Contenders for top prize are notably arthouse bunch than in past

TIP SHEET
What: European Film Awards
When: Dec. 3
Where: Berlin
Website: www.europeanfilmacademy.org/td>

The ballot boxes for the European Film Awards have been sealed, and the winners will be unveiled in Berlin Dec. 3, but up to the very last, says the European Film Academy’s acting chairman Nik Powell, there were no leading contenders.

Though as positive about the upcoming event as one would expect from one of its chief cheerleaders, veteran producer Powell notes, “that seems to be the case throughout the industry as a whole, whether for the EFAs or the Oscars.”

It would seem that the depressed mood that’s gripped the biz worldwide, producing low B.O. returns in nearly all territories and tepid critical reaction, has infiltrated even the upbeat, pan-Euro kudofest, which since 1988 has provided a shop window for the best and brightest of Euro pics.

Contenders for EFA’s top prize of best European film are a more notably arthouse bunch than in past contests. Going for a rematch after they competed against each other in Cannes last May, the two most hotly tipped titles are the Belgian Dardennes brothers’ Palme d’Or-winner “The Child” and Austrian helmer Michael Haneke’s Gaul-set critical darling, “Cache” (Hidden). Longer odds are on Dane Susanne Bier’s sibling drama “Brothers,” Blighty-based Pole Pawel Pawlikowski’s strikingly original love story “My Summer of Love,” and the WWII story “Sophie Scholl — The Final Days,” by upcoming helmer Marc Rothemund.

Some muttering was prompted by the nomination in this category for Wim Wenders’ “Don’t Come Knocking,”

which reaped decidedly mixed reviews when it preemed at Cannes this year, given that Wenders is also the president of the European Film Academy.

“I don’t think ‘Don’t Come Knocking’ is a good film,” says Nick James, editor of Brit film mag ‘Sight & Sound.’ “It’s probably the best film Wenders has made for a little while, but that’s not saying much. I’m very surprised to find it in the category of European films because to me it’s an American film, unquestionably an American film.” All the same, EFA’s 1,800 members have voted it in.

James applauds the inclusion of films from Europe’s further flung borders in some of the other categories, particularly for Romanian pic “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” a near-three-hour long slice of hardhitting social realism and black comedy that’s picked up a best director nom for helmer Cristi Puiu, and a best European screenwriter nom for Puiu and co-scribe Razvan Radulescu.

Critic Klaus Eder, topper of film critics’ org FIPRESCI, also singles out Puiu’s “Lazarescu” as a worthy nom — one that may have been excluded from the running for the main prize because of the way voting is organized by EFA. “Because it was only shown in some festivals, but has not yet reached the commercial circuit, the members think maybe it’s a good film but don’t consider it for best European picture,” notes Eder. “When the academy switched to a procedure where all the members vote to select the nominations, the films that end up contending are a sort of European mainstream, and so films like ‘The Death of Mr. Lazarescu’ don’t have a chance.

Powell, on the other hand, is typically upbeat about the selection’s diversity this edition. “This year, I think we have a lot of very different films from a lot of very different countries. There hasn’t been a Europe-wide hit this, like ‘Talk to Her’ or ‘Amelie,’ films which did well at previous EFAs, and I haven’t quite worked out why.”

Nick James reckons that it’s been just an “average year for European cinema. All the major film festivals were dominated by American films this year, which were particularly strong. I thought it was a particularly weak year for France. That’s interesting because we look to France to be the big hitter in Europe, and it hasn’t done that this year. But it’s good that individual films from elsewhere, such as Romania, are making stronger showing on the EFA nomination list.”

Warsaw Film Fest director and EFA board member Stefan Laudyn celebrates that diversity, but foresees more challenges ahead for the EFAs. “With over 40 countries producing films in Europe — from Georgia to Portugal to Estonia to Albania, it’s more and more difficult to follow and judge them,” he says. “For 95% of European films, the only foreign theatrical exposure available is at festivals and this is a very limited audience. No matter how good the European films are, few people will be able to see them, apart from the lucky group of European Film Academy members who got a selection of 46 EFA-nominated films delivered to their homes on screeners. Hopefully, after Dec. 3, some new names will be known to a wider audience.”

In addition to raising awareness of European cinema, the EFAs — which nominated films from Russia (“4″), and Palestine (“Paradise Now”) — contribute to the more nebulous process of defining exactly what is European cinema. Eder would argue that, “European cinema doesn’t exist, given it springs from a diversity of 50 languages. From the beginning, the European Academy has tried to respect that diversity but at the same time get the films known beyond the borders of their own country.”

For Powell, “There is such a thing as European cinema, very much so, but it’s one of the hardest things to define. If you ask me to define it I’d say they are films made by Europeans and within the main European themes, if not set in Europe itself. And those should be the criteria and have been for the EFA since I got involved with them. It’s not to do with financing because financing comes from all over the world. It has to be about who the filmmakers are, throughout the crew, and whether the themes bear a relation to Europe.”

For helmer Pawel Pawelkowski, the validation of being nominated is particularly treasured because of the European origin of the award. “The idea of European culture that is protected from brutal commercial imperatives is something I hold onto. That’s important to me,” he says. “Whether European cinema is going through a great phase is another matter. But the great thing about European cinema is that it doesn’t just respond to the lowest common denominator. I’m not bullshitting — it’s so flattering just to be in the same category with the Dardennes brothers and Michael Haneke, or against Cristi Puiu in the best director category. But what feels so flattering about being nominated is knowing that the European Academy is made up of young filmmakers who are interested in cinema from all over the continent. I was really thrilled because it was a democratic vote.”

Next year, the EFAs look set to become even more democratic. In the past, Powell explains, “The board has always reserved the right to nominate additional films beyond the first four nominations, but it’s a right that’s exercised less and less. I think it will disappear altogether next year.”

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