Documentary maker Erik Gandini tells Giulio D’Eramo why appearance matters more than truth in Italy
Erik Gandini is the acclaimed documentary maker of Surplus: Terrorised into Being Consumers and Sacrificio: Who Betrayed Che Guevara. He was born in northern Italy and now lives in Sweden. His new documentary Videocracy is a critical portrait of the Italian broadcast media and its impact on the country’s culture. The film’s release last year coincided with embarrassing revelations about Silvio Berlusconi’s romantic escapades and went on to win the Toronto film festival award for best documentary and the special jury award at the Sheffield film festival. It has also been a surprise hit at the Italian box office.
Videocracy is an overview of the past 30 years of Italian television, starting with the 1976 local television show Spogliamoci insieme (Let’s undress together), which was an instant hit and inspired some of Berlusconi’s Mediaset blockbusters of the following decades. Through exclusive interviews with prominent media figures in the country, as well as wannabe media stars, the documentary paints a dark picture of the superficial, discriminating and cynical nature of the television world and its impact on politics. It explores what is known as the Italian anomaly – the political monopoly of the broadcast media in a western democracy. Thirty years of being bombarded with images of a world where girls dance semi-naked all day long and everybody is happy, smiling and beautiful have taken their toll on the political landscape in Italy. With the unpleasant knowledge that what has happened in Italy could happen elsewhere, Videocracy serves as a cautionary tale, as well as a chilling account of Italian contemporary history.
Giulio D’Eramo: Is the documentary an attack on Berlusconi or on the monolithic media structure?
Erik Gandini: When I make a movie I never do it against something or somebody. As a director, I usually try to turn an abstract idea into a story, not in a journalistic way but as a visual description of a real situation, to allow viewers to experience it first hand. In the case of Videocracy there are a few interconnecting ideas that I wanted to represent, namely the overwhelming power of television in Italy and the culture that it transmits. So Videocracy tells the story of what lies behind the shiny culture of Italian television, where words are constantly defeated by images and impressions. I show what Silvio [Berlusconi] would never show: the cynical and greedy backstage of his TV world, in which everybody is happy and girls dance naked all day long.
That the movie that came out of this was in many aspects terrifying – some American critics called it the best horror movie of the year – is only due to the reality I represent. To answer the question – the documentary is an attack on the idea that everything is just fine, that we need to enjoy ourselves in a sort of self-motivating hedonism, and an attack on the frightening moral decadence that this concept implies.
Giulio D’Eramo: If we watch the main national TV channels we can see that Rai state television offers exactly the same content as Berlusconi’s channels. Should we then assume that it is the Italian public that represents an anomaly and not the media itself?
Erik Gandini: The aim of a public service is that of improving society. The idea of a television that educates, stimulates and is without commercials is very strong in Sweden, but also in the UK, where the BBC keeps offering a unique service. In those, and in many other countries, television can be seen as a window on the world: from your home. You can get a picture of what happens on the other side of the world or in places you would never visit. It is worth observing that Italian state television is by law obliged to follow these same principles, even though it obviously does not do so. Another defeat for words.
One more thing: investigative television programmes usually lead to the start of an official investigation, often resulting in a trial, and eventually a sentence for the guilty. In Italy, instead, they are just labelled as political journalism, be it left or right leaning, and therefore disregarded as just opinion. The very idea of a journalistic truth as an undeniable truth, a sort of contract according to which the viewer watches the show and the presenter tells the truth, has long disappeared in Italy. Whatever the evidence, be it about Berlusconi’s prostitutes, his financial misdemeanours or the corruption scandals of leftist politicians, it is now presented as an opinion. In Italy the truth is no more, there only exists opinion.
Giulio D’Eramo: Where do you think the responsibility lies?
Erik Gandini: In Italy, there are enormous responsibilities held by a lot of people, including all the Rai journalists who have long accepted the disruption to their working ethics and their values. Those values are something that everyone has to safeguard, not only those in charge.
Giulio D’Eramo: Where does Berlusconi stand in all this? Has his presence made any difference?
