Lou Pepe directs both documentary and fiction films, among them Lost in La Mancha, shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary and winner of the Evening Standard’s Peter Sellers Award for Best Comedy; Brothers of the Head, winner of the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature; and The Bad Kids, which premiered at Sundance 2016 and won the Special Jury Award for Verité Filmmaking. Pepe holds an MFA in Film & Media Arts from Temple University and is a fellow of the Sundance Documentary Film Program. He has collaborated with co-director Keith Fulton for over 20 years. Their most recent documentary, He Dreams of Giants, explores film director Terry Gilliam’s 27-year quest to film an adaptation of Don Quixote. They are currently in post-production on an experimental documentary about emotional responses to the ongoing pandemic. (Picture by Robert Beckwith.)
There’s a scene in Season 2 of the Italian teen drama SKAM Italia in which one of the main characters, Martino, comes out to his best friend Giovanni. In the canon of coming-of-age narratives about gay kids, it’s a pretty familiar scene. But this one moves me like no other.
On the surface, it’s deceptively simple: a conversation between two high-school friends as they play a video game, barely even looking at each other. Martino just can’t get to the point and admit that he’s gay, and we feel his struggle to vocalize something that has been tormenting him. But what completely disarms me is that once Giovanni realizes what Martino is trying to say, he doesn’t behave as if it’s a big revelation or a big deal. There is no profession of acceptance or a reassuring “I still love you anyway.” Instead, Giovanni’s calm continuation of the conversation, which at first seems like a lack of response, says everything: not only does he accept Martino for who he is, but his friendship is unconditional. And with that gesture, Martino’s shame about his secret evaporates.
I’ve watched this scene about 25 to 30 times: the first three times in the context of watching the whole season, but the rest of them during occasional stolen moments in the middle of the day when I’ll just cue it up and watch it. I get teary-eyed every time. And yet, it’s a good feeling – an intense swell of emotion, a fullness of heart – unlike most moments in a typical workday.
It’s not the only SKAM Italia scene I rewatch for the emotional hit. There are plenty of others: Eva, the main character in Season 1, apologizing for betraying her former best friend; the high-school stud Edoardo serenading Eleonora, the one girl immune to his charms; Martino’s friends coaching him on the art of playing it cool when texting one’s crush; and many more. All of them choke me up, make me sink into a reverie, or simply leave a big grin on my face.
At 53 years old, I am rarely so easily moved. Usually, at the end of a movie or TV show, or even a live performance, I find myself wishing that it had transported me more than it did. And yet, not only does SKAM Italia have some mysterious, alchemical power over me, but I surrender to it willingly. How, in middle age, did I become so enamored of a relatively unknown Italian web series made for an audience of teenage girls?
At first glance, it’s easy to attribute my response to nostalgic fantasy. My own teen years as a closeted gay kid in a Central Pennsylvania football town in the early ’80s bear little resemblance to Martino’s storyline. While his coming out is indeed awkward and painful for him, he has supportive friends, a passionate romance with a hot boyfriend, even an accepting father. In 1983, coming out as gay was inconceivable for a kid in my circumstances, and so, for me Season 2 of SKAM Italia is an idealized vision of a youth I never had. Were my attachment to the show limited to the gay kid’s story, I’d leave it there, but I’m equally drawn to SKAM Italia’s other characters and plotlines: Season 1’s Eva confronting her inability to trust her boyfriend, Eleonora in Season 3 grappling with her shame at having been sexually assaulted. I haven’t gotten this invested in a fictional narrative for nearly three decades.
The last time it happened, I was 24 years old. The year was 1990, the show was Twin Peaks, and I was part of the whole “Who killed Laura Palmer?” craze – rewatching and studying episodes, quoting lines of dialogue, endlessly trying to solve the show’s mysteries. Prior to that, it had been the late 1970s and the original Star Wars movies. In those days, it wasn’t possible to just go see the films whenever you wanted. Instead, I had the trading cards, the action figures, the comic-book adaptation – tangible objects that I could contemplate as a means of keeping that world alive in my mind. By my late 20s, and then into my 30s and 40s, such fanboy tendencies had ebbed. Certainly, I had shows that I enjoyed and followed loyally, but my appreciation for them was, and continued to be, a tamer, more mature admiration.
