This article is part of the series Family Rolls by C41.
BENIAMINO BARRESE: Well Mum, we’ve been on a journey together, first as mother and son and then as colleagues on our video project, which led us to reflect on certain recurring themes. On the one hand, and the more profound in my opinion, the theme of authenticity and how to live in such a way that your outer self is faithful to your inner self, a correspondence between individual character and what we do in life, for example. This is something you have always contested, however. You often tell me that you don’t know who you are and that inner work is just “fluff” and you don’t know how to do it… But the truth is that I have always perceived in you a great loyalty to your inner feelings and your own perspective. And I think that is precisely what you used to teach your students. You would always criticise my anxiety to ask who I was and what I should do with my life and so on, but when I look at you, I see that was inevitable. You have always been an example of a life lived in the constant quest to be authentic so that word must mean something. The first theme is authenticity and then representation and image. Which are the same thing really, because if, on the one hand, who I am inside is reflected in what I do in life, on the other we have the object that I represent and representation of it, by which I mean photography. To summarise, it is a discussion between representing something and the reality that you are trying to represent. We’ve talked at length about this and there is a lot of crossover between the two themes. What do I represent, why do I represent it, how can I represent it authentically? I asked myself: how can I create a portrait of this woman that respects her feelings and wishes? And in our case, the whole discussion is a little paradoxical because you didn’t even want this portrait made of you. We’ve debated these themes extensively and have perhaps discovered that using filters can be positive. Because what are filters for us, at the end of the day?
BENEDETTA BARZINI: I’ll ask you right back, what are they?
BENIAMINO: Well, perhaps filters are something that creates an obstacle in this process of translating the interior to the exterior. Yet they can sometimes be of use? I don’t know.
BENEDETTA: I don’t agree.
BENIAMINO: For example, is make-up a filter? Are clothes a filter?
BENEDETTA: No, they are a disguise. That’s different.
BENIAMINO: So what’s a filter?
BENEDETTA: A filter traps the tar from my cigarette, for example.
BENIAMINO: Oh yes, that’s right, disgusting.
BENEDETTA: A filter traps waste. Like when you make stock and then sieve it, the filter…
BENEDETTA: No, the filter traps waste and impurities. In human beings, filters trap the dark parts and we use them to disguise ourselves. We get dressed on Sundays to show the good in ourselves.
BENIAMINO: So it masks reality?
BENEDETTA: A filter traps all the ugly parts of you and lets out the friendly, happy parts. But filters have also to do with character. When you think an image is beautiful and you want to photograph it, you add and remove filters. You do so because the object is moving too much or the light isn’t right. Your gaze is a filter.
BENIAMINO: I don’t understand.
BENEDETTA: You use a filter.
BENIAMINO: Where? In photography?
BENEDETTA: In the way you approach photography. You want to make a good impression on the object you are photographing. So your filter is not showing that you haven’t the faintest idea how to photograph that object. It’s staged. You pretend to know when you actually don’t and the filter hides your frame of mind.
BENIAMINO: OK, so what?
BENEDETTA: So you filter your anxiety and show a smile. And the filter is automatic because if I photograph this lamp, I ignore everything else. And so the filter simply removes everything around an object, leaving…
BENIAMINO: …the object you have chosen. That’s very normal, we do that with our gaze. For example, there are millions of things in this office but I can’t see them all so I concentrate on just a few. In this case, our attention is a filter and so is love…
BENEDETTA: Hold on, one thing at a time. Attention is not a filter when I can move my gaze. I can’t move it in your photo.
BENIAMINO: A photograph is crystallised attention. But beautiful images go beyond that. Do you remember when I took that picture in the square in Istanbul as a kid?
BENEDETTA: Yes, there it is.
BENIAMINO: Oh wow, you hung it! I remember that you really liked it. I think that complex images are images that contain countless other images and levels in a single instant. So there you can see somebody reaching out a hand to a child, somebody else getting on the boat…
Benedetta: The extraordinary thing in that photo is that everyone’s shadow is in exactly the same place.
BENIAMINO: Yes, of course. How old was I when we went to Turkey?
BENIAMINO: Anyway, I think that the beauty of well-made images is that they are open. You can decide where to focus. Filters are toxic, I think, when they don’t leave any room for your own interpretation. Whether that’s in film, photography or people. For example, people who filter themselves excessively are disturbing. Those people are completely staged without a single chink in their persona and present a totally flat image of themselves. The same way that commercial images are so flat. But what I wanted to say earlier is that if our attention acts as a filter, so does love. Because in this messy world, love guides us toward things and forces us to choose what we want to concentrate on. That’s what filters are in general, I think. But today we live in a socio-economic system where anything “unfiltered” has little to no value, given that we are constantly asked to fit into categories, or personalities or professions. The school system often reduces us to beings with no inner self, meaning we are also deprived of the means to manage our inner selves. If only we at least learned to be citizens, but we don’t even learn to be human. We learn nothing about the fundamentals of emotional intelligence and self-questioning. And then there are social media, which you have little to do with, but unfortunately I am surrounded by.
BENEDETTA: I heard you deleted Instagram.
BENIAMINO: I have. Who told you that?
BENEDETTA: You told me.
BENIAMINO: When it was time to make New Year’s resolutions, I asked myself what I wanted to be free from this year. And I decided I wanted to be free from that tendency to live in constant dialectics and comparison with the external world and to place so much importance on other people and compete with them.
BENEDETTA: With other people as an abstract element?
BENIAMINO: Both concrete and abstract, so both in terms of comparison and what I do and who I am. Not the way I am in relation to myself but the way I am in relation to others because this generates insecurity, jealousy and envy and that ends up undermining your individual authenticity and creativity. The creative world is saturated with comparison too.
BENEDETTA: And is it a comparison with or without filters?
BENIAMINO: Filters reign on social media because all you do is nourish an artificial version of yourself, an avatar. And it’s on social media that our “character” best expresses itself. Even when you try to be direct, you never really can be within that kind of system. And it’s damaging from the perspective of human relationships and love too. So I decided I wanted to be free from this torment and I immediately made the connection with social media. I reasoned that to change, you need to change, which is much like saying we won’t stop global warming by taking small steps from now until 2050, we’ve just got to take the plunge. So if we shouldn’t use plastic then we stop using plastic, if we need to develop petrol-free transport systems then we develop them, and so on. So I deactivated my account and I have to say I don’t miss it at all. I feel much better from a human perspective. We’ll have to see if it works out though because professional opportunities often operate through that filter. Will I be able to survive as an aspiring as yet unaffirmed director slash I don’t know what else?
BENEDETTA: You’ll survive.
BENIAMINO: Oh yes, how?
BENEDETTA: Moving forward, concentrating on eliminating barriers. Because at the end of the day, filters are barriers, not impenetrable but barriers nonetheless. And by forcing yourself to a level of concentration that people who live on A-P-P-S—what are they called again?—don’t have.
BENIAMINO: What are A-P-P-S? Apps?
BENEDETTA: I don’t know what an app is, I don’t remember. What is it?
BENIAMINO: App stands for application. Safari, for example, which you use to browse the internet.
BENEDETTA: No, I use Google.
BENIAMINO: OK, but to go onto Google, you press…
BENIAMINO: Yes, but you open an application, safari or Google Chrome.
BENEDETTA: Google Chrome.
BENIAMINO: Or Word for writing.
BENEDETTA: And so what?
BENIAMINO: It’s an application and there are a lot of apps on smartphones.
BENEDETTA: I mean the ones where you speak and reply and you can see if the other person has read your messages.
BENIAMINO: There are lots of communications apps: WhatsApp, Skype, Messenger, Instagram…
BENEDETTA: Yeah, all these things… Do you have Tik-Tok?
BENIAMINO: No, do you?
BENEDETTA: [laughs] No. I don’t even have a phone. Anyway, we were saying…
BENIAMINO: I’ll survive.
BENEDETTA: Yes, you’ll survive because the people who want you will know where to find you.
BENIAMINO: Yes, but the problem is if nobody wants me yet.
BENEDETTA: But even if you have Instagram, nobody will look for you if they don’t want you.
BENIAMINO: That’s true. But in theory, if you are talented and good at what you do—which I’m not certain applies to me— you normally post on Instagram and everyone sees it. And then Vogue calls, and Netflix calls saying they want you to make a film. Those miracles happen.
