‘Pandemic voices’ by Alma Mileto

By Kirsten Forkert on October 25th, 2022

The word filmed as a political site of resistance

The advent of the Covid-19 acted as a propelling event for a phenomenon that in previous years was imposing itself on the contemporary media landscape: the attribution of a renewed value to orality. Let’s just think of the recent trend of podcasts, audio books or even, more simply, of communication via WhatsApp through voice messages. In the absence of living bodies, in the last two years the voice has often helped us to feel close to that “other” (our relatives, our friends, whoever was outside our homes) from which we were so frightfully distanced. Even cinema has chosen the “filmed word” as a re-elaborating ground of a reality that seemed to escape our awareness. In particular a certain “cinema of the real”, increasingly hybridized with other forms of art and a constant relationship with fiction, made the word filmed the center of its narrations. Italian works such as Le storie che saremo (2020), archival anthology produced by Ginko Film, Rebibbia Quarantine (2020) by Zerocalcare, Quattro strade (2021) by Alice Rohrwacher, have translated the nostalgia of the body – the physical one of loved people or that, on a more symbolic level, of a transfigured environment difficult to substantiate through pure gaze – in the rediscovery of a haptic dimension of the voice, a word that «wants to touch», that «caresses the shadows» (Jean-Louis Comolli). The voice-off, in all three of these cases, takes on the role of a political place of resistance with respect to the «flattening», to use Alain Badiou’s words, of a «visual» domain that in the contemporary pandemic has often taken away the possibility to create our own images.

Let’s start with Le storie che saremo. The collective work was born during the first quarantine period (March-May 2020). The producers precept seven directors accustomed to working with foundfootage and deliberately associate them with an archive, for a total of six (8emezzo, Cinescatti of Lab 80, Home Movies, Paesaggi di famiglia, Ri-prese, Superottimisti), asking them to read, through the past of the archive images, the pandemic present due to Covid-19. The pandemic images, if we remember, portrayed the event as, paradoxically, a deprivation of images – there was no one and nothing to portray, towns were totally empty – or as an entirely intimate image born from the hiding from the event himself – people were locked in the house and could only portray their expectation. The question at the basis of the collective archive work is therefore the following: can repertoires in which other stories are told help us to build a visual memory that we do not seem to possess at that moment?

In each of the shorts, the word filmed – in the form of a voiceover or writing imprinted on the images – seems to be a deviation from the present time in favor of a creative counterpoint with archives capable of activating a “memory” of the pandemic condition. The voice-image counterpoint can help, in other words, to re-appropriate the human act of remembering, delimiting an event and appropriating it in the fictional representation that one chooses to attribute to it. Starting from the first (by Irene Dioniso) all based on the superimposition of some interrogative captions to old repertoires, passing through that of Daniele Atzeni, in which we are presented with the empty and industrial spaces of Sulcis populated by a single mechanical voice that cannot found any human presence, arriving at the last, by Marco Bertozzi, in which the director’s voice-off decides not so much to build through the archive a possible memory of the pandemic event as to recover, with the Rimini archives of the economic boom, his own emotional and cultural memory (he’s from Rimini). In that way, the voice-image counterpoint becomes a real “exercise” of remembering his own individual history, and so to straggle the difficulty to “make memory” during the pandemic.

In the intermedial crossing between different expressive forms, there is a second way (beyond the archive) that allows the appropriation of the subject over the real: that of the animated form. The question is: what of the real is animable? Not its concrete and objective plan, which constitutes an irreplaceable, or at most only duplicable, representation of reality. What can be animated is instead the vocal narration of reality, in the form of testimony of the subjects represented or self-narration by the subject-author who films. The animated form seems in many cases to become a form of contemporary “orality”, which returns images to words born by chance and full of involuntary suggestions, free associations of ideas that reach the listener’s ears in the form of a visual continuum. The “Zerocalcare phenomenon” arises precisely from the relationship between monological discourse and animated drawing. Rebibbia Quarantine is one of the most successful experiments of creativity at the time of virus. The artist inherited the monologizing tale typical of the comic book tradition, speaking off-screen (almost without stopping to breathe) about the drawn world that gradually emerged from his daily life. In the suspension that characterized the months of quarantine, outside our homes we could only film the emptiness. Also in this case, it could only exist the story that everyone, in his own small way, was able to make of his own self. But, if we think about it, Zerocalcare’s drawings rarely portray reality. The animation rather takes care of the deviations, the pindaric flights, the monstrous and fantastic creatures that a verbal thought free from constraints and translated into voice accumulates on its creative path. This is amplified by the fact that the cartoonist gives voice to all the characters that appear in the story, invading the world he himself created and explicitly bending it to be reduced to an emanation of his words.

The last case study, Quattro strade by Alice Rohrwacher, is also based on this “playful” approach to pandemic reality through the voice. The director decides to recount the first period of quarantine for Covid by filming with an old camera her living microcosm, a crossroads of four country roads through which the author turns in a circle, from east to west, filming her neighbors at a distance. But what really brings the people she meets on his path closer to her, more than the “magic eye” of her camera, are the small fairy-tale paintings that, while framing the figures one by one, she verbally creates from the off screen. The filmmaker’s voice off seems to zoom on the bodies of the people she loves through the construction of very short fairy tales with which she dresses them and keeps them in memory. The “anarchy” of the country paths is then above all the anarchy of a free word able to reconfigure relationships that in reality (at the moment) are removed. Also in this case it is vocal intercession with reality that establishes a state of exception that allows cinema to resist the distance imposed by the pandemic and, at the same time, give life to its own images.

Alma Mileto is a PhD researcher in cinema history and theory at Sapienza University of Rome where she investigates the relationship between the visual plane and the off-screen voice in documentary cinema.


The thesis proposes an investigation into the relationship between the visual plane and the off-screen voice in documentary cinema. Faced with a theoretical reconstruction of the role of the voice off in cinema and a genealogy of the transformations of the spoken commentary in relation to the documentary image over the course of history, an in-depth study will be dedicated to contemporary Italian documentary as an exemplary case of a voice-off capable of inserting itself in the intermedial interweaving of the story and at the same time to maintain its specific trait of oral declamation.