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A Girls’ Eye View roundtable, Auditorium Istituto Salesiani, “Don Bosco”, November 18th, 2021

(University of Exeter, Sapienza Università di Roma, IIS Marisa Bellisario)

By Danielle Hipkins (Translation and editing by Flavia Franguelli)

The video of the round table is available at this link : https://vimeo.com/688868315

One of the key aims of this project is to find ways to listen to and promote Italian girls’ views on the role that Italian cinema and television play, or could play in their lives.

This week in Milan, Gustavo Matassa, headmaster of the Bellisario Institute, a school in Inzago, 40km outside Milan, helped us to organize a roundtable that brought together a range of insights from across the industry that have really helped us to refine further the questions we might ask and the directions in which we can develop A Girls’ Eye View. First and foremost, however, Gustavo Matassa and his staff at the Bellisario, particularly Antonella Fanizza, have, in the headmaster’s own words, brought a great deal of enthusiasm for this project, reminding us that if we want to understand society and its future, schools are the very best place to start. Without support like theirs, our project would be impossible, and we were truly moved by the energy we know it has taken for staff and students to host us so generously in an environment that is always demanding, but especially so in the wake of the pandemic.

I want to offer here a brief summary of some of the key points arising from the event, in part because I know many colleagues will not have time to follow the recording (https://fb.watch/9qxE7-sA-S/), but also to understand its value for this project as we move forwards. The event at the Don Bosco auditorium actually followed two days spent in the school in Inzago, with a group of 23 students, discussing and viewing Italian film and television in focus groups, and we will analyse and address the results of that research in forthcoming work, although I will allude to some of the findings here. Those same girls and many of their classmates, male and female, attended the event in Milan, and their responses towards the end of the event offered some of the most important findings of the day. In future events, it will be essential to involve the girls more extensively, but we didn’t want to put any of them on the spot too early in the project!

Starting with a useful reminder of the historical context for Italian cinema that frames this project more broadly, a former student of the film director Giuseppe De Santis, the scriptwriter and teacher, Daniele Laurente Di Blasio gave us a useful reminder of the presence of girls’ stories in Italian cinema, which often get forgotten in accounts of Neorealism. He dwelt on the fascinating example of De Santis’s Roma ore 11/ Rome 11 O’Clock (1952), a collection of young women’s stories, constructed around the disastrous collapse of a staircase in 1951. The episodic nature of that film, he suggested, anticipates the structure of television series, and was a film that anecdotally attracted large female audiences. As one of our project advisors, Emiliano Morreale, reminds us in his book Così piangevano. Il cinema melò nell’Italia degli anni cinquanta, cinema of the early 1950s was one that still took its female audiences into account. Of course, the film and Elio Petri’s investigation that underpins it also provide a useful reminder of the visual culture that informs our study: one centred on a male gaze on the female body. A sympathetic one in the case of De Santis, but nonetheless one structured inevitably around that eroticized hierarchy of the man who looks and the woman who is looked at. It was wonderful to see how Daniele himself was helping to overturn this hierarchy by encouraging a dynamic group of female students of film and photography from his school, ‘E. Falck’ (IFP E. Falck) to record the day’s event.