BENEDETTA: Fine, but you shouldn’t do those things.
BENIAMINO: That’s true.
BENEDETTA: If a serious person visits your site, they will see your work.
BENIAMINO: I don’t have a website.
BENEDETTA: What do you have? Something must come up if I write www dot Beniamino Barrese.
BENIAMINO: No, nothing comes up… Oh wait, I have a Vimeo page where I post my videos. There’s that, you’re right.
BENEDETTA: And photos too?
BENIAMINO: No, no photos.
BENEDETTA: That’s a good thing because photos should be seen up close. Anyway, back to filters. Filters are everywhere, we were saying.
BENIAMINO: Let’s say that filters have somewhat dominated the way we interact with reality, at the point when less value is placed on authenticity and inner, personal and critical work. Today’s sole value is conformism with certain standards that are nothing but filters themselves, which we apply to ourselves through systems such as social media, for example. But then think of writing a CV and looking for a job, which are clearly things we all have to do, yet which also ask that you adapt to certain standards. So how do we get out of this thing?
BENEDETTA: We don’t get out.
BENIAMINO: I would like to say that I don’t believe that all filters should be condemned. For example, I think that art is a filter. The only people who live without filters are monks and ascetics. But anybody who wants to be part of society must filter themselves; our relationships with others require filters. But filters can either be flat—I’m thinking of people who conform to become grey pen-pushers—or creative and critical. I’m not necessarily talking about intellectuals. These people might do all sorts of jobs, but they ask questions. And art, as I said, is a filter for reality. Let’s take our film. It was an attempt to interpret a life with a filter in order to create added value. I think that this is a positive filter. And also inevitable. We need to understand how we relate to this filter. How have you gone about this in life? What relationship have you had with filters and disguises?
BENEDETTA: I did the opposite to you. I didn’t know who I was and I didn’t have the chance to work out my profession. My filter was arrogance: “Come to New York and be a model”, “OK.”. It was about challenges.
BENIAMINO: So, you were arrogant?
BENEDETTA: No, it was an interior arrogance. Like when I was asked: “Replace this professor and teach at university”, and I replied: “Of course.” These are filters. Benedetta: When you accept challenges even when you know you haven’t got the content and you win.
BENIAMINO: Why are they filters?
BENEDETTA: Because had I replied: “No, I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about the history of fashion…”
BENIAMINO: You mean camouflage?
BENEDETTA: Yes. Camouflage.
BENIAMINO: Fake it till you make it, let’s say.
BENEDETTA: Sorry, can you speak Italian?
BENIAMINO: Fake it till you make it.
BENEDETTA: Oh, I see. Yes. And those are self-filters too. In some cases, the filter coincides with the image you wish to present of yourself. Take make-up. What are camera filters?
BENIAMINO: In photography filters are additional lenses that you add to create effects, such as dimming the light or adding a colour.
BENEDETTA: It’s a basic form of Photoshop.
BENIAMINO: Yes, exactly.
BENIAMINO: For examples, often older ladies would have their photograph taken through a pair of tights to make the image softer and more even.
BENEDETTA: So filters implement transformation. Filters allow transformation.
BENIAMINO: Exactly. I think the real problem is when the filter goes unmentioned. When Photoshop is used to falsify reality, for example. But when the filter is used as a creative operation, adding a layer of interpretation, it is far less problematic. The risk is the link between the filter, as an interpretation of reality, and ideology. There have been some ideologies that were visible for what they were, such as communism and liberalism, and you could take one side or the other. But you knew it was a filter, you knew it was a way of explaining reality. The problem is when you are born into the Soviet Union and you believe that is the reality, with no idea that any other reality exists. The same thing happens in capitalist Europe. We are no longer aware of the goggles we wear, which show reality in a certain way. We think that what we’ve got is the best possible world. After the fall of the Berlin wall, it was said that ideology was over but this is the most insidious, dangerous and ideological form of ideology there is. Because it’s an ideology that pretends not to exist and pretends to be natural. And that is the most dangerous filter: the one that tells you there is no filter and this is reality. However, using filters consciously is a way of approaching reality and seeking to understand it. But anybody who tries to pass it off as the sole possible interpretation, or the right one by nature, is the most ideological of ideologists.
BENEDETTA: So, there’s no escape.
BENIAMINO: You escape by having self-awareness.
BENEDETTA: Self-awareness. But then if I notice the filters that I apply between myself and other people… does that become a compromise?
BENIAMINO: How so?
BENEDETTA: If I show you the best of myself, I’m using a filter. And I’m using it so as not to show my depression, my anguish, my rage. I am lying or telling a half-truth. And the compromise lies in the fact that I want something from you. We use compromise to obtain things and filters to hide. The authenticity is very ambiguous here. Because it’s mute. Authenticity is not easily visible. It is the courage of doubt, of perennial doubt.
BENIAMINO: So authenticity is invisible?
Benedetta: Authenticity is undefinable, it’s not something we can discuss. You can’t say, “I’m authentic.” If you really are then there’s no need to say it.
BENIAMINO: People frequently said that our documentary was a very intimate portrait of a woman. Do you think that I showed something authentic about you or was that also filtered to be artificial and distorted?
BENEDETTA: No, what you see is true. But it’s filtered because it only documents certain aspects of the person, not the whole person. What you see, what is said and done, is candidly authentic. But it’s only part of the story, which means it’s not a portrait of a person. It is a portrait of that person’s attitude toward certain topics. But that is authentic.
BENIAMINO: That’s true. And when you think about it, what does our memory do when we have experienced infinite things but it only picks two? It does the same thing the film does.
BENEDETTA: It filters.
BENIAMINO: That’s right. I know that you don’t appreciate memory in itself but when you say that photography is artificial because it cements something within certain limits… we do the same thing. For example, there are thousands of people on the beach in summer but I only remember my friend who’s sitting on the towel next to me, the person reading a book that looked interesting two metres away and the excellent time I had swimming. I remember those three things and those are probably the things that I’ll then make a film about. In this sense, our memories do the same thing as photography.
BENEDETTA: It’s a filter. It filters our memories.
BENIAMINO: Exactly. That’s why I said that our attention and love are filters too. When I fall in love with someone, I choose them from 2,000 people.
BENEDETTA: Oh, really? They’re just lining up!
BENIAMINO: Come on, I didn’t mean that there are 2,000 candidates. But of all the people I see on the metro, nobody will make an impression and then suddenly someone does and chance has it that you meet again. Having said that, I wanted to ask you one final thing. You’ve often told me that when faced with life’s drama and sadness, you use a filter between you and the pain.
BENEDETTA: Yes, because if you look at something too closely, you don’t see it. You have to get distance to see it. So even pain should be placed within a wider reality, which is also partly the cause of the pain. So using a filter is a way to distance yourself while observing the pain itself. Not drowning in the river of pain but reasoning in the knowledge that the pain isn’t random. That is why it is so fundamental to separate yourself from the pain.
BENIAMINO: It helps you to overcome it.
BENEDETTA: You can only overcome something once you have understood it, otherwise it repeats itself.
BENIAMINO: And don’t you think that same rule of separation ought to apply to positive things too? Such as passion or an intense relationship or great talent (for example, if I love singing and that’s all I do). Shouldn’t we apply this kind of distance in general? This brings us back to the monks and ascetics. After all, meditation teaches you to look at both good and bad things with a certain distance, aware that they will inevitably pass. So it is useless to suffer so much for something that will pass just as it is useless to become desperately attached to something that has an expiry date, love, to my point.
BENEDETTA: Oh come on, you can’t judge the future on those terms. Something that will come to an end might also be something that lasts forever.
BENIAMINO: Do you think there’s anything that lasts forever?
BENIAMINO: Really? Are you certain?
BENEDETTA: Yes, I can’t tell you what but there is.
BENIAMINO: Is it possible for friendship or love to last forever?
BENEDETTA: Yes. I’m thinking of the wonderful relationship between Bergé and Saint Laurent. A profound partnership that lasted their whole lives.
BENIAMINO: Did you meet them?
BENEDETTA: No. What about De Beauvoir and Sartre? Those are two relationships where both parties did the same work.
BENIAMINO: What about Susan Sontag and Annie Leibovitz?
BENEDETTA: No, they broke up.
BENIAMINO: They hurt each other too.
BENEDETTA: Annie left when Susan Sontag wanted to adopt a child.
BENEDETTA: But what I was saying is that it’s very difficult to generalise as we have been doing so far, but distance from a problem definitely helps you to contextualise it and understand the dynamics behind it. Love and friendship depend exclusively on the person who feels that desire, attachment and interest toward the other to ensure that that feeling never dies. And if it doesn’t die, it’s because they want that relationship. Come on, let’s wrap it up. When is filtering a negative act?
BENIAMINO: I think it’s negative when it’s not explicit, when it pretends to be the real thing.
BENEDETTA: When there’s no awareness.
BENIAMINO: Exactly. When it’s not creative but manipulative. Then it imprisons us rather than freeing us.
BENEDETTA: Why do human beings struggle so much to be close to each other? Why are relationships between people so difficult? Never mind, that has nothing to do with filters.
BENIAMINO: No, it has a lot to do with them! I think it’s precisely to do with the great difficulty we have in relating to each other, and to ourselves first and foremost, without violence. And this violence that we use against ourselves…
BENEDETTA: And fear.
BENIAMINO: Yes, violence and fear. Violence in the sense that we violate our inner selves by forcing them to conform to an image. We demand this image of ourselves and it prevents us from seeing who we really are. And then we demand that others do the same. For example, if I enter into a relationship and ask my partner to adapt to the image that I have of them or the image I have of the perfect relationship, that is violence. We all apply these standards violently and I think this is connected to filtering but also to the distorted relationships between human beings. We were talking about those relationships before. Sometimes when relationships are struggling, it’s due to an inability to communicate with ourselves and the other person about our needs. I’ve read a little about this, about non-violent communication. Do you remember the book Freedom from the Known by Krishnamurti? It’s about precisely this. In short, I think that filters are harmful in these cases. They are positive when they are used consciously, for example somebody who loves clothes and uses them as a means of self-expression. When, on the other hand, the clothes are used to…
BENEDETTA: To win over your boss.
BENIAMINO: Exactly. For status. That is a passive violence that you exert on yourself. Anyway, let’s move on. Your thoughts on image have always been…
BENEDETTA: I’m not a fan of image. But let me make a distinction. I can accept the image of an artist. But when we are drowned in the great soup of advertising, commerce, sales, seduction… all that horrifies me. While an artist like Vimercati, who spent his whole life photographing a soup tureen (in a different light every time), deserves a different kind of attention because his case shows passion and motivation, elevating the image to the level of a statue or painting.
BENIAMINO: There’s one last thing we haven’t talked about: Covid.
BENEDETTA: Do we have to talk about Covid? Covid’s great, I love Covid.
BENIAMINO: Not so much about Covid but the world’s reaction to Covid. It is a very difficult political discussion, but I believe that there is a lot of ideology in the narrative around Covid, as there is in everything, and that it is an ideology disguised as the truth. Perhaps that is why these past two years have made me feel uncomfortable, to tell the truth, especially in terms of theoretical reflection. I’ve struggled a little and I am scared that Covid will be used as an occasion to expand our filters. Take the Green Pass as a ‘You yes, you no’ device. Expanding filters, increasing barriers and fundamentally restricting space, not so for individual freedom but a critical space where you relate to yourself. I feel uncomfortable because reality is increasingly depicted from one point of view and we are expected to conform. There are some very precise tools of social control and I think this is worrying. And given that we’re talking about filters, there we have it: ‘You yes, you no’. That’s a filter. You’ve done this thing, you haven’t. Filter. I think this is worrying and it’s an example of a type of filtering that makes me feel uncomfortable. For me, the value of our individual inner selves is far greater than an abstract response. I say abstract but I don’t mean that the measures have all been irrational. They were definitely needed.
BENEDETTA: Yes, but now they’re in trouble because there’s a fourth dose round the corner and they don’t know if this virus is going to turn into something else. Nobody knows anything. So they keep using filter after filter but without knowing what they’re doing. If I get dressed up to seduce somebody, I know what I’m doing but they don’t. They haven’t a clue.
