The Italian National Festival of Cultures

The National Festival of Cultures: a complex Italian project mainly conceived to foster communication among people belonging to different cultures and religions.  .
The Festival is structured into about 30 events such as conferences, seminars, training courses, performances, concerts, radio forums, video productions, gastronomic events, and tournaments. This festival was born as a response to the profound cultural changes that impose on Italy more and more as the migratory phenomenon unfolds with it’s several influxes from North Africa, East Europe, and from the so called “emergent” countries. Significant demographic changes and modifications of the collective thoughts and opinions are invading the nation as it confronts the destiny of its roots and its own cultural identity. The path is often difficult with some unavoidable stumbling blocks and reversals of direction.
The answer to this confrontation is not homogenous and often manifests itself in aloof behavior, instability, and protection of one’s own securities.  This may result in intolerance, indifference, rejection, insecurity, and xenophobia. It is therefore necessary to build a climate of listening which leads to respect and provides support for educators, administrators, and citizens in general. The Festival pursues this aim and, being a “forum super-partes”, is a physical and ideal place in which to start an open, honest, positive discussion without hypocrisy. In this way it is possible to include the “apocalyptics” in a constructive way by providing challenging meeting and dialogue opportunities which avoid marginality and forms of indirect exclusion. 

Why the Festival?

In spite of  the variety of efforts put forth from the bottom upwards and vice versa, there are still many dead-end situations in the form of the repeated expression of stereotypes and prejudices, the evident manifestation or hidden expression of xenophobic behaviours. There is also the presence of auto exclusion, a-social reaction, and dangerous violence that undermine dialogue as well as the already precarious social and economic equilibrium.
In such context , deeply conscious that we are facing a long and disjointed process, with unavoidable stumbling blocks and reversals of direction, The National Culture Festival fits into the cultural debate going on, placing itself as an additional but not exhaustive answer to the demand of shedding light on the subject.
The Festival is first of all born for giving virtual and concrete place, with an a-political, impartial, multidisciplinary character. We have said born but also grows with “democratic” contributions, as an instrument to be set up and be perfected in opera,capable to register social change without hypocrisy, permitting a serene discussion of the divergences, rendering more flexible and open the visions of the world and the compared generations, with deep respect for individual and collective identities and values.
Four editions the Festival prove a basic tenet: “ communication is (never) bad” and reciprocal knowledge is fundamental in order to decide consciously what answers to give to the deep questioning of the post-modern society.

Festival Aims

Which aims should the festival pursue?  In addition to the fundamental demands above some other accessory demands should be added. In an attempt to list them all together we suggest a scheme. The festival proposes:

To delve into theoretic debate on the deep cultural changes which confound the post-modern society, Italian in particular, encouraging the awakening to the questions raised by the recent migratory influxes.

To create an ideal “place”, a physical and virtual place with an a-political, impartial, multidisciplinary character.

To encourage communication and dialogue among people belonging to different cultures, beliefs, religions, confessions in order to not restrict oneself to the language of the other only, but rather to prepare activities which promote the discovery of background.

To develop reciprocal attention promoting the discovery and re-discovery of  alterity.

To agree to open, honest, constructive discussion without hypocrisy, so that the divergences may be met peacefully.

To contribute to the training of the leaders, called to highlight equality in political actions, without stereotypes, prejudices, put-downs, or lack of information. Thus, the Festival promotes the clarification of knowledge considered, often incorrectly acquired and the comparison between cultural and religious systems by promoting the editing of essays and works published on the topic.

To act as an “example” of cultural self-representation of people, groups and subgroups (ethnic, cultural, religious…) often hetero-selected groups, who promote listening to and recording of direct and “different” evidences,  not mediated by politics and the classical instruments of communication.

To promote interpersonal relationships through the direct meeting of people who have often been concealed behind cultural paradigm stereotypes. This target is connected to the serious intention of offering real occasions of sharing, in which by mutual consent, expectations, fears, and difficulties are discussed.

To support educators engaged in cultural integration with projects available to the school world. This target  lies at the base of the many formative projects of the Festival, aimed at the skill training for the use of different ways and means of communication.

To construct and provide a tool (to be set up and improved) capable of promoting dialogue.

To produce, to sustain and to publicise possible different paths of dialogue in case of conflicts.

Reference principles

The National Festival of Cultures in its target pursuit agrees to some reference principles.

