What started out as an idea for a quick and easy project among friends who grew up together in Omaha's Little Italy has turned into a labor of love and a major production — a documentary film.
The friends thought it would be great to make a video of the Santa Lucia Festival, said Mike DiGiacomo, who has worked as a television journalist. He and Jen Mandolfo Carey came up with the idea.
They enlisted videographer Peter Soby to help film the cannoli-eating contest at the 2010 festival. After completing that task, Soby wandered around the festival and heard intriguing stories about its history and Little Italy. He thought there was substance for a serious documentary.
“I said, ‘You've got something here,'” Soby said.
“He thought it was cool,” DiGiacomo said.
That launched a two-year-long project.
Nearly 75 percent of Omaha's Italian-American immigrants came from the area around Carlentini, Sicily, which celebrated its patron saint, St. Lucia, DiGiacomo said. Those immigrants brought the tradition with them to Omaha, even collecting enough money to have an Italian sculptor create the St. Lucia statue that still is used in the Omaha celebration. The statue originally was carried from St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church to the festival in the heart of Little Italy around Sixth and Pierce Streets. Now it is carried to Lewis & Clark Landing, where the festival is held.
DiGiacomo said the community also received a relic of the saint from the Vatican many years ago. That is also carried from the church to the festival.
Omaha's first Santa Lucia Festival was in 1925. It used to be held in August, the same month as Carlentini's, but now that the festival is at Lewis & Clark Landing, the June dates were chosen in coordination with the city.
There are many legends surrounding St. Lucia, who was born and martyred in the fourth century in Siracusa, Sicily, which holds its festival around her feast day in December. She is revered in Sicily because prayers to her were thought to have provided food during a famine. She's the patron saint of Carlentini because legend says she stopped during a journey to help her sick mother at a spot that is now within the town.
Though the festival has had its ups and downs over the years and the original Little Italy area has changed dramatically, it is really the only ethnic or religion-based festival that continues in the city, DiGiacomo said.
So he, Soby and Carey, a former Santa Lucia queen, formed a committee that would steer the film project. The first order of business was raising money. They are shooting for $40,000; so far they have raised $28,000.
“The project became so much bigger than we anticipated,” said DiGiacomo, a third-generation trumpet player in the festival band.
Soby and Carey echoed his words.
“I'm a storyteller and this is a great story. But you couldn't tell the story of the Santa Lucia Festival without telling the story of the birth of Little Italy,” Soby said.
So the three traveled to Carlentini, where it all began, to attend the Santa Lucia Festival there and interview residents for the film. Many have relatives in Omaha.
“We were celebrities there,” Soby said. “The people were so kind to us.”
Seeing the 390th annual festival in Carlentini was inspiring, Carey said. It lasted almost a week.
“The whole town celebrates,” she said of Carlentini, a city of about 17,500 on the east coast of Sicily.
The Omahans also visited the Church of St. Geremia in Venice, where the remains of St. Lucy, as she is affectionately known, are entombed.
Sound engineer Curtis Grubb has come on board for the documentary. Soby's wife, Kerry, has transcribed all the interviews for the film, word for word. Even Academy Award-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore, a native of Calabria who lives in Papillion, has helped the filmmakers.
Carey said the support has energized the three organizers.
“It reinforces how important this project is,” she said. “It keeps us going.”
All three of them emphasize how important it was to get the community's oldest generations and their stories on film.
“If we don't do this now, it won't get done,” Carey said.
They were lucky enough to film the 1929 festival queen, Fena Caniglia Venditte, before she died last year at age 96. She and others of her generation have valuable recollections, making the film an important history for younger generations, Carey said.
DiGiacomo said an unexpected result of the project has been the cooperation among Omaha's Italian-American organizations, which have been known to compete with one other. The Santa Lucia Festival Committee, the Sons of Italy and the American Italian Heritage Society have come together to support the project and help raise funds. A benefit spaghetti dinner reached out to all, he said.
They had hoped the film would be finished by June for this year's festival, but they still have a lot of work to do. Trailers for the film can be found on the filmmakers' website and on their Facebook page. Find links on omaha.com/community.
“It's probably one of the largest projects I've been on,” said Soby, who also teaches at Iowa Western Community College. “It's pretty exciting.”
Once the film is finished, he said, they will show it to a focus group to judge the final product and help them make changes if they are needed.
Now they are looking at an October opening. DiGiacomo said they plan a big premiere in Omaha, with a red carpet.
The primary focus of the film will be to let Omahans know about the history of the festival and its impact on the community, DiGiacomo said. DVD copies will be available for sale, and the filmmakers hope to get some local airtime on a television station.
“We will enter the documentary in some film festivals and other venues to generate publicity,” DiGiacomo said. “We will also complete a version of the documentary in Italian so that the people of Carlentini can have a film premiere and get a copy of the DVD for their personal collections.
“We're thinking big for this.”
Contact the writer: