"We need to think about how we can protect European cinema”: Interview with Matthijs Wouter Knol, Director of the European Film Academy

, by Jérôme Flury, Servane de Pastre

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

"We need to think about how we can protect European cinema”: Interview with Matthijs Wouter Knol, Director of the European Film Academy
© Gerhard Kassner/European Film Academy

Matthijs Wouter Knol has been Director of the European Film Academy since January 2021. In these complicated times for the industry, after a pandemic that has largely benefited video-on-demand platforms, the Dutchman answered questions from The New Federalist, explaining the role of his institution, which will hold its annual awards ceremony on 9 December in Berlin.

You have recently taken over the presidency of this institution at a time when the film industry is going through a complicated period. Theatres were closed during the pandemic and today the success of series platforms such as Netflix are experiencing a major development. How can European cinema withstand these changes?

I think we find ourselves at a time in which many changes that were already happening have accelerated. The world of cinema was always in a state of change. In the past two years, it has accelerated, not only because of the pandemic that we are living through, which has honestly had a big impact on the behaviour of viewers, but also on the possibilities for people to watch content. Of course, it is also because of the way streaming platforms have used that pandemic and the current situation to basically extend their model of business.

It is a reason to look at the European Film Academy on how we can make sure that we protect our European Cinema. That’s actually the reason why the European film Academy was founded in 1989, almost thirty-five years ago. Back then, it was already the case that in many cinemas American content dominated, and filmmakers that were at the base of the European Film Academy already said “we need to create organisations that can make European works more visible, so that we can make sure that they are appreciated and we can make sure that people working in European cinemas are better connected”.

In the moment in which we live now, this is an important moment to look into how we can protect European cinema. My reason for joining the European Film Academy is because I feel I want to play a role in that. I think the EFA is a great organisation to make that change in the next couple of years.

Can you identify a European way of doing films?

I wouldn’t talk too much about style but, for us, European cinema are films made by European filmmakers. And with filmmakers, I would not only focus on the directors but everybody involved in the process of filmmaking, from script writers to directors, actors, designers, composers, and so on.

Like every academy, The European Film Academy has a system of defining when a film is truly European, which is if enough European people have worked on that film. It can even be a film that has been shot somewhere else in the world, outside of Europe. But obviously the majority of the films ‘made in Europe’ are also shot in Europe and tell European stories and very clearly, a film that is made in France or in Greece or in Belarus, or in Samiland in the north of Scandinavia, they will be very different films with different traditions or story-telling. But Europe, if you look at a world map, is not a very large part of the world but it’s a very distinct and a very culturally developed one. Film was invented in Europe! Film is a very European medium.

So for me, what makes a European film is: the film is made in one of the 50 European countries that are also part of the EFA. We are larger than the EU. Europe is larger than the EU. We count 50 countries in it, as well as Israel and Palestine.

If you ask me, what also makes a film “European”, is not only the fact that it comes from Europe but that in many cases, European films are made together with each other. For European films to be made, we need to join forces to get enough money and to be sure the films are being distributed in different countries, so collaboration and co-production are very clear characteristics of European film as well.

In this field, the influence of the United States remains major, and the means invested are historically significant on the other side of the Atlantic. How do you support the European film industry? How can American influence be matched?

We can’t turn back time, and say “you know, film was invented in Europe”, which was a very long time ago. In general, it seems that in Europe we have forgotten that if we make films, we should make places for films to be seen. It seems that we have grown accustomed to the fact that, if we have cinemas, if we watch or if we subscribe to streaming platforms or all the places where a film can be seen, we have forgotten that within Europe, it’s not automatic that we create enough space for European films to be seen everywhere.

I’m also talking about how we can see European films on television and at other events. And I think there should be a much larger and growing awareness that if we want to promote our industry and fight for the visibility and the existence of European films, we should start making things in order that European films can be viewed as much as non-European films. At the moment, it’s not the case. We give priority to American films because the system of distribution is mainly linked to the distribution system of studios in the US.

I do feel that it’s time to say, “listen, at the moment, we see that with the arrival of streaming platforms, there’s yet another huge channel of non-European content, that is being given to everybody else in the world. Thank you very much, but we want to work on improving our own infrastructure and promote our cinema more”.

The EFA has a large role to play in creating awareness. Everybody in Europe is doing that at a national level. We want to have the conversation in France, in Scandinavia and also not forget the almost thirty countries that are part of Eastern Europe. Altogether, the EFA has a large role in putting that on the agenda in the next year. And secondly, the impact of the European Film Awards should become much larger in the next ten years. I think that’s also something the EFA will work on aboard, to make sure that the award tool is a tool to express appreciation and honour filmmakers and films, and I think it is a very impactful tool to use.

You talked about the creation of places to see European films, but how is it possible to make European cinema more affordable?

