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European Filmmakers Grapple With the Continent’s Far Right

Just as the election of Donald Trump has seemingly validated the xenophobic right wing in the U.S., there is also a resurgence of far-right sentiment sweeping across Europe, where anti-immigrant populist parties are gaining traction, especially in Eastern Europe, but also in Germany and Italy, prompting Euro film directors to grapple with the fascist fallout.

The most recent manifestations of this alarming phenomenon have seen Polish marchers chanting slogans such as “Europe will be white or uninhabited” on Poland’s independence day last November, while a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s new center-right force in Italy, Attilio Fontana, recently called for Italians to defend the country’s “white race” against the massive onslaught of refugees that reach Italy’s shores, mostly from Africa.

Germany, in particular, has been grappling with clashes between immigrants and locals. In a well-covered mid-January incident, a group of right-wingers attacked a group of immigrants, stabbing two and electrocuting one with a stun gun, in the town of Wurzen. Incidents like that provided the basis for German director Fatih Akin’s “In the Fade,” winner of this year’s Golden Globe for foreign language film.

Due to his Turkish background, Akin says he feels like “the other” in Germany. “I have black hair, my parents are from Turkey. Somehow, I’m the perfect target for these xenophobic attacks,” the director told Variety when “In the Fade” premiered last year in Cannes. “A couple of years ago there was a list on a website called Nuremburg 2.0, and they listed politicians, artists. My name was on the list as a target for neo-Nazis.”

Akin wrote and shot “Fade,” which is about a white German woman who takes revenge after her Kurdish husband and son are murdered by a neo-Nazi group precisely because he had become a possible target for these groups. “What I did with this film was kind of like strike back.”
Film directors and producers have been trying to strike back against the allegedly politically motivated sacking a few months ago of the head of the Polish Film Institute, which drives the local industry.

In Poland, the vital Polish Film Institute, which administers millions in funding for film production, among many other functions, has a new director. The previous head of the PFI, the well-respected general director Magdalena Sroka, was fired last October by Poland’s culture minister, Piotr Glinski, a member of the ruling far-right populist Law and Justice party. Her ouster prompted street demonstrations at the Warsaw Film Festival and an open letter from hundreds of Polish industryites to the government denouncing Sroka’s ouster as illegal.

“It’s obvious: when a populist authoritarian government starts to rule, they want to have influence over the content that they are financing,” says director Agnieszka Holland from Warsaw, where she is shooting the first two episodes of her untitled Netflix series that will be the first from the streaming site in Polish.

“The European cinema world is very sensitive to the current political and social situation,” Holland adds. The climate impacts directors in terms of narratives but also, crucially, “in terms of its impact on film financing.” She adds, “in Europe, unlike the U.S., most films are financed by some kind of public funding.”

The new head of the PFI, Radoslaw Smigulski, has worked at pubcaster TVP, and his ties to the government have not quieted any criticism of his appointment; however, it’s fairly early days into his administration as the Polish film community studies the PFI’s moves. (The PFI is one of the funders behind politically charged filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska, whose “Mug” is playing in Berlin.)

In France, where the extreme right has suffered a serious defeat, Europe’s pressing migrant crisis has provided cinematic fodder most potently perhaps in 2017 Cannes Jury Prize winner “A Season in France,” by Chadian director Mahamat Saleh Haroun. It is the story of an African high school teacher and the white French woman he falls in love with. The pic provides a hard-hitting look at the pride and pain of illegal African immigrants, known as “sans papiers,” as they struggle with French courts. “European filmmakers have told stories of migrants flocking to their continent; but none has found the depth, clarity and emotion of this film,” said Toronto artistic Cameron Bailey during the pic’s North American launch.

Haroun, who has spent much of his career in Paris — but last year returned to Chad to become the country’s culture minister — has pointed out to French newspaper Liberation that “black people often feel like undesirables” in France. “They are often considered suspects … susceptible to being submitted to identity checks even when no crime has been committed,” he noted.

Though France is not led by a right-wing prime minister, the country is experiencing its own far-right upsurge with the rising popularity of the National Front. It’s a phenomenon that versatile auteur Bruno Dumont is weaving in to “Coincoin and the Extra-humans” a sequel to his absurdist murder-mystery TV series “Li’l Quinquin,” which has a pre-teen as its title character. “Quinquin in the sequel has become a Nationalist,” Dumont says. “I will try to depict present-day France with its problems and political issues, like immigration. But do it in a very humorous way.”

In Italy, former prime minister Berlusconi is tipped by polls as the politician with the best chance of forming a government following elections on March 4. The populist conservative media-mogul-turned-pol who has drawn comparisons with U.S. President Trump is not likely to become prime minister again since he is banned from office due to a 2013 tax fraud conviction — though he has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.

Meanwhile, Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino is in post on a hotly anticipated Berlusconi biopic toplining Toni Servillo (“The Great Beauty”) that has hopes of bowing in Cannes. It’s titled “Loro,” which means “Them” in Italian and is an allusion to Berlusconi’s loyal entourage but also a play on “L’Oro,” which in Italian means “the gold” — a possible reference to Berlusconi’s fortune and the bunga bunga girls he tried to lure with it. Berlusconi has said he is nervous about “Loro” being a “political attack” but Sorrentino claims he is “interested in the man that’s behind the politics,” which may make the Berlusconi portrayal worse.

Holland notes that while she’s certainly alarmed about xenophobic right wing populism gaining traction in Europe, she also sees it as a wake-up call that should take directors out of their comfort zone.

“It’s somehow good for the identity of filmmakers. It makes their films stronger and more defined; more personal and courageous.

“They have to ask themselves more questions, such as: ‘What stories should I tell?’ ‘Who am I talking to?’ ‘Why am I making movies?’ ‘Who am I?’ ‘Do I have to respond to the most dramatic questions of modernity?’”

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