Language and culture in documentaries by Italian women filmmakers

In spring 2009, a 25-minute documentary, Il corpo delle donne (The Body of Women), composed of images selected from 400 hours of television programs, exerted an unexpected impact on an Italian public which over the years had become uncomplainingly accustomed to seeing women made objects of the most explicit forms of degradation, humiliation, and misogyny. Suddenly meaning took on form, jumped to the Internet, and traveled the globe, where it was translated into many languages becoming the object of a much-visited blog. It was and continues to be presented and discussed at festivals and meetings, in middle and high schools, not to mention at a special session of Parliament. And it has now become a book in which the experiences of two years of debate are gathered and examined. Documentaries can be a very powerful tool, when used wisely!

I have always been interested in women’s points of view, in literature, philosophy, and cinema. But only fairly recently did I discover the documentaries of Italian women filmmakers. Thanks to an Italian Film Festival in Milano, I first saw two documentaries that I have shown since then in my classes at different levels, each time exploring their linguistic and cultural impact.

These documentaries practically guarantee attention while they facilitate listening comprehension, conversation, narration, as well as the expression of diverse viewpoints, hypotheses, and cultural comparisons. They succeed in engaging even students who are normally reticent about expressing their own opinions in front of their classmates. It is as though the shared experience of watching a documentary with a high level of emotional impact had the power to open a window and make them particularly receptive. And I believe it is because this material brings to life before students’ eyes real situations and people that spring from a different culture yet are readily comparable with situations well known and familiar to them.

This was the origin of my plan to construct an entire advanced-level course centered on a series of documentaries linked by one single theme, but with a historic arc encompassing events that are fundamental to 20th-century Italy.

The documentaries I have chosen for this course present the Italian feminist movement, and/or the life of Italian women, from different points of view, or according to different aspects of the female condition, within the context of Italian culture and history from the Fascist period until today. Integrated with essays, articles, and literary selections, these films, can allow us to begin exploring the connections between private stories and public history, and to address questions of gender and modes of representation, within an interdisciplinary course. I believe the audiovisual materials, when coherently organized around a theme and historical process, can be more effective than individual films for producing linguistic, historical and symbolic understanding.

There is a remarkable amount of material, produced primarily in the last ten years—since 2000, Italian women filmmakers have made approximately 88 feature films and 119 documentaries—that is virtually unknown in the United States, though it is regularly presented in Italy in retrospectives celebrating March 8, International Women’s Day, as well as at independent film festivals and on television programs on Rai Educational. A common characteristic of the cinematographic production by women is the use of the documentary form, interviews and oral histories, to reconstruct aspects of history that are passed over, and thus to give voice to the women who have been the unrecognized protagonists of history—particularly in the cases of the Resistance movement, the writing of the Constitution, and the workers’ and students’ movements of the 1960s, as well as the battles for women’s rights—from the women’s suffrage movement, to maternity leave, to the legalization of divorce, to the reform of family rights, to laws protecting women’s right to terminate unwanted pregnancies. More recently, as in the case of Il corpo delle donne, documentary filmmakers have used the genre to speak out against sexism in television programs as well as in advertising and politics. In my view, to reflect on our own identity as women (or as men!), starting from a reality that is “different,” yet inevitably rich in implications for one’s own identity, is an essential condition for acquiring that trans-cultural awareness and competency without which no authentic communication can exist.

As Chantelle Warner wrote in her recent article Rethinking the Role of Language Study in Internationalizing Higher Education: “…we ought to not only teach about German or Chinese or Italian culture, but also encourage students to question what we mean when we speak of or attempt to represent a particular culture, and what we obscure when we conflate nation, culture, and language… It is only by destabilizing meanings that have become frozen in the practice of understanding and being understood, that we can make students do a “double take” and reconsider what gets glossed over in communication. In this way we can use the space of the foreign language, literature, or culture classroom to foster students’ awareness of the meanings that are in excess of what we comprehend, and in particular those that get lost in translation.” (Warner, 2011).

Another motivation for my choice of material for this course is the utter lack of knowledge of the work of Italian women filmmakers, not only by the vast majority of Americans, but also within the more specialized academic community here. I believe it is important for students undertaking a major or minor in Italian Studies to be exposed to new, original forms of Italian cultural production. These documentaries represent an innovation, not only in the way feminine subjectivity is viewed and represented (in contrast with the vast sea of movies in which the woman is the object of the male gaze), but from the stylistic point of view as well.  Precisely in order to illustrate this variety, I have organized my syllabus into alternating screenings of documentaries that follow a historical itinerary, albeit in different ways. Futuro femminile and Vogliamo anche le rose (We Want Roses, Too), thus alternate with Un’ora sola ti vorrei (One More Hour With You) and Di madre in figlia (From Mother to Daughter): documentaries that provide a deeper exploration of themes such as the mother-daughter relationship; social expectations about family roles; motherhood as a condition of identity, either realized or unfulfilled; and the sensation of inadequacy and failure that leads to depression and illness. (See APPENDIX.)

