Trevor Graham and Jenni Meaney’s escape from Asti

Jenni Meaney and Trevor Graham in Asti.

I’ve just escaped from Asti, in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, where I’d been filming for 10 days. We fled in the nick of time, with our rushes and gear. But we left something of ourselves behind, bonds of friendship, bound more tightly by the danger of the coronavirus.

The moments of goodbye were awful. Not the usual, abbraccio, a hug and kiss on both cheeks, that is molto Italiano. Just a wave and a smile and a big ‘ciao’ or goodbye. But the smile was so half-hearted. Would this be the last time we would see each other? Would we get out of Italy?

What would be the destiny of our friends and colleagues we were leaving behind – the many families we’ve been working with to make our film, Chef Antonio’s Recipes for Revolution.

Together with cinematographer Jenni Meaney, I’ve been travelling back and forth to Asti since 2017. Chef Antonio is a feature documentary, observational in style with some amazing moments of intimacy amongst the people I’ve been working with. Over the years the bonds have grown very strong, so much so, that in true observational style, we the filmmakers disappear.

The action in front of camera is raw, spontaneous, humorous and sometimes dramatic – we are ‘sculpting this story in real time.’

Produced by myself and Lisa Wang, edited by Andrew Arestides, music by Cezary Skubiszewski and animations by Emma Kelly, the film will have its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August.

We have interest too from Berlin and San Sebastian. It will be released and exhibited throughout Italy, by La Sarraz Pictures and in Australia by Antidote Films and Flame Distribution.

The narrative is about Antonio de Benedetto, an inspirational chef who has created a revolutionary hotel and restaurant, in Asti, staffed by people with Down syndrome. The Albergo Etico, literally ethical hotel, trains people with intellectual disabilities to work in all areas of hospitality, as chefs, as hotel workers, as waiters.

It’s an opportunity of a lifetime, for people who otherwise have often been shunned by society, or given very limited options within their families. Training and employment at the hotel and chef Antonio’s restaurant, opens the door to future independent living for the trainees, so they too can take their place at the table of life.

Antonio wants to change, or harmonise the world, as he says, with good Italian food, made and served by people with Down syndrome. The story oozes humanity and affection. It’s one of those feel good stories that leave you smiling, as you leave the cinema.

We are in the final stages of editing. But there were just a few more pick ups shots we had to do in Asti. And despite the looming corona crisis, Jenni and I set off in late February for Asti. We were well prepped with hand wipes and sanitisers, which were used religiously.

At that stage the virus was really starting to impact in Lombardy in the north, around Milan, the economic hub of Italy. It’s a neighbour region to the Piedmont and Asti. At that stage we weren’t alarmed.

We had eight days works to complete amongst a small group of people and we were staying at the Albergo Etico. We knew them all well. This was our 7th shoot. We felt safe. But how things can change dramatically, from a just simple sneeze or cough.

Within just two days or arrival the coronavirus had infected a huge number of people in Lombardy and the Veneto. It quickly spread to other towns, even in the south. Twelve Lombardy towns were locked down by the government to halt the spread of the virus. Milan was virtually shut down.

We felt safe in Asti, but that too rapidly vanished. The town was soon deserted, empty streets, empty restaurants; the joie de vie of this small town was quickly shattered with fear. There was some minor panic in the supermarkets too. However, NO rush on toilet paper, anywhere. Fewer guests arrived at the Albergo Etico. Antonio’s restaurant came to a standstill. All the trainees returned to their families.

We shot and recorded all our pickups very quickly. I was also there to show my principal characters the work in progress. There were tears, laughter and enjoyment. It is fantastic how humour and laughter can be transmitted from one culture to another and back again. The sound of laughter in the air was magic.

But then events became more dramatic for us and our imminent departure for Australia. We worried, and our friends too, that we could find ourselves stranded in Asti. Just before we were about to leave, word had got out to the Italian press, that the government was considering further lock downs across the north. Our friends wanted us to leave immediately and offered to drive us to Turin, which was outside of the new lockdown zone.

We considered leaving then and there in the middle of the night. But others said, that this was only a plan and if implemented, the government would make the decree in a few days’ time, it wouldn’t happen immediately. It was too big to implement quickly.

Chef Antonio and Jessica Berta.

But at 2am that very night the Italian government closed most towns in the Piedmont, including Asti. We thought we were stuck. The hotel rang the local police to request permission for us to leave for Turin. It was Sunday. There was no answer. We assumed the police were setting up checkpoints as had happened in Lombardy.

Our assistant director drove us immediately to Turin about 40 minutes away. We sped down the freeway expecting roadblocks somewhere. Technically our assistant, Lorenzo, had broken the decree and the law by leaving Asti. But we were now out and he was able to return. The road blocks would be established later that day.

We were on our way home with two days to spend in Turin before our flights. By now almost all of the north of Italy was now in lockdown except for Turin. But even in Turin it was very quiet, very few people were venturing out. The museums were closed. Restaurants could only serve customers if they were meters apart.

We were packed, ready to leave and feeling up. All our rushes were sent to Sydney via electronic transfer. Home was in sight. But once again we were ambushed. Overnight the government issued another major decree. All of Italy was now to shut down. What would this mean for our flights? The hotel staff couldn’t tell us. They didn’t know.

There was no information online. Were there checkpoints at the airport? Would they let us out? Were planes even flying? Once again, we were in the dark, facing the unknown, worried we were too were now locked down.

Of course, we made it home, safely too and so far virus free. The three flights back to Australia were all mostly empty. Rome airport was not its normal bustling self.

Jenni Meaney, in Melbourne, myself in Bondi and also our film are all now in official quarantine, for 14 days. Editing has ground to a halt. My wife, Rose, has fled our apartment to stay with close friends. Food parcels are delivered to my front door. I’m well stocked with wine and I’m eating all the chocolate I brought back from Italy. Very delicious it is too.

The last week has been one of the most dramatic in my lifetime, so far. Fortunately, via technology, I can keep in touch with friends and family here and all the folk we left behind in Asti.

But the Italian health system is extremely strained. On Friday there were reports of doctors and nurses comparing their work to being just like a war zone, where they have to make life and death choices about who they can best save.

When you’ve been in such a gobsmacking situation and know that the dear friends and colleagues left behind are in dire circumstances, facing daily, the unknown, the horror – it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to convey that sense of worry and very deep angst I have for them, to people, my family and friends in Australia.

All we can do is be aware of our own personal hygiene and display the better angels of ourselves to one another, family friends and strangers alike. This is very much the take away theme from the wonderful Albergo Etico in Asti and the film I’m making, Chef Antonio’s Recipes for Revolution.

Dr Trevor Graham is the founder of Yarra Bank Films.