Italian director explores missing past through eyes of his countrys

Filmmaker Mimmo Calopresti did not become intrigued with Italy’s Holocaust-era Jews by reading books about the past.

His interest was piqued by something very much in the present: attending Italian soccer matches and watching as fans unfurled anti-Semitic banners in the stands.

“A way to oppose the opposing team was to say [they] are Jewish,” he recalls. “Still today, there’s a very superficial anti-Semitism that pervades Italian culture. You hear it in the stereotypes, that [Jews] are rich and control everything.”

Italian law now forbids those banners, but the anti-Semitism lives on. That’s why Calopresti made “Volevo Solo Vivere” (“I Only Wanted to Live”), a 2006 documentary tracing the experiences of nine Italian survivors of Auschwitz. He wanted his fellow Italians to wake up.

“Ever since I was a young boy I wondered how something like this could happen,” says the non-Jewish director. “I never had the mentality that an entire other population of people could be so wrong. Making this documentary taught me how to listen and how to look.”

“Volevo Solo Vivere” will be shown four times at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, starting with a screening July 27 at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre.

To make his film, Calopresti sifted through and edited hundreds of hours of filmed interviews of survivors conducted by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. He also weaved in still photos of the survivors’ childhoods as well as gruesome stock footage from the death camps.

Calopresti chose his nine simply because they most stirred his emotions.

“What was incredible was you had all these people living nice comfortable lives in Italy,” he says of his subjects, “and they all found themselves in this journey to the unknown. I wanted to know what it was for them to discover what lay inside.”

One of those is Liliana Segre, who was born in Milan in 1930 and arrived in Auschwitz 13 years later.

Though all nine survivors interviewed offer compelling stories, Segre emerges as the conscience of the film. Before the age of 60, she had been unwilling to speak out, largely because she believed “no one could understand. But I realized something was missing, and it was my duty to become a public witness.”

She began talking before student groups and giving media interviews. But in Calopresti’s film, she may have found her biggest audience yet.

Segre says one reason she bears witness is to strike a blow against Holocaust deniers and historic revisionism.

“I hope to meet one of those people, look them in the face,” she says by phone from Italy (with translation provided by Robin Treasure of the Italian Cultural Institute in San Francisco). “How can they deny? I saw the burning flesh, the crematoria.”

Unlike the burden of guilt carried by Germany and Poland today, Italian society has not fully come to terms with its role in the Holocaust, according to Segre and Calopresti. Though dictator Benito Mussolini allied with Hitler and instituted racial laws, they were not as strictly enforced. Many Jews even belonged to Mussolini’s Fascist party, adds Segre.

“They believed it was important to oppose communism,” she says. “They were very patriotic and felt [Mussolini] would bring order to Italy.”

After Mussolini was overthrown, Germany invaded, sending thousands of Italian Jews to the death camps. More than 8,000 perished, including Segre’s beloved father, who raised her.

But Segre never gave in to bitterness. The film ends with her explaining why she did not kill a hated Auschwitz guard when she had the chance after liberation. “I chose to live,” she says in the film, “therefore I would never have been able to kill anyone. I didn’t pick up that gun, and from that moment, not only was I free, but I became a woman of peace.”

Segre will be in San Francisco for the screening of the film and for a follow-up Q&A. So far, film festival screenings have been the main form of distribution, though it did air on Italian late-night television.

Par for the course, according to a cynical Calopresti.

“It would have had good viewership if it had shown at a better hour,” he says. “But we don’t have that kind of courage in Italy.”

“Volevo Solo Vivere” (“I Only Wanted to Live”) screens at 4:45 p.m. July 27 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, 4:15 p.m. Aug. 3 at the CineArts in Palo Alto, 4:30 p.m. Aug. 4 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley, and 12 p.m. Aug. 10 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

Cinema simcha

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.