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Structural Integrity

'The Empty Building' takes on child abuse with surprising style and vision

By Sarah Phelan

A stylish and visually captivating film about child molestation, The Empty Building centers, as the title suggests, upon an empty building--a building demolished shortly after the film was wrapped.

Sipping water outside Chocolate in downtown Santa Cruz, producer-writer-director Giovanni Sanseviero, a New Yorker of Italian descent, recounts how he came to find this building. It's a story that deserves a film unto itself.

"What first grabbed my attention was a bunch of cars coming and going out of the front of this otherwise small, unremarkable and deteriorating four-story building on West 60th Street, on Hell's Kitchen's tail-end," recalls Sanseviero, who until then had only engaged in guerrilla-style shooting with a 16 mm camera and no permits.

Curious then as to whether he could shoot inside the building, Sanseviero chatted up the owner of the cab company, whose business took up the ground floor, and discovered that the rest of the building was abandoned and inaccessible. Soon he was climbing the elevator cable to investigate, a climb that paid off in spades.

"I immediately knew this broken-down palace was the ideal place to shoot my as-yet-unrealized project, " says Sanseviero, who told the cab owner that his project was "a student film, which would not take more than a couple of weeks to shoot."

As it happens, Sanseviero ended up mortgaging his home and living in a converted truck in a corner of the building's ground floor for a year and a half as he prepared the location for the project, which became more and more influenced by the building's protective shell.

But the whole project almost fell victim to issues of land ownership and permits, when the landlord, who Sanseviero describes as a "Donald Trump type," walked in a few weeks before shooting had even begun and found makeshift plumbing and electric, a homemade elevator, production offices and the construction of virtually all the film's sets, including a massive 50-foot-in-diameter, 16-foot-high octagon room, which served as a 360-degree stage and the focal point of the film.

"Through a face expanding with varying shades of purple, the landlord made himself eminently clear that the production would be given a very fast-approaching date for its completion--and only if every legality was in place, including the payment of back and future rent plus insurance--effective immediately, " says Sanseviero. He then had to deal with a host of NYC regulators, including the city Buildings Department, which stepped in with eviction in mind.

Building on the Pain of the Past

Luckily, Sanseviero's vision prevailed long enough to wrap the film a few weeks before the building was condemned, the city demolishing and reducing it some months later to a parking lot.

As it appears in the movie, the empty building stands in the middle of a snow-sprinkled forest, outside which people wait to go inside and relive a traumatic event that happened to them earlier in their life.

"Which is not to imply that all their problems are solved," says Sanseviero, admitting that the problems facing the film's central character, Benny, who at age 12 was abused by a pedophile, are based on his own childhood experiences.

"It took me 25 years to come to terms with what happened. So, if a kid is a victim of rape or abuse or whatever, maybe this film could accelerate the time needed, or at least alleviate their suffering. For me, the Academy Award is when someone relates to the film," says Sanseviero, who'd like to send copies of the film to schools and support organizations, "to pass on the message that people are not alone."

"When the lid blows off something like child abuse, there is no solid solution. You're handed these psychotherapy Band-Aids, you take tiny baby steps, but ultimately it's within yourself that the healing process takes place," says Sanseviero, who never told his parents about what happened to him as a child.

"When they saw the film, they loved it. My mother knew what was going on, she's from Florence. But my father, he's from Naples--not to cast aspersions, but for him, it was less clear. The guilt they felt, hurt, obviously, but I've reached a point where I have to do something for myself regardless. And if it's true love, they'll get over and deal with it. My purpose in bringing this film into the world is to be a hero to the kids, to the living dead, who think they don't count any more."

The Empty Building plays on Saturday, May 15, at 7pm at the Del Mar Theatre, along with Awful Normal, which also deals with child molestation. Both films also play on Wednesday, May 19, at 7pm at UCSC's Digital Media Theatre.

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From the May 12-19, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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