How Student Squatters Saved A Classic Roman Cinema

An old cinema in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood was abandoned until a group of students refurbished it to give new life to masterpieces of the past. But they never anticipated what would happen next.

Renovating Rome's Cinema America
Renovating Rome's Cinema America
Marcelle Padovani

ROME — It's a typical 1950s cinema, with red bricks, neon lights and 700 vintage seats, an institution in Rome's bohemian Trastevere neighborhood. The Cinema America was closed for 14 long years, until the afternoon of Nov. 13, 2012, when Valerio Carocci, a 21-year-old student in communication sciences, took possession of the building together with some 50 other students.

People in Trastevere expected that it would eventually be turned into a parking lot or luxury flats. Instead, the students wanted to resurrect a place where Roman culture and entertainment were celebrated.

So, equipped with pickaxes, iron bars and drills, the students broke the bolt on the Cinema America and moved in so they could clean the building and repaint the walls. Residents praised them for their work and even helped finance the refurbishment. Four months later, the cinema reopened its doors.

Soon, the America was running at full capacity. Young and old alike rejoiced at the opportunity to watch old classics such as Rossellini's Rome, Open City, Pasolini's Accattone or Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly for just 2 euros ($2.30).

Besides Carocci, Luisa, Lorenzo, Valerio II, Alessandro and many others were involved with the cinema's rebirth. Until the project came along, some of the students spent their afternoons wandering about in Rome's historical center thinking about refurbishing abandoned buildings. After six months of scouting and spotting, they finally set their hearts on the America, one of the capital's biggest cinemas.

Inside Rome's Cinema America — Photo: Cinema America Occupato

"Don't put too much in your backpacks," Carocci told his friends before they became squatters on the site. "Three pairs of underwear and socks and a sleeping bag." The young man prepared and executed the mission methodically, so well in fact that the daily La Repubblica described him as an "expert squatter."

But he and his friends only occupied the site after negotiations with the city administration and the cinema owners failed. And most importantly, Carocci managed to win the impressive support of the crème de la crème of Italian cinema — Ettore Scola, Paolo Sorrentino, Matteo Garrone, Bernardo Bertolucci, Francesco Rosi and the Taviani brothers.

Friends in high places

The group forged strong links with producers, distributors, actors, directors, scriptwriters, all alarmed at the growing number of cinemas disappearing in the Italian capital. No fewer than 42 had shuttered over the course of just 10 years.

Even English film director Ken Loach, who was in Rome in late December 2014 to present his film Jimmy’s Hall, praised the Cinema America adventure and the youth behind it. "They're defending art and are proving prejudices about young people wrong," he said. "There's an umbilical cord connecting what's happening on screen to what's happening in the street, and we must protect this link with every means possible. With them."

Photo: Cinema America Occupato Facebook page

If the squatting was illegal, Carocci and his friends have since been careful to abide by the law and security norms. Opposed to all forms of violence, they're careful to keep at bay any protest groups who might want to pick up on the movement.

The enterprise turned Carocci into a hero of sorts whom journalists from London and New York have come to interview. And he's visibly pleased to be in the limelight to present his ideas, not just about cinema, but also about culture in general, youth, Rome and Italy.

The Cinema America's logo and motto reads, "Hic sunt leones" ("Here lie the lions"). It's also prominent on its website, which the students created. Visitors can find out more about the theater's history, the program and also buy T-shirts dedicated to the glory of the "occupation." The "expert squatters" also have a flair for business, it turns out.

Photo: Cinema America Occupato Facebook page

In the end, their sense of citizenship paid off. Authorities didn't charge them, and then-President Giorgio Napolitano even wrote them a letter offering his support. In July 2014, Italy's Culture Minister sealed the site's fate in a decree: Cinema it used to be, cinema it shall remain.

Curtain down

That's when things took a turn for the worse. Panic-stricken at the news that the students had received the highest authority's blessing, the owners filed a plea and obtained an evacuation order. It was executed at dawn on Sept. 3, 2014.

That night, Carocci was sleeping alone in the building. He swears he heard a policeman tell another, "I've never seen such a well-kept cinema." Police were obligated to haul him in, but he was freed the same evening.

Three days later, he began occupying a site adjacent to the America, an old bakery abandoned long ago. He set about refurbishing that, and very quickly began showing films and organizing debates there. At the same time, he began negotiations with the owners of the Cinema America, who had by then understood that they could never build a parking lot, a supermarket or apartments on the cinema site. But they wanted money. A lot of money.

"They bought the cinema for 2 million euros," says a friend of Carocci's. "And they're asking us for more than double. It's too much. We've offered them 2.5 million euros ($2.8 million). Most of it comes from donations, mainly from people in the film industry. We'll need to negotiate."

It's still unclear what the owners' decision will be, but whatever the end result, one thing is certain: Rome's film-loving squatters have the backing of Romans.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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