'Selfie': Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
"A documentary doesn't only show the good stuff."

Italian director Agostino Ferrente gave two 16-year-old kids from Naples camera phones and turned their footage into this impressive slice-of-life documentary set in Camorra territory.

There are probably a few too many films out there about organized crime and its effects on Italian society (Camorra bowed at IDFA in November and Shooting the Mafia premiered in Sundance just last week). And it is certainly true that there are too many movies in which characters use a camera (phone) to film events they are themselves witnessing, with the film-within-a-film device often adding not much more than an excuse to use bad-quality footage.

But in Selfie, Italian director Agostino Ferrente (The Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio) combines these two frequently threadbare elements and creates something insightful and touching after deciding to give two 16-year-old teens in the rough Rione Traiano ‘hood of Naples — where the Camorra reigns and one of their buddies was killed by the police — camera phones with which to film their daily lives and friendship.

After its premiere in the Panorama Dokumente strand in Berlin, sales agent Deckert Distribution will have no problems placing this crowdpleasing documentary at other festivals, while theatrical sales aren't out of the question in at least a few territories.

Pietro Orlando, a heavy-set teen with glasses, a moustache and short, dark hair, is almost the polar opposite of his pal Alessandro Antonelli, a wiry kid with pimples all over and a head of black curls. (In the credits, the feature is said to have been “filmed and interpreted” by Orlando and Antonelli.) “Ale,” as people call him, works at a local coffee bar, while Pietro struggles to find something to do. The lure of the easy money of the Camorra, always looking for kids to do their dirty jobs, is a given, but as Ale explains early on in one of the few direct-to-camera interviews conducted by the director, he wants to avoid falling into a life of criminal activity. What’s helping him is that his buddy Pietro feels the same way; their slightly older friend Checco, for example, tried dealing drugs for a while but quickly realized it wasn’t for him. Thankfully, he managed to get out without any problems.  

As Ferrente and his editors Letizia Caudullo and Chiara Russo string together footage shot by the boys themselves and the director’s loosely improvised-feeling interviews with his protagonists and their friends — there is a sense this footage might be from when the director was still "casting" his film — a picture emerges of the place they call home. Crime is just a given and loyalty is frequently seen as more important than anything else. Boredom also reigns in the lives of these working-class teenagers with practically no money or activities available nearby, so it’s easy to see how the Camorra could seduce the local youngsters with the promise of some cash and some action.

Though rarely actually onscreen, the multi-tentacular Neapolitan crime syndicate seems to always be there in the background because it always seems to be on people’s minds. What aggravates the situation is that it is accompanied by a general sense of lawlessness. A young pusher, whose face we never see and whose voice has been distorted, explains in one of Ferrente’s interviews that he has two enemies: the police and the competition, and that the latter is actually much scarier than the former. 

If the police make an appearance at all, it’s rarely in any positive sense. In 2014, a carabinieri officer killed the boys’ unarmed, 17-year-old friend Davide Bifolco, with the guilty cop supposedly mistaking Davide for someone else. The incident happened only six yards from Ale’s house and is still the subject of media scrutiny to this day (a new verdict in the case came only last year, halving the four years the officer in question originally got for manslaughter). Most of the feature seems to have been shot in 2017, so the boys have moved on from the immediate shock, though, like a kind of festering old wound, the pain has never really gone away. Ferrente illustrates this from scene one, in which Pietro sings a local folksong about death to his camera but has to stop halfway through because he’s crying. 

The reason that Selfie makes such an impression, however, is that it doesn’t only focus on all the bad or hopeless things that surround the boys. Their smartphones are also there for their silliness, their mischief, their boredom and their genuine acts of friendship. Surrounded as they are by the possibility they could be shot dead at any moment, as Davide was, showing what the world stands to lose if that happened is the film’s simplest but also its most effective idea.

Pietro’s smug smile when he films himself sitting on the toilet and we hear the sound of a number two hitting the water is the kind of childish prank that’s at once gross and almost endearing. And cute is the moment in which Ale tries to cheer up the overweight Pietro — in a throwaway comment, it’s explained he started eating after the sudden death of three of his cousins — by suggesting girls will fall for his “beautiful heart” and that he won’t need physical beauty. This philosophical nugget, however, doesn’t prevent Ale from filming himself as he makes sure his appearance is always as neat as possible, with a diamond stud in his ear and visits to the hairdresser’s and a tanning salon. But what the adolescent really craves is something he can’t buy: a moustache like Pietro’s. In a world where violence and machismo frequently seem to be dominant forces, their unspoilt friendship, just before they enter adulthood, is proof of the pure-hearted joy and unconditional camaraderie the Camorra and the Italian state frequently suck out of these kids when they grow up.  

Since youngsters these days are already used to filming everything with their phones anyway, it is quite probable Ferrente manages to get very close to something like authenticity in some scenes. He also underlines the ubiquity of cameras by splicing in what looks like CCTV footage from the neighborhood streets, suggesting cameras can be active tools for recording joy but also impassive bystanders to potential misdeeds and misery. At one point, after having gone for a ride with friends who shoot into the air with their guns for fun while driving on their scooters, Ale says that he doesn’t want to have any weapons in their documentary, “only pretty things.” Pietro, perhaps more down to earth, replies, “A documentary doesn’t only show the good stuff.” Not only the bad stuff, either.

Production companies: Magneto, Arte France, Casa delle Visioni, Rai Cinema, Istituto Luce Cinecitta
Director: Agostino Ferrente
Producers: Marc Berdugo, Barbara Conforti 
Director of photography: Alessandro Antonelli, Pietro Orlando 
Editors: Letizia Caudullo, Chiara Russo 
Music: Andrea Pesce, Cristiano Defabriitis
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Dokumente)
Sales: Deckert Distribution

In Neapolitan, Italian
76 minutes