Erik Gandini, Videocracy
Television has been blamed for the dumbing down of the American public since the ascendance of the boob tube in the 1950s. But in Italy, where scandal-plagued prime minister Silvio Berlusconi controls the flow of information through his monopolistic holdings in that nation’s biggest media conglomerates, there is a more insidious aspect to the chronic press muzzling at RAI and trashy tits-and-ass programming that predominate on his Mediaset channels. If you want to get a sense of how the billionaire entrepreneur’s televisual imagination has transformed the political and mass-media landscape in Italy, Erik Gandini’s cunningly choreographed documentary Videocracy provides plenty of food for thought, taking a gimlet-eyed view of the Berlusconi phenomenon. But instead of stampeding into this tangle of cultural conflict with rhetorical guns a-blazing, Gandini, an Italian-born filmmaker based in Sweden (Gitmo: The New Rules of War), adopts a far subtler, more intriguingly first-person approach.
The film, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival, opens with grainy, black-and-white footage of a popular, late-night cable-access quiz show Berlusconi produced in the ’70s, in which slinky housewives disrobed every time a call-in contestant answered a softball question correctly. This montage melds into the present day, when thousands of young women aspire to be veline: silent, scantily clad Vanna White–type showgirls who populate the airwaves, often becoming the wives of footballers or assistants to heads of state. Narrating in English with a voice that’s part spook-house docent, part Grand Inquisitor, Gandini burrows into the sleazy superficiality of this celeb-obsessed, gossip-fueled playworld by profiling four of its most embedded denizens: white-clad, Mussolini-adoring TV agent Lele Mora, who lives in a luxurious villa surrounded by all the young talent he’s cultivated; Fabio, manager of a TV control room (“the secret aquarium”) where an Italian version of Big Brother is produced; Fabrizio Corona, a rogue paparazzi-turned-felon, now a huge celebrity himself in Italy; and Ricky, a Bergamo factory worker obsessed with landing a spot on television as a Jean-Claude Van Damme-meets-Ricky Martin star performer. Then there’s Berlusconi himself, gloating at press conferences and flashing a million-dollar smile that never seems to end. Gandini’s film is provocative (the trailer was banned from RAI state-owned television) but coolly personal, too, an exile’s view of a national culture’s puzzling decline.
Filmmaker spoke with Gandini about Berlusconismo, the society of spectacle, and why people with no ideology are scarier than dictators.
Videocracy opens Friday at the IFC Center in New York City.
Filmmaker: You moved to Sweden from Italy to study filmmaking. Did you have an interest in documentary from an early age or did it spark after you landed there?
Gandini: My mother is Swedish. It was a tradition at home that we should go to Sweden to learn the language and it was also a great reason for leaving Bergamo, a very small town, very provincial. In the ’80s, Italy was really under the boom of Berlusconi television. When I came to Sweden, the situation was bizarre because there was no commercial television until ’89 or ’90, so it was like going back ten years. And Swedish TV had this very strong tradition of documentary which the school I went to was following big time. There was a huge enthusiasm about it. I remember a couple of months after I came to Sweden, they were showing Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah on prime time television. Coming from Italy, it was like science fiction. So yes, it was encountering a whole way of working that for me was very inspiring.
Filmmaker: You mention in your director’s note that your exposure to the cultural climate in Sweden made an impact, and that you were drawn in part to a genre that is regarded there as a cinematic artform, “creative documentary.” Can you explain what that means to you?
Gandini: I like the idea that docs really are not a neutral portrayal of reality. That’s such an old idea. When I was going to film school, we were taught “take off your questions, never manipulate with music” or whatever. I remember when I saw Let’s Get Lost, the Bruce Weber movie; it was so personal, and that was exactly what inspired me, the idea that documentary is really a subjective view. Then of course you have the political Michael Moore genre that is very explicit. All that for me has been a very welcome tendency that also underlines the fact that documentary is probably the freest, cheapest way for a person to express themselves cinematically.
Filmmaker: And giving up the pretense to objectivity must be part of that sense of freedom.
Gandini: Yeah, I like not knowing exactly what your film is going to be in the end, because the scriptwriting for me is the editing. If you work with television only, you will pressure yourself to guarantee how the drama and the plot will develop. It’s the opposite of what I’m looking for. Even aesthetically, I like the idea that you can show reality as it feels, more than as it is. And this opens up a huge range of storytelling options, even aesthetically and musically, for film language.
