Irish filmmaker Paul Rowley is bringing his powerful new documentary, The Red Tree, to the Galway Film Fleadh this weekend.
The documentary is narrated by renowned Italian actor Leo Gullotta who tells the story of an island in Italy where gay men were exiled during Mussolini’s Fascist regime.
In Sicily during the 1930s, men gathered to dance in a small piazza. A plane tree, known by locals as the l’arvulu rossu, the red tree, serves as a landmark. Men gathered here to meet and cruise in secret.
As Mussolini spread Fascism through Italy, effeminate men and gay love were no longer tolerated. The state declared in “Italia sono tutti maschi”- in Italy we have only real men.
Catania, a city at the base of Mount Etna, was the centre of those raids and arrests all throughout Italy. The attacks were led by Fascist police commissioner Molina.
The intense homophonic views at the time subjected the men who had been arrested to beatings and medical “exams” used to prove they were gay. Condemnation could come from the shape of one’s anus or penis. Many men were outed by neighbours or relatives.
The solution to the totalitarian regime was to erase the existence of the men. Hundreds were sent to live on the tiny, remote island of San Domino in the Adriatic sea. The rocky, open-air prison had little food and shelter. It was strictly patrolled and the prisoners weren’t even permitted to swim in the sea.
Rowley learned of the little-known history when he read an article about it online. After meeting with historians and writers, a narration developed. The director explains that there are no living survivors, therefore, the documentary is structured as a memory.
The film follows the story of a man who returns to pay homage to the suffering he and his friends endured on the island.
Although the events that occurred on the island are long forgotten, they aren’t too far from what still happens to marginalized groups in the present, according to Rowley.
“The stories remind us that freedoms are never given,” he said. “They are demanded and taken. And they are precious.”
The Red Tree premiers at the Galway Film Fleadh on July 15th, and at GAZE in Dublin on August 5th.
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