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Aug 28, 2009

Interview: Gustav Hofer

by Abi Weaver


Katerina Vlckova talks to Gustav Hofer about ‘Suddenly, Last Winter’

KV: What prompted your decision to pick up a camera and make a documentary?

GH: When we started to make the doc we wanted to document a historic moment for Italy. We were optimistic that finally, with a centre-left government, Italy too will finally give some rights to same sex couples. We wanted to film that moment of hope for so many people. But with the ongoing discussion, the intrusion of the Vatican and the reporting of TV it became clearer day by day that things might not turn out as we thought. So instead of making a film about a step towards a more open and equal Italy it became a film about a defeat.

KV: Was it always your intention to use documentary film as a campaigning tool?

GH: We could not imagine that the film would get so much attention and that it would be able to speak to so many people. It was all above our expectations.

KV: Why the title ‘Suddenly, Last Winter’?

GH: There are two reasons: For us it was homage to Joseph L. Mankievicz film based on Tennessee Williams play “Suddenly, Last Summer”, a movie we both love very much, which actually is a film about homophobia.  On the other hand all this wave of homophobia hit us suddenly, during the winter 2007.

KV: Can you give us an idea of what sort of difficulties homosexual couples have to face in Italy? How does that compare to other countries from what you’ve heard or  experienced?

GH: The situation over the last few months has got worse. Almost daily we read about violence again gay men and women. So there is the physical and psychological difficulty. Many homosexuals in Italy don’t dare (or care) about coming out, because there is always an old aunt or uncle who they don’t want to shock. They are ashamed of telling anyone and say “It’s nobody’s business with whom I sleep”, pretending that being gay is just about sex and not about your identity. On the other side there is the legal discrimination which obviously you are not aware of until the moment you get into certain situations, like being refused to visit your partner in hospital, to decide about his treatments, questions of heritage, etc. Luca and me have been together for almost ten years, but for our country our relationship has never existed. To the State, Luca and me are total strangers who just happened to pay the phone bill together. It’s quite humiliating. That makes Italy one of the only EU countries which has no law for same sex couples. In almost all other countries there is some kind of recognition: gay marriage or civil unions. Even Albania is now discussing a law on gay marriage!

KV: If you were a politician and could draft a bill on gay rights, what would the perfect law look like?

GH: Give the same rights to all citizens to decide how they want to regulate their relationships, independently of whether they are straight or gay. Give the option.

KV: Would you say that obtaining rights for gay couples is just a question of time and campaigning or do you fear it could become a never-ending struggle?

GH: I think that history does not develop progressively but in circles. Italy probably was more open and progressive in the 70s when important rights like abortion or divorce were achieved. We are going through very conservative times where the Church is very strong because politics is very weak. We don’t have politicians who dare to oppose the dictates of the Vatican. If we don’t have strong parties which are clearly secular and don’t accept interference from the Church, things will not change in our country.

KV: What sort of reception has the film received to-date in Italy?

GH: This year we got a very important award for Italian cinema. We won the Nastro d’Argento for best documentary, it’s the award from the Italian film critics union. The reception has always been very enthusiastic; not only from a gay audience but even from Catholics who saw the film. We have received nice emails and compliments. Many of them said that watching the film made them understand how they have been used by the Church for their propaganda.

KV: What is interesting about this film is that combines two genres: a political documentary and a personal diary/human interest story. Could you say something about the decision to ‘cast’ yourselves. Did this seem a necessary and unavoidable condition?

GH: For me it was fundamental to make it personal, the story needed two faces to make people understand, that a law would make life better for people and that it is not an ideological question. I think that the personal is political and as a filmmaker I wanted to underline it. It was also a way to lighten up the mood on a topic which otherwise could be heavy.

KV: The film shows that even today certain groups within society face intimidation and exclusion in one way or another. Why do you think Italy appears to exhibit a greater intolerance to homosexuality than many other European nations?

GH: There are many reasons for it. One is, as I said, the Vatican. Another is the way especially TV is talking about homosexuals. But it is the tolerance level of homophobia which has got higher and so people feel that they have the right to discriminate, not only homosexuals but also immigrants, for example. With the Lega Nord we have an openly xenophobic and homophobic party within the government, which insults minorities continuously. So if the government can say certain things why should people not do the same?

KV: When you think of the suffragette movement in the early 20th century for example, women had to flight for equal rights for decades. Today, women hold top posts in politics and business – something unimaginable only half a century ago. Do you draw optimism from examples like this one?

GH: Actually the situation for women in Italy is not as rosy as you might think. We have very few women in high positions or in politics. On TV shows women are just there to seduce men, dancing almost naked. Italy is still today a patriarchal society run by men and especially old men sticking on their power. I hope that Italian women will soon start to protest about their situation and about how they are represented and that together with the gay movements they will become a movement of social and political change.

KV: You have said that before making this film you lived in a relatively safe urban ´microcosm´ surrounded by your open-minded relatives and friends. When did you first realise the extent of the intolerance around you?

GH: Lucky enough we lived in our microcosm! It wasn’t really fun hearing people say that you homosexuals are sick, perverts and paedophiles. But it was a big surprise for us to see that so many people still think that way or repeat what they hear on TV or in church.

KV: Are you optimistic about the ability for a documentary film to change society, particularly given the dominant role of television? How is this film being used within a broader campaign?

GH: I think the film should help Italians to see that on this issue we are talking about civil rights and nothing else and it could help to change the situation. The problem is that no national TV station will broadcast it as it is too critical about politics, the Church and the media. “Suddenly, Last Winter” will not be on Italian public TV any time soon. If it happens it would be a sign that Italy has changed. So we will continue to show it around the country with the help of local cinema owners, cultural associations and motivated people. Thanks to doing this we meet other Italians all over the country, those who don’t agree with what is going on and who show a great deal of solidarity.

KV: In the film, you have expressed what most Italians would probably call, radical views on religion and the Vatican. Has this caused you any particular problems or made life difficult for you in any way?

GH: We did not make a film against Catholics but against the invasion of the Vatican in internal Italian affairs. Of course, without all the criticism, I am sure that the documentary would have been broadcasted.

KV: Italian film distributors have been, up to this point, reluctant to pick up the film. Now that you have had international success at numerous film festivals across Europe, do you believe this might change?

GH: Unfortunately I don’t think so. It is hard anyway to get distribution for a documentary and of course it is even harder for a film which does not please either the left nor the right.

KV: What do you plan next – more films, more campaigns, or other forms of political engagement?

GH: About that issue we have different points of view.

Luca: I’m quite worried about the idea of making a second film, maybe I will go back to my previous life as a film critic. We’ll see.

Gustav: We will make another film and we will keep on asking for our rights.

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