The Changing Face of Europe program, which is presented by European Film Promotion (EFP) in collaboration with the Hot Docs Canadian Intl. Documentary Festival, reflects a continent in flux, as displacement, immigration, cultural shifts, and the coronavirus pandemic have all played separate roles in pushing millions to rethink and reimagine what it means to live in Europe today.
The program’s fourth edition, which takes place online from April 29 to May 9, features 10 documentaries, including two world, one international, and four North American premieres. Films were nominated by EFP’s 38 member organizations, which include film promotion institutions from across the continent, before the Hot Docs programming team made the final selection. The initiative is supported by the Creative Europe – MEDIA Program of the European Union and the participating member organizations of EFP.
“For the audience, and also for distributors, [the program] gives you a great portrait of what is currently happening in Europe,” says Sonja Heinen, EFP’s managing director. In addition to screenings, The Changing Face of Europe matches directors and producers with key distributors, buyers and festival programmers via virtual one-to-one meetings during Hot Docs. “It’s really a great place to meet the international documentary industry,” Heinen adds.
Few years in recent memory have offered a better snapshot of a Europe in transition, as the coronavirus pandemic—which rampaged across Northern Italy last winter before sweeping across the continent—upended daily life for millions already grappling with the effects of immigration, climate change, Brexit, a rightward shift in national politics, and the transformations wrought by globalization and the digital age.
While countless filmmakers in the past year have labored to capture the strangeness and uncertainty of life during the pandemic, Italian director Andrea Segre was among the first to bring that experience to the screen in “Molecules,” the pre-opening night film of last year’s Venice Film Festival.
Segre had arrived in Venice last February to research two separate projects about a city being transformed by mass tourism and climate change, when the pandemic began sweeping across Italy. As the Piazza San Marco emptied of tourists and the waters of the Grand Canal grew still, he “realized with my camera that I was filming something incredible,” the director tells Variety. “I didn’t know why I was filming, what I was following…[but] I understood I was filming something that I couldn’t control.”
Amid the stillness and silence of a city under lockdown, Segre’s mind returned to memories of his father, a quiet and reserved molecular biologist who was raised in Venice. “Molecules” became a study not only of the relationship between the director and his late father, but of “the relation between life and illness, life and death,” and human frailty in what he describes as “the most fragile town in the world.”
The result was transformative for the director. “If you enter into this kind of process, into this kind of experience, something uncontrollable happens to you,” says Segre. “Doors open in directions that you couldn’t imagine, that you couldn’t control and prevent.”
Something no less unexpected occurred when Zdenka, a single woman in Czech Republic, met Tabish, a computer scientist in Pakistan, while playing the online video game FarmVille. Romance blossomed, and their evolving relationship—along with the countless hurdles it had to overcome—became the subject of “A Marriage,” from Czech filmmaker Katerina Hager and Pakistani co-director Asad Faruqi, which has its world premiere at Hot Docs.
“When we started making this film in 2017, I could really sense xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment swelling in the Czech Republic,” says Hager. That gave the directors’ documentary portrait of a single, intimate relationship added urgency. “The images presented by mass media of immigrants flooding or invading Europe are often very dehumanizing and the stories and struggles of individual people are lost.”
As their online romance bloomed, Zdenka and Tabish arranged to meet and marry in Sri Lanka. But for the five years that followed, the Czech government repeatedly rejected Tabish’s visa requests—decisions that echoed the broader backlash against immigrants across much of Europe in recent years. The couple nevertheless kept their love alive via Skype, persevering with the hope that they would someday be reunited.
“In the digital age, we are now more connected than we’ve ever been and it is reshaping how we exist as a species,” says Faruqi. “I do believe it’s unique stories, like that of Zdenka and Tabish, that will reshape the world of our future.” The production itself, which took place across three continents, at times in the midst of a global pandemic, was no less a testament to how we live today. “In both cases, we’re the proof that technology today allows us to connect with people on the other side of the world and to build authentic relationships,” says Hager.
Interconnectedness is also at the heart of “The New Plastic Road,” from Greek directing duo Myrto Papadopoulos and Angelos Tsaousis, which traces the transformation spurred by the 2004 reopening of the fabled Silk Road in Central Asia. Shot in the rugged borderlands between China and Tajikistan, the film explores how the remote region has become a crossroads of modern capitalism, globalization, and geopolitics, through the story of a local businessman, Davlat, who banks on a brighter future for his family.
“We were looking for international topics [about places] that were somehow facing a change, as we felt that we were facing a change in our country at the time,” says Papadopoulos, who conceived of the story with Tsaousis a decade ago, as Greece was grappling with the upheavals caused by the global financial crisis.
“This very local story about Davlat is a universal story,” says Tsaousis. “In the coming years, we will see what happened in Tajikistan, in the Pamir Mountains, will start happening in other places.” That change is happening “even in Greece,” he adds, where the main port is majority owned by China’s Cosco Shipping. “Similar stories are taking place in the rest of the world.”
In the case of “Welcome to Spain,” from Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Moreno Amador, stories from around the globe come together in Seville’s last brothel, which the local government has repurposed as a refugee reception center. Amador spent two years getting to know the center’s residents as they adapted to their new lives in Spain, struggling with the language and culture barrier while they pursued their dreams of a better life.
“We have trouble seeing beyond, seeing humans, their conflicts, their contradictions, their emotions and feelings, that are, after all, universal,” Amador tells Variety. While “Welcome to Spain”—as with many of the films selected for The Changing Face of Europe—is at times a portrait of culture clashes and differences, the director says it also underscores our common humanity.
“Anyone could be a refugee. All of us, in the end, flee from something, we have fears and hope and we want the best for our children,” says Amador. “We all are the same species, we are just human beings and we can recognize us in the other.”