Cinema as a tool for the federalist cause

The identity potential of European camera lenses

, by Paulo Guimarães

Cinema as a tool for the federalist cause
Cinema at the Norwegian Øyafestivalen in 2006. © Thomas Berg // Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

While the discussion of the historical and cultural dimensions of “European cinema” is a sine qua non in the curricula of most film studies degrees across the continent, the role played by the European Union in disseminating films within Europe and abroad remains, for the most part, widely obscure to the common man. It is of the utmost importance to ensure that European citizens are sensitive to what is being produced within their borders and recognise the potential of cinema as a tool of identity maturation which can ultimately serve the federalist cause.

As a fourteen-year-old Portuguese growing up in a tiny suburb of Coimbra, who spent one whole academic year religiously attending the only cinema in town every Friday night, the rare opportunity to watch a national picture was received with profound disappointment, not excitement. As I grew up I realised that the relationship between many Portuguese and their national cinema, despite its distinctive particularities, is far from unique in the European context. If it weren’t for my dad, who introduced me to João César Monteiro at an early age, I’m convinced it would have taken me a long while to find out I was not raised in a country where the seventh art had suffered a premature death. It’s not that I was only into American blockbusters before then. Like most of my friends would have agreed, it just happened that the Portuguese films screening in our local cinema, a tiny fraction of what was being produced nationally, were cringe-inducing emulations of Hollywood formulas. Neither were they relatable or uniquely Portuguese.

Hollywood remains hegemonic in EU markets. This is evident when observing basic quantitative data: Hollywood productions held a share of nearly 70% of the EU market, while European productions represented only 26% as of 2013 – numbers which are unlikely to have drastically changed since. Having said that, not all is grim and gritty as the EU gross box office reached a record high of approximately 7.3 billion euros in 2015, the same year which saw EU film production rise to over 1,600 feature films.

Even though the Portuguese and other Europeans have, in general terms, ceased to see film as a potent vehicle of expression of their national identity, European cinema failed to fill in the vacuum created. Certainly, when I was an undergraduate student I underwent the obligatory Fellini, Godard and Bergman binges like many others did. But did my colleagues, lecturers and I discuss with excitement the new work being produced in the continent? Rarely. What were the contemporary European cinematic pop culture references bringing together my French and Romanian flatmates? It’s disheartening to find that there’s little more than the (let’s admit it, mediocre) L’Auberge Espagnole; one of the few influential celebrations of what is one of the most consensually celebrated facets of the EU, the Erasmus Programme. None of this is of course news to anyone – the status quo is acknowledged by most, including EU institutions. This article aims to bring to the surface the extent to which the moving image can still play an important role for Europeans’ identities, its unfulfilled potential as a tool of social representation inside and outside the EU, and the quality and variety of current films being produced.

While it cannot be said that the processes which allowed national cinemas to crystallise in the popular psyche are identical to those that could be witnessed EU-wide, they are the best starting point for any reflection on European cinema. Many have questioned whether there truly exists such a thing as “European Cinema”; whether it is more than the sum of its parts. Those who claim that there is would nevertheless probably struggle to completely agree with one another on what it is that makes it European due to the multitude of traditions and the inherently nationalist essence of the different styles and movements. Briefly browsing through Mubi, the ultimate online agora for cinephiles, will tell us that there is a very solid consensus regarding most of the classics (M, Rules of the Game, Persona etc.).

Conceptions of national and European identity have been projected through the camera lens since the very inception of cinema in France in the late 19th century. The plurality of understandings and portrayals of what constitutes European cinema should be seen as one of its enduring qualities, not a fragmenting weakness. It is crucial for the federalist cause to spark debate in the increasingly vibrant Europe-wide public sphere on European cinematic heritage, its pillars, and commonalities. It needs to be thought through in this setting whether it is the Judeo-Christian themes, the spoken languages, a distinct approach to cinematography, specific ideological outlooks or any other aspect that the federalists should be capitalising on.

Historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson argued in his magnum opus Imagined Communities (1983) that the nation state was built upon the envisaging of oneself as part of a certain national public. Here, art and culture play a central role in the construction of perceptions of belonging. Cinema is no exception. It is in this context that it could be argued that if the EU wants to pave the way for it to be seen as more than an economic community, it needs to look to cinema as an important block in the identitary edifice of Europe. Only then can the idea of a federation be imagined. Such an idea doesn’t presuppose a number of top-down attempts to dictate or shape taste but rather help spaces for cultural debate amongst individuals of all member states to flourish.

This contribution to the socio-cultural harmony across the Union has been deprioritised as issues related to migration and labour quickly moved to the top of the agenda. While this is understandable due to the political and social climate, neglecting the importance of a collective sense of purpose reveals enormous naivety. When an average Frenchman is introduced to the surreal works of Andrzej Zulawski, for example, he is not watching it within a European historical framework. He sees it as a foreign Polish film. This will not change unless additional efforts are made to see different European productions as belonging to a common European space; one that retains the “diversity that typifies European cinema today”.

There is no point in denying that changing the viewing habits of a Union composed of 27 nations is a daunting task. No consequential transformation can be expected overnight. Deep appreciation for European cinema is currently coming above all from film festival circuit cinephiles emotionally attached to the work of auteurs such as Pedro Costa, Joachim Trier, Lars von Trier, Alex Van Warmerdam, Yorgos Lanthimos, Béla Tarr, Aki Kaurismäki, and Krzysztof Kieslowski. With a few minor exceptions, there are no European blockbusters and no indication of a reversal of this situation. None of these names have the pop appeal of a Tarantino.

