Happy Winter offers a window into Italy’s economic decline and the rising interest in populist politics through the eyes of a small vacationing community in Mondello, Italy.
Mondello beach, for me and for everyone who lives in Palermo, is much more than a holiday resort. It is an institution, a refuge, a milestone.
Sicilian teenagers see Mondello as a mirage and a place to conquer, a place where happy, smiling, festive and wealthy men and women get together to breeze carefree through the summer. In the summer of 2000, a group of friends and I decided to occupy a Mondello beach hut that was still available to see what really went on there.
The world I found did not betray my expectations, but the dream quickly ended when, after an inspection by the beach staff, we were thrown out. I was left with a strong sensation of something unaccomplished and of bitterness. This motivation connects the hut to my past and became the mainspring for making Buon Inverno (Happy Winter).
Happy Winter was above all my graduation thesis at the National Film School, the Sicilian branch, which specializes in creative documentaries. Thanks to it, I returned to Mondello, where I began to understand a great deal about the beachgoers. That’s when my idea to develop my first full-length feature arose.
The summer of 2014 spent in Mondello was crucial to winning people’s trust and becoming a part of that micro-world of cabins and summer rituals. The following year I spent the summer searching for the main characters of my documentary.
The dynamics that will be the central thread of my narration emerged from life on the beach. My characters are mostly from middle-class families who have been passing on the huts from generation to generation ever since the sixties, the years of the Italian economic boom. But today, they are experiencing a radical change in spending due to the economic crisis that has assailed not only Sicily, but Italy as a whole and the entire Western world.
Their stories describe their longing to carry on appearing wealthy and beautiful during the holidays despite the economic crisis.
This summer ritual, the symbol of economic wellbeing, sees the possession of a cabin as a form of redemption for the middle class, which doesn’t want to change its habits and prefers living with the crisis amusing themselves rather than relinquishing the goals they once obtained. This behavior reflects the contradictions of Western countries, which find it hard to accept living standards inferior to those of the previous generation in a consumer society where being equals possession.
Mondello’s carefree holiday atmosphere represents a suspension from the toils of the winter and this condition is an opportunity for me to face the subject with an ironic, fizzy and at times comical approach, but never superficially, thanks to the various interpretative levels the characters present. They have quite literally lost their shirts and lay bare their socio-existential condition, which isn’t too different from that of someone from Spain, Greece, France or North America.
At the narrative level, in the first part I deal with the characters’ appearance: the efforts of the three main ones are directed at creating the self-image they want to give the world and culminate in the big August 15 party. Then, through careful observation and my experience of the micro world of the huts, I manage to live from the inside a deep confrontation between them, collecting secrets they confide to each other, delving into their authentic lives and difficulties.
In the final chapter, once spectators are fully plunged inside the bittersweet atmosphere of the huts, hope returns with a note of naïve but absolutely sincere positive thinking: the group organizes a massive collection to buy a huge quantity of scratch cards in the hope of solving their problems with the intervention of fortune.
The years spent in Mondello helped me to get to know the people there and become familiar with the environment, to be able to predict any technical problems caused by the atmospheric agents and the beach itself (noise, sand, wind).
My idea as director is to relate the beachgoers to the space of the cabin, a limited one but also full of narrative elements. For the characters, the hut becomes the villa they can’t afford, the status symbol capable of making them feel wealthier and more powerful.
Observation has been the crucial element of the years I spent approaching the stories and will remain the dominant style of the film, allowing me to approach the characters, capture their gestures and expressions, without being too invasive.
A register consisting of static shots, combining formal accuracy and continuously new narrative contents, will alternate with a moving camera, a freer camera capturing visual moments associated to the sea. Underwater shooting represents the sea as the territory of fantasy and dreams, the element the characters retreat to from time to time.
Spectacular drone shots will introduce the beach environment at the beginning and at the end of the film, first to discover the huts world while it is built at the beginning, and to exit the beach at the end.
—Giovanni Totaro, Writer and Director, Happy Winter
This guide is an invitation to dialogue. It is based on a belief in the power of human connection and designed for people who want to use Happy Winter to engage family, friends, classmates, colleagues and communities. In contrast to initiatives that foster debates in which participants try to convince others that they are right, this document envisions conversations undertaken in a spirit of openness in which people try to understand one another and expand their thinking by sharing viewpoints and listening actively.
The discussion prompts are intentionally crafted to help a wide range of audiences think more deeply about the issues in the film. Rather than attempting to address them all, choose one or two that best meet your needs and interests. And be sure to leave time to consider taking action. Planning next steps can help people leave the room feeling energized and optimistic, even in instances when conversations have been difficult.
