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European Docmakers Record New Cultural Shifts

“The Changing Face of Europe,” a program launched at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto earlier this year, presented 10 European documentaries that gave a taste of Europe’s filmmaking output, and a glimpse at some of the forces shaping the continent.

Shane Smith, the festival’s director of programming, says that two of the themes it explored were people “grappling with the repercussions of history,” and how, when the blinders are off, folks realize “they can’t rely on what they are being told by their political leaders.”

“Rodeo,” which had its international premiere at Hot Docs, centers on the chaos surrounding Estonia’s first free elections after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, and the rapid introduction of free-market economics that followed. The story, which draws on archival footage alongside recent interviews with the politicians at the center of events, unfolds like a conspiracy thriller.

The film can be seen as “a kind of ode to making it through all the harsh conditions, and a certain sense of humor that always saves people,” says Kiur Aarma, who co-directed with Raimo Joerand. He adds that his compatriots may need a poignant reminder of the dangers his country faced when it rejected authoritarian rule. “We should be glad that Estonia chose the other way from the very beginning, [and became] an open-minded and free society.”

Another film that tackles the after-effects of the Soviet collapse is “The Russian Job,” which had its North American premiere at the festival. It follows a Swedish manager as he tries to modernize the Lada automobile plant in Russia. When Petr Horky, who makes his directorial debut with the film, visited the factory as a journalist, he says the situation recalled a Franz Kafka novel, “The Castle,” “with this stranger coming in, bringing completely different attitudes, and wanting to change people’s minds, and bring in Western-style management. I saw this as an opportunity to capture this clash [of cultures].” The fact that the Lada brand had been a “symbol of Soviet pride” encouraged Horky “to document a historical transformation.”

“Of Fish and Foe,” which had its world premiere at the fest, focuses on another culture clash: between fishermen and the conservation group Sea Shepherd on the Scottish coast. It captures the “decline of rural traditions” and the conflict that can occur when urban folk move into rural areas, people who “have a different attitude toward the countryside and the environment,” says Andy Heathcote, one of the film’s co-directors. He says it shows “a schism that is appearing in the Western world between traditional values and newer ideas,” and offers a skeptical take on some aspects of environmental activism.

Although the films touch on broad themes, many of them revolve around personal stories. “Global Family,” which had its international premiere at Hot Docs, follows three Somali brothers, one living in Germany, another in Italy and the third in Ethiopia, as they argue over the fate of their 88-year-old mother.

Many refugee families fleeing civil war have been similarly scattered, but it’s also true of many other families, often due to globalization. “This will change the meaning of family itself,” says Melanie Andernach, who co-directed the film.

They filmed the family over two years, building up a rapport. “We needed a lot of time to build the trust,” she says. “We wanted to get close to them, showing all the feeling, the anger and in happier times.”

“The Changing Face of Europe” was a collaboration between Hot Docs and European Film Promotion, a body that represents 38 film support agencies. Each agency nominated a film, and Hot Docs selected the final 10 on artistic merit.

Sonja Heinen, EFP’s managing director, hopes the selection was able to show Europe’s diversity by including films from countries that are sometimes neglected in festival lineups. She hopes it showed that “there is a very strong documentary scene right across Europe.”

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