A concentric intertwining of female perspectives is the subject of this essay, which describes the discovery, preservation, and reuse of the amateur film and video collection belonging to the Togni circus family. The article chronicles a decadelong adventure that led from the discovery of this amateur film collection to the making of Circle (2016), a found footage film recently completed by Valentina Monti. The film is the result of complicated research that involved a composite group of archivists and filmmakers, including many women. Most of the materials reused in the film were originally shot by three women, Christiane Bottinelli, Liliana Casartelli, and Fiorenza Colombo (wives of the Togni brothers), from the 1940s on. Their filmed memories are extraordinary micro-historical documents that grant access to the experiences of women in the highly patriarchal world of the traditional circus.
While chatting outside the tent with the other artists I started joking around with Darix, the circus manager's son. I was eating chocolate and Darix, who was coming out of the tent after an act, saw me and asked for a piece. I said, “I don't have any more. I just put the last one in my mouth, so if you want it, come and get it.” He didn't take me up on it, and this really got to me—for the rest of my life—because I fell madly in love with him.—fiorenza colombo togni, unpublished memoir1
This article is a chronicle of a decadelong, adventurous process that led from the discovery of an amateur film collection to the making of a found footage film. Circle (2016), which has only recently been completed and is not yet released, was made by the director Valentina Monti using the amateur film and video archives of the Togni circus family, and it is the final outcome of complicated research that started with the discovery and preservation of this particular private collection, well before production began on the film. As a founder of Home Movies and Amateur Film Archive (Home Movies - National Amateur Film Archive), Bologna, which preserved and restored the materials, I was involved in this exciting journey from the beginning, working with a group of researchers, archivists, and filmmakers that included many women.2 The making of Circle involved dealing with a large collection of amateur footage shot by three women—Fiorenza Colombo, Liliana Casartelli and Christiane Bottinelli, all wives of the Togni brothers—beginning in the 1940s. Their filmed memories are a unique micro-historical documentation that allows access to the experiences of women in a definitely patriarchal context such as the world of traditional circus. The history of Circle is also the story of a relationship between women, started at the moment when Valentina Monti asked Fiorenza Colombo Togni to contribute actively to the film by sharing her memories. This encouraged Fiorenza to write a memoir that constitutes an invaluable complementary source to the materials in the film collection. The case of Circle is thus an exemplary illustration of how the research process behind the making of a found footage film can contribute to the growth of an archive, and vice versa.
This article is also an opportunity to share some reflections on the special nature of the materials reused in Circle and the methodologies involved in their recovery. The story of the origins, sources, and creative process behind this project is an appropriate starting point for a reflection on amateur film archives and their relationship to contemporary cultural and artistic practices, as a contribution to the debate on archival and found footage cinema.
STAGE ONE: DISCOVERY
The thrill of discovery is something that happens to anyone who is engaged in the recovery of lost films. In this case it took place under very unusual circumstances. On May 23, 2006, I received an unexpected phone call. Davio Togni, of the eponymous circus family, wanted to meet the crew of Home Movies to speak about “a whole lot of home movies from the 1940s.” I was puzzled. Did circus families in the 1940s actually make home movies?
Curious to know more about the man with the soft and gentle voice on the other end of the phone, I did a Google search that produced a photograph of a young blade in a skin-tight leotard (leopard skin, no less) engaged in a kind of acrobatic race alongside a rhinoceros mounted by a cheetah.3 It was just the first of many other amazing images that were to reemerge.
A few weeks later, on June 26, a “recovery” group from Home Movies (which included myself, Karianne Fiorini, Mirco Santi, Claudio Giapponesi, Giulio Bursi, and Dunja Dogo) arrived at Rio Saliceto, a spot a few kilometers from Modena, Italy. The Togni Circus has had its headquarters there for many years, since the time of the famous hero of the ring, Darix Togni, as we discovered later. We were welcomed by Davio's brother, Livio Togni. After some discussion it was still not clear where the films that Davio had phoned me about actually were. Livio approached one of the caravans and talked to an old woman, his mother, who lived there. She went into the caravan and came out holding some VHS tapes. We could not hide our disappointment, as we had gone there hoping to find circus images much older than this. But then something unexpected happened: a sudden confabulation between the two. And then from a traveling trunk hidden under the wagon, a mesh bag containing round metal boxes emerged.
