In an era of new barriers against physical movement between nations and continents, the free movement of stories becomes all the more precious and potent. The European Film Festival, opening today, will bring a rich influx of cinematic imagination to South African screens.
The online festival is free, though there are a limited number of tickets for each film — so book quickly. The festival includes webinars with filmmakers on the programme, hosted by South African moderators, as well as public screenings in Khayelitsha, Hillbrow and Benoni.
Of the 18 new films featured from the European Union, 13 were directed by women. For Riina Kionka, the EU’s ambassador to South Africa, that ratio serves as both a reflection of gender equity progress in the European film industry, and an effort to accelerate that progress.
“It is a conscious choice, borne of the catastrophes in gender representation that we saw at the Oscars recently,” Kionka says. “I think the Oscars have a lot to answer for in that respect, but these are European films and there is a shift in whom we showcase. It’s about being proactive and expressing that the historical imbalance needs to change.”
The theme of this festival is “Healing Journeys”, and its stories confront an array of emotional, physical and political dislocations. Europe is widely seen in other continents as a territory of sanctuary, prosperity and health; a democratic bloc in which human life is better protected than anywhere on Earth. But many of the stories told about Europe in these films are dark and unsettling, even when they operate on an intimately personal scale.
Other films trace the livid political scars of the European 20th century, notably the Oscar-nominated Quo Vadis Aida? by Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić, an unflinching account of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 from the point of view of a United Nations translator. The unfolding future of Europe as a migrant culture is explored in the acclaimed Mr Bachmann and His Class, a documentary about an innovative school teacher, Dieter Bachmann, in a provincial German town.
“These films are very much a reflection of Sturm und Drang,” says Kionka. “You heal after a crisis or trauma. Some of these are historical traumas — as in the case of Srebrenica, but they are traumas that Europe is still dealing with. And have a huge impact on foreign policy and the way they approach international law. I don’t see a disconnect between these stories from the past and the fact that the world is a mess. It’s cultural therapy; a way of processing.”
Cultural diplomacy in Africa by the governments of wealthy states can carry a paternalistic dynamic, in which the organising country is the active subject and the host country the passive object. But for Kionka, this project is one of naked self-analysis.
As an Estonian citizen and the child of a refugee family who fled to the US during World War II, she believes one of the most powerful binding ideas of contemporary Europe is an openness that subverts the propagandistic impulse. “Only the strong are willing to make themselves vulnerable, because it’s only from that point of departure that you can move forward. You build trust by displaying vulnerability.”
She is reluctant to use the term “soft power”, a phrase often used to describe cultural diplomacy. “I have never accepted these terms, soft power and hard power — it seems a false dichotomy. Power is power. I am a realist. You have different vehicles for projecting that.
“It’s about trying to spark a debate and an exchange of views with South African filmmakers and audiences. We want this to be a meeting of minds. Everyone loves to go to the movies, and some of these films are comedies — but these films go to deep places that are high on the political agenda here too.”
For the full schedule, tickets and info on special events, go to https://www.eurofilmfest.co.za/
THE PICK OF THE FEST
Run Uje Run (directed by Henrik Schyffert) Sweden, 2020
Uje Brandelius, a middle-aged indie pop singer and radio host, plays himself in this quasi-documentary account of his recent diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease. It’s a lot funnier than that sounds. Brandelius’ wife, Therese, and their two young daughters also play themselves, giving us an unsettlingly intimate view of what happens when a happy creative life is struck by a molecular disaster. The film is a strange and fearless feat. Brandelius and director Schyffert contrive somehow to reinvent his personal crisis — which he initially hides from his family — as a dry but warm social comedy, gently lampooning the class and immigration politics of contemporary Sweden as it goes. The upshot could be described as “uplifting”, but is far from the glib evasions of so much self-help literature. Run Uje Run is frank, awkward, unpretentious and utterly humane.
Charlatan (directed by Agnieszka Holland) Czech Republic, 2020
The great Polish director turns her unflinching historian’s gaze on the true story of Jan Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan), a renowned Czech herbalist and healer who specialised in diagnosing illnesses purely on the basis of visual analysis of urine samples, and treated Nazi leaders such as Martin Bormann during the occupation of Czechoslovakia. Mikolášek then became a target from the post-war communist government because he seemed like a quack and got rich off his herb mixtures. But Holland takes his intuitive medical ideas seriously. She constructs a quietly generous account of Mikolášek’s mixture of empathy and monomania, and of his long affair with his assistant, Frantisek (Juraj Loj). In Holland’s skilful hands — and those of the absorbing Trojan and his son Josef, who plays the young healer with similar power — even a hardcore allopathy fan like myself can accept Mikolášek’s complexity.
Robust (directed by Constance Meyer) France, 2021
Gérard Depardieu is George, an ageing, lardy film star on the skids. He is chaotic, gluttonous, unreliable and sad — despite being blessed with plum roles, a sweet little son, and a tankful of deep-sea creatures. When his long-term assistant-cum-bodyguard takes a leave of absence, the temporary replacement is Aïssa (Déborah Lukumuena), a young security officer and amateur wrestler. Aïssa is as disciplined, grown-up and discreet as George is none of the above. The pair might be good for each other, but director Meyer, in her first full-length feature, deftly skirts the schmaltzy terrain that could easily doom the premise. Robust is moving in a very minor key.
Another Round (directed by Thomas Vinterberg), Denmark, 2020
The unflinching Dogme 95 pioneer Vinterberg reunites with Mads Mikkelsen, the star of his gruellingly brilliant 2012 film The Hunt. This time, the mood is, thankfully, a bit lighter. A quartet of bored school teacher colleagues at a Copenhagen high school decide to pursue a psychiatrist’s theory that human happiness can be supported by consistently maintaining a blood alcohol content of 0.05%. The four decide to test this idea with a rigid programme of surreptitious daydrinking; the rules of their group experiment include no alcohol on weekends or after 8pm, and their gently inebriated new lives are initially wonderfully improved, both at work and at home. Until, of course, they aren’t. Mikkelsen is superb, and Another Round won Best International Feature at this year’s Oscars, and also scooped the same category at this year’s Baftas and Césars. It is dedicated to the memory of Vinterberg’s teenage daughter Ida, who died in an accident in 2019.