A Portrait of Abel Ferrara

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Illustration by Victoria Ford

The following article was written by Ananda Pellerin and published on the online magazine Wheel Me Out , in 2010.

Controversial film maker Abel Ferrara has turned his uncompromising gaze on experimenting with the documentary form. First with 2008’s tribute to the Chelsea Hotel, Chelsea on the Rocks, now with Napoli, Napoli, Napoli, about a women’s prison in Naples, and with the upcoming Mulberry Street, about the New York neighbourhood where he started his film career.

For Napoli..., the director of Bad Lieutenant (the first one) weaves fictional scenes with real life footage, visiting inmates and those affected by their incarceration to investigate the social implications of crime and punishment in a city with a notorious reputation. Wheel caught up with Ferrara after Napoli... launched the recent London International Documentary Festival

How did you end up making a documentary about Naples? It basically came to us.

I’d been shooting in Italy for about five years, working in Rome. The producers were from Naples and one of them had spent a lot of time in prison. They’d come from the ghetto and wanted to give a voice to people there. It’s a one way trip from growing up in the projects to ending up in jail.

Naples is also where my family is from. There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of anger, a lot of violence. It’s South Italy, you know – it’s dynamic. At the same time the traditions and economic depression, that’ll probably never go. Especially with the government promising more than anybody’s ever gonna deliver.

Naples has an especially bad reputation. Deservedly so! But it’s a beautiful place, Napoli. It has it all, Capri and the islands, the food. You go to some places... I mean you can’t even eat the food in London. What do these people do? So they just drink beer? The food in Napoli is the best in the world. What the volcanic ash does to the soil, I don’t know, there are all kinds of theories. It’s definitely got the best coffee.

Did you find any parallels between Naples and New York?

It’s like New York in the 90s, in the crack wars; people getting blasted every day, you know what I mean? It’s just the reality, drugs are the big deal and people are fucking shooting off the shit.

What was it like living and filming in Italy?

It was good. It was a positive experience for me. We made a couple of films, we lived the life.

What are some of the cultural differences you found between Italian cities and urban Italian-American areas?

It depends where you’re living. I grew up in a very Neapolitan neighbourhood in the Bronx. I’m living in Little Italy now but it’s very un-Italian. It’s more Spanish, South American. Ecuadorean, Mexican, Chinese. In Italy it’s about city states. I mean Rome and Naples are like two different worlds.

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