For more detailed event planning and facilitation tips, visit www.pbs.org/pov/engage/.
Happy Winter offers a window into Italy’s economic decline and the rising interest in populist politics through the eyes of a small vacationing community in Mondello, Italy.
Antonio “Nino” Patti– Throughout the summer months, Antonio sells refreshments to Palermo beachgoers. Devoted to improving the economic status of his family, Antonio works tirelessly to ensure that his sons do not need to follow in his footsteps.
Tony Serio – Running for Palermo Council, Tony spends his time pitching himself to fellow beach goers; usually over cards, beer, or seaside chats. His platform speaks to the economic crisis weighing on the vacationers’ minds.
Piera and Mauro – A sweet beach going couple that love the Palermo life, often wishing that they could reside in their cabin permanently. Mauro spends his time embellishing the cabin while Piera brags to her friends.
Piera’s Friends – Piera’s friends enjoy their easy going routine at Palermo and the social status that their summer tradition represents.
Christian – Antonio’s son that worries about his dad’s physical ability to continue his demanding job.
Veronica – an orphaned woman who discloses her economic and personal hardships to Tony.
Immediately after the film, you may want to give people a few quiet moments to reflect on what they have seen or pose a general question (examples below) and give people some time to themselves to jot down or think about their answers before opening the discussion:
- Why do you think the film is named Happy Winter?
- What did you learn from this film? Did you gain a new insight?
- Describe a moment or scene in the film that you found particularly disturbing or moving. What was it about that scene that was especially compelling for you?
- Did anything in the film surprise you? Was anything familiar?
- If you could ask anyone in the film a single question, whom would you ask and what would you want to know?
The Struggling Italian Economy
The economy in Italy has been sluggish for some time. Do you notice a connection between the politician’s platforms and the economic challenges of the beach goers? How do you think the politician is leveraging the economic duress of vacationers to earn votes? How do you think the economic challenges are making Italians feel about their leadership, and a general sense of hope for their country?
In the film the vacationers chose not to flaunt their economic hardship. What did you observe that suggests that the Italians vacationing might be facing such hardship?
The families on the beach discuss the lack of jobs in Italy, and some of them are struggling to find work. Why do you think the beachgoers continue to vacation for Ferragosto despite their economic hardship?
Nino, the drink seller on the beach, is the only person we see working in the film, yet Tony Serio and the police criminalize him for vending without proper licensing. When the two get into an argument about Patti’s work, the vendor responds saying “they’re making a war against the poor...The politicians profit from all these sea activities.” How do you feel about Patti’s position of working ‘under the table’ to support his family? Although he seems like a staple to the annual vacationers’ landscape and has generated his own job in a plummeting economy, he does not feel supported by the Italian government. In fact, he feels targeted by some members of the vacationing community. How do you feel when Patti is targeted? Have you witnessed similar treatment of certain professions in your own community?
What do you notice about the difference in activities of Antonio, the drink vendor, and the Ferragosto vacationers during the evening festival celebration?
Antonio urges his son to go through high school and graduate because he doesn’t want him to work his same job in the future. Education rates in Italy are lower than most of the European Union. Why is this exchange important? How is Antonio’s approach to improving his family’s life different from Tony Serio’s?
Economics and Lifestyle
The small and simple lodging accommodations of the beach goers seems to contrast with the families’ ability to afford an extended vacation. What might this disconnect suggest about the beach goers desire to project a certain lifestyle?
Even though the vacationers parade in celebration and bask in holiday ease while the drink seller Antonio works day in and day out, he is targeted by the police and by aspiring politician, Tony Serio. How does his criminalized labor amidst the leisure of the vacationers make you feel? What would change if Antonio formalized his business as Tony Serio suggests?
What do you observe about the connection between the economic and political changes in the region? How might some of the economic challenges have affected Tony Serio’s political platform?
“This is my little corner of the sea,” says Piera when introducing her cabin to a friend. As Piera goes through the cabin and presents a tour to her friend, she appears proud despite the limited size. What do you think is the function of pride? Why is it important?
Finding Joy in Times of Hardship
In some ways, the film suggests that this group of Italian vacationers are living lavishly, as it features a series of parties and leisure. Yet, we receive glimpses into some families’ unemployment, their meager beach accommodations, and other insights that suggest that this community is struggling to make ends meet. Do you feel that the beachgoers are covering up their struggles or finding joy despite them? Can you recall a time when you or your family chose to do something that brought joy even though it was a time of hardship? Why might it be valuable to take this annual Ferragosto trip, even if the families are struggling financially?
