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European Films
by Patricia Ritz

There were 750 European films produced in 2003, almost twice as many as in the U.S., and some film industry experts are questioning if that is just too many. Over $250 million in public money is handed out annually to support film production across the continent, but it might be spread too thin to make European films competitive with U.S. films. While European films made 21% of the local box office revenues, those films had less appeal to viewers outside of their country of origin, earning less than 7.5% of the continent’s total box office.

Paul Tijbits, head of the New Cinema Fund for the U.K.’s film festival, feels that the public funders in Europe should pool their resources to create a cohesive package that can build a larger share of the European market. He also sees the need for new venture capital to foster the growth of competitive European companies that can compete internationally, rather than just promoting single films. In fact, it was recently announced that the French and German public media groups have agreed to formalize cooperation between producers, in particular by organizing co-production gatherings. Talks are also ongoing with regional funds in Rome and Madrid to forge similar agreements as part of a pan-European network.

Europe’s enlargement has also added to the problem as Eastern European countries are asking for more funds and to be trained in the nature of the market. Hughes Bequart, head of distribution support at the Media Programme, summed up the problem; “Even if we had a bigger budget for distribution, it would never be enough. You cannot force people to watch films in Europe. Instead, we should give broadcasters incentives to show European films in their original form. That might increase the appetite. And the history of cinema should be taught at school.”

Here are two samples of interesting European films at the Berlinale:

Crash Test Dummies, written and directed by Jörg Kalt, came from Austria. On the eve that Romania becomes one of the ten new members of the European Union, Ana and Nicolae take a bus from Bucharest to Vienna, hoping to make some easy money by delivering a stolen car. The car isn’t ready (stolen) yet, so they have to survive a few days without much money or German to help them get by. After an argument they part ways as she wants to go back and he wants to stay. He ends up with a friendly travel agent. She meets a department store detective who has a roommate that actually works as a crash test dummy. Ouch!!

Crash Test Dummies is about both fast acceleration and slow speed. The Romanians, Ana and Nicolae, arrive in Vienna with a great deal of kinetic energy which they pass on, thereby setting the people they meet in motion. “This film is about uncontrolled coincidences and controlled accidents, the heart of tragedy and the pain of comedy,” said director Kalt.

This is Kalt’s first full-length film, after studying directing at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. He used the modest Wien Mitte train station as a setting for their newly found “freedom” in the west – with a coffee shop, a supermarket and travel agency to provide small opportunities to interact with the locals which the characters use as their basis to compare with home. The film lightly approaches the topics of free will, gender politics and migration issues without moralizing or providing solutions. The audience can enjoy each new collision with each new character and laugh with them as they discover the comical aspects of their somewhat tragic lives and situations.

Tickets is directed by Ermanno Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami and Ken Loach, three multiple prize-winning, internationally renowned directors, who have created an interplay of three intersecting stories which occur on a train trip across Europe to Rome. During the journey several of the passengers connect in various ways with interesting results, and the train ticket itself becomes a metaphor for those who live with privilege and those without. An elderly businessman reflects affectionately on his loyal secretary who had carefully made his travel plans. Three Scottish football fans are torn by a heartbreaking story of an Albanian family trying to reunite with their father. A paid companion’s patience is tested when the older woman makes a painful visit to her deceased husband’s funeral.

In the short time that we spend with these characters on their train ride together, I was moved by their experiences of love, compassion and shared sacrifice. Perhaps it is due to the sense of heightened growth and awareness that one hopes for when embarking on any journey.