European Film Festival 2021: virtual and free of charge

We are deep into our second year of confronting the threat of Covid-19, both in terms of our lives and our livelihoods. It has been difficult … everyone is affected. This year’s European Film Festival has been inspired by overcoming difficulty and challenge. Its theme, Healing Journeys, seems rather appropriate for our times. I take this opportunity to invite you – irrespective of whether you are a repeat or a first-time viewer –to join us on this year’s exciting cinematic, and healing, journey,” says                                                            EU Ambassador Riina Kionka.

Quo Vadis deals in one of the most important issues of this century – refugees.


European films have become quite a rarity locally, so when the European Film Festival 2021 announced that this year’s festival would again be virtual and free of charge following the success of last year’s first virtual outing, I was elated. It will be happening from 14 to 24 October, so make sure and tune in.

It was obvious from the first film I watched that, as always, the European film sensibility is very different from that of the rest of the world. Not only is their’s a very distinct identity, but each contribution comes from a different country with a very distinct flavour.

For some of us, certain countries will be more familiar than others and some of the films I selected to watch were determined by my curiosity about the unknown, while others had a familiar actor (Gerard Depardieu) or perhaps an issue which I have a particular interest in.

That’s one of the points of interest of European movies  ̶  the stories they decide to tell. It deals with a contemporary world and the things that might be going right or wrong. That in itself is already fascinating. Which stories would feature strongly in this year’s festival?

A selection of 18 films, 13 of which have been directed by women, will be screened free of charge, providing a window onto what is fresh and new in the film industries of the respective countries, states the organisers.

 Four new participants – the Czech Republic, Denmark, Switzerland and Ukraine – will complement those from last year: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, along with the return of Portugal.

Healing Journeys is this year’s theme, which runs through many of the films in fascinating fashion. And if there is something we need more now than perhaps in any other time in our lives, it is exactly that. That is perhaps also why women feature so strongly. Not only are they more in touch with their emotions (generally speaking), but as mothers and usually the more available parent in most families, they would be the ones who are most in touch and familiar with healing in society.

Because of the pandemic I suspect, the emphasis on mental health, for example, from a variety of sources has been more visible than previously. It is as if the  severity of  Covid 19 has given people permission to speak their minds about their personal circumstances. Think Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles.

Healing – be it mental, physical, spiritual or societal – is vital to the human condition, to our humanity, to our existence, according to the organisers.  This applies both in South Africa and in Europe, they believe, where despite our different contexts and histories, there exists common experience and a mutual need for healing.

They explain that the films on show will present, through the lenses of European filmmakers, a snapshot of experiences of re-establishing oneself after sometimes traumatic and possibly cathartic experiences. They deal with journeys that include organic growth, transition, and processes of self-discovery.  Many include a healthy dose of humour, bringing some possibly much-needed laughter into our lives. Much of the humour is of a more cerebral nature … films that make you smile and think at the same time. 

In conclusion they note that these films present stories of hope, humanity and thought-provoking intrigue, showcasing new work by some of Europe’s most accomplished filmmakers alongside exciting new talent.

The Films:

Here are a few of my picks, as well as some links to more details on the viewing process and the full programme. Nearly all of the films have won awards, with the newer films also certain to do so:

France (Robust):

I couldn’t resist picking this one starring Gérard Depardieu, paired with the little known Déborah Lukumuena. Robust is the debut feature by Constance Meyer and it deals with an aging film star and a young security guard who has been tasked with taking care of him. 

He is old and white with a huge ego (it seems), while she is young and black and busy training for a wrestling championship. They couldn’t be more different, but as these things work, despite their differences, they form an unlikely friendship.

With the inequality of their positions not only because of age but also because of the society they live in and the colour of their skin coming into play, it’s an intriguing watch. It’s subtle yet caring with a great sense of humour and humanity and the best from Depardieu in quite a while.

Germany (Mr Bachmann and His Class):

Mr Bachman and his Class is a life-affirming documentary

Citizens-in-the-making was the clause that caught my eye. That and the fact that it was a documentary. I didn’t realize that it was more than four hours long and that is quite a commitment, but I found it totally gripping for many reasons.

Mr Bachman is the teacher we all hoped for and wish our children could have. This ever-patient individual uses unconventional methods to inspire young students, all in the process of preparing for tuition in their next phase of learning, the equivalent of our high school.

They are all immigrants, in other words outsiders, and he is determined to give them an identity and a sense of belonging. And the way he tries to give these young students a healthy outlook on the people around them and in the process, wipe out prejudice, is quite extraordinary. What he is doing is giving his young charges life, showing the possibilities and the way we should treat everyone around us. It’s a good one to watch with the whole family and I’m sure you can probably watch it in bits. It is described as Maria Speth’s life-affirming documentary and I fully agree.


Ireland (The Bright Side):

Gemma-Leah Devereux fighting for her life in The Bright Side

Breast cancer and stand-up comedian is probably not two phrases that fit easily together. What makes it a perfect fit here though is one knows that most stand-ups use their platforms to talk about their lives. Whether they say it or not, or it’s as explicit as that doesn’t matter, but they are used to speaking their minds.

And if one knows anything about cancer and its treatment, it is that the mind plays an important part.

Ruth Meehan’s The Bright Side is a moving and surprisingly uplifting story especially because of the mindset of the lead character.

She’s not into this cancer cure stuff and while she is persuaded by her family to go for the treatment, the thing she didn’t expect was the people who would be doing chemo with her and thus play a huge role in her life.

We all know that the pandemic has had a massive impact on our lives and, perhaps more than anything for some, it’s about not taking anything for granted. In the past, probably the big C was the thing most of us feared most – but now we know there’s much more out there which could harm us. Looking at films that might impact on how you face life, dealing in blackly comic jokes and exit strategies, can be more entertaining than you thought.

Switzerland (My Little Sister):

Siblings battle life in My Little Sister

This one is perhaps a harder sell. Not because it isn’t well made, but it is harsher and more disturbing, which is perhaps more than most of us can deal with now.

Writer-director duo Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond’s My Little Sister is an intimate, personal tale about sibling love in which a sister gives her all to support her ailing twin brother, and inspires herself at the same time.

It looks at how a family copes when one individual turns her full attention to the person who might be losing their life. And what that does to the rest of the family.

Ukraine (Stop-Zemlia):

This was the film I was most drawn to, especially because of its country of origin. Apart from the Russians’ intimidating presence in that part of the world, it’s not really familiar to me – and especially with a story about young people, who are always quite a fascinating barometer of a country, I find.

Reading some theatre scripts recently, a young voice said she was writing the play because it was what she wanted to see. And this film feels similar. Kateryna Gornostai’s Stop-Zemlia deals with young adults on the cusp of making that leap. At the centre is an introverted schoolgirl and her classmates and how she navigates what she feels is becoming quite a fraught world. But I really liked the young lass and how she was dealing with everything around her – and in the end, I realised, people are people are people wherever they come from. A nice one for a family with teenagers. Should make for some interesting discussions.

United Kingdom (After Love):

Joanna Scanlan in After Love

In Aleem Khan’s ground-breaking feature debut After Love, Joanna Scanlan is quite extraordinary as a white, English Muslim convert uncovering secrets after the death of her husband. It’s something completely different as she discovers that he had another family.

How do you deal with a life once the person you have dedicated yours to, has left and you discover he is not who you thought he was?

Special Co-Production Presentation (Quo Vadis Aida):

Trapped in the middle in Quo Vadis Aida

It was the extraordinary collaboration that drew me to this co-production between nine European countries. That and the topic they were dealing with – refugees. And with the recent disastrous US flight from Afghanistan, the story is particularly relevant.

Also we’re dealing with an atrocious war which is seared into our memory because it was one of the first following the establishment of 24-hour news channels.

Oscar nominee Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis Aida? hones in on a UN translator is caught between doing her job and trying to help local inhabitants and her own family when the Serbian army takes over the small town of Srebrenica.  

If your country collapses and you can’t stay, what does your life turn into. If we had asked this question a few decades ago, it would have felt like something that could never happen. No more, the number of refugees who have still not found permanent homes and who are constantly shunted from one border to another is ongoing all over the world. It’s terrifying and this film captures that horrific moment in people’s lives.

Please note that the films are geo-blocked for viewing in South Africa only.  For film synopses, trailers and how to watch, please visit