Changing Political Climate
Based on the issues the aspiring politician Tony Serio brings up, what do you sense are the concerns and fears for some of the Italian population he seeks to represent?
Candidate Tony Serio campaigns on the beach about limiting immigration, yet some of the Italian vacationers are practicing Aikido, a Japanese martial art. What does this suggest about the relationship between cultural exchange and immigration in the country?
Antonio explains how leaders don’t want altercations with vendors on the beach because they’d scare off tourists. He adds that Bangladeshis are also vending in the area and experiencing altercations with law enforcement. What might this suggest about the relationship between migration and economics?
Throughout the film, it is often hard to tell what day it is or how much time has passed. There is this sense of time expanding. The same sand flatter rolls across the beach outside of the vacationers’ huts each morning, creating a sense of repetition. What effect does this repetition and expansion of time have on you? What impression does this give you about Italian culture, or the current state of Italy?
When Tony Serio is in the midst of campaigning, he suggests that the struggle of immigrants is inflated and hopes to route empathy away from immigrants and back to Italians. About immigrants’ ability to leave home and relocate, he says “where do they find the money if they're so poor?” He even goes further to claim that “they will kill you and cut your body in pieces.” Why do you think Tony has these feelings about immigrants? He later says about Italians that there are thousands “who know what it means to not know how the bills will get paid.” How do these statements side-by-side reveal both the political and economic complexity of Italy?
When Tony shares his anti-immigrant campaign, some beach goers are empathetic to their experience. One man exclaims, “They come over here, poor souls.” Even though these men are reacting to the same changes, they respond differently. Why might they have arrived at different conclusions?
Tony Serio attempts to craft his campaign to appeal or respond to the specific hardships of the beachgoers. Does this feel genuine? How did Tony find ways to connect to the struggles of the other Italians? There are many factors that have contributed to problems like unemployment and the lack of educated adults in Italy. Why do you think Tony specific targets migrants as the cause?
When communicating his concern about the non-Italian population, Tony says “They sell their kids to sell their organs” and “they will kill you and cut your body in pieces.” Why do you think he paints such a visceral and violent picture? What impact do you think he is hoping it will have?
Have you witnessed populism gaining ground in your own community and country? How have politicians in your country used fear to motivate voters?
At the end of your discussion, to help people synthesize what they’ve experienced and move the focus from dialogue to action steps, you may want to choose one of these questions:
- What did you learn from this film that you wish everyone knew? What would change if everyone knew it?
- If you could require one person (or one group) to view this film, who would it be? What do you hope their main takeaway would be?
- The story of Palermo beachgoers is important because ___________.
- Complete this sentence: I am inspired by this film (or discussion) to __________.
Additional media literacy questions are available at: https://www.amdoc.org/engage/resources/media-literacy-questions-analyzing-pov-films/using-framework/
If the group is having trouble generating their own ideas for next steps, these suggestions can help get things started:
● Research low cost education in your country and its effects on job readiness and access.
● Learn more about migration into Italy, including the causes of displacement.
● Learn about the changing political climate in Italy and the rise of populism through a variety of media sources that describe the conflict from multiple angles.
● Organize opportunities to educate your friends, family and community about changes in your country’s political and economic climate. Provide them with facts, not speculation.
● Advocate for groups that you feel are being wrongfully being blamed for challenges in your country.
● Learn about populism and how populist politicians build political followings.
● Take care of your own mental health in times of struggle and economic duress.
● Italy’s Draft Budgetary Plan for 2019 does not plan to decrease the country’s public debt, which stands at more than 130% of gross domestic product in 2018, far above the 60% limit which European Union rules require.
● The European Commission has warned the Italian government that it is breaching European Union rules over its growing public debt. Understand the timeline of the European Commission’s disciplinary procedure over Italy’s debt.
● Italy’s “Five Star Movement” is the political party in power, standing for populist platforms like anti-immigration and anti-European Union.
● Education rates in Italy are lower than its European counterparts, including university-level education for young adults, according to 2014 research by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. This can contribute to lower rates of employment.
● The Human Rights Watch has reported on a dangerous increase in populism throughout the world and warns against this rise going unchecked.
Mallory Rukhsana Nezam, Justice + Joy
Guide Producers, POV
Director, Community Engagement and Education, POV
Community Partnerships Associate, POV
This resource was created, in part, with the generous support of the Open Society Foundation and the following organizations: