‘Pawn Streets’, the everyday struggle of ordinary people

Irene Dioniso
Italian director Irene Dionisio

The impressive debut feature film from Irene Dionisio, screened at Cinema Made in Italy at Ciné Lumière in London, is a portrait of contemporary Italy and the everyday struggles of ordinary people. ‘Le Ultime Cose (Pawn Streets), set in Turin, depicts the lives of different characters who are forced into the pawnbrokers to give away their most precious belongings. Irene Dionisio, in London to present her first film, talks also about her relationship with her city and the rights her generation has to fight for a better life.


How was the idea of the film born?

I am passionate about documentaries set in ‘total’ institutions focused on welfare, hospitals, and schools. So I was interested in showing how the economic downturn in Italy can affect people’s lives as seen from a place like a pawnbroker.  I did some research and I found out that the reality of pawnbrokers is really active in Italy. I visited the pawnbrokers in my city, Turin. There, I collected stories that led to the first screenplay and to my first feature.

How much did you know about pawnbrokers before shooting this film?

I have never seen that place before, but I studied Philosophy of History at University, which is deeply linked to Economics. Also, I had started my documentary studies.

So far, you shooted just documentaries. Why did you choose a feature film this time?

At the beginning, my idea was to shoot a documentary. But then I met a producer who gave me the opportunity to film my first feature. When I started writing the screenplay in 2012 I was very young, I was only 25 and I had shot just one documentary. To me, it seemed impossible to shoot a feature film, but the subject was strong and interesting and  the project developed.

Which story impressed you the most?

The one of an elderly man that joined the group of dealers behind the scenes of pawnbrokers. In the film, I didn’t want to include the fact that he died during a police roundup and his fellows had a whip-round for his funeral. It was so sad and true that it could seem not real. All the characters are slightly fictionalised and I also cut some aspects that could be too strong and disturbing.

The title is ‘Le ultime cose(The last things), what would you never ever take to pawnbrokers if you had to?

Well, I’m not interested in material things. These people part from their belongings, but there’s more than that. They give up their pride and dignity. I would never put money on my dignity. In my film, all the characters come to this point, also the new young employee.

So in this case, does a shame culture exist?

Yes, absolutely. Many characters are real people that had similar experiences, but they would have never shown that in a documentary. Staging means detaching from the real self.

Is it more difficult to pay off a moral debt than a material debt?

Yes. In fact, the characters really die when they cannot pay off their moral debt.

On the tracks of legality, there is often a non-linear path. What kind of approach did you have to pawnbrokers?

Thanks to a person that was working there, I also discovered corruption. For example, there was an employee that used to underestimate some objects. When the goods were put on auction and sold, this person got half of the income. This impressed me a lot because this person’s greediness misled him.

Pawn Streets is set in Turin and there are many topics related to the city: transgenders girls living in a pension, poor families, people from Southern Italy that moved to the North many years ago. How did you decide to describe your city?

Turin is kind of non-place. It is a post-industrial city in which culture and tertiary sector are replacing industry. At the same time, it is a city with the first and the second migration from the South. They have this non-accent you can find in the film, nor southern nor northern. And then there is a more recent contemporary migration from Africa or Middle East. Turin is a non-place, more than other cities.

What kind of relationship do you have with Turin?

I have a love-hate relationship because I always try to run away but it catches me again. Five years ago I wanted to leave Turin and move to France but then I started this film and I decided to stay and shoot there. Once it was done, I wanted to leave again, but I was asked to work during a festival in Turin and so I got back. It’s a city that has a lot to offer, I am in loved with it.  We have many cultural and artistic excellences like Teatro Stabile, Artissima, Festival delle Colline Torinesi.

You have been appointed director of this year’s edition of TGLFF (Torino Gay & Lesbian Film Festival). What are your goals for the festival? What does it mean ‘culture’ for you?

The theme will always be LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersexual), but the festival will be more open to any community. It will able to attract a wider audience, not just LGBT. It’s now time to overcome the idea of a ghetto. We are also working on having high-quality films, not focusing just on the subject. We also want to introduce films that have a wider vision of the world.  To me, culture is a moral, spiritual and aesthetic effort. But there is no culture without collaboration and synergies. Unfortunately, many realities become a closed pillbox. Italian culture needs to reopen those pillboxes and make them more approachable. People my age have to make them more attractive and fascinating.

It is your first feature and you shooted many other works. Have you fear you couldn’t do it? What would you do suggest to young people struggling for their goals? 

People like me in their 30s or younger have to consider themselves not ‘too little’ and unable to take certain steps. When people realise I am 30 and they say I am so young, I get surprised. In the past there was a stronger generational turnover, now the older generation does not want to be replaced. Even though we were born in a cocooned world, we faced our difficulties. We have to be proud of our journey. To the ones who want to follow my path, I’d suggest working in documentaries, in low budget films. I also suggest believing in oneself.

You lived abroad, in France. What does Italy mean for you?

It’s a place that needs change. But the difficulties we experience make us tougher tha other people.

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