Welcome to the European Film Academy’s new publication, on this occasion of our 30th anniversary.
As the Academy evolves and grows, the board wanted to create this active forum where some of the key issues facing the European cinema landscape could be raised, elaborated on and discussed.
In these times when there are so many crucial issues facing the European industry, our first “issue” of EFA Close-up takes a ‘whither Europe?’ approach to discuss the unifying themes of freedom of artistic expression, the ever-changing landscape of European film, and the key contemporary issues of national politics and cinema, in the context of the great Brexit debate.
We hope that these original articles from some of Europe’s leading cultural and industry film writers, talking directly to top filmmaking experts, can help us get to grips with some of the more important issues facing the Academy and its members.
We look forward to your comments, responses, and participation in the various debates that are raised in this set of articles. We also hope you will collaborate with suggestions for future editions of EFA Close-up.
We’re standing at a crossroad today. We see our proudest dreams endangered. So, even if it has been quoted on several occasions, this beautiful story of the late Krzysztof Kieslowski, winner of the first European Film Award back in November 1988, it is worth telling it again, especially today, as we are facing the 30th edition of the European Film Awards. In November 1988, after the first ceremony in Berlin, Krzysztof was asked what his European dream would consist of? And this was his answer:
“In the night of the Awards ceremony, I was suffering from a bladder infection, which made me run to the bathroom every ten minutes. And there I regularly bumped into Marcello Mastroianni who had escaped from the ceremony to smoke a cigarette. And into Wim Wenders who seemed to feel an urge to wash his hands every ten minutes. This is the Europe, I am dreaming of”, was Kieslowski’s conclusion, “me at the pissoir, Marcello with his cigarette and Wim washing his hands”.
What I like so much about this story is the human aspect of this little European summit in a bathroom in Berlin: Two film directors, one from an Eastern communist country who later that night, when receiving his award, would say that he hoped that his country, Poland, was indeed also part of Europe. The other one, me, from a country torn into an Eastern and a Western half and from a divided city, which, at that moment, nobody would have believed to grow together so soon again. And Marcello Mastroianni watching over us like a (smoking) archangel. Those two directors from two neighbouring countries, which couldn’t be further apart, were suffering from strange urges. I can’t remember, why I felt like washing my hands every ten minutes, maybe I was simply nervous. This was my city, the iron curtain was only a few kilometres away and so many great filmmakers from East and West were suddenly coming together at this ceremony that we all felt a miracle was taking place. And Krzysztof might really have felt insecure because his country was so close and yet, he felt, so far away. The third member of our little gathering, Marcello, was hopefully less troubled by politics at the time and simply an Italian rebelling against the non-smoking policy in a German public building.
Did we talk, while we were together in that bathroom? I don’t think so. What may have united us unconsciously in that moment was certainly a feeling of solidarity and conspiracy: The same feeling that only a few months later led to the foundation of the European Film Academy. So, somehow, this little gathering in the bathroom of a theatre in Berlin was the symbolic hour of birth of the 30-year joint-adventure called “European Film Academy” that we are celebrating on 9 December.
It was in Paris that the second ceremony was presented. Only one year had passed and Europe found itself at the threshold of one of the most fundamental changes in its history. The Berlin Wall had just fallen a few days before, and there we were, filmmakers from East and West, sticking our heads together, passionately hoping that the unbelievable would become true, that borders would disappear, free travelling within Europe would finally become normal for all of us, dictatorships would crumble and democracy would move into all the countries that had supressed people, artists and filmmakers for so many decades. We all know the continuation of the story. Our optimism was justified. Things turned to the better – not to the best, obviously, because the growing together of East and West takes much longer than it should, and nobody must ever forget the horrible wars that were shaking the Balkan in the beginning of the 90s. Our friends and colleagues in dissolving Yugoslavia had to pay a very high price. I still remember them sitting together around the table at one of our general assemblies in Berlin. Our colleagues from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia were giving us reports from the situation in their territories and none of them blamed the other for what was happening – on the contrary: They were all very much concerned about each other and they were giving us one of the most beautiful lessons of our life: How empathy and non-nationalistic thinking beyond borders can be stronger than any attempt to split a society, a country or a continent.
Roughly resumed, this was Chapter One of our story. It was marked by many good experiences and the high hopes that the world had finally understood that nationalism, populism and selfishness are killer bacteria for our peaceful lives together.
Cut! Let’s move on to another chapter, the present: Today, in December 2017, we find ourselves again at a threshold, but this time we have every reason to be extremely worried that we will enter into a dark future again!
It’s a given: Europe has been far from perfect and our politicians and authorities have been concentrating far too much on administration and economy. Distanced from their European citizens, they were driven by thoughts of efficiency and regulations. Sorry for this slightly generalized verdict, I know the world is much more complex, and governing a society, a country and even more so, a whole continent, is an extremely challenging task. Criticizing is always easy. Being responsible is something else. Let me therefore state that it was a big mistake that WE, ALL TOGETHER, kept Europe based on bureaucracy for far too long. We allowed it to be a dry financial entity and that was not a solid ground. It did not give Europe a soul and this might be an important, if not the most important reason why people are now turning back to the past, believing - against all historic evidence - to find a better future there.
Let me say it as clearly as possible: Looking at Europe I still see a paradise. A safe haven where most people on our planet would want to be! But I also see a tormented place, a continent that is shaking in confusion. Unashamed and unabashed voices everywhere that shout for the good old times, for reinstalling the borders, for excluding the others to be by themselves again, as “glorious nations” with their national future in their own hands .... And all the time, these cynical pied pipers conceal or try to make us forget that the good old times they invoke or implore were full of wars, despair, unrest, instability and hostility!
Why are they so successful? Many people are afraid of the future. They’re in the middle of a crisis where they can’t touch things anymore and they want something tangible again, hold on to something that they know, are familiar with. They are mistaking Europe for the source of the problem.
