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Reviving Italy from the coma: interviewing Annalisa Piras, Director of Girlfriend in a Coma

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Chris Paul


"I think we are at the end of the track with Europe. Either we renew the social contract among countries or we go for disintegration. Which is why we are very excited about doing Europe in a Coma, because at this precise historic moment it is very important to raise awareness of what is at stake."

Annalisa Piras talks about how to wake Italy, and Europe, out of the coma

Girl­friend in a Coma (2012) by Lon­don based jour­nal­ist and film maker An­nal­isa Piras and writer and for­mer ed­i­tor of The Econ­o­mist Bill Em­mott, fo­cuses on how con­tem­po­rary Italy has been lying in a coma for the past twenty years. It explores the deep routed prob­lems of the coun­try while, at the same time, look­ing at its suc­cesses and pos­si­ble so­lu­tions for the fu­ture. Since the film a lot has hap­pened, and An­nal­isa Piras dis­cusses the film and her hopes for re­viv­ing Italy.

How did the idea for Girl­friend in a Coma come about? What was the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind the film?

Well, Bill Em­mott and I met in 2001 when Bill made the very fa­mous cover of The Econ­o­mist with Mr Berlus­coni and the head­line “Why this man is unfit to lead Italy”. We started a con­ver­sa­tion on Italy and its many un­re­solved is­sues that have al­ways seemed to come back in the same way over the past 20 years. So when Bill then wrote the book Forza Italia and the Eng­lish ver­sion Good Italy, Bad Italy we dis­cussed again how Italy seemed to be stuck in a time­warp, a sleep or paral­y­sis un­able to solve its prob­lems. And so the idea rose that maybe it would be use­ful to make a film, be­cause a film would allow us to reach a huge num­ber of peo­ple and, at the same time, would also very ro­bustly de­pict the sit­u­a­tion that many Ital­ians don’t want to see. So, the idea was that with a film, we might be able to help cre­ate more of aware­ness of this sort of sleep or coma that Italy seems to be in since 20 years ago.

You’ve done a tour not just in Italy but also in the UK and through­out Eu­rope, how has the film been re­ceived so far, how have you found the re­ac­tion of dif­fer­ent au­di­ences?

It’s been ex­tremely in­ter­est­ing, this kind of fol­low­ing that the movie has cre­ated be­cause you will re­mem­ber that the first screen­ing in Italy on Feb­ru­ary 13th was can­celled due to the de­ci­sion of the Pres­i­dent of the MAXXI Mu­seum in Rome where the screen­ing was booked. That mo­ment was seen by many as a form of cen­sor­ship be­cause the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion was that you shouldn’t screen a film that talks about pol­i­tics in a pub­lic in­sti­tu­tion be­fore the elec­tion. Since then, it has cre­ated a re­ally strong fol­low­ing es­pe­cially among stu­dents, which was  very re­ward­ing for us be­cause we were hop­ing some­how to reach the younger gen­er­a­tion, the peo­ple who know the se­ri­ous­ness of the sit­u­a­tion and want to do some­thing about it. So it has been very, very beau­ti­ful and it has filled us with pride to see these spon­ta­neous screen­ings or­gan­ised every­where in Italy. We’ve tried to go to as many as pos­si­ble, we’ve been so far to 45 but there has been as many or­gan­ised in­de­pen­dently, peo­ple get­ting to­gether to watch the film and de­bate the is­sues in a kind of par­tic­i­pa­tory cam­paign to analyse why the is­sues raised in the film are not part of the na­tional de­bate. The stark con­trast has been be­tween spon­ta­neous civic so­ci­ety em­brac­ing the film and the com­plete in­dif­fer­ence of the in­sti­tu­tions, the po­lit­i­cal world and the main­stream media.

Well, when the film was made Mario Monti had been elected after Sil­vio Berlus­coni stepped down amid scan­dal. Since then we’ve had the dis­as­trous elec­tion which lead to a long stale­mate and now fi­nally the ap­point­ment of En­rico Letta as PM. A lot has hap­pened, but can we say that Italy is wak­ing out of the coma?

