'Life in general is a matter of freedom'

Tommaso Santambrogio tells us about his debut Oceans Are The Real Continents

by Amber Wilkinson

Milagros (Milagros Llanes Martínez) in Oceans Are The Real Continents. Tommaso Santambrogio: 'It was like working, or even, basically re-enacting their past reality and reshaping the character based on them'
Milagros (Milagros Llanes Martínez) in Oceans Are The Real Continents. Tommaso Santambrogio: 'It was like working, or even, basically re-enacting their past reality and reshaping the character based on them'
“Dreams overcome reality,” says Italian director Tommaso Santambrogio. He’s referring to the fact that his debut feature Oceans Are The Real Continents, opened Venice Days at this year’s Venice Film Festival just five years after he was a jury member for the same section.

“The selection committee was saying it never happened before,” he adds.

His film is a beautifully shot in black and white and, via the stories of three different generations of Cubans - elderly Milagros (Milagros Llanes Martínez), young couple Edith (Edith Ybarra Clara) and Alex (Alexander Diego) and childhood pals Frank (Frank Ernesto Lam) and Alain (Alain Alain Alfonso González) - he offers a meditation on migration and the nature of freedom.

He previously made a short film of the same name, which he says he made as he started to do research on the topic of waiting and separation in the context of Cuba.

He adds: “I already had the idea of the three stories. But then when I was there, I realised that I need much more time to study and to work with the people and get the stories and all the material so I decided to focus and make a short movie on one of them. But since the beginning I was thinking about using these three stories.

There’s a strong docufiction element to the film, with Milagros’ tale meditating on the loss of her husband to war in Angola years before, while Edith is preparing to leave Cuba - and Alex - for Italy and Frank’s parents are also preparing to emigrate. Santambrogio says that working with his cast on lightly fictionalising their lives was the most important part of the process.

Tommaso Santambrogio says it was as though dreams overcame reality being selected for Venice
Tommaso Santambrogio says it was as though dreams overcame reality being selected for Venice
He explains: “It was like working, or even, basically re-enacting their past reality and reshaping the character based on them. Working on some small elements and putting everything together was the most important thing to me. Fictionalising but still getting like the genuine and spontaneous elements from working in a free way. So the idea was to get a strong setting and structure, but then give them the possibility to shape the scenes, to change them in order to make them more comfortable with them. And we were talking over a lot of time, improvising a lot. To me the idea was that, because we were working on human elements and part of there quotidian reality, it needed to be contemporary to what was happening to them when we were filming. The connection between reality and what we were fictionalising was really strong. We were giving reality the possibility to get in through the window.”

An indication of the closeness of reality was that Edith really was taking steps to move to Italy, a migration that she has now completed. Santambrogio also notes that one of the kids in the film has also moved to the US since the film was shot. He explains that in Edith’s case she was often recreating scenes at the embassy that she had been through.

Geography is very important to the film, with the steady framing from cinematographer Lorenzo Casadio often pulling back from the characters so that we get a real sense of them within the Cuban landscape or their homes.

Santambrogio says the element was crucial for him. “To me there were six protagonists in the movie,” he says. “They were like the five main characters and Cuba. The geographical space was kind of a character I was describing. When we were location scouting, we were talking with the actors and connecting them with the space or with their memories of the spaces that we were filming. So it was really part of the process. Landscape is a fundamental element. We were looking for places that were part of the real story of the characters, but we also wanted them to be functional to the narrative and the feelings of the narrative. So it was a long search.”

Tommaso Santambrogio: 'Landscape is a fundamental element. We were looking for places that were part of the real story of the characters, but we also wanted them to be functional to the narrative and the feelings of the narrative'
Tommaso Santambrogio: 'Landscape is a fundamental element. We were looking for places that were part of the real story of the characters, but we also wanted them to be functional to the narrative and the feelings of the narrative'
He adds that they worked on the elements of the sound and the depth of frame to give a real sense of the movements of the actors within the place. “Iit was like a theater scene,” he says, “Where they could have the freedom to move freely, especially with the kids. The important thing is that the place was playing an important role in every scene.”

Santambrogio also emphasises the importance of sound, including the repeated use of waves, which he says give a sense of “living with those people and being part of their society, being part of that reality.”

