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The Cultural Politics of European Cinema

MeCETES Project Leader Andrew Higson reflects on the cultural politics of contemporary European cinema in 2015 and argues that current policy measures to support culturally diverse cinema are failing.

Film in 2015 remains a pre-eminent form of entertainment, but it also speaks to us, often metaphorically, about the world in which we live, our anxieties and ambitions, what it is to be human and how we (might) engage with others.

Directors Agnieszka Holland and Wim Wenders stand on stage during the 28th European Film Award ceremony in Berlin on December 12, 2015.

Directors Agnieszka Holland and Wim Wenders stand on stage during the 28th European Film Award ceremony in Berlin on December 12, 2015.

As the Polish director Agnieszka Holland, chairwoman of the European Film Academy, noted at the 2015 European Film Awards, “we must not forget that the films we make cannot be separated from the world that we live in”. Holland went on to argue that film had an important role to play in the current European crisis.

Hollywood of course dominates global film entertainment, but this is much more than mere American cultural and economic imperialism. Hollywood is able to maintain its global dominance in part because it goes out of its way to speak eloquently to people across the world, and to speak to non-Americans as much as to American audiences about their anxieties and aspirations. It also goes out of its way to incorporate both stories and creative talent from around the world.

At the same time, cultural diversity depends upon filmmakers being able to make films outside Hollywood, and outside the global network that Hollywood has established. European filmmakers, for instance, have the ability to articulate a sense of the local, and to speak to local audiences about their local experiences.

Cultural encounters

In exploring such concerns, film has the potential to generate a sense of inter-cultural understanding, a tolerance of human diversity and a productive engagement with others. As films circulate across borders and around the world, they potentially enable a whole range of powerful and challenging cultural encounters.

European films clearly have the capacity to do that, but they lack the economic power and distribution networks of the Hollywood majors, such that the ability of European films to get made in the first place and then to travel widely is severely circumscribed.

Even within Europe, there is a world of difference between big-budget, star-laden, English-language films made in Europe and small films made in other languages with actors little known outside their countries of origin. There is a world of difference too between the economic power of the film industries in the big five western European countries (Germany, France, UK, Spain and Italy) and other small nation cinemas, or the cinemas of eastern Europe.

In that context, the various initiatives developed by the European Union and the Council of Europe to support the European cinema industries are vital. Funding subventions, co-production arrangements, support for transnational marketing, distribution and exhibition, networking facilities and so on, are designed to enable European filmmakers and the European film industries to find a place in the market alongside the Hollywood majors, or at least in the interstices between the majors in that crowded market place.

The Berlinale Palast at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival.

The Berlinale Palast at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival.

Equally important are institutions such as the Berlin Film Festival and the European Film Awards, which draw attention to and celebrate the achievements of European filmmakers beyond the Hollywood network. The 27th European Film Awards took place in December 2014 in Riga, Latvia, thereby drawing attention to one of the smallest national cinemas in Europe.

One of the events that acted as a prelude to the awards saw the launch of a new book celebrating co-operative Nordic-Baltic film relations in the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall.

In a foreword to the book, the great Norwegian film actress and director, Liv Ullmann, wrote:

European film and the European film cultural institutions like Eurimages, the European Film Academy, European Film Promotion and various projects within Creative Europe, are more important than ever. Nationalist, right-wing, and anti-European populist parties have seen progress in the latest political elections in our part of the world. Our common democratic culture is threatened by these forces. Co-production is the proper way of counteracting this threat. Through our cooperation, we develop understanding and knowledge of each other’s countries, art, culture, and human dignity.

These are powerful sentiments, and they act as a powerful justification of the European project as a whole, but also the efforts to maintain a vibrant European cinema. Films have a potentially enriching capacity to stage encounters between different cultures, whether as part of the storyline of particular films, or by enabling audiences in one country to engage with the cultural specificities of another by watching imported films.

But in the highly competitive European film market place, national and transnational interventionist measures remain necessary to create a more level playing field for European filmmakers.

45 Years

One of the great successes at the Berlin Film Festival and the simultaneous European Film Market in February 2015 was the British film, 45 Years. Both of the lead actors, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, won Silver Bears for their performances, while the film was nominated for the Golden Bear Award.

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in Andrew Haigh's film 45 Years

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in Andrew Haigh’s film 45 Years

This was a small-budget film (probably less than £2m), made entirely with UK funds, including Film4, the film arm of Channel 4 Television, and two national agencies, the British Film Institute and Creative England, who put in funds from a scheme “designed to help non-London based filmmakers tell stories set in or around the English regions … that display a strong regional voice”.

The production company that developed the project, The Bureau, specialises in “films that crossover from the art house film sector”, and defines its mission as one “of finding and pushing new voices for an unconventional British cinema with an international flavour”.

An early adopter of a new release strategy, 45 Years was released in the UK in August 2015 on what is known as a day-and-date basis, which saw the online release taking place on the same day as the theatrical release, and was the most successful film to date to be released in the UK on this basis.

On the one hand, then, this is a small-budget, British art-house drama. On the other hand, the film was premiered at the Berlinale, one of Europe’s leading film festivals, and has subsequently been released across Europe, benefitting from funding from the EU Creative Europe scheme. And while the production company is UK-based, it also has a French arm, Le Petit Bureau.

Transnational filmmaking

Back in Berlin in December for the 2015 European Film Awards (EFA), Charlotte Rampling’s performance in this distinctively British film won her the Best Actress Award, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award. Rampling, an English actress who has lived in Paris for many years, has appeared in several French and Italian films as well as British and American films.

In her EFA acceptance speech, she spoke of the importance of European cinema, both to her and more generally:

I always had this feeling about the mélange and diversity and importance of what Europe is and that unless I decided to leave England and work on the continent … I’d be missing something very vital of being able to share other things with other people and not remain in my simple world. … We very much need that Europe continues with its extraordinary voice… creating worlds that we need to see.

The Guardian reported that “the role of the film industry in maintaining and improving connections between nations was a theme highlighted throughout the evening” at the EFA ceremony, whose organisers, the European Film Academy, worked hard to “highlight the diversity of the European film industry”.

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in Paolo Sorrentino's Youth

Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth

That diversity is in many ways embodied in the film Youth, which won the Best Film and Best Director prizes at the European Film Awards. Although its director, Paolo Sorrentino, is Italian, the film is set primarily in Switzerland, was shot in English, with American and British stars, and is an Italy/France/UK co-production.

The Best European Screenwriter award at the same ceremony went to the Greek duo, Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, for their film, The Lobster, which Lanthimos also directed. This too was a complex co-production, involving Ireland, UK, Greece, France, Netherlands and USA, and was again shot in English, this time in Ireland, with English, Irish, French and Greek actors. The film also benefited from Eurimages funding.

While small national productions like 45 Years also remain an important aspect of European cinema, the borderless, transnational filmmaking represented by films such as Youth and The Lobster is in many ways typical of contemporary European cinema.

The importance of such filmmaking in the current European context is underlined by the fact that the European Film Academy presents the Prix Eurimages European Co-Production Award each year, the award being won in 2015 by the highly successful Italian producer Andrea Occhipinti, founder of the production company Lucky Red. Occhipinti has worked with some of Europe’s leading filmmakers and has produced several EFA-winning films, with many of them benefiting from Eurimages funding.

The cultural politics of European film are clearly full of potential, but they are also highly complex. Research undertaken by MeCETES, the project that hosts this blog, demonstrates that, for all the goodwill, energy and funding that goes into the film industry across Europe, there is little evidence that European films do actually travel widely across Europe.

There is equally little evidence that mainstream audiences across Europe engage enthusiastically with the cultural encounters with other Europeans that such film travel might enable. This is not to suggest that European film should not be supported, but it does suggest that the current measures developed by the EU, the Council and Europe and the various national film agencies and governments are not well-suited to achieving the sort of cultural diversity and socially meaningful cinema called for by Liv Ullman, Agnieska Holland, Charlotte Rampling and others.

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