Women Plot interviews professional journalist, videomaker, and writer Anna Maria Selini

by Erica Surace

Anna Maria Selini is a professional journalist, freelancer, videomaker, and writer. She is specialized in crisis areas and has produced reportages from Cuba, Kosovo, the West Bank, Israel, and the Gaza Strip. She has been embedded with the Italian Armed Forces in Lebanon. She was born in Bergamo and lives in Rome. Soon will be released in cinemas the documentary she directed, "Ritorno in apnea". The documentary, produced by Alberto Valtellina, is Anna Maria's personal investigation of the trauma experienced by her city, Bergamo, and, above all, by its people in Val Seriana between March and April 2020. In October 2019 she released with the publisher Castelvecchi the book "Vittorio Arrigoni, Ritratto di un utopista", based on the interview and meeting with Vik Utopia in 2009. The pages of this book, through analysis and memories, give a portrait of the passionate journalist, activist, and pacifist Vittorio Arrigoni, kidnapped and barbarously murdered in April 2011.  

  • How did you know you wanted to be a journalist? Were there any female writers or journalists that particularly inspired you?

  • I don't remember a specific moment when I thought "I want to be a journalist", it was a thought that grew with me. Writing and reporting have always been a necessity, it's my way of being in the world. There are some images and women that have undoubtedly influenced and perhaps shaped my imagination: Oriana Fallaci interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini and removing her veil in protest, Lilli Gruber anchoring the news but also standing under the bombs, like Giovanna Botteri, Monica Maggioni and many other Italian journalists who have questioned male hegemony in crisis areas. And then Ilaria Alpi, her bloodied body, but also her, young and brave, doing a stand up in front of the camera. I admired those women on the front lines and dreamed of being one of them, even though that kind of journalism is unfortunately over.

  • You've traveled the world conducting investigations in several crisis areas, including Cuba, Kosovo and Lebanon. Based on your experience, what have you been able to observe about the women in these areas? Is there anything they have in common?

  • These were three very different experiences. In Cuba, I did a report on the old Cuban revolutionaries and I was in contact mostly with older women. Women who made the revolution and who were a bit like our relay girls. They had known and worked with Che and Fidel Castro, and listening to them was like leafing through a history book. In Kosovo, together with my colleague Giulia Bondi, I made a report on the state that had just been born at the time, and we got to know a group of Albanian and Serbian women who, thanks to an NGO project, were working together in a small village. Their families, like all the ones in the area, had come from years of hatred and strong ethnic contrasts. They, on the other hand, met every afternoon to work together: as it is often the case, they had understood and put into practice true reconciliation before men. 

    In Lebanon I was embedded with the Italian armed forces, on the border with Israel, and the primary contact was with our female soldiers. Although for me Lebanon has the face of a veiled child, proud, in the midst of the soldiers of the UNIFIL mission (so much that she became the cover of my old blog [link: http://certestorie.blogspot.com/]).

    To me, women in crisis areas are like her, proud even in their despair, because all too often they can't even afford to put themselves down: they have to look after their children, their families, their men are far away or dead. They are well familiar with the burden of war, because they are its primary victims, like the children, and for this reason they also know the concrete importance of peace. I am among those who believe that with more women in power there would be fewer wars.

  • What challenges did you encounter in reporting from the Balkans, especially in post-war troubled Kosovo?

  • Tensions were still fresh, people had been fighting and hating each other for years and the feeling was that it would take very little to reignite conflict and violence. The divisions were simmering under the ashes, but we focused more on the desire and efforts of reconciliation carried out by the women themselves. It was not easy for them to join the project, for some it had led to problems and strong misunderstandings in the family, but they were headstrong women. I remember their wrinkles and their smiles, the scent of Turkish coffee, the sweets and cucumbers – they came from farming families, they practiced subsistence agriculture – that they offered us all the time. It was a very poor area, with a high unemployment rate, and every afternoon they would come together to knit. They had managed to overcome the barriers and create a climate that would invade the country.

  • Regarding your experience in the Gaza Strip, how would you describe the situation of the population in an area so devastated by conflicts? In particular, what is the situation of women?

  • Gaza is beyond anything. There is no such place in the world and when you go in or out you feel the privilege and the burden of being able to do that, because it is really the biggest prison in the world, from which Gazawis can hardly get out. I have been there four times and the last time was in 2012, but I have never stopped following what is happening in the Strip. Even then, the population was already put to the test by the Israeli embargo, which has been going on for fifteen years, that is, since Hamas came to power, a terrorist movement for Israel and several States. In these last years the situation has further degenerated. There have been two heavy conflicts, in 2012 and 2014, and just the latter resulted in the death of more than 2000 Palestinians (69% civilians) and 73 Israelis (six civilians). In 2017, the UN announced that the Strip would become unlivable in 2020, an easy prophecy. Half the population depends on humanitarian aid, unemployment exceeds 50%, 97% of the population has no access to clean water and has a few hours of electricity per day. But the problem is also the internal authoritarianism of Hamas, the continuous monitoring and restrictions on freedom. The life of women in recent years has become much worse: they used to be much more free, the obscurantism puts a strain on their rights, as well as on freedom of thought and expression in general.

  • In October 2019 you published "Vittorio Arrigoni. Ritratto di un utopista", a book that recounts Vik Utopia's experiences in Palestine and reports the testimonies of the people closest to him, until his kidnapping and assassination in April 2011. What is the deep meaning of "Let's Stay Human", the adage Vittorio Arrigoni used to sign his pieces and the title of his book? 

  • Arrigoni used to say that it is not necessary to sit and light a pipe in front of an Israeli tank, as he did. Staying human means not looking the other way every time we witness injustice and the non-respect of human rights. It can happen even on a bus, in the workplace. "Palestine is outside the doorstep," Vittorio repeated, along with perhaps the most beautiful statement I am proud to have been entrusted with: "I do not believe in borders, barriers, flags. I believe that we all belong to the same family, which is the human family."

  • In June 2019, you interviewed Paola Manduca, Professor of Genetics and President of New Weapons Research Group, an association of volunteer scientists and physicians researching genetic and environmental determinants of health. Paola has been traveling to Gaza for years to research the effects of heavy metal contamination, introduced into the environment with weapons, on reproductive health. What is the current situation regarding fertility of Gazawi women? 

  • This kind of research is very difficult to conduct, because it has to be done in the field and it takes years, precisely because it investigates the long-term risks of changes in reproductive health. Manduca explained to me that the heavy metals contained in the weapons are able to pass through the placenta and cause premature births or defects as well as an increase in cancers, and especially reduce fertility, one of the most powerful "weapons" of the Gazawi. The study, presented in London in 2019, and conducted in parallel on five hundred mothers and newborns in Gaza, had shown that after 2014 the contamination in women exposed to attacks was the highest, in all women was higher than in the past, and remained high in the entire population over time, at least until 2018. After each new attack, the contamination and its negative effects on reproductive health increased. He explained to me that all of this caused the number of "hidden" victims of military attacks to be higher than the direct deaths caused by the attacks themselves. What we are witnessing in these days, with a disproportionate and disproportionate use of weapons on Gaza, can only make the situation worse. 

  • With "Ritorno in apnea", a documentary you directed, you investigated the trauma experienced by your city, Bergamo, in the middle of the pandemic between March and May 2020. Being used to writing about crisis situations in areas far from your home, what did it mean for you to conduct a reportage in your city? 

  • It was perhaps the most difficult work, because emotionality was a key component of my entire return and documentary. So much so that at a certain point I decided to let it in and not censor myself. I'm from Bergamo and, like all people from Bergamo, I was very closely touched by the virus. So many people I know, many of my friends, have lost their parents, my brother himself was infected. It was alienating, I would have never imagined that my house could one day become a crisis area, it was as if my cardinal points had been moved and putting them back in place, while I was documenting, was particularly difficult. For the first time, I felt like I couldn't narrate, like I was useless. Thankfully, after all, that wasn't the case. 

  • During your career, have you ever experienced discrimination as a woman, especially during your experience in crisis areas?

  • Like almost everyone I think, I have had to deal with male colleagues who tried to take advantage of their role, especially when I was younger. I received annoying compliments, no physical harassment thankfully, I certainly didn't take advantage of what were perhaps "opportunities" for them. It may seem strange, but I found much more respect abroad, especially for my status as a freelancer, than I did in Italy. 

  • What advice would you give to young women who aspire to become journalists, correspondents, writers?

  • First and foremost, to study, never stop updating, documenting, investigating, seeing the world outside of your comfort zone. And not to give up, but to believe in themselves, if we don't, others certainly won't. Finally, I think a foreign experience, if not even moving abroad, where journalism is a little better, can make a huge difference.

    We interviewed Anna Maria Selini on Zoom on May 25, 2021 and will soon be posting a video based on the interview in the IGTVs on our Instagram channel. Find the full interview on the Women Plot Podcast (on both Spotify and Apple Podcasts). 

    Let's Stay Human.