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TV Nation: In 'Videocracy,' The Media Is the State

By Tom White

The idea of television as the drug of the nation is a tried and true one in the US, but the metaphor goes way beyond reality in the Italy depicted in Erik Gandini's documentary Videocracy. With longtime Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi having amassed a media empire prior to coming into power, and now controlling 90 percent of television in Italy, Italians regularly tune in to a state-run carnival of tawdriness and trash, along with well-orchestrated press conferences by the prime minister himself and a happy peppy pro-Silvio propaganda song or two for good measure.  

Gandini, an Italian native now based in Sweden, gained remarkable access to the underworld beneath this world. The Baedekers include Lele Mora, a talent agent cum impresario/svengali who admires his friend Berlusconi almost as much as he reveres Mussolini; indeed, Mora has stored a fascist fight song video from the Il Duce days on his smart phone, which he gladly plays for Gandini-and for us. And there's Fabrizio Corona, the reptilian paparozzo who once worked for Mora. Now he works for himself-"a modern form of Robin Hood-robbing from the rich and giving to myself." He lands in jail for his particular spin on his profession-snapping photos of celebrities, then extorting payment from them so their photos don't get published. And finally, there's the end-user, in the form of Ricky Canevali, a factory worker with big dreams of TV stardom as a Ricky Martin impersonator, with a little martial arts demo thrown in for good measure.

The Italy that Gandini renders in Videocracy -a veritable circus of the damned--brings to mind the darkest, most fevered imaginings of three of her greatest sons-Fellini, Dante and Pasolini.  Documentary spoke to the filmmaker via e-mail about his artistic choices and influences, the sturm und drang following the film's release and the documentary worlds in Italy and Sweden.


Videocracy, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and earned a Special Jury Prize at Sheffield Doc/Fest, opens Friday, February 12 in New York City through Lorber Films.


Women auditioning to be velines--starlets who pose and dance provocatively, but have no speaking lines-- on Italian TV.  From Erik Gandini's Videocracy.


Documentary: Talk about how you developed the structure for your film and how you arrived at your decision to be its narrator.


Erik Gandinni: The idea of Videocracy was to make a film about Berlusconiism, not a film about Silvio Berlusconi. There is a scene in Videocracy where the director of Grande Fratello (Big Brother) explains how close Berlusconi's personality is to the realm of the TV world in his own TV network: "Big breasts, beautiful women, lights, colors." As an Italian, I think this is one of the scariest ideas about the state of things we are living in: For 30 years we have been exposed, massively, to Berlusconi's TV dreamworld. And slowly we have all become like him. The little Berlusconi inside of us has been regularly fed, every day to become a big part of ourselves--an Inter-Ego. 

If you read the newspapers or Google information about Italy, you'll get a lot of facts and political analysis, but not the actual experience of living in Italy today. This is what I wanted to portray with Videocracy. Films to me--documentary films--are much more powerful tools than just sources of information. Images, characters, the editing, the soundtrack are all elements that can help me show the world as it feels, rather than as it is. Videocracy is basically the product of my journey inside a part of Italy that is very powerful and dominating--and therefore also very frightening to me. The characters are larger than life, and there is something mythological about them.

Dealing with them, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. In the film we were working with the editing and also the soundtrack to re-create my own feelings exploring this world where everything is normal, but actually so abnormal. To reach the saga dimension, we even tested with actor Franco Nero (Django) as a narrator, because of the monumental character of his voice. In the end, and thanks to Lars von Trier (Videocracy is one of several co-productions with his company Zentropa), who was a good coach for the narration, we realized all the elements were heading in the same direction--music, story, characters--and we had pushed too far. People in test screenings didn't believe what they saw; it all seemed too surreal, untrue.

So, given that the film is also a personal journey to my home country, about characters I got to know closely and structured through my personal observations, doing the narration myself was the right choice.


D: Considering the airtight control Berlusconi has over his image, over television and over Italy, how did he and his colleagues allow you such remarkable access? How did you initially describe your film project to them? Were you ever in any danger in the production and post-production processes?