Moments later we were are all inside a caravan analyzing the contents of sixteen reels, some of them completely rusted. The trunk they had been stored in had had little protection, and who knew how long the reels had been in there and how much moisture they had taken in. The situation seemed dramatic: at first inspection the films seemed glued together, some even reduced to a single block and looking rather like fossils. Having been momentarily euphoric, now we spent a few minutes in even deeper disappointment. The material seemed irredeemably lost, but we decided to send it to a laboratory anyway in an attempt at restoration.
STAGE TWO: PRESERVATION
A miracle was accomplished at La Camera Ottica laboratory.4 Thanks to techniques previously unused on a smaller format, most of the 8mm films were restored and cleaned, and then made suitable for digital remediation. The images that would be the basis of a multifarious project, ending with the film Circle, began to emerge. There were two reels dating back to the 1940s, from which only scattered, partially visible frames survived. The remaining footage on the reels was obliterated; the emulsion was melted and the frames contained only abstractions. They were beautiful images, though, ruins of an unrecoverable past, an epiphany of forms with changing colors ranging from dark red to orange and yellow. The film itself was originally black and white, but the rust and other more mysterious chemical reactions had created a captivating play of colors, produced by the slow sculpting of time. The effect was very similar to that of a hand-painted film. Remarkable images would materialize for brief moments: a lion roaring in his cage, a clown coming out of a circus tent, acrobats practicing their routines, groups of workers smiling at the camera. The recovered frames were already artworks in themselves, images that could be projected in sequence or admired one by one like pieces of art produced by chance. Here was the Togni archive, a Pompeii of amateur film. In these precious images, still observable but at times suspended between the visible and the invisible, lay something as valuable as images from a buried civilization. Nearly ten years after their discovery it was only natural, even inevitable, that these images would be used in the opening sequence of Circle, thus welding together the stages of a long journey.
FIORENZA TOGNI, AMATEUR FILMMAKER
The research phase that followed brought almost the entire collection back to life, and revealed it as an amateur archive suspended between private lives and public performance.5 We could again see the scenes of daily life, work, and leisure activities experienced by Darix Togni's family. Much of the material covers the golden age of the Togni Circus during the 1950s and 1960s, with a great deal of footage featuring Darix (1922–1976), the principal star at that time, whose death left a great void in the family. The 8mm films were mainly shot by his wife, Fiorenza Colombo, the old woman whose caravan had concealed the trunk full of film, herself an auspicious witness to and important protagonist in the history of the circus. Fiorenza, born in Poland in 1923 and descended from the Italian Fratellini family on her mother's side (another well-known name in the circus world), began her career as a singer and also performed as a dancer and acrobat. She started at the Togni Circus in her early twenties and stayed there permanently after 1946, when she married Darix. In the film there are moments with the family (with children Danila, Livio, Corrado, Davio, and Nevia) and the usual circus life: rehearsals and shows, setting up tents and traveling, but also moments of leisure and rituals of a family such as first communions and children at play or at work (sometimes the two are mixed). They went to the beach with the elephants and enjoyed a wide variety of holiday destinations. Pets were companions for life, work, and travel, and often the real stars. There are scenes with Darix dressed as a gladiator taming lions and tigers in cages, or leading elephants across the Alps in the footsteps of Hannibal in 1959. The footage is endlessly spectacular.
STAGE THREE: REUSING THE ARCHIVE
The restoration of the archive was completed in an atmosphere of excitement and impatience. The first public presentation of the materials was when Circo Togni Home Movies (2006), a video compiled by the Home Movies collective (Giulio Bursi, Mirco Santi, and Paolo Simoni), was presented at the Turin Film Festival in November 2006. The video was a first attempt at shaping the newly discovered and reordered materials, a basic compilation that was the product of a collaboration among a number of people involved in the preservation and reuse of private cinema. As Gianmarco Torri writes, Circo Togni Home Movies is,
a chronological montage of some of the film reels from the Togni archive, showing previously unseen footage of the life of a circus family; traveling and performances, but also the private lives and personal moments of being in a circus. It is a “concrete” and theoretical take on amateur family films that deliberately ignores any narrative hypothesis but instead focuses on fragments, the decay of the film, the passage of time, and the chemical processes (mental and material) that trigger it—like the transformation of black-and-white film into a rust-colored base where a dissolution of the emulsion creates an abstraction—giving the viewer (as the first archivist and restorer) sudden emotional escalations and the equally dizzying effects of falling into an oblivion of faces, bodies, animals, and landscapes.6
Though conceived as a work in progress, as a degree-zero of reuse experiments, the video was presented at several events with live musical accompaniment, and it still fascinates audiences both at festivals and at many other unofficial occasions, performing the simple function of evoking the world of a truly unique family and the unusual circumstances in which they lived.
