When the coronavirus pandemic began spreading across the world earlier this year, Italy quickly became one of Europe’s worst-affected nations and, soon after, went into lockdown.
As its hospitals began to falter under the growing strain, its economy ground to a halt and the population retreated into their homes.
We asked two filmmakers from Rome, Alessandro Righi and Emanuele Piano, to document those remarkable first few weeks. Their episode of People & Power is a revealing and moving portrait of how their fellow Italians responded to an unprecedented crisis.
By Emanuele Piano and Alessandro Righi
In early March 2020, when we received the assignment to shoot this film for People & Power, our home city, Rome, was still very much unfazed by the emergency. Although northern Italian regions like Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna were by then already cordoned off from the rest of the country, the national death count was still in the hundreds and we all still hoped that the virus would go away as suddenly as it had appeared. We would be sadly disappointed.
On March 9, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced a nationwide lockdown due to the quick spread of the contagion and the steep increase in the number of casualties.
But how does one shoot a film under such unprecedented conditions?
Of course, we knew that we would need PPE (how familiar everyone has now become with such acronyms) to protect ourselves and our crew, but soon realised that the equipment was going to be hard to track down. Everywhere in Italy there now seemed to be a critical shortage of face masks and disinfectant and finding them became a routine chore.
Meanwhile, in downtown Rome, usually flooded with hordes of tourists from all around the world, restaurants were already half-empty, with people sitting at separate tables. It would soon get worse.
On March 11, the Italian government introduced more stringent measures, shutting down all commercial venues with the exception of supermarkets and pharmacies. Specific permits were introduced for key workers and journalists such as ourselves that had to be exhibited at every police checkpoint.
Out in our city, it soon became the kind of eerie, post-apocalyptic scenario you normally only see in the movies – though perhaps it might have been familiar to earlier generations who had lived through World War II. The roar of traffic had largely been replaced by distant sirens and at first it seemed that Rome’s historic monuments and now deserted piazzas had been abandoned to the seagulls and pigeons and the occasional masked delivery rider who zipped around the empty streets.
Yet, in the days that followed, while most of Italy was adapting to life behind closed doors, we met many people struggling outside to make ends meet. People like Nuhu, a migrant from Mali who was waiting to renew his residence permit until the closure of all public offices landed him in limbo the end of which was hard to foresee. Like others, he was sleeping in one of Rome’s railway stations. Or like Anita, an Italian woman in her 60s who delivers food for a local pizzeria for lack of an alternative income, but did not know how long she could keep going.
Slowly, we also realised that many of the people still working during the lockdown were playing a silent but vital role in helping the community as a whole pull out of the crisis. Such was the case with Marco, an ICU technician setting up vital units in a local hospital and with Giulio, a farmer with a stall in one of Rome’s neighbourhood markets who kept fresh produce coming.
But as these often forgotten pillars of society worked selflessly and silently on our behalf, we also heard of others who had found a profitable niche amid the pandemic. We also heard allegations about the global corporations risking their employees’ lives, and the workers forced to choose between their livelihood and their health.
And as Pope Francis kneeled in a rainy and desolate Piazza San Pietro and called for help from the heavens, we met Giuseppe, a homeless man who hoped for a better future – one in which the coronavirus experience will have taught us all to be more considerate of our fellow human beings.
Source: Al Jazeera