EG: I was always very open about the fact that I was making a documentary about "Il mondo della televisione"--the Italian "world of television"--and that it was a Swedish production. For them this was often an exotic element, the idea that the film would be aired in Sweden. In some of the TV programs we visited, they even told me, "Of course, people abroad are interested in what we do. Italian TV is a role model worldwide!"

The characters in the film, especially Lele Mora and Fabrizio Corona, are so involved in this mondo, with its huge shows, multi-million-Euro production budgets and enormous numbers of viewers, that my film was a marginal phenomenon in their lives.

And to be honest, I'm not sure they really know what a documentary is. Still today in Italy when I say I do documentaries, a very common reaction I get is, "You mean nature films?"

I am indeed very interested in the characters of the film. They are all very self-centered and mostly concerned about their ego, their looks and their celebrity, which is a very strong element of Berlusconismo, an ideology that lacks collective vision. To me they represent gears of a bigger machinery above them, a system, that they are not always aware of, and that is what I was interested in understanding. 

When the film was released, they were surprised. They didn't expect a film.

Ricky Canevali was really happy; he was with me in Venice, ecstatic. Lele Mora was really angry with me and was on several TV programs threatening to sue me because I didn't tell him the film would be released in Italy (something I was myself not aware of while making it). What fascinates me was that on all these shows he was invited to, on Berlusconi's network, no one ever asked him to comment about his pride for the swastikas in his cell phone or his comparing Berlusconi to be as almost as good as Mussolini.

Corona was initially very upset too; he threatened me very aggressively when he realized the film was bigger than he thought, that it was going to Venice and then was going to be released theatrically--"My image is worth one million euro! My dick is worth 300,000 euro!"...Money for them is important, and money was the main reason for their being upset--not how they appear in Videocracy.

Two weeks ago, a high school teacher in Imola showed Videocracy to his students, and that sparked a local turmoil. The local PDL (Berlusconi's Party) representatives reacted angrily against the school's director and ended up forwarding an official complaint to Giorgia Meloni, the Minister of Youth, for "an event that should not pass unnoted in a free and democratic country"


Lele Mora, the most powerful talent agent in Italy, lounging on his bed. 


D: You premiered at the Toronto and Venice film festivals last September. How was the film received at Venice? What's been the reaction to Videocracy among Italian audiences-and particularly among the subjects of the film?


EG: The Venice premiere was hysterical because of all the buzz and all the controversy that had surrounded the film weeks before.

The Italian film company Fandango (Gomorrah), which distributes the film, had produced a trailer of Videocracy for television. Both of Berlusconi's networks and RAI, the state TV station, decided to ban the trailer from airing. RAI's legal department even sent a three-page-long letter, written in a sort of Orwellian, old-regime type of language, stating among other things that it's against RAI's rules to use its airwaves for political reasons, which seems ironic if you consider Berlusconi's control of  90 percent of television in Italy.

Within a day the trailer literally exploded on the Web. Facebook, was epidemic. So the TV censorship backfired and became a huge promotion for the film, and the 30 release prints planned by Fandango was upped to 90 prints.

The film was well received (except, of course, by the Berlusconi-controlled media) and became a big success in theaters. The first weekend, it was the fourth most popular movie in the country and ended up drawing 150,000 admissions within a few weeks.

Surprisingly, reactions among Italians was often similar to the reaction in, for example, France or the UK or Sweden, where Videocracy was reviewed by the main newspaper Dagens Nyheter as "the horror movie of the year." In Italy, several people commented that "It was like watching a scary reality [show], but when the movie is over...we are still in it."


D: Berlusconi obviously controls the media in Italy, but what about new media and social networking-i.e. Twitter, Facebook, the Internet in general? Is that where the voice of opposition lies? Speaking of which, you largely refrained from including the opposition in your film. Talk about this decision.


EG: The class of politicians that rule Italy today, with Berlusconi on top of it at age 73,  represent an old regime that is very unfamiliar with the Internet. So yes, that is where the hope lies for a breach on the media monopoly. It is mainly on the Internet where you can get independent voices or, for instance, listen to the recordings of the scandal surrounding the prime minister and the escort girl, Patrizia D'Addario, who captured with her mobile phone a whole night in the presidential palace.

Still, the power of TV in Italy is unique compared to other countries; 80 percent of Italians use television as the main source of information--"What is not on TV does not exist." People read very few newspapers and books, and Internet connection is slow. Ricky, one of the characters in the film, had never owned a computer when I first met him.