Within this same timeframe, the Togni film archive was given an even more complex form of exposure, as such unique material merited an equally unusual rendering. The entire corpus of the collection was used in an installation that was exhibited three times between 2007 and 2012, with multiple projections over the facets of a large cube.7 Each side of the cube represented a section of the archive. The musicians involved in the operation played from inside of the cube or outside it. Viewers could wander around all sides of the installation, captivated by the flux of fascinating images, immersing themselves in them, getting lost in the visual and auditory stimulation, all with no narrative thread to follow, only ambience. The basic idea was that nothing should be taken away or dismembered, that time had already run its course in destroying what was destined to be lost forever—the ultimate fate of cinema is destruction—and that the archive should be reproduced in full, in the way chance has transmitted it to us.8 Suspended between the past (the lost images) and the present (the images we can reuse), the found footage film, here offered in an expanded form, is a melancholic experience that takes us on a continuous journey through time.
STAGE FOUR: THE MULTIMEDIA CATALOGUE
Another decisive step in the long journey toward Circle focused on the expansion and contextualization of the surviving materials. While the first projects undertaken were aimed at recovering and exhibiting the archive itself so as to enhance its material, aesthetic, and evocative characteristics, the next step was entirely dedicated to research. The work involved the compilation of testimonies (particularly that of Livio Togni, one of Darix's sons) and the description and cataloguing of all the materials. In 2008 Archivi Nascosti (Hidden Archives), a working group coordinated by Karianne Fiorini, produced a multimedia catalogue of the Togni collection in which each film entry is married with photographs belonging to the albums that the Togni family had made available. In addition to the 8mm films, the archive contains many more audiovisual, iconographic, and textual documents to help reconstruct the historical context of the time (publications, articles from newspapers and magazines, films from the Istituto LUCE and RAI, peplum films in which Darix is seen performing with circus animals, et cetera). No doubt such rich documentation suggests a rather composite framework open to inspire many different ideas for research. Moreover, the multimedia catalogue might be used as a model for future recovery operations, as its technical conception could be easily applied to other projects.9 Ilaria Ferretti, who was to become one of the central figures in the making of Circle, was part of the Hidden Archives team and had detailed knowledge of the collection. In the production of Circle she curated the documentary research and managed other film materials and videos that were added into the Togni archive, updating and expanding it.
VALENTINA MONTI AND THE TOGNI ARCHIVE
Valentina Monti has been involved in projects with Home Movies at least since 2005. The first collaboration was for a short film made with found materials titled M*** verofinta. La città di Antonio Delfini e la Modena fascista (Falsetrue M***: The City of Antonio Delfini and Fascist Modena, 2008).10 Monti was keen to be involved in the Togni project, and found the images enormously fascinating. Before long, we decided to develop a project together. As a filmmaker she was instantly drawn to the figure of Fiorenza, the life partner of Darix. The encounters between these two women developed into a closeness and understanding that lives on through the existence of Circle, despite the death of Fiorenza on April 22, 2012. Between 2009 and 2010, Monti filmed Fiorenza at Rio Saliceto, recording her memories and the old songs that she still sang and played on the piano. The result is a ten-minute montage sequence, immediately called Circle, where Monti experiments for the first time with amateur footage, which she gives a symbolic rather than didactic value: the sequence of a seagull in flight represents Fiorenza's secret dream, in which she feels free of encagement by the circus world.
Fiorenza's death marked a change in the process of production. Monti's initial idea was to make a documentary on one of the many journeys the circus made to distant countries, accompanying Fiorenza on a real (and at the same time metaphorical) journey, in which images from the archive would suddenly come to life in footage from the present day. But after her death it became clear that the film would instead be made up of purely archival images. Even the few sequences recorded between 2011 and 2012, filmed from scratch during a tour of Turkey and among the caravans of Rio Saliceto, were now things of the past. The role of these sequences within the film has remained important, but is now much more limited compared to the original design. In this new phase further impetus was put on the search for more audiovisual material. The Togni family is an extended one, or rather it is several families linked together by parental and professional relationships: several cores, each with their own circus. As a result, the audiovisual material is scattered in many places, and sourcing it requires a great deal of networking and communication. But the compensation is enormous, as these family archives continue to amaze with each new find.