Organization of the teaching units
Each teaching unit is organized around a weekly hour of documentary screenings for a period of eight weeks, preceded by one week of reading to introduce the course. The readings introduce the stylistic characteristics of various forms of documentaries, articles about the contemporary situation in Italy, and excerpts from essays written in the past two years, starting from the debate that arose in spring 2009 and brought the female question into primary focus.

Group work and brainstorming activities, designed to expand students’ thematic and cinematic vocabulary, precede the documentary screenings. These are followed up by active class viewing and listening, based upon precise directions that lead students to focus their attention on stylistic, linguistic and cultural elements.

In our conversations and review-compositions that follow the screening, the practice of the narrative function (simple plot narration) must be accompanied by reflections on the authorial voice, use of voice-overs, various points of view presented in the films, materials used, and stylistic characteristics of the different types of documentaries.

We draw connections and comparisons between the historical events presented in the documentaries and written or oral accounts as presented in the historical reconstructions that follow the methodology of oral history, or in essays and articles by historians, sociologists, journalists, and philosophers. We also establish connections and comparisons between the experiences reported in the documentaries and the students’ personal experiences. Finally, the students are required to produce their projects, their personal reconstructions, shaping the space that lies “in between” their own culture and history and what they have learned from Italian stories and histories. They have to go outside of class to initiate a dialog, either in person or by email, with members of the Italian community. And, once again, they need to undertake a direct confrontation with facts, hypotheses, and opinions; suggest hypotheses; and draw conclusions.

Projects of the students, Italian 4, spring 2011
After seven weeks of class work, the students planned their first public event: a small collective project. It was carried out on a voluntary basis, but everyone participated with great enthusiasm.

The occasion was March 8, International Women’s Day. The event has been celebrated throughout Italy and Europe with various public meetings, to the point that it has now become a repetitive, ritualistic tradition. Not this year! Thanks to Berlusconi, as someone said, feminism has become fashionable again, and the act of coming out into the public squares for March 8 has restored the value of demanding rights for women. However, to tell the truth, this wasn’t simply owing to Berlusconi. The situation in Italy is in reality much more complex, arising from a widespread patriarchal culture which, although it is in crisis, continues to resist, renew itself and assumes various guises, as we have read and discussed at length over the course of the semester.

In any case, this year, on February 13, one million women demonstrated in Italy and other parts of the world to reclaim their right to speak about how they are treated and represented in the media, the workplace, and public institutions. In class we got together to watch videos of various public speeches by women filmmakers, actresses, writers, lawyers, union officers, nuns. There were also speeches by men who joined and lent their support. Male and female students representing an association called Rete della conoscenza (Knowledge Network) had produced a video for the occasion; in it they presented their accounts of why it was important for them to be there. And a group of young actresses, speaking from a platform set up in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, played the roles of women who were unable to attend but who had sent emails declaring their endorsement and wanting their voices to be heard. Their accounts, touching on abuse, suffering, and discrimination, were sometimes dramatic.

One female student said, “After seeing and reading so much, I’m ready to do something—to say something myself—in front of everybody.” That was how the project got started and got other classes in the Italian Department involved as well. On March 8, everybody was out in Sproul Plaza: students, lecturers, and GSIs, reading the signs written by our student demonstrators and listening to their statements.  It was a kind of performance, whose text they had written and with which they had faced the public, stating in their own voices the significance of “starting from ourselves” and what it meant for them to participate in International Women’s Day.  Over the following weeks, students worked on their documentary projects in groups of three or four. Then they presented them to the class with extraordinary PowerPoint presentations, combining—just as in many of the documentaries by Italian women filmmakers that they had examined—expository, interactive, and reflexive modes.

One of the projects, Non sono bambole (They Aren’t Dolls) focused on the contrast between women in the media and in real life. It combined a montage of scenes from the documentary Il corpo delle donne (The Body of Women), images from various product advertisements, clips of our March 8 demonstration, interviews with GSIs in the Italian Department, and brief biographies of Italian women who violate the female stereotypes that predominate in our media.

Another project focused on gender roles, starting from students’ personal experiences, as narrated through episodes of childhood and adolescence. It was inspired by the reflexive model of the documentary Un’ora sola ti vorrei (One More Hour with You), combined with the interactive model of interviews with Italian acquaintances. A student in this group interviewed her father, who was born in Italy and came to the United States at age 18. She was very enthusiastic at having conducted a conversation with her father, in Italian, about personal questions that she had never raised before. Another project examined women’s conditions in the group members’ various countries of origin: India, Iran, Mexico, Hong Kong, and the United States.

A different group used email to interview acquaintances in Italy about the situation of Italian women at home and at work. Their subjects included the division of household tasks, work opportunities, and salary and career differences between men and women. They then used graphs and statistics to compare this data with that of other countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Still another group chose to work in the comic-satiric mode, comparing the expectations of a fictitious young girl of the fifties with the expectations of a girl today.

