This week the Booking Scheme Blog welcomes Deborah, our Managing Director, to tell us about one of the latest titles on the BFFS Booking Scheme, the dazzling documentary Girlfriend in a Coma. Deborah talked with the film’s director, writer and producer, Annalisa Piras, and co-writer and former editor of the Economist, Bill Emmott. The film features some startling animation and Benedict Cumberbatch voicing Dante.
Earlier this year I was invited to a special screening of a new documentary about Italy; its premiere in Rome had recently been banned and I wasn’t going to say no. My fascination with Italy started with holidays as a child, then Merchant Ivory’s sumptuous A Room With A View had me swooning as a teenager growing up in damp, grey, 80s Manchester. Later on I spent my 21st birthday in Florence reading Forster’s classic in my hotel room overlooking the Arno (true!); it couldn’t have been a more romantic experience of Italy. Then in ‘99 I moved to Northern Italy and spent three extraordinary years living and working there, getting to know another side of Il Bel Paese: the infuriating bureaucracy, the scioperi (strikes), shops closing for hours during the day, the ubiquitous graffiti, the vast industrial estates of FIAT’s Mirafiori. It was a very different experience, but I only fell more in love.
The screening of Girlfriend in a Coma at Manchester Metropolitan University was packed. The audience of expat Italians, students and Italophiles was utterly engrossed. Not only was this a thrilling story of a beautiful, complicated country, but a modern tale of a democracy and society in crisis.
I talked to Annalisa and Bill.
Q. Congratulations on producing such a powerful film. I thought about it for many days afterwards. It’s not immediately obvious from the title, Girlfriend in a Coma, that this is a documentary about Italy, can you explain where the name came from?
Annalisa: We were looking for a way to convey our sense of Italy’s severe sickness, while pointing up [sic] the affectionate view that Bill, as a foreign observer brings.
Bill: Annalisa spotted the Smiths’ great 80s song and we both felt the title and the lyrics fitted perfectly.
‘Girlfriend in a coma, I know
I know – it’s really serious
There were times when I could
Have murdered her
(But you know, I would hate
Anything to happen to her)
NO, I DON’T WANT TO SEE HER
Do you really think
She’ll pull through?’
And most great film titles are allusive rather than literal, which makes them more memorable, but also meaningful.
Q. Bill, the film is based on your book, Good Italy Bad Italy, what are the main themes from the book that come through in the film?
Bill. The main theme carried into the film is of Italy’s split personality, with the bad Italy fighting the good. The big message of both book and film is that Italy really doesn’t need to be in the mess it’s in: it has huge potential that is being blocked and frustrated, often wilfully and thanks to the failure of many Italians to stand up and be counted.
Q. Annalisa, you produced and directed the film. How did you get involved with the project and how did you set about transforming Bill’s book into a documentary?
Annalisa. Bill and I first began to talk about Italy when I came to the Economist to interview him for L’Espresso magazine about the magazine’s notorious 2001 cover “Why Silvio Berlusconi is unfit to lead Italy”. He then turned the tables, asking me questions about why things in Italy work in the way they do and, when he decided to research and write his book, we talked some more. So as the Italian filmmaker he had talked to a lot about Italy, it wasn’t surprising that when he began to ponder about using film to tell the same story, he came to me. Turning any book into a documentary isn’t easy, especially when it includes a lot about economics. That is why I decided to take a creative, historical and quite literary approach, using Italy’s greatest poet, Dante, to provide a structure to the narrative.
Q. The film starts by looking at the ‘bad’ side of Italy. How did you decide how much ‘bad’ and how much ‘good’ to include?
Annalisa: We made the good and the bad roughly equal, though as the bad is very powerful and emotionally moving, many viewers don’t perceive it that way. Also, there are more themes of badness that had to be shown — political corruption, mafia, media monopoly, pollution, maltreatment of women, sloth — than for the good, which could be explored in a simpler, more symbolic way.
Q. What shocked me most about the film was the depiction of women in Italian life. In fact it doesn’t seem to have improved in the ten years since I left Italy, it might have even got worse. What will it take for things to get better in Italy for women?
Annalisa: It is going to need a cultural revolution, a simply huge change both among men and among women that can and should be led by the media. However, [the media] sets a terrible example, and is unlikely to change under its current ownership structure
Q. There has always been a real affection for Italy among British people and a romanticisation of Italian life – the Good shall we say. What do you think will surprise people most about this film?
