“A Personal Journey”
Interview with film
An underground non-commercial film has quickly become a classic among flamenco fans
Filmmaker Tao Ruspoli was born in Thailand, raised in Rome and Los Angeles and lives in Venice, California. His documentary film “A Personal Journey” has just won the audiovisual contest of Palucine at the prestigious Festival Flamenco Ciutat Vella. The film is a ground-breaking piece of work that provides a window onto a flamenco ambience few people have had the chance to experience. Most surprisingly, he shows us a young generation of flamenco interpreters not particularly interested in fusion or other experiments, but who are updating flamenco day by day with knowledge and humility, always taking a reading on the past.
Here, Ruspoli talks about himself and his extraordinary project.
When I was 14 and just starting to play electric guitar, I had the great fortune of meeting Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones (he was a friend of my late father, Prince Dado Ruspoli). In his hotel room in Rome, Keith picked up an old flamenco guitar and said to me, “If you want to learn how to play guitar, you should learn flamenco. If you can play flamenco, you can play anything!” This stayed in the back of my mind, and four years later, as a freshman at UC Berkeley, I went to a Paco de Lucia concert and of course was astonished by his playing. In the program I saw an ad for a local flamenco teacher, I took one lesson and was hooked — never went back to playing any other type of music.
I advanced quickly, and immediately gravitated to more traditional styles, started studying with Agustin Rios, nephew of Diego del Gastor, and three years later finally made my first trip to Spain. I’d just bought my first digital video camera, having developed an interest in filmmaking at Berkeley. I was supposed to go to Seville for two weeks, and then go back to university. Two weeks turned into a month, which turned into three months, which turned into six months. I’d arrived in Seville with the phone number of Juan del Gastor. Through him, I met Luis Peña and Paco Valdepeñas, and then all the other artists in the film.
I’m still an avid guitarist, and try to practice every day. I go back to Spain whenever possible and love listening to flamenco. That said, my main focus in life is film (and photography). I did record a CD of my playing with a small label, but I would be mortified if any real flamenco artist heard it or thought that I wanted to be taken seriously. I’m nothing more than a passionate aficionado.
The film evolved naturally. I started taping lessons, and then just started observing the lifestyle; I was particularly interested in the way flamencos integrated their art into every aspect of their lives. I also loved the way they used language, often surprisingly simple and profound metaphors, to describe what flamenco meant to them. I also loved the way the young flamencos I was hanging out with admired the tradition but didn't feel stuck in the past. Having studied philosophy at Berkeley, I also found the flamencos to be the most perfect example of Heideggerian authenticity — there was this constant struggle to express one's originality within the context of very deep-seated rules and structures.
“For flamenco to survive, it has to remain part of the fabric of everyday existence”
There are nearly 40 artists in the film. I never sought out the artists to film them, but people became used to seeing me with my little digital camera. Most people resisted at first, but once someone like Paco Valdepeñas told them it was okay, and I assured them this was not a money-making venture, that I was just filming for posterity, they usually were okay with it. A few artists hated the idea of being filmed, and I never pushed too hard. Once, Miguel Funi, who notoriously hates being filmed, caught me taping a show of his at a peña with Juan del Gastor. When he found out I was with Juan he relaxed a bit, and asked that I simply make him a copy. A week later, we saw each other again and I hadn't made the copy. He looked at me very seriously and said, “You may be Italian, but I am Gypsy, and if you don't make me a copy, I'll cut your nose off!” Needless to say, I had the copy ready for our next meeting!
I love the Rito y GeografÍa series; I think my film represents a different approach and a different era. This was not conceived as a commercial venture, because I had no financing and felt awkward asking the artists to sign away their rights without giving them anything in return. I didn't want to be yet another foreigner seen as exploiting their art. My intention was always to preserve these magical moments and characters, and I knew that the footage would acquire more and more cultural and historical significance as time went on. I was happy to see years later that the flamenco community seems to embrace internet as a format for sharing flamenco videos, and I knew that posting it this way wouldn't cause any suspicions with the artists. In fact, I have found that all the flamencos who have seen the film in this way really appreciate it and don't feel taken advantage of.
I think the message of the film is best understood by watching it. If I had to say one thing, it would be that we should nurture and respect this intense and beautiful culture in every way we can. For flamenco to survive, it has to remain part of the fabric of everyday existence. Whether or not this is possible, I don't know, but I am an optimist by nature, and I hope that in a small way my film can contribute to the preservation and exaltation of everything flamenco embodies and represents.