"Real Life" at Setúbal

in 30th Festroia International Film Festival

by André Johan Crous

At the 30th Festroia International Film Festival, at least four works addressed pressing issues on the European continent, often explicitly stated by means of final title cards. Three films in the official selection took up positions against various kinds of injustice which can easily be traced to contemporary social issues. In at least two cases, these positions were proudly proclaimed with title cards inserted moments before the end credits, thus seeking to connect more clearly the world of the film and the world of the viewer, with the unmistakable goal of generating social awareness.

On the surface, The Verdict (Het vonnis), set among the upper echelons of Belgian business circles and opening with a gala held on the top floor of Antwerp’s towering glass-and-sandstone Museum aan de Stroom, and Black Diamonds (Diamantes negros), which follows two teenagers living on the breadline from Mali to Spain to Portugal and eventually to Estonia, have little in common. However, both films end  with title cards that seek to spur the viewer to action by pointing out that the situation depicted, while fictitious and not based on any single incident or character, represents a problem that is widespread and worthy of our awareness and attention.

In Jan Verheyen’s riveting The Verdict, a criminal whose vile actions directly led to the death of the main character’s wife and indirectly to the brutal death of his daughter, is let go after the defendant’s lawyer finds that a signature on one of the court documents is missing. The core issue in the film is this “procedural error”, committed by bureaucrats in the FPS Justice (Ministry of Justice), as a result of which dozens of accused criminals are set free every year. This fact is highlighted by an extended title card that precedes the film’s end credits, which mentions, among other things, that those who are released include people traffickers, drug dealers, and perpetrators of violent crimes and sexual offences.

A similar title card appears at the end of Black Diamonds, by Portuguese director Miguel Alcantud. In this film, two boys from Mali get noticed by a football talent scout, and their families, in the hope their children will find success and riches in Europe, and collect the money necessary to send them to the Continent. But once they arrive, they are exploited and eventually have to face the prospect of either selling drugs to stay on, or returning home to hide their faces in shame. The filmmaker informs us that some 20,000 Africans have been through similar experiences, and instead of playing in prestigious football teams, they are living from hand to mouth on the streets of Europe. “They arrive at the age of 14, 15, or 16, without an education and without the resources to survive.”

Unlike the two films above, which use their stories as a kind of fictitious metonymy for many stories that occur in one country (Belgium in The Verdict) or across a continent (Europe in Black Diamonds), Stijn Coninx’s Marina is a biopic which explicitly draws on the historically documented life of an existing individual, singer and accordionist Rocco Granata, to dramatise its theme of racism in post-war Belgium. Granata’s father had brought the family from Calabria in Italy to the Belgian province of Limburg, while he worked in a mine day in day out. His family was looked down on for being foreigners, and in particular for being Italians, whom the Belgians were convinced would never amount to anything more than miners.

Although Marina’s final title card doesn’t push the theme of racism or injustice as obviously as the other two films mentioned above (it reads: “Rocco Granata swept the world with ‘Marina’. Hundreds of covers were made. He had a successful career as a singer and even launched numerous new stars. Salvatore Granata died in 1989 while Rocco was on tour in South America.”), this film has a different purpose. While racism is a fundamental part of the story, the temporal characteristic of the biopic (the film covers a decade in Granata’s life) is reinforced by the final card, revealing the story some 30 years down the road, with the suggestion that the struggle against oppression, and against the reservations of the generally Italophobic community, was worth it in the end.

In their respective ways, these three films all take on issues of social consciousness and overtly declare their intentions with final title cards. With the addition of another film, Leijonasydän (Heart of a Lion), Finnish director Dome Karukoski’s insightful look at neo-Nazis and brotherhood, which also deals head-on with racism, more than one-third of the official selection comprised films which could be described as socially engaged works of cinematic expression which generally chose to address real-life problems with works of fiction.

Edited by Lesley Chow