All those nationalist dreams will have their bitter awakenings of being left behind, of being isolated, of having lost all protection, and finally of having no more roof to cover them from the upcoming storms of global changes.
Europe is not the problem. It is the solution! Under its roof it can protect languages, traditions, regions, minorities, cultures and local industries better than encapsulated, sealed-off small national entities that will implode, be blown away or have their people remain isolated within. Together we have developed over the past decades an excellent culture of dialogue and peace. What I fear for you citizens of Hungary or Poland or Austria or the Czech Republic: You will not survive as what you dream of being or becoming, if you don't stay under the mighty shield of Europe and if you do not agree to carry this shield together with all of us.
We ALL have to get our act together. Brussels, Berlin, Paris - do not let those nationalists ruin our common house without trying everything to tell the people of Europe what they are about to put at risk and lose! Did we really do everything to let the British people know what was at stake for them? Did we really do everything we could to let their YOUNG people know that abstaining from that vote was gambling their future away? We didn’t. They just took it for granted that Europe was there. And then the carpet was pulled from under their feet, their future was stolen away from them. We should really be concerned that something like this will happen again. We have a common responsibility in Europe, for Europe, a responsibility beyond our national borders.
What we are going through right now is not only the result of administration and politics. We are all conditioned by our languages, by the country, culture, and religion we grew up in. We are the sum of the experiences we made. And all this is in a huge upheaval right now. Our civilization is pushing us through a huge crisis: We all move from that long history of mankind, where everything was real, could be touched and passed on physically, to a new history in which everything is turning virtual, ephemeral, where less and less things are tangible, real and existing, where we are confronted with an onslaught of a million things at the same time, while even our friends become fictional, and data.
We all together are moving into the digital age and I wish we will be able to save this feeling of solidarity and conspiracy – not only in our Academy which sometimes feels to me like Noah’s Ark, but even more so in our marvellous home continent!
(picture by Peter Lindbergh)
Agnieszka Holland: Opening doors on the unfamiliar
by Hannah McGill
You might expect the Chairwoman of the European Film Academy to be an unequivocal cheerleader for the quality of European cinema. But Agnieszka Holland – holder of the position since 2014 – isn’t one for spin. “This quality, I think, is not always the strongest,” the veteran Polish director of television and film declares. Decades of relative political stability have, she thinks, come at the cost of productive cultural exchange. “Paradoxically, the more Europe became politically and economically unified, the less curiosity there was about the films of your neighbour.”
This does mean an upside, however, to current unrest and division: “I have to tell you that I don’t remember as strong a time for European cinema as this one!”
Such acknowledgement of contradiction and resistance to platitudes is illustrative of a creative mind that has darted with confidence between languages and cultures; from cinema to television; and from period confection to punchy modern drama. Holland’s most celebrated works for cinema include the confronting black comedy EUROPA, EUROPA (1990), the gorgeous children’s period piece THE SECRET GARDEN (1993) and the powerful wartime drama IN DARKNESS (2011), while her television outings have included stints on THE WIRE, THE KILLING (the US version), TREME and HOUSE OF CARDS.
Versatility, she says, is also key to the functionality of the European Film Academy. “Its role varies depending on the situation and the need. But the basic aim is to promote European cinema, to Europe and the wider world; and to connect creative people and filmmakers. And the main tool of the promotion is the organisation of the awards - which works pretty well!”
The current patchy impact and penetration of European cinema frustrates her, however. “In the ‘60s and ‘70s, European cinema travelled in Europe. Now it’s difficult to find more than 10 films which are shown in more than 10 countries.”
Holland blames a decline in what she calls “the cinema of the middle – cinema that is attractive to a wide audience, and at the same time is personal and complex.” Instead she sees a preponderance of, at one end, domestic comedies that make money but don’t travel well; and at the other end, high-art “festival films” that play to admiring but restricted audiences.
A final disadvantage? “We don’t have European stars. We have those who are 60-plus; or those who act in American movies or television.”
Ouch. Can we at least blame Hollywood, for being so big, so greedy and so damned efficient? Not on Holland’s watch. “It’s our private weakness. We have the brains; we have the money. We just don’t have enough courage. It’s not that they took our space. They took the empty space. If people won’t be more creative and innovative, and more unified culturally, it will be very difficult to compete - not only with the States, but also with Asia.”
And here I am speaking to her from the UK, a territory in the very throes of willfully de-unifying itself… “I think that what’s happened in Great Britain is very unfortunate,” she says with a sigh. We count further sources of political unease across Europe: neo-fascist parties; authoritarian governments; secession movements. She warns, “The vaccination of the second world war is evaporating, and something dangerous can happen again… especially with the guy who is sitting in the Oval Office.”
Yet while Holland is too mindful of her EFA role to name her favourite filmmaking names – “it would not be elegant” – she insists this is a vintage year for European movies. “When the world becomes less pleasant - the art becomes strong!” Her native Poland provides an example of filmmakers flourishing in defiance of a restrictive state. “The government wants to take political and ideological control over cinema. The result of this was that the best five years in Polish cinema since the ‘80s.”
We’re talking just as a different brand of misused power is altering the film business landscape, possibly for good. Holland calls the sexual abuse scandal - which has ensnared, among others, her HOUSE OF CARDS colleague Kevin Spacey - “very dramatic, and very interesting”.
She is circumspect, however, about the responsibility of professional bodies to distance themselves from the accused. “We have to be really careful not to step over the line. Abrupt reactions come from guilt – but you cannot erase the past. If you have a talented actor like Kevin Spacey, and he (allegedly) did terrible things, what he did as an actor remains great work. I totally support that those guys will be punished by law. But what we have to change is our respect for other human beings - especially if we have some power over them.”
Improvements to the position of women in the industry, she adds “will not happen in a few years. But a lot of windows have been opened now, and we see the light of truth. Now we have to figure out how to open the doors.”
Holland’s own facility for confronting the unfamiliar is an impressive facet of her work. She’s speaking to me from the US, where much of her most-seen work has been done; has her outsider’s perspective brought something special to those hit TV series? “Maybe I brought something different - a different eye. But the lesson is more for me. I would never have such intimate knowledge of the mechanism of American society if I hadn’t done THE WIRE or TREME. This was a gift.”
I mention the modish notion that one should make art only about one’s own cultural inheritance, which elicits a groan. “People have become totally stupid. You cannot show the complexity of the world, or provocation, or blasphemy anymore, because they take everything so literally. The knowledge to read metaphor or symbols has disappeared!”
About her own history as a political dissident - she was imprisoned during the Prague Spring, and exiled from her native Poland during the 1980s – Holland is unsentimental. “I don’t think that every filmmaker has to be a political activist. I very much enjoyed the years when I didn’t have to be one! Today I have to be one again… but it’s not my most beloved occupation.”
In order to continue engaging with what she does love, meanwhile, Holland is flexible about formats and platform. Her new 12-part series currently in production is Netflix’s first Polish-language commission. “I prefer to watch on the big screen, of course,” she says; but the popularity of series and series festivals is, for her, just another part of the evolution of visual culture. “I’m a little sad when I see people watching films on smartphones… but what we can do? People have new habits; it would be stupid to fight them! What’s important is to make something so attractive for movie theatres that people still have this desire to go there and see them. We have to make good movies. That’s our only obligation.”
(picture by Jacek Poremba)
Hannah McGill is a writer, critic and academic based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She was the Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival from 2006-2010. She reviews regularly for Sight and Sound, and is currently undertaking research into the practice of film festival programming at Queen Margaret University.
Politics and cinema: country snapshots
by Louise Tutt
Hungarian film booms as Film Fund avoids bias
When Eva Gardos’ BUDAPEST NOIR opened in Hungary in on 2 November, it made headlines for being the first charity premiere in the country. Produced by Ildikó Kemény of Pioneer Pictures and fully funded by the Hungarian National Film Fund, the film is based on a best-selling book of the same name set in 1930s Budapest about a journalist investigating the suspicious murder of a prostitute.
“We felt it was important to introduce the concept of a charity premiere to Hungary, to raise social awareness,” Kemény explains of the decision taken with distributor Big Bang Media. “We raised quite a lot money (about 1 million forints, or EUR 3,200) for a children’s hospital in Budapest that needed an MRI machine. The media exposure really helped them. We are all very proud of being associated with that. Whatever we can do on an individual level we are trying to do.”
BUDAPEST NOIR’s 50-screen release is part of a huge upswing in cinema-going in Hungary, with admissions for local films passing 1 million by early November, for the first time for a decade. Driven by the success of Gábor Herendi’s horse-racing drama KINCSEM, which is the second most popular film of the year so far (behind just DESPICABLE ME 3), market share of Hungarian films is set to be higher in 2017 than the 5% of 2016.
Production is also booming as Hungarian films are finding success abroad. László Nemes, the Oscar-winning director of SON OF SAUL, has just wrapped his second feature SUNSET, a period film set in 1915, while Ildikó Enyedi’s unconventional love story ON BODY AND SOUL won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in February and has been picked up by Netflix for the US. It has also just won Alexandra Borbély the EFA for European Actress and is nominated for the best foreign-language film Oscar.
What all these films have in common is backing from the Hungarian National Film Fund (HUF), which was set up in 2011 following the closure of the debt-ridden Hungarian Motion Picture Public Foundation. In 2017, the HUF has invested EUR 20m in Hungarian production, up from EUR 16m in 2016. Its budget comes via lottery funds and directly from the government.
Politics is, understandably, a sensitive subject among Hungarian filmmakers right now. The government, which was first elected in 2010 and then re-elected in 2014, is led by the conservative Fidesz party, which critics fear is trying to extend its control over the media.
But despite a fractious political mood in the country and the recent actions of their Polish neighbours, film producers believe HUF is operating free from any political bias. “There is no political influence in filmmaking. There is no pressure as to which films to support and which to not,” suggests Inforg-M&M Film’s Mónika Mécs, one of the producers of ON BODY AND SOUL. “The [HUF] committee decides [which films to back] and their choice is a matter of taste. They are backing films of many colours. There is support for arthouse movies, lots of dramas, thrillers, and comedies.”
As if to illustrate this, Mecs is now putting together two very different projects the Fund supports. The EUR 8 million English-language THE STORY OF MY WIFE, based on a novel of the same name, will be Enyedi’s next project. The film will shoot with French, German and Italian partners, and tells the story of an odd relationship between a husband and wife.
Mecs is also producing WOMB director Benedek Fliegauf’s new film GLOWMAN, set in the days after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 when volunteers were needed to help prevent a second, possibly even more deadly, explosion.
Despite these bright spots, BUDAPEST NOIR producer Kemény voices a note of caution: “We shouldn’t be critical while our industry is booming but we can’t be obviously so excited because the situation in the rest [of the country] is not good.”
Poland waits for PFI appointment
A t first glance, the Polish film industry is flourishing. Polish cinemagoers are embracing a wide variety of home-grown films, from Wojciech Smarzowski’s WW2 film HATRED to Maria Sadowska’s sexologist biopic THE ART OF LOVING to 2017 record-breaker, Patryk Vega’s BOTOKS, about a group of female hospital doctors behaving badly.
International festivals have lauded Agnieszka Holland’s SPOOR (which is Poland’s entry in the foreign-language Oscar race) and Dorota Kobiela and Huge Welchman’s hand-painted feature animation, LOVING VINCENT, a UK-Poland co-production that has now made more than $5 million at the US box-office and won the EFA for Best Animated Feature.
“Polish cinema is now trusted by audiences to be good,” says Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, a leading local journalist and film critic. “There has been a huge new wave of directors, especially young ones, who are interested in making a wide variety of films. They deal with contemporary issues, or with stories set in the time of Communism, and are also making genre films. It’s a good moment in terms of both festivals and admissions. It’s why we are so afraid it is all going to be destroyed.”
That fear is about the uncertainty surrounding the political independence of Poland’s main funding body, the Polish Film Institute (PFI). It backs around 75% of the 45-50 films produced each year in Poland. In October, Poland’s right-wing ruling Law and Justice party abruptly sacked the PFI’s director Magdalena Sroka, on what was widely seen as a flimsy pretext, prompting an outcry from the PFI board as well as the film industry inside and outside Poland, including the European Film Academy.
Before Sroka’s dismissal the PFI had mostly seemed to avoid political interference from a provocative government that is taking a hard line on issues such as women’s rights and environmental protection measures in Poland.
Now, Radosław Śmigulski, a former director of the distribution and production company Syrena Films, was named the PFI’s new director on December 8, chosen over of the acting director Izabela Kiszka-Hoflik, a long-standing PFI employee. His appointment is a clear signal the government is looking for change at the PFI. Śmigulski is a low-profile figure, known primarily as a co-producer of the lowbrow comedy KAC WAWA.
In an interview with Wyborcza magazine, Śmigulski distanced himself from the film, saying he had never seen it. “I stopped being the director of Syrena before the end of the picture. I did not agree that it would go in such a vulgar direction,” he said.
He told the magazine he intends to look for ways to bring additional financing into the PFI via private partners and to widen the scope of the filmmakers the PFI backs. He also sought to quieten concerns he comes from a political rather than cinematic background. Śmigulski was briefly a member of the Polish Republican party and sat on the board of lottery company Totalizator Sportowy.
“I am aware of fears. I'm from the industry, but not from the environment,” he told Wyborcza. “But we have nothing to fear from each other. I am not a person who would like to judge someone's sensitivity. I am aware filmmakers are sensitive, and I will respect it.”
He also rejected the suggestion he will be seen as a friendly pair of hands by politicians seeking to influence the kinds of films supported by the PFI. “I have not met …with any pressure from any politician regarding the ideological directions of the institute,” he told Wyborcza. “The Institute will continue to be independent, I guarantee.”
To heighten the uncertainty of the PFI’s future, the three-year term of the PFI’s board ran out in November and a new board was elected on November 15. Additionally, the panel of industry experts, which assesses applications for funding, will also be replaced (as usual) in January.
“I have never met Radosław Śmigulski nor heard about him before the candidates were announced,” says producer Piotr Kobus of distributor-turned-producer Manana, whose three features to date have all been backed by the PFI. They include Tomasz Wasilewski’s Silver Bear-winning UNITED STATES OF LOVE, and Katarzyna Roslaniec’s experimental drama SATAN SAID DANCE, which premiered at SXSW 2017. Kobus has two new projects presently under consideration, including a Dutch co-production.
“I have no idea what will happen at the Institute,” says Kobus. “One of the most important issues is who the experts will be as they are the true decision makers as far as film grants are concerned It’s a weird moment to give any opinion [about the future] as we just don’t know. I don’t consider our films political. But they are very humane.”
The biggest concern, suggests Kwiatkowski, is filmmakers will start to censor themselves. He asks, “Why would you write or develop something you knew you wouldn’t be able to finance?”
Romanian CNC funding on hold after Ministry rejects cinema law
The long-running political turmoil at the top of Romanian politics has been acutely felt by the country’s filmmakers in 2017. A new cinema law to modernise the national film fund was drafted with the input of the industry at the invitation of the previous government in 2016.
However, parliamentary elections changed the complexion of the coalition government, and the new Ministry of Culture rejected the law without debate, sparking outrage and protests throughout the industry.
The fund, known as the Centrul National al Cinematografiei (CNC), has also failed to grant any production funding so far in 2017. The first call for applications was not announced until 16 November.
"The delay is explained by the controversy regarding the new cinema law that was rejected in May,” says journalist Stefan Dobroiu, who is the Romania and Bulgaria correspondent for Cineuropa. “Even if the law was rejected, it was obvious the CNC needed new regulations for its funding sessions, and months were spent with negotiations between the CNC, the filmmakers and the Ministry of Culture."
Producer Ada Solomon of prolific HiFilm Productions fears that when the funding comes through and production cranks up again, it will create a glut of Romanian films that will cannibalise each other on the international circuit.
“The big festivals remain the international platform for the kinds of films we make,” she explains. “You can’t have three Romanian films in one of the big festivals.”
Solomon’s credits include the 2013 Golden Bear winner CHILD’S POSE, directed by Calin Peter Netzer; as well as Radu Jude’s award-winning AFERIM! which won the Silver Bear for best director at the 2015 Berlinale; and SCARRED HEARTS, which picked up several prizes at Locarno 2016.
She is now developing Jude’s next film, which has the working title IS THIS WHAT YOU WERE BORN FOR? She has also produced Ivana Mladenovic’s debut fiction feature SOLDIERS. STORY FROM FERENTARI, with backing from the CNC. The film is regarded as Romania’s first LGBT film and is set in the Roma community in Bucharest. Toronto and San Sebastian both selected the film.
Further Romanian films at 2017 festivals include Netzer’s ANA, MON AMOUR, which played in Berlinale Competition, and Constantin Popescu’s POROROCA, which also screened in San Sebastian.
Mihai Chirilov, a leading Romanian film critic and artistic director of the Transilvania International Film Festival, tries to see the positive side of the suspension of state funding.
“All these irregularities forced some filmmakers to take things in their own hands and find other ways to finance their films, working independently within low budgets, sometimes with outstanding results,” he says. “They include last year’s surprise box-office success, indie comedy TWO LOTTERY TICKETS [directed by Paul Negoescu] and MEDA OR THE NOT SO BRIGHT SIDE OF THINGS [the directorial debut of actor Emanuel Parvu], which won two awards at Sarajevo. But the system needs to be regulated so making an indie film becomes a voluntary choice of the filmmaker rather than a last resort.”
Solomon is also concerned the progressive subject matters of the kind of films she makes could be under threat following a new clause in the CNC’s funding regulations. It requires 10% of the total EUR 10.8 million (50 million RON) to be spent annually on ‘thematic’ films to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the modern Romanian state [in 2018].
“I’m not saying it’s not normal to have some films dedicated to this event in our history, but it’s very dangerous to impose a definite type of film,” says Solomon. “I also think it’s unfair. If the government think it’s important to have cultural events dedicated to the centenary they should invest in it and not take it out of the regular, quite small pool of money we have.”
“Up to now, I was claiming really strongly that we are living in a normal country, where our subjects and our type of films are not directly controlled or overlooked in any kind of way apart from the artistic quality of the proposal. And I was very, very proud of it,” Solomon continues. “Now we have something that I think it will be very dangerous for the future. Are we allowed to speak out loud about this? Yes. Are we listened to or heard? No.”
Even Putin’s Russia allows a plurality of film voices
When Andrei Zvyagintsev’s LOVELESS was confirmed as Russia’s selection for the foreign-language Oscar category in September, no one was surprised. Although the film did not receive any state funding after Zvyagintsev’s previous film, LEVIATHAN, had thrown a stark light on local government corruption, and LOVELESS does not exactly bathe contemporary Russia society in a generous glow, Zvyagintsev is a well-known, prestigious art house film-maker on the global stage. Indeed, LOVELESS was the best-reviewed film of Cannes 2017, won the jury prize there, and just received the EFAs for European Cinematographer and for Composer. And the Russian government is happy to absorb some of that reflected glory.
“The authorities don’t want outright aggressive anti-Putin, anti-Kremlin, anti-Russian, anti-state movies but they do want the world to see that they allow a plurality of voices. That is quite important,” says Moscow-based journalist and film writer Nick Holdsworth.
The Russian government is also fairly sure that relatively few Russia citizens will see Zvyagintsev’s films, either at cinemas or on TV, where they are not primetime fodder. LOVELESS grossed just $1.7 million on release for Sony in Russia earlier this year (LEVIATHAN grossed $1.5 million). That compares with the highest-grossing Russian film at the local box office this year to date: Fyodor Bondarchuk’s alien invasion story ATTRACTION, which took $18 million.
There is little private funding for films in Russia beyond those made by Bondarchuk, the son of the acclaimed Soviet-era filmmaker Sergei Bondarchuk, and the founder of Art Studios Pictures - and Zvyagintsev. The latter is now in a position to be able to finance his films from outside Russia.
Most Russian films rely on the Ministry of Culture and the Russian Cinema Fund for financing, either separately or together. They back a handful of intelligent, upscale films each year – recently including Boris Khlebnikov’s relationship drama ARRHYTHMIA, which has been widely celebrated on the festival circuit from Karlovy Vary to Toronto this year.
Ilya Stewart of dynamic new Moscow outfit Hype Film, which produces films, commercials and music videos, is another producer with access to private financing. He believes it is a good time to be making films in Russia. This is because of – as much as in spite of – the highly charged political climate.
“The best art is born in edgy circumstances, and the local industry is evolving at a great speed and establishing a unique voice,” says Stewart. “I believe the talent is out there and young directors with a strong vision and the desire to tell a story are maturing and coming into their own.”
He decides whether to apply for state funds on a project-by-project basis. “Sometimes, the sort of films that we, as a company, want to produce do not necessarily fit within the ideology of the various funds,” he explains. “We make a conscious choice to accept that and refuse to depend on a single entity in our approach to financing the films. I am a firm believer that with the resurgence of new filmmaking talent, there are ways to work outside that system.”
Stewart produced Kirill Serebrennikov’s THE STUDENT, about a disillusioned teenager, which screened in Cannes Un Certain Regard in 2015. Stewart is also producing Serebrennikov’s LETO, which is presently on hold following the government’s decision to place Serebrennikov, a well-known progressive theatre director, under house arrest on charges of fraud in August. Serebrennikov denies the charges and EFA has called for his release.
“We are on hold at the moment, with several shooting days still remaining, but believe the film will be completed,” Stewart explains. “We are hoping for a logical resolution to the situation, and believe common sense will prevail.”
The documentary world is making the most pointedly political films about Russia. “The films I am making, mostly documentaries, have what I call a clear position,” says producer Simone Baumann of Saxonia Entertainment, who divides her time between Germany and Russia, working regularly with the Riga-based, Russian director Vitaliy Manskiy. Manskiy’s credits include CLOSE RELATIONS, which explores Ukrainian society after the Maidan revolution. Baumann is now producing Alexander Rastorguev’s ELECTING RUSSIA, about the opposition movement in the run-up to the 2018 elections in Russia, with Yevgeniy Gindilis’ Moscow-based production company TVINDIE.
“These are projects where I am finding financing completely in the West,” says Baumann. “The Russian part is self-investment from my Russian co-producers. No Russian state money or TV money. Not even private Russian money.”
One significant quirk of the Russian film industry is the role played by the Russian Orthodox Church, which voices its discontent (and beyond) with films it deems blasphemous. Alexei Uchitel’s MATILDA, a period drama backed by the Ministry of Culture, based on the true story of a prima ballerina who had a love affair with Tsar Nicholas II (whom the Church canonised in 2000) was the target of the Church’s ire in September. Some radical church members targeted the St. Petersburg studio of Uchitel in an attempted firebomb attack. “It’s a very tame, pedestrian movie,” says Holdsworth. “All the church does is make a fuss about films that most people would otherwise ignore.”
Louise Tutt is a London-based writer and editor specialising in the UK and international film business. She is a contributing editor for Screen International and works with the British Film Institute to curate talks and events at the Cannes film festival.
Not so weird: The landscape of new Greek cinema
SPOTLIGHT by Geli Mademli
It’s no overstatement that Greek cinema has been the main export cultural product of the country in the years of recession. The international acclaim of Yorgos Lanthimos’ DOGTOOH (2009), a quirky tale about a secluded family with their own social rules living in a spacious mansion in Athens suburbia, not only coincided with the outbreak of the Greek debt crisis in global media, but it rather served as a vehicle for discussing a troubled society in transition and diagnosing the symptoms behind its gradual decline.
Since 2010, Greek films such as Athina Rachel Tsangari’s ATTENBERG, Philippos Tsitos’ UNFAIR WORLD, Ektoras Lygizos’ BOY EATING THE BIRD’S FOOD, Alexandros Avranas’ MISS VIOLENCE or Elina Psykou’s THE ETERNAL RETURN OF ANTONIS PARASKEVAS became festival sensations, boosting a local industry that previously struggled with introversion and pessimism, even in more prosperous times.
This sudden increase in the mobility and popularity of Greek films around international audiences was famously proclaimed as a “weird wave” by The Guardian in 2011. This term is still widely used as a cultural trademark: a rubric that alludes to the paradoxes of film production in this part of the world, presenting unconventional characters (often with minimalist performances and absurd dialogues), and a generalized feeling of awkwardness towards the state of affairs in a country that is called to handle the maintenance of ancient and contemporary ruins alike.
This “weird” shift in the perception of Greek films abroad seems already obsolete for the local industry, who try on one hand to balance between this new trend and the global legacy of Theo Angelopoulos; and who, on the other hand, try to discover new ways to explore topics of social relevance (immigration, xenophobia, unemployment, or the “wasted youth,” as Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ film of the same title suggests) through social realism or genre filmmaking.
Filmmakers like Tsangari, Lanthimos, Babis Makridis, Syllas Tzoumerkas, and Psykou are well known at the top film festivals, as well as Sofia Exarchou, who won the New Directors Award at San Sebastián 2016 for PARK, and Yorgos Zois, whose films END CREDITS, INTERRUPTION, and 8TH CONTINENT premiered in Venice. There are numerous debutants sculpting their projects in several labs around Europe, including Jacqueline Lentzou, Christos Massalas, Araceli Lemos and Loukianos Moshonas.
Festivals are of course crucial to the ecosystem of arthouse films in Europe, but in Greece, some filmmakers hadn’t taken full advantage of festival launches.
Konstantinos Kontovrakis, the co-founder (alongside Giorgos Karnavas) of Heretic Productions is one of the first creative producers of this new wave. With his background in festival programming, Kontovrakis realized there was a gap in the market and introduced the first Greek company that expands from production to sales and distribution (Heretic Outreach), and consulting (Heretic Asterisk). “I made my first steps as a producer at a breaking point for Greek production, when all official funding schemas were frozen, including the funds raised by the state-owned Hellenic Broadcast Corporation (ERT), which was temporarily shut down (during a live broadcast!),” he recalls.
“When we realized we had nothing to wait for, we opted for a guerrilla approach: we made films next to nothing, self-funded among a circle of friends, with a certain kind of freedom that resonated in the final product...This permitted a whole new generation of filmmakers to take action and gain confidence in their own powers, but of course there is a downside to this. Suddenly there was a misunderstanding among the regular stakeholders that money shouldn’t be an issue, as Greek filmmakers seemed to manage perfectly without it. This false assumption in its turn motivated Greek producers to work even harder to establish collaborations beyond borders.”
Young producer Konstantinos Vasilaros of Studio Bauhaus, who recently won the CineLink Industry Days Award at Sarajevo for Holy Emy by Araceli Lemos, confirms that guerrilla spirit moves things along in Greece in a way that he didn’t experience when he lived in the UK. “Greek professionals empathize with each other, so eventually solidarity prevails over competitiveness.”
Director Yorgos Zois doesn’t always agree. “I recently visited Argentina and was amazed by the film industry’s methods. In this thriving place, people constantly make films and exchange roles, they always lend a hand and work as assistants to other people’s projects. In Greece, the circles of creative industries remain polarized, there are sects that help certain peers but combat others, groups that undermine people’s search for funding and take different sides in the course of time.” As for the effect of the festival frenzy for new Greek films, Zois already notices an important change in the last few years. He says, “Younger filmmakers often approach me asking if I know any good festival programmers. They are looking for producers with an entrepreneurial flair and not with a creative insight.”
Elina Psykou, who won the Best International Narrative Feature award at Tribeca 2017 for SON OF SOFIA, also has mixed feelings for the landscape of contemporary Greek production: “When I made my first film, I didn’t take into account the festival circuit during in the development, pre-production or shooting of the film, I started thinking about it more intensely in the post-production stage. However, in my second feature, I realized I was fully aware of this procedure from the very beginning. Festival biases can be very disorienting for a filmmaker…Placing labels and looking for patterns in films from specific regions is a tool for festival programmers to facilitate their work, but this practice can impede ours, in the sense that we are often subconsciously compelled to frame our films according to a reflection, a false image created by others.”
Even if the label of “weird” has proven to be a construction, for some just an invasive tool for rough and hasty grouping in festival settings, the waves that it generated in the formerly still waters of Greek film production are invaluable. If anything, this ‘weird wave’ label provides film professionals the opportunity to reflect on their work, and motivate them to find ways to divert the dominant narrative about art in the times of crisis. Eventually, the post-weird is all about remaining critical.
Geli Mademli works for Thessaloniki International Film Festival and Syros International Film Festival as a programme assistant and main editor of the festivals’ publications. She is a doctoral candidate at the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam, working in the areas of film heritage and media archaeology. She is also a freelance journalist, specializing in film and media, and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Greek Film Studies FilmIcon.
Aleksandr Sokurov: Directing for the Human Soul
by Nick Holdsworth
Many of Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov’s past films have been about power, its abuses and the world of the human soul. Those themes are also explored in his next film, which he describes as an "original script with a completely new approach set during the period of 1940-45"
He is not willing to be drawn on details yet, but the film will feature Stalin, Churchill, Hitler and Mussolini as main characters. Partners on the co-production include his “Italian friends” Avventurosa, Cinecitta Luce and RAI.
The project begs the question of why Sokurov, a noted critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin (he even used a Kremlin meeting in 2015 with Putin to obliquely criticize Russia's backing of Ukrainian separatists), does not appear interested in more contemporary figures of power. His response is typically direct: "I am not interested in modern political practice in Russia," he says. "It is monotonous, lacks novelty and is even formulaic. There's been nothing new in Russia's political cuisine for many years. Everything that is served up now had already been done before. Even the names of the dishes are the same as half a century ago." Well said by a director who is known for taking no prisoners. To watch a Sokurov film is to know that the next 90 minutes or so will offer little in the way of escape from the world.
Sokurov, a frequent contender in competition at Cannes and Berlin, and the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the EFAs, immerses his viewers in the worlds he creates - and in doing so elicits experiences that can be unexpected.
The darkness and subterfuge of power seen in TAURUS (his film about Lenin), MOLOCH (Hitler), THE SUN (Emperor Hirohito), or FAUST - his series on the fallibility of men who succumb to the temptations of power - makes for challenging viewing. His last film, 2015’s FRANCOFONIA, was a creative documentary set in the Louvre in Paris, concentrated on its wartime fate and the role it played in the Nazi's cultural plundering of Europe, set within a meditation on the timelessness of art.
Meticulous in his project preparation - he used original Japanese Imperial household porcelain service used for a banquet sequence in The Sun - and broad in his interests, Sokurov works with both fiction and documentary, long form and short.
He is aware of the boundaries directors can’t cross in Russia - much of his own work was left unseen in Soviet times - but perceives the issue as one of character and human development, rather than politics. Sokurov believes Russian filmmakers owe a responsibility to the great directors who have preceded them to create original, thought-provoking material. But like creative minds everywhere, they face the "same enemy - commercial filmmaking, which crushes taste and turns people into cattle." What he terms "dehumanization" is a global problem, but one which it "of course complicated by the growing political struggle in Russia".
European directors are not immune: "I fear that European culture is the same. If a Russian director dared take on the modern state, he would be crushed. But we don't know how the Germans, British or any other country would behave if a filmmaker dared challenge their 'democratic' state. Telling heads of state the ultimate truth is akin to opening the hatches of a ship on the high seas."
He has great admiration for Kirill Serebrennikov, a director whose courageous and creative theatre productions have put him on a collision course with the Kremlin: in August he was charged with embezzling state funds granted to Moscow's Gogol Centre, a theatrical company he ran. EFA issued a statement in August calling for the end to his house arrest and calling the charges “politically motivated.” Serebrennikov's case fits into Sokurov's view that threats to creative talents does not always comes from the top: "In Russian, the threat to filmmakers often comes not only from the state, but also from the slavishly faithful middlemen who can sensitively monitor the situation in the country and - for the sake of the ruler - suddenly destroy or put in jail anyone who is careless in what they say or do." Still, Russia remains a country where artistic and sensitive filmmaking is still appreciated, he emphasises.
"Russians have a great desire to watch 'author's cinema', they have a great respect for this type of cinema," the 66-year-old director says from his home in St. Petersburg.
"It is exactly this sort of film that tells us today, and will tell us in the future, about the life and soul of a people. But, unfortunately to bring this kind of cinema to audiences remains a challenge; many of my own films have never even been seen in Russia. That is hardly surprising, given that in Soviet times none of my films were distributed."
Despite the challenges, Sokurov continues to work and draw inspiration from life in such a large and complex country, remarking without apparent irony that "Shakespeare would give a lot to live just a couple of years in such a state." Russia retains a "decent and respectable" place within European filmmaking and has a long tradition of creating outstanding films, he adds.
Russia's political situation is, in many respects, the least of Sokurov's concerns. Filmmakers everywhere, in all times, face so many pressures to abandon the truth, irrespective of the society in which they live.
"Filmmakers don't have any kind of universal role. Directors vary greatly in their talents, sincerity of artistic behaviour, and integrity. Hundreds of thousands of filmmakers serve producers - and only a tiny minority work for the human soul." There's little doubt which directors he considers in that last category. Asked to name those he admires, without hesitation he says: "Kira Muratova is the best living director in the world today," before adding that it would be "impossible to imagine cinema with Fellini, Fassbinder, Bergman, Eisenstein, Dovzhenko - and contemporaries, such as Serebrennikov and Lars von Trier."
(picture by Sergei Ljashko)
Nick Holdsworth is a writer, journalist and filmmaker with 25 years’ experience of covering Russian and Eastern European affairs, for publications including The Sunday Telegraph, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. He has also written and directed six documentary short films for the European Training Foundation, Turin. He is currently working on a creative documentary, Napoleon's Lost Imperial Gold.
Lord Puttnam: Film and TV industries need to help shape a ‘new Europe’
by Wendy Mitchell
Filmmakers have an important role to play as contemporary Europe faces new challenges, Lord David Puttnam says. “We’re filmmakers, we’re communicators, we’re supposed to be the place where ideas come from. We’re supposed to be the ones who create metaphors that recreate people’s values. Are we really doing it? Are we doing it well enough? If not, why aren’t we doing it well enough?”
Filmmakers have a role to play off-screen as well, including through the platform of the European Film Academy, says Puttnam, who was a founding member of the European Film Awards in 1988. “The energy and the vision that started EFA was really important, it’s grown bigger and beyond our wildest dreams. Now it’s got to play in the role of the development of a new Europe. We’re facing a lot of challenges. The way the film and television industries step up will alert a whole generation of people to the nature of the problems.”
Puttnam thinks about some of these challenges daily in his place in the UK’s House of Lords, which he joined in 1997 as a Labour peer. “I’m required as a legislator to engage with and punch out very difficult issues. I do it every day, this past week we were looking at the Data Protection Bill, and I was on a committee about artificial intelligence. I’d like to see EFA broaden the scope of its thinking to where its relationship is with these wider issues.”
Puttnam, the veteran producer of films including CHARIOTS OF FIRE, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, THE KILLING FIELDS, LOCAL HERO and THE MISSION, also worries about the lack of activist spirit among young people today. He’s been ruminating on this after recently watching Ken Burns’ “excellent” series THE VIETNAM WAR. “With the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, young people were really, really engaged. And if you look at the impact of Brexit and Trump, are young people doing enough? I’d suggest not.”
He would like to see contemporary filmmakers exploring some of these troubling subjects. “There was a generation of wonderful films about Vietnam, and as yet I’m not aware of anyone working on a Brexit movie. Are filmmakers exploring why this weird strain of neo-fascism has bitten deep in Europe? As a post-war child these are disturbing throwbacks. This is the world drifting back to a place I thought we’d left forever.”
Brexit is another disturbing development on his mind, and he has already passionately spoken to the House of Lords about some of the possible dangers to the creative industries. His worries of Brexit’s impact include the “possibility of a talent drain,” particularly in post-production and visual effects, with EU nationals not feeling welcome to work in the UK anymore. More than 25,000 people work in the UK’s lucrative VFX and animation businesses, he notes, and up to 35% of them are EU nationals.
That talent drain could also impact writers and directors, he predicts. “I think it will result in a loss of confidence, that many more British filmmakers will likely seek their careers overseas. There’s an extraordinary mistrust of the direction Britain is taking, that could easily translate into a migration.”
Some industry experts have suggested that now would be the right time for the UK to join Eurimages, the Council of Europe’s co-production fund, to help foster connections in Europe. He’s not sure that’s such an easy plan. “I can imagine there would be advantages on both sides for that to happen, but it’s not a done deal. We’d have to be invited to join Eurimages.” And Puttnam is not sure the “injured party” (Europe) would be eager to extend that welcoming hand just now. “What Britain has done is extraordinarily selfish and extraordinarily destabilizing for all Europeans.”
Yet he also recognizes that times of distress can produce strong art. “It might result in a certain introversion and filmmakers looking at what Britain is now, is it viewing itself differently? If that does happen it will be the margins, in low-budget movies.”
Brexit aside, he thinks the British film industry is in a healthy place creatively. “Thanks largely to the TV industry, we’re still producing more than our fair share of very good directors, and an amazing generation of actors, who are stunning. Also we have good technicians, British crews are not troublesome and they travel well.”
One discipline that creates a small worry for him is screenwriting – “our writing is rather pedestrian, and more theatre based. We haven’t been influenced by American-style group writing, it hasn’t crossed over, it’s a cultural oddity. The insular nature of British writing could get worse, not better, with Brexit. So there is work to be done there.”
There is also work to be done in audience development. As president of the UK’s Film Distributors Association, Puttnam closely watches cinema-going trends. “I’m particularly concerned about 13-18 year olds,” he says. “What’s interesting to me is how the Harry Potter young, young audience has turned into a superhero audience. The desire to see films that are about something or that really do try to address issues, hasn’t grown in parallel. That’s not just in the UK, colleagues in China are similarly worried.”
That’s something that can be addressed not just by filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors, but in wider education. And Puttnam knows a thing or two about education – he’s the former chairman of UK’s National Film and Television School, and the current chair of online education company Atticus Education, which delivers seminars to students across the world.
“We are dealing with a highly, highly visual generation of young people and I’m not sure the schools have caught up with that yet,” the 76-year-old says. “There are two important issues there, one a more general educational thing: we have a role to play to understand the complexity of the digital world. There is almost a new alphabet.”
And if legislating and educating weren’t keeping him busy enough, for the first time since 1998, Puttnam is involved again in film production. His first new project is ARCTIC 30, an environmental drama inspired by the true story of a group of Greenpeace activists who were imprisoned in by the Russians following a 2013 protest against oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Puttnam, credited for now as a co-producer, wants to avoids the role of lead producer – “To say that I’ll be the one standing a steaming cup of cocoa beside the camera, that’s not going to happen,” he says with a hearty laugh. “We could call my role ‘attempting to cause a film to be made.’” The team will soon go out to directors with a script by Guy Hibbert (EYE IN THE SKY).
He modestly describes himself more of a “hobbyist” with a possible TV series he’s involved with. It will be fictional but based on fact, but he’s not revealing details yet. He says, “There are a lot of very well-known people involved, if we manage to pull it off, it could be a lot of fun.”
(picture by Sheehan)
Wendy Mitchell is a film programme manager for the British Council, a contributing editor at Screen International and a consultant for the Zurich Film Festival.
EFA CLOSE-UP Editorial Committee: Marion Döring, Mike Downey, Pascal Edelmann, Antonio Saura Editor: Wendy Mitchell Title picture: Deco / Alamy Stock Photo Please address comments and proposals to: email@example.com