It is such an imbalance in the act of looking that another teacher from the school Anna Piccirillo usefully addressed in her brief overview of the roles allocated to girls and women in recent Italian cinema, and she linked this neglect to the brutal social reality that Italy (and not just Italy) faces of violence against women. Increasingly interesting as they may be, roles for girls and women in Italian cinema today, she suggested, still reiterate stereotypes, from maternity, in comedies like Piuma/ Feather (Johnson, 2016)and Posti in piedi in paradiso/A Flat for Three (Verdone, 2012), to victimhood in La pazza gioia/ Like Crazy (Virzì, 2016) to Giulia non esce la sera/ Giulia doesn’t date at night (Piccioni, 2009), to the home-breaker figure as in the case of La bestia nel cuore/Don’t tell (Comencini, 2005). Anna brilliantly suggested that ‘quality’ actor Elio Germano’s self-definition as ‘carne di testo’ is still turned on its head in the case of female performers, who act instead as ‘testi di carne’. Some new examples of women and girls, however, are beginning to emerge, in the form of exciting new generic hybrids like Gabriele Mainetti’s recent, highly acclaimed Freaks Out (2021), which stars the powerful new young star, Aurora Giovinazzo, or films from female directors, like Laura Bispuri, with Figlia mia (2018) or in films inspired by Italian female writers, like The Lost Daughter (Gyllenhaal, 2021) based on La figlia oscura, Elena Ferrante’s novel. The latter two examples led Piccirillo to observe that relations between women remain neglected in Italian cinema. Indeed the importance of these bonds for contemporary girl viewers had emerged in our focus groups, as we spent quite a while discussing the female-authored TV shows Ginny and Georgia (Lampert, 2021-), and Jane the Virgin (Snyder Urman, 2014-2019), and the way the intergenerational bonds of these US television shows offer sympathetic insights into both adult and youthful female experience. The creative potential of intergenerational dialogue was perhaps best underlined at this event, however, by the presence of Piccirillo’s own daughter, Fiaba Di Martino, a film critic, to whom I will turn in a moment.

Our next contributor was Emilia Bandel, who works for a film production company, Cinemaundici. She spoke of how this was a company that initially focused on ‘cinema d’autore’ (auteur cinema) without much interest in a youthful audience, but Emilia also provided insight into how rapidly that attitude is changing, as young people in Italy become a new ‘target’ audience. She herself raised questions about the violence such a term ‘target’ might imply. Emilia was also at the event to represent the organization Women in Film, Television and Media, which seeks to promote the role of women in media. Later in the discussion, in fact, she reminded us of the importance of the recent new ruling that favours women directors in the awarding of state funding. She also reminded us that women are now stepping into key decision-making roles in the world of film, such as Tinny Andreatta, who worked for Raifiction before being chosen by Netflix to manage Netflix in Italy, whose presence may account for the enthusiasm with which Netflix Italy has embraced female-led or targeted products. Of particular interest to some of our audience was her own experience of addressing this sector, with the film Sulla stessa onda/Caught by a wave (2021) which Cinemaundici took up before its launch via Netflix. She described how the story struck them in part because of its resonance with the subgenre of the ‘afflicted girl’ film – a trope that certainly resonates with the victim girls of Roma ore 11. At the same time makes space for a love story about young people told in recognizable spaces, and the film has done well – several of the girls interviewed for our project have mentioned that they enjoyed seeing this genre set in Italy.

Varinia Nozzoli, Insight and Consumer Culture Senior Director for Discovery Media, opened her intervention with an important reminder, but one that an outsider such as myself could easily miss. Media is not taught in Italian schools. She emphasized how urgent a need this is for Italian schools, given the media convergent world in which we all now operate. She went on to draw attention to the reasons young women still watch broadcast television: major events, like the European championship; blockbuster films, like the Harry Potter series, and dramas like L’allieva (2018-2020), or reality television shows like Il collegio (2017-) and Amici (2001-). The latter examples in particular, she underlined, remind us how much younger viewers want to see their own social group on screen. In fact, she suggested, the first popular teen film that offered a really successful example of this kind was Come te nessuno mai/But Forever in my Mind (1999), and in part it did so because it involved young people in its creation. Silvio Muccino participated in the writing of the film with her female friend Adele Tulli when they were just 17. It is this kind of product that foregrounds authentic teen language, experience and values that Varinia’s company seeks to produce, with forthcoming titles like Wild Teens, and another with the promising title of Ti spedisco in convento. She is right to underline that we, as researchers and producers, still need to understand more about the values young people hold because, she says, “authenticity is a key element of their generation”. With regard to gender, her own company carried out research that suggests the kinds of heroines that Italian women aspire to included: Maria Montessori, Margherita Hack, Pippi Longstocking, Frida Kahlo, and Bebe Vio. 

