An Interview with Marco Orsini

by ANNA RABHAN
published: May 16, 2009

     Marco Orsini is a little taller than average but otherwise unremarkable in appearance. He has no odd mannerisms and speaks with no easily identifiable accent - all of which makes what comes out of his mouth that much more surprising.

      Cut to the flat, treeless dessert of Ethiopia. A convoy of white, rugged SUVs crawls through an inland depression that recent rains have turned into a sea. The water rises, the vehicles get stuck, the danger of angering the local tribe is ever present. One lone, reluctant traveler in the back seat pipes up, "Ooh, look! There's a Starbucks; can we stop?!"

      "I make fun of myself ... I make fun of Western culture, being that I represent Western culture in Ethiopia, and so I'm making fun of us, but not meaning to - it just happens."

      Marco Orsini has over 100 hours of TV programming to his credit. He has worked on such projects as the TV series Rome and has won several awards and honors for his work, including acceptance of his film Un Dia en la Vida at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. In 2001 he moved to Europe where he has lived ever since in Monte-Carlo and on the island of Mykonos. Therein lies the trait that Orsini and his new film, The Reluctant Traveler, share: a kind of split personality. Regardless of his success, Orsini is kind, humble and completely approachable. Regardless of the film's billing as a "documentary," it is also funny, humble and completely approachable.

      Orsini was more or less shanghaied into making a trip to, and a documentary about, the developing country of Ethiopia. His partner, Mark, had planned a trip for himself and his MEFs (Mark's European Friends), who all have the means to do whatever they want and yet choose a holiday of camping with nomads. Marco was supposed to just be along for the ride - reluctantly. He would rather have been getting a massage on the beach. But when his partner got sick and couldn't go ("Literally the morning we were leaving, two bags packed, he says, 'I'm not going.'"), Orsini was on his own and about to be out of his element. With a film crew already booked, there was no turning back.

      What resulted was a funny, irreverent, fascinating trip through a country and a culture that not many Westerners have attempted to learn anything about, much less experience. Orsini says, "[I was] in one of the most ancient countries in the world that had its borders closed for 1,000 years. I truly am one of the few people who have been able to go into that country and do what I did. How many documentaries have you seen on Ethiopia? Not too many and so I felt like I was crossing over into virgin territory." When asked what his hopes are for this film, Orsini says, "I'm hoping that what makes this film enjoyable is that people watching it will say, 'Wow, I would react the same way if I was in his shoes.'"

      One has to wonder where such a sense of adventure (reluctant or not) comes from in someone who won't leave home without his favorite face cream. Maybe it comes from a childhood of moving from army base to army base or maybe it's innate. "I have to be constantly moving ... getting away, doing something different." It could be from a desire to learn to care about others' perspectives. "I'm an American living abroad and I have to look at things from other people's point of view and after a while you have to care because we're not here alone. We're on this planet with a lot of other people." Wherever that sense of adventure comes from, he had to use every ounce of it on the trek through Ethiopia. In the film, he says the trip, "... has been one of the most challenging, excruciating, most exhausting things I've ever done ..."

      After leaving a particularly dangerous area, the group dismissed the Ethiopians they had hired as protection and began to set up camp for the night. What they didn't know was that they were preparing to camp on tribal land and the tribe was not happy to have a bunch of foreigners in their backyard. One of the tribesmen, who had particularly beautiful hair, was demanding that they leave. Orsini, not understanding the heated conversation between his guide and the man, insisted on knowing what sort of "product" the man used in his hair. When the interpreter finally relented and asked the tribesman Orsini's question, the emissaries from the tribe laughed and walked away. "I was saying stupid things ... all along, which made it funny, but there was an element of danger there. I think one uses comedy as a way to diffuse tension and to kind of make light of a very serious matter."

      It wasn't all narrow escapes and bizarre situations though. "This film is not about what people think of Ethiopia, which is civil war, dictatorship, famine ... That is a stigma that will be with them for a long time. You [see in this film] kids singing, you [see] me in family homes, you [see] the best of Ethiopia. I went to parties, festivals ... I broke bread with them as a Westerner and they accepted me."

      One fascinating aspect of the film is to see the (unintentional) character, Orsini, transition from being obviously reluctant to release himself to the experience to coming to feel a connection with the people and the energy. He even experiences a kind of spiritual reawakening during the trip. "You feel something that is alive and if you don't feel it, you absolutely see it with everyone around you."

      His experience in Ethiopia inspired him to champion the country as a project for the International Emerging Film Talent Association, which he co-founded and directs. The IEFTA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping filmmakers and encouraging the nascent film industry in developing countries. Orsini has been back to Ethiopia several times since filming The Reluctant Traveler and has established a film school there. "I have Columbia University, Howard University, Houston University in Ireland and the British film council ... there are about 20 organizations that are contributing anything from books to professors to equipment to class lectures to tuition, sponsorships, all of it. I didn't want to do this film. It's not something that I meant to do. I was supposed to be skiing in Sundance and ... just fluttering around as I was doing and this trip changed that."

      When asked about his vision of the future for The Reluctant Traveler, he says, "I think this would be a great series, like maybe 4 or 5 more in different areas, where people can see different parts of the world as opposed to through the eyes of an archaeologist or an explorer ... how about just a soccer mom coming along with me. Like my [promo] card says, 'When a postcard isn't enough.'"

      Orsini sees the Jacksonville Film Festival as a true testing ground for his film. "Jacksonville is very important for me. This is my world premiere ... It will carry me to the next festival. We don't know how people are going to react to this because it's kind of different. It's kind of out there. I think I'm going to be standing by the exit door when the film is playing just in case ... [but] I hope that people are moved by the story, learn about Ethiopia and enjoy it. I hope that people stand up and ask me questions after the film ... because if they ask me, that means they care."

      As far as his own future goes, Orsini is now writing a coming-of-age story. American Way started as a film concept and the script was in "All Access" at Tribeca, but it has since turned into more of a book project. He says, "I'm getting more into my writing again, which is a great feeling, and I'm helping people with their scripts and so I want to focus on that some more. I want to focus on my writing career." He intends to tour with The Reluctant Traveler for the next 6 months to a year and then, "I want to see it on TV and focus on my school in Ethiopia and then see what happens."

      His plans for the future mean that it may be a while before the world sees another Marco Orsini film, and that makes The Reluctant Traveler all the more special. Like a once-in-a-lifetime trip, this film is a rare and wonderful experience not to be missed.

      See The Reluctant Traveler at 5 Points Theatre Sunday, May 17 at 7 p.m.