In a time when the entertainment industry is in desperate need of diverse creative voices, Paola Bernardini is crafting highly personal films that explore themes and issues that are hyper-relevant to the modern world.
Her first major piece, City of Dreams, attracted a number of awards and kicked off her rise to prominence in the international film community.
Bernardini’s work has continued to gain popularity thanks to screenings all around the world, including screenings at the world-famous Cannes Film Festival.
Past awards from New York Women in Film & Television even led to Bernardini collaborating with the organization on new projects, which she discussed during our interview.
With multiple shorts now available through streaming services, Bernardini has big plans to advance her film career even further, collaborating with artists from many different disciplines to create work that aims to tell important stories and empower the people who engage with it.
If you’re interested in seeing one of Bernardini’s films on the big screen, keep an eye out for future screenings in your area. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy our complete and unabridged interview with this talented filmmaker.
At this point in your career, do you feel like you’ve found a community of artists you’re comfortable working with? How long did it take to find this community?
The first community of artists I found was in film school. We were all there to do the same thing: make a film, fail, then make another. Before venturing out into the film industry, we were helping each other develop ideas, write scripts, give feedback, and work on each other’s sets. After a few trials and errors, I ended up finding a few fellow artists I was more in sync with and could collaborate with outside of school.
After film school, that community grew by being on set with new people and attending film festivals, but I also surround myself with talented artists from all kinds of industries. Musicians, painters, dancers, actors, and even chefs. Usually, anyone that has an obsession with their craft, whatever that is, I consider an artist and they will most likely inspire me.
Does your work return to any of the same themes or concepts consistently?
My films deal with different themes and concepts, but there are similarities such as the theme of good versus evil and abandonment, just expressed in different ways. I also love character-driven films.
City of Dreams, the Italian title is Cittá dei Sogni, is a coming-of-age story where two young brothers run away from a their dark past for a hopeful future. They struggle with being good people in a world that just seems evil and always against them.
Solitaire is about a young wealthy woman who struggles with loneliness. She hires a man to work on her property just so she can have some companionship. She has lost touch with reality and doesn’t know the difference between good and evil anymore, yet these two films couldn’t feel more different from each other.
When I first started, I had the intention of making films that are diverse from one another, but in reality, I can still pursue that while revisiting the same themes and concepts. In fact, I will be making another coming-of-age film. I can craft a better film when I’m really passionate about the story.
Which aspect of directing is the most satisfying for you?
The research. I’m talking specifically about my way of writing and directing. When I have an idea for a film, before writing the script, it’s important for me to research the topic and world I’m about to immerse myself in as much as possible. I love this part. This is where the obsession grows. You can use all that material you gathered to shape the story and characters. This part turns you into the expert and really takes some weight off your shoulders when you actually have to write.
As far as directing itself, I really enjoy most of it. Figuring out how to craft shots and the composition of each frame, using the cinematic tools that are available to tell the story the way you want it to be told, knowing that there’s an endless way of doing it and the only rule book you have to follow is your own. Then whether that works or not is up to the audience.
I also really enjoy the process of collaborating with actors. For City of Dreams, I was a bit nervous about working with the two lead kids. I wasn’t sure how to build trust between us, so I told them I would do all the things they had to do in the film, like eat raw eggs, cover myself in dirt and swim in the sea with them. We needed to discuss emotions that maybe they’d never felt before, like grief and abandonment.
It was important for us to bond and become friends. The oldest kid Luigi was able to confide in me. He wasn’t able to feel sadness and cry in a particularly emotional scene, therefore we turned the sadness into anger so he could give his best performance. I think that actually worked better for the scene.
Have any of your films changed the way you approached future films?
After City of Dreams, I told myself I would never make a film with a small crew again. Everyone becomes overworked and that’s never fun. Clearly I didn’t stick to my promise. Solitaire had an ever smaller crew, just me and another filmmaker, acting, directing, editing, everything.
After that, I made Living the Italian Way, My Way for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Italy, which I did by myself. I hope I’ve learned my lesson now. Wearing so many different hats on my own projects is not always beneficial.
I would just change how I approach my own work by setting smaller goals for myself so the work doesn’t become overwhelming. Looking at a script all day long or editing for eighteen hours straight are things I’ve done in the past that I definitely want to change for future films.
Your work has earned many awards. Do these accolades inspire you to create something even more ambitious?
I wish I could give you a super cool answer and say that the art is all that matters, but at this point in my career, these awards are important and do inspire me to keep going. They are definitely not the reason why I make films, but when you’re in a room full of filmmakers and you win an award, it’s immediately gratifying. There’s also a business aspect to it. Your cast and crew, everyone involved, wants the film to do well. No one wants to work or even contribute financially to a film that gets swept under the rug.
Some of the awards I have won or festivals I have been part of have opened doors to new collaborations. I partnered with New York Women In Film & Television on my next film project, for example. The Cannes Film Festival and the Queens World Film Festival both gave me the visibility to have my films licensed by online streaming services.
I was also given the opportunity to meet incredible filmmakers like Bernardo Bertolucci and Freida Lee Mock. Now that I have navigated through the whole filmmaking process several times, I’m definitely more ambitious for the future.
When you were making City of Dreams, did you expect that your career would take off so quickly and dramatically?
I did not. I was so concentrated on making the film with my team that I wasn’t particularly thinking about what would come next or the kind of success I was aiming for. I didn’t have high expectations because it was my first real film. I liked it, it spoke to me personally and it was a dream of mine to shoot in Puglia, Italy but that didn’t determine if anyone else was going to appreciate it.
Showing the film for the first time and the positive reaction we got at the end from the audience is a memory I’ll never forget. I then submitted the film to several film festivals and the screenings started snowballing. I was able to travel around Europe and the US to present the film in front of full audiences who wanted to know more about my directing approach. I owe a lot to this film, it’s incredibly special to me.
Tell us about one of your dream projects. Who would you want to be involved and what would it be about?
Right now my dream project is making a short documentary called What Were You Wearing? It’s about victim-blaming from the point of view of people who have experienced sexual assault.
In a fashion show, models will be wearing the recreated outfits that the survivors and victims wore the day of their assaults. It seeks to deconstruct the widespread misconception that victims of sexual assault are somehow responsible for the crime. By showcasing the multiplicity of outfits that survivors and victims wore when they were assaulted, along with their statements, we will demonstrate in the film how detrimental victim-blaming can be and that sexual assault is only the result of the violent actions of the assaulter.
I would like the survivors and victims to be of various backgrounds, ages, or religions to emphasize that it can happen to anyone, anywhere, and the fact that sexual assault is never the victim’s fault and shouldn’t be treated as such.
I am creating the project with my friend Jennifer Dance and producer Noam Harary. The film is an official non-profit project sponsored by the New York Women In Film & Television. If you’d like to get more information, feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com. Donations to the film can be made here.
Aside from this recent project, my absolute dream feature film that I am researching at the moment deals with family dynamics in a big Italian family who lives under the same roof. The story will be told from the point of view of a young boy and will be stylistically inspired by the incredible paintings made by my great uncle, Antonio Bernardini. I am currently in the research phase, which I am enjoying very much.
Do you ever look at one of your films and wish that you’d done something differently?
There’s always a few moments in all my films where I wish things were slightly different. However, I’ve learned to work with what I have and let go of the initial expectations when the whole film plays in my head before production even starts. At some point the film takes over and I’ve grown to embrace that instead of fighting the process. It’s now actually what I aim for.
I particularly wish I had handled the post-production of Solitaire better.
The idea was to craft a film made by only two filmmakers from start to finish. It was partially improvised, sort of like an experiment. I’m happy with how it turned out, it’s the fun and unique film I wanted to make, but we were working such long and exhausting hours that my partner quit on the film and I had to keep going on my own. I wish that we had set smaller goals or even involved more people.
I think I would be more disappointed if a film I’m making doesn’t inspire a rewrite during certain stages of production. In rehearsal, on set, or during editing for instance. The combination of those challenges and the urge to tell a particular story are why I love making movies as much as I do.
by Giorgio Chang