It de­pends pretty much on who is watch­ing. It’s a typ­i­cal case of whether the glass is half full or half empty. A lot has hap­pened since we made the film. A lot of pos­i­tive things have hap­pened, no­tably there is a strong sense that the pub­lic opin­ion in Italy is de­mand­ing change. Even if it was not the best po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion the fact that some­one from out­side the po­lit­i­cal class, some­one like Beppe Grillo has got such a suc­cess at the elec­tions... it is not a good thing in ab­solute terms be­cause there are a lot of is­sues with the Movi­mento Cinque Stelle, [but] it has sent a strong sig­nal that at least a third of vot­ers in Italy de­mand a rad­i­cal change. On the other hand, there are a lot of wor­ry­ing symp­toms that sug­gest the coma is get­ting worse. Par­tic­u­larly the elec­toral suc­cess of Sil­vio Berlus­coni has been a bad blow to those who thought some­how the Berlus­con­ismo era was fin­ished.

In the film, you look at the Mala Italia and Buona Italia. In the first part, bad Italy, you look at is­sues such as cor­rup­tion, po­lit­i­cal cul­ture, and or­gan­ised crime with fig­ures guid­ing us through the chap­ter. But was there a lit­tle too much em­pha­sis on Sil­vio Berlus­coni? Is he the cause or a symp­tom of Italy’s prob­lems?

Many peo­ple thought there was too much space for Berlus­coni when they saw it be­fore the elec­tions, be­cause many peo­ple hoped that Berlus­coni was gone, there was this sense that he be­longed to the past. But this was not the case, and so some­how Berlus­coni had sadly the right place in the film. I think that too often many Ital­ians have liked the idea of say­ing that Berlus­coni was the cause of all evil, but ac­tu­ally Berlus­con­ismo is a symp­tom, a symp­tom of fun­da­men­tal prob­lems with Ital­ian democ­racy. Cer­tainly a lack of grown-up po­lit­i­cal cul­ture is what has al­lowed some­one like him to dom­i­nate pol­i­tics for the past twenty years. So the fact that some­one who openly dis­plays a sense of dis­re­gard for the in­sti­tu­tions and for the state gets such a sig­nif­i­cant share of the vote is part of the prob­lem. With or with­out Berlus­coni, this dis­re­gard for le­gal­ity is a prob­lem that ex­isted be­fore Berlus­coni, and so as well has the prob­lem of sell­ing and rig­ging votes, and the in­flu­ence of or­gan­ised crime on the re­sults of the vote. Those are very old and per­ni­cious is­sues of Italy that Berlus­con­ismo has made worse.

It was in­ter­est­ing that when Mario Monti was nom­i­nated to be the tech­no­cratic Prime Min­is­ter after Berlus­coni re­signed, he had a very good track record in Eu­rope and some Ital­ian com­men­ta­tors said that he could be good for Italy. Is there more faith when some­one else does the choos­ing?

There is a very im­por­tant ques­tion.  Now I think there is a deep aware­ness that the lead­ers that are pro­duced by the tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal par­ties, they end up mak­ing a mess. So there is this sense that when things get re­ally se­ri­ous, you need to call a tech­no­crat be­cause you can­not trust Ital­ian politi­cians with se­ri­ous mat­ters. It was in­ter­est­ing that when Mario Monti was nom­i­nated, there was a big mis­un­der­stand­ing es­pe­cially in Britain; with a lot of peo­ple say­ing this was un­de­mo­c­ra­tic. But, first of all, the Ital­ian sys­tem al­lows the Pres­i­dent of the Re­pub­lic to nom­i­nate who he wants as long as he is a mem­ber of par­lia­ment, and Monti was a sen­a­tor, and then Par­lia­ment ap­proves him and has a vote of con­fi­dence in him. So that was in line with Ital­ian de­mo­c­ra­tic prac­tices. But sec­ondly, there was a also a mis­un­der­stand­ing of what the Ital­ians were think­ing them­selves be­cause most Ital­ians were very happy and pleased that [Pres­i­dent of the Re­pub­lic Gior­gio] Napoli­tano chose a se­ri­ous pro­fes­sor. So there was some kind of pub­lic ap­proval of the choice of nom­i­nat­ing Mario Monti, be­cause peo­ple felt we needed some­one se­ri­ous and even though he wasn’t di­rectly elected he had a lot of au­thor­ity and re­spect. It’s all part of this issue with Ital­ian pol­i­tics that it’s a not a ma­ture democ­racy, and po­lit­i­cal par­ties have lit­tle re­spect and cred­i­bil­ity.

