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Are Eastern European films under-represented at Western European film festivals?

Concern that this might be the case prompted Ji.hlava Intl. Documentary Film Festival to carry out research this year to find out how many documentary films from Eastern Europe made it into Western festivals, and vice versa.

Unveiling the study at Ji.hlava, festival director Marek Hovorka showed figures that appeared to confirm an underrepresentation of Eastern European films at Western European documentary festivals.

According to Ji.hlava, for example, 60% of Paris’ Cinéma du Réel festival program in 2019 comprised Western European films, with just 5% from Eastern Europe, and 18% from North America.

For CPH:Dox in Copenhagen, the figure was 52% from Western Europe, 7% from Eastern Europe, and 20% from the U.S. in 2019.

For Dutch documentary festival IDFA in 2018, the figure was 43%, 16% and 12% respectively, and for Switzerland’s Vision du Réel it was 60%, 9% and 7% in 2019.

Germany’s DOK Leipzig, meanwhile, recorded the highest proportion from Eastern Europe, at 24%, compared with 55% from Western Europe and 8% from North America in its 2018 program.

Among Eastern European festivals, meanwhile, the bias was toward programming Eastern European docs – although they featured a far greater proportion of docs from Western Europe than Eastern European docs in festivals in Western Europe.

Ji.hlava’s program in 2018 comprised 41% of docs from Eastern Europe, versus 26% from Western Europe and 14% from North America. The Krakow Film Festival in Poland programmed 49% Eastern European docs, 28% from Western Europe and 12% from North America.

Hovorka said he was saddened by a feeling that, in the last four or five years, Eastern Europe and Western Europe have not necessarily become closer, but have headed in their own separate ways – and that the research reflected this.

He added: “Many Eastern European filmmakers want to have world premieres in the Western festivals. They feel they will be recognized and feel success mostly if they are reflected in Western Europe.”

However, panellists at a session devoted to the issue rejected the notion that there was a Western bias against programming Eastern European films at festivals.

Nikolaj Nikitin, the new artistic director of the Prague Intl. Film Festival and the Berlinale’s former delegate for Eastern Europe, said that there had been a Czech documentary at the Berlinale almost every year over the past decade.

Quality, he said, was more important than quantity. Nikitin noted that the Berlinale Golden Bear was won in 2018 by Romanian director Adina Pintilie’s “Touch Me Not.” Ildikó Enyedi’s Hungarian drama “On Body and Soul” won the Golden Bear in 2017.

He added that representation of Eastern European films at festivals was strong when considered against the background of a cinema market where North American films have an 85-90% share of the box office.

Nikitin also said it was normal for Eastern European filmmakers to want to premiere in the West. “The grass is always greener. From wherever you are, you want to present your film on the other side.”

Ewa Szablowska, the programmer of Poland’s New Horizons festival, said that it would be better to compare representation of Eastern European films with similar-sized countries such as Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece rather than film “superpowers” such as France, Germany and the U.K. which produce a greater volume of content, and would therefore be likely to be dominate at festivals.

Luciano Barisone, a producer and the former director of Visions du Réel, said geography did not matter for selectors. “If I had to choose a film, I was not looking at the place where it was coming from – I watched the films. The choice was about the film.”

Slovakian producer Ivan Ostrochovsky of Punkchart Films said: “I feel that if you have a good film, you can go wherever you want.”

As part of the survey, Ji.hlava has launched an online site, eastwestindex.com, and has pledged to continue to monitor the representation of films from the East at future festivals.