Erik Gandini: Television as Berlusconi is trying to keep it, by means of political pressure or straightforward censorship, is a television that does not discuss the important events. It does not let you travel around the world,but only through Berlusconi’s vision. What his television brings forward is an amoral morality, a system in which the only virtue is to be ruthless. The values it carries are egoism, money, appearance, individual success. This is a very high price to pay to get some entertainment.
When Berlusconi entered the political arena, many people voted for him thinking that he would do for Italy what he did for his own companies, attracted by the legend of a man that turns everything into gold. What they got from their vote is instead the introduction of his pervasive, cynical and discriminatory commercial TV culture at all levels of society. This is what he brought: TV models turned into ministers, his professional escort girls running for the European Parliament, the equivalent of sex for a role in a movie. I would say that as Iran is an Islamic republic, Italy is now a TV republic.
Giulio D’Eramo: Some define it as ‘the Italian anomaly’. Should this movie be a warning only to Italians?
Erik Gandini: The culture of banality is a global phenomenon. Italy is a clear example of the risks inherent in this culture. The evil of banality is just the evolution of a much older concept: the banality of evil.
This culture presents itself as harmless, a form of entertainment apparently risk free, but it is instead very dangerous, as we can clearly see by looking at Italy. As I said, the problem should not be limited to Berlusconi as a person, even though with him banality became total and harmful, especially concerning women. This is going to be his greatest legacy to the country when he is no longer there. The problem of ‘Berlusconism’, which in my opinion is a new form of totalitarianism, is that it is so new that we have a hard time defining it. Nonetheless it exists, and not only in Italy.
Giulio D’Eramo: Are there any factors specific to Italy that could have helped Berlusconi achieve his entrepreneurial success as a media tycoon?
Erik Gandini: Berlusconi started to emerge as a media tycoon in the late 1970s, when Italy was going through a period of violent daily confrontations between the extreme left and the extreme right that led to hundreds of deaths.
A few months ago, at a conference on the state of the Italian media, I met Pino Maffi, the presenter of the 1976 show Spogliamoci insieme (Let’s undress together), broadcast from a Turin-based local TV channel that was later bought by Berlusconi. It’s the show featured in the trailer of Videocracy and is very similar to the 1980s Fininvest commercial hit Colpo Grosso [a late-night entertainment show with semi-clad women], in fact they also had the same sponsor. Pino Maffi, who started off by excusing himself for the monster he unintentionally helped to create, said that at that time the situation was very tense, there were a lot of political kidnappings and bombings, so that people really needed a way to escape all this. The aim of his show was to entertain the public (and especially the Turin factory workers, dangerously exposed to the charm of political activism) by showing them a shiny world that did not exist.
One more thing to consider is the presence of the Vatican, which surely did help Berlusconi. In fact, due to its influence, Rai TV was not only forbidden from featuring lightly dressed women, but also from advertising some products, as was the case for dog food (do not ask me why that was the case, I don’t know). Berlusconi managed to profit from those weaknesses. We all remember that the Mediaset channels hosted a lot of pet food advertisements. He proposed something that nobody else was able to offer, just as when he entered politics offering an anti-political party right after the end of the cold war.
Giulio D’Eramo: Did you learn anything from making this movie?
Erik Gandini: Only after the movie was complete did I understand what Videocracy was really about: the power of images. Berlusconi is at the same time the most powerful and the richest man in Italy, but he has succeeded in portraying himself as a victim. Why? Because he manages to transmit the impression that he is a victim. There again there is a truth, and the truth is that he is not a victim. It is a clear example that in certain circumstances, as for Italy in the past 15 years, images matter more than facts, and appearances more than the truth. This is kind of a philosophical problem: if, as a powerful man, you can shape the truth as you wish, then there is no need for censorship.
This new wave of censorship is new for Berlusconi – a media tycoon who understood how to shape the reality to his own liking – and almost anachronistic. In fact, it is Berlusconi himself who showed the world how censorship is an outdated instrument, old and useless, by effectively convincing so many Italians of a reality that should only be in his dreams.
Giulio D’Eramo writes for Index on Censorship and Red Pepper
London International Documentary Festival will be screening Videocracy on April 25, 20.30 at the Barbican Cinema
This article appears in the current issue of Index on Censorship