Cinemas play an important role in this. Not only the archive cinemas, which do a fantastic job but are not the most accessible places in Europe. I think we should also work with more mainstream, commercial cinemas on that, because they attract a completely different audience and not everybody has the chance to go to a cinema. In non-urban areas, there are fewer cinemas or non cinemas at all. That’s why for me, when we talk about European cinema, I’m explicitly talking about online possibilities to watch films, streaming platforms, film clubs.

I’m talking about working together with existing streaming platforms but also with streaming platforms that probably would be set up in the next few years. There are a lot of plans to set up a European version of a big streaming platform. I think the EFA should work with both online and on-site options to watch films to include as many people as possible because most people have access to the internet and would be able to watch films through that. And if not, I’m sure that in the next couple of years we’ll find other ways of bringing films to people where they actually are, maybe even on their phones.

Don’t you think that culture and art should also be factors of European unity? Why can this type of award contribute to building European identity?

The European Film awards contributes to that because it’s the only event in the year, in Europe, that brings everybody who works in films in Europe together. The members have access from September to a selection of films that includes the Cannes award winners, Venice’s winners, Berlin’s winners and many other films that are very new and not yet available in cinemas. European Film academy members have access to it, they vote for the nominees, and at the end of the process, the awards are given.

It’s our community of over 4,000 members who watch the films and decide on the winners. This helps contribute to a feeling all around Europe, apart from the fact that I said before, that it should be much more of an event for the general audience. That doesn’t mean that we can give access to all these brand new films to everybody in Europe, because we would not have the right to do that. But, I think when people give awards to European films, when European people watch films from all these different countries in Europe, there is a sense of “we belong together”, as, much like films, traditions, histories, and cultures are very different. There are a lot of connections between languages or history in Europe, and watching films with each other and giving awards to these films helps to create a European identity. Cinema is an extremely important and very strong tool for people to feel more European.

We’re setting up a European film club for teenagers in Europe and we have a group of around 6,000 teenagers in Europe that are part of this project. The idea is that they watch European films and decide which should receive the ‘Best Young Audience award’ and they all say “woah, I watched these films and I feel so much more European, I understand much more, I’m so curious about films and people from other countries”.

Your next awards ceremony will take place on Saturday, 11 December, in Berlin. How were the nominated films selected?

First of all, I’m very happy that, given the situation in Berlin, we are able to do the ceremony as a physical event, that we are able to have guests present in Berlin. Of course the ceremony will be a very different size, because normally it’s a very big event. It will be streamed online so a lot of people in Europe will be able to see it. Last year, the ceremony was completely online. It’s important for us to connect much more to a real audience. The European film award has been too long an event that has been mainly focused on film industry audiences, people that are aware of the European film industry.

That doesn’t mean that we are going to organize events in, for example Berlin, for hundreds of thousands of Europeans that want to come to a cinema there. But it does mean that for this year and the years that follow, we’ll do local events that are linked to the European film award, that take place in local cinemas, that take place on streaming platforms… So many more people can, even at home or at the local cinema next door, get to be a part of the experience of the European film awards. We’re calling that project ‘the month of European films’, before the European film awards. It will show a programme of European films in different European cities, as well as online. We work together with Mubi, so they will screen a lot of European films in that month and the climax of the month of European films will be, the last day, the European film awards.

For example, Mubi will screen the films of our annual ‘Lifetime Achievement award’ winner, creating a film programme around the filmmaker that receives this award. This year, the Hungarian filmmaker Márta Mészáros won the prize. Many people don’t know her films anymore, but she has made fantastic films, and won many awards in Berlin, Cannes, and San Sebastian. She created films in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. They are very important European films.

Berlin is already the place where an important film award is given every year, the Golden Bear. In your list of nominated features, there is this one film, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, which has already won the famous prize of the Berlinale. How is the European Film Award different? Does this prize succeed in making itself known in the world of cinema, which is already saturated?

It’s a very different award! I wouldn’t compare it to any festival award, because we’re not a festival. Festivals are based on programmers making their personal choices and putting a competition programme together, with an independent jury of chosen people who choose a winner and the awards.

The EFA is very different. First of all, we don’t curate our selection because this is done by the members of the European film academy: we nominate a few and then we vote for the best ones based on the nomination. And secondly, festivals have international competitions of films from everywhere, including European films. The European film academy is only for European films, which may sound like it’s a smaller number of films, but… I don’t even know how many films exactly are made in Europe every year.

We pick around 50 to 55 from a huge number of European films that are selected, members can watch them, and then, they vote for the best films to give awards to. So it’s a very different dynamic, a different system, and don’t forget we are also at the end of the year. There’s no big European film festival taking place anymore at this time of the year, after San Sebastian. We give a chance to all the members of the EFA to suggest the best film of this year from Europe. Again, that helps to promote European cinema in general. Even if only 25 films go home with an award, it has an impact on all the European films, even the ones that were not selected.

How can the members of the EFA choose?

