The nightmare of Berlusconi’s media empire

The Film Interview: Erik Gandini on celebrity culture in modern Italy.

Erik Gandini is a Swedish-Italian director. His film "Videocracy" is a dark psychological study of the power of celebrity culture in Italy and the role of the media empire that belongs to the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. It won the Special Jury Award at last year's Sheffield International Documentary Festival.

Other film-makers have tackled Berlusconi's regime and rise to power directly, but you've taken a different approach. What was that, exactly?

I wanted to show the rise of his TV empire and the cultural revolution it has created in Italy, which we refer to as Berlusconismo. Television has incredible impact on Italy. Eighty per cent of Italians use television as their main source of information. And there is an expression that Berlusconi himself coined, that "What is on TV exists, what is not on TV does not exist".

So, for 30 years now, because he started his TV channels in the late 1970s, we have been subjected to a culture that is actually the expression, the mirror, of his own personality. For example, he likes women a certain way, he likes women to be big-breasted and very exposed. He started this probably as a business idea, to show something that the other TV networks were not showing. But then it became really totalising and dominating in a way that has no equal in other countries. And when I'm talking about the cultural revolution I mean that, we will all become like him somehow. All these cultural elements, which are typical of his own view of the world, of his values, have become Italian in a way that is actually kind of accidental.

One of the creepiest figures you introduce us to is Lele Mora -- a kind of Simon Cowell figure and a key ally of Berlusconi -- who shows off his collection of fascist-era songs on his mobile phone. What is the relationship between the fascist era and current celebrity culture in Italy?

Italy is not a fascist country, but if there is something totalitarian in our culture, it's in a very modern way. This celebrity culture has created a system of values which is actually a system of non-values where nothing really matters. I don't think Lele Mora is a politically convinced fascist -- I think he's more an example of lack of ideology rather than ideology. And that is even more scary, because in Italy now I think the core of this culture is the pressure to always be having fun.

The connections between Berlusconi and Mussolini are more on a physical level. Berlusconi is a very physical politician in a way that Italian politicians were not until Berlusconi came to power. Politicians were really brainy and hard to understand when they spoke, while Berlusconi uses his body, his smile, his virility, in a way that is similar to Mussolini.

Aside from that, he has such a modern way of running politics. And I would say it's a much more TV-savvy way. Everything is about impression. If you can create impressions that work emotionally, that is what Berlusconi is a master of. He is always presenting himself as a victim even though he is really the man with the highest privileges in the country.

He was hit in the face, for example, in Milan about a year ago and there was suddenly a picture of him bleeding. I think this was the best thing that could happen to him in terms of this, this image he wants to create of someone you feel sorry for. And as a matter of fact it was very successful because all the scandals that he was involved in were suddenly dropped.

I was in Italy myself at the time to launch Videocracy and I had several TV and newspaper interviews cancelled because the reporters had been given directions not to sort of raise the temperature of the hate against Berlusconi because in those days he had been hit in the face. This is the kind of self-censorship that is really present in Italy now.

As the film progresses it becomes less political and more psychological, particularly when you look at ordinary Italians who are consumed by their desire to be famous, or to appear on reality TV. Is that something unique to Italy, or is it a wider problem?

If you look at Italian TV, or if you live with it, you have constantly this message that you should have fun. There is something very scary in going to a shopping mall outside Milan [a scene from the film], for example, and watching these young girls dancing and preparing for a game show.

Yet the film doesn't sneer at people with these dreams. Do you see any way out for them? Is the desire to be famous fulfilling in some way, or is it just a trap?

This is one side of Italy that is very dominant now and it's not the whole of Italy, of course. Ricky [a young man who wants to enter Italy's version of Britain's Got Talent] is a good example, because he is really a victim of that. He is just a working-class guy whose dream is to empower himself. And in Italy the best way to empower yourself is to get into television somehow. Berlusconi even picks people from television and turns them into politicians, into members of parliament.

You've made a film, essentially, about television. In terms of techniques, was there anything you did to question the power of moving images themselves?

I know exactly what you mean. Many people perceive Videocracy as kind of a soft film, because it is not a classic investigation or challenging of power. But when this television is telling you to have fun, if this culture is really focusing on just showing the good side of life, then I want to use a cinematic language to tell the opposite. This TV culture would never tell you about the dangerous side of its own world, or the sense of fear that exists.

Somehow Berlusconi always succeeds because, as I said before, with the example of creating impressions, he always reaches for the stomach and the heart of people. And that's why I want to try to use this same language but to say something different. I'm not sure if it works, but I know that many people in Italy went to see this film -- people who would not necessarily go to see this kind of film otherwise. Because characters like Lele Mora were so famous there was a huge reason for people to go and see it.

So really you're taking elements of that celebrity culture and subverting them?

Somehow yes, because that world -- in Italian we call it il mondo della televisione -- has some sort of monopoly over itself. Lele Mora was very angry when the thing was shown; usually he has total control over how he's portrayed, and how he's presented on TV, because it's all his friends who run television in Italy. I live in Sweden and there's a strong independent film-making tradition, like there is in the UK, but unfortunately it's not common in Italy.

"Videocracy" is out now on DVD from Dogwoof.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition