August 5, 2012

An Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Ivana Corsale

By Olivia Kate Cerrone

One of the most heartbreaking problems facing Italy today is the ongoing reality of toxic waste dumping in populated areas and farmland. The Neapolitan areas of Marigliano, Acerra and Nola have become known as Italy’s “Triangle of Death,” a phrase coined by Dr. Alfredo Mazza, from his groundbreaking research published in The Lancet Oncology, a British cancer journal. Even the popular film Gomorrah, which contained scenes of the notorious Camorra burying barrels of toxic waste underground in Naples, gave the issue special mainstream public attention. A recent article published in the UK’s Independent remarked that “Dr. Mazza stated how over ‘two hundred and fifty thousand people in the region have been exposed to toxic pollutants for decades.’” Even more tragic is the fact that many of those who develop cancer or other related illnesses to exposure are often in their early twenties and thirties. Continued public awareness is the key to fostering real social change. Sicilian-born filmmaker, Ivana Corsale has taken on this complicated subject matter in her new documentary, Campania In-Felix (Unhappy Country), which focuses on the lives of those living in the “Triangle of Death.” The film is currently being shown throughout the United States and Italy, and has most recently screened at the Colorado Environmental Film Festival, the Thin Line Film Fest, and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Corsale has received numerous awards for her work, including the Puffin Foundation Grant, the Carole Fielding Grant from the University of Film & Video Association, and fiscal sponsorship by the International Documentary Association. Born and raised in Sciacca, Sicily, Corsale moved to the United States, where she earned an undergraduate degree in journalism and international studies from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. She has worked as a journalist at The Dallas Morning News where she further explored her storytelling skills through video. At The News, she researched, shot and edited stories for the newspaper’s website. As a graduate student in documentary studies at The University of North Texas, Corsale produced, directed and edited Cutting History, a short documentary about one of the oldest barbershops in the city of Denton. Ivana’s second film, another short documentary called Beyond The Notes, explored the lives and struggles of musicians. Campania In-Felix is Corsale’s first feature length film.

Olivia Kate Cerrone: What inspired you to make the film Campania In-Felix? With so many pressing concerns facing Italy right now, such as the struggling economy and severe lack of jobs, why do you believe that the “Triangle of Death” environmental catastrophe is deserving of an international spotlight?

Ivana Corsale: I was feeling the urge of documenting a contemporary issue in Italy. Living outside of my home country for more than a decade, I have seen Italy affected by several problems and I’ve also observed a general decline of social and cultural values. A few years ago, I was reading Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano. The last chapter of the book, titled “The Land of Fires,” offered an account of the illegal dumping of toxic waste, how organized crime was involved and also how the presence of toxic waste in Campania was affecting people’s health and their environment. I thought it was an important issue to explore and present to an American audience because it touched on so many aspects beyond the obvious environmental problem. I thought it was important to reveal the strong bond tying the people from the region with their land, and how this attachment with the land is now completely disrupted. Several documentaries had been done on this issue, but I didn’t see anything that touched on the cultural, social and economic aspects of this environmental issue. So, after looking at all of the viable topics to explore, I quickly realized that this was fertile ground for a documentary that could make viewers think about the important bond that exists between people and their land. 

OKC: Your documentary offers powerful footage of the Camorra’s various dumping sites throughout this region, as well as interviews with residents, land workers, physicians and activists, who have all been negatively affected by the toxicity of the area. Their experiences lead one to surmise that the Italian government hasn’t taken these issues seriously enough. For instance, Dr. Antonio Marfella, an oncologist from the area, revealed that while the local government did intervene to save dying livestock through various testing, there is still no report of the government taking any action in monitoring the effects had upon those human beings that worked alongside the animals. Furthermore, one of the film’s most chilling moments brought viewers to the site of a collection of manmade quarries (the largest in Europe) containing poisoned groundwater that feeds into wells and springs, contaminating the region’s local drinking supply. What do you believe to be is the cause of the Italian government’s hesitancy to address this urgent environmental health crisis? 
IC: There have been speculations (often elaborated by investigative journalists in Italy) of links and collusions existing between the Italian government and organized crime. This may suggest how and why the government is not taking any action to solve the problem. Another point to be made is that during the Berlusconi’s government, the direction on environmental and waste issues was often to build incinerators rather than to implement recycling programs. I personally tend to believe that the involvement of politics involved in organized crime is at such a high stake that it’s not in the best interest of the government to take any legal action into the Campania region. 

