When you are Walter Veltroni, and you have accomplished a lot in life – to say he has accomplished everything will be too much even for him, but he’s almost there – including being a politician, a writer, a vice Prime Minister, a national secretary and the founder of the Democratic Party, Mayor of Rome (twice, Veltroni first mandate and Veltroni second mandate) – Editor-in-Chief of L’Unità, Honorary President of the Basketball League – being a big basketball fan himself – commentator in cinematographic programs on Iris channel, essayist and even voice actor – in “Chicken Little” – to add film director is just adding another entry to the list of his accolades. In fact, if you are familiar with his documentary work – and I am referring to “When Berlinguer Was With Us” and especially to his remarkable “Children Know” – it is clear how much Veltroni loves to arm himself with a film camera in order to investigate history and the world surrounding him.
His last effort – and the use of “effort” is not by chance – is “Gli occhi cambiano” – “The Eyes Change,” – a series of six documentaries that he wrote and directed, and produced by Rai History: six episodes entitled and declined according to everyday verbs – “Laugh, Love, Sing, Root, Know, Imagine” – in a journey that retraces themes, characters and history of political and social moments of Italy, through the narration and reportages that RAI made of them in 50 years.
Friday March 17, Walter Veltroni was welcomed at the Italian Cultural Institute of New York, to Director Giorgio Van Straten’s joy, who also happens to be a dear friend of his.
“The title ‘The Eyes Change’,” Veltroni explained, “to show the way what we have seen in 50 years of RAI changed us, but also how our way of seeing things has changed us as well. It’s some kind of a mirror game, a refraction of the look.”
“Imagining,” the verb-episode chosen for the projection at the IIC, kept the audience captivated for 70 minutes, after which, Director Van Straten interviewed the guest and then left the stage to a Q&A. “Imagining” is a fortunate and extremely enjoyable example of visual archaeology. Veltroni withdrew himself in the RAI archives and scrutinized films, interviews, old programs, bringing back to light a real treasure and linking everything to considerations that explore the path chosen – creativity. In a wide territory, that includes international creative talents in literature, arts, poetry, science, cinema. Veltroni’s ethical gesture saves moments that are “human treasures” from the collective oblivion and offers them to the audience – to the new and future generations, I believe. If the audience is curious, and maybe passionate of literature, art, poetry, science, cinema, they can’t help but go into raptures about them.
Umberto Eco explains: “The Pope and the Dalai Lama can discuss the truth of an absolute like ‘Jesus Christ is the true son of God’ for years, but they can’t help but agree on the fact that Clark Kent is Superman.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez confesses: “Am I a magical realist? No, I am not. I am a pure realist. And sad. It’s the reality of the Caribbean that is magical, not me.” Montale admits he called Beckett “Prickett,” and told that once he found himself with a completely drunk Dylan Thomas in his closet. Borges provokes: “Literature is not made up by words, but images.” Allen Ginsberg, interviewed by a young Fernanda Pivano, defends Kerouac, “who was hoping for an America of affections and he found himself in a world of plutonium.” And again directors. Truffaut, Charlie Chaplin that, shortly before dying, confides he wants to make a movie called “The Freak,” about an angel with wings – a tenderness, in a way of saying it that evokes his character Charlot. Federico Fellini tells about that one time in which Walt Disney hosted him and his Giulietta at Disneyland and the three of them played cowboys like kids in the most stereotypical of the saloons. Hitchcock explains his secret: terrorizing the audience not by using darkness and scary places, but rather light and common people. Ettore Scola critiques, with the class of a maestro, the presumptuous intelligentsia of the 70s: “My characters are gnawed by doubts, they continuously wonder. Instead, the intellectuals of our days are so sure of everything…,” a concept picked up again by Veltroni himself in a consideration on the process of creation. “The process of creating is beautiful,” he affirms “and very hard. You need talent and determination. And you need to love the doubt, which is both creation’s son and father.”
And then again Robert De Niro and Sergio Leone on the set of “Once Upon a Time in America.” “I believe that any film is political. Through films you can tell all the great truths” – tells Leone. Or again Alberto Sordi who, in 1993, from the same table at the IIC of New York in which Veltroni is now sitting, remembers the good old times in which he used to dub Hardy along with Mauro Zambuto’s Laurel, who was in the audience. National and international scholars, among which Italo Calvino, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Ezra Pound, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Isabel Allende, Nadine Gordimer, George Simenon, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Mario Soldati – who points “up above” the home of a certain Benedetto Croce, “with the walls covered in books from the ceiling to the floor” – or Alberto Moravia climbing on a gate and peeking on Rome from the Aventine hill.
I imagine Veltroni’s hands while browsing thousands of meters of film, and he finds artists like Andy Warhol, who is having fun taking pictures of the RAI operator during a video from the 60s, or a 25-year-old Keith Haring, who doesn’t bat an eye while saying “I am not a star. Michael Jackson is.” Giorgio De Chirico – “I believe that no one likes modern painting (!)” Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Joan Miro – “I am nor responsible for my painting. I work in a complete state of trance… Like being bitten by an insect.” And architects. Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius. Scientists, computer technicians and visionaries cleverly combined: “The problem is not to bring the optical fiber to the people’s houses. We will do it, it’s just a matter of time. The problem is imagining, creating” (Nicholas Negroponte) along with “I like to think that men will be educated on creativity, leaving to the robots the most repetitive and boring jobs.” (Isaac Asimov)
The episode “Imagine” is not only “a marvelous navigation” – to say it in the director’s words – inside RAI history, which collected the testament of those giants of culture and knowledge. For us, it is also a precious and a universal collection that preserves the gems of personal poetics of those giants.
During the Q&A session, Veltroni has been very generous in sharing what ‘Italianness’ means to him. “Before coming here, I went to a grocery store and I lingered in front of a product that was labeled ‘authentically Italian.’ As to say that to be Italian is a warranty. A warranty even in culture, not only for food products. Tennessee Williams and Ezra Pound knew Italian because they read the ‘Divine Comedy’, they listened to the opera. Culture-lovers have to go through Italy, sooner or later. And culture is what RAI made by interviewing, for half a century, extraordinary characters like the ones you saw. I am not sure many other television networks around the world can say the same.”
Veltroni confesses that the project was proposed to him also due to his personal experience, emotionally intertwined with RAI: Walter’s father, Vittorio Veltroni, a journalist, writer, screenwriter, enlighted manager, literally contributed to building the State Television. But if he admits that the personal nostalgia is possible, he also affirms that at a collective level it is clearly useless and harmful.
When talking about this particular historical and political moment, Veltroni comments: “We are immersed in a time in which everything it oversimplified – we express a positive or negative opinion with a simple ‘thumb’ in Facebook and we already used to do it at the Colosseum! Everything is shouted, stripped-down – like the 150 characters on Twitter – and, unfortunately, this has affected politics, which is fed by fake news, a distortion of the reality. For this reason, today’s situation is just as dangerous as it was in the 30s in Europe. I always wonder how it was possible that Jewish children were thrown out from schools, after the Racial Laws in 1938. And that no one rebelled. Not the teachers, not these kids’ classmates’ parents. No one. I wonder, how could that happen? Well, there are moments in history, in which events like those happen, in other words in correspondence of three phenomena. An economic recession. A crisis of the political parties and of the institutions. And a technical-scientific change which determines in turn an anthropological change. Moreover, we are living in a time in which ingenuity reigns as a dominant trait. We tend to accept implausible facts, to remove all doubts.”
Finally, on the conflict between high-quality television and mass television, Veltroni adds: “RAI struggles to find what I define ‘the dew point,’ or the harmony between the audience and quality. But the public is often better than the programs. Let’s think about Benigni, whose readings of Dante’s work collected millions of spectators, or the opera, very much followed. The problem is quality, and quality means pluralism, and not being homologated to a single model.”
“The Eyes Change,” the archaeological digging operation in RAI’s memory, has for sure distanced Veltroni’s television from the low-level, horror-reality shows that populate the show schedule, and moved it closer, ideally, to his father’s, at the dawn of the Italian Radiotelevision.
Translated by Giulia Casati