the negotiations in the hope to have them change their mind. “Our goal is to make the Cinema America relive legally.” Concurrently, the group offered to takeover the movie theater Sala Troisi owned by the city (also located in the Trastevere area) and whose management is subjected to a public tender.
During summer 2015, their screenings stretched and multiplied to the squares and gardens of Rome with the Summer Arena (Piazza San Cosimato, Giardino Degli Aranci, the one from Castel Sant’Angelo, St. Pietro in Vincoli and on the Tiber island.) This allows them to communicate more widely on their initiative and to seduce a larger and also younger audience. “What we did with the Summer Arena was to make cinema “trendy” again. At the beginning our audience was mainly people in their fifties but today a great deal of young people come and for us, it means that the project is working. Young people are very active on social networks and they spread the word”, explains Valerio. Aware that the new generation is less present in the screening rooms, Sharif Elfishawi adds, “Internet changed everything, but what works today is to create a community. If you watch a movie on the Internet, you’re alone with your screen, but in a movie theater, you can talk after, you can share a drink, meet people. If you’re screening Star Wars, of course you’ll get a crowd, but what matters is to be together, and this has less to do with the screened film than with this experience. Nothing can replace that.” They have now embarked themselves on another serious challenge by bringing back to life another highlight of the Italian cinematic culture: the Cinecitta drive-in, the largest in Europe, with 50 000 square meters of space. On September 11th and 12th 2015, the immense screen of 540m² found back the light of a projector for the first time in 30 years with American Graffiti and Grease.
By taking action faced with a harmful situation for culture and youth in Rome, the “gang” has also proven wrong a cliché that politicians, in Italy and elsewhere, love to convey: that Youth is supposed to be lazy and has lost interest in culture. Valerio talks back of the beginning of the adventure: “What we did was illegal, but it was right. We were a group of friend, and we all believed in it, and when you believe in something, nothing is impossible.”
Translation by Garance Boulet ♥