OKC: One of the more heartbreaking segments of Campania In-Felix is the story of the Cannavacciuolo family, whose livelihood as shepherds (once spanning many generations) has been destroyed by the continual poisoning of both their land and sheep in Acerra, along with the loss of a relative, Vincenzo Cannavacciuolo, to cancer. Their story revealed that since 1986, Montefibre, a chemical factory owned and operated by the Pellini family, dumped approximately 56,000 barrels of toxic waste in farmland areas, as well as dumping waste into local canals and construction materials containing asbestos under bridges and alongside roads. Have any charges been brought up against the Pellini family or revealed an ongoing association with the Camorra? If not, why?
IC: Just a correction: Montefibre was not owned by the Pellini family. The Pellinis own a waste facility that used to dump toxic substances into water streams and farm land near Acerra. There is currently a class action lawsuit between the Cannavacciuolos and the Pellinis. The trial started in 2006 and as of today it has not reached a final verdict. The charge is for illegal trafficking and disposal of toxic waste. Unfortunately, the justice system in Italy works very slow, especially for cases and trials involving organized crime activity. 
A federally funded waste incinerator stands adjacent to Mario Cannavacciuolo's abandoned land outside Acerra, Italy. The Cannavacciuolo family has been destroyed by illegal toxic waste disposal as his flock of sheep, of about 3000, died due to dioxin contamination. His brother, Enzo Cannavacciuolo, died shortly after, and tests show his body contained levels of dioxin, purins, and PCBs 30 times the amount allowed by the World Health Organization. (Photo by Matt Nager/Courtesy of
OKC: In an interview with Joe Brown of the Colorado Environmental Film Festival, you remarked that “a social reawakening should occur in Southern Italy. The people who are most affected by the dumping appear somewhat resigned and think that no possible and rational solution can occur at the moment….in order to create change, there should be a solid and unified movement among activist groups. Right now, the few activists in the area appear isolated in their action.” Why is there a lack of solidarity among these activists when so much continues to be at stake for the land and its people? What could be done within Italy and perhaps among Italian American communities in the States that could help raise awareness or support to help solidify these activist groups? 
IC: It’s difficult for me to say why there is such a lack of solidarity among these activists. From what I observed, I could see that the few activist groups who were still fighting for the rights of their land had some reservation of hope for the future. Other activists, who were more involved years before, appeared more resigned and seemed convinced that there was no hope for the future generations or for the land. They had fought before and saw no clear resolution or involvement from the government. As a result, they had lost any hope that they may have had before. I think it’s important to restore a sense of hope among people in Italy. Unfortunately, I have seen symptoms of hopelessness among Italians in general, who cannot trust their political and social organizations anymore. There seems to be a lack of trust toward these institutions and, as a consequence, a loss of values among several levels of society in general. I think Italian-American communities can and should find a bridge of communication with Italian communities in Italy and rediscover and explore the country that is today. I often find that Italian-American communities in the United States are not in tune with the Italy of today. I think that it’s important to restore a sense of cultural awareness, understand and explore the issues that Italy faces today. This can be done through cultural, social events, discussions that connect old and new generations of Italian-Americans. Knowledge and awareness are the first steps that can lead to action. 
A burned out car and piles of illegally disposed computers, trash, and toxic chemicals lie abandoned next to farm land near Marigliano, Italy. While organized crime can be blamed for much of the illegal toxic waste dumping from Northern Italian companies, local citizens have, as well, become accustomed to illegal dumping of waste leading to further contamination of the countryside. (Photo by Matt Nager/Courtesy of
OKC: Is it possible in the Italian legal system that a class action suit could be filed among those residents affected by the toxicity against their local government for not taking proper measures to protect their citizens against the illegal waste dumping and allowing many of the sites to remain for years without properly cleaning them up? If this is not possible, why not? Are there any legal measures that Italians could take to bring justice to the countless thousands who have been affected and/or lost loved ones? 
IC:  I think a class action suit is possible, but because the Italian justice system moves so slow, I am not sure what the results may be. Because of the possible collusion between the government and organized crime, I also fear that the justice system may easily be obstructed in the course of a lawsuit. I think the only possible way to bring justice is to unify all the activist groups, all levels of society and have them lead a profound protest/revolutionary movement that will not end until the government will take action. I think a profound social and civil reawakening has to occur in order for millions of people to lead such a movement. 

OKC: Since the release of Campania In-Felix, has anything further been done by the local governments of the “Triangle of Death” region, such as instating new recycling programs or cleaning up of any new waste sites?
IC: No real means of action has been taken locally in order to solve the problem. Some local governments have implemented recycling programs that sometimes work and other times are not very efficient. Summertime is usually the worst season when piles of trash tend to accumulate more, and incinerating garbage and waste becomes the norm in the countryside. 

OKC: Campania In-Felix is currently on tour to various film festivals around the United States. How has the film been received so far?
IC:  The film has been received with success and interest here in the United States. People often ask how and why the Italian government hasn’t done anything to solve the problem. The aspect that viewers always remember is how profound the relationship between people and land is. I think that’s the message they are left with after they watch this film. And that’s exactly what I want people to remember. I want them to reflect on that important relationship between us and the place we live in, and how that relationship can be present (and it is present) in other parts of the world. 

OKC: Do you have any new film projects underway or future topics you would like to focus on as a director? Do you hope to continue raising awareness about the “Triangle of Death” catastrophe or other Italian social issues?
IC: I think today’s Italy is fertile ground for new documentaries and stories that are deserving attention. I would like to now focus less on environmental issues and more on social and economic issues, which are the current topic of discussion in Italy right now. I’m always interested in the idea of raising awareness about this current environmental issues in Italy. I don’t think many people are aware of the complexities of the issue and I believe the first place to start raising awareness and discussion is in schools among students and professors. 

OKC:  Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us your experiences. Any last thoughts?

IC: What I want people to remember after watching this film is that Campania In-Felix is not just a story about environmental injustice. I believe that it's a reminder of how we are connected to the land, and the place we live in. I want viewers to look at this film and issue and realize that what's happening in Campania, this broken balance between people and their land, can occur anywhere else. 

You can contact Ivana Corsale at:
or visit her at

You can contact Olivia Kate Cerrone at:
or visit her at