Stories We Tell: Alumna Stefania Piccialli

Alumna Stefania Piccialli is from Bari, in Southern Italy. In 2017 she graduated in English Literature and Communications before earning her M.A. in Gender and Media from the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK. Stefania recently won the University of Exeter’s Translating for Change Video Essay competition with her work “The Handmaiden: Lesbian Love and The Re-working of The Camouflage Age.”

Stefania Piccialli

Alumna Stefania Piccialli

Tell us about your background.
I attended an open day held by Professor Michèle Favorite while I was in high school, and I was fascinated (and a little intimidated) by the University’s offer: getting a thorough education and enjoying the richness of an international context.

After my degree at JCU, I resumed and completed my studies for a degree in violin at the Conservatorio N. Piccinni in Bari and then went back to John Cabot to work with Professor Brian Thomson at the Digital Media Lab as an intern. I still cherish that experience, I acquired skills that are incredibly useful.

Congratulations on winning the Translating for Change Video Essay competition with your work “The Handmaiden: Lesbian Love and The Re-working of The Camouflage Age.” Tell us about your project and what inspired it.
This project allowed me to investigate themes that were always dear to me: the representation of LGBT experiences in the media and the intersection with feminist politics. The ways in which narratives are built reveal a lot about our societies and the power dynamics that lie behind them. I wanted to make this video essay specifically on the Korean film The Handmaiden (2016) by Park Chan-wook as I think there is still work to be done to expand the academic body of work on film and lesbianism, especially when it comes to lesbians of color. With this video essay, I wanted to add my contribution, albeit small, to the conversation around power and love between women. In the video, I argue that in The Handmaiden, lesbian love is narrated as a liberating experience for women who, by loving each other, free themselves from the constraints of the patriarchal norms that try to control them. It is not only a relationship, but also a healing space, and we get to experience its power precisely because we are shown every character’s perspective, whether it be the two protagonists’ or the men who try to abuse or limit them.

What were the main challenges you encountered while working on your video essay, and how did you overcome them?
Time! I have a big issue with time, whether it be deadlines or time limits. I tend to be an adrenaline-last-minute-rush type of person, as I work well under pressure and, sadly, I tend to procrastinate. I somewhat unlocked the inspiration for this video essay by thinking “there’s no need to be anxious, I just have to talk about what I love and make it solid and have fun with it.” I think enthusiasm and passion are noticeable in any piece of work. Regarding time limits, my video essay had to be six minutes long, and I felt like I really had little time to speak about something so broad and complex like an entire film and South Korean LGBT cinematic production, but I managed to make it within the limit by dividing my script into bullet points and cutting all the sentences that could not be reduced to solid topic sentences.

Why did you decide to focus on video essays rather than, say, documentary or narrative film?
I enjoy working on video essays. I can channel some creativity in editing and videomaking, but I can also offer my analytical and critical insight on whichever topic I’m interested in as if I were writing an essay, so I would say this form is a win-win context for me to express my ideas in the best way.

South Korean cinema has exploded in the last 2 decades with authors like Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook, Lee Chang-dong, Bong Joon-ho, and many others. What do you make of this phenomenon?
There are many components that have contributed to the global popularity of South Korean cinema, like the recent economic prosperity of the country, and a more globalized approach to culture and the film industry. However, it also boils down to what Bong Joon-ho said (in Korean) at the Academy Awards last year, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” As westerners, we tend to think a piece of artistic work is legitimate or mainstream-worthy if recognized by our own cultural institutions, however, there is so much more to discover and there has been for a long time.

You were a double major in English Literature and Communications. What made you decide to combine these two fields?
I started with English literature, and while going over my courses with Professor Carlos Dews, I started thinking that a double major would be the best option for me. I wanted to learn about the ways in which humans shape the narratives of their day, and literature is the foundation of this: by learning how stories work, it is easier to learn how people and consequently societies work as well! This led me to think that nowadays an analysis of narrative would be incomplete without taking the media into consideration. Literature is still very much present, and it is ubiquitous: you can find a story in a book, but also in a Netflix series, an Instagram post to promote a product, or in your favorite music video. This double major gave me the tools to decipher the world around me to the best of my abilities, gain digital literacy, and become more empathetic towards other human beings around me.

What JCU professors and/or classes had the biggest impact on you?
I have to say each course I’ve taken at JCU has been meaningful. Every professor has taught me a valuable lesson. I think professors Peter Sarram, Antonio Lopez, Alessandra Grego, Shannon Russell, and Erika Tasini really helped me find my voice, academic and personal. I would also like to give a special shoutout to Professor Brian Thomson for having taught me so much during my internship and for having made my work experience at the Digital Media Lab so awesome.

What are your plans for the future?
I completed my M.A. in Brighton right before the pandemic hit so I was stuck for a long time. During the pandemic I focused on my academic skills to test the grounds and see if that might be a path I’d be interested in: I have published a paper in the Asia Marketing Journal on the South Korean group BTS, and have participated in two international conferences, one with the aforementioned paper, and the other on another piece of research on the same topic. We’ll see what happens next!