Featuring Both Old Worlds and New As European Film Festival 2020 Goes Virtual

Polish film Sweat

It’s movie bonanza in November with the annual European Film Festival going virtual for free. The movies are premiere productions from different European countries with topics ranging from serious to silly, depending on your mood. DIANE DE BEER takes a closer look:

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, European movies were commonplace on our screens. Not so much anymore – sadly. But it has been remedied, the blow softened by the emergence of the annual European Film Festival from November 12 to 22. And in the past couple of years, the contributions have been quite extraordinary.

Not much good has come from this year, yet trust the innovation of the arts to save the day every once in a while. This year’s European Film Festival goes virtual and the good news is that it comes for free – bar one which many will gladly pay to see.

With a diverse line-up of 12 brand new films, all of which are premiere screenings in South Africa, for those who have been lost without movies it’s a bonanza with a wide range of topics and performers from different European countries.

Making a personal pick of four films to watch in advance, I started with two very different war movies – a sign of the times:

Belgian contribution Home Front directed by Lucas Belvaux is set in a small French village where the 60th birthday of one of its female inhabitants is being celebrated.

But times stops when her estranged brother (in the imposing yet almost brutish form of Gerard Depardieu) suddenly interrupts the festivities.

The implosion is almost immediate but apparently also not unexpected. That he turns up with a gift is what surprises everyone, but he quickly eradicates any possible goodwill by upending the proceedings – and thus the film unfolds in a horrific story of war set in the past but with the present of this small community held in a vice grip that seems immovable.

It’s a thoughtful and beautifully wrought film, unexpected in its powerful storytelling of a past that is hidden, mostly in shame, but also in denial as happens with war and the atrocities (in this instance mostly) men do, in situations of entitlement and terror.

Delicately told, it also unveils a story of racism between two countries of which everyone is aware but the victors rarely acknowledge – and those times are illuminated by a harsh spotlight that cannot be ignored – and hopefully allow people to move on .

It’s of its time yet perfect for our current times when marginalised lives matter.

War is also the subject of Lithuania’s In The Dusk directed by Sharunas Bartas and part of the Official Cannes Selection 2020.

It is post-World War 2, 1948, but it is as if no one has noticed that the war has ended. “You can find the same war in Ukraine – and its happening today,” says the director by way of explanation. And it is exactly that.

Imagine that the rest of the world is still in shock and recovering from a world war but yours is still ongoing. Yet no one cares, they’re done. And that’s when those who want to invade find fertile ground. “It’s a world of real wars, not Cold Wars or hybrid wars,” the director elaborates.

Lithuanian film In The Dusk

Living in the forest near the family farm to which the  19-year-old Unte returns from the war, is a partisan group resisting Soviet occupation. While the invaders are promising better times, having just come through a long period of war, those defending their country are suspicious. They know not to trust and are determined to stick it out.

It’s a grey and grim reality for those who can hardly survive in peaceful times and now have to keep fighting for their homeland. But that’s what war is.

And perhaps these two films want to make exactly that point. There are no winners. For those dying to keep the fight going all around the world, what is the end game?

But again it is hauntingly shot, the performances detailed and emotional, especially from the young Unte and his father, and the harsh reality simply cannot be kept at bay.

Talking about marginalised people, especially with extremists again causing mayhem and murder in Europe, they don’t come more targeted than the British Pakistani rapper in Mogul Mowgli starring the extraordinary Riz Ahmed, such an exciting young actor who makes such interesting role choices.

British film Mogul Mowgli

As Zed, he is on the cusp of a huge career breakout tour, but is suddenly struck down by a terrifying illness and forced to move back into his conservative family home. Here he has to battle not only the disappointment but also the traditions of his parents which are far removed from what he hoped his life would be.

Quite a few films and TV series have been made about second generation immigrants who have to balance the imbalance between their land of birth and the traditions of their parents, but this is a novel approach and one that reaches across genres and generations.

It’s the UK’s offering and a smart one at that, with the whole world trying to come to terms with shifting borders and identities. Directed by Bassam Tariq, it won the Fipresci Prize in the Panorama section of the 2020 Berlinale. It’s both thought-provoking and cunningly told with rap playing a vital role.

Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund could sound quite daunting, but I was quite fascinated as I wasn’t familiar with the book but had seen director Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Oscar-winning film The Counterfeiters.

This is something completely different and even though the film disappointed, I was pleased to engage with the story.

Austrian film Narcissus and Goldmund

This Austrian entry is set in the dark Middle Ages where two very different characters meet in a monastery, become close friends, but choose very different lives. Narcissus prefers to spend his life in prayer and meditation even though he has fallen in love with his adventurous friend Goldmund. He in turn decides to escape into the more enticing life outside of the restrictions of religion to lead a more hedonistic life.

The problem was in the script rather than the filmmaking. It felt as if the scope could have been narrowed down to bring more substance instead of a sketchy retelling of the basic storyline. Too much information and too little enquiry.

Despite the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, EU Ambassador to South Africa, Dr Riina Kionka, said: “Twelve films in 11 days shows the determination of this European partnership to overcome difficult circumstances. Since my arrival in South Africa this is my second European Film Festival:  I can tell you that it is a cultural highlight not to be missed. In addition, I invite you to participate in the various special events lined up during the Festival!”  

Dutch film Becoming Mona

Other films include: 

  • Marco Bellocchio’s award-winning film The Traitor  about an ‘80s whistleblowing  mafia boss-turned-informer who triggers the largest prosecution of the Sicilian mafia in Italian history.
  • The German film Curveball is a sober warning about how terribly easy it is to slip into war, with this fact-based story about how a lie regarding chemical weapons sets in motion a chain of events that results in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, forever changing the global political landscape.
  • The Spanish film One Careful Owner tells how a woman buys a new home with a certain ‘inconvenience’, namely that the 80-year old current owner will remain living in it until she dies. It’s a story filled with tenderness, emotion and much laughter. 
  • Also honing in on female relationships, the French film Proxima, by director Alice Winocour, is about a French woman astronaut who is forced to consider her priorities of family versus career. *
  • Becoming Mona, directed bySabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden, deals with Mona’s struggle to break free from the stifling constraints of a life lived in service of other people’s egos.  
  • The Polish film Sweat by director Magnus van Horn focuses on a fitness motivator who has become a social media celebrity and influencer, highly pertinent issues in this modern digital era.

 The line-up also includes two powerful documentaries.   The Irish representative, The 8th, is about the highly emotive and divisive topic of abortion and women’s reproductive rights. And Nathan Grossman’s deeply personal Swedish documentary I am Greta follows the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg from her one-person school strike to her astonishing wind-powered voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to speak at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City. 

The festival is accessible online across South Africa only. The film screenings are free, except for I am Greta, whose entry fee of R50 serves as a fundraiser for a climate action group that will be awarded screening proceeds after the festival.

Look out for the full programme of screenings and special events as well as bookings on  https://films.eurofilmfest.co.za/ only available for viewing in South Africa.

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