Documenting the Odyssey

Filmmakers Suma Kurien and her husband, Gianfranco Norelli
Focusing on one ethnic group's U.S. climb from persecution to prominence, a film by two more-recent immigrants reveals struggles and paradoxes of newcomers everywhere.

Perhaps only an immigrant can give full voice to what other immigrants have experienced - even if the immigrant is from India by way of Ethopia and her tale concerns Italians who came in waves to America after 1880.

Suma Kurien, who in 2001 founded LaGuardia Community College's Center for Immigrant Education and Training, teamed up with her Italian-born husband, film director Gianfranco Norelli, to make an award-winning documentary, "Pane Amaro" (Bitter Bread). It is believed to be the first comprehensive depiction on film of the early Italian-American experience. "Pane Amaro" premiered in 2007 in Italy, as anti-immigrant sentiment heated up there over an influx of often illegal newcomers, mainly from North Africa and Eastern Europe. An English-language DVD was released in spring 2009.

Kurien, the film's co-writer and co-producer, approached the project with a broad perspective drawn from years of working with the ethnically diverse Queens community. She founded the center at LaGuardia to provide comprehensive educational services to help low-income immigrants become fuller participants in the city's economic and social life. Funded with city, state, federal and private funds, it now serves about 600 people a year.

"Many immigrants have to overcome multiple barriers in order to become part of the society," she said. "It's an attempt to make that process smoother for themselves and their families. I came as a more privileged immigrant, knowing English and the culture." She learned English from her parents, who taught in India and Ethopia. After immigrating in 1978, she earned an Ed.D. in curriculum and teaching at Columbia University Teacher's College and got her first job in the United States as an English as a second language instructor at LaGuardia.

Her husband suggested doing the film to highlight the parallels between the plights of 19th century Italian immigrants in the United States and the hostility with which Italy has greeted recent immigrants. "There is language in the newspapers that is disturbing," said Norelli. "There are people who say racist things that go unchallenged."

A noted producer of documentaries for American and European television networks who emigrated from Rome in 1979, Norelli made a proposal to RAI, Italy's national television network. The result was this 103-minute documentary. "We thought it was ironic," said Kurien, "that Italians who traveled to other parts of the world to make a living would find it hard to accept immigrants in their own midst." Italians - many fleeing extreme poverty - started coming to the U.S. in the 1880s in large numbers.

After the Civil War, Southern companies recruited Sicilians to replace formerly enslaved African-Americans on sugar and cotton plantations. In 1910, Booker T. Washington, the famed African-American leader, humanist and former slave, traveled to the south of Italy to encounter child slavery in Sicily. He witnessed a people "so wretchedly poor in everything else, they are nevertheless unusually rich in children. . . ." Healthy young males were especially valued by the Sicilian mining industry and routinely traded for cash. "From this slavery there is no hope of freedom," wrote Washington. "Neither the parents nor the child will ever have sufficient money to repay the original loan. Strange and terrible stories are told about the way in which these boy slaves have been treated by their masters…one sees processions of half-naked boys, their bodies bowed under the heavy weight of the loads they carried, groaning and cursing as they made their way up out of the hot and sulphurous holes in the earth."

Kurien and Norelli conducted four years of research in the United States and Italy. "We proposed [the film] to counter the stereotypes and the oversimplification that the Italians who came here had an easy life and that Americans welcomed them with open arms," said Norelli. They pieced together personal accounts by community members, commentary by scholars, and historical photographs and footage. It traces the history of Italians in the U.S from 1880 to 1950, "from being outsiders and unwanted to becoming part of the American society with political and economic power," Kurien said.

Norelli - a political science graduate of the University of Rome who came to New York on a scholarship to study journalism and film-making at New York University, said "Pane Amaro" "brings to life pivotal events," including the mass lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans in 1891. Nine had been tried and acquitted for lack of evidence in the murder of a police officer who was investigating organized crime. Ten thousand residents mobbed a prison where they were held, killing all of the Italian inmates, shooting nine and hanging two.

Police investigating the still-unsolved murder of crusading journalist Carlo Tresca on Fifth Avenue in 1943; N.Y. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia; Congressman Vito Marcantonio with singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson.
The documentary also depicts events like the growth of Italian Harlem, the largest Little Italy in North America; the settlement houses and the process of Americanization; the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, in which dozens of Italian women were among the 146 workers who died; the role of Italian-American workers in the American labor movement; and internment of Italian-American civilians who were declared "enemy aliens" during World War II.

"We talk about political involvement, fighting for better working conditions, the anarchists and also terrorists," Kurien said. "The goal was a nuanced picture of the history, not simply a celebratory one."

The film also features the rise of Italian-American leaders, among them three-term Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1934-1945), of Italian and Jewish heritage, after whom the community college and the airport are named.

While RAI funded the Italian version of the documentary, Italy's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Italian American Foundation contributed to make the English-language version for use in American schools. "People from other immigrant origins talk to us about how relevant it is to them," said Norelli. "Many professors want to incorporate it in their curriculum." Kurien and Norelli are screening the film at colleges in the U.S. and Canada, and for Italian-American organizations. The title "Pane Amaro" comes from a popular Neapolitan song of the early 1900s about the emigrant's pain at being separated from home and family. For Kurien and Norelli, the theme is a universal one.

"The film is about the immigrant experience in general, not just the Italian," Kurien said.