More important perhaps is the question of whether undisputed European masterpieces – the overlooked La Commune (Paris, 1871) comes to mind – are available to as many EU citizens as they should. The issue here lies in the fact that nations outside the big five (United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain), such as Slovenia, which happens to not have given rise to a film director superstar to the scale of those mentioned above, fail to have their films exposed abroad. The high likelihood that Slavoj Žižek’s filmography is the closest most have been to witnessing Slovenian cinema is indicative of this dependence on personalities; on an ‘auteur’ culture that grants film directors great power in the filmmaking process. The author might not be quite dead after all, Mr. Roland Barthes.

A similar phenomenon can be found on TV. As David Lynch premiered the new Twin Peaks season at Cannes, the European film festival par excellence, this year, few would dare to compare the following and influence of this American TV series to any European production. Indeed, the somewhat recent hype surrounding Danish TV shows such as The Bridge and Borgen was as close as it ever got for a European production to attract such a global cult following.

The leading international film and creative industry specialist, Angus Finney, pointed out in his “Developing Feature Films in Europe: A Practical Guide” one very significant limitation on Europe’s side: “around 7% of the US’s total audiovisual revenue, and up to 10% of each film’s budget, is invested in development. In contrast, Europe tends to spend a much lower percentage, estimated at between 1 and 2%”. Other key structural weaknesses preventing the EU’s film industry from reaching wider audiences in the EU and globally include the great focus on production at the expense of limited attention to distribution and promotion as well as insufficient opportunities for international projects. This brings us to the important question of whether we should believe emotional attachment to European cinema will naturally be made as integration and interdependence (hypothetically) grow inside the EU or if we find that institutions ought to play a more active role in promotion and dissemination.

Some of the initiatives that could be undertaken include those expressed by film director and president of the Cinémathèque française, Constantin Costa-Gavras, in the Notre Europe study ‘Dissemination of European Cinema in the European Union and the International Market’: 1. Provide better support to European movie theatres; 2. Reinvent a regulatory system that is in tune with our economic and technological era; 3. Give European productions a central place in public television programming and stimulating new distribution channels. Other valuable proposals and recommendations can be found in this highly-recommended report for those interested in the topic.

The €1.46 billion dedicated by the European Union to Creative Europe, a program for the cultural and creative sectors for the years 2014-2020, is so far the biggest move in this direction. This amount represents a 9% increase over the previous budget and the funding for 250,000 artists and cultural professionals as well as 2,000 cinemas and 800 films. Over half of the budget of this program has been allocated to the MEDIA sub-programme for audiovisual and the cinema. A brief look on its web page will tell how influential it has been in the past couple of decades. Supported films include modern-day European classics such as Delicatessen, Trainspotting, Amélie, The Pianist, La Vita è Bella, Les Triplettes de Belleville, Dogville, Das Leben der Anderen and Pan’s Labyrinth. The LUX Prize, awarded annually since 2007, is another initiative that aims to help overcome distribution barriers for European films by giving the possibility for three films in competition to be subtitled in the official EU languages and have them screened in more than 40 cities and at 18 festivals. Other support schemes within MEDIA include the EU film festival “Europe Loves Cinema”.

European cinema has an outstandingly diverse and heterogeneous past, an understated present and a promising future ahead. Zealous federalists can play an important role in instigating further curiosity as well as debate on what is being produced on the continent. The partially unutilised potential of such an important sociocultural instrument as cinema should be a concern for those who see unification as encompassing more than market interests. Multiple EU initiatives reveal that this power has been acknowledged by the institutions, that they are effective and that more can be done in this direction.

Having recently watched Raw from 2016 (also known as Grave in French), I was seized with the realisation that I had just witnessed a French-Belgian production incorporating Italian songs in its soundtrack and a reference to the Portuguese national football team. This film is by no means a singular case. A truly borderless European cinema seems to be formed. It is now a matter of facilitating the circulation of EU films in international markets. For that to happen, it is essential that not only European, national and regional authorities, but also ordinary citizens are made fully aware of the exceptionally captivating and self-revealing cinema being produced in Europe these days.

References

Bohlen, Celestine (2013) Protecting European Cinema, The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/22/world/europe/22ihtletter22.html [Accessed: 17 June 2017]

European Audiovisual Observatory (2016) Press release - Box office hit record high in the European Union in 2015, Press Room. Available at: http://www.obs.coe.int/en/-/cannes-2016-cinema-market-trends [Accessed: 17 June 2017]

European Parliament (2014) An overview of Europe’s film industry, Briefing - December 2014. Available at: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2014/545705/ EPRS_BRI(2014)545705_REV1_EN.pdf [Accessed: 17 June 2017]

Finney, Angus (2013) Developing Feature Films in Europe: A Practical Guide, London: Routledge

Giannoulis, Karafillis (2013) Parliament approves Creative Europe programme, New Europe. Available at: https://www.neweurope.eu/article/parliament-approves-creativeeurope-programme/ [Accessed: 18 June 2017]

IMDB (2017) MEDIA Programme of the European Union, Available at: http://www.imdb.com/company/co0004166/?ref_=fn_co_co_7 [Accessed: 18 June 2017]

Wutz, Josef & Pérez, Valentin (2014) Dissemination of European Cinema in the European Union and the International Market, The Studies & Reports - November 2014. Available at: http://www.notre-europe.eu/media/disseminationeuropeanfilmwutzperez-ne-jdi-ifa-unifr-nov14.pdf?pdf=ok [Accessed: 17 June 2017]

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