BENIAMINO: In any case, it looks as though it’s calming down now, as it has every year with the warmer weather. Restrictions are being relaxed and so on. It’s just that once you have created a form of control of this nature, regardless of the criteria, you have a tool that you can use however you want from then on and people are willing to accept it. I think that this is dangerous and unpleasant, but above all, I find it extremely alarming that the pandemic has made it impossible to hold an open theoretical discussion without immediately being labelled anti-vax, anti-science, selfish, etc. I think there are thousands of reasons that a person might feel comfortable doing or not doing something. Those reasons are not all the same and this kind of polarisation is risky because it eliminates dialogue, which is unfortunately the one thing that makes us human.
Benedetta: This closing statement is very…
BENEDETTA: No, very normal. Because humans have never matured. The human brain has always stayed the same. Meaning the tendency to follow the crowd, to follow authority… For example, there’s a war happening where the Russians and Americans are just tickling each other. It’s as old as time and so it’s easy to see that human mechanisms will never change if by now eating two meals a day hasn’t made anyone more intelligent.
BENIAMINO: No. Technology changes instead, which often increases the ability to do the same things that humans did before which are 20-30% positive and 60-70% destructive. Technology increases exponentially…
BENEDETTA: Technology improves purely to make instruments of war. So the world hasn’t changed. What a shame.
BENIAMINO: Do you remember when we went to see Daria Bignardi and you told her you were very pessimistic about the future of humanity? She replied: “Don’t be defeatist, I am optimistic about what is to come.” Two months later came the pandemic, lockdown and a series of ecological tragedies. But optimism and pessimism don’t mean anything.
BENEDETTA: Observation is the only thing that makes sense.
BENIAMINO: And being kind people. To ourselves and to others. That’s the only thing we can do.
BENEDETTA: But none of us looks after ourselves.
BENIAMINO: Well, exactly, it’s difficult. But that’s the cure. Life moves on such a large scale that we are destined to be wiped out. It’s normal.
BENEDETTA: You’re particularly pessimistic at the moment. What do you mean wiped out?
BENIAMINO: We’re just tiny beings who only do harm. I don’t know.
BENEDETTA: I had fun playing this game recently. We’ve digressed from filters but anyway. I imagined the word “universe” didn’t exist.
BENIAMINO: Well that’s a filter too. Every word is a filter.
BENEDETTA: It’s a useless word. It lends itself to the games of philosophers and astronomers. But…
BENIAMINO: You want to get rid of it?
BENIAMINO: Let’s get rid of it. Words are filters because every time you learn a word, you see reality through a different filter. When you’re a kid, you have this magma in your head and then you filter it and it takes shape. It would be brilliant if we could free ourselves of certain words.
BENEDETTA: Very well then, see you next episode.
BENIAMINO: Until the next episode and the next film. We’ll do part two. I love you.
BENEDETTA: Are you hungry?
Benedetta Barzini worked as a model in the 1960s, in New York and mostly for Vogue. She therefore has no degrees. Once the phone stopped ringing, she went back to Italy and did all sorts of odd jobs until 1996 when she was asked to teach “The Meaning of Clothes in Time”—an anthropological examination of clothes that is deeply connected to the position of women in society and involves other disciplines including Sociology, History, Religion, and Politics—first at the University of Urbino and later at the Milan Politecnico. Having reached her late seventies, she is trying to find her way out of confusion, partly by organising all the different books and objects she has collected throughout life. She is the mother of Beniamino Barrese.
Beniamino Barrese (1986) graduated in Philosophy from the University of Milan, Cinematography from the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, UK, and International Political Economy from King’s College, London. All his diverse interests—from philosophy to politics, radical ecology, music, theatre, circus and performing arts—have always influenced his visual research and his approach to filmmaking. Based in London for 7 years, he has worked as a DoP since 2011, moving between fiction shorts and features, music videos, documentaries and advertisement, while also making personal projects with 35mm photography, dealing with both political issues (the economic crisis in Athens in 2012-2013) and intimate stories (couples and lovers in London). His first feature length film as a director, the documentary The Disappearance of My Mother, debuted at Sundance Film Festival in January 2019, was selected by over 130 festivals, received a small release in Italy, Germany, USA and London, was honoured with “Best Debut Feature” at the Cinema Eye Awards for Nonfiction Filmmaking and was nominated for a European Film Award. Currently back in his hometown Milano, he is doing commissioned work as director and DoP while developing a script for a new film.