Italians petition against “Pickpocket King” documentary

A small street in Naples' Quartieri Spagnoli
A small street in Naples' Quartieri Spagnoli

In Naples, Italy, media reports concerning our upcoming National Geographic pickpocket documentary have stirred up serious controversy. A large number of citizens have become upset, despite not having seen the film. More than a thousand have signed a petition demanding that the program not be broadcast this Sunday, September 25, in Italy.

The petitioners believe that the film will give Naples a bad reputation. (Uh, Naples already has a certain reputation, folks.) Whether broadcast in Italy or not, the documentary, Pickpocket King, will play in the rest of the world, with most countries airing it between now and the end of the year.

A reader called “Oceanus ngo” has posted a comment on our documentary announcement page as follows:

Naples deserves much more treatment and attention from the NG. The “documentary” shot with the help of actors is detrimental to the image of Naples from the title, but rather affirms the false! According to ministry data Napoli is not in any way being the first city in number of pickpockets! A giant transmitting information such as the NG this “documentary” yet another deal, free low blow to the city of Naples to zero the work of active citizenship and associations that try to do every day out of Naples, a new image, the true, that of a big, beautiful capital of Europe is unique in the world! Among the many, even our work, our tribute to the City of Naples, to which we have dedicated an entire project “Another Naples” Here following the first 1000 signatures collected in less than three days, from September 23 to 20 at night, to ask the non-airing of the “documentary” National Geographic “Naples, the King of pickpockets” scheduled for Sunday, September 25, 2011.

I have pruned the 1,023 petitioners’ names from the post.

Bob and I want to emphasize that we adore the city of Naples (from a visitor’s perspective, of course). While shooting the documentary we made a conscious effort (easily accomplished) to highlight the beauty and charm of Naples.

Afterwards, in the editing room, the filmmaking team of director, producer, and editors had a story to tell and a finite number of minutes in which to tell it. Sadly, much great stuff was cut which portrayed the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. As always after a successful “shoot,” all parties to the making of the documentary were disappointed to see the loss of this fantastic scene or that poignant image because ruthless editing was required.

Here, Bob Arno replies to Oceanus ngo and the issues raised:

Hello Oceanus ngo. Thanks for sharing your concerns. We are not representatives of National Geographic, and we have no influence as to the program’s title. I even doubt that its head office has editorial input in the marketing of its programs outside the United States.

While I cannot address your dismay over the title, I would like to comment on a more sensitive point: the prevalence of pickpocketing in Naples compared to other European cities.

Real pickpocket statistics are impossible to acquire anywhere. First, how do you define “pickpocketing?” Tearing a handbag off a shoulder from a scooter? Ripping off a Rolex? A wallet or passport cleverly extracted from a fanny pack on a bus?

Official statistics are based on police reports. Reports tend to fall into multiple categories. We’ve written extensively about all this here.

We have spent considerable time researching Naples, actually in Naples, every year for the past 18 years. We research many, many other cities as well.

In the summer months, Naples has more cruise ship visitors than hotel guests. How likely is it that a typical cruise ship passenger experiences a theft in Naples, versus in St. Petersburg, Barcelona, or Istanbul? All these cities have pickpocketing at various level, and all cater to cruise ship passengers.

This brief reply is not the forum to explain all the complicated details of statistics. The majority of travelers, and especially those who visit this blog, are more interested in intriguing anecdotes of various cons and scams, and how to protect themselves when traveling abroad.

Here is a summarization of my thoughts regarding this Sunday’s broadcast:

1. Generally, only 30% (or fewer) of victims ever bother to visit a police station to report a theft, and even fewer cruise passengers because their ships usually depart at four or five p.m. A rule of thumb: there are usually 70% more incidents than statistics show.

2. Some cities “massage” these reports even further for various reasons. I do not know what the official daily or weekly counts are in Naples. There may be a political agenda, for example, requesting more funds for police; or the opposite, less money for law enforcement.

3. A large number of tourists who “visit Naples” head straight out of town for Pompeii, Capri, and the Amalfi Coast—cruise ship passengers, for example. While these tourists have officially “visited Naples,” they have not strolled around town. Of those who do experience the charm of the streets of Naples, and especially of those who brave public transportation, the proportion of pickpocket incidents is higher than in any other city we have researched (and we have researched many around the world). This conclusion is based on our constant survey of visitors to Naples, the number of pickpockets we have observed “at work” and interviewed, and the vast number of times we have been pickpocketed ourselves (sometimes several times in a single day). Granted, our wallet is empty for the sake of research, but we do not make it easy for or tempt pickpockets. We simply behave as any tourists.

4. Some cities with pickpocketing problems have used more draconian legal maneuvers to fight the crime. For example: in Paris video cameras are mounted on train platforms coupled with new legal statutes. In France, it is now a crime for a pickpocket (who already has one conviction) to begin even the first step in a sequence of moves to extract a wallet, such as “fanning,” which is brushing against the victim’s pockets to establish where the money is.

