SDIFF—The San Diego Italian Film Festival Brings Italian Culture to Southern California
Meet the San Diego “odd couple”—two very peculiar, energetic Italian men who traveled around the globe for a good part of their lives before ending up friends in the very south of Southern California. Victor Laruccia: born in Santiago, Chile; he learned reading/writing “as an Italian Catholic” in Western Pennsylvania, went to Yale, found the West Coast better, got his PhD at UCSD, and spent 3 years in the US Marine Corps. Victor taught film studies at Brown University, RI, then at UCSD, left for City of Pasadena to work in the telecom industry, and retired in 1995. He started SDIFF (Sand Diego Italian Film Festival) with a few other “crazy Italians” at The House of Italy, in Balboa Park, SD, in 2004.
Among them was Roberto Ruocco: an attorney who graduated in Naples, Italy, served 25 years as an Officer of the Italian Air Force, settled in San Diego as Italian military liason to the U.S. armed forces, and then became an immigration law expert and the Honorary Vice Consul of Italy. Roberto is an indefatigable man and—as Victor says—“ in true Neapolitan fashion knows and visits practically every Italian (citizen or not) in San Diego county.” Roberto is SDIFF president, Victor is its vice president.
SDIFF incorporated in 2007 as a non-profit organization aimed at promoting the art of Italian cinema in Southern California. After showing Italian movies for a couple of years at The House of Italy, Victor and Roberto, together with the other founders (Giuseppe Annino, Pasquale Verdicchio, and Don Santamaria) started to look for a bigger venue. The Museum of Photographic Art assured them a theatre, and the the first edition of a proper festival took place there. It was a success of unexpected proportion. Victor recalls: “The first night’s show had 90 in the audience, second 150, third 190, and the average since then was over 220 for a 230 seat theater.” And the last day, while a terrible fire that was burning huge swaths of San Diego county reached its peak, “people were sitting in the aisles because there were no more seats.”
Who helped them to start all this? The Italian Consulate and the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles assisted in obtaining subtitled movies. But no money. “And so,” says Roberto, “we dressed as franciscans and with our three knots of our ropes in our hands we knocked to several doors to collect money to pay the Museum of Photografic Art and organize a logistic structure. Business, restaurants, colleges, and most of all private families of Italian compatriates ... In other more important venues like Los Angeles, producers and movie corporations finance and launch the italian movies: here we do everything by ourselves.”
San Diego... how is it that “things Italian” are so popular here?
Roberto Ruocco: “According to consular data, there are about 1,300 Italian citizens in the City of San Diego, half of them holding dual citizenship. But in the County as a whole there are almost 3,000 dual citizens. Moreover, regardless of the possession of the italian citizenship, I may well say that I serve about 10,000 Italian Americans between the County of San Diego, Imperial, Riverside e Orange. And believe me, the thirst and hunger of Italian culture and in particolarly movies is humongous!”
Victor Laruccia: “Historically, San Diego has had a very important and strong Italian presence for a very long time, and San Diego’s Little Italy may be one of the strongest in the country. There is a very big appetite here for Italian culture, at least for what is conceived of as Italian culture. A very large percentage of restaurants, for example, are Italian up and down the gustatory range, from some dreadful pizza parlors to really excellent and imaginative chef driven restaurants. But beyond the cuisine, there is a genuine affection for Italian culture in general. Part of this stems from the physical nature of San Diego – sunshine, sea, and an impulse to enjoy the natural beauty of the place; this impulse is channeled by some very bright business people, many of whom are Italian. And then there is the demographics of San Diego tending toward people who have more disposable income and who seek quality of life options, where Italian culture has a major impact.”
From your words it seems that there are rather different ideas of what “Italian culture" is ... in San Diego as everywhere else.
Victor: “Indeed, many of the older families, dating back many generations and most rooted on the fishing industry, still have a strong presence here, and represent an older style of Italian culture. There are several very strong Italian clubs here, The House of Italy being the oldest. There is also a very important Italian language school, the Italian Cultural Center, with over 150 students per period, and a membership of over 400... At the same time many new Italian arrivals find Little Italy a very sympathetic place and bring a more modern sense of Italian culture. But, interestingly, we have encountered many Italians and Italian Americans, of high professional and social status, whose notions of an “Italian community” seem to be rooted in the old Mustache Pete image, and for this reason they do not normally associate with the Italians in the clubs or the older immigrant families. But that is changing, quite a bit due to the universal appeal of the Italian movies we bring in. When we show these movies, everyone joins in celebrating Italian culture, even if not everyone has the same notion of what that is.”
