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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The government's housing policies are dividing London

I am genuinely fearful about the impact that the Government’s forced sale of social housing will have on the most vulnerable. Across the capital, local authority waiting lists are already over-subscribed and families with young children are living in the most desperate and dire circumstances.

The government’s Housing and Planning Bill, which returns to the House of Commons this week, is not fit for purpose. Not only will it not tackle the housing crisis facing the capital, it will actually make the situation worse. Many of the Bill’s most damaging provisions have been pulled apart by the House of Lords, and I would call on the Government to think again before forcing this Bill through Parliament.

This government has long talked of ‘making work pay’ by removing disincentives to work from the welfare system, yet this rhetoric is directly contradicted by the pay to stay rule which will hit households earning over £30,000 (£40,000 in London) with a significant rent hike. Penalising a working couple in this way is a senseless attack on aspiration – it should never make financial sense for someone to cease going out to work to avoid fiscal penalties handed down by the government.

The end of long-term, secure tenancies for families in social housing pours further scorn over two other Tory buzzwords, namely ‘community’ and ‘security’. The Prime Minister has told us that all government policies have to pass the ‘family test’, but there is nothing more damaging to family life and children’s education than moving families from property to property, in and out of school catchment areas and causing endless uncertainty about the future.     

I am genuinely fearful about the impact that the Government’s forced sale of social housing will have on the most vulnerable. Across the capital, local authority waiting lists are already over-subscribed and families with young children are living in the most desperate and dire circumstances.

The Government’s own figures show that rough sleeping has increased 30% in the last year and 102% since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. A separate study by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network found that there are over 7,500 rough sleepers in London alone.

This is nothing short of a scandal, and must serve as an urgent wake-up call. London councils simply do not have the housing stock available to them to provide for all those that need a roof over their head, and Haringey Council are already spending almost £20 million per year on temporary accommodation in a desperate effort to keep children and families from sleeping on the streets.

It is hard to fathom why the Government is planning to push through changes that would reduce social housing stock by 370,000 by 2020 according to the Chartered Institute for Housing. Whether it is the extension of Right-to-Buy or the forced sale of valuable council homes to fund these discounted sales, forcing those on low incomes into the private rented sector will only see the housing benefit bill continue to soar.

Council properties, currently set aside for local people, will instead fall into the hands of speculators and buy-to-let landlords. The Government have not set out a serious plan for how replacement properties will be provided in the same area as the lost homes, with Housing Minister Brandon Lewis telling me that housing associations will merely “have the flexibility” to replace lost stock nationally.

What is needed is more council homes for social rent. Recent history tells us that property developers and the free market won’t supply these homes – there is far too much money to be made in building high end high rise blocks for wealthy foreign buyers – so we must provide councils with the funds to build the homes so badly needed.

Not only is the Government failing to provide for the most vulnerable in our society, the Bill also makes a mockery of the Government’s apparent commitment to providing ‘affordable’ housing for those looking to get on to the housing ladder. A cap of £450,000 is 30 times the annual salary of someone employed on the Government’s celebrated ‘living wage’. The Tory front bench needs to face up to the fact that their definition of affordability means absolutely nothing of the sort to most ordinary Londoners.

What message does it send out about aspiration when only those with the help of cash-rich parents are able to get on the property ladder, no matter how hard they work?

It isn’t just the Labour Party, the House of Lords and housing charities that are calling on the Government to think again. Former DCLG Permanent Secretary and Head of the Civil Service Lord Kerslake and two prominent Conservative local government leaders – Local Government Association (LGA) Chairman Gary Porter and Chair of the LGA Conservative Group David Hodge have also publicly made their concerns known.

If the Government carries on down this path without taking the dire need to build more houses seriously, our capital city will soon be unrecognisable. Inner London is fast becoming the preserve of the super-rich and shady off-shore investors while in the outer boroughs private renters are paying ever-increasing rents to live in overcrowded and substandard homes, in thrall to unregulated landlords free to treat their tenants however they please.

Our great capital is fast turning into two cities as the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows ever larger, and the danger is that if we do not act now this division will become permanent.  

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham