In the beginning of 1998, during my film studies in Cologne, the Balkan War was in full rage and disturbed many of us deeply. The Yugoslavian community came in waves to Germany, similarly to many of us from Italy, and felt very close to me and others. Even if it had fell apart already as an entity, it belonged still to many of us—as a real idea. One day, a few of us gathered in the auditorium of our art school in order to debate what we could do with our art and in our films. What contribution could we make with our tools to alleviate the suffering? Different pledges where made to each other. Mine was that no one should die in our films ever.

Right after I started to work, in 1998, on my first longer film, Panzano (2000). It is named after the Tuscan village where I spent over six months as a student. This film initiated many methodologies and established tools that I would continue to use for later films. It uses the camera as a drawing instrument that follows and dialogues with the erratic decisions and expressions of the non-actors who play the film’s protagonists. The non-actors came to the stage with their desires, which were released during these sort of collective performances. Panzano also uses sound recordings that include the accidental sounds that occurred while constantly recording the whole set. The fire crackling in the fireplace turned into a carrying “hum” for the whole film.

The residents of Panzano included a handful of people who lived together in a kind of day home, having been released from mental care homes in the 1970s as part of the “mental care revolution” across the whole of Europe at that time. I developed relationships with some of these residents, and my wider interest in psychiatry and the Italian health care system became rooted in their individual experiences of “a significant change in [Italy’s] mental health sector, with a radical shift from old mental institutions to new community based psychiatric services.” These experiences also had resonance outside of Italy, as “the Italian experience attracted international attention and, in some instances, led to similar changes occurring abroad.”

While in Panzano, I worked from a cafe on my script. There I met an elderly woman named Valeria, who visited the café several times a day and would always drink an espresso, smoke a cigarette, leave, and return again. Each time she returned she was wearing a new ensemble, always with heavy makeup. I was intrigued by this ritual and I eventually discovered that Valeria was a resident of the local psychiatric clinic, where she had been sent decades earlier by her family for becoming too attached in her romantic encounters—in other words, for falling dangerously in love. I invited Valeria, along with Claudio and Dino, two other long-term wards of the day home in Panzano, to be part of the film shoot, where they would be able to choose their own roles—the type of roles they were not able to play in their present life.

I returned a few months later with Ulrike Molsen, a classmate of mine, to shoot the film together. Although the film was devised with a loose plot framework, we allowed the three to improvise their roles and collectively they chose to play parts they had been denied in real life: to be members of a family unit with all the different constructions around the idea of belonging to a family or other similar formation.

In the eighteen years since this film was made, the strategies and motifs I employed in it have become defining features of my artistic practice. From the technical: shooting on analogue film and composing an abstract soundtrack with existing surrounding sounds; to the methodological: the use of nonprofessional actors who enfold their inscribed stories and desires, filming unscripted performances with dialogue, and the conflation of fact and fiction; to the thematic: focusing in particular on instability, both geographical and emotional.

Panzano also explores how each character inhabits the home given to them by the premise of the film through the idea of embarking into another space where they can act in a suspended mode.

Rosa Barba currently lives and works in Berlin, Germany. As an artist and filmmaker she merges films, sculptures, installations, live-performances, text pieces, and publications that are grounded in the material and conceptual qualities of cinema. She also creates installations and site-specific interventions to analyze the ways film articulates space, placing the work and the viewer in a new relationship. Questions of composition, physicality of form and plasticity play an important role in the perception of her work. She interrogates the industry of cinema with respect to various forms of staging by inviting the viewers to participate in her cultural observations. This happens through shifting of gesture, genre, information and documents, that she takes often out of the context in which they are normally seen and reshapes and represents them anew. Her film works are situated between experimental documentary and fictional narrative, and are indeterminately situated in time. They often focus on natural landscapes and human-made interventions into the environment and probe into the relationship of historical record, personal anecdote, and filmic representation, creating spaces of memory and uncertainty, more legible as reassuring myth than the unstable reality they represent.