As both politician and media magnate, Silvio Berlusconi arguably holds more power than any Italian leader since Mussolini. Erik Gandini spoke to Louis Bayman about his documentary film, Videocracy.
The Economist is run by a group of communist conspirators. That, at least, was the response of the current Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, when, before the 2001 elections, the British magazine stated that the man was unfit to be the leader of a democratic country.
Berlusconi was already the country's richest businessman and ran a media empire of national newspapers, magazines and TV stations. With the acquisition of the premiership, he also gained control of the government and the state media, giving him a greater range of power than any individual since Benito Mussolini.
Berlusconi's petulant response to the Economist is typical of how he runs Italy, hounding out critics and cloaking each new ascent to power in a quest to vanquish his - and thus supposedly Italy's - persecutors. He has passed laws whose sole purpose is to free himself of investigations into his business activities, while his coalition has overseen a racist scapegoating that has led vigilante squads to firebomb gypsy camps.
Erik Gandini is part of the opposition to Berlusconi's rule, which saw 100,000 demonstrators march through Rome last year demanding press freedoms. Gandini's documentary, Videocracy, seeks to diagnose the peculiar character of Berlusconi's "cultural revolution".
It is common for the media to play an important role in most countries. But what makes Italy a "videocracy"?
Italy is probably the only country where media and political power are so connected, through Silvio Berlusconi. Plus I feel very strongly that images have a particular impact in Italy - 80 percent of Italians use TV as their main source of information. His control of the media is amazing, and the more power he has, the more he gets. Italian newspapers have a small circulation compared to other countries and even the smaller newspapers are victim to being sued by his army of lawyers.
Your own film ran into difficulties.
It will never be shown on Italian TV - even the trailer was banned! My film is not a conventional kind of political attack, unlike directors like Sabina Guzzanti [a satirist whose show was pulled from the schedules]. My film works on a more visual level, questioning Berlusconi and the TV culture he has produced with the same tools he has mastered - images and sounds. Berlusconi has always been able to reach people's hearts and minds - or their hearts and stomachs, bypassing their minds.
Why do you feel the opposition to Berlusconi has not been more effective?
The opposition is made up of clever people with the right motives. But the problem, I think, is that the kind of dumbing-down that Berlusconi has created in Italy has created a mass audience of people who are not sensitive to analysis and logic. This man has the highest privileges in the country, the most political power, the most media power, but he presents himself as a victim of the judges, the media, etc.
A year ago he really seemed in trouble with sex scandals involving minors and prostitutes.
Yes, and he had been struggling to convince people to feel sympathetic to him, but then he was physically attacked by a mentally disturbed man in Milan. With this image all the scandals attendant on him were forgotten overnight. This is symptomatic of a way of doing politics that is based on impressions and not truth, of the country's most powerful man presenting himself as a victim. I was in Italy then promoting Videocracy's release on DVD and I remember coming to a press conference where the agent said they'd had to cancel a number of interviews. Even RAI [the equivalent of the BBC] had received orders not to increase negative feelings towards him.
Who gives such orders?
I would love to say it was Berlusconi himself, but it's not; it's worse than that. He's not like the baddie from a James Bond movie. It's more that "the people are more royalist than the king", as we say in Italy. Unlike in a dictatorship, where people fear for their lives, people remain cautious of their status, their jobs and their own private finances. It's self-censorship.
As well as being the most admired and powerful man, he's also the most hated man in Italy.
The country's divided. Right now Berlusconi's popularity has dramatically decreased and Gianfranco Fini [his coalition partner] has started a new party. But the left is very weak here. When you hope his ally, a former Fascist, does well, you realise how bad things are.
I'll give you an example of his control. I had a screening at the university in Milan, which you would assume was the ideal environment for a critical film such as mine. I was told that the screening had been put in jeopardy by the head of the university - not because he is a Berlusconi supporter, but because the university receives funding from the state and was fearful of being critical. This is what I mean about low-intensity fear and self-censorship. Like the frog who is gradually boiled to death, Italians adapt themselves to the warm feeling of the water which slowly kills them.
