IDFA's first Europe Conference asks: What (or where) is European cinema?

    The Europe Conference, organized in collaboration with Arte, took place last week at Felix Meritis, marking the first installment of a major new addition to IDFA's Industry Program. Split into two segments and lasting three hours, the session with several speakers looked at Europe, its identity, its co-production and distribution systems, changes brought on by the rise of big streaming services, and the identity of European co-productions with other countries, from two angles: inside Europe and outside Europe.

    Being Europe

    The first segment, entitled Being Europe, gathered Serbian filmmaker Mila Turajlić, Head of the Netherlands Film Fund Bero Beyer, and Arte's Head of Society and Culture Department Fabrice Puchault. It was moderated by Orwa Nyrabia, who started the talk with the fact that this year at IDFA, there were 24 films co-produced by Arte, none of which are primarily French or German.

    These include the last two films by Turajlić, who pointed out how important it was for Serbia, which is not an EU member, to finally be able to access European funding bodies such as Creative Europe MEDIA and Eurimages.

    "This was a cause for celebration for the filmmaking community," she recalled.

    She went on to elaborate that Serbia has always been oriented towards co-productions out of necessity, like many other low production capacity countries. To her this means it is hard to define what national cinema is, but that she always felt like the country belonged to the European cultural space.

    "But I still feel there are two Europes: Western Europe and Eastern Europe, like a two-tier system of interests," she said.

    Beyer agreed that there are obviously two different Europes, and addressed the system of national funding and co-productions, with the benefit of a distance caused by almost three years of the Covid crisis.

    According to Beyer, the crisis unveiled more questions about intricacies of public funding, including regulations that don’t fit together, exorbitant expenditure obligations, and unnecessary spending in order to get funding.

    "And all of this has nothing to do with creating great cinema," he pointed out.

    He concluded that in all cases, the filmmakers are the weakest party.

    "So it's a challenge for public funders to make sure we're the empowering tool for independence of those filmmakers," he said.

    Arte and big streaming platforms: tailored contracts vs. buying rights

    Arte has recently expanded from a TV channel into an online platform, where now all content is subtitled in six languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Polish.

    Puchault pointed out that Arte is in a position to reach many different types of audiences and different national cultures. Because the platform doesn't rely on subscriptions or advertisers, he explained that he is free to buy, for example, a Chilean film.

    "There is still this kind of mentality, 'this story is too far from us', of course. We are used to TV being local and national, it's embodied in the broadcaster. That's why we are lucky to be a platform," he explained.

    Arte does not buy all rights for a film for broadcasting in Europe. Instead, there are often several different contracts, each of them tailor-made, for one single title.

    On the other hand, the big streaming platforms like Amazon or Netflix simply buy all the rights and are not concerned about co-production circumstances—whether a cinematographer comes from France or an editor from Sweden.

    "There are many limitations in terms of taste and dramaturgy, but there is a freedom to find people who are truly fitting the project," said Nyrabia.

    Beyer responded that these are two conflicting rationales that the Netherlands Film Fund is trying to find a middle ground between, and that the answer might lie in co-development.

    "I really believe in the creative added value of co-productions, to have all the different discussions with your partners from the very start," he said. "Now it's time to figure out how to boost that element more."

    The class homogeneity of European cinema

    Turajlić said that she doesn't feel like the imposition of rules is a necessarily bad thing.

    "For my previous film, the financial structure required that I have an editor in France, but it actually really enhanced the quality of the film and enriched it enormously," she recalled.

    But Turajlić sees two problems in the European co-production system: the complicated bureaucracy of the application process, which she said was "enough to put you off,” and the resulting homogeneity of European cinema.

    "I feel that European cinema, viewed from far away, is super homogenous and not that exciting," she said. "I feel that it takes a certain kind of education and to speak a certain kind of language to get those grants. There is a certain class of people who are making films in Europe and a class that is not."

    Beyer gave an example of how the Netherlands Film Fund is trying to address this issue: Cypher Cinema, a different approach to applications for funding for self-taught filmmakers.

    "These are filmmakers with different social, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, and we let them present their projects the way they want to," he said.

    Arte as a European public broadcaster

    Nyrabia then questioned the two-fold position of Arte as a pan-European platform.

    "It's for the benefit of many, and it allows many to access films they would not otherwise be able to. But there is also the question of rights, the position of producers and film teams to make money, and the space for local broadcasters, platforms, theatrical distributors, and festivals to have their role in the life of a film," he said.

    "We have no strict rules, and we are still learning how to do this," Puchault replied. "We are not as rich as Netflix and it's very hard to expect a producer to give us all the rights for three or five years. Of course, we need the rights, we need to be visible in a lot of countries, but we also know that we need to partner with funds and channels in Europe, and maybe we can even partner with the big platforms.

    "It's not just about money, it's about being able to build something relevant, but also respecting what is the reality of financing and freedom of filmmakers. If you have more partners, you are more able to defend your film than if you have only one."

    Financial and political independence

    The independence of filmmakers is strongly connected to all these issues.

    “One thing that can be introduced in this talk are situations like in Serbia, where certain topics can't get financed by the national fund because they 'go against Serbian national interests'," Turajlić said.

    "But where I find the European financing space incredibly important is that we have had filmmakers who have managed to circumnavigate that problem by getting financing in other countries, on European level, through co-productions, and use that support to shame Film Center Serbia into supporting a project. And that has been incredibly powerful."

    She also addressed the idea of Arte as a European public broadcaster that is mandated to create a European culture in the context of a neo-liberal space where corporations have more power than governments.

    “It means democratizing access to the content of the channel, but it also means a more complex production process, not going for easy solutions, particularly with big producers who can navigate and produce content in quantity. I feel there is a real political relevance that Arte has to play because we're going to be overrun by commercial interests," she warned.

    Keynote by Boris Razon

    After a break, it was time to look at Europe from the outside. A keynote from Boris Razon, the Editorial Director of Arte France, served as the opening.

    ”The question I will share with you today is: Does a European point of view have meaning anymore, and above that, does the question of point of view still make sense?" he asked.

    He then referred to his past as a journalist in different kinds of media, and how the world has significantly changed in the seven years that have passed since he was last at IDFA.

    "At that time, wars were far from Europe and the idea of enemies wasn't polarizing our societies as it does today. The information landscape wasn't weaponized and an instrument of antagonism," he said.

    "I think in this strange context in which we live, where storytelling in thousands of ways rules the world, where stories and propaganda are at the center of information wars, we have a duty to create a shareable reality. At Arte we are devoted to this ambition on every platform and by all necessary means [...] We create encounters between citizens and reality. As soon as they are moved or touched, as soon as they perceive the world as slightly different of what they thought it was, they can embrace the point of view of someone else," he said.

    Seeing Europe

    The session entitled Seeing Europe followed, with Japanese producer and former program director of Tokyo International Film Festival Yoshihiko Yatabe, Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah, and moderator Rasha Salti, commissioning editor for Arte's La Lucarne program focused on auteur documentaries.

    "Japan is very, very, very far from Europe," Yatabe said with a sad smile.

    He explained that Japan is a democratic country but also a very closed society, particularly in the last 20 years. He recalled that European films were very influential from the 1950s to 1980s but now the market has shrunk for them.

    "We seldom speak of social and political issues in our daily life, and this also is reflected in cinema, whether it's documentary or fiction," he said. " People are looking inward and there's less interest towards outside the country."

    However, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Yatabe immediately thought Ukrainian that director Valentin Vasyanovych's films might help the audience understand better what is happening in Ukraine. He got rights from the European sales agents for Reflections and Atlantis for free and organized screenings, sending the income to the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk (ICFR) to help Ukrainian filmmakers.

    "We rediscovered how films can be important, and at that moment we felt a strong feeling of solidarity that we haven't felt in a long time. It wouldn't have been possible without initiatives of European institutions like ICFR and IDFA which made us think about the importance of European cinema and being connected with Europe," he said.

    He noted that at IDFA there is only one short Japanese film.

    "I have to encourage Japanese producers and filmmakers to try and go for co-productions. We don't have enough producers who have the know-how and connections, and the fact is I'm here to strengthen this link and try harder for Japanese filmmakers to go to Europe," he said.

    Co-producing with Europe as an Egyptian filmmaker

    Nasrallah, a seasoned director with an extensive experience of co-producing with Europe, explained that the first such collaborations in the early 1970s stemmed from the need to avoid censorship in Egypt: the only legal way to keep the negative of the film reels outside the country at the time was to have a co-production. However, the economic reality often does not compute for an Egyptian director in such a relationship.

    "Co-producing between Egypt and France is like co-producing a baby out of an ant and an elephant. Because the amount of money you spend in France doesn't compare," he said.

    This is why he insists that, regardless of the financing structure, he has to retain his 51% of the rights.

    Nasrallah then went on to recall a moment when something at Arte had changed. After having made the 278-minute film The Gate of the Sun in 2004, with full directorial control and no constraints, suddenly in 2008, with a much smaller film called Aquarium, he was required to cut it down to 90 minutes.

    This negation of agency extends to how he perceives the present system of co-producing with Europe and his position as a non-European director.

    "When you're making a film as a French person or a Swede, we talk about directorial and artistic choices, but when you are coming from Egypt, they ask, what does this film teach us about Egypt? It's like they have a checklist: Egypt has the military, Egypt has the Muslim Brotherhood—do you talk about those things in your film? I am not a newspaper; I make films exactly for the same reason that anybody does: I want to tell stories. And somehow, you're not really allowed to do this," he explained.

    Echoing Turajlić 's sentiment from the first panel, Nasrallah said: "I feel like there's suddenly an editorial line in cinema. The films have become very similar to one another; there's something fundamentally wrong: they're not crazy enough, they're careful, they don't transgress."

    The Japanese market

    Yatabe, on the other hand, said that Japanese filmmakers also produce the same kind of films over and over again.

    "In Japan the market is quite strong for Japanese filmmakers to get their investment back, so they don't really need to go abroad. For Korean films the market used to be small and they had to go abroad, so they had to think about what kind of story could be sold outside their country. They are now very big in Asia, and the Japanese market spoiled its filmmakers. So we have the same type of films again and again," he said.

    Yatabe believes Europe is a model and an example that Japan should look up to, but that local producers do not see it.

    "The young filmmakers who want to tell their own stories, if they are too original, they cannot find finance in the market, so they don't know what to do. And watching European films, you see so many co-productions, but they don't know how to approach this system, so they are kind of stuck," he explained.

    The Europe Conference has clearly opened more questions about European cinema and its connection to society, both from inside and outside, than it has answers to give. But several key points have emerged and overlapped at the two panels: challenges in the co-production system; issues related to European identity, its point of view, and its class divide; and the relationship of the European film industry to its counterparts from the Global South; among others. Collectively, these issues make the event a springboard for future discussions—certainly those that will continue to take place at IDFA, but also those which demand to be explored in different spaces and formats.

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