Cultural Crossroads: Interview with Director Octavio Scopelliti

2019-02-01T13:30:34+00:0007/01/2019|

Cultural Crossroads

During his lifetime Idries Shah promoted contacts and connections between different traditions around the world, believing this to be an important element in the advancement of human culture.

In this spirit, The Idries Shah Foundation has created ‘Cultural Crossroads’, a website forum where people from many walks of life are invited to talk about their own experiences crossing cultural boundaries, and the lessons that they have learned as a result.

You can find the full series here: https://idriesshahfoundation.org/cultural-crossroads/

Cultural Crossroads: Interview with Director Octavio ScopellitiAbout Octavio Scopelliti

Octavio Scopelliti is an award-winning Argentinian film and TV director currently based in São Paulo. He was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Grand Prize of Brazilian Cinema in 2011, and won the Opera Prima Prize of Argentina’s National Institute of Film and Audiovisual Arts in 2016 for a screenplay which he will direct in 2019. In 2017 he directed eight episodes of the drama Call Me Bruna, one of the most popular TV series on FOX Latin America.

Octavio Scopelliti on IMDB: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1460127/

1. As a film director who was born and raised in Argentina, but who has spent much of his career in Brazil, can you reflect on how you have come to know a second country in a deep way, from the ‘inside out’?

I think that the experience of being a foreigner, an immigrant, an ‘outsider’, is extremely useful for an artist. First, because it helps you detach from what is superficial in your own culture and pay attention to what is essential. At the same time, you are compelled to make an effort to better understand those new elements of the local culture that might be self-evident for everybody else but not for you. So, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a situation which per se pushes you to try harder and to better watch who you are and the environment you are in. It’s not a bad starting point if you wish to produce art, or tell a story – or whatever artistic field you might be into – that will move people to feel and think something meaningful.

2. Would you say that people are essentially the same everywhere or, in your experience, are cultural stereotypes valid? Are they ever useful?

Culture is very powerful, and no one could deny the importance of different sets of cultural rules and patterns upon different communities. However, cultural stereotypes should be regarded with caution, for they usually happen to be less determinant of the true nature of that community than other values, more subtle and deeply embodied in the cultural tradition. And to dig out those essential values and express them in your own unique way – while still being comprehensible to the broad majority of your audience – seems to me to be the highest goal an artist interested in communication and storytelling can strive for.

In the best scenario, stereotypes end up being a rough simplification of a broader set of cultural expressions, when they’re not plain prejudice or clichés. Having said this, you can perfectly use a stereotype as a creative tool to address something faster and more directly, if circumstances require it. But you must be aware that you’ll be probably be over-simplifying things. As far as I’m concerned, it’s smarter to regard the individual as the ultimate minority – meaning that each one of us is far more complex than any set of cultural group characteristics – and that all individuals, in spite of our cultural differences, share a deeper set of values and needs as human beings that eventually would make us understand any singular characteristic truly exposed in a piece of work, even if it’s not rooted in an stereotype.

3. What are the key differences, for instance, between the Argentine and Brazilian cultural identities? As an outsider, does one have the ability to peer deeper into the host’s cultural identity?

If you take your part seriously, and you honestly go for it, I’m convinced that as an outsider you have the best chances to peer deeper into anybody else’s culture, for you’re not emotionally conditioned by it. It’s almost scientific: you’re as detached from the process as any good observer should be. I’ve noticed in my own experience, and also through other foreigners here in Brazil – but also in Argentina, my native country – that if you’re born outside, you’re able to picture with a fresher look the same landscapes, the same situations and events that the locals have long stopped to appreciate.

I don’t like to make generalizations or stereotypes, but I’d say that Brazilians and Argentineans could be categorized by, generally speaking, a positive and negative perception of existential values. While Brazilians tend to regard the glass as half-full, Argentineans describe the same glass as half-empty. As neighboring countries, it seems rather curious to me that the simplest way to define our cultural identities is so polarized. I suspect you may attribute these tendencies to the fact that people in Brazil are used to living together with religious and metaphysical levels of existence, as if it were natural to cope with them in your daily modern life – as Indians, for instance, do too. Meanwhile in Argentina, materialism and a more nihilistic approach to reality prevails – in the way that post-Nietzschean philosophies of the 20th century have spread.

Using Milan Kundera’s metaphor, I’d say that Brazilians appreciate the lightness of being, while Argentinians rather prefer to assume the heavy burden of existence as unavoidable. Following this idea, I guess, you may also find that Argentinians are more inclined towards melancholy, scepticism, and have an acute sense of irony, which makes them more cynical. On the other hand, Brazilians seem to be more inclined towards joy, euphoria, and lack almost any sense of irony – and therefore are more literal. Brazilians are more naive, like children, and Argentinians are more leery, like old people tend to be. Brazilians are sensitive and agreeable, while Argentinians present themselves as passionate and disagreeable. As a consequence, in Brazil you’ll find the more sophisticated cultural expression is in the field of music and dance, while in Argentina literature and cinema are better developed. Using other metaphorical images, I’d say that the essence of Brazilian cultural identity is fluid, abstract, harmonious and light, while that of Argentina is sharp-edged, concrete, contrasty and heavy. But, as I’ve said before, these are just generalizations and, obviously, you could find authentic expressions of the opposite characteristics named here in both cultures.

4. Storytelling is central to your work — whether you are directing a TV commercial or a feature film. Can you explain the key to telling a story through a cinematic lens?

It is commonly said that the key to any cinematic art is finding the sequence of images that will better express the story to be told. This is absolutely true, but its implications, to a certain extent, are not completely understood. For I would point out that, in order to find and build up that sequence of images, you, as a director, need to go through many other forms of expression and put them all together in organic proportion. And this is a process that forces you to open your mind, clarify and share your impressions with many other people before the final result can be achieved.

What I think distinguishes cinematic arts from others is that it involves different forms of expression – linguistic, plastic, sonic, physical, scientific – and requires the coordinated participation of several professionals pursuing the same goal. So, it’s individual creation and team-work combined for every party involved. The key lies in the ability to make the team’s work become something special; while your personal approach remains general. For me, then, as I’m particularly interested in storytelling as the core of my work – above plasticity or formality – the key to telling a story through a cinematic lens is to identify the main elements of the story present in the multiple diversity of approaches involved; to figure out alongside my collaborators how those elements might be better expressed in each discipline; and to be able to integrate them through the best options each subject can provide to the whole, in the right proportion. Which is easy to say, but difficult to do.