In the Wake of War and the Pandemic, European Docmakers Explore a Continent in Flux

Anxieties about a climate in crisis, the plight of refugees, and the destructive legacy of war are among the subjects that will take center stage as part of Hot DocsChanging Face of Europe program, a collaboration between North America’s largest documentary film festival and European Film Promotion (EFP).

Now in its fifth year, the program offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of a continent in transition, featuring nine feature-length and one short documentary selected by Hot Docs from over 60 submissions. The initiative is supported by the Creative Europe – Media Program of the European Union and the participating EFP member organizations.

“In times like these, different perspectives are all the more important, with dialogue and exchange at the core of our program,” says EFP’s managing director Sonja Heinen.

In addition to screenings and access to a comprehensive industry program, the directors and producers of the films will be matched with key distributors, buyers and festival programmers via prior virtual one-to-one meetings arranged by EFP. More than 130 such meetings have already taken place, offering filmmakers a chance to grab the attention of buyers ahead of the festival’s opening night on April 28. The goal is to ensure that “the filmmakers and their producers can understand how they can make the most out of their films,” says Heinen.

Throughout the pandemic, EFP has strengthened its relationships with distributors, particularly in markets outside of Europe, which is the body’s primary goal. That allowed the organization, for example, to host a showcase for American buyers during the Sundance Film Festival highlighting European films that hadn’t yet secured distribution in the U.S.

Such initiatives underscore the importance of providing a dedicated platform for films that might otherwise escape buyers’ notice, as well as highlighting the value of festivals such as Hot Docs in launching a film’s career. “Without festivals, it is difficult to sell them. They need the stamp of the festival,” says Heinen. “Otherwise, they are not seen.”

The ten documentaries selected for this year’s Changing Face of Europe program range from the personal to the political, reckoning with the past as they look forward to an uncertain future – all the while musing on what it means to be alive in a fractured Europe today.

Six of the 10 films are directed by women, presenting a range of perspectives on themes such as identity, aging and motherhood. In “How the Room Felt,” director Ketevan Kapanadze enters a cramped Georgian house where a group of female and non-binary friends have created a space safe from their intolerant surroundings. In her 30-minute visual essay “Crotch Stories,” French filmmaker Myleine Guiard-Schmid speaks with women who professionally support women in childbirth or who have given birth themselves to ask if the process of giving birth can bring pleasure along with pain. Playwright, stage director and former Icelandic European Shooting Star Álfrún Örnólfsdóttir, meanwhile, makes her big-screen directorial debut with “Band,” which introduces audiences to an all-female art rock band dealing with motherhood, aging and a self-imposed deadline to achieve success.

Other films in the selection trace the lingering fallout of war and the efforts of survivors to rebuild their lives in its wake. Croatian filmmaker and journalist Vedrana Pribačić makes her documentary feature debut with “Bigger Than Trauma,” which follows women gathering in an unorthodox therapy group to confront the aftermath of sexual violence during the Croatian War of Independence. In “Nasim,” directors Ole Jacobs and Arne Büttner tell the story of an Afghan mother of two living in the largest refugee camp in the E.U. and dreaming of her freedom.

Perhaps no greater challenge is facing Europe and the world today than climate change, whose increasingly dire consequences are already disrupting daily life across the planet. In “Atomic Hope – Inside the Pro-Nuclear Movement” (pictured), Irish director Frankie Fenton asks whether nuclear energy is the only carbon-neutral technology capable of tackling the climate crisis. Lithuanian artist and filmmaker Emilija Škarnulytė, meanwhile, offers a meditation on nuclear energy and the great effort required to deal with its waste in “Burial.” Another environmentally focused film, “Just Animals,” directed by Saila Kivelä and Vesa Kuosmanen, is a portrait of two Finnish sisters grappling with activism’s hope and hopelessness while on divergent paths.

No matter how narrow or wide in scope, such films offer a reminder of our common bonds in a world that is growing more connected by the day. For “A Marble Travelogue,” which world premiered in IDFA last fall, Chinese director Sean Wang followed the journey of a block of white marble from a Greek quarry to the Chinese sculptors who use it to create Hellenistic-style souvenirs – many of which then return to Europe to be sold to Chinese tourists.

On its surface, the film is a wry commentary on the strange and unexpected ways in which globalization has shaped the modern world. On a deeper level, it’s also a study of “how culture is consumed in our age,” says Wang, “especially how culture from a civilization that has dominated the world for hundreds of years…[is] being consumed by a new power.”

The story is fittingly told through the lens of Greece, a country that straddles Asia and Europe and illustrates the fluidity of culture across centuries of migration and movement. “It’s a quite Asian country to Europeans, and it’s a quite European country to Asians,” says Wang, “so geopolitically, financially, culturally, Greece is in a very unique position between Europe and Asia.”

Largely filmed before the pandemic, “A Marble Travelogue” unwittingly captured a geopolitical moment that might soon be disrupted by the shifting tides of history. “The world order that ‘A Marble Travelogue’ portrayed, in which China plays a very important role, maybe has been changed by COVID – even forever,” says Wang.

Polish filmmaker Paweł Łoziński likewise found himself portraying a world about to be irrevocably transformed with his documentary “The Balcony Movie,” which won the Critics’ Prize at the Locarno Film Festival last year. Across two years, Łoziński placed his camera on the balcony of his flat and observed the people passing below, asking questions that ranged from the philosophical to the banal and creating a space for conversation that rarely exists between strangers today.

In the process, the director unexpectedly created a time capsule of a world on the brink of upheaval. “I managed to record the last days of paradise in our world before this virus and before the war [in Ukraine],” he says. “I captured the time of our ‘virginity,’ maybe, when we thought the world is a good place and safe enough to live.”

Over the course of 165 shooting days, Łoziński spoke with more than 2,000 passersby, from dog-walkers and strangers stepping out of parked cars to long-time neighbors. Those conversations managed to redefine the director’s understanding of and relationship to his community.

“The film is not only about my curiosity for their stories, but there is a kind of human exchange of thoughts or emotions,” he says. “We can see and feel that there is a link between the guy that is behind the camera and his protagonist. There is a bridge.”

It’s a connection that didn’t necessarily end when the camera stopped rolling. Nearly two years after his last day of filming, some of the characters from Łoziński’s film still pass by the balcony to share news about their lives. The desire for connection he explored in his movie, says the director, has only come to feel more urgent.

“Especially after the pandemic, and during this terrible Russian war in Ukraine, people have even more need for conversation than before,” he says. “I think the film has new meaning after those two events. Because I tried to speak to people about difficult and universal matters, like the meaning of life, love, what is loneliness, and simply how to live in this world.”

The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival runs April 28 – May 8.

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