Documentary Explores Ecosystem of Lagoon in Tuscany

“We like it hot… but don’t let it burn”

That was the motto of the Berlin Film Festival's 2014's Culinary Cinema section, which featured three very diverse Italian films. What did they have in common? Food and wine, of course. 

I caught up with Walter Bencini, director of the documentary film, I Cavaliere della Laguna (The Knights of the Lagoon). The film explores the delicate ecosystem of a lagoon in the Tuscan village of Orbetello. Bencini's cameras follow a group of fishermen as they talk about their camaraderie, challenges and the respect they have for the art of fishing. The film highlights how the environment has changed through the years and how the technique of fishing has evolved to keep up with those changes. 

What was your personal inspiration to tell this story? 
With this unprecedented economic crisis in which the Western industrial system has utterly failed, it is fundamental for me to highlight and promote alternative production models. The logic of small communities like this, in a globalized world made of astronomical figures, may seem insignificant, but according to my point of view is the only way forward if you want to find a harmonious relationship with our mother earth. This community needs to address the issues that are common to many other cultures in the world. In some ways, the lagoon environments are examples of anticipating what may happen in the larger territories.

Company policies – Are there company policies that are particularly important to your business? Perhaps your unlimited paternity/maternity leave policy has endeared you to employees across the company. This is a good place to talk about that.

The cinematography is poetic in the way that it connects the landscape with the ecosystem and fishermen. What are the concerns of the fishermen for the environment?
This community operates in a way that is very nice and charming but at the same time very complex and delicate, always on the verge of collapse. Consider that until the 80's, there was no environmental awareness that there is today, so all the overflow in the region from the industrial activities ended up in the lagoon. Therefore, all these organic substances accumulated over time and have fostered the growth of algae, which in turn resulted in large fish kills. Everything the community has done in recent years aimed at combating this problem has only led to changes in the ecosystem, and therefore new problems to deal with, such as the increase of migratory birds. The fish have changed their habits and there are fewer of them in the lagoon. There is more salt in the water, and the tides have changed. 

How has the business of fishing evolved for these fishermen? For example.. how will the process be different for future generations?
Unfortunately, there has been a decline over time. For the last century, the job of a fisherman was coveted by many young people as they worked a half day and earned as much as a bank clerk. In the past, the fishing cooperative was thriving and was based solely on fishing. Then it started to decline. The number of fish decreased, and the global market gave the coup de grace. The result was that the cooperative had to invent new jobs to try to survive, borrowing from banks and threatening to leave future generations a debt that will never be paid.

Can you shed light on why the fishermen are so apprehensive about the  investment in the new processing plant?
Seven years ago the cooperative invested nearly three million dollars in a new plant for the processing of fish, an expensive investment that would be repaid in part by the sale of bottarga (dried mullet eggs) in a period in which this fish was abundant. Then suddenly there was a decline in the fish, and the flagship product that had to bear the investment failed. 

Tell me about your experience making this film. What did you enjoy the most, and what were your challenges?
Being able to finish a film is always an exciting venture, especially when you're talking about issues that deal with human stories. In this case, the emotional involvement was so strong, that in order to finish, you are willing to spend more than it should cost. The first challenge was that of writing.
It took three years to complete, 30 hours of footage, and months of post production. The whole thing was built on a script of dialogue and situations that were very open and flexible. It had to be rewritten three times, because the situations that I predicted in pre-production changed. Some characters retired, others didn't work out as I expected and others just vanished. Luckily, I met people who led me in new directions, so it was constantly a screenplay that was changing and adapting to what was happening at the time. The second challenge was human. Making this film has given me the opportunity to have a human experience. It was amazing to know these wonderful men with their constant banter, as they talked about the pride of their no-frills job. At first, the people were a little grumpy. But over time, being with them, becoming one of them, they opened up because they understood that I was doing a different job from others who had preceded me. I was more interested in them and their stories. I went into this relationship with them on the heels of respect and admiration. They did not expect that, and I used that approach to build the narrative line of the film.

For more information about the film, visit its website.