“I Wanted to Reflect How Suffocating Gender Norms Can Be” — An Interview With ‘Normal’ Director Adele Tulli

Italian documentaries had a field day at Berlinale this year. Whether it was the innovative Selfie, allowing its subjects to become the cameramen themselves, or the harrowing depiction of Cosa Nostra brutality in Shooting The Mafia, the Southern European country asked hard questions of its society this year. The standout was Normal, the latest documentary from Adele Tulli, which takes a fresh and innovative look at gender stereotypes. Allowing its images — whether it’s boys riding motorbikes, or girls dressing up as princesses, or mothers exercising in the park — to truly speak for themselves, Tulli pushes the absurdity of fixed gender norms to their very limit. We sat down with her to discuss her unique documentary.

What was the main inspiration behind the movie?

I have always been in engaged with and explored issues of gender and sexuality. Not just in terms of my films but as someone who’s been been engaged in feminist politics. I studied South Asian studies before, with a focus on contemporary feminist movements and LGBT struggles in India. I made my first film in India discussing LGBT struggles in Bombay during the time homosexuality was finally decriminalised. This film developed as part of my PhD research. And in Italy in the past few years, we had a lot of public national debates about gender and sexuality.

It was related to some new legislation that has been proposed against homophobia and the introduction of the civil partnership that was just recently introduced. Also coming during the #metoo movement, these elements conflated together during this period to become part of the public debate. The very word normale was resonating a lot…

For me, I thought the film saw gender like out of a horror movie. Whether it’s the hen party or the older man telling the young boy he has to be an alpha male, it’s something you can’t escape from. Would you agree?

The idea was to create a sort of a suffocating feeling. I wanted to reflect how suffocating gender norms can be. The idea of the film is to try to look at ordinary situations that may surround us in everyday life. They become so normalised and unnoticed because they’re part of very ordinary moments. But I wanted to look at them through an uncanny, unfamiliar perspective that allows you to question what you’re seeing. The idea is not just to represent reality, but actually question it.

How did you find all of these places and all these rituals?

It was a lot of research. But there was a lot of inspiration that came from this preliminary research that I did before even shaping the idea of the film. These were long journeys I did using Blablacar [ride-sharing platform]. So I was intentionally going on these journeys, asking if they wanted to engage with me on conversations relating to gender and sexuality and how gender norms actually impact and affect our lives on an everyday basis. So these long conversations began to inspire the picture and then when I started writing the film, I only knew that I wanted to cover the different generation phases. So obviously there are scenes of childhood —

It sort of creates a narrative from birth to marriage…

Yeah that’s the only narrative. Even if it’s loose and free, its the only narrative of the film. Without that it’s just a mosaic of different situations that never come back more than once. And so it came together after gradually thinking of this conversations, then thinking of the phases and the generations, then thinking of elements I really wanted to include like collective rituals and rites of passages and elements of everyday performance.

There’s a lot of crowd movements. They reminded me of old Soviet Movies from 20s and 30s, especially the symphony of the crowd and the use of montage. Was this an inspiration?

Yes, in terms of suggesting disciplinary attitudes and movements. Suggesting how gender affects our bodies as well. Looking for very unnatural symmetry and synchronised movements. There are lots of symbolic connections. There are also elements that suggest performance, like masks and make up and images and people taking photographs and being photographed. Some scenes are more explicit of course. Sometimes they talk about it straight up. At other times, it’s more subtle and is supposed to affect you on a more symbolic level.

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It’s quite a short film, only 70 minutes, but there’s so much footage in it. How difficult was it to edit?

I don’t know if the most difficult thing was to actually research and find these situations or to actually edit them together! In terms of editing — we had more scenes that didn’t make it into the edit — but the most difficult thing was to actually compose it. Because it’s a mosaic, every time you put a scene in a different position the meaning of the scene, and by extension the film, changes. Each scene resonates and makes connections with the other. I somehow had to find the right balance between them, so it was a long long process. And I kept editing and shooting at the same time.

I wanted to talk about Italy and gender in general. Do you think Italy is somewhat behind the times compared to other European countries?

Definitely. I would say that each country has its own peculiar way of interpreting social cultural norms. But Italy is infamous because of that awful display of political sexism with Berlusconi and all that institutionalised sexism. So there is an infamous tradition of sexism and machismo and also certain traditional values that are propagated by the Church that are very influential in Italy. So there are a few elements that make it peculiar. Then in terms of actual regulations you can say that it’s definitely behind some other countries. Civil partnership was just made legal a couple years ago and its one of the least progressive because it doesn’t consider gay families as families. They’re considered just as unions.

Do they get same rights?

None of the same adoption rights or any of the rights to start a family. Just to be a union.

When you were filming people going through traditional gender rituals — some of them are quite funny like the women preparing for marriage being told they should treat their future husband like a second child — did they know they would be in a documentary that would be critical of them?

I explained to each participant what I was doing in terms of creating this mosaic in which no one becomes a protagonist and in which you explore many situations throughout life that discover and look for gender stereotypes and the way we express and perform gender. But I don’t know if its critical of them.

People were laughing during my screening…

All of the situations are shot in public, and most of the time, people are not even expressing their own specific point of view. They’re either giving out instructions or they’re training people. Nobody is actually portrayed as a specific individual in an intimate or private space. So I don’t think you’re laughing at them as individuals. We are all part of this and if you’re laughing at them, I think it’s a disquieting laughter. There should be at least a mirroring effect — some things should touch one of your nerves as well.

This is what I was thinking. The film makes you reflect on your own way you perform your gender in your life.

Exactly, so I think in that sense, my real intention in the film is never to laugh at anyone specifically portrayed. The laugh can emerge…

There are funny parts…

And I think irony is an important critical strategy to interrogate about things, but it’s not an irony that wants to take the piss out of anybody. It’s a way of reflecting on things. I don’t think at the end you finish the film thinking about any particular person, but the system as a whole.

Did you get the funding for this film through university?

It started as a practice based PhD. I started very much on my own with my scholarship. The struggle of doing practice based research is that they don’t fund the film; they fund you as a researcher. The struggle was trying to find money to actually produce the film. I first got an art grant in Italy. With a small amount of money we managed to get some more money — it was a very difficult film to pitch because it didn’t have a storyline and now we live under the dictatorship of storytelling…

That’s why I enjoyed it. Because it’s more of a sensory experience…

It’s interesting actually how we pitched this idea. The first money we got was through arts grant instead of film grant. The big difference was winning the Image Laboratory Award in Karlovy Vary. We got a €50,000 prize that guaranteed production. Once we were able to show images and what the idea was, we started to find more support and we managed to finally produce the film.

I thought every image in the film has a thought behind it. It might not be easily translatable for the person watching, but it’s obvious you knew what you were trying to say with each image…

Well it’s completely idiosyncratic, completely personal. The assemblage of things is my own process of thinking. That’s what I like about this type of approach of film, trying to translate ideas into images…

Crucially there’s no voiceover or text…

Crucially, because I didn’t want to impose any meaning. I’m very intrigued that every person who saw it so far gave me elements and connections that maybe I didn’t even think of. Because some things are intuitive. Recently there was a journalist telling me that she found the connection between the cutting of the cake in the hen party next to the cutting of the woman in the magician scene revealing. I didn’t make that connection rationally. That’s the biggest surprise for me now.

Was there anything personal you put in?

I think there’s a lot of personal elements. The journeys I conducted for research were a very transformative process… engaging in long journeys with random strangers, talking in depth about experiences of gender, assimilation, memories of childhood and thinking about how norms have affected us. It was a way of engaging fully in the discourse, what surrounds you and what you think of the things next to you. I feel it’s a very personal film even though it doesn’t have any voiceover or commentary. I think you can find other ways to convey your personal perspective without relying on these elements.

Redmond Bacon is a Berlin-based film critic who loves everything from Hong Sang Soo to Spider-Man 2. You can check out his work at redmondbacon.co.uk and his twitter @redmondbacon.

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