The European Dream

in 58th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Marcin Gizycki

In his new film Francofonia (France-Germany-Netherlands, 2015), one of the most anticipated productions at DOK Leipzig (although wrongly labeled as “animated documentary”), Alexander Sokurov says to a person calling him from faraway: “I just returned home from Europe.” It might be a Freudian slip. Although later in the film the director talks about our common European heritage embodied in the collection of the Louvre, he keeps opposing the French experience in the Second World War to the Russian one, especially in Leningrad under the siege. It is easy to imagine that for people starving to death in Leningrad for 900 days in 1941-1943, Europe seemed a distant concept. Francofonia was not the only film in the main competition that directly or indirectly addressed questions like: What is Europe? Is it simply a place on a map? Is it a set of countries that constitute the European Union? Is there such a thing as a European identity?

I have been living in Central Europe for more than sixty years. For a big part of this period the official propaganda of my country tried hard to convince me that people inhabiting lands west of the Elbe River were my enemies and that we should feel a much closer affinity to Mongolia, North Vietnam or Cuba than to France or Spain. Frankly, I started to realize what it meant to be a European only when I had gone to the US for the first time in my life in 1988. I did not feel this way while visiting Italy or France in my student years. The West seemed then to be an alien paradise, unreachable for a young Pole. In America it is different; we are no longer Germans, French or Poles, at least not in the first place. We are Europeans.

There is no doubt that we, Eastern and Central Europeans, were longing for nearly half a century for Europe, the land of freedom and wealth. When the time eventually came, the transition was difficult for many. Certainly some of the protagonists of the wonderful film Time Will Tell by Andreas Voigt (Germany, 2015) are good examples of that. A woman who had been a Stasi informer paid the highest price: She committed suicide. But on the other side another woman, once a young Marxist activist, became a very successful entrepreneur and a collector of fancy cars. Europe has many faces. Citizens of Leningrad shouting “We want freedom, we want democracy” during the coup d’état of 1991 (The Event, dir. Sergei Loznitsa, Netherlands-Belgium, 2015) were also yearning for Europe. The Putsch failed but whether they got what they wanted is another question. For the Kulakowskis brothers (The Brothers, dir. Wojciech Staron, Poland, 2015), who had spent nearly sixty years in exile in Kazakhstan before returning to their native Poland in 1997, Europe is an almost abstract concept that takes shape when they travel to Brussels for the opening of an exhibition of paintings by the younger of the two. This intimate and moving portrait was awarded the highest prize of the festival – the Grand Prix of the International Competition for Long Documentary and Animated Film.

Two fine films in the same competition dealt with recent immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa: two boys from Syria and Iraq who land in prison in Athens (The Longest Run, dir. Marianna Economu, Greece, 2015) and an influx of people coming on boats to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa (Lampedusa in Winter, dir. Jakob Brossmann, Austria-Italy-Switzerland, 2015). For most of these refugees Europe equals Germany. Once again they do not get what they actually yearn for. Another European Dream that fails.

The films shown at the DOK Leipzig this year prove that Europe, which has not yet fully recovered from the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but is now facing an immigration crisis on an unprecedented scale, has yet to reinvent itself. It was a great festival.

Edited by Steven Yates