Mr. Wonderland

: Documentary Feature
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Production


Artisan, immigrant, theater magnate and pioneer of the cinema in America — Sylvester Poli’s untold story takes us from 19th century rural Italy to contemporary Connecticut.


A humble artisan from rural Italy, Sylvester Poli migrated to Connecticut in 1892 and became one of the greatest theater magnates of his time, a pioneer of the cinema in America. His story crosses continents and generations to today, where some are rediscovering the enduring legacy of his imagination.


When I first approached this project, I realized that Sylvester Poli’s story goes beyond the career of a single man. Poli’s life story draws connections not only between Europe and the United States, but also between his past and our present. This bigger picture takes into account the birth of cinema in America, the thorny path from immigration to integration and the role of urban renewal in our changing cities.

Poli opened his first theater in 1897 and he was a protagonist of the pivotal transition from the vaudeville theater of the Gilded Age to the cinema of the 20th century — a revolutionary period that redefined the nature of entertainment itself. Poli was among the first to understand that the cinema would be the art of the 20th century and that its natural audience was the working class. That’s why his theaters thrived in industrial cities such as New Haven.

At the turn of the century, New Haven was home to a rapidly growing immigrant workforce and one of the largest Little Italies in the country. An immigrant himself, Poli was a respected community leader. But he defied the immigrant stereotypes of the time: he was an artist and a cultural trendsetter, and as such he bridged the gap between the socially excluded immigrant masses and the Yankee elites.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Poli’s hometown of Coreglia experienced massive emigration. Today’s residents’ families are scattered around the world. Like Poli, most of those who left the town were figurinai, plaster sculptors. The importance of this link is on display at the local Museum of Plaster Figurines and Emigration. A primary location in the documentary, the museum is at the heart of the administration's efforts to keep the disappearing art of plaster sculpting alive. Coreglia’s young mayor, the first in years to take on the job full-time, has rediscovered Poli’s story and its promise to inspire new generations of coreglini.

In Connecticut as well, Poli’s name is on people’s lips again. The Majestic Theater, a true diamond in the rough, is becoming the crown jewel in a grassroots effort by Bridgeport citizens to save the city’s impoverished downtown district. They understand its architectural value and its potential for civic engagement, the necessary elements for an inclusive and sustainable process of urban renewal.

The vivid and complex legacy of Poli’s life story is reflected in the film’s polyphonic visual and narrative vocabulary. "Poli’s Wonderland” combines archival footage, animation and contemporary stories to transport us from one place and time to the next. With the passing of the years, Poli’s story has sometimes changed, sometimes vanished, but always resurfaced — evidence of the lasting impact of the journeys of an imaginative migrant who left home at the age of 13, setting sail for the unknown.

Valerio Ciriaci, director


Valerio Ciriaci - Director / Producer

Valerio Ciriaci is a Brooklyn based documentary filmmaker. He graduated with a major in Communication Sciences from La Sapienza University in Rome with a thesis on Jean Rouch and ethno-fiction. In 2011 he moved to New York City to attend documentary classes at New York Film Academy. In 2012 he cofounded Awen Films and directed two short documentary films: “Melodico”, featuring Tony Maiorino, barber and singer from the Bronx's Little Italy, and “Treasure - The Story of Marcus Hook”, which chronicles the struggles of a community after the shutdown of the local oil refinery. In 2013 he created “Short Italian Tales”, a documentary series for i-Italy TV, airing on NYC Life (Channel 25). In 2015 he released “If Only I Were That Warrior”, his first feature film, winner of the ‘Imperdibili’ award for best Italian documentary at the 56th Festival dei Popoli.

Isaak Liptzin - Producer / Cinematographer

Isaak Liptzin is a New York based cinematographer and producer with a background in documentary photography. Isaak was born in San Francisco, but grew up and studied in Italy until 2009, when he moved to New York to attend classes in photography and imaging at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. In 2010 he spent seven months working at the studio of acclaimed photojournalist James Nachtwey, and in 2011 he provided photo and video documentation for Peace Child India in Bangalore. In the summer of 2012 he cofounded Awen Films, a nonfiction film production company, contributing his camera and his skills to various projects. He worked closely with Valerio Ciriaci as cinematographer and producer on “Melodico” (2013), “Treasure — The Story of Marcus Hook” (2013), and "If Only I Were That Warrior" (2015), winner of the 'Imperdibili' award at Festival dei Popoli.

Luca Peretti - Writer / Associate Producer

Luca Peretti is a PhD candidate at Yale University and a freelance journalist. He has done research for independent and collaborative projects, and has worked as video archivist at the Holocaust Museum Foundation in Rome. He has organized film series and events, and contributed to the production of film festivals in Italy.


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