Les États généraux du film documentaire 2014 Doc History: Italy

Doc History: Italy


The history of Italian documentary cinema remains little known, in Italy and elsewhere. It is a history that has been forgotten, marginalised, from the start by the production system, then by the public and finally by historians and critics. Only over the past few years have some studies been published on Italian documentary [1] that begin to do justice to its rich history: a history initiated under fascism between the temptations of formalism and propaganda, that developed after the war with a cinema of social criticism and an “anthropological” approach, and which found a liberty of production and form in the seventies and eighties, with practices that are more experimental and tending towards the film-essay.

The ambition of this retrospective is to give the widest possible perspective on Italian documentary on the basis of theoretical objectives founded on certain historiographical hypotheses, while attempting to stay clear of the traditional “national anthology served up for a festival”. The idea is to focus in each programme on a precise chronological period with the aim of structuring a thematic constellation where each screening is coordinated in rhyme and rhythm with all the other programmes:
1. Fascism, 2. The Post-War Period, 3. A Difficult Modernity, 4. The South and Magic, 5. A Teacher's Diary, 5. Political and Militant Cinema, 7. The Eighties between Poverty, Resistance and Memory. We have decided to show only one film per author in the idea that it would be more stimulating to discover forgotten names rather than limit ourselves to cineastes who are already well known. Two filmmakers shine by their absence: Rossellini and Pasolini. Both have received abundant attention at Lussas and are widely known and studied in France. There are two other absences, less obvious but just as important, Antonello Branca and Alberto Grifi, two independent libertarian creators that we had the pleasure of presenting several years ago in Lussas and Paris. All four of them however weighed heavily in this selection, that goes without saying.

Italian fiction film seems to have massively absorbed realistic practice. Indeed, it appears that, paradoxically, neorealism left little room for a cinema of the Real. Italian documentary tried to move away from the beaten track with De Sica, Zavattini, Visconti, etc. [2] Films on art, scientific, educational, industrial, commercial, experimental, amateur films all existed in the silent period, but the foundations of future Italian documentary were laid in the thirties with the arrival of sound. The patterns and standards were more or less the same until the sixties: the dominance of the short form, voice over, illustrative music, thematic character. Once this standard had been established, many films broke the mould and invented forms and structures of great liberty and modernity: a treasure trove to be rediscovered and studied.

Under fascism, documentary was evidently subservient to the demands of propaganda, but there are exceptions revealing a formalistic cinema starved of reality. This paradox lead the best creators to focus on the world of work in order to document sites and people forgotten in the regime's rhetoric, leaving aside the habitually emphatic commentaries. The elegance of the images fit together with a certain interest for marginal realities finding expression in a singular poetics with the emergence of neorealism at the beginning of the forties. Reality was no longer valued for its exceptional, hence rhetorical, character but for its daily nature; all emphasis was rejected in order to approach things for what they were.

Neorealist filmmakers were interested in the Real in order to make their fiction more plausible. Rossellini was the exception who, in a revolutionary gesture, based his work on reality by choosing to maintain its harshness and its element of chance, working without a scenario and leaving room for improvisation. Almost all the major names in neorealism started out in documentary, but only a few stayed there. This cinema was for a long time considered a training ground for young filmmakers searching for their personal language and style—Matarazzo, Antonioni, Emmer, Risi, Zurlini, Olmi, Vancini all began their careers in documentary—and as an excellent investment for production companies who received public money for its production and distribution. As for the Italian public at the time, there was little taste for the documentary short projected before each fiction film, considered an unjustified intrusion of reality in the space of dreams and distraction that was the movie house.

Post-war documentary production comprised an innumerable quantity of standardised films of little interest and a few extraordinary films of great formal invention, as powerful as the most important European contemporary films. Marginalised worlds and ordinary people were the protagonists of works in which could co-exist a sincere feeling of love for the people and a heightened aesthetic preciosity. Italy in the fifties was a country still marked by the war, on the verge of being transformed by the economic boom and by technological progress, a “lost world” that filmmakers documented with great political fervour. Few were those who glimpsed the social and economic disaster which was about to radically transform the country. The illusion of rapid development and a limitless faith in progress prevailed everywhere. Once again, it was the exceptions who revealed the other side of the coin: cineastes such as Andreassi, Gandin, De Seta, Mingozzi, Baldi, Di Carlo and Taffarel related this Italy struggling to live a modernity which disfigured its landscapes and destroyed the peasant world, its values and culture. Formally, a freer, more experimental cinema emerged and the atavistic absence of direct sound so characteristic of Italian cinema was slowly overcome, in part thanks to the introduction of state television.

Parallel to this new “boom cinema”, an important current of ethnographical documentary developed, freely inspired by the writings of anthropologist Ernesto De Martino, with films shot mainly in southern Italy and on the islands documenting the magico-religious rituals which still survived in these regions. Filmmakers like Di Gianni, Del Fra, Mangini and Piccon wanted to record a reality that was disappearing, elaborating a new language in which classical influences mixed with modern ideas, unconcerned by the dictates of researchers and specialists, but relying on a burning political and aesthetic sensibility.

In the seventies, Italian documentary finally freed itself from the constraints of production and language and from then on opened up to experimental forms, lengths and structures, mixing fiction and reality, the essay and militant film, investigation and personal diary. The wave of 1968 also swept over documentary and contaminated its language to the root. A revolutionary experience like Diario di un maestro proposes cinema as an experiment in life, a totalising and immersive approach which fluidly and naturally unties the barriers between reality and screen direction, in the search for a kernel of human truth that concerns us, makes us indignant, and questions us as citizens and viewers. Paradoxically, television produced the most important and radical documentaries of the period. In the eighties on the contrary, documentary turned into the number one enemy of Berlusconi's television, a television of barbarity and incivility whose task was to make its public forget reality, its authentic miseries and joys.

From the eighties only a few rare films opposed this perfect crime, showing the effects of the end of the class struggle (with absolutely no emancipation), the defeat of social-democracy, the victory of liberalism and the domination of the society of spectacle. These are films of economic and aesthetic resistance, works documenting the remains of a country which has been organising for decades the loss of its own memory, the traces of its history.

Federico Rossin


1. Adriano Aprà, “Itinerario personale nel documentario italiano”, in Lino Micciché (dir.), Studi su dodici sguardi d’autore in cortometraggio, Torino, Associazione Philip Morris - Progetto Cinema / Lindau, 1995, p. 281-295 ; Ivelise Perniola, Oltre il neorealismo. Documentari d'autore e realtà italiana del dopoguerra, Roma, Bulzoni, 2004 ; Marco Bertozzi, Storia del documentario italiano, Venezia, Marsilio, 2008.
2. This is why we are not convinced by the “pan-neorealist” approach of Marco Bertozzi and Thierry Roche, authors of L'Autre Néo-réalisme, une correspondance, Bruxelles, Yellow Now, « Côté cinéma », 2013.


Debates led by Federico Rossin.
In the presence of Adriano Aprà