Manon Girault on Agostino Ferrente’s ‘Selfie‘ (2019)
You may assume from the title that Selfie will be a compilation of ‘selfie’ footage with the purpose of socially critiquing contemporary communicative behaviours. However, Roman filmmaker Agostino Ferrente takes consideration of the “selfie” to a whole other level. In his film, he debunks the visual tool as a ‘self-centered’ device for narcissism and instead explores the technological poetics of 21st-century documentary filmmaking.
16-year-old Pietro and Alessandro of Naples are each given a smartphone to capture the aftermath of the murder of their third musketeer, Davide Bifolco — a mistakenly wanted man shot by the police. Director Ferrente reconfigures their footage to turn it into a poignant slice-of-life documentary.
We are first introduced to Alessandro working as a bartender and who does not wish to fall into the trap of luxury that drug-dealing could afford him. We then meet his friend Pietro, a teenager tormented by his weight following the deaths of his three cousins and who dreams of becoming a hairdresser. He thinks alike about the Camorra.
In a raw manner, the boys document their repetitive routine during the hot summer of 2017 — from their loneliness in the neighbourhood’s empty streets to their exceptional outing to a nearside beach. Having agreed to have to constantly ‘check themselves out’ in their mirror is what actually allows the boys to have to face their own fears – their teenage insecurities as well as professional and familial doubts – and, the director, to succeed at creating a knot between us, viewers and them.
Contrary to what the selfie mode usually entails, Ferrente does not spectacularise the context at focus but is able to do the exact opposite – the mundanity of the boys’ lives is what allows us to ponder on the wider context – the politics of conflict, peace and security in modern Naples.
Claudio Giovannesi’s fellow Berlinale documentary Piranhas, also reveals a need felt by Italian directors to reflect on the next generations that territories of the Italian Gomorrah, likewise engaging with a younger demographic, even if it ends up revisiting more of an archetypal portrayal of the criminal Neapolitan.
By being absent during most of the shooting and by having only directed short ‘casting interviews’ at the very beginning of the project, the selfie-mode thus challenges the documentary filmmaker himself by accepting a loss of total control over the narrative. Reversing the hyper-sense of self awareness that a smartphone camera entails, Selfie includes a sequence in which Alessandro and Pietro quarrel over what content to prioritise in their story. Alessandro thinks that they should focus on what’s beautiful about their neighbourhood, whereas Pietro doesn’t think they should spare viewers the ugliness.
He instead righteously gives a voice to a demographic that the media would usually ignore, to show how concerned adolescents understood and reacted to these events. Ferrente’s ambitions in pursuing such a project reminds us of the intentions of the 1960s cinema verite movement, in which the director seeks to get closest to the revealing of truth on screen.
Selfie is a well-crafted film in which the director has quite surprisingly re-appropriated the mobile device for proactive purpose and enlarged the documentary genre’s repertoire of formats. By following Ferrente’s concept, the body becomes an essential component to the narrative structure since the selfie-mode is what allows us to recognise our best and worst features.
The film could be criticised for the seemingly unsurprising choice of casting – rebellious youngsters, committed girlfriends and their gun-shooting bad-boys – and thus lack of depth. But in sharing their mutual strengths and weaknesses as sincerely and openly as they can, it amounts to a strong and engaging film.
Screened as part of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival.
Manon Girault is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker. She graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King’s College London and Ethnographic & Documentary Film (MA) from University College London.