Although Berlusconi does play an active role in censoring the media.
Absolutely. He goes on the attack. In one incident a TV show started following a judge who was involved in a corruption scandal against Berlusconi. It was like a persecution. They made a short clip on the news show mocking him because of his choice of socks, which they claimed was suspicious! The main news show on Rai Uno at 8pm has a chief editor who censors every issue or question that is inconvenient for Berlusconi. One famous anchorwoman resigned. There are brave journalists but otherwise people are cautious.
Are there other outlets for people to dissent?
The internet is the big hope. It is marginalised in terms of its impact, but the internet is an uncontrolled forum. Censored TV shows have been broadcast on the internet, reaching quite large audiences. This is an old regime of old men who don't understand the new technology. They are similar to the Chinese government in trying to censor the internet. When they censored the trailer for my film, it exploded on the internet - it was an epidemic. Their censorship was totally counterproductive. When people use old methods that don't work that offers a lot of hope.
To what extent is the current political set-up about Berlusconi's own personal enrichment? To what extent is there a regroupment of the right?
I think Fini has a much more long-term investment. He realises the man is old and that there might be a backlash as soon as Berlusconi loses his political power. Economic and media power will stay with Berlusconi because that doesn't depend on votes. His family inherits it. Just like Rupert Murdoch does, he will select which politician to support, and so on. I think there's something unhealthy in the media-power concentration and that's why I'm a filmmaker. Having the liberty to say things independently is very important.
Do you see signs of fascism in Italy's future?
Berlusconismo is a lack of moral value which spreads in every direction. Fascism has become something not to be ashamed of any more. I wouldn't say it's the Fascism of the 1930s; it's not a centralised system of violence. But it's also worse, as it's a lack of ideology. You can be whatever you want as long as you look after yourself. This is another type of political totalitarianism; not even political, but something else.
With the economic crisis, are people becoming more critical of the regime?
As long as Berlusconi can give the impression that we're having a great time, applauding and laughing like in his TV shows, it won't be a problem. The economy is a very real thing, and people are suffering lots, but his biggest strength has always been to convince people that the reality they live in is much better than it is.
What role is there in the future for cultural expressions of opposition to Berlusconi?
What worries me most is disillusionment in Italy. Most conversations start, "The problem in Italy is..." There's always this idea that there's not much you can do. You might as well think of small things. Italians, especially young people, don't travel much, are unlikely to move from their towns; they're obsessed by brands and looks, take on their parents' jobs. But many young, well-educated, or at least curious, people want to pursue other things. I really hope that this old man's regime will just implode by itself, and there are signs of that. It's not functioning well, the power of TV is decreasing all over the world and I'm confident that all Berlusconi's gaffes, his bad taste, are not representative of Italians. No one I know identifies with Berlusconismo. It's old and it's dying.
Gandini's closing remark brings to mind that Italy is not only the country of Berlusconi and Mussolini but of the great workers' occupations of 1919-20 and of the anti-fascist partisans, and the searing "Hot Autumn" of strikes and protests in 1969. Anyone who witnessed the protests against the G8 in 2001, or the Social Forum movement in the years that followed, will wonder what might have been if the main parliamentary left had decided to oppose - rather than offer support to - Berlusconi in power. Or, better yet, if the radical left had found a way to move social protest forward instead of supporting a disastrous coalition government in 2006 that was largely wedded to neoliberalism.
The Italian investment in celebrity differs only in degree to the television culture that marks many countries. Budding starlet Ricky, one of Videocracy's main subjects, explains his motives for breaking into TV: "Why should I be a mechanic all my life?" Gandini's film highlights the bleakness behind the glamour of endless scantily clad young bodies made to dance, not permitted to speak, and then passed over for the next in line.
The Italian left is currently putting its energies into a union-organised protest against the cuts set for mid-October. Images cannot substitute for substance forever. It is to be hoped that such movements can build an alternative form of hope for the frustrated mechanics - not just in Italy, but across the world.
Videocracy is out this month on DVD