Film Producer: The Boundaries of Taste
Italian-Canadian Joseph Tito is no stranger to controversy. As a young, but markedly successful film producer, his seminal works have all involved boundary-pushing, in some form or another.
He produced and directed the 2011 feature film, Death of the Virgin, distributed by Indican Pictures – a thriller, which looks into the premonitions and deaths which inspired 15th century painter Caravaggio. It is a weird creation, and quite unsettling. Of his short films, Immortal – a black and white art-house piece about cancer – was selected for six of the leading film festivals, in Canada, Australia and beyond.
“I think what makes a good movie is one that, when you leave the theatre, you question it. Agree with it or not, a movie should make you think. Whether it is in relation to sexuality, religion, or something even more serious, I want to make you evaluate your own viewpoint.”
It is not surprising, then, that Tito would have upped sticks and moved to, arguably, one of the most controversy-courting regions of the world.
For someone who’s main objective seems to be addressing taboo and pushing the limits of taste and decorum, it appears fitting, but dangerous, that Tito would have settled on Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as his next filming locations. As someone in the business of challenging people’s sensibilities, you’re probably on the money in a place of such strict social and religious norms, but by that same token, you may end up in jail…or worse.
“Middle Eastern culture was very foreign to me, growing up in Italy and Canada I wasn’t exposed much to it. Everything we heard was negative – especially when it came to the suppression of women.”
These days, though, Tito has had a change of tune. Speaking of his experience in the Middle East, he doesn’t tell a tale of woe, suppression and misogyny. “Living in Bahrain for the past two years, and travelling to Doha, the UAE, Saudi and Lebanon and learning about these places, I have realised that it is nothing like what we hear in the media.”
“It is a beautiful culture, with strong, intelligent people and, most importantly, they have a lot to say. So, I thought I would put my particular talent to good use in ensuring that some of their stories get out – showing the beauty and complexity of Islamic culture.”
His latest venture is a feature film, titled Dana, which concentrates on a very poignant and little exposed part of the Middle Eastern world – the struggle among women to define themselves in relation to their family and career.
There is still, much more so than in the West, a lot of pressure on women to follow a specific path. A woman’s life is not nearly as vigorously oppressive as some of us have been led to believe, at least in more liberal countries like Bahrain. Women can seek higher education and often craft brilliant careers for themselves, but there is still a sense that once she is of marriage and childbearing age, these things should probably be given up as a young hobby.
Tito’s film takes a look at the changing role of women over the course of three generations. The film’s main character, Dana, is outspoken and determined. She travels abroad for university and joins the political student union. The stories of Hessa, her mother, and her daughter Layla, though, are very different. Hessa was married at 12 and didn’t go to university. Layla, on the other hand, has a much greater degree of freedom, but establishes a strong religious identity and chooses to wear the burqa.
“The women in this film are going to be real people,” says Joseph, “Yes, this is an Arabic story, but it is also universal. My own grandmother was married at the age of 12 in the south of Italy. Women’s roles have evolved everywhere.”
Amazingly, the film has already enjoyed great support. “In terms of making a film about women, that hasn’t been challenging,” Tito continues, “The script has had tremendously positive feedback and has been approved by both the Bahraini Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Information.”
More surprising than his film about women, is the fact that Tito, once a proud social revolutionary, has actually joined forces with the Bahraini government, making films and clips for the Ministry of Culture.
“Shaikha Mai Al Hkalifa, the minister of culture, is an amazing woman and very liberal. She has done a lot for Bahrain and a lot of our work is able to mix the Bahraini culture with the modern Western style.”
“There is a little red tape to get around in terms of the shots we are able to show. A couple of months ago I shot the Russian Ballet and we did a highlights video. I had to re-edit it a couple of times because you see men in tights or the tu-tu was a little revealing (it’s a ballet for heaven’s sake!), but generally we find a way to get around it.”
When he’s done assessing the changing roles of women in Arab society, he’s planning to take JEO [Product]ions into Saudi and Kuwait, as well as expand his offices in Toronto.
But really, though, Tito just wants to make movies. “My big dream, is to shoot a film once every two years and to keep travelling the world.”
Name something important that you had to give up to be where you are?
My family and a relationship, dating in the Arab world is not easy.
In your industry: who you know Vs what you can do?
It is a lot about whom you know, but after you know them you better be able to show them what you can do.
If you hadn’t become a producer, what would you have been?
God I don’t know. I truly love what I do. I think something to do with traveling, maybe a buyer for a clothing line.
If you could give three “listen up kids” style pointers for anyone trying to get into your industry, what would they be?
- Patience – Remember it takes 10 years to become famous over night.
- Perseverance – if you love what you do keep doing it. I’ve had doors slammed in my face and thought my whole world would end, but keep going. And remember it will get worst before it gets better.
- Forget about money – I was a starving artist for many many years. Do it because you love it and things will eventually fall into place.