All the projects represented perfect examples of “transformed practice” in that they helped the students verify firsthand how meaning is developed and diffused, in documentaries as in other cultural products.

Miriam Bale. 2010. We Want Roses, Too: A New Language for Italian Feminism. The L Magazine.

Bill Nichols. 1991. Representing Reality, Indiana University Press.

Chantelle Warner. 2011.  Rethinking the role of language in internationalizing higher education. L2 Journal, 3(1).

Documentaries by Italian women filmmakers
Futuro femminile: Storia del movimento femminista in Italia (Future feminine: History of the Feminist Movement in Italy
First episode: From the postwar period to the sixties. (Director: Lorella Reale, Rai Educational, 2006, 60 minutes)

Futuro femminile: Storia del movimento femminista in Italia (Future feminine: History of the Feminist Movement in Italy)
Second episode: From the sixties to the present day. (Director: Lorella Reale, Rai Educational, 2006, 61 minutes)

Un’ora sola ti vorrei (One More Hour with You) Recipient of multiple awards, from Locarno to Newport, and shown on many television networks in Italy and other countries, this documentary film constructs the life of the director’s mother, Liseli Hoepli, through a montage of home movies from Hoepli’s private archive, along with documents and excerpts from her diary. (Director: Alina Marazzi, 2003, 55 minutes)

Vogliamo anche le rose (We want roses, too) Awarded the Davide di Donatello prize for best documentary and many other awards, this film reconstructs the sixties and seventies through the diaries of three girls. (Director: Alina Marazzi, 2007, 84 minutes)

Di madre in figlia (From mother to daughter) Composed of a montage of interviews, this documentary features several generations of mothers and daughters discussing their similarities and differences, the factors that unite and divide them. In 2005 the film received top honors at Sguardi Altrove, Festival di Cinema Femminile in Milan and at the Ballaria Film Festival. The following year it was screened at Ciac, in Berkeley. It has been shown at many film series in Italy and abroad and is included in the Circuito indipendente del documentario etico sociale (independent circuit of ethical-social documentaries). (Director: Fabiana Sargentini, 2004, 58 minutes)

Il corpo delle donne (The Body of Women) Over the past two years, this documentary has changed the feminine/feminist debate in Italy by placing central emphasis on the question of how women’s bodies are used and abused in television programs as well as politics. (Director: Lorella Zanardo, 2009, 25 minutes)


In class, before viewing
Students work in pairs (vocabulary building, brainstorming)
Answer the questions and then discuss with classmates:
1. Much of Un’ora sola ti vorrei takes place prior to the 1970s. On the basis of what you learned from the documentary Futuro femminile describe what seems to be socially expected of a girl from a “good family.”
2. What would you say to express the desire not to conform, or to conform, to those expectations?
3. Can you think of an example—from literature, movies, daily news, or your personal life—of a young woman’s rebellion against social conventions? Can you imagine the material and/or psychological consequences of the success (or failure) of such a rebellion?

During the screening
In class, students take notes based on the stylistic qualities or themes studied at home the previous day (drawn from my own list or from various websites).
1. Listen carefully to the voice with which the film begins and that of the narrator. Whose voices are these? What connects them? What separates them? What is their function in the documentary’s “setting?”
2. Look at the short home movies that document family life. Who made them? What is the connection between the images in these films and the words that accompany them?
3. What other materials does the director use? What is their purpose?
4. Pay attention to the images in which Liseli, the director’s mother, is compared to similar images of her grandmother. What point is Alina trying to make?
5. Consider Liseli’s discomfort or illness, as expressed in her own words and in those of her parents and doctors.
6. Try to read the words that randomly appear onscreen at the end of the film.

After viewing
At home: Students choose a particular scene to present to the class. They prepare to explain their preference and provide a plot summary. They read interviews with Alina Marazzi and get ready for class discussion.
In class: We present questions to consider, first in small groups and then with classmates.
1. Compare the statements Alina Marazzi makes in her interview with the documentary itself. What does she say in the interview that does not appear in the documentary? Do you notice anything obvious in the documentary that she does not state in the interview?
2. How many points of view, and which ones, are articulated in the documentary? How are they expressed?
3. “The personal is political” and “beginning from oneself” are two statements that continuously recur in Italian feminist debate even today. In your opinion, what do they mean? Are they related to this documentary?
4. In one scene, Liseli, with her baby in the carriage, arrives in Milan’s Piazza del Duomo during a demonstration. How do you interpret her attitude? What is the meaning of this scene in the context of the film?
5. Letters and diaries: How are these used in the documentary to express things that cannot be expressed in images?
6. How do the medical reports and psychiatric evaluations of Liseli’s mental state compare and contrast with her words?
7. How would you define this type of documentary? Expository? Interactive? Performative? Self-reflective? Explain.

Following days
We will read reviews by critics published in various dailies and public opinion pieces from blogs. What impression do we have of the people who wrote them? What seem to be the broader perspectives of the papers in which the reviews appear? Agreement/disagreement.