Naples is a city of extremes. It's Italy's fourth wealthiest and a place of supreme architectural, artistic and culinary importance. But beyond the beautiful cathedrals and world-famous pizzerias are neighbourhoods beset by high levels of unemployment, poverty and poor education.
One of these areas is Quartieri Spagnoli – Spanish Quarters. Here, locals celebrate Saint Antonio Day – Cippo – on the 17th of January much like everyone else in southern Italy and Sardinia have for decades, by lighting bonfires after nightfall. Only, in Naples, the tradition has evolved: every year, kids from various inner-city neighbourhoods spend months stealing and stashing trees so they can build the largest fire possible, a sign of their patch's superiority.
This new tradition has proved controversial, with some locals suggesting the process encourages criminality among local kids – a first step towards joining one of Naples' so-called "baby gangs". However, Neapolitan filmmaker Victoria Fiore – who followed a group of boys as young as ten as they prepared for the Cippo bonfire, for the new VICE documentary Fire Games of Napoli – argues that this isn't the case; that "all kids get involved in this – they’re not necessarily involved with gangs".
I spoke to Victoria about the making of the film, her relationship with the boys and the importance of education reform in improving their lives.
VICE: What sparked the idea for this film?
Victoria Fiore: I’ve been away from Naples for a very long time, and I saw how my cousins had become so different to me. I came to London and had access to an education my family back home did not. The girls are at home, cooking, happy to get married, in their very traditional roles. A lot of the guys didn't go on to study anything and they're sort of doing what they can to survive. So I started thinking about what the difference was, then I started being very interested in adolescence and where the shift could have been. That led to speaking to social workers and groups to understand a bit more, and through that I met Eleonora dell'Aquila, who introduced me to the kids.
I can imagine they would be a pretty hard group to crack – presumably it was because the boys trusted Eleonora that they knew they could trust you too?
Absolutely. Eleonora and her boyfriend, Massimiliano, are doing incredible work out there. Through her being so candid and relatable the kids have opened up to her, and they tell her about absolutely anything and know they’ll face no judgment. She really does help them. How she is separates her from a lot of other social workers, who are a lot more Catholic or ideology-driven, and then there are people like her, who are normal and cool, who support the bonfire. A lot of social workers don’t support the bonfire – it's about 50/50 – but she sees it as something good.
Why are the police so against the bonfire?
This is a really controversial issue, because the police aren’t really against it, but they act as though they are. Let me paint the picture: Spanish Quarters is a really poor area; on the outskirts are armed tanks, soldiers. They stay on the outskirts, but they know everything that's going on inside. The police even know about the "secret spot" [where the kids hide the stolen trees]. The police and the fire brigade were at the last bonfire in case anything happened, which it didn’t, really – yet they still arrested a kid and are making him go through a court case for show; there were 60 other kids there and the police had been fully aware of the tree stealing for months.
It brings up the point about why the state keeps the trees [after Christmas]. This has been happening for hundreds of years every January: can’t the trees be donated to each neighbourhood? No – they keep them, and so kids will be enticed to steal them, and then it becomes a game of stealing, when they could be working together.
Eleonora says in the film how the boys were exercising strategy when planning the bonfire. Do you think they could apply those skills to more practical things?
Yes! That's exactly it. They teach themselves so much: the responsibility of guarding the trees through the whole night for two months from December to January, the way they come together and the leaders come through. There are so many skills – it's so disappointing for me to see that trying to be stopped in a country whose educational system is dated. There are more apprenticeships now, but more needs to be done. So many of the kids are so bright. They're street savvy, streetwise. They know how to make things, to do things, but they don't have the opportunity to do that in school. I know, at youth detention centres, they’re doing lots of nice things, like writing courses, pottery courses, pizza courses. But there’s so much more you can teach, like plumbing or electrician apprenticeships. There needs to be education reform.
"The richest part of Naples is on the hill, not for from Spanish Quarters. They're right next to each other but worlds apart."
Let's talk about the scene with Luca's mum in the kitchen. She says, when he gets out of prison, the responsibility is with him to turn his life around – but do you think the state also needs to do more there?
My god – Luca’s story is the reason I wanted to make this film. I was friends with Luca before he went to prison. He'd been in youth detention quite a lot, but when he came out the last time he wanted to change and start a new life. He was really working. Eleonora and Massimiliano were doing T-shirt workshops with refugees from all over Africa – thousands had come to Naples – and Luca was getting involved with that. He was such a cool kid and it was going really well, and then, from one night to the next, he decided to go and do an armed robbery. Literally like that. From one day to the next, you do something terrible, then boom: you're in jail for the next four years. So with these things you literally don't know what will happen. Eleonora said something incredible: "You can never win as a social worker, but as long as they have freedom of choice, that’s the only thing you can really give them."
I guess Luca’s mum is really tired. She knows Luca was doing so well and everyone was really proud of him – it's not normal for a kid from Quarters to help out refugees – but I can understand why she’s so exhausted by it all, she has no power.
That seems to be the case for a lot of residents of Spanish Quarters. There appears to be such a huge socio-economic divide in the city, with them on the losing side.
There really is. Most of the kids from Spanish Quarters go on to get jobs working at bars – they earn between €50 to €90 a week. It’s really low, and that’s if they have a job at all. The one thing I really love about the Quarters is that they're really giving. When we were interviewing Eleonora on the stairs, a lady on the fifth floor passed down a basket with a big bottle of water and some snacks, and said: "It looks like you're working, so you'll need this." They're so kind. There is, though, a huge socio-economic divide. Naples is actually one of the richest cities in Italy – it has a huge port that brings in lots of money. The richest part of the city is on the hill, not for from Spanish Quarters. They're right next to each other but worlds apart.
The last scene of the film is quite beautiful – the stillness, the silence and how the boys are so entranced by the bonfire. It's like they're disposing of all their troubles in its flames.
Exactly. These kids, who'd screamed and were excitable for the whole film, to find them silent like that was mesmerising. It was honestly magical being there. They were quite boisterous before the lighting of the fire – and, by the way, we didn't capture the lighting of the bonfire because the police arrested the camera guy. They confiscated the camera and told us to stop filming. I don’t know why – maybe they didn't want to be shown there. If they want to say it's illegal there can’t be evidence of them being there.
But it was the stillest moment I've seen with the kids. That's what the bonfire is for – to throw in any thoughts you’ve had from the past year and [hope for the] things you want improved for the next year. Traditionally, you write it all on a note and throw it in and start afresh, and I really did think that’s what they were doing. Renato, who’s like 12, said he saw a future full of women [laughs]. It's so interesting what children pick up from those around them. But it was very indulgent, that ending. Indulgent yet beautiful.
Lastly, what's that stuff smeared on the kids' faces in the last scene?
It's called sanguinaccio, a mixture of pig blood and chocolate that kids traditionally paint their faces with when making the fire. It's a gift from residents who support the fire; adults either give them the sanguinaccio or money to go and buy it. It's quite a typical dessert that's eaten around this time, after New Year's.
This interview had been edited for length.