In the film, you look at the issue of l’ig­navia or sloth, namely the idea of being ap­a­thetic from the po­lit­i­cal process, un­will­ing to take a stand. But that’s not just a uniquely Ital­ian thing though, isn’t this ar­guably a prob­lem across Eu­rope and across the west­ern world?

Yes, it’s a huge prob­lem of all our democ­ra­cies of the west­ern world. In this sense, we were very keen that the film would not be seen only as ‘these Ital­ians, they’re al­ways in trou­ble’ be­cause the is­sues that we wanted to high­light are com­mon to other democ­ra­cies. And the sloth, the lack of per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity and the lack of courage to act is some­thing that is very wide­spread in Eu­rope. Why is that? I think that since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the so called death of ide­olo­gies, peo­ple have found it very dif­fi­cult to be­lieve in a cause and en­gage them­selves. So they have be­come more cyn­i­cal and de­tached from the en­tire po­lit­i­cal process, which is a dis­as­ter be­cause ex­actly at the mo­ment that peo­ple stop be­liev­ing in pol­i­tics, that is when pol­i­tics is al­lowed to de­te­ri­o­rate even fur­ther. There was a sense that this is a big prob­lem in Italy, but it’s a shared prob­lem with other west­ern democ­ra­cies and we need to fight it.

Mov­ing on to the Buona Italia, you use some in­ter­est­ing ex­am­ples of how civil so­ci­ety and com­mu­ni­ties can lead a reawak­en­ing. You also look at Ital­ian busi­nesses such as Fer­rero and FIAT, how can Ital­ian com­pa­nies help lead the way?

The thing about Fer­rero, and the rea­son why we put them in the film, is be­cause it seemed to us that they rep­re­sent a form of en­light­ened cap­i­tal­ism that cares about the com­mu­nity in which it op­er­ates and thinks about the long term. So, in that sense, we thought it was a good model be­cause it was clearly in­fused with Ital­ian tra­di­tional val­ues about fam­ily, sol­i­dar­ity, com­mu­nity, the re­spect of the tra­di­tion of the ter­ri­tory. It seemed to us that that was some­thing to be proud of, and to be pro­moted and pro­posed as some­thing that Ital­ians should go back to. Of course there is a kind of ideal as­pi­ra­tion, we are talk­ing about val­ues and they do not nec­es­sar­ily al­ways trans­late into prac­ti­cal so­lu­tions. Hav­ing said that, the spirit of com­mu­nity and the re­spect of the ter­ri­tory is some­thing that could help Italy, no­tably in areas in the South where the ag­gre­ga­tion of co­op­er­a­tives like we have seen in the film the Can­giari pro­ject http://​www.​cangiari.​it/​, and the GOEL group in Cal­abria http://​www.​goel.​coop/​, they are cre­at­ing jobs, they are cre­at­ing jobs for women and for young peo­ple based on a co­op­er­a­tive model that puts the val­ues of sol­i­dar­ity , com­mu­nity and ter­ri­tory at the cen­tre. Of course you’re not going to solve what is a struc­tural prob­lem, of a change of eco­nomic model in all of Eu­rope through these small co­op­er­a­tives, but it is quite an in­spir­ing ex­am­ple of things that you can do re­dis­cov­er­ing your val­ues and tra­di­tions.