I suppose that the demands and distractions of adult life don’t leave as much time and emotional energy to devote to imaginary worlds and characters. As a young filmmaker, the fictional worlds that did occupy my mind were usually of my own making: screenplays I was writing, films I was trying to get off the ground. Along with that, my typical viewing experience of anything became tempered by contradictory impulses: the audience’s desire to succumb to the world of the story, and the artist’s scrutiny of its construction.
Mixed in with all of that was a growing disdain for fantasy-world immersion, which struck me more and more as the realm of idle youth. Hearing my college-age students rhapsodize about spending a day at Universal Studios’ Hogwarts attraction or confess to having viewed Avengers: Endgame 27 times in a single month, I’d sneer. I’d see their social media feeds, full of cosplay selfies at Comic Con, and roll my eyes. Adulthood not only resists but scorns the urge to be swept up and emotionally carried away. But then I caught myself shopping online for SKAM Italia cellphone cases and feeling frustrated that there were too many good ones to choose from. At parties, it didn’t take much to get me proselytizing about SKAM Italia to anyone who would listen, and nearby, my friends would snicker, “Here he goes again.” That’s when I realized that, however dormant my fanboy tendencies were, I was still susceptible to them.
At first, I tried to intellectualize my feelings by attributing them to an admiration of craft: the show’s strong writing and assured direction, superb acting from a well-cast ensemble, a subtle and restrained tone, and beautifully cinematic storytelling. I showed a few episodes to a close friend for his critical eye: “Watch this and tell me if it’s as good as I think it is.” When he agreed with my opinion, I sighed in relief: “OK, I’m not under some obsessive fanboy delusion.”
I started composing a letter to the show’s young director/showrunner Ludovico Bessegato complimenting him on his filmmaking, which I not only admire but envy. And yet, I held back from actually sending it because I sensed deep down that my feelings were more than the appreciation of craft I had so defensively rationalized. How could I express this without seeming like the sole, odd, 50-year-old man amidst a throng of teenage girls who are the show’s target audience and the bulk of its fans? What was I doing watching this show in the first place?
SKAM Italia is actually a remake of the hugely popular Norwegian web series of the same name. The original SKAM (which means “shame” in Norwegian) was so popular that it spawned remakes in seven different countries – basically the same scripts, just in different languages and with different casts. The secret to its popularity? Creator Julie Andem conducted extensive interviews with teenagers about their experiences and wrote a show that captures with incredible realism the conflicts, insecurities and crises that modern teens face. The characters’ struggles are all simple, but when you’re a teen, they’re everything: dating, self-image, coming to terms with sexuality, connection (or lack thereof) in a culture of social media and cellphones, mental health, sexual assault. There’s even a Muslim girl dealing with contemporary prejudices and the feelings of being an outsider. The show’s characters are not at all like the fabulous teenagers of Riverdale or some other glossy CW series. If anything, they bear more resemblance to the “everyday kids” who populated the ABC Afterschool Specials of my own youth.
Was the show’s allure for me perhaps a longing to recapture that youth? For most of us, those years are a time of possibility, when we are in the act of discovering who we are. However, for many of us, they are also painful years – they certainly were for me – and I have no desire to relive them. If anything, I can only enumerate the many ways I wish they had been different. What I do miss about that time of life, however, is its intensity.
By middle age, we’ve learned to put experience into the perspective of decades, to withstand life’s attempts to swing us to extremes. We aim for emotional stability, a healthy level of calm indifference. These days, if I feel anything intensely, it’s usually anger or irritation … maybe regret, or loss, or self-criticism … sometimes nostalgia. What gets triggered when I watch SKAM Italia, though, is a reminder of the way I felt things as a young person, how novel and all-consuming the experience was: the discovery of new ideas, anxiety about schoolwork, the thrill of a crush, pained feelings of rejection, the joys of hanging out with friends.