I did not want to make a political analysis of the country through a factual report or an exposé of the different sides representing the two different Italys colliding today. I was not even trying to dig up some new information or investigate to discover a scoop. I wanted to show things that are familiar in an unfamiliar way: Making a journey inside the world of Italian television, which scares me because it has melted with the sphere of political power and become an entity, a unique organism...I don't think there are other countries like that.

This is a world that is very well protected inside its fortress of privileges; the only ones allowed to portray it are its owners and its protagonists--certainly not a small person with a film camera.


D: The Italy in Videocracy is a decidedly Dantesque and Fellinesque world. What in your mind has become of the Italy of Dante and Fellini, as well as Verdi, Michelangelo, Antonioni, Da Vinci? It seems that those great figures who helped define Italian culture would look in horror at what their nation has become.


EG: When you say the word Televisione, in Italy people think of a monster rather than the box. Publishing houses have to publish books by TV celebrities to be able to release books by real authors. Italian cinema is today dependent on casting TV showgirls and TV celebrities to get huge box office; culture is really dependent on television, its industry and its aesthetics. Among many filmmakers and directors, there is a big hope that TV Cinema will re-conquer the right to tell stories of the present. I am personally confident that this is a transitional period. There is a huge demand for truth in Italy today. That need is being exploited by, for example, the huge gossip magazine industry, an offspring of the TV industry, and also owned by Berlusconi, which paparazzo Fabrizio Corona represents in Videocracy.

I think the sort of media monopoly that Italy is still subjected to was possible to build in the 1980s, but is determined to fall in a near future. I truly hope that even documentaries, as the cheapest and most viable form of cinematic expression for the single individual, will soon become unexpected and powerful entries on Italian culture-and start a second wave of Neorealism.  


Paparozzo Fabrizio Corona counting his ill-gotten gains.


D: You're based in Sweden. What brought you to Sweden initially, and what made you decide to stay there? Talk about the opportunities for documentary-making there vs. in Italy?


EG:  Sweden is a Valhalla for documentary filmmakers, compared to Italy. I was born and grew up in Bergamo, Italy. My parents still live there, and since my mother is Swedish I had the chance to go to film school in Sweden at the age of 20. I came from Italy in the midst of the Berlusconi TV boom in late '80s, and in Sweden I discovered this genre [documentary] that inspired me and invaded my life. In Sweden it had high status as a respected cinematic art form. There were docs in theaters and on Swedish public TV almost every day. A few weeks after my arrival I saw Claude Lanzmann's nine-hour Shoah, broadcasted two nights in a row...on national television, on prime time.

So I have been living here, while traveling back and forth to Italy. Stockholm is my base. Here I have a family, three children. And I run ATMO, a production company, together with my friends.


D: What documentary makers and/or documentaries served as inspirations for you in making Videocracy?


EG: My biggest inspirations are to be found outside the world of documentaries: Antonioni, for his poetry and his ability to capture photographically the emptiness and alienation of Italian society; Fellini, for his fascination with spectacles; Pasolini, for his foreseeing 40 years ago the role of consumerism and television in Italy's future.

Among documentaries, Mondo Cane was visually inspiring. This legendary "shockumentary" from 1962 is a travelogue of the world as seen by three Italians, Franco Prosperi, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Paolo Cavara, called "the most irresponsible filmmakers in the world." Ethnocentric, arrogant and racist, this documentary, nominated for the Palme d'or in Cannes, is morally a disaster but photographically inspiring and in some sequences, very funny. When I started on Videocracy, I played with the idea of the world portrayed in Mondo Cane now traveling to Italy looking for a cinematic revenge, to trash the country as my countrymen had done with the world outside of Italy in Mondo Cane, in a kind of payback time.

A bigger source of inspiration was Idi Amin Dada--Autoportrait, by Barbet Shroeder, from 1974--one of the best portraits of a dictatorship I have ever seen. Also the proof that people with too much power, when they are given too much space, too much exposure, too much listening [time], suddenly start deconstructing themselves. They commit suicide in front of the camera.


Director Erik Gandini.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary Magazine.