IDFA: ‘Democracy’ Director Talks About Demystifying the European Union and Filming the Impossible

Democracy David Bernet
Courtesy of IDFA

“Let’s say I always have subjects that are very difficult to realize in film,” says David Bernet. “That’s my personal challenge. I like subjects that are impossible to make a film out of.”

The German-based director came to IDFA for the world premiere of his latest film “Democracy”, a project five years in the making that tracks Green party Euro-MP Jan Philipp Albrecht and EU Commissioner Viviane Reding as they draft the EU’s policy on data protection.

To explain Bernet’s approach to the impossible, one must first refer to his previous film, “Raising Resistance” (2011). “It was about the problems that small-scale farmers have all over the world,” he explains. “That’s one billion people who live from what they grow in the ground and have to compete with the global production of grain and so on. It was shot in Paraguay, at a time when the farmers were trying to fight against incoming soy production. In this case, it was really difficult to get access. But once I had access, the question was: How do you make a film that doesn’t look boring in a milieu like this, where people are mostly just sitting at tables, talking? The word is the major instrument in politics – there’s not much more. So how do you make that interesting?”

So how do you? “Well, it’s clear. The answer is easy: It’s always the protagonists, it’s the people you follow. Can you share their passion? Can you understand what they want, what their losses are, what their wins are? That’s the key.”

For “Democracy,” Bernet took a similar approach. “The original idea was to make a film about law-making on a European level,” he says, “within the institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg. I was puzzled and overwhelmed by the complexity of this apparatus, this organization, so I asked myself, ‘Is it possible to cut a way through this jungle and make an audience understand how it works?’ So I had this idea in my head, but what would the subject be? It was clear that if I was going to do that, it had to be about a question that is of importance to society not only while I was shooting it but also later on, so it had to be a question about designing the future. That’s why I was researching the digital world and the challenges of digitalization.”

Quite by chance, Bernet came upon Albrecht and Reding, an unlikely and likable double act who lead us through the labyrinthine process of EU law-making, humanizing the seemingly endless debates and meetings with Euro-MPs and lobbyists. “I’ve had a lot of private screenings already in Germany,” says Bernet, “and one of the things people say to me after the film is, ‘Well, we didn’t know that they really do work – it’s not just a boring bureaucracy, pushing papers from desk to desk.’ There really are people discussing and fighting. There’s a procedure there, and they have to come to a conclusion. It made them feel a little but more optimistic about what the union is. And what it can be.”

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