I conceived the idea for Mister Wonderland in the summer of 2015 while chatting with Luca Peretti – a friend and cinema historian – during a trip to Rome from New York, where I’ve lived and worked for the last eight years. Himself visiting from New Haven, where he was attending a PhD program at Yale University, Luca told me he had discovered the remarkable true story of an artist from Lucca who had migrated to the United States in the late 1800s and quickly become one of the greatest theatrical impresarios of his time. His name was Sylvester Zeffirino Poli.
Despite owning an empire of more than thirty theaters and movie houses, the memory of S. Z. Poli has all but disappeared today. His name has vanished from marquee after marquee as his theaters were demolished or reconverted over the course of the years. When I returned to New York with Luca and producer/cinematographer Isaak Liptzin, we officially began production of Mister Wonderland and set out to retrace this extraordinary character’s steps. It wasn’t long before we discovered we weren’t alone in this inquiry.
With no knowledge of each other, two of Poli’s descendants on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean were researching their family history and digging into the life of their distinguished ancestor. Tim and Luana – the first in Connecticut, and the latter in Tuscany – had begun unearthing a variety of old photos, documents, and even a plaster bust. We decided to join forces and follow them with our cameras as they visited the key places in S. Z. Poli’s life story.
In the following months, Tim and Luana led us on a journey of discovery in search of what remains of their ancestor’s empire. To learn more about the man’s career, I decided to interview three historians, each in a city Poli was connected to: Pietro Luigi Biagioni in Lucca, Kathryn J. Oberdeck in New York, and Anthony Riccio in New Haven. To recreate his adventures we employed a variety of archival photographs and films, set in motion thanks to digital graphics techniques. And it’s Poli himself, brought to life by the illustrators at Avansguardi, who guides the viewer throughout the documentary. The biographical narration is constantly interwoven with a broader historical account, and it’s precisely through these shifts between micro and macro-history that I sought to examine the themes that connect Poli’s time to ours.
In the United States, as in Italy, we are witnessing increased attempts to restrict culture to reductive national identities. In response, I believe it’s particularly urgent to reaffirm the important role that migrants play in affirming the culture of their country of origin, while at the same time shaping that of the communities the arrive into. Poli’s story reminds us that our artistic traditions are enriched by the encounter between different cultures.