Shepherds In The Cave: Review

Shepherds In The Cave: Review

Shepherds In The Cave: Review – The shepherd has a responsibility offering humanity a guarantee that natural laws will be respected. There are spaces that exist to be travelled across and spaces that exist to be cultivated. The shepherd must know and respect these rules that are part of a social conflict between the shepherd and farmer. The shepherd recognises and respects the growth of the flock because this brings serenity. 

As a child in the south-eastern Italian region of Puglia, Tonio Creanza helped harvest the durum wheat, vineyards, and olive tree cultivation on his family farm, while constantly observing archaeological features – cave settlements and frescos – which were all part of his daily landscape. Always curious about these artefacts, he questioned where they came from and which culture they were related to.  Turning his childhood curiosity into a career as an archaeologist, Tonio travelled the world until he was summonsed home to help harvest the olives. From 1995 he organised the first archaeological workshop at the site of Jesce, Fornello, a transportation stop during the Roman empire along the Via Appia (Appian Way). 

A self-confessed pragmatist and idealist who acts, Tonio named the project Eutropia, after the imaginary city in Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities. It was to be a place where people would meet and trade experiences, while coming into contact with grassroots cultural conservation. Restoration of stone walls and frescoes, and the cleaning of caves took place and the group continued in an unofficial capacity for fifteen years. According to Tonio, the municipality just had other more urgent matters to attend to so they handed them the keys and left them to it. 

It was a way of avoiding the habitual red-tape that had previously prevented projects progressing, but at the same time meant that sites and museums which held all the artefacts, had appeared to have been mismanaged: “In a country like Italy, where there’s a tremendous amount of antiquity, the question is where to spend the available funds”. Now officially called The Fornello Restoration Project, this cultural conservation initiative founded by Tonio and agronomist Giovanni Ragone, is devoted to restoring medieval frescoes and traditional cultural practices in an extensive network of caves near Altamura.  

The project continues to welcome groups of people for twelve days each summer, all working together on sites in Altamura and Puglia, Matera & Metaponto. Participants come from all over the world, a working vacation for some and research gathering for others. Sites previously owned by farmers, some now owned by the municipality, continue to be in daily use. The caves continue to be used for cheese-making and protecting sheep in bad weather. These caves possess fresco-covered walls – the art-work of 12th century Byzantine monks who fled persecution in the Balkans and took refuge here. To the visiting foreigners these are exotic treasures – « If you grow up living in this neighbourhood, well then frescoes are just ordinary, aren’t they? », observed one participant.

However, the young Italian participants state that they themselves are often unaware of the treasure the country possesses. Meanwhile the weather-beaten Italian farmers discuss the sale of some of the caves to the municipality, and their memories of wandering tourists visiting the living sites, some of which have now become locked up treasures, away from the gaze of admiring visitors. Their work as regional storytellers has diminished.  « Knowing these things connects you to your roots », states a young Italian engineer. I suspect this is the same sentiment experienced by the farmers. 

Inspired by a friend working on the project, Canadian director and producer Anthony Grieco’s interest in making a film grew when he discovered that the caves were still being used. “The area’s caves and frescoes have suffered from neglect”, he said, “but not necessarily mishandling.” The striking images by cinematographer Jon Thomas mean that the scenes glide slowly, reflecting the measured work – artisanal and restorative – as well as the long summer days, the working farmers, and prolonged communal meals.

Tonio accepts diverse people from around the world into the project. During the summer of the film he welcomed icon restorers, speleologists, art historians, engineers, biological and apprentice anthropologists, and even an asylum-seeker who arrived on the nearby Puglian shore from Libya. All silently working on their own piece of the caves, collaborating and learning as they go. In this rural place, these caves cannot become a museum. The only way they can be preserved is to integrate them, as has always been the way, with the activities and lifestyle of the local shepherds. Cheese is still made in the traditional way, using rennet, and shepherds still have the right of way, their sheep naturally fertilizing the olive fields as they pass. 

Stories from participants are woven together throughout the film as they reflect on the treasure they have in front of them and under their feet. For the participants, the value lies in participating in the discovery as well as the community. Donato, poet, musician, and storyteller is an integral part of the project with his stories and meditations infiltrating the process: “The cave offers us the chance to rediscover our solitude (…) The cave is the heart of the earth. It teaches us to be accepting of ourselves and one another because we’re all strangers on this earth. We are all strangers…”. 

As the summer’s project comes to an end and Tonio listens to the participants reflect on their experience, the words community and connection are repeated – to the site, land, people, both visitors and locals. Tonio embraces everyone, and waves them off back out into the world as they promise to return the following year. 

Grieco’s film admirably brings together history, storytelling, grief, community and the connection that is created from working together. At the heart of the story is the question of the exotic. What is strange and beautiful to one person appears ordinary and banal to the person who sees it and lives with it daily. What is of intrinsic value is essentially the premise of the film, with the film’s aesthetic successfully incorporating the restoration project as well as the locals, who continue their work throughout the summer, observing and being observed by the project participants. The restoration of the caves in Puglia is not just about renovation and repair but also about something being both functional and valuable, while enabling a richer understanding of our world today. 

SHEPHERDS IN THE CAVE was produced with support from the Canada Council for the Arts and Red Mammoth Media. (Screened at Royal Anthropological Institute Film Festival (UK), Ethnografilm Festival (Paris, France), Cinema on the Bayou (Louisiana, USA), Italian Film Festival (Vancouver, Canada), Cinema Grande (Altamura, Italy), Teatro della Memoria (Jesce, Italy), Casa Artelor Gallery (Timisoara, Romania), and the Archaeology Channel Film Festival (Eugene, Oregon).

For more of Anthony Grieco’s film projects, have a look here:

You’ll find more information about the project here:

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An Australian who has spent most of her adult life in Paris, Louise is a sometime photographer, documentary-maker, writer, researcher, day-dreamer and interviewer, who prefers to start the day at the local cinema’s 9am session.


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