Bill: It is hard to say, but most likely the sheer accumulation of badness, extending all through the country. We all like to pretend it isn’t there and romanticise it. That, we think, and the sheer sense of crisis. Most British visitors can see something isn’t right in Italy, but prefer to think it will always just muddle through. It won’t.
Q. Annalisa, I loved the animated sequences. How did you work with the animators to come up with such powerful images?
Annalisa. I had the honour to study animation with a legend of Italian animated films Lele Luzzati , and his masterpiece “Pulcinella” was an inspiration for the character of Mala Italia based on the classical character of the Commedia dell’Arte. Buona Italia is instead inspired by the representation of the image of Italy which became popular at the end of the 19th century, when the classical image of Italy in Roman Times was re elaborated in a modern style. Working with Phoebe Boswell and her collaborator Jenny Lewis has been marvellous . It has been a very long and complex process, made of constant brainstorming and trial and error. Each animation would have to be precisely scripted and in certain cases we story boarded them or recorded my voice over in order to make sure that the narrative that Phoebe and Jenny were animating was conveying the meaning that I was after. Then Phoebe and Jenny would add their ideas, sometimes it would not work and sometimes all of a sudden the miracle would appear, with a sudden moment of beauty and poetry. Phoebe is an extraordinarily talented artist. I have always believed that animations are mistakenly and regrettably underestimated as a form of art and communication. In Girlfriend In A Coma I tried to make them an entire and crucial part of the film, in reinforcing the arguments that emerged from the documentary , but bringing the real life concepts to a much more powerful, archetypical meta -reality that only drawings can convey . I think that it worked and that the combination of different languages is what makes “Girlfriend In a Coma” quite an innovative kind of creative documentary.
Q. Where has the film been shown so far?
Bill: In more than 50 screenings, in Paris, London, Manchester, Brussels, Berlin, Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Oxford, Cambridge, and of course in cities all over Italy.
Q. Initial screenings of the film were banned in Italy. What has the reaction to the film been like there?
Annalisa: The “banning” was just one strange decision by the venue of our planned Italian premiere, the Maxxi art museum [in Rome], but we had many, many enthusiastic venues. Italian audiences have often been very emotionally engaged with the film, desperate to discuss its themes afterwards. There have been deeply felt debates about particular aspects of the film, but for the most part the response has been very positive, especially from younger people, who have responded eagerly to our call to action in our social media campaign. The Italian media and cultural establishment has in part been a different story: somewhat misogynistic towards a female Italian director, sometimes inclined to brush the film’s themes under the carpet.
Q. What has the reaction to the film been like in other countries?
Bill: Again, it has been positive: very engaged, very eager to debate, very thoughtful.
Q. Annalisa/Bill, are you working on any new film projects?
Annalisa. Yes, we are working on a new documentary, which is in effect about “Europe in a coma.”
Q. Bill, how have things changed (or not changed!) in Italy following the recent election?
Bill. The election in February showed how little the political establishment had changed, but how much voters want change. It is as if my “girlfriend” has woken up in her hospital bed, is shouting for help, but no one is listening. Since the election, the atmosphere has been rather depressing: economic decline continues, while the new government, a cobbled-together coalition spanning left, right and centre, talks about political reform but with few people optimistic that it can happen.
Q. Is the future for Italy more of the ‘good’ or more of the ‘bad’ in your opinion?
Bill: At present, the bad remains dominant, but we are not without hope. Civil society is awakening, trying to bring about change. From the top-down, things are depressing, but from the bottom-up there is cause for some optimism. Good Italy is stirring…
Q. Why do you think community cinema audiences will enjoy Girlfriend in a Coma?
Annalisa: Above all, community cinema audiences are thoughtful, wanting to be provoked and stimulated to think in new ways. We hope Girlfriend in a Coma will provide a lot of food for such thought, and that community cinema audiences will find it tasty… We look forward to hearing many reactions, through our Twitter account @giacfilm12 or Facebook Girlfriend in a Coma the film, or directly to us as authors.
Girlfriend in a Coma is now available to book through the BFFS Booking Scheme.
Bill and Annalisa are kindly offering in person Q&As to 5 community cinema screenings of Girlfriend in a Coma. To take advantage of this offer, be one of the first five to book their film – offer subject to Bill and Annalisa’s availability. Contact BFFS for details.