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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Jeremy Corbyn's won a monumental victory - but it's more delicate than it looks

The need for peace on the left is overwhelming. 

It is perverse, absurd even, that in the aftermath of such a monumental victory Jeremy Corbyn must immediately talk of coalition building and compromise. Previous winners of internal struggles – most notably Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock – certainly did nothing of the sort, and Corbyn’s victory is bigger than theirs. To an extent, this is not the victory of one set of ideas but the establishment of a new party altogether – with a completely different centre of gravity and an almost completely new membership. 

That new Labour party – and core project that has built around Corbyn’s leadership – is itself a delicate network of alliances. The veterans of big social movements, from the Iraq War to the anti-austerity protests of 2011, find themselves in bed with left-leaning cosmopolitan modernisers and the reanimated remnants of the old Labour left. All parts of the coalition have reason for hubris, to believe that this new formation – complex enough as it is already, and filled with ideas and energy – can carry the Corbyn project into Number 10 with or without the co-operation of his Labour colleagues and the wider left. 

That vision is a mirage. Labour has undergone the biggest membership surge in its history, and is now the biggest left of centre party in Europe. As John Curtis has pointed out, the party’s support has maintained a high floor relative to the level of infighting and sniping over the summer, in part because of Corbyn’s strong appeal to Labour’s base. But the bleak electoral outlook, compounded by boundary changes, requires us to do more than read out lines from pre-written scripts. We must all, from a position of strength, stare death in the face.

The terms of peace with the Labour right must be negotiated carefully. There can be no negotiating away of internal democracy in the selection of candidates or national policy-setting; doing so would permanently weaken the left’s hand and allow Corbyn’s detractors in parliament to run riot. And in policy terms, Corbyn cannot compromise basic anti-austerity principles – not just because doing so would be a betrayal that would demobilise Labour’s new base, but because the project of triangulation pioneered by Ed Milliband is a tried and tested electoral failure. 

And yet the need for peace is overwhelming. At a grassroots level, Owen Smith’s support was not made up of hardened Blairites. Many of them, unlike Smith himself, really did share Corbyn’s political vision but had been ground down and convinced that, regardless of the rights and wrongs, there could be no end to Labour’s civil war without new leadership. The left’s job is to prove those people, and the politicians who claim to represent them, wrong. 

Labour’s assorted hacks – on left and right – often forget how boring and irrelevant the search for Labour’s soul looks to a wider public that long ago left behind party tribalism. The intellectual task ahead of us is about framing our politics in a comprehensible, modernising way – not creating a whole new generation of people who know Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech by rote. 

A united Labour Party, free to focus on shifting the consensus of British politics could well change history. But the grim realities of the situation may force us to go even further. To get a majority at the next election, Labour will need to gain 106 seats – a swing not achieved since 1997. 

Add to that the socially conservative affirmation of the Brexit vote, and the left’s profound confusion in terms of what to do about it, and the challenge of getting a Labour Prime Minister – regardless of who they are or what they stand for – looks like an unprecedented challenge. That unprecedented challenge could be met by an unprecedented alliance of political forces outside the Labour party as well as inside it. 

In order for Labour to win under the conditions set by the boundary review, everything has to be calibrated right. Firstly, we need an energised, mass party which advocates radical and popular policies. Secondly, we need the party not to tear itself apart every few months. And yes, finally, we may well need an honest, working arrangement between Labour, the Greens, and other progressive parties, including even the Lib Dems. 

Exactly how that alliance would be constituted – and how far it would be under the control of local parties – could be the matter of some debate. But there is every chance of it working – especially if the terms of the next general election take place in the context of the outcome of a Brexit negotiation. 

The starting point for that journey must be a recognition on the part of Corbyn’s opponents that the new Labour party is not just the overwhelming democratic choice of members, but also – with a mass activist base and a mostly popular programme – the only electable version of the Labour party in the current climate. For the left’s part, we must recognise that the coalition that has built around Corbyn is just the core of a much wider set of alliances – inside Labour and perhaps beyond.