Not only are these aspects of teen life the content of SKAM Italia, but the show is also insightful enough to acknowledge the amplification with which we experience them as youths. In Season 1, 16-year-old Eva gets shamed by her peers for having kissed someone else’s boyfriend at a party, but when she talks to an older student – in a scene I cue up repeatedly – the 19-year-old girl admonishes Eva for all of the drama: “Look, I understand that this ‘cheating’ thing is the biggest tragedy of your life, but it was only a kiss. Relax. Do you know how many people you’re about to kiss in the next two years?” The show comments on the intensity of teenage “drama” while also engaging us in it. For the target audience, I imagine that this is very close to what life feels like. For a middle-aged fan, though, it is an invitation to be re-immersed in an emotional intensity that is very different from the way that decades of life dull one’s moment-to-moment experiences. Oh, for the days when a kiss meant so much!
One of the films for which I was an ardent fanboy in my late teens and early twenties was Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva, a film I’ve resisted rewatching since then, out of fear that it will not be as “sweet” as it was during those years. Despite not having seen it for more than three decades, I recently remembered that Diva is, in itself, a film about a fanboy: the 18-year-old postal courier obsessed with an opera singer who refuses to have her voice recorded. The postal courier goes anywhere to hear her sing, and even resorts to secretly recording her just so that he can immerse himself in her music. While the plot veers towards a thriller (when the courier’s pirate recording is mixed up with a piece of evidence in a criminal scandal), the core of the film remains the youthful obsession with an elusive object of desire. At one point in the movie, the fan finally befriends the opera singer and they share an umbrella on a silent walk through a drizzly Paris dawn. At the time, it was the most romantic thing I had ever seen, an iconic image that crystallized for me as a teenager what longing really felt like.
How appropriate that a movie about a fanboy would be a lush thriller, literally operatic. The essence of youthful fandom is just like romantic love: the limerent projection of the self into an idealized relationship; in the case of fandom, into the idealized, perfectly constructed world of a fiction. To some degree, it’s tortured: we know that the relationship can never exist the way we imagine it, but nonetheless there’s a pleasure in letting the fantasy take us over.
My own experience as a fan of Diva mirrors the film. At the time, I was a college student in Boston, and because this predated the days when everyone had a VCR, my only real way to see the film was to catch it at a repertory screening. I’d scour the local arts listings and travel anywhere in the city it was playing, usually on my own. When I think of myself, back in 1985, sitting alone in the dark, in sparsely populated rep-house theaters, Diva flickering up on the screen, I realize how much I used to enjoy that feeling of longing. And now, stealing a few minutes to rewatch a scene from SKAM Italia, I am convinced that at the heart of my own middle-aged fandom is a nostalgia for the times in our lives when we were able to let ourselves give in to those fantasies – those of fandom as well as romance.
In a college class I teach about professional skills and building careers in the entertainment industry, I always encourage my students to think about their “guilty pleasures”: the content they love but are perhaps a little embarrassed to admit to loving. I tell them that guilty pleasures are worth serious consideration because understanding why you are passionate about something, what it touches in you, and how it activates you, is a key to becoming a better creator of anything. Likewise, identifying why it embarrasses you – how it makes you feel vulnerable and exposed – often points to some very human or universal element.
As an exercise, I ask the students to describe to the class one of their own guilty pleasures and their reason for loving it. To ease them into the activity, I always offer to go first. In recent years, however, I’ve hesitated before deciding to talk about SKAM Italia. Will they judge me? Will they cast me as a creepy old man watching a show about teenagers? How ironic when you realize you’re embarrassed to admit how much you love a show – the title of which means “shame” – about young people coping with intense feelings of shame! And in that realization, I am a teacher learning his own lesson – that my own “guilty pleasure” is very much about an incredibly human and universal experience.
And perhaps therein lies the pleasure of being a middle-aged fan of movies or TV shows or, really, of any stories: allowing them to come alive to the point of distraction, to transport us to a different time or place in our lives, to exist in our minds with such vibrancy that we yearn for them – much like the distant emotions of being young and longing for another person. It’s the condition that we, as filmmakers, hope to create with our work and its resonance with audiences. And for that reason, it’s a pleasure about which one needn’t feel guilty at all.
The fourth and final season of SKAM Italia was released on May 15. The full series is available on Netflix in Italy and online at: https://sites.google.com/view/skamsubita/skam-italia