With the release of Videocracy, an in-depth look at the Italian television culture that Silvio Berlusconi has presided over, Erik Gandini caused quite a stir. The state broadcaster in Italy banned the trailer and lawsuits were threatened. Gandini talks to Pure Movies about the reaction to Videocracy, Silvio Berlusconi and the problems that are dominating Italian culture.
Listen to the interview now: [audio:episode2.mp3]
Tell us a bit about your goals and ambitions going into making Videocracy?
Erik Gandini: I don’t live in Italy. I’ve been living in Sweden for the past twenty years and I find it hard to explain to my friends exactly what is going on in Italy. You can read the political analysis but, to capture the whole ‘culture revolution’ and the state of Italy, I found that making a film was a much stronger way of telling these things.
I don’t think people realise how much the power of TV has changed the country and also how connected the television of Italy is to Berlusconi himself. I was really intrigued by the idea, which is almost like the premise of a science fiction movie, that one man has spread his own personality and his subconscious to the whole country. Then the idea was to turn it into a cinematic experience rather than an information trip.
How hard was it to keep calm or even keep a straight face when shown Mussolini’s anthems and fascist footage off the phone of Lele Mora (a major TV agent in Italy)? Are you thinking in your head at that point…”ooh this is going to be really great footage” or are you conflicted with your own personal political opinions?
I am a filmmaker and anytime someone is putting up a scene it that, I’m thinking “This is amazing”. This is a great scene because, without me pushing him into any sort of corner, trying to be harsh on him, etc, just by giving him too much exposure, he commits to this in front of the camera which is something I think is interesting as an approach especially when dealing with people that look at you as a filmmaker as totally irrelevant. They are so egomaniacal and so uninterested in what I’m looking for that they don’t have any idea about what a documentary is, they don’t have any idea about independent filmmakers (because this doesn’t exist in Italy). In Italy, if you are a powerful, alpha-male, kind of personality then you don’t ask questions, you talk all the time without asking anything. I think that really underestimates the power of being an observer with a camera.
There are some really telling shots with Lele Mora in the film. The all white room and clothes, the times he just stares grinning silently at the camera…were these at all constructed?
He’s used to doing these interviews as if he is doing his own show. He is very calm, he walks around, he lays on his bed and I’d seen a number of pictures of him in his white bed before I interviewed him so I wasn’t surprised he was putting up a similar scene. Of course, the swastika shot was a big surprise because he’s the kind of guy who instructs young celebrities how to behave in front of the camera, how to dress, what to day…so he knows more than me the power of the camera. It surprises me because obviously the swastika is not a good symbol to associate your image to, no matter where you live. But I think, in his case, he’s not an ideologically-convinced Mussolini fan, it’s rather a lack of ideology which is more scary. That is what Italy is caught in; a lack of ideology.
His reaction was furious, wasn’t it? He was really unhappy about the film’s exposure in Italy…
When you do a documentary, you don’t have any idea about how big this can be. You’re dealing with unpredictability all the time so I was surprised when it ended up in Italian cinemas, in Venice, etc…and he was definitely surprised too and angry about this because he went out, threatened to sue me, went on several television shows – and many associated shows attacked me through their channels – but what surprised me was that no one asked Lele Mora, or confronted him about the Mussolini allegations. It was something that wasn’t a topic which confirms what I said that in this TV world in Italy, there is no morality, there is now expectation of people to be moral – and that’s exactly what I mean when I say that this culture has penetrated the whole country. It is a system of non-values, you could say.
The film does paint a picture of Italy as a celebrity-obsessed culture. Ricky, one of your chosen subjects, said that 80% of girls want to be the Velina, the dancing assistant. Is that something you would agree with?
80% is his own idea and he is caught in his own ideas which you see in the film. I think the New York Times did a survey a few years ago and amongst young girls this was the most wanted job for the future. So it’s not an exaggeration, probably the figure is but the idea is not.
Much of your documentary focuses on the gender imbalance in Italy. For example, a former Velina went on to become the minister of Gender Equality. How big a problem do you think this is in Italy?
