Berlinale 2019: Subject and Artist Unite in the Novel ‘Selfie’

by Redmond Bacon
Published: Last Updated on

Selfie adopts a novel approach to the documentary genre, allowing its subjects to act as their own cameramen. The method is simple: director Agostino Ferrente gives his characters iPhones, essentially telling them to make the movie themselves. The result is a ragged mix of the true crime and hangout genre that works as portraiture but frustrates as an investigation.

Selfie explores the aftermath of a Carabiniere killing in the Traiano district of Naples through the perspective of two boys, Alessandro and Pietro. Alessandro was in his flat when he heard a gunshot go off — an innocent 16-year-old boy named Davide was mistakenly identified as a wanted man, then pursued by the police. One policeman shot him dead, claiming that the gun went off when he tripped. The shocking killing made national headlines, with the media painting the Davide as a victim.

These prejudices exist because these boys live in a poor neighborhood, where jobs are scarce and the Camorra reign. This seems to be accepted as a fact of life. One girl explains how she might wait ten years for her husband in jail, but twenty years is too much. Neither Alessandro nor Pietro, who know people in jail and know people who have been murdered, want to join that life. they instead turn to each other for moral support.

Alessandro and Pietro are best friends; in fact, their only friends are each other. Alessandro is a barman, while Pietro is an unemployed hairdresser. Pietro often tries out new techniques on Alessandro’s hair, while Alessandro encourages his obese friend to lose weight. Together, they come into contact with the Mafia, their relatives, and people affected by the murder. But mostly, they just hang out, giving Selfie a very relaxed quality. The case isn’t explored in too much detail, as the boys are more interested in talking about their own feelings and insecurities than the nitty-gritty of how the shooting went down. 

SelfieThis approach by Agostino Ferrente raises interesting questions about what we mean by authenticity in the documentary genre, and whether it comes at the expense of truth. A professional documentarian, perhaps one who has a background in journalism, might have dug deeper into the case, uncovering key witnesses and testimony that speaks out against injustice. The boys, despite some efforts at talking to those affected and painting a general picture of Neapolitan life, can’t achieve the same effect. Nonetheless, this approach does help to give an insight into the attitude and emotion of these characters more effectively.

Other subjects were evidently approached to help document the film, but it seems that they declined. One girl explains that she only came to speak for a bit because she was bored. Two twelve-year-olds refuse to answer any questions, asking for cigarettes instead. These kind of meta-documentary moments, in which people ask “why are you filming?” as they goof around with the camera, show the limits of documentary filmmaking to really get at the truth. One fascinating scene sees us come into contact with a Camorra “pusher,” but he quickly cuts off Pietro before revealing anything really interesting. Nonetheless, for an insight into the everyday lives of left-behind Neapolitans, Selfie is a great counterpoint to the sordidness of Gomorrah.

The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

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