This diverse display of female intelligence, creativity and strength leads us to scriptwriter Fabrizia Midulla’s opening comment: it is a truly fantastic moment to be a woman! Picking up on Anna Piccirillo’s discussion of feminicide, Fabrizia said that her own work on a campaign to increase awareness of violence against women, had led her to reflect on how feminicide is not so much a woman’s issue, as a men’s issue: the campaign title itself, “Cose da uomini” (literally “Men’s stuff”) stressed that awareness and action need to come from men, not women. Women and girls, she seemed to suggest, have instead much to celebrate. In her own prolific work as a scriptwriter, for the RAI, Italian state television, she had examples of positive change. The strength of L’allieva, that mothers and daughters seem to watch together at prime time, lies in the fact that girls see projections of their future selves struggling to find professional satisfaction and, possibly, a soulmate. Working on Mina Settembre (Aristarco, 2021-), instead, Fabrizia resisted the need for the female protagonist to choose one of the two men with whom she is involved, putting herself first.

Despite the challenges the RAI faces, not least of the laws on product placement which tend to make the fictional worlds depicted more distant from our own, Fabrizia was eager to share examples of the way in which scriptwriters look to the everyday experience of young people for inspiration. Most recently, there was the real-life case of a girl who asked to use the boys’ toilet in a school in Naples. When the headmaster refused, a student protest eventually led to the creation of a gender-neutral space. Given the clear interest it provoked, Fabrizia’s team initially thought of drawing on this story for one of the episodes of Mina. After speaking directly to young people, who have a good grasp of gender identity issues, scriptwriters eventually decided to dramatize not the exploration of gender identity itself, but the moment when the discovery of this identity turns into the beginning of a love story. Indeed, we see the transgender protagonist struggling with the narration of his experience. Such changes to the script were only possible thanks to the feedback from young people: this shows the importance of trying to understand what interests and drives younger audiences, a shared priority for all our contributors.

Fiaba Di Martino, our next and final contributor from the stage, and an online film critic, suggested that criticism is a field in which we don’t hear enough young voices, all the more reason why her participation in our event was crucial. She suggested that film criticism in general in Italy is too quick to look for the fault, and has a ‘liquidatory approach’ towards teen products, tuning in with another aspect emphasized by a member of this project’s advisory board, Catherine O’Rawe, who has repeatedly drawn positive critical attention to the value of the teen movie. Fiaba felt that the inclusion of an authentic teen perspective in the creation of products was essential, favouring for this reason a programme like Rai’s Amici over the flatter Netflix product Summertime (Netflix, 2020-), a series about which many of the girls in our project have also expressed mixed feelings. As the teen product par excellence, because it involved young people dialogically in the process of its creation, was of course the Italian Skam (Bessegato, 2018-). This is without doubt the Italian TV series most frequently positively cited by our interviewees so far, and Fabrizia Midulla observed that its success had a lot to do with new platforms’ niche targets, evidently different from those of the national broadcasters, which need a wider audience for economic reasons.

After the rich range of contributions to which I can hardly do full justice here, our only regret was that for all our emphasis on listening to young people, we had left too little time to hear their comments. Although we had spent two days with a small group of them, it was important to us to hear from more of them, and from boys too. We learnt that sitting on a stage looking down on them was probably not the most conducive. Nonetheless it is a measure of how much they did have to say that despite these daunting circumstances many girls did offer a viewpoint. In response to Varinia Nozzoli’s question about how young women feel about adult incitements to be strong, to be feminist, there were several responses, not least of all to ask whether those adults who offer such incitements ever actually put themselves in girls’ shoes. A Muslim participant talked about the experience of being in between two worlds, and how she would like to see more of that experience in television – this resonated with something we had encountered in the previous days, when it was especially students from diverse cultural backgrounds who cited Skam’s Sana (Beatrice Bruschi) as an exemplary character in this respect. Another important take-away for us came from questions about whether our research will take into account the full range of television products that young women encounter, including reality television like Ex on the beach Italia (2018-2020) or Il collegio, programmes that for one speaker at least echo with the sense of exposure that social media brings. It is for precisely these kinds of question to emerge that we came to Milan and the reason why we started this project in the first place.

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