Exploring Poverty through Personal Hygiene

An interview with Stefania Bona and Francesca Scalisi, directors of BATH PEOPLE

By Charlotte Harding

Six years ago, filmmaker Stefania Bona stumbled upon a hidden architectural gem on the streets of Turin, Italy. “It was like an abstract vision,” says Bona of the fateful sighting, “it was a very grey and cloudy day, and I saw a group of Roma travellers in colourful dress noisily entering an apparently abandoned building, with a big red neon sign that read ‘bagni’.”

In that moment Bona realised that the red-bricked structure was in fact the last public bath house in the industrial city, and from that point onwards she was eager to learn more about those who frequented and worked within the faded establishment.

Enlisting the help and energy of fellow filmmaker, Francesca Scalisi, the duo set out to make Bath House, a film that highlights the unassuming conflict boiling inside the public facility’s crumbling facades, depicting the beauty and care regimes of the economically vulnerable lower class using its services, with honesty and integrity; “I fell in love with the place,” Bona explains, “it gathered all the feelings I wanted to convey and gave us a chance to explore the issue of poverty in a more intimate way.”

Turin, like many other cities across Europe, is plagued with issues of poverty and social exclusion. Alongside this, the current influx of immigrants and refugees has taken a heavy toll on the region, causing xenophobic tensions to intensify between those entering Turin searching for a better life, and its long-standing residents.

“Since the economic crisis, a lot of people have fallen into a drastically lower condition of living and lost their jobs,” explains Bona, whose own worsening economic difficulties meant she held a personal connection to these issues. “I’ve always been interested in telling invisible people stories, and I felt if I had experienced bad luck I could have easily been in the same situation as those visiting the baths.”

As they filmed, Scalisi and Bona started to unearth the intricate complexities of the lives led by the many people that pass in and out of the bath house’s doors. “When we started to engage with the reality of the place, we understood that it wasn’t fair to depict just this slice of the population,” says Scalisi. “The baths were in fact a microcosm richer than that, collecting and connecting so many different people, stories, cultures and classes. It became a metaphor for the purification from all the struggles and injustice of this world.”

“It was an intense experience, consisting of very difficult days and others very positive, full of exciting encounters and stimulating conversations,” Bona describes of the long journey to capture the bath’s inhabitants. “The best moments were all the encounters we had with people who trusted and opened themselves up to us. Speaking on the lasting impression they would like Bath People to leave, both unanimously advocate the bath house as a place for community engagement, as a space with a unique ability to break down the societal barriers between cultures and classes; “it is a precious place, a human and urban habitat that has to be protected, always at risk of fading away just like the people who pass by.”

BATH PEOPLE is screening at the RAI FILM FESTIVAL on Saturday 1 April, 3:30 PM
Information and tickets here