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St. Louis Filmmaker's Tribute To The Hill Finds Fans, A Home Online

Director Joseph Puleo shoots a scene from his documentary "America's Last Little Italy: The Hill."
Joseph Puleo
Director Joseph Puleo shoots a scene in his documentary "America's Last Little Italy: The Hill."

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the film business, with movie theaters closed or observing strict capacity restrictions to deter spread of the virus. It also reshaped the film festival circuit, where smaller, independent films have a chance to thrive.

That change may have proven a boon for “America’s Last Little Italy: The Hill,” a documentary film directed by St. Louis native Joseph Puleo. The shift by film festivals to an online format meant that movie lovers from around the world have access to their offerings.

The documentary, which is the first feature-length film by the Lindenwood University graduate, is now available to rent or purchase on the Amazon Prime streaming service.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy Goodwin spoke with Puleo about the rollout of his film and why the director says his hurried approach toward filming turned out to be a wise move.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: As a young filmmaker with his first feature, you were facing a tough landscape with the pandemic. How did it affect your efforts to release and get attention for the film?

Joseph Puleo: The big thing with COVID that at first we thought was going to be a huge detriment was going to be with our festival run and the fact we’re not going to have that in-person experience. But what came of it was incredible, the fact that so many people from across America, from Italy, started buying tickets for our film to watch it at the festival.

Whereas in a typical year we would have sold out the Tivoli or wherever they would have shown the film — people would have came, they would have watched it, left, and that would have been the end of it. And it would have been all people from St. Louis. Or New Haven, which was another festival we got into. Or Little Rock. The fact that these festivals became virtual now gave us the opportunity to reach beyond just that region. And so we started getting people watching it in Chicago, watching it in New York. And I start getting these messages about, ‘We can’t believe a neighborhood like this exists. We can’t wait ‘till the pandemic is over and we can visit the Hill.’

That started in July and hasn't stopped to this day. I still get these messages on a daily basis from people who are now finding the film on Amazon. And the places you would assume would have the most pushback, they’re the people that are the most excited about this and want to come visit.

Goodwin: You mean people who may be proud of the Italian American neighborhood where they’re from?

Puleo: Right. They don’t know about the Hill because they haven’t heard about it and haven’t been here. Now this film is shining a light on this neighborhood. This film has the opportunity to educate people that this neighborhood does exist.

Goodwin: If it wasn’t for the pandemic, would you have been trying to get the film into theaters, rather than going to a streaming service?

Puleo: With a film like this I don’t think a theatrical run would have been our main focus, but I do think that we would have wanted to do more festivals. We would have wanted that opportunity to go to the festivals and kind of mingle and talk to people and have that experience that’s really important in independent film.

Goodwin: You’ve said that you started working on the film just days after executive producer Rio Vitale pitched the idea to you. At the end of the film we learn that 10 of the neighborhood residents we just heard from have passed away in 2019 and 2020. Did your speed enable you to capture stories that we might have otherwise lost?

Puleo: Yeah, it was an emotional experience for us to have these conversations with these elderly residents of the Hill. Sitting there with these interviews, watching these interviews day by day you begin to know these people. These people become close to you through that process. And for us to lose 10 of them, that’s emotional for us. But it proves the point of how important it was for us to get these stories while we had the opportunity.

Goodwin: When you see those faces at the end of the film, there’s a real sense of this history moving beyond living memory in front of our eyes. And capturing that while it’s still there.

Puleo: For us that was the selling point. The fact we were losing these people and we have to do this while we still can.

Goodwin: How did you get your sources to open up about their lives on camera?

Puleo: These guys have been telling these stories — you can tell they’ve been telling these stories for years, to their family or anybody willing to listen. Because they just came to life the moment they started talking about it.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.