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Rest In Peace, Gil Rossellini

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My friend phoned last week, just to check in and say hello. I missed his call, and the message asked that I not return it immediately, as it was getting late in Rome. He sounded up, as usual, and I made a mental note to get back to him later -- but soon. Sooner still, it was too late. Gil Rossellini was dead.

It was always inspiring to hear Gil's raspy voice rattling across the ocean, but never so much as in recent years, for whenever we would speak, he would inevitably punctuate his remarks by exclaiming, "Rory, every morning when I wake up, I thank God I'm alive!"

It's a lovely sentiment, but to grasp its true import, you first have to understand what Gil had gone through -- and was still going through everyday. Four years ago, while getting off an airplane en route to a film festival in Sweden, he collapsed and fell into a coma. Beset by a drug-resistant bacterial infection that began eating away his skin and organs, he hovered between life and death for nearly a month. Twice doctors thought he wouldn't last the night. Finally they intervened with a desperate, dangerous operation that saved his life but cost him the use of his legs, leaving him weak and in a wheelchair. He then faced his infirmity head on, throwing himself with courage and vigor into an excruciating rehabilitation regime in Switzerland -- while simultaneously documenting his recovery in two revelatory films, ironically and presciently entitled "Kill Gil," Volume 1 and 2.

It was through film making that we had met, back in the last decade of the last century. Gil had just produced "Enemy Mine," a series of six one-hour films examining contemporary European conflict zones. Although it was produced in association with Italy's RAI, and several other key European broadcasters also aired the series, he had unsurprisingly found little interest in the United States. At the time, Globalvision was producing its non-profit weekly series "Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television" in sixty-two countries - a program we had started out of frustration with an inability to get our own human rights-oriented work on air. A mutual friend, the film critic Gerald Peary, suggested that Gil contact me because our company was "one the few places around actually into films about human rights." Sure we were into Rossellini's series, I explained with a smile when we met -- we just didn't have much money to license it...

In the end, we struck a deal and forged a friendship, one that grew after I purchased a house around the corner from his on Long Island. Soon Gil and his wife Edy -- both generous and welcoming neighbors - became close family friends. Gil in particular was a huge hit with my two young sons, as he drove them giddily through the suburban streets in a tiny, exquisite, cherry red toy Ferrari convertible Gil had painstakingly restored, outfitted with a 100cc engine, and shipped to America. His famous father's famous friend Enzo Ferrari had personally bestowed it upon Gil decades earlier, when he was a little boy...

Ah, yes, his famous father... It's true that Gil came from that Rossellini family -- at times both a blessing and a bane. One result was that people often seemed to come at him in order to go through him, intent on reaching his sister Isabella the famous actress, or commemorating his father Roberto, the genius filmmaker. It must have been painful at times for such a creative person to have his own work regarded so lightly and used as a pawn - "Inevitably, his own achievements pale in comparison with those of his father," one feature article thoughtlessly put it -- and Gil was an extraordinarily creative person, adept at many forms of expression, from videography to filmmaking to music.

Yet there were advantages as well of being a Rossellini. Gil was a celebrity in New Delhi, for example -- something the extraordinary circumstances of his birth had much to do with, of course. The story, at least as Gil told it, went like this: Facing India's tenth anniversary of independence, its leader Nehru invited Roberto Rossellini to make a film to commemorate the occasion. While there, he took up with a married woman, the mother of one child who was pregnant with her next. Despite the ensuing scandal, he left the country with her, and the baby was born soon thereafter. Arjun Das Gupta was then raised in Rome as Roberto Rossellini's son Gil.

As the Guardian noted in a 2004 profile:

"As childhoods go, Gil Rossellini's sounds idyllic. As he sits in the courtyard of a villa in Venice, the dapper Italo-Indian producer reminisces about long, lazy family holidays spent with his extended family. He was very close to his father. Both shared a passion for racing cars and machinery. At home, they built a special lab where they fooled around with lenses, movie cameras and Moviolas. 'There was this 60-year-old man and this 10-year-old boy, always tinkering together,' he says, evoking an image of a sorcerer and his apprentice.

In the summer, the entire Rossellini clan would decamp to a house by the sea - seven kids from three different marriages, various nannies and several of the kids' friends. Two of the wives would stay the whole time. There would be fleeting visits from Ingrid Bergman, film and theatre commitments permitting. Rossellini himself would turn up at weekends in his grand Ferrari.

Gil was aware that his father was a film-maker, but didn't know much about his work. When he was 12, he worked as a runner on one of his father's films, Acts of the Apostles. 'It was heaven on earth because it was shot in Tunisia in the middle of the school year,' he says. 'But when I was older, 16 or 17, I considered having to be on the set with my father as child abuse. It wasn't really fun.'

