Screengrabs from 'Orsola: Teramo, 1960'
Stories & Ideas

Wed 06 Oct 2021

Dear Orsola: a romance retold over multiple screen formats

ACMI Collection History Preservation Short film
Roberta Ciabarra
Roberta Ciabarra

Film Curator, ACMI

When Film Curator Roberta Ciabarra discovered a long-forgotten snapshot of her mother and father's long distance romance from the early '60s, she made sure to preserve their story for years to come.

Back in the days of VHS, I remember my father popping a tape into the VCR in our lounge room one evening and asking me to take a look at something he'd 'found'. The videotape was a dub of a single reel standard 8mm film that my father had received in the mail a couple of decades earlier, in the early '60s, but had never projected despite the duty free purchase of an 8mm film projector on a family trip to Fiji in the 1970s. (Note to self: must track down 8mm projector replacement bulb for dad on eBay.)

The first few frames showed a young woman with dark brown hair in a domestic setting. Instinctively, I thought I recognised myself in those images but quickly realised it couldn't be me; I didn't recognise the apartment and its various rooms and it was clearly from an earlier period in time, before I was born. The jolt of recognition I felt was because the young woman was my mother, Orsola. I had never seen moving images of her at that age; nineteen or so and with the same long dark hair I wore in a similar style at the time. I've never forgotten the (disorienting) thrill of seeing those images for the first time. They have imprinted indelible impressions of my mother from a time before I knew her, and created 'memories' drawn not from (my) life but thanks to the technological time-travelling marvel that is film.

Orsola writing a letter to Ulderico -  still from Orsola - Teramo, 1960

Still from Orsola: Teramo, 1960

I was fascinated by the film's genesis. It was shot in camera by a family acquaintance, Silvano Di Francesco, a clearly talented amateur (in the true sense of the word) whose well-developed visual sensibility and attentive framing of my mother's face, profile and gestures almost certainly betrayed a crush. My mother, a young woman disinclined to exhibitionism, was persuaded to participate by Di Francesco's canny suggestion that it would make a unique gift to send to my father, my mother's then fiancé, who had emigrated to Australia earlier that year in the expectation that my mother would join him in Melbourne before too long. In fact, two more years would pass before my mother was finally reunited with my father. He had, by then, legally become her husband despite the fact they lived on separate continents. During their time apart they exchanged letters weekly. My mother duly sent my father the 8mm film reel; without the means to project it, he had kept it, without viewing it, for over two decades before the precious images finally flickered into focus for the first time when I was more or less the same age my mother had been when the film was made.

Years ago, I asked my father if I could have this precious family artefact, for safe-keeping. For years I kept it in a container in the coolest part of my small apartment but over time grew anxious that it would inevitably deteriorate. A handful of years ago, my father agreed to donate the film to ACMI, which by then was undertaking an ambitious digitisation project. The three-minute film now also exists in digitised form, as part of ACMI's Collection, catalogued as Orsola: Teramo, 1960.

At one point in the film's 'day in the life of a long-distance courtship' narrative, my mother writes my father a letter – you can just make out the words Carissimo Ulderico (Dear Ulderico) in close up as she puts pen to paper – after which she pins her hair up and applies lip balm before carefully placing the letter in her handbag and heading out, presumably to post it. Di Francesco was able to trade on my mother's trust and in the film's final frames she acquiesced to a more traditional 'cheesecake' shot, posing on a sunlit rooftop in a homemade velvet dress that showed off her figure, while flicking through a copy of Grazia magazine. Her natural reticence gets the better of her, though, to his credit, Di Francesco manages to elicit an unguarded smile or two.

Some twenty seconds of the 8mm film shot by Di Francesco appear in a 4 and a half minute 'digital story' I created in late 2001 during a pilot workshop run for staff as ACMI prepared to roll out its then pioneering Digital Storytelling initiative in new premises at Federation Square. Innamorati was a very personal attempt to retell part of my parents' history as a young couple – their romance and their particular migration story – from a contemporary perspective. Di Francesco's images were crucial in helping me convey aspects of their story and in providing evocative visuals that dovetailed with a section of my voiceover. You can watch Innamorati below, complete with glitches that date back to the intensive 3-day production period in which it was conceived, scripted, assembled and edited.

I tried to meet Di Francesco the last time I visited my mother's hometown in Abruzzo some years ago. By then his adult children were managing the family's photography business but on the day I visited, no one from the family was on site. I left my details hoping someone in the family would get in touch so I could let them know the fate of Di Francesco’s 8mm film and also of its new life as part of a 'digital story' that they could view online, but no one made contact. I would have liked to have been able to thank him in person for drawing inspiration from my mother (and her story) and for having artfully immortalised a perfect little fragment in time that only becomes more precious as years go by.

– Roberta Ciabarra, Film Curator

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