We put them on our academy VOD platform for them to watch online. They can then vote for the film, with a deadline. We then announce the nominations, which will be on the 9th of November this year. And from the 9th of November to the 11th of December, they can again vote. Based on their voting, the winner will be chosen. The members are filmmakers from all over Europe and again, filmmakers are people working on films so that includes a lot of notable scriptwriters, very-well known directors, actors, and producers. In every country we have long lists of members, more than a hundred across France, Spain, Germany, Italy or Scandinavia. Most of the people on these lists are well-known people who work on films, make films or are awarded for films. Less well-known people who may already have an impressive background in films can also become members of the EFA. They can apply for it or we invite them.

The members of the Academy come from one of the 52 countries which are members of the EFA but we also have a couple of American members, for example, or members that are based in Australia, in Canada or even in South America. So, sometimes we have members that are based outside of Europe, but their work is completely linked to distributing or co-producing European films, or having worked for a long time in European festivals, promoting European films there. Recently, we had a famous member that actually passed away, Diane Weyermann. She was a member of the EFA because she supported a lot of European films, for example Collective, which is a Romanian documentary. It won ‘Best Documentary’ in the EF Awards last year, it also won the ‘LUX Audience Award’ from the European Parliament, and it was two times nominated for the Oscars this year.

Why does the ceremony take place in Berlin this year? Why not in a country with less European influence than Germany?

The European film award is always organized every second year in Berlin and next year we will be in Reykjavik, Iceland. The reason for that is that the European Film Award and the EFA were founded in Berlin and a large part of the budget that we have comes from the German government and the City of Berlin. One of the requirements is that it’s a Berlin-based event, so every second year we have the ceremony in Berlin. So, in that sense, Berlin has become one of the capitals of European cinema.

Every second year the event takes place in a different city. It’s always very exciting for us. If in the future we could have more possibilities for funding from other countries, I would love to go more frequently to other cities instead of always being in Berlin. As long as this isn’t the case, we will have the event in Berlin every second year. To be honest, this year, I’m actually quite happy to be in Berlin, because we are still in a situation where the pandemic is not over and there are still a lot of health restrictions. We have the possibility in Berlin to organise something in a city we know very well so it’s easier to adapt to the current situation. Hopefully next year, 2022, Reykjavik will be a very big event again, like we are used to.

Do you also get financial support from the European Union?

Yes, we are financed also by credits from Europe, so the European Commission has been a very important partner for a very long time. But we are also supported by many “patrons” as we call them, which are: national film institutes, national film financing organizations, and national film centres of many countries. In France for example, one of our patrons is the CNC.

Is this the reason why you have different posters from French films behind you (Genese, Jules and Jim)? Did you change it just before the interview?

No, no (laughing)! I’m a big fan of film posters because many film posters are disappearing. The art of film posters and the design of those posters is disappearing and it becomes more and more standardised. I think it’s a pity and a shame, so I collect film posters. The ones you see behind me are just the ones that I put in my new office a couple of months ago. It’s actually a good idea, I mean, I won’t change it for every interview but I would change them once in order to not get bored of film posters. But I’m still very enthusiastic about these two films and film posters.

On your website, there are some details about Berlin, and the Berlin wall in particular. Why is it important for the EFA nowadays?

We explained the history of the origins of the EFA. We want to underline that it could only have begun in Berlin. It is a very strong home base: we have offices, so our teams are based in Berlin. Therefore, apart from being a central place in Europe, it’s a reason for us to keep that in Berlin. I think on the website we explain that historically we have a link with this city. That’s also the reason why my office is in Berlin.

There is no symbolism with the fall of the Berlin wall?

At the moment, I wouldn’t say so, but back then, in 1989, the year of the fall of the wall, we needed the East and West to talk to each other again, so we could discover each other’s films, culture, history, and work together on a larger and closer way of living together in the EU. The EFA was absolutely born through that, so Berlin was a symbolic place as well.

But again, I have a historian background, so I absolutely believe in the importance and relevance of historical things. But, it has also been 35 years since 1989, and I think it’s good to look ahead. In that sense, Berlin is a great place to work, to live and organize events, but I’m pretty sure that in the next ten years, a couple of things might change as well.

During the Cold War, American influence was very strong on the Western part of the continent. Are there still huge differences in the filmmaking process and in the kind of productions between Western and Eastern Europe?

No, they are huge differences. It’s a very interesting question, and at the moment we are working on a list of films that we want to publish in December, because in December it will be thirty years since the Soviet Union was dissolved.

We have asked the question earlier this year: thirty years later, what has actually changed in cinemas in Eastern Europe? Which films from the past thirty years, post-Soviet Union, were the films that defined Eastern European cinemas? We’re making a list right now, and we’re going to publish it after the Awards but before Christmas. The reason for this is not only that we want to show how different Eastern European cinema is from Western European cinemas, but also how bad the situation is when it comes to how films are preserved.

In the West we have a lot of cinema tax, film archives, good budgets, and we can digitize their collections. In France for example, there is a lot of work done in film heritage. In Eastern Europe, that’s completely lacking. That means that many of the films produced don’t exist anymore, because they have not been preserved. That’s a big problem, because when you look at those films, there are huge differences in how films can be shown or preserved. The EFA may play a role here.

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