The Festival wishes to cultivate a “childlike” spirit of openness in the face of complexity and of “real” transformation. It suggests for this aim an honest approach, able to superimpose micro and macro “revelation” without anxiety in the presence of chaos.  It urges a dynamism that embraces and analyses the personal and collective identities in a multiple and balanced way. The Festival does not suggest truths or solutions. It does not cultivate superficial illusions  of “panacea”, but suggests readings and active interpretations that encompass the complexity. For this aim it rejects a rigid approach and rather cultivates a spirit of continuous looking to the future through the eyes of the visionary, the adventurous, the playful, even foolish while at the same time maintaining discipline.

The Festival firmly intends not to diminish the individual foundations, to refuse a fake pluralism, a premature levelling of  differences.  Instead it underlines the communities without concealing superficially or the most thorny aspects. This principle is dictated by the experience of the inter-religious dialogue which teaches that by hiding  or debasing the differences it brings to the implosion of the dialogue itself, to a fruitless relativism that does not remove the obstacles, does not conduct to the hoped-for results, does not assure stability. The Festival concedes that the differences are not the ones capable to prevent dialogue; it is not necessary to lighten or to abdicate our own  identities to achieve peaceful targets. To the interlocutors involved this is offered, in an atmosphere of deep mutual respect. This approach regulates and unites the paths offered within the Festival which intends to be an instrument for the sincere and constructive dialogue, based on a pedagogy of difference, capable of associating mankind without cancelling his personal story, the deep foundations which demand to live and not to be forged. The aim of the Festival is not therefore to look for a common denominator but it is the research for harmony and pacific coexistence between people and various cultures. To avoid all misunderstandings, it is nevertheless necessary to understand the distinction between “foundations”, what we regard as fundamental, important, essential, and “fundamentalism”, in other words, the behaviour of intolerance which is in the name of  its own foundations to crush the others’ rights.  To adhere to some foundations does not therefore mean to cancel or exclude the other or to debase convictions on the fundamental and vital questions which mankind has always and will always investigate (such as the meaning of life, the origins and the end of the world…) matters that have to be protected with extreme delicacy. The respect of foundations should not be thus confused with fundamentalist activities capable to create grounds for racism, nor should it be confused with rigidity, with the subsiding of aberrations and persecutions, with the contempt of the other’s dignity, of a difference to be eliminated in order to avoid a dangerous discussion. The Festival wants to avoid this drift and with simplicity and humbleness wishes to bring back the debate on the human and interpersonal level, leaving to the “foundations” a level of dignity and real respect.

The Festival promoters have always considered themselves essentially “a net” bringing into communication private citizens, institutions, experts in mediation, academic staff, teachers, students, the world of associationism, and religious communities. The net thickens with each edition, enriches and assumes new shadings.

Although the Festival has always relied on public and private institutions which have supported it with enthusiasm, from it’s first edition the Festival has strongly upheld the emergence of proposals from the bottom up, from the civil society, from those that daily live the “inclusion question”, often without having the ways and means to face conflicting situations.

The festival builds a receptive climate far from ineffective and immature good feelings, from a false acceptance which conceals stereotypes, prejudices, an empty, superficial “tolerance” that recalls the etymology, to that “tolero” which refers to a weight unit.

Being well aware that it is not possible to force an accepting attitude and initiate a path with those who are hostile to dialogue itself, the Festival pursues the agreement of “apocalyptics” to explicit reservations, personal and of groups, with the purpose of listening and understanding the profound closing explanations. In order to do this in a constructive rather than a distracting way, to not risk becoming chaotic, and to behave without a concrete purpose, it is therefore necessary to protect the dialogue itself from the stumbling blocks, the reversals of direction, and from the obstacles placed by anyone who erects himself in an intransigent, extremist, irrevocable way.

The festival has always cultivated a multidisciplinary approach, with the conviction that in front of the deep cultural modifications going on, the answer strategies must be variegated, creative, capable of  a multidimensional reality, reaching a variety of  complementary knowledges, disparate expressive forms, capable of rendering fruitful the debate away from the (useless) categorisations or hierarchical systems.

The Festival organisation with its numerous events pursues a principle of simplicity, persuaded that the contents must be privileged and must not be hidden or misunderstood by complex forms of communication. This logic has never been of detriment for the quality of the events nor for the involved experts’ competence, often of high prestige.

No matter how many activities of the world of University, Research, Theoretic Speculation, Training Courses, there are, The Festival devotes a privileged attention to the expressive forms that deeply affect the collective imagination such as music, dancing, photography, cinema and audio-visuals in general. An important role in this re-discovery path is also assigned to food and sports, media capable of drawing out and  awakening the interests of the most reluctant people.

The Festival wishes to encourage deep personal sharing by the involved actors, safeguarding the surfacing of emotions, considered a key point in fostering mediation and dialogue. To be avoided are expressions of romantic sentimentalism, or a pragmatic “scientific” approach. In order to perceive this end, without conciliatory attitudes and illusions, the festival promotes a research of the language “of the heart” declined in various articulations and expressions.  We could define that language using the universal etymology and “emotional” meaning of “movere”, “moving from…towards something or somebody”. To concretise this principle it is nevertheless necessary to add some “good will” by the creation of physical/ideal places including the natural passage of time in order not to force the situations.

The Festival organises in each edition activities and projects addressed to the new generations, believing it necessary in order to give voice to the future citizens who will live in a more and more multi-ethnic world and who will always have to deal more and more with the inter-religious debate. For these reasons some courses such as  teacher training, intercultural projects in schools, are organised and calibrated with the language, methods and goals designed for lower and upper level students. Experience shows how fruitful and  optimistic it can be to supervise the energies of a dialogic path towards education, to work with new generations and with people who are “open minded” and “open hearted”, willing to take up the challenge of living together.

The Festival is based on voluntarism. Economic remunerations are not considered for any expert involved, even the famous international ones. This gratuitous element guarantees the lack of conflict of interest for the participation of intellectuals, mediators, academic Professors, religious exponents who are sincerely motivated to give a personal contribution to the dialogue.

The Festival  wishes to include and to involve in an active way all the participants as they search together for participatory elements, offering an adequate place to “foreigners” so as not to leave them as extraneous in either the planning or action phases. The suggested activities are devised in collaboration with various institutions, authorities, associations, and religious communities in order to enhance the sharing, to enable transversal readings with light alternative points of view, and assure both correct access to the information means and the inclusion in the organising process.

The Festival is engaged in a “cultural front” which has become by now both collective and media property.  However, it wishes to capture also the attention of  the “unenthusiastic” ones, in other words, of those who take the time but do not participate in an active way in the debate. Those participants may prefer not to assume a personal position on these urgent themes which both concern the entire community and radically determine our future.

In spite of the intention to help the cultural debate, the Festival lies outside the political arena, not because of disregard (in its etymological meaning) nor for mental reservation, but rather to foster both an attitude and the expression of those who are sincerely involved but do not intend to refer themselves to any political group or any factions, removed from electoral dynamics and easy exploitations.

The Festival pays a lot of attention to lexical and semantic common language education often used in a simplistic and superficial way by citizens,  public and private administrators, and journalists. Words that are not always only words but on the contrary are powerful instruments, occasions for misrepresent, potential conductors of disinformation, cultural stereotypes, match for conflicts deflagration. To this purpose the Festival wishes admonish the media present to be particularly careful as to language and content, and to reject the voice of dangerous intolerance.

Strategies and Activities

The National Festival of Cultures, in order to pursue its targets of fostering communication and inclusion, has applied and perfected over the years numerous strategies for handling and preventing conflicts, and various ways and measures for achieving a significant collection of ideas and actions. As far as the contents are concerned, each Festival edition is structured into about 30 events of various natures which rotate on a base structure of consolidated appointments:

The Conference “for the art of  listening”, free entrance, of a multidiscipline character, subdivided into 3 thematic sections: one dedicated to the academic world and to theoretical speculation; one  dedicated to the intervention procedures utilised by institutions; and one to the immediate witnesses of the immigrants, conceived essentially “to treasure the experience in mind”.

Seminars: During each edition the Festival realises theme seminars, free and open to a public of experts involved in various disciplines (for instance: Food and Globalisation; Woman and Globalisation; University and Brain Drain; Evolution of Familiar Cultural Models; Religion and Violence…)

Exhibitions: Each edition of the Festival presents photographic exhibitions and theme pictorial exposures which involve research institutions, religious communities, world associations (for instance: The Life of Man in Religions, Women in Cultures and Religions, the World of Immigration through the Childrens’ Eyes, the India of Contradictions, the Images of the Alterity, The Book of Inter-religious Peace…)

Training courses and specialisation: Each Festival edition offers both training courses and specialisation for free, addressed to public employees, educators, business managers but also open to sensible citizens, interested in fostering new abilities in the mediation field.

Culture award: Within the Festival a person who has devoted himself to the dialogue between cultures and religions is identified and receives an honour. The nominee is designated by a national commission made up of experts in dialogue and mediation, academic Professors, and Religious exponents.

Video productions: In collaboration with departments and university centres, the Festival carries out both documentary videos and interviews in order to give voice to those engaged in an active way in the inter-religious and intercultural debate and also to give voice to those who are deprived of media accesses.

Prize contest: The festival promotes a “you and I in front of the mirror” prize contest organised in numerous sections with the idea of encouraging constructive reflection on the alterity. Some possibilities which reflect personal methods and original themes are: respect, people of different culture and religion who live together, tolerance, your own concept of diversity, the complex perspectives of  globalisation.

Intercultural and Inter-religious Dictionary: The Festival has supervised the “Intercultural and Inter-religious Dictionary”, an important editorial effort conceived to foster a climate of sharing and dialogue which correctly divulges terms that have become already familiar but often misused. For this ambitious project, an open field of ideas, academic Professors, Italian or foreign sector experts, researchers of various disciplinary fields have persevered to foster an exchange of ideas. The Dictionary is not only a popular and scientific text, open to enrichment with the passing of time, but it represents a real ideal place for dialogue, an opportunity to reflect and to suggest innovative and creative solutions in handling conflict.

Performances:  The Festival is convinced that the artistic and musical forms can be capable of drawing together cultures and spreading in a privileged way such values as respect and sharing.  Thus, it leaves a lot of space to these artistic expressions. Each edition organises courses of concerts (“music from all over the world”) and quality performances, choosing as a venue for the events historical palaces, antique Churches, picturesque landscapes in the historical city of Pisa which is rich on art and history.  We may also add on that culture of “Tuscany” which is open and tolerant.

Some results

In these little but intense years of activity what results has the festival of Cultures achieved? Even though the path seems long and full of obstacles, and even though the welfare effects are barely quantifiable, the festival has shown much potential and has obtained a diffuse credibility and has been recognised for its merits:
Firstly the festival has reinforced a basic principle, useful for social and administrative politics but also for theoretical and academic research, that the basic problem on which to work is that of diversity. Various participants in the Festival have shown  that it cannot be useful for the dialogue in a peaceful perspective to “entrench” themselves in the differences, nor to debase them. These differences should not allow men to grow apart but on the contrary help them to improve not only from the genetic point of view.
 The path undertaken of simplicity and sincere respect of “fundaments” has been shared and highly regarded, especially in the area of the events regarding the inter-religious dialogue. A common agreement has been demonstrated towards the principle “Diversity both on values and cultural identities but not on rights and dignities”. The respect of alterity, it has been recalled to us from all the places and in many occasions, it does not mean the cancellation of personal and collective identities of he who identifies himself with certain principles, a certain faith, or certain religious experiences.
The Festival has been acclaimed for having organised a complex net between universities, the world of research, public and private institutions, world association, and religious communities.
The Festival has achieved the target of including in an active and democratic way different segments of the Italian and foreigner population, including immigrants in its projects in search of a deep relationship with the Italians. The numerous events organised proved how inclusion can be efficient
 During the activities the organisers have had the chance to focus and to test directly the obstacles in the dialogue (for instance the persistence of prejudices, the lack of preparation of the management staff trainers, the reciprocal request).  Experience has taught us both how difficulties shouldn’t be understated while strategies must be aimed and adapted in relation to its target.
 Encouraging results have been obtained in the area of educational projects aimed to increase the predisposition of listening and to enhance the ability to relate to one another. Particularly gratifying are the results obtained in the school world involved in various inter-cultural projects.  The school has accepted with enthusiasm the offered paths, showing a praiseworthy attitude by the teachers and an innate predisposition by the new generations towards alterity.
 Reassuring answers of active participation have reached the conferences or seminars ambits where among the experts or Professors, less expected minorities as groups of women, housewives, and the unemployed have joined in and have offered for the community of academics and experts disposal, emotions, doubts and mental reservations which anchor the discussion in reality.
The performances and concerts in the Festival programs have always gained widespread success reinforcing that the expressive forms are a powerful cultural mediator, able to lighten the burden of a cultural modifier situation often perceivable as awkward and irritating.
The most appreciated recognition from the organising committee is that of having created the chance to serenely smooth the way to both the debate and the interpersonal relation, putting on the same table, in front of the same expository panel, under the same roof, people that hardly would have sought or found an opportunity of meeting. The Festival experience has demonstrated how essential it is make possible a balanced meeting, in which there is a deep relation with someone, without the fear of noticing the differences and our own limits but on the contrary learn to see the beauty that lies in every man, and learn to value the “gift” of alterity.  The festival with its own approach super-partes (impartial) has helped to overcome the frame of thoughts, expectations, and stereotypes. Although only partially it has obtained one of its targets: to unveil the beauty and uniqueness hidden in every man. It’s a real task, not impossible. The only way is to be embraced with enthusiasm and a wish to give, not only to receive.