The use of the sound of waves is interesting because San Antonio De Los Baños, where the film is set, is not a coastal city.

The writer/director says he wanted to use the sound as a way of illustrating the idea of migration.

“I was thinking I want to talk about migration. There is the biggest crisis in Cuba surrounding immigration right now.”

He adds: “I also wanted to talk about a Cuba that is not seen, in the countryside, inland, and at the same time, to speak about these waves and sea elements because, as Cuba is an island everything that is outside is connected to the sea, to the horizon.

“What I wanted to focus on was not the moment of immigration - it was not about the sensationalistic story that is presented most of the time. For me, even more important right now, in Europe, is to get empathy with the background and the story of these people. These waves of migrants are human beings with their stories of love and loss and telling the stories of people before they're moving was a really important focus for me.”

The decision to shoot the film in black and white lends it a timeless quality but also draws attention to the textures of the spaces Santambrogio’s characters inhabit, from crumbling stonework to tiled floors.

He says the monochrome gives a “feeling of being out of time being stuck in a place where there is no past or maybe there is just the past, there is no future.”

The director adds it was also his intention to shift the received common perception of the island, which tends to be of colourful cars, so that there was more of a focus on the individual elements.

The concept of freedom is also very strong in the film. Milagros’ husband lost his life fighting for it in some ways and the children’s imagination is also a freedom that is noticeably offered by the film, as they dream of being baseball players. Although there’s also a sense that the freedom to move is not necessarily as freeing as one might imagine.

Santambrogio says that it’s something he was thinking about a lot.

“What’s freedom? Dealing with Cuba that’s something that comes to my mind. From a certain point of view, people say, ‘Okay, that is an island with the same government for 60 years and without democratic elections, and a lot of restrictions. But on the other hand, when you stay there, for example, you realise you are not bombed by commercials everywhere, and consuming everything and you say, ‘Okay, sometimes I feel more free but on the other hand no, because there is not the freedom of expressing yourself in a democratic way.

Alain (Alain Alain Alfonso González)  and Frank (Frank Ernesto Lam) in Oceans Are the Real Continents. Tommaso Santambrogio: 'The good thing of dealing with Cuba in your everyday life for a long period of time is that you start looking at things from a different perspective'
Alain (Alain Alain Alfonso González) and Frank (Frank Ernesto Lam) in Oceans Are the Real Continents. Tommaso Santambrogio: 'The good thing of dealing with Cuba in your everyday life for a long period of time is that you start looking at things from a different perspective'
“Then being a European with a European passport and free to move to most of the countries in the world. It’s impossible with a Cuban passport to travel, to get a visa. I think that the Cuban passport, the North Korean one and the Venezuelan ones are the worst in the world, and maybe Russia now. You realise that freedom, freedom of expressing yourself, freedom of talking, freedom of leaving the country and coming back. But, on the other hand, as an occidental person, being there and thinking about how much is really free in our society. What are the limits that we have, and the limits that they have, and thinking about that there is not a clear answer. I'm still thinking every day about that, because, you know, the good thing of dealing with Cuba in your everyday life for a long period of time is that you start looking at things from a different perspective.”

One of the ways freedom is explored in the film is via a marionette show given by Edith, who is a trained puppeteer. There’s a paradox to the way they are expressing an inner emotion and yet they themselves are tied to Edith, who is manipulating them.

“It is connected to ​José Martí, who is the most important poet in Cuban history, ‘Freedom is the essence of life,” is his quote. The marionette show is inspired by a book of Martí’s. It is about the relationship between a father and his child. Martí was exiled to New York and his son stayed in Cuba and he wrote this book to his son because of that. Also we were thinking about what the meaning of freedom is in fighting for a reason that is important to you. Like, for example, José Martí was in New York because he was excited because he was fighting for his own country. But at the same time, he was constricted by this choice to fight for freedom, because he was abroad and away from his tribe.

“I think that life in general is a matter of freedom. I think that freedom is not like a recipe, you have to find your own way to be free. And that doesn't mean that there is a universal way. But it's really like, the research of freedom for every one of us, to me, is like the essence of our daily routine. I mean, I felt more free feeling like in Cuba than staying in Italy, for example. I know that there are a lot of decisions that you can make that affect your perception of freedom.”

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