There is a definitive diagnosis of the mental endurance needed to be a modern filmmaker. At least, this is the conclusion I’ve reached to date. The documentary we completed, titled “Montecassino: The Indestructible Abbey,” is a testament to that endurance. The Montecassino documentary is my first grant-funded feature film. Fall of 2017, I was proud to learn that we were awarded funding for the project by the CMF (Canadian Media Fund.) The project was pre-sold for television broadcasts across Canada and Italy and needed a cut for the film festival circuit. From there, the journey began, and a little over a year later, post-production was nearly complete.

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The story of Montecassino is a sacred one for me as I spent most of my childhood visiting my grandparent’s farm situated on the outskirts of Cassino, Italy. The town of Cassino is saturated in human history. The most recent was a cataclysmic event in 1944 during the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Italy. For months, the allied troops pressed to take the mountain upon which the Abbey of Montecassino sat perched. The loss of life was staggering; 55 thousand allied troops died on that mountain alongside 22 thousand Germans.


As a child, I remember visiting my grandparent’s farm and, being a city boy, was utterly culture shocked by country life. I was an only child with a vivid imagination. The timeframe was the 80s and 90s, but I remember how locals of the region would speak about the war as if it was yesterday. There were relics everywhere. Every relative we visited seemed to only speak of the horrors of war. There was something about being out in the country that felt like the middle of nowhere for me. It was like being in the wild; everything wanted to kill you. But what I remember most was having this incredible fear come over me that, at any moment, the Germans could return. I mean, there probably wasn’t a square inch of land in that area that someone hadn’t died on. I’m not just talking about WWII, we’ve had relatives dig up ancient Roman bones and tombstones.

I carried that fear with me for many visits throughout my childhood until I was a teen, and by then the war was the last thing on my mind. Everything has tapered off when I return, all grown up. Everyone I knew as a child is gone; they either passed away or moved on. All the relics that remain have been absorbed into the landscape.  All the stories I observed as a child has become just that, stories. What strange sentiments time can stir in a person. It would have been a completely different piece if I had filmed this movie 15 years ago. A grandson would have told it through the voice of his loving grandparents.

Nevertheless, I decided to one day write a feature script utilizing all the stories I had heard growing up. I wanted it to be a story about the area’s people living through war and not so much a war film in the traditional sense. Reading through all the notes I had gathered over the years, I thought it wouldn’t be nice to film a documentary about Montecassino as a tool to learn fact from fiction. Well, many years later, the opportunity arose, and I am so thankful to have been granted passage on this incredible journey.

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Once we were awarded the grant, we flew high, and nothing can bring you back to planet earth like Italian bureaucracy. With our budget set and locked, we were hit with a curve ball. We were initially told by the Abbott of Montecassino that we did not need a permit to film in the Abbey. After realizing it was a grant-funded project, we suddenly needed a ticket and had to contact the government agency in Rome that handles these types of affairs. And so began the process that probably aged me by five years.

Thankfully the universe conspired and granted us a liberator who came in the form of a gentleman and a scholar named Gianni Blasi. Mr. Blasi joined the project as our host and historical guide. His energy helped us break through the bureaucratic barriers, and we received our permit, but it came with a price. The additional costs for the license were not included in our budget, so we had to cut costs elsewhere. We were a crew of five, but by the end of the snip n’ save extravaganza, we were a crew of two sets to fly to Italy.

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I’ve been to Italy over thirty times in my life, but on this adventure, everything felt like the first time. Joining me on this adventure was my right-hand man Michael Franceschini, probably the only guy I would trust to get this done on our schedule minus three crew members. Our first day in Italy was a Sunday. Not much gets done on a Sunday in Italy, so I scheduled this day to be a scouting day. That was until Mr. Blasi showed up at the hotel and brought to my attention that there is no such thing as a scouting day; there is only getting stuff done on days. This would inevitably set the pace for our entire trip. We zipped across the Liri Valley, going up and down mountains, interviewing specialists on every inch of terrain we explored and, yes, fuelling up on as many espressos as humanly possible.

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One day we finished early with Mr. Blasi, and with daylight still upon us, Michael and I decided to venture off into the countryside, searching for a house I had visited as a child. I knew I could use shots of this house to compliment an interview I planned on getting when we returned to Montreal. After getting lost a dozen times and FaceTiming my father back in Montreal for directions, we found the house. There it lay, off some country road, forgotten. At this point, my cell phone died, and some dark clouds were moving in, so the air was getting eerie. Even though a new house had just been built down the road, the area felt like one of those places where no one would hear you scream.
We decided to venture onto the property, well, first, I sent Michael to scope out the scene while I sat nervously in the car. What? I knew the history of the land. He didn’t. I knew of the Germans that were killed in front of that house. I knew locals had discovered ancient bones in the field next to the house, later realizing it was an old Roman cemetery. Yeah, I waited in the freakin car for a minute to gather my thoughts.