At home, though there was a constant stream of visitors from the movie world (Charlie Chaplin and Vittorio de Sica among them), no one talked much about cinema. When Gil started going to films himself, he'd see 'things like M*A*S*H or Easy Rider -- films of my generation'. It was only two years after his father's death, when Gil and his sister Isabella were invited to a retrospective of his father's films in Charleston, South Carolina in 1979, that he realised that there was more to the old man's work than he had imagined. 'I saw all his films in a space of two weeks. And I thought, 'Oh, shit! He was a really great film-maker.'"

After those idyllic Italian years, however, Gil was suddenly uprooted and thrust into a completely alien environment -- Texas! Despite his thick Italian accent and dark Bengali skin, he managed to fit in, mostly thanks to his skill at music. He performed frequently, playing anything with strings and everything from blues to Tex-Mex while attending Rice University, studying physics and mathematics and perfecting his English. Finally, in 1983, he found himself broke and in New York City. Martin Scorsese (then with his sister Isabella) offered him a job as a production assistant on The King of Comedy. The following year, he worked with Sergio Leone on Once Upon a Time in America, and his own career in the family business began.

Despite his famous pedigree and good connections, however, finding the resources to make documentary films was just as difficult for Gil as for the rest of us, a mutual fate we often bemoaned but never forswore. Instead, we began to collaborate, working as co-directors and traveling the world together. Our first co-venture, "Hear Our Voices: The Poor on Poverty" took us to from the slums of Patna, India to the favelas of Sao Paolo, Brazil, and the still war-torn landscape of Bosnia and the Republika Srpska, as poor people the world over voiced their fears, concerns and hopes for the future. A second, The Hole in the Wall, took us back to India to chronicle efforts by cognitive researcher Sugata Mitra to bridge the digital divide -- and culminated in a rare invitation to visit with Sir Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka, whose brilliant work on "2001: A Space Odyssey" had inspired Mitra's efforts. I remember the days spent with Sir Arthur in Colombo as among the most memorable of my thirty-year career to date.

After The Hole in the Wall, it became ever more difficult to finance documentary films on serious and important topics such as human rights -- particularly here in the United States, where the independent media was receiving less and less support and commercial media was either increasingly obsessed with the trivial and meaningless or busy trading accountability for access. Gil looked back increasingly to his other homelands of India and Italy for work. He traveled the world incessantly, living mostly on airplanes and cigarettes while producing unlikely new projects such as the 15th-century romantic epic The Princess of Mount Ledang, a feature that was the first Malaysian film ever to screen at an international film festival, distributing Miramax films in India, developing new series in Italy...

Then the illness struck, and years of pain and suffering ensued. He left Sweden for Switzerland, where he underwent extensive rehabilitation and endless operations, literally dozens of them. We spoke frequently, but it was difficult to meet. Then he was thankfully well enough to return to New York, for a triumphant screening of Kill Gil, Volume 1 at the Tribeca Film Festival. Finally, I journeyed back to Rome to help celebrate his fiftieth birthday. It was the last time we ever saw each other -- yet I still remember it like yesterday - the food, the fun, and of course the music, Gil playing well into the night, exhausted but not wanting any of it ever to end...

But end it has, and now I remember it all -- but mostly I remember my friend: clambering like a mahout up the back of an elephant at Sri Lanka's Elephant Orphanage; eating fried fish in Maharashtra until we literally couldn't stomach any more; tanning on Ipanema beach while our camera was stolen virtually in front of our eyes; jamming on Eric Clapton songs with my son Ciaran in the backyard in Bellport; racing in four wheel drive over the Fire Island dunes; watching endless replays of the Star Wars trilogy in his carefully constructed basement home theatre, filled with every media playback format ever devised; working feverishly out of Globalvision's offices in the wake of 9/11, reporting for RAI and -- furious at the terrorists who had struck his beloved adopted hometown of New York -- at the same time writing, performing and recording in response a song called "The Towers of Love;" which attempted to tell his own immigrant story and that of so many others like him:

"We came one at a time
from all over the globe
with a penny in cash
and millions in hope
we built our dream
with glass and with steel
with cement and with blood
and it took many years

the dream, the dream
you can't take it away
you can hate it
you can bomb it
but it'll always remain
the towers of love
the towers of life
will be back very soon
will again touch the sky

we came one at a time
from all over the place
white and black, yellow and brown
and of different faiths
we built our dream
with the sun in our eyes
and in hope that someway
it would work for mankind

the dream, the dream
you can't take it away
you can hate it
you can bomb it
but it'll always remain
the towers of love
the towers of life
will be back very soon
will again touch the sky..."

Farewell, my friend. Rest in peace at last -- you deserve it. And you're right, of course; they can't take the dream away. Those towers of life will be back very soon, and they will again touch the sky. I swear it...