STAGE FIVE: THE ARCHIVE GROWS
The second group of films, after those of Darix and Fiorenza, belongs to the family of Wioris Togni, brother of Darix, who directed the circus with him. The 8mm and Super 8 films were mostly shot by his wife, Liliana Casartelli. The material integrates well with what was already in our possession, as in many cases it contains the same scenes of circus life as in the Darix 8mms, but filmed from a different point of view.11
The third nucleus of films, found when Circle was already at an advanced stage of editing, could open a new chapter, but is not included in the film. It contains just a few isolated sequences. These 8mm and Super 8 films were shot in the 1960s and 1970s by the attractive tightrope artist Christiane Bottinelli and reveal a fascinating filmmaker who stages and films scenes of herself with a polished elegance and a very knowledgeable expression. Christiane was the first wife of Livio Togni, the second son of Darix, and the woman who inherited the reins of the circus after Darix's death.12
The archive, which has grown larger and larger over time to a current total of ninety-five films, has been even further enhanced due to the discovery of a large documentation in video format (analog and digital) that goes into the new millennium.13 The definition and concept of a “family film archive” expands again with the inclusion of materials with a very heterogeneous and often ambiguous constitution. Their contents span different technological eras: there are forty VHS videos, twenty-four DVDs, and four MiniDVs. The VHS videos include low-quality transfers from lost film reels; filmed documentation of performances, rehearsals, backstage happenings, and general circus life (between the 1980s and the twenty-first century); recordings of television programs and documentaries about the Togni Circus; and videos belonging to the various family members and family groups. The DVDs contain similar materials, especially as most of them are reproductions of VHS cassettes, some of which are also transfers of lost films. The MiniDVs contain footage of a circus traveling around Turkey and Iran in 2004.
Such varied materials involve a complexity of historical and cultural readings, which is reflected in the style of Circle. There is a looping dialogue between eyes belonging to different people of different times, different technologies and formats, different moments in the circus' history and its visual representations. And there is the proliferation of copies caused by the remediation of the contents through different media. What we are dealing with is a visual sedimentation, a stratification of memories that at the same time reflects a history of both filmmaking practices and social relationships. The stories of the lives of men, women, children, and animals are condensed without coherence or order. How could this bubbling archive that offers myriad scattered glimpses be composed into a coherent assemblage? That has been the challenge of Circle.
STAGE SIX: EDITING
Heart and head must work together on film materials that are so sensitive and so decidedly complex. Without a thorough understanding of the materials in their context, and without careful preparation, the results will not live up to the sources and may even be morally unacceptable, especially when—as in the case of Circle—the film focuses on telling the story of certain found images. The reuse of these materials requires method, consciousness, responsibility, and sensitivity. In this case Valentina Monti and her editor, Ilaria Fraioli, approached the collection in a true spirit of research, addressing some crucial formal and ethical issues from the writing phase through the initial part of production (2013–15). An important role in this process of reshaping the archive was played by Fraioli, who had worked with the well-known filmmaker Alina Marazzi on her first film, Un'ora sola ti vorrei (For One More Hour with You, 2002) and other projects that followed. Fraioli's editing technique demonstrates a keen sensitivity in the reworking of intimate materials such as home movies and great precision in her choice of editing solutions, always aiming for consistency with the original context documented by the images.
While every authorial manipulation necessarily entails changes in the nature of the images, sometimes even turning their meanings on their head, ultimately none of Monti's and Fraioli's choices in associating or juxtaposing the different images are justified by a purely aesthetic or plastic motivation. With these assumptions, her editing does not even try to hide the inconsistencies and discontinuities in the original material. They coexist and are welded into shots whose format, definition, grain, and color quality may have nothing to do with one another. It is as if the archive, by its very fragmentary nature, is recomposed into an acrobatic montage combining different information that seems irreconcilable at first glance. Shot by shot, sequence after sequence, an original visual narrative is constructed. Circle is dotted with micro-sequences, each of which is dedicated to an incident, a theme, a character, or an emotional bond. Rather than ironing out the differences between shots, which in the course of time take on new forms and new contents, the montage maintains and reestablishes the fragmented nature of the archive, channeling it into a structure that suspends different narrative levels and formal units in a fine balance. Arguably, the challenge is how to “translate” the archive into the language of a film without “betraying” its original sense.
