What is wrong with Italian Reality TV?

The question is whether a reality TV show -- focusing on visiting Italians -- filmed in refugee camps in 3 African countries is useful.

In a new reality TV show, “Mission,” eight Italian celebrities set out help aid workers in refugee camps in three countries: South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali.The show is scheduled to be aired on the Rai Uno channel from December 4 and  11.  More details are emerging about the show, but we know the premiere episode was shot in South Sudan last year. That news slipped out when Michele Cucuzza, one of the participants told an Italian tabloid newspaper about the “fear” of being there and the risk of getting ebola.  To prevent the show from airing (it is scheduled for broadcast in the first weeks of December), aid workers, non profit volunteers and critical viewers from all over the Italy have launched two petitions its broadcast.

Who is behind the show might surprise some readers. UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency and an Italian NGO Intersos, partnered with the Italian public broadcaster Rai, to make the series. Rai is defending the show: “During the show there will be no game elements,” assures Rai in a press release. “[And] in the studio there will be in-depth analysis about refugee themes and commentaries from those who have lived inside a refugee camp for a long period of time.”  Marco Rotelli, secretary-general of Intersos, released a press statement to explain the NGO’s endorsement and participation in the program. “We’re bringing the reality of refugee camps to prime time so as to make it known to the general public.” His views were endorsed by Christopher Hein of the Italian Council for Refugees: “We are afraid to watch pain slammed on prime time, with exploitation of stories and people.”

Last week the question of broadcasting “Mission” arrived at Parliament, thanks to a point of order raised by a member of the left party Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà (Sel or Left Ecology Forum).  It turned out that Laura Boldrini, president of the Chamber of Deputies, is a former UNHCR spokesperson, who launched the idea while she was working at the UN, inspired by the Australian show “Go back,” where participants relived the journeys of asylum seekers.

In a letter to the national newspaper La Repubblica, Boldrini explained that “the original goal was to make more comprehensible to the public the real condition of refugees, too often and too quickly represented as a threat for our safety. I suggested to have a look at the Australian format, in which there were common people with different ideas of asylum, not celebrities.”

The writers of the program, Tullio Camiglieri and Antonio Azzalini were also forced to defend themselves:

We have been accused of making an entertainment show of the refugee situation, but we hope to have such an entertainment, because in that way the topic will reach the general public.

Opponents of the show–hoping not to repeat what’s playing out on TV in nearby Germany–likens “Mission” to poverty porn. They’ve gotten some support from mainstream media. Newsmagazine Espresso titled their story “Africa sfigata, ci mancava Al Bano,” stressing that bringing celebrities to the African continent only adds complicates the lives of the people the program and its participants claim to help.

“I can’t describe the shame I felt when I heard this news,” says Claudia Mocci, a young aid worker working in Chad, whose letter opposing the program has been “liked” by more than 2,000 people on Facebook in one week.

I thought about all the people I have met in the refugee camp in Goré, in Chad, and about their pleas not to be photographed, because they didn’t want to live twice the trauma of being scheduled and filmed by the police arriving in the asylum country.

More tolerant seems Davide Demichelis, author and director of the program Radici, which styles itself as a positive example of reporting in developing countries with the participation of  migrants who travels in their native land with the journalist. Despite the fact that he is against any kind of “entertainment of pain,” Demichelis believes that “we should give the show a chance and not try to stop the broadcasting with a petition.”

Further Reading

Mobilizing in disorder

Post the looting and failed insurrection, what would it mean for the South African left to undertake a populist political strategy? And should it look to South America for inspiration? A long read.