Who chooses the films to be screened at the SDIFF and what is your main target?
Roberto: “A board made by professor Verdicchio of UCSD, prof Clo of SDSU, prof Laruccia and others indentify a pool of movies which are then requested through the ICC of Los Angeles to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. About 8 months of negotiations and correspondence amongst these organizations ensue to bring us the best we can get.
The first year the serie Cinema Sud was obtained. This year we tried to get the best of what is available. The logic is to show the Italian excellence. I always repeat at our presentations that we are promoting one of the “Fs” of italian excellence: after Fashion, Food, Football, Ferrari, we promote Films!
Victor: “Of course, the festival would not exist without the strong support of IIC Los Angeles, especially Director Francesca Valente. Currently we work primarily with Mr Massimo Sarti, who is himself a big fan of movies and despite heavy demands manages to give us a great deal of attention. But while most of our films come through our relationship with IIC LA, we also try to recruit filmmakers to our festival. For example, Annino, who loves the Italian film festival circuit, met and invited Graziano Diana to join us and to bring his film ‘La Vita Rubata.’ This year we are bringing both director Giuseppe Gagliardi and musician Peppe Voltarelli to our festival. While we have a home at the Museum of Photographic Arts, we also are moving into other neighborhoods that can help us in our mission to spread Italian culture. Two such neighborhoods are La Jolla and North Park. La Jolla will attract many who are interested in the more artistic and academic aspects of Italian culture, while North Park resembles very much a neighborhood in an Italian city, with many areas for walking, lots of interactions among residents, visitors, small businesses, and this area promises an even greater vitality in the future. We want as many people who self-identify as Italians, but we spend a good deal of effort trying to bring in Italophiles, too.”
What's happening this year at the SDIFF?
Victor: “Choosing films is a combination of seeing what’s available that fits our needs through the IIC, working with contacts we’ve made with filmmakers, and accidents. Many of us attend film festivals, for example Palm Springs in January which shows over 12 Italian films, and several of us keep track of what’s happening in the Italian film Industry.
We also try to develop personal contacts for certain films, and sometimes that helps. We will show ‘Notte Blu Cobalto’ this year because of a contact made with Grazia Rendo from Catania. And we are working on developing relations with other nearby festivals that show Italian movies in the hopes that some cooperative ventures may bring more movies to each of us at lower costs. We did that this past year with the Cinema Society, sharing costs to show ‘Ti voglio bene Eugenio,’ a very big success, with combined audience attendance numbering over 900. We have several criteria we use, and since we’re so young, we have nothing set in stone. Of course we want a range of films that show several aspects of Italian life. We are also concerned about the quality of the director and actors. We try to balance our choices between films we expect will be crowd pleasers and those which might be somewhat difficult; for example, we chose ‘Basta un niente,’ which is fairly frivolous but enjoyable and ‘Uno su due,’ a film that is rooted in fear but overcomes it. The accidents come via other organizations. This year we learned that the Houston Film Festival was showing ‘Il Vento Fa Il Suo Giro,’ and we asked to use it, too. The producers were very amenable, and we had a very good crowd in La Jolla. ‘La seconda Notte di nozze’ will close the festival.
Roberto: “The results of our prior two years show that the Italian art of making movie is the natural alternative to the standard, computerized, good ending format of the american movies. More than 5,000 people viewed our movies during last season. My request, or rectius my plea to the reader, is to support groups of genuine heroes like Laruccia et all to bring high the flag of Italy, which means not only money but elimination of the corporate interests which make difficult obtaining movies for us abroad.”
Victor: “We are moving into a growth phase where we wish to do more business with Italian distributors, or directly with filmmakers, and we would like to include a greater variety of cinematic material in our offerings since right now we focus almost entirely on recent theatrical releases. We would like to begin attracting cortometraggi, and we hope to find other north and south American sources for our films. Our philosophy is that Italian culture is not limited to the Stivale, but is rooted there; we hope to explore the various expressions of that culture as they are found around the world. That is a future goal.”