FIORENZA'S POINT OF VIEW
After Fiorenza Colombo's death, Monti did not give up her project to build Circle around this pivotal figure. Indeed, the film has been an opportunity to pursue an interrupted dialogue, as if the decision to give voice to Fiorenza through the reading of her memories, written shortly before her death, had the power to cover an otherwise unbridgeable distance. In her memoirs Fiorenza recounts her story: her relationship with Darix, the children, the family, and the difficult world of the circus. We discover a woman who looks back on the past with some bitterness, but also with humor and tenderness, taking us on a journey in which the circus might easily be an allegory of life. It is a reading and a navigation of the archive through lived episodes that happen in suspended, circular time, away from headlines and the dates of official history. In Circle only a few places and dates are sporadically mentioned, and they are not that important. What is conveyed most centrally is the inexorable passing of time, and the continuous movement of tents, men, and animals. The circle of life repeats itself, divided between family and social constraints, professional aspirations and individual desires.
This is not the story of the Togni Circus: though that does emerge from time to time, the public aspects of circus life remain in the background and are not the central point of Fiorenza's memories. Nor is the story of the circus' relationship with the media or with the popular imagination an important aspect. Indeed, what makes the film amazing and original is the dialogue created by Monti between the amateur footage and the archive sequences retrieved from LUCE and RAI, or from other sources, such as photographs, posters, and other publicity materials. As a visually impressive subtext, there is the parable of the circus from the glamorous years between the 1950s and the 1960s, the golden age, to the ongoing attempt to renew the tradition after the death of Darix in 1976, to the decadence of the current day. The images, perhaps grainy, in low or high definition, well depict the situation and the mood of the time they were made, each tracing a path back to the era to which it belongs.
Fiorenza's testimony could imply a sort of nemesis, the conquest of a power of memory and speech by a woman who lived all of her life in a world of men, where she was unable to stop the loop and consider her own needs. This woman has seen death: first her life partner, Darix (the giant with feet of clay, who died a few weeks after being struck by leukemia), and then her eldest daughter, Danila, thirty years later, from the same disease. Yet she has the strength to continue with courage, because—as she says at one point—“C'est la vie!”14 Beyond the melancholic personality of Fiorenza, there is a woman who wants to come to terms with the past and leave a tangible trace.
With Fiorenza's death a tombstone was placed on a world that had survived only in her memories. But from the moment the films were rediscovered, almost by accident, in the trunk under her wagon, the extended family came forward and now with Circle her point of view has returned to the present.
DARIX AND THE TIGER
“I am sending you a letter thirty years after you left me: my love, at night when I go to bed I think of you and I close my eyes and I feel I have you near, I stretch out my hands, I do not find you, I open my eyes, and you're not there, and then the loneliness takes me and I carry it with me.” Before and after the death of Darix, Fiorenza's eyes are almost always on him, he who occupies the central position of her films and divides it into two parts. Darix, the lion tamer of the century, is a legendary figure in the world of the circus, and his image is carefully constructed by the media of the time. This has emerged from historical research on the representation of the circus in the press, where “the world of the big top is presented as a place of epic events, a fascinating place of ancestral confrontation between man and animal.”15 This dialectic between man and animal is introduced through a second voice-over offering the reflections of an androgynous tiger, a text of pure invention written by Filippo Bologna. The tiger, as a witness to the events, plays a supporting narrative role, introducing the characters, covering any holes in Fiorenza's story, and reflecting on the environment and on human and animal nature.
It also participates in a sort of triangle. The tiger, which is the first voice heard in the film, introduces the couple:
He was a real head of the pack, a man as brave as a lion that made me feel like a cowardly lion who likes men. But his heart was not hard like the bars of the cage, but hot and red as the sunset in the jungle. I would have liked it for myself, but it was stolen by a woman named Fiorenza. She dreamed of becoming an opera singer, Fiorenza, and one day filling the theaters. But she learned the hard way that under the big top there is only space for the dreams of others.
The voice of the tiger opens and closes the circle of a film essentially built on the fascination of archival images and the intimate value of these documents, as an attempt to prolong their memory and to give voice to the less official, hidden, or dismissed stories. A documentary in the form of a fable (or vice versa), Circle is condensed with female viewpoints that offer a specific entryway to the experience of the Togni archive. It represents another stage in the process of continuous re-elaboration of private memories that constitutes a major thread in found footage cinema, inspired by the historical, cultural, and aesthetic relevance of amateur film archives.