Filmmaker: The most obvious form that a film about the Berlusconi media empire could have taken would have been an exposé. Your approach in Videocracy is much more personal, and also, I felt, almost mournful. There’s something elegiac about your tone here.
Gandini: It’s a choice, of course. I am not Michael Moore. I’m not very confrontational. I’m more of an observer. It was really inspiring for me to be among these people who are very different from me and my friends, [who have] different values. They made me understand the whole logic, the whole system of values of what I call “Berlusconismo.” For instance, I don’t think Lele Mora’s really a fascist, it’s more like [he has] a lack of ideology, which is scarier to me. In Italy, there is a tradition among the left of criticizing and attacking Berlusconi in a way that has become predictable and even boring. People are tired of that. Oh, the conflict of interest! Ironically, [when it comes to] talking rhetoric and good arguments, he wins all the time, because he’s a TV guy. He makes his point in a much more emotional way, through images and feelings. For example, he always presents himself as a martyr, as a victim, which is incredible because he is the man with the highest privileges in this country. When he was hit in the face a couple of months ago, that was the best Christmas present because he had been struggling for some time to really look like a martyr but now he really was, with blood on his face.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about this idea in the film about the flow of images and the flow of power. On one hand, there’s the force of Berlusconi’s personality literally channeling itself to a viewing public, and on the other side there’s the shaping of a mass sensibility and the dreams of everyday people, like Ricky and the girls who want to be veline. I’m interested in how you arrived at that concept as the driving force for what you wanted to accomplish here.
Gandini: If you ask Ricky who has power, I don’t think he would say politicians, he would say the VIPs, the celebrities. In the same way, there’s a great tension in Italy now, it’s like a war being fought in the arena of television and pictures and gossip magazines. There’s a number of stories, like this prostitute who Berlusconi had an affair with recently. She recorded everything on her mobile phone and even took pictures of the toilet inside [his house]. You have a feeling that a character like Ricky wants to get inside television, he wants to empower himself that way. Berlusconi made his power on television, and it’s the only country where TV and politics are so enmeshed—in that sense he’s an icon now—so if you live in Italy, the word “television” has different connotations.
Filmmaker: Fabrizio Corona, the self-fashioned rebel paparazzi, identifies with Scarface and has empowered himself in a completely different way.
Gandini: The reason why Corona could promote himself as a rebel is because of what he said when he came out of prison: “Look, all these people smiling on your TV set, they have the power, so I take this camera and I get something back from them. I extort money from them.” And that’s his definition of a modern Robin Hood. So he became in the eyes of these people a rebel. And he’s not a rebel at all. As you see in the film, he is a big Berlusconi fan, he’s a reactionary, there’s nothing new in his ideology. What really interested me with Corona is that he plays a lot on the idea of the truth. First, he took these pictures of celebrities, showing how immoral they are. His idea was basically they are smiling, they’re false on TV, look how they behave in the nights—they have mistresses, they do bad things. Gossip is an offspring of Italian television, it’s a project of diversion where people are interested in truths that are totally irrelevant.
Filmmaker: One of your films, Surplus, was centered around the ideas of John Zerzan. And this film made me think of people like McLuhan, Debord, and Baudrillard, not only because of the coinage in your film’s title, but because of the banality of image consumption as it pertains in their work. Were your thoughts at all informed by theories of mass media?
Gandini: Yeah, of course. I’ve always been interested in the society of spectacle. But in the end, I’m much more interested in confronting the reality of videocracy. The director of the Big Brother show—he’s an old friend of mine—was telling me that here, in this business, they have a saying that “television is fun to do, but not to watch.” [Laughs] And his idea that Berlusconi’s television is like mirror of his own personality made me think a lot. We have become like Berlusconi because we’ve been exposed to his subconscious. It’s ironic that this country which has such a traditional culture and superior qualities in culture now has reduced itself to this. It is bizarre.
Filmmaker: I thought it was an interesting choice for you to profile a male performer, Ricky, as opposed to one of the velina wanna-bes. Why did you make that choice?
