By Liam Lacey
Three hundred years ago, young aristocrats with the means and need for some European cultural polishing took what was known as the Grand Tour of the continent, to learn some history, see art, brush up on their language skills and broaden their horizons. Prices have come down and now, for those of us common as muck who like to watch movies, a jet-lag version of the same thing is available.
The contemporary Grand Tour is the European Union Film Festival, an annual event that pops up around the world each year, from Malaysia to Azerbaijan, India to Brooklyn, promoting recent cinema from Europe.
While the time of year and lineup varies from place to place, there are three similar versions of EUFF opening in Canada this month in Toronto (November 8 to 22), Ottawa (November 16 to December 4) and Vancouver (November 23 to December 4).
Observant readers of the program for the Toronto version of the Festival will note that there are 28 feature films screening which, not by coincidence, is exactly the same number of nations in the European Union.
The EUFF is like the senate of film festivals: The selection of films is entirely by political district, not by popularity or perceived merit. That means micro-nations such as Malta or Luxembourg — countries with the populations of small cities which produce a handful of films a year — stand beside world cinema powerhouses such as France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain, each of which produce 200 to 300 films per year.
Some of the EUFF films are high-profile. This year, for example, includes five films advanced by their countries for Best Foreign Picture Oscar in the Academy Awards. They include Bulgaria’s Omnipresent, about a man who becomes obsessed with spying on his family and friends, and The Netherlands’ Tonio, about a writer and his wife dealing with the death of their young adult son.
From Croatia, there’s The Eighth Commissioner, a comedy about a disgraced politician sent to a remote island to oversee its first valid election, after seven previous commissioners have failed. This year’s EU selection also includes an Oscar candidate from 2017, the Latvian Second World War drama, The Chronicles of Melanie.
Somewhat unexpectedly, there’s a non-English language United Kingdom film in the running: I Am Not A Witch, about an eight-year-old girl set to a “witch” concentration camp in Zaire, and which is improvised in several indigenous languages. The film is a first feature from Rungano Nyoni, who was born in Zaire and raised in Cardiff, Wales.
That group of films probably makes the EUFF selection sound more highbrow than it is. The festival includes some comedies, thrillers, coming-of-age and middle-age crises and senior rebellions. Jérémie Abessira, executive director of the Toronto incarnation of EUFF, says that the Festival’s criteria focuses on variety and accessibility, both in content and financially.
“The whole point is to bring a diverse group of films from low budget to bigger features, from historical dramas to romantic comedies, and also to find the kind of films that travel well outside the country. Some films are too specific to a historical context or humour of that country.”
Though superficially diverse — and because Europe being Europe (the continent is a jigsaw puzzle 50 countries and dependencies in all) — there’s a lot of business involving borders and travel. Several of the films aren’t primarily set in Europe at all. The Belgian entry, A Syrian Family (a drama that played at TIFF 2017), stars the Palestinian actress, Hiam Abbass in a claustrophobic drama of war-time guilt and survival in a barricaded Damascus apartment.
The Polish entry, Titanium White, is a thriller about a Polish graduate student in Italy, studying the work of Caravaggio. The French film, Une Vie Ailleurs (Life Without Me) follows a French woman to Paraguay to find her young son, who was abducted by her husband four years before. And the Italian entry, Little Tito and the Aliens, is set near District 51 in the Nevada desert, where a misanthropic widowed scientist suddenly finds himself responsible for his Italian niece and nephew.
“I think that's a key to European history and Europe today,” says Abessira. “It’s a continent where people constantly go from place to place, which is reflected in the cinema co-productions, and a recurrent theme of crossing borders.
“In the Slovakian film The Line, the border [between Slovakia and Ukraine] is really a character in the film. There’s a lot of films about being ‘lost in translation,’ about trying to find your place in another culture. The German entry, Welcome to Germany, is probably the best example of that sense of trying to fit in. It’s a recurrent theme in European filmmaking, especially in the last four or five years.
“Ultimately, I think that’s why people come to the festival: for that challenge of trying to know another culture and learning what it’s like to live in a different place.”
The European Union Film Festival runs at Toronto’s The Royal Cinema November 8 to 22. For a complete schedule and further information, click here. General admission to all screenings is free but there’s a $10 charge for online advance reservations.