It is definitely a problem. It is a very sexist society. There is one figure at the end of the film of Italy being in the 84th position out of 128 countries for Gender Equality. It’s behind Romania and many African countries and you can not separate that from the role women have played on Italian TV in the past decades. Women, in this public arena which is so strong, are often very undressed, non-speaking, non-thinking objects. For a very bizarre reason, this has become normal. It’s not normal but, after thirty years, people are used to it. There are more women in parliament in Pakistan than there are in Italy. For women in Italy, this is a situation that they are really, really struggling with.
What does Corona represent in your film? The new Berlusconi?
Yes, he is the future, he is somehow in the worst case scenario. You laugh at him now because he is so bizarre. Corona has grown up in Berlusconism and has now translated this into something more wild, more crazy, more unpredictable and probably more destructive which makes him, in the end, into this mosquito. His popularity goes up and down but he has managed to become one of the big celebrities in Italy.
The full frontal nudity shots with Corona in the film. How did they come about? Was this something he was happy to do?
He did that by himself, you know, he’s not the kind of guy you can direct. He’s very media-wise, he has a plan for himself. He was actually going to his lawyer’s wedding where he was supposed to be the Best Man but he took such a long time that when he arrived at the wedding, it was too late. He had missed the wedding because of his vanity.
Let’s talk about the campaign song ‘Thank God Silvio exists’ – what thoughts run through your head as you see something like this?
[Laughs] I was so happy to use this in the film because, when I saw it for the first time, I thought it was satire. I didn’t believe it was true. Eventually, when we asked Berlusconi’s party to use this and we told them it was a documentary about Italy and Italian TV, etc…they had no problem whatsoever and sent us three versions; one with women only (the one you saw), one with a mix of men and women and the third version was with retired pensioners. If these clips end up a film like this, they stay forever otherwise they tend to disappear. What kind of sarcasm or commentary do you need as a voiceover when you have this? It’s so clear. When you look at it, the aesthetics are so cheap – it’s not like an Obama campaign video made by Ridley Scott – it’s kind of trashy. That is also very telling I think.
Were you worried about how your fellow Italians would react to the film?
Not at all because I didn’t even think about an Italian audience while doing it. It was a big surprise to me that the film was released and made such an impact in Italy.
The film’s trailer was banned by Berlusconi’s Mediaset and by state broadcaster RAI but then the film debuted at Venice. How did you feel when it was shown and subsequently praised at the festival?
It was nerve-racking, I mean, it was a scary thing to receive letters from Italian TV full of powerful and threatening language. Of course, this all backfired into huge, huge interest in the film. This was also the time that Berlusconi had been involved in different scandals regarding women so I think people made connections about what they had seen on TV for thirty years and the private life of the Prime Minister. Videocracy was completed before the scandal but the subject was still there which made the topic very sensitive. It was something I couldn’t predict because there was this massive, amazing interest from Italian media.
There was also, I would say, some sort of attempt to play down the film from the leadership of the festival. I’ll give you an example; we were supposed to have a theatre for a press screening which usually have around 400 journalists but they gave us this small room with about 40 seats. Then they came up with this order from the fire department where they had to remove 20 seats for security. So, you know, there was a whole feeling of having something that people were really interested in but that the festival was afraid of showing up too much.
Is it true that he BBC were involved at one point?
The BBC was involved at one point and I had creative problems with them in terms of editorial control of my film. We had very different ideas in the end about the whole approach. I guess they wanted to make it more journalistic rather than cinematic.
They did release a film The Silvio Berlusconi show which was a full expose of the Prime Minister. Do you think this is the film they intended you to make?
I haven’t seen that but I think they are used to giving very clear instructions to their filmmakers. They want their own version, direct the narration and the structure of the film, etc. So, it ended up with me having the feeling that I was making a film about a guy in Italy who wants to make all TV look like what he wants it to look like and ending up with a similar problem with the BBC with some guy who wants every documentary to look like he wants. This is against my idea of creative documentary and I think documentary should be kept very personal.
To listen to the Erik Gandini interview in full, where he discusses the documentary boom, inside the Italian television culture as well as much more on filming Franco Corona, Lele Mora and Silvio Berlusconi by downloading the Pure Movies podcast here.
Videocracy is out on DVD from 27 September 2010.