Professional pickpockets even have their own lists of cities where they like to visit in order to practice their “art.” Barcelona is number one in pickpocket-preference, because of the ineffective legal system. Paris, on the other hand is now disliked because of the cameras and the new law.

5. Compared to other Italian cities, for example Rome or Bologna, an uninformed visitor stands a higher chance of a pickpocket confrontation in a concentrated area, including on local transportation. That the skill of Naples’ pickpockets is exceptionally high. We say this after having witnessed in excess of 500 pickpocketing incidents around the world.

6. The double-threat of pickpocketing coupled with credit card fraud is not high in Naples. “Shoulder-surfing” and breaking of credit card pin codes is higher in other cities. It is the actual extraction skill and success rate that is exceptionally high in Naples.

7. Media across Europe and especially travel companies always warn their travelers to be very careful when visiting Napoli. This is a reputation gained over many years of visitors returning home with unfortunate experiences. It is also true that Napoli today has regained a reputation as a fun city with energy and flair.

We, personally, consider Naples one of the most charming cities in Europe. An absolute “must see” for any traveler; the restaurants, the shopping, the old city, the waterfront, the coffee shops, the great historical sites, the extension of the Amalfi coast, side trips to Capri and the unbelievable warmth of the people—its friendliness!

Yes, an entire program could be made about the pulse of the city and its people. But is there a “will” to clean up the criminal mess? It will take a monstrous effort, a strong focus on correcting a certain social malaise, and the re-education of those who are still in the quagmire of criminal activity. We’re back to money and available funds in a time when all of Europe is contracting.

Nobody wants to hear what two outsiders like ourselves have to say about the measures which are necessary. You have your own experts. But I am confident that if you can direct sufficient energy into giving the hundred or so professional pickpockets in Naples opportunities for new jobs, you would be able to clean up the image of Naples within two years. Expose the problem and offer alternatives. Others might say: why help these bastards?

8. The Italian media in Napoli has mentioned (in the few articles we have managed to read) that the program depended on actors and that it is not a true documentary. This is not so. I have not seen the Italian version of the program, so I cannot speak with absolute authority on this matter. But I can say that, apart from a short demonstration of bag-snatching from a motor-scooter, there are no actors. There is also a short segment in which two former pickpockets are interviewed and asked to re-enact some moves. They are not actors either. Since they gave up pickpocketing to find new careers, they also hoped for small parts in movies. Hopefully this will happen for them.

Their parts are brief, and the film does not concentrate on their action, or their participation. All the other pickpockets in this documentary are themselves; not actors, but professional thieves. I have seen some of them “working” trams and buses over a ten-year period.

If those in Naples who are fortunate enough to have a stable job and income are concerned that National Geographic will cast an ugly image upon their beloved city, I say they are wrong. This documentary does not portray Naples as especially dangerous or threatening. It simply follows my hunt for a specific individual, and shows how I then “connect” with his team.

One might say that I am “fooling” the thieves—our term is “social engineering”—because our ultimate goal is to educate the world on the methods of skilled pickpockets. The outcome, after watching a film like this one, is that the viewer will better understand how to behave when traveling, and how to avoid the unfortunate incidents they will never forget. In that endeavor we are extremely successful. Far more so than the police. We make people aware—through this platform, through books, and through stage presentations in which we mix “reality” with comedy show-business. The lasting impression is one that is never forgotten. We have literally thousands of thank-you notes to prove the success of our campaign.

Bob Arno

© Copyright 2008-2011 Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

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  • Corey, your impression of the film is exactly what we’d hoped for. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Victor, we would have loved to visit more cities to talk about pickpocketing, but that would have been a different story. This story was about Bob Arno, who is the world’s best stage pickpocket, comparing his skills to those of the world’s best criminal pickpockets. Also, the budget for this film would not permit travel to multiple cities for us and an entire film crew.

    To make a film on pickpocketing, we have to go where we know we’d have a good chance of finding (or being found by) pickpockets. Naples is number one in that category, according to our 18 or so years of research (by visiting various cities).

    Lastly, about the title. We had NOTHING to do with naming the film, and no say in it whatsoever. National Geographic named the documentary. Even the film’s director had no say in the title. And, strangely enough, the film was named differently in Italy than in the rest of the world. Everywhere else, it is simply called “Pickpocket King.”

  • Hi, Bob and Bambi. I’ve just ended watching the film/documentary here in my country (Venezuela). To be honest, I do think the documentary portraits Naples as dangerous city… I watched it with my family and after the TV show we were all like: ‘bottom line: don’t you ever go to Naples’. Of course, I have to say as well that I have always known Naples as a dangerous city, it’s just that the fact of watching a complete TV show which portrays a guy who travels to Naples just to learn how to steal from the best masters makes you think that Naples is like the Mecca of thieves.

