Sunday, February 03, 2013

Censorship in Italy – “Girlfriend in a Coma”

In order not to “host events with political implications”, the director of Rome’s modern art gallery, the Maxxi, Giovanna Melandri has cancelled the screening a possibly controversial film.

The film is “Girlfriend in a Coma”, a new documentary by former Economist editor, Bill Emmott and the Italian documentary-maker Annalisa Piras. It is (apparently, because no one in Italy has actually seen it), an affectionate but damning picture of Italy’s decline over the last two decades. The guilty parties are many – the various governments of course, but not only… and whatever they say, it is hardly hot news.

Even if it was, the intention of avoiding controversy during an election seems somewhat misplaced. As Obama remarked of Bill Clinton’s protestations that he had smoked marijuana but not inhaled. “I thought that was the point”. I always thought that elections were the moment when democratic societies could and should let themselves go (sometimes excessively) and debate controversial issues. Isn’t that the point of elections? To compare points of view and responsibilities? And then decide.

Apparently not.

Before Christmas there was talk that the San Remo song festival (normally a hymn to banality) should be postponed because the hosts, Fabio Fazio and the comic, Luciana Littizzetto are notoriously critical of Berlusconi.

Just last week, a Milan court refused to postpone its hearings because the accused (Silvio Berlusconi) and his defence counsel (Niccolò Ghedini and Piero Longo) were busy in the election campaign… but the prosecution accepted the request. The court will go ahead with the hearings but has decided to postpone the verdict until after the elections. But wouldn’t the democratic process be better served if the Italian voters knew that a candidate for prime minister was either guilty or not guilty of creating slush funds for his companies?

In the case of the MAXXI censorship, there seem to be even less noble motives.

The museum president is the former Democratic Party minister of culture, Giovanna Melandri. She was appointed last year by the present minister, Lorenzo Ornaghi. The museum press release implies that it was the ministry that ordered the censorship something that the ministry has denied. According to La Repubblica, the British Embassy has become embroiled in the affair, trying to look after a Briton’s interest (Emmott) but also some European values like freedom of expression. The film presumably also criticises the left so could be embarrassing not only for Berlusconi. Il Fatto Quotidiano suggests that the ban is to protect Massimo D’Alema and other from the left from accusations of not having dealt with the conflict of interests issue.

The whole business smacks of rather petty covering of backsides and very petty politicking of favours.

But at the end of the day, it demonstrates why Freedom House rates the Italian media as “partly free”. We are a long way from North Korea but in the middle of the European Union, we shouldn’t even be thinking of that comparison.

I very much hope that Melandri will reconsider her decision, but if she doesn’t, the American University of Rome is more than happy to screen the film. Sadly, our campus was not designed by Zaha Hadid but our statute and mission not surprisingly, encourage controversy and debate.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speeches will be given by Paul Ginsborg and Gianfranco Pasquino.

Follow me on Twitter: @walstonjames


Pete Kercher said...

"But wouldn’t the democratic process be better served if the Italian voters knew that a candidate for prime minister was either guilty or not guilty of creating slush funds for his companies?"

Well, probably, yes. But then this is not a democracy, is it? This is an oligarchy, and an oligarchy is better served by that unfortunately excessively familiar Italian term: omertà.

Matthew Hoffman said...

I've been in sympathy with Bill Emmott's criticisms of Italian institutions over the years but I think in this instance the charge of censorship is overwrought. In the UK, for example, the BBC cancels scheduled "political" documentaries during elections and switches to neutral campaign coverage. I don't believe anyone has ever called this practice censorship.

Anonymous said...

thank you for the analysis, thought I partially disagree with you.
I do believe that projecting the movie at the museum Maxxi would have not been a good choice (and I am absolutely not a fan of our former "unfit" prime minister): considering how split the italian society is nowadays; considering the stupid debate (stupid because used as instrument by Berlusconi to claim that all culture in Italy is against him) this documentary would have arisen; considering that the museum is owned by the Ministry of Culture and as such should not take parts into the electoral campaign, I do believe that the decision was good.
This does not prevent the movie to be shown somewhere else (at any time and arising a good debate: focusing on the real issues of Berlusconi's premiership) or just later.
If Emmott really needs to show it before, perhaps we shall recognize that there is some (latent) electoral intent, in which the museum should not be involved.
I do believe that public debates on these issues are a core-point for democracy and, personally, I would not oppose projecting the movie at the museum under slightly different circumstances: for instance, having commentators from both parties

Giacomo said...

This is all absurd. Besides, why is Giovanna Melandri as an ex-Minister, the Director of a Modern Art Museum? It seems to be about jobs for the boys (and girls). I can't imagine that the Directorships of the Tate Gallery or National Gallery in London would ever be party political appointments. In the UK these institutions are directed by technically competent curators and art historians.