I finally joined him. We droned the area and filmed some scenic shots. Once we were all warmed up we ventured closer. I filmed the house’s interior, and while I was walking away, Michael gasped and said, “I just saw someone in the house.” Oh yeah? Barf. What do you mean? “I saw a man poke his head out the front entrance, then disappear behind the wall.” But I just filmed the interior; there’s no way someone could be there.

Creeped out, we started walking away from the house. I had a monopod with me at the time, with the camera facing front and the feet pointing out my back. A few meters from the house, I feel a hard pull on the monopod, and the feet come right off and fall into the tall grass. Before I reacted, I had a cold shiver from the back of my spine to the very top of my head. I turned around, and there was no one there. We returned to the van, and I was shaking like a leaf. A grown freakin man.

I needed some shots of a nearby stream, so I pulled it together, and we drove to the stream. At this point, we are on a road that can nearly fit one vehicle. We stop. Start filming some stream shots when a car approaches in the opposite direction. Now, I don’t want to be mean, but these guys looked like something out of a famous Burt Reynolds movie where there was much squealing written into the script. Yeah, that one. These toothless beauts start interrogating us on what we were doing by the stream. I couldn’t understand why they were so mad. I assured them we were filming the stream for a documentary. Well, the man informed us that a lot of shady characters like to come to this particular stream to dumb garbage, animal carcasses and yes, even human cadavers. Nice. So, that was a wrap for that day. I’m not a smoker, but I must have eaten five or six cigarettes that night at the hotel.
Every night we would return to the hotel late and have the cook at the Edra Hotel cook us up a late-night meal. It’s funny that most nights, it would take us time to simmer down from what we filmed that day. It felt like some places we visited, where so much suffering occurred, had such heavy residual energy, and it took a few hours to shake off afterwards.

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As the sun was setting on our last day, we thought we had filmed our final shot of the doc. Instead, Mr. Blasi and a specialist of the Gustav Line, Mr. Damiano Parravano, had other plans. We drove a good 45 minutes into the Ciociarian countryside. At this point, we thought we were being treated to a nice home-cooked meal. We even started thinking wouldn’t it be funny if they flew our family down and they were all waiting to surprise us? This was all clever road trip banter.

As the car we were following stopped in the middle of a baron field, we started thinking, “are we getting whacked? Did we do something wrong? Maybe a tax we didn’t pay.” Damiano guides us through some thick brush and points to a hole in the ground “we have to go film in there.” Interesting. I thought. And you waited for the cover of night to explore this hole in the ground because….

Well that hole in the ground was a German bunker. Most of these bunkers were destroyed by civilians after the war. However, this artillery bunker on the outskirts of a small town called Ponte Corvo was perfectly intact. Exploring that bunker with nothing more than a camera and a flashlight made it much more enjoyable. When it gets dark in the countryside of Italy, it gets dark! You can’t see your hand in front of your face type dark.

Once our expedition was over, Damiano informed us to check for ticks when we got to the hotel. Especially behind our genitalia. And if you find one, don’t try and rip it off, he said, go to the emergency. Really. That is quite the thing to speak to a hypochondriac like myself on my last night in Italy. Back at the hotel, I pleaded with Michael to give the back of my genitals a once over, but he refused. So, I had no choice but to Skype, my wife. There’s no bond more significant than a “what do you think this is?” Skype call.

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We geared the doc to focus on the remaining survivors that lived in Cassino through the bombardment and migrated to Canada after the war. This was the angle we took; war through the eyes of the children. Because the Italians were allied with the Germans for a good part of the war we automatically classify all civilians as fascists. But if Italy taught me anything, there is no black and white in that country, only a plethora of complex colours that will make you dizzy. None of the civilians I knew growing up were supporters of the dictatorship. Nor were the people we interviewed. Most remember, by name, the handful of men wearing the town’s black shirt and were granted special privileges during the war. For these civilians, it was a matter of surviving history.

When we received our grant, one of the clauses was that we needed to capture bonus footage that would not appear in the doc to create an educational digital media site. These bonus videos would preserve the Italo-Canadian culture in Montreal and Toronto. Something we took very seriously, and needless to say, we were able to produce 25 additional videos for educational purposes. 

One of the things that I could not understand in all this was a 10-minute video we shot at the German cemetery in Cassino. There was an artistry/beauty that went into the design of this cemetery that Mr. Blasi relates to Dantes’s Inferno. I couldn’t understand how soldiers who caused so much death were allowed such a serene resting place when they denied so many this simple humanity by dumbing them in mass graves. Mr. Blasi explained to me the difference between a Nazi and a German soldier, but my mind could not make sense of it.  One of the things that stuck with me. 

In the end, Michael and I played the role of an entire film crew during this production, and despite it, all frame rates and sound were the biggest obstacles in post-production. I dislike when sound is an issue in posts because I firmly believe that your images are worth diddly squat without good sound. But with the help of our post-production team in Toronto, we cleaned up the audio, which wasn’t horrible, just not equivalent to having a professional sound recordist in the field.

As this project comes to a close, we received the incredible news that we get to do it all over again in 2019. We have had two more projects accepted for grants by the CMF and cannot wait to begin the production process again. For Montecassino, all showtimes and the journey it will take after the post is available on our social media.

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