That’s true, but as you say the big­ger is­sues mean that in Italy un­em­ploy­ment has rock­eted (lat­est fig­ures put it at a record of 40.5 per cent for peo­ple be­tween 15 and 24 years old ac­cord­ing to ISTAT, the na­tional sta­tis­tic of­fice) so, what is the role of Ital­ian youth and the role of the di­as­pora? As the di­rec­tor of Voda­fone Italia said in the film the issue is not young peo­ple leav­ing but whether they come back or not, the "re­turn ticket". So how can you reach out to the Ital­ian youth that you don’t lose that whole gen­er­a­tion?

That was one of the hopes of the film that some­how it would be seen as a call to arms for all those who have left. It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a struc­tured way of or­gan­is­ing this enor­mous com­mu­nity that is grow­ing over­sears every day. But cer­tainly what we thought could hap­pen is that this huge com­mu­nity of tal­ented young Ital­ians who are now abroad could con­nect with the peo­ple who want to change Italy from in­side and cre­ate a pos­i­tive syn­ergy in adding the pres­sure from out­side to the pres­sure from in­side and en­cour­age peo­ple who want change. I think there are a lot of pos­i­tive en­er­gies in Italy but they are very often iso­lated or dis­cour­aged or not con­nected with other like minded groups.

One thing we are doing with our web­site www.​girlfriendinacoma.​eu is cre­at­ing a map of or­gan­i­sa­tions in­side and out­side Italy to allow them to con­nect be­cause the great thing that we are see­ing in this mo­ment is an in­creased on­line par­tic­i­pa­tion to the de­mo­c­ra­tic processes. So this could be one way of reignit­ing some hope and some ac­tive en­gage­ment of peo­ple. We are also cre­at­ing with Bill Em­mott a foun­da­tion called the Wake Up Foun­da­tion be­cause we have seen that there’s so much work to be done in con­tin­u­ing the con­ver­sa­tion that we started with the film and so with the foun­da­tion we will try to keep rais­ing aware­ness and con­nect­ing peo­ple. We also want to in­volve all the peo­ple who love Italy and who study Italy from out­side. We want to keep in­creas­ing the crit­i­cal mass, to keep the ini­tia­tives going. We are also pro­duc­ing a new film, Eu­rope in a Coma, to con­tinue that re­flex­ion on the fact that in Eu­rope we all have the same prob­lems and we need to work to­gether be­cause the tired­ness of our democ­ra­cies is a com­mon prob­lem but to reen­er­gise it and renew it, we need to unite forces and tackle the prob­lem to­gether.

So fi­nally on a Eu­ro­pean level, with the eco­nomic cri­sis can Eu­rope and the EU be seen by young peo­ple as a hope or hin­drance?

I think we are at the end of the track with Eu­rope. Ei­ther we renew the so­cial con­tract among coun­tries or we go for dis­in­te­gra­tion. Which is why we are very ex­cited about doing Eu­rope in a Coma, be­cause at this pre­cise his­toric mo­ment it is very im­por­tant to raise aware­ness of what is at stake. Cer­tainly, the tech­no­cratic Eu­ro­pean Union has been for too long at the cen­tre of the dis­course on Eu­rope. Which is why we need to bring back a Eu­rope of the peo­ple, the Eu­rope of cul­tures and iden­ti­ties and the idea of how much we have been al­ways in­ter­twined in both his­tory and cul­ture. I think that we need to re­build that aware­ness of our com­mon des­tiny and that to link it to­gether we can be stronger, so the idea of sol­i­dar­ity and pros­per­ity and se­cu­rity of the peo­ple com­ing to­gether that’s some­thing that needs to brought back into the mind of peo­ple be­cause when in a fam­ily you start talk­ing only about money and debt that’s the end of the fam­ily. We need to start talk­ing with each other again and re­dis­cover why what unites us is much more im­por­tant than what di­vides us today.

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