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Ora! Fest Opens with Helen Mirren

When Dame Helen Mirren arrived in a golf cart in the historical center of Monopoli, the charming port town in Puglia, she – unlike her colleagues who are attending the festival – had only been on a three-hour car ride to get there. Mirren loves to spend her summers in her Italian home, a 16th-century Masseria, a typical Pugliese farmhouse in Tiggiano that she and her husband, director Taylor Hackford, have spent the better part of five years restoring.

Dressed in a beautiful pink gown with silver appliqué, she pulled a handwritten sign from her handbag that read “Save the Olives.” That is not just her message but her cause. She is part of an organization of the same name. Her house, like most homes in the Pugliese countryside is surrounded by native olive tree groves. “We had 80 olive trees that got infected by Xylella. We had to pull them out,” she told us.

Until a few years ago, the region’s 60 million olive trees used to produce up to 50% of Italy’s olive oil, but then the bacterium Xylella began infecting and killing 21 million trees, many of which were several centuries old. “We replanted with a resistant species called favoloso, but all around us are acres of thousands of dead olive trees. It’s a huge disaster, and I don’t think Italians are really sufficiently conscious of it. If the Colosseum in Rome was falling to the ground, you’d say, we have to save it. To me, it’s the same history. These trees are 900 years old, before Garibaldi. They are the history of Italy. You can’t look at the people of Salento and say, well, it’s your problem, because it’s much too big. The farmers have to be helped, they can’t do it on their own, it’s just too massive a problem. Italy and indeed the rest of the world have to step in.”

Mirren has always used her fame and name recognition to speak up for different causes, political and charitable – she worked with Oxfam to help the Ugandan crisis and supported Refuge, Meals on Wheels and National Literacy Trust among others. Her engagement with Save the Olives also happens to be in line with the Ora! Fest, an unusual and especially innovative film festival that focuses and highlights environmental art, where celebrities are not getting awards, they are giving them: to regular everyday heroes, people who strive to make the world a better and more just place.

So, when the actress took the stage on opening night for a conversation with festival director and HFPA member Silvia Bizio, her aim was to raise awareness. And, of course, talk about her newest series 1923 now airing on Paramount+ all over the world. It is fitting that the series also deals with the conflict between capitalism and nature. “That is very much a theme of 1923, absolutely,” she said. “The 1920s is very interesting when the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism were beginning to be felt, and where we in the West treated the environment [badly] in our ignorance and stupidity.”

She plays a very strong woman opposite Harrison Ford and says, “Women like that always existed, they just weren’t shown in drama.” She researched pioneer women for the role. “They were extraordinary, it’s just that no one ever told their stories before.” Mirren accepted the part of Cara Dutton without reading even a line of the script, trusting creator Taylor Sheridan and her scene partner completely. For the entire interview, click here.

After the opening night conversation, the audience in the ancient Piazza Palmieri watched a video message from John Turturro (who was to come to the festival but is shooting in New York) before Bizio introduced the jury and celebrity guests and actors Marisa Tomei, Matthew Modine, directors Alessandro Parello and Eduardo Winspear and producer Lawrence Bender. Jury president Alfre Woodard came straight from the airport and arrived at the party shortly after.


For the next few days Ora! Fest will showcase films, shorts and masterclasses.