A filmography of Giorgio Mangiamele’s career follows.
When we think of ethnic, migrant, multicultural or non-English speaking background (NESB) filmmakers, names like Monica Pellizzari, Aleksi Vellis, Teck Tan, Ana Kokkinos and Clara Law come to mind. Films like Head On (Kokkinos, 1998), Fistful of Flies (Pellizzari, 1996) and Floating Life (Law, 1996) have mapped a contemporary picture of life in Australia of those of us from a non-Anglo background.
The key word here is contemporary. The championing of multiculturalism, perhaps best expressed by the trite ‘we are one, but we are many’ slogan, has seen these films produced in an exclusively post-Whitlam phase. In cinematic terms, it is as if we were born in the late 1970s. By the time of Head On and Floating Life, this country had witnessed over fifty years of continued and increasingly culturally diverse immigration. Africans, Asians and Latin Americans now roam the streets alongside Mediterraneans, other Europeans, native Australians and the many-generationed Anglo-Australians.
However, with a cycle of films by Giorgio Mangiamele made in the ’50s and ’60s, we can talk about an ethnic minority cinema in the days before multicultural festivals, the teaching of community languages, and the once-dreaded ‘mixed’ couple. Mangiamele came to Australia from Italy in 1952. He directed five films between 1953 and 1963 based on his experience and observations of emigration. He is perhaps the forgotten figure of this kind of cinema and of postwar Australian cinema in general. However, the recent work of writers such as Graeme Cutts, John Conomos and Quentin Turnour have brought Mangiamele to the attention of the film community (myself included).
But, in speaking about him as some kind of ‘father’ of Australian ethnic minority cinema, I should note that this cycle is only one part of his oeuvre. From the mid-1960s to the present day he has produced a range of experimental and narrative work that does not deal with theme of migration, as well as a series of information films for the PNG government.
However, for this issue of Senses of Cinema, I want to focus on the early part of his career, and especially the aforementioned five films. As a group, they constitute the first steps towards what we can only now consider as a distinct aspect of our national cinema.
Mangiamele was born in Sicily in 1928, and moved to Rome to study journalism shortly after WWII. He entered the police force after completing his studies, and learnt filmmaking while working in the surveillance unit of the Polizia Scientifica. As he tells it: “We’d film surveillance or demonstrations…that needed film technique: establishing shots, close ups…and then a sense of how to cut the film together for showing later to the Magistrate.”
The feature length Il Contratto (The Contract) was made in 1953 some eighteen months after Mangiamele arrived in Melbourne. Drawing on his own experience, the film tells of five young Italian men who emigrate to Australia on a two-year work contract. In exchange for their boat fare, many young men from the Mediterranean worked for two years in government appointed jobs. However, Australia was in the midst of a recession in the early 1950s, and for many, as in Il Contratto, the promised jobs did not materialise. Unable to find any work in a such a depressed labour market, they struggled to simply feed themselves. The film stands as the first consciously neorealist production in Australia. It was shot silently with dialogue spoken in Italian by non-professionals (the men played themselves) with the intention of post-synching English dialogue. Mangiamele was unable to complete this final stage due to lack of funds, and the film remains in its silent form.
This neorealist sensibility was used in a number of shorts that followed. Unwanted (1955) is a tale of star-crossed love between a young Italian man and his Australian girlfriend. The couple decide to marry but the union is prevented by her racist father. The film was made as an exercise for students of a short-lived film school based in Russell Street where Mangiamele taught. The Brothers (1958) came out of another of these exercises but was completed independently at the photographic studio he established in the mid-1950s. The eponymous brothers are two young Italian boys, each of whom faces a moral dilemma following the eldest’s theft of five hundred pounds.
Mangiamele’s next film, The Spag (1960) builds on some of the elements of the earlier film and is perhaps the clearest example of his approach to the migrant experience. The film focuses on the difficulties of adjusting to a new culture through the character of Tony, a young Italian boy recently arrived in Australia. Throughout the course of the film, he experiences both the kindness and cruelty of his Australian neighbours, while his mother plans for their return to Italy following the death of her husband. Tony’s initial desire to return gradually shifts, but he is tragically killed in a car accident reminiscent of his father’s death. In The Spag, mise-en-scène reinforces the dislocation and alienation of 1960s migrant life. The film opens with a long shot of Tony walking along an empty rubbish strewn street as a slow sad melody is plucked on an out-of-tune guitar.
The tragedy of loneliness becomes a bittersweet comedy in Ninety Nine Percent (1963). An Italian migrant widower goes to a marriage agency to find a wife for himself and a mother for his young son. As Turnour has noted, the film draws heavily on Italian stage farce, as well as the buffoonery of silent comedy. Human speech appears as comic noise in a manner that draws comparisons to the work of Jacques Tati.
Taken as a whole, Mangiamele’s films of this period emphasise the loneliness of the migrant experience. The dislocation and alienation of dealing with a strange new environment sits alongside the longing for an absent family and homeland. In the ’50s and ’60s, Mediterraneans were the first non-Anglo migrants to arrive in significant numbers. The Australia that they encountered and helped to form was a very different one from that of their children who grew up to make the feature films of today. As the sole filmic narrator of this chapter in our history, Mangiamele stands as a unique figure in our national cinema.
1953 Il Contratto (The Contract)
1958 The Brothers
1960 The Spag
1963 Ninety Nine Percent
1964 Boys in the Age of Machines
1970 Beyond Reason
1979-82 Papua New Guinea Enters the Silk World
1979-82 The Living Museum
1979-82 The Caring Crocodile
1979-82 South Pacific Festival of the Arts
Conomos, John, “Cultural Difference and Ethnicity in Australian Cinema” in Cinema Papers 90 (1992): pp.10-15.
Mangiamele, Giorgio, Interview with Craeme Cutts, Cinema Papers 90 (1992): pp.16-22.
Turnour, Quentin, “Giorgio Mangiamele”, Cteq: Annotations on Film 4/97, in Metro 112 (1997): pp. 85-86.