By Brian Brooks | Indiewire August 6, 2010 at 3:00AM
SnagFilms' 2nd annual SummerFest, a free online festival showcasing exclusive, limited-duration runs of popular new documentaries, continues with Erik Gandini's "Videocracy," the fourth film in the series, premiering Friday.
The film exposes a mass cult of celebrity worship that has virtually hypnotized Italian society, threatening its democracy. Gandini's film argues that this collective fixation, or what he calls "banality," is not entirely accidental. At its heart is the country's long-serving Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who also happens to be a billionaire with television networks, radio, magazines and other media at the center of his personal empire. Hard news is passed over in favor of pretty girls, salacious stories of celebrity affairs, and frivolous good times. The film was picked by a survey of writers by indieWIRE as the best documentary at last year's Toronto International Film Festival where "Videocracy" had its North American premiere.
[Editor’s Note: This interview has been updated from its original version published at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. SnagFilms is the parent company of indieWIRE.]
The Cult of Good Times and the "Culture of Banality"
"Italy is probably the only country in the world where celebrity/TV and political power is merged together in the person of Silvio Berlusconi," Italian director Erik Gandini told indieWIRE last fall. His film, "Videocracy," spotlights a cult of celebrity worship and TV junkies that, the director believes, has literally hypnotized Italian society to the detriment of public well-being and even democracy itself.
As prime minister (though the film refers to him as "president"), Berlusconi not only wields political power, but as the owner of the largest media empire in the country, he is also the master of cultural control. And Italians, the film argues, are willingly eating it up, watching in droves "talent" shows that feature a liberal dose of tits and ass, and an insatiable quest for celebrity.
"This is the culture of banality," noted Gandini. "The fact of the matter is, this banality, which should have been only marginal, is promoted across the country. This is huge and it's close to Berlusconi himself. Television [programming there] is a mirror of his taste. Berlusconi likes women - a lot. And he likes women with big breasts. It's amazing - almost like science fiction - that one man can control a culture for thirty years now."
Berlusconi and his henchmen live in a world that is devoid of morality, Gandini surmized, saying that the pursuit of fun, external beauty and frivolity is the ultimate in fine living. "I call it the TV Republic," Gandini said. "TV culture has penetrated the whole society."
Berlusconi's empire spans movie studios, magazines and other media, but it's his three television networks and their brand of entertainment that glorify pretty demure women and cheap tricks that titillate the senses that have turned one of the world's great democracies into a society intoxicated by glitz and flesh, according to Gandini.
"Berlusconi has created a culture of banality so that collective societal desires are no longer important. People in Italy now just want to be television stars so they can be famous and rich." Continuing he added, "There's a strong tension between those who are on TV and those who are not. For young Italians, power is embodied by those who are celebrities."
Reason in Exile
Gandini argues in "Videocracy" that Italy no longer places value in people who aspire to reason and thought, or to the challenges of the modern day. Women want to be voiceless showgirls on talent shows and marry footballers (soccer players). And with Berlusconi not only controlling his own personal media empire, but also having a hand in government controlled stations via his post as Italy's Prime Minister, scandals involving prostitution and marital infidelity last year, which had received a fair amount of airtime in other European countries as well as in America, did not receive coverage on Berlusconi's networks or the other public networks.
"People accept him, they find him 'natural.' It's a politics that's not based on truth or collective dreams, but on image only," Gandini said. "Image is more important than reality."
While Gandini describes Berlusconi as a modern despot, he says that his rule is not like today's dictatorships in North Korea or even Zimbabwe, but a collective dumbing down of society that only engages in whether a footballer had an affair with someone.
"These people are super egomaniacs and they're used to being filmed and in the center of attention and exposing themselves...It isn't only [Berlusconi], what I'm really interested in here is how you can destroy a democracy by tits and ass. It's shocking that the banality of culture can destroy a once mature and politically engaged populace."
Gandini approaches the subject utilizing many of the same images he criticizes, with a strong dosage of trash TV and arrogant media and political barons doing Berlusconi's bidding for his media empire, which has also subsequently made him the richest person in Italy.
Though Gandini is clearly disappointed by his country's political evolution, he was gratified that the film performed well at home. "It was quickly the fourth biggest title in Italy in the first few days of its release," Gandini said. "If TV becomes this unreal window into bad values that has nothing to do with reality, then perhaps it's cinema that can become a safe haven for other types of stories."