    I don’t think you’re the ones who gave Naples a bad reputation, of course not, but I do think you have contributed in a big way to continue that bad reputation. A more honest show would cover pickpocketing without centering in a place. Maybe focusing on several cities. Why didn’t you do that? If it was because of the budget, why didn’t you make a TV that wasn’t in ANY city at all?
    All cities have their weaknesses… they might be statistically proven and yet just statistic that doesn’t mean nothing if you take them out of context. For example, Stockholm, Bob’s town, it’s normally associated with suicides because there’s an statistic that says that Sweden has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world. Yet, not all swedens are depressive, aren’t they? Would you imagine a TV show called Stockholm: depressives hell? I think what you just did was wrong. And don’t tell me you’re not responsibles for the title, the whole idea of the show was yours anyway and you have the main roles there, I sure you could have done something.
    Thank you for reading.

  • I just watched the doco today and i must say it gave awareness about pickpockets in general. I like what one of used to be pickpockets turned tourist guide that you guys met. He said that there are many dumb people that is why they became victims of such crimes.
    I do not see this as something against Naples. It didnt give me that impression. For me, the doco showed that these people have no choice and they really do not want to do it but they need to, they showed the other side as well, and even showed Bob’s raw honesty when he said that he wants to do the real deal but doesnt have the heart.
    I will still love to go to Naples but will now be extra cautious of my stuff, much like anywhere else

  • Interesting perspective, Andy. You’re right that the pickpockets we speak with just consider their work a job, and they work fairly regular hours.

    I want to correct one detail though—while Bob Arno is a central character and drove the story of the documentary, it was actually directed by Mr. Kun Chang, of Montreal. Let’s give credit where credit is due!

  • Hallo everybody! A couple weeks ago I`ve read an article in the “Il Mattino” (the serious local newspaper) about forthcoming issue of the “scandaloso” film directed by Bob Arno. It no necessary to repeat the content. It was an angry comment of the film and full of criticism of the director. Being to come of the former USSR, I felt the same sensation as I felt having reed soviet newspapers thirty years ago, where every attemption to talk frankly about a problems has been considering as betrayal.
    I work in an Russian/Italian joint venture, live in Naples for a long time and now I can say that I know this city well enough. So, in my opinion the problem of criminality in Naples is mentality of the people. As for naplolitans to rob is not a crime but just a kind of work, and a thief is a worker like a carpenter or baker.
    I love Naples and I think that as much its problems will be discuss as better it will be for this city.

  • Hi everybody. I have read comments here,I think that Bob is not wrong ,in many aspects of the question. Still,I’m neapolitan , who lived abroad for a while (10 years) ,and I used to be a tourist in my city ,or at least a “look-like” tourist.
    But I had with me many real tourists too,and of course I know that pick-pocketing in Naples is quite common
    anyway I wouldn’t say that it’s MORE common than any other city in europe. I NEVER had a problem,not me neither my friends (and i can say,quite a lot of friends of mine visited the city) with pick-pocketing,in buses,walking,day and night,never. I never even felt like in danger,neither my friends felt it. and we were real tourists,walking (carefully of course) with bags,cameras,mobile phones.

    Counting just people from cruises can be a bit tricky,because I guess they have more problems than others,since they are a specific target for pickers. This is my experience,in 10 and more years of welcoming people here,in the very center of Naples,and being a tourist myself. Not the safest place for sure,but not the worse,and my friends always agreed with me,often saying that Barcelona and Paris,for example,are more dangerous,in their opinion.
    I can understand that business is business,tv programs are made to be watched,so they need to be interesting, somehow,still the picture of Naples,like it often happens in media,is exaggerated in a negative way.
    thx,bye :)

  • Oceanus ngo, please understand that we have no say in the title of the film. Neither did we have a say in how the film was edited. The documentary was not “written” and there was no ulterior motive. Bob and I simply brought the crew to a city we love and, over the course of a month, the cameras shot hundreds of hours of footage.

    The story as seen in the documentary took shape in the editing room. We had no control over this process. No one sought our opinion. We were not shown the edited film until it was finished. So you are speaking to the wrong people about changing the film’s title.

    But, why not wait and see the film? You might like it! The Napolitanos are ALL likeable characters, as you will see. And I believe you will see that Bob and I truly do love Naples and its people. This is not a hate-film, warning people to stay away. It shows the warm and “human” side of people who steal for a living and are otherwise considered “bad,” wherever in the world they work.

    In the film, you will see beautiful scenes of Naples, wonderful restaurants, a gorgeous hotel, happy people, including the pickpockets, parties, and lots of hugging. Really. It’s not what you imagine. Write after you’ve seen it. Let me know what you thought.

  • Hello Bob, hello Vincent, first of all thank you for replying us.
    We respect your point of view, but what you have writen is just your opinion after your personal experience in Naples.
    We still believe in pickpocketing official reports as you still belive you are “considered the ultimate source”.

    What is “good for Naples” is that people like you stop to make their own bussiness on stupid stereotype… Let us remaind you other words you used to advertise Naples in this website: “…If they don’t like you, they just kill you. Even if they do like you, because you’re just a tourist with money to spend (or have stolen), you might step in front of a flying bullet. These things happen in Naples.”
    We are sure you choosed Naples just to give a Soprano fake style to your work nothing else… of course it’s just our point of view…

    We ask you again to change the italian title

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