Jon Raben is a geologist, not a professionally trained filmmaker, and until five years ago – when he dove headfirst into the neighborhood’s history and culture – he, like most outsiders, had visited Federal Hill only for the occasional dinner.
Even when he decided, in 2001, to make a film about Federal Hill, it wasn’t meant to be a life-consuming project. He did it on a shoestring, he said, with recent film school graduates helping him as a “curiosity” and an “academic” endeavor.
People were wary at first, he recalled. But as Raben learned more, and they understood “we weren’t making a film about gangsters,” he said, “they started welcoming us.” He interviewed the living legends, their children and grandchildren, and the official and unofficial chroniclers of Federal Hill history.
He met with Joseph DeGiulio, owner of Joe’s Acorn Market, an old-fashioned butcher’s shop on Atwells Avenue that closed the following year. He interviewed Joe and Sal Marzilli, of Joe’s Old Canteen Restaurant; Lombard J. and Mark Ugo Gasbarro, of Gasbarro’s Wines; Lois Scialo Ellis and Carol Scialo Gaeta, of Scialo Brothers Bakery.
He spoke with priests and political leaders – including, before he went to prison, then-Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci – and recorded local musicians.
The result is “Italian Americans and Federal Hill,” a documentary tracing the history of the neighborhood from the late 1800s to the present. It premieres at the Columbus Theater on Friday, Sept. 29, and will be shown again on Saturday and Sunday (a matinee). A companion book also will be available at the event.
He’s talking about making other films plus another version of “Federal Hill”, with Italian subtitles, to enter in festivals in Italy. “I think it’s a nice fit, because it’s all about people who came from Italy 100 years ago, and what they’re like in American culture today,” Raben said.