Gandini: I really liked him. And the logic of his own thinking was for me totally revealing of the power of the system, like when he says that on TV, you get ten times bigger, you become immortal. I think to me that was much more unpredictable than having a poor velina who is of course the symbol of the biggest group of discriminated human beings in Italy: women. The idea of being willing to, as he says, sacrifice a part of his body for a career, you could easily translate that to a whole generation. It’s a question of how much you’re prepared to sacrifice to get inside television. When you make a film, it’s easy to think Oh, I should have someone who’s against all this, an expert in Italian politics. I’m trying not to be ruled by fear when I do these films and try instead to just portray what I find in my journey. And I found a very male-dominated world where women are in the background and that’s what I end up showing.
Filmmaker: There’s an old adage among literary authors and people who teach creative writing, which is “Show, don’t tell.” You’re giving viewers the Berlusconi experience by immersing us in the world he lives in and that he’s created, rather than having talking-head experts explain it all.
Gandini: Exactly. I had huge pressure from the BBC, which was involved in this project. We had an argument exactly about those things. And I know it’s risky because in some countries and probably in the U.S., too, where people don’t know much about Berlusconi, certainly they’d like to have some hard facts. But it’s something you can easily find, you know? [Laughs] The BBC were really trying to push the film in that direction. They wanted a lot of irony. You know, there’s a debate going on in the documentary community. Some people argue that you can get a lot of emotion through facts. Doing the research, I’m really interested in facts and numbers. As a matter of fact, in Italy, a lot of things you can now measure. Like mamismo: I read this number that Italian youngsters are really the ones who statistically move less from home in Europe. When I make film, it’s different; [I use] all the elements, like music and editing.
Filmmaker: You mention that Fabio was an old friend of yours. For the rest of the dramatis personae here—Marella, Mora, Fabrizio—these are people who are very sophisticated about image control and representing the way their clients are depicted in the media. They’re grooming themselves as well. I found it surprising how nakedly honest they were with you. How did you peel the skin back of this media world and find your way in?
Gandini: I was really interested in Corona and Ricky, who I got close to. I made other interviews with people who can talk for hours without telling you anything. That’s how they work. They found it unusual that I was so interested in them. I was not there for ten minutes and then [gone]. And they are very used to that—the fact that I was working for Swedish television was sort of a guarantee. I was very open about what I was doing. Essentially, they don’t know what documentary is and they don’t care. They live in a world where documentary doesn’t exist, it’s an abstraction for them. Especially Lele Mora, there’s a clash of different media realities. In his world, there is no such thing as an independent filmmaker. He would think I was sent by someone else, because that’s how it works in Italy. But then he got very angry with me because he went on TV several times and said I told him this film was only going to be in Sweden, which is bullshit. I don’t understand why he showed [off] his swastikas like that. He knows very well that it’s not a good symbol, but it says more about Italy that it’s not been a problem for him.
Filmmaker: Fabrizio Corona was literally naked for your cameras in one scene. That was an incredible show of self-preening machismo.
Gandini: I love that scene. For me, that’s exactly what you said: show, don’t tell. And I really think that this kind of behavior—super-powerful, alpha-male behavior—works much better in a country ruled by television, where there’s a whole culture of drama and strong emotions, strong gestures, et cetera. It’s very scary when you realize people are buying this image. That’s scarier than a dictator who looks nice. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: Can you talk about the sound design, which added so much to the subjective aspect of what you were doing, and all the work that went into editing all the trash-TV imagery and footage of Berlusconi at press conferences?
Gandini: During the first three or four months of editing, we had a friend who composed a lot of music for the film which was very moody, electronic music that was also very depressive. It was more a reflection of our feelings toward the characters, their stories, and it really didn’t work. The film became too depressive and dull. And then we realized that musically, we had to go with the characters, not against them with emotions they didn’t have. Lele Mora, for instance—he’s happy about his life, he’s a calm person, so we have this harp [for him]. It’s all music from an archivist we discovered who had a lot of music from postwar East Germany, so it’s basically old film music that we rearranged. The idea of having ironic narration absolutely wasn’t necessary, because you can make a lot of points with music, which is more subtle and more interesting to work with. There is I hope a sense of an external observer, like Alice in Wonderland, that’s you’re looking around this world where things seem normal, but they’re not.