Marion Döring: "Filmmakers have an unspoken duty to tell honest stories"
“Filmmakers have an unspoken duty to tell honest stories”
Director of the European Film Academy on the promotion of European film directors and awareness about cinema among viewers, especially teenagers and young adults
The Ukrainian Week caught up with Marion Döring, director of the European Film Academy, at this year’s Molodist Film Festival to talk about promoting European directors and the need for greater awareness about cinema among viewers, especially teenagers and young adults. Döring also spoke about the situation with filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, reminding us all, once more, that freedom is not guaranteed but has to always be protected.
When people talk about European film awards, the first one that comes to mind is Cannes’s Golden Palm and the Berlinale’s Golden Bear. How does the EFA differ from these two and what is its reputation today?
— Let me start with where things began. Thirty years ago, in 1988, group of filmmakers got together in Berlin for the first European film awards. This was just before the Berlin Wall was taken down, when a united Germany still hadn’t happened and the communist and western systems lived parallel lives. The night before the awards, this group gathered in a hotel room because they were very worried about the situation in Europe at that point. The continent was divided and there wasn’t much freedom.
They were also quite worried about film. The thing is that, at that point in time, viewers did not want to see European films because their screens were filled with American movies. It was time to take the situation into their own hands, to win back audiences and restore their confidence that European film was worth their attention. The next day, during the awards ceremony, they announced the establishment of the European Film Academy. Four months later, it was up and running. Since then, we’ve been fighting to get European films to attract more attention.
I was there at this first meeting 20 years ago and can say that a lot has been achieved since that time—but not enough. In the last three decades, Europe has completely changed: the Berlin Wall came down, the communist system is no longer there, our borders opened up, and the continent has become freer and larger. Our Europe was geographically fragmented and it was not just about the EU. Now it has become more varied because some countries fell apart into smaller entities while others joined forces.
On a continent like this, European cinema is very important because it is a kind of ambassador for a different style of life and culture. The open question is how to engage more viewers with it. We’ve lost several generations because no on did much about developing knowledge about cinematography. We don’t have huge promotion budgets the way that Hollywood does, and without financing, it’s very hard to attract the attention of a wider audience, which is not an easy challenge. Young people need to know more, as does our contemporary and future audience in order to develop a hunger and appetite for European films.
So it turns out that the European Film Academy has a lot of complicated challenges, more than America’s Oscar. Indeed, we don’t want to compare ourselves to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). We are a very different world here in Europe, and our film world is wildly different from Hollywood’s.
Cannes, Locarno, Berlinale are a completely different story. You’re talking about film festivals that last 8-10 days. The films that are shown there are mostly the debuts of directors whose careers are just in starting, so these festivals are powerful PR machines for these premieres: all the attention is on them—and all the expectations. We’re more like BAFTA, the Oscars and a number of other national film awards that are given to directors who have already done something in cinema. It’s an enormous challenge for us because very many European films are never shown outside the borders of the countries where they were made. Our aim is to popularize movies that have not been seen on every screen in Europe. And this goes on, year after year. The obvious point is that filmgoers cannot evaluate or even recognize movies that they’ve simply
never seen. It’s also important to engage young viewers, to work on making them more aware so that they don’t trot off to where the big promo budgets are but can listen to their own hearts and tastes. The EFA is more about informing, educating, building awareness, and making policy.
How open are non-documentary films in Europe to exposing the political and social conflicts going on today?
— Europe is many countries and nations that have enjoyed open borders for the last 40 years. Young people travel a good deal and can see and discover many different cities, cultures and people of all kinds. All of this should have an impact on their desire for films. How else can you find out about a different culture? I think the simplest way is to see a movie. In an hour and a half or so, you find yourself in a different world and you get an idea of what’s going on beyond the fancy signage. It’s pretty difficult to imagine a situation where, wherever that I am, I can just knock on the first door I come across and ask people to show me how they live and tell me how they feel, what they are afraid of and what they hope for… This is simply not accessible because it means invading someone’s privacy. But in a movie, all of this is possible because the film takes me where I need to go, to the human core. This is a very valuable phenomenon and experience. We have to concern ourselves with getting as many people as possible to look at such films so that they can begin to talk about the emotional state of our countries and of Europe—and about the future.
When you start getting closer to other people, you find out how to identify with them, and I think the psychological effect is that you become more tolerant. This is why we need to he spreading European film culture. I believe that if people start watching this kind of movie, the world will become just a little bit better.
Every year when I look at the list of films being submitted for the European film awards, I see about 50 creative films and 15 documentaries. All of them, one way or another, look at complicated individual and collective issues. Of course, sometimes a comedy is just a comedy, but most films bring up a series of problems. Take the film, Body and Soul, by the Hungarian filmmaker Ildiko Enyedi. This film was made in a country where making a free film is not easy at all, but the director was able to paint this very beautiful, bold picture. If we count all the directors, we’ll come up with a long list, and if we add the documentary makers, the list will be enormous. The current generation of filmmakers is very much concerned about contemporary issues.
There’s no lack of talented directors who are ready to make movies about complex issues and values. The problem lies elsewhere. Right now, the eighth project called “Young Audience Award” is now taking place, which is aimed at teenagers. All seven times, we showed three nominated films in theaters in six different countries. These showings led to discussions between youthful audiences and film professionals. In the evening after the showing, they all voted online to pick their favorite. The award ceremony took place in Germany and we aired it online.
You know, young people are happy to spend a day at the movies, to watch three complicated, non-popcorn European movies where the subjects touch on political and personal freedom, dignity and so on. This project has been so popular that today 34 countries are on board, represented by 45 cities across Europe. We have also set up an interactive bridge among different theaters so that the young audience can see what’s going on elsewhere. Young people really like that. They are proud that they are part of the jury and can influence the final decision as to who gets the award. For them, it’s important to be part of the European community, to influence decisions, and to be heard.
I think this is a wonderful educational project that develops a taste for quality films among young people. Every time before the project starts again, I poll young viewers about what films appeal to them. The typical response is Hollywood horror flicks and action movies.
Some say that movies and their directors should be above the political clashes and battles that take place in our world because they are making art. What are your thoughts about this attitude? About the notion that films, like literature and theater, can be mediators of certain meanings and values?
— The main work of a filmmaker is to make films. Filmmakers have an unspoken duty to tell honest stories and to talk to us about values. Those who make films are a somewhat privileged group that has the advantage of living freely and freely making films. They have an immense responsibility to make movies for and about those of their colleagues who are in far worse circumstances and films for future generations that need to understand why this or that value is important.
Not long ago I happened across statistics about what young people think of Europe. Nearly 60% value it, yet the one thing that young people are not very interested in is democracy. They think that it’s not that important. True, democracy is not the best possible political organization, but it’s the best of what we have. People don’t always behave the way they should but every one of us needs to live in peace and freedom, which democracy can ensure. It seems that many Europeans are used to being in Europe and considers this an entitlement, a given, not a value. In short, the sated person is no friend to the hungry. If democracy is a daily reality, why should anyone suddenly worry about it?
Many people don’t seem to understand that they should go and cast their ballots. This is what happened when they voted on Brexit in the UK. Young people massively ignored the referendum for myriad stupid reasons: the weather was nice, so it was a perfect time to just hang out. Since they didn’t vote, they took no responsibility for their own futures and did not vote against Brexit. Freedom of movement and opportunities to work elsewhere in Europe applied to the British as well, but it looks like Brexit will now undermine these options. In blowing off their vote, young people failed to defend their own futures.
We can see that Europe is now divided into camps. Poland, Hungary, Germany and a slew of other countries are now in
OLEH SENTSOV'S INCARCERATION IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND OF ARTISTIC EXPRESSION ARE LOST. IT'S SO IMPORTANT FOR US TO REMIND EACH OTHER AND NOT FORGET ABOUT HIM
a situation where their political right wing has enormous electoral support. That’s scary. It’s time to say out loud that if we don’t defend the rights and freedoms that we have today, they will very quickly disappear. How can films help in this case? Because they can talk about all these issues. They can show us what life might be like when there’s no freedom and how a society and a country get to that place. We are all responsible for what happens.
The film world is divided along geographic and cultural lines. Asian, American and European cinematography are completely different universes. What is most significant about European film for you?
— European films raise many issues. Their protagonists are not always heroes or superheroes and their heroism lies in a different plane. It arises from the fact that the protagonists try to understand what’s going on around them and how to build their own lives. These aren’t the superheroes of American action movies but individuals with whom the viewer can identify.
Unlike literary classics, film classics are not taught in school curricula, even though both represent world art. Developing a fine taste for film is not a school matter?
— I agree that this is missing and it’s a problem. Why is it so? Because in many countries politicians think its unimportant. Public school curricula include courses in literature but none in cinema. The question is, how are people then supposed to know about film classics? About Ingmar Bergman and Oleksandr Dovzhenko? Just like literature, filmmaking is an art. European cinematography confirms European culture, regardless of Europe’s divisions, variety and fragments. This is one of the things that unite us all.
The fact that people are no longer reading thick books is a sign of our times. But everybody still watches movies because they take less time. So, let young people watch Bergman, Kieslowski and others. They still have plenty to tell the world.
Andrzei Wajda’s last film, Afterimage, used the fate of a single individual to show how Stalinism destroyed avant-gardism in Poland. I doubt that young people today would read a book on this subject, but they will watch a movie. Especially if there’s a great artist’s name behind it. For me, Wajda is a hero, a man who never lost courage in life to his very last day on earth. And he’s not the only one: among European filmmakers there are plenty of those who are bold as children. However, sometimes just to watch a particular film is an act of courage.
The arts, including cinema, did not always stand on guard for freedom, democracy and human rights. Under dictatorships, it often served those in power. What can be done when we see similar practices being revived, especially in Russia?
— We all know how the Nazi regime used the arts, and it’s no secret that there were artists who allowed themselves to be as tools on behalf of Nazism. Here it’s important to mention a few things. For an artist, to live under a dictatorship is a very difficult experience. It’s hard for me to even imagine something like that, because I’ve been lucky enough to live in an era where freedom was part of life and I have no experience of having to choose between my individuality and getting some benefits. And I can’t pass judgment on those who were not strong enough not to compromise. When you have to choose between protecting your family and protecting your art—it’s a terrifying choice. Today, we must do everything possible to make sure that that kind of situation never returns and that no one is ever again faced with such a choice. We are all human and it’s hard to say how any one of us might react in such a situation.
Nobody but us will defend our democracy or our freedoms. Each of us acts in their defense in various ways: journalists in theirs, because writing is a very powerful instrument of influence, and the European Film Academy in its. Every year, in additional to aware, we hold human rights platform where we talk about free speech and artistic expression. Our main awards ceremony also has an element of this, not just the light of border lights.
In fact, the question is, how can people live under a dictatorship. In fact, the question is, how should people live under a dictatorship, when there is no freedom? Somehow or another, in a very subtle manner, they manage, between the lines, to tell about many very important things in their works. It’s not always necessary to tell ev3erything, starting with the title page.
Ukrainian director Oleh Sentsov is continuing his hunger strike until all political hostages held by the Kremlin are released. What can the EFA do to support its colleague who has been unlawfully incarcerated in the Russian Federation for the courage not to agree to the illegal actions in his Crimean homeland?
— Those who willingly vote for populists today don’t seem to be aware of what will probably happen after those politicians come to power. It’s a question voters seem to just leave up to chance. Western Europe has lived a fairly good life for some decades at this point, and this good life has led to a failure to really concern ourselves about education and on handing down our values to future generations. We figured they would see them and automatically absorb them as their own, but that’s not happening. People need to be reminded every day that their free life is a privilege. We can see that on the streets of Kyiv, where a slew of stores has put up posters and banners in support of Oleh Sentsov in their windows. When people walk by, they at least stop and think about who this is.
We are trying to do as much as physically possible for Sentsov. His incarceration is what happens when freedom of speech and of artistic expression are lost. It’s so important for us to remind each other and not forget about him. Right now, because he’s continuing his hunger strike, there are many activities on his behalf. Not long ago, Agnieszka Holland and Wim Wenders published an open letter in which they addressed Russian politicians and filmmakers, among others.
In addition to this, we are constantly reminding our own politicians and leaders that Oleh Sentsov must be set free. We’re talking not just about Germany but also about the rest of Europe. The point is that such campaigns typically aren’t very high profile. At the political level, diplomacy often takes place in face-to-face meetings. The Sentsov case is on the agenda of European governments, but any decision can only be made in Moscow. On June 14, the football championships kicked off in Russia and this is yet another opportunity to draw widespread attention to the situation with this Ukrainian filmmaker. We can’t get together and enjoy the celebration of sports while forgetting about Oleh Sentsov, who was jailed simply because he had expressed his own opinion and because he is a Ukrainian artist. And it’s not just about him, either. How can anyone drink beer, dance in the streets and enjoy football when all these people are still behind bars? Let’s not forget that something like this could happen to any of us.
SO IT TURNS OUT THAT THE EUROPEAN FILM ACADEMY HAS A LOT OF COMPLICATED CHALLENGES, MORE THAN AMERICA'S OSCAR. INDEED, WE DON'T WANT TO COMPARE OURSELVES TO THE ACADEMY OF MOTION PICTURE ARTS AND SCIENCES. WE ARE A VERY DIFFERENT WORLD HERE IN EUROPE, AND OUR FILM WORLD IS WILDLY DIFFERENT FROM HOLLYWOOD'S