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In the Shadow of a Volcano

An encounter with a legendary director at Italy’s film restoration powerhouse set her on a course for a life in cinema. 

Born in 1979 in Torino, home to the National Museum of Cinema, Gaia Russo Frattasi’s first love was theater. She pursued this passion at the University of Torino. After graduating with a degree in theater history, she discovered L’Ipotesi Cinema, a series of workshops featuring industry professionals and hosted by Italy’s film restoration powerhouse Cineteca Bologna. After attending a workshop taught by veteran director Ermanno Olmi, she decided to change her focus from theater to cinema. Shortly thereafter, she made the documentary “Miriam – Variazioni” about a popular Torino nightclub act. The short film premiered at the 2005 Torino Film Festival and was awarded Best Film or Video.


Russo Frattasi has honed her craft over the years, making numerous videos and documentaries with her production company, Moby Film. A few years ago, while accompanying her friend on a research assignment at a weather station on Stromboli, an island dominated by an active volcano, she met her future protagonist, Carolina. The elementary school teacher was selling ceramic art made by her students to raise money for her association, "Scuola in mezzo al mare" (School in the Middle of the Sea). In particular, they needed to buy a satellite dish for remote learning. The story struck the young filmmaker, and that’s when her next project began.  


The resulting 2019 documentary, “Scuola in mezzo al mare,” is an enchanting and insightful film that follows Carolina in her quest to provide a comprehensive learning experience for the children of Stromboli while keeping their parents from pursuing education off the island. The documentary features long, uninterrupted shots of life as it plays out, with candid conversations among parents about the benefits of raising their children on the island versus the downsides of growing up in extreme isolation.

“Before doing the actual shooting, I was on the island several times alone with my camera to interview the inhabitants and understand how their life worked, from education, to services, to the relationship with nature, to depopulation,” Russo Frattasi explains in an interview with Fra Noi.


After securing funding for the film, she put together a small crew. She chose two women — cinematographer Sabina Bologna and sound engineer Sonia Portuguese — because she felt an all-female crew would be more sensitive to the people’s plight. Her goal was to spotlight the challenges of operating an education system in the shadow of a volcano that erupts about 20 times a day.


The film documents the harsh weather changes on the island and their impact on its residents. “Despite the paradisiac summer facade, every winter the community experiences loneliness and isolation. The school often remains closed, and the island inexorably depopulates,” Russo Frattasi explains. 

Watch a few clips from our interview...

The documentary sheds light on the lack of services many Italian territories face due to the massive movement toward large urban centers. Russo Frattasi’s message is that we need to foster a deep relationship with nature and to rediscover ourselves as integral to the ecosystem in which we are immersed. “Nature is not to be seen as an obstacle, but with us as guests,” she says. “We need to ask ourselves if, and how, a life is possible outside the big city.”

The film concludes with a touching and dramatic scene of the students making their way up Mount Stromboli to explore the terrain. They talk among themselves about their fears of living so close to an active volcano, standing over it in amazement as it begins to rumble. Russo Frattasi says that shooting the scene was as incredible as watching it. “We reached the top around sunset time. There was a lot of wind. We almost couldn't keep the camera still on the tripod. The ash rose copiously, and we had to clean the lenses all the time. Shooting while the volcano erupts is an indescribable emotion.”


Click here to watch "Scuola in mezzo al mare" with English subtitles on Amazon. To watch more of Russo Frattasi’s work, visit her Vimeo channel at

- Written by Jeannine Guilyard for the January, 2023 edition of Fra Noi Magazine. Click here to subscribe.


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