‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ at MMU

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BILL EMMOTT and ANNALISA PIRAS bring Girlfriend in a Coma to Manchester, Friday, 8th February, Sandra Burslem Buildling, MMU

Words by Amillah Javed

On the evening of Friday, 8th February, Bill Emmott and Annalisa Piras were invited to MMU to show a screening of their controversial documentary, as well as allowing us time to interrogate them about the making of the film and the politics behind it. 

Girlfriend in a Coma was written and narrated by the former editor of The Economist, Bill Emmott, and directed by Annalisa Piras, who left Italy like many other Italians during the period of Berlusconi. The documentary reflects the past 20 years of Italy’s political, economic and social decline. It was also inspired by Emmott’s book, Good Italy, Bad Italy(2012), and includes interviews with the Prime Minister, Mario Monti, the philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco, Fiat CEO, Sergio Marchionne, and many other notable Italians. A great number of people turned up, filling every row of chairs in the lecture theatre from top to bottom. A bigger room was definitely needed!

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As soon as everyone had entered and settled in, we looked around eagerly in excitement for Bill Emmott and Annalisa Piras. Were they actually here at Manchester Metropolitan University? Yes, they were. Both Emmett and Piras crossed the lecture theatre and placed themselves in the chairs before their audience. Senior Lecturer and Head of Italian Studies, Nicoletta Di Ciolla, began by introducing the film, the two honoured guests, and a third visitor, Jim Newell, a Professor of Politics at the University of Salford.

Jim, who has also been writing about the political corruption of places like the UK and Italy, did a lecture about the economy of Italy, debating the country’s good and bad issues. His speech also reflected the society and politics of Italy, including Berlusconi’s background and his significance in the general elections.

As the lights went off and the film was about to start, Piras and Emmott swiftly left the lecture theatre before darkness surrounded us and the shocking images of Italy were projected on screen. The political and social situation of Italy was shocking to see and made it evident why the Italian government banned the film in Italy. Nevertheless, the film was screened at the National Museum of the 21st Century Arts (MAXXI). The Italian Ministry of Culture then decided the film should be released in Italy after the February elections, due to the amount of political issues raised in the film.

Emmott definitely explores the good side of Italy, as well as the bad, hoping that Girlfriend in a Coma will get Italians together in order to demand change. He does this partly through displaying upsetting images to the viewer, which would certainly question and encourage engagement.

Piras and Emmott were escorted back into the theatre room after the film had finished and the firing of questions soon began:
Q: “Where is your hope for the future of Italy then?”
Emmott: “My personal hope for Italy’s future is that Italian’s outside and inside Italy will get to understand the severity of the situation; why things have gone the way they have gone, and then they should demand change.”
Q: “I understand that, but nothing is happening. When is something going to happen? Even the lady in the film is saying she hopes that, although her sons are brought up in London, they will go back to Italy one day and will be part of the new Italy. But she won’t do anything, everyone is hoping, wishing, wanting, because we all love Italy. But when’s the change coming?”
Piras: “We are trying to do something. The film is trying to portray the waking up and getting together of the people in Italy. I think what is most encouraging is that when our film was banned, 30,000 Italians signed a petition to say the film should be allowed to be viewed before the elections. So, therefore, there is hope that Italians will get together and will try to bring change. People are already going on facebook and getting in contact with other Italians. We are seeing a kind of getting together. We also like to feel that we’re contributing something to Italy and you can help us too. You can get out this room tonight and go on our website and say what you think about this film, say what you think about this petition, tell people we need to get together NOW.”
When one person in the audience raised the question about women issues in Italy, Annalisa replied saying that, “Women also need to get together and I’m hoping women will get more rights to be able to be presented in politics and so on.” Emmott further added, “The women’s issue leads to many different problems, like the participation in the labour cause, about the disincentives for marriage which is leading to fallen birth rates and is showing the population increasing. However, the number of Italians is declining. It’s not only an issue for women, but it’s a reflection of the many problems faced in Italy.”

Q: “One of the problems you had in showing the film in Italy was that people thought it was too political and therefore not appropriate to be shown because of the elections. I don’t know how those here will vote in the next few days and how they feel about taking a side, because certainly this film doesn’t help any of the current political leaders. So what are you hoping to achieve, other than an awareness of issues in Italy? That we’re in a pickle and we need to come out of it one way or another? What is the immediate outcome you envisage your film to have?”

Emmott: “I don’t expect any immediate outcome. Italy’s problems and reforms are not about one election, and it’s not a 1-year process; it’s a 10-year process. So this has to be seen as being a process of education and campaigning that will be going on for a long time. Indeed there are too many protest groups and reform groups in Italy which have focused on the short-term targets and then have failed. I think it should be a long-term process.”
Piras also added, “The reason to show it before the votes is also to raise awareness. … Of course, you should have politicians, and what this film tries to do is create awareness of the real issues because certainly what we have seen in this electoral campaign has been atrociously superficial. They have been talking about taxes and saying we are going to give you back this tax when this is not the real problem of Italy. People should get up and vote for the person who is more likely to tackle the issues in Italy. People should start to create petitions asking them politician; What have you done now about taxing the Church? What have you done about the women’s issues? And so on…”

 Q: “Annalisa, do you think you had to leave Italy in order to direct such a film? Do you think if you stayed in Italy, about 10 years later you could’ve directed a film like this?”
Piras: “This is a very important question and I’ve talked long about it and a lot of people have asked me about it. I personally don’t feel I would have EVER been able to do this film living in Italy. Simply because one of the real tradgedies of Italy is the movement of extreme polarisation. Therefore, this film mainly wanted to raise all the problems … and try to paint a picture which would represent the real problems. But a lot of people in Italy will say, but this is against everyone, so the left would not allow this film to happen, the right would not allow this film to happen, the church wouldn’t allow this film to happen, so it would’ve simply been impossible. So this is the reason why it’s important the film should be shown in Italy right now.”
Another interesting question asked from the audience, “I wanted to ask about a theatrical release in Italy. Do you have a distributor? Is the film going to be widely seen? Or are you going to go down the non-theatrical route?”
Emmott answered, “We have a distributor who is going to be organising theatrical screenings after the elections. Before the elections we are going down a non-classical route with a lot of private screenings and with online distributions.”

Ruth Steele, a French and Italian student at MMU said, “I thought the film was good. I mean, we all have obviously studied a lot about these kinds of things in our lectures, so I think we were very prepared for what was going to be mentioned. But if you haven’t had hours of talking about the Mafia and corruption and about the complete disastrous state of Italy, then this film would’ve been a very shocking thing to see because everyone thinks Italy is part of the Western country and part of Europe and is doing well. I do think there will be a time when the people in Italy will crack and do something, but it won’t be in the next 5 years, it will definitely take time.”

The film is definitely worth the watch, and for further details and information about Girlfriend in a Coma, please visit the website:

Amillah Javed is currently studying English and Film at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is passionate about journalism and teaching and hopes to pursue a career in one of these fields. Amillah also has an interest in writing creatively and having work published. Follow her on Twitter @a_amillah 

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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