Typically, the European Film Awards (EFA) are an event for celebration and, broadly, consensus. There might be debate over which European movie deserves the top prize — this year’s best film contenders include refugee dramas Io Capitano from Italian director Matteo Garrone and Green Border from Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland; Justine Triet’s French legal thriller Anatomy of a Fall; Jonathan Glazer’s harrowing Holocaust film The Zone of Interest; and the dour romantic comedy Fallen Leaves from Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki —but when it comes to politics, the members of the European Film Academy, who hands out the honors, are usually unified in their progressive message backing the oppressed of society over those in power, and for their unwavering support of freedom of expression.
This year’s awards, which will be handed out in Berlin on Saturday, Dec. 9, may be different. Conflicts raging in Europe are pitting EFA member states against one another and sowing division within the Academy.
“They have the members coming from all possible countries, some of those countries are actually at war right now, which makes our position as part of the Academy very uncomfortable,” says Holland, who in addition to being a 2023 EFA nominee is also the long-serving president of the European Film Academy. “Because the Russians are EFA members. Ukrainians are members. The Palestinians are our members and Israelis are our members.”
Previously the EFA could rally behind grand political statements which garnered close to universal support among its members. In 2016, Holland opened the EFAs, taking place shortly after the U.S. election of President Donald Trump, with a SNL-style sketch calling for the restoration of “democracy and tolerance” to the U.S. In 2019, the Academy celebrated the release from Russian prison of Oleg Senstov, a Ukrainian director who has since put down his camera and picked up a gun to fight Russia on the front lines.
In the current conflicts, political consensus is harder to come by. The war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has split the European film community. At the international documentary film festival in Amsterdam last month, filmmakers backing Israel and Palestine both sharply criticized the festival for refusing to publicly back, or sufficiently condemn, one side or the other.
“The reality is we live in a continent where war is back, and that makes it very difficult because our members are directly impacted by this in horrible ways,” says European Film Academy CEO Matthijs Wouter Knol, who also points to the ongoing, if less-well reported, war between EFA member states Armenia and Azerbaijan. “[In the Israeli-Hamas war] we have clearly condemned terror and we called for peace, for a ceasefire and an end to the violence. But the European Film Academy is not an organization that can solve wars. What we have tried to do is to support individual members where they are under threat, as filmmakers.”
It’s a “paradox,” says Holland, that as “more and more the world is on fire” the European Film Awards is being forced to be “less political than in previous years.”
Holland is herself a fiercely political director. Green Border directly attacks the immigration policies of Poland’s outgoing far-right government and their decision to prevent migrants from crossing over the country’s natural border with Belarus, leaving tens of thousands of people stranded in the swampy forest region, cut off from all support and struggling to survive. Several right-wing politicians condemned the movie, with Polish justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro comparing it to “Nazi propaganda” for its supposedly negative depiction of Polish police and border guards.
The government even required theaters in Poland to run a government-approved warning video ahead of the movie. Ironically, what Holland calls the “shameless hate campaign” helped the film at the box office. Green Border was a hit, earning close to $4 million in Poland, an impressive tally for a low-budget black-and-white arthouse movie.
“The box office success was a surprise to all of us, and I can thank the Polish authorities for their really efficient publicity campaign for the film,” Holland says, wryly. “But at the same time, I think making a movie of ‘substance,’ a film that deals with real-world problems was part of the reason for its success with the audience.”
While European cinema has struggled to rebound at the box office —”there has been a post-pandemic bounce-back but it hasn’t bounced back high enough or for a sustained period,” notes European Film Academy Chair Mike Downey —movies dealing with political hot-button topics have down well. Garrone’s Io Capitano, a drama tracing the attempts of two Senegalese migrants to reach Italy, has earned close to $5 million in its home market. Last year’s EFA best film winner, Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness, an over-satire of capitalism with an unmissable political message, was a rare pan-European hit, grossing around $20 million. More recently, Paola Cortellesi’s There’s Still Tomorrow, a period drama that takes aim at the Italian patriarchy, has been a bonafide blockbuster, earning more than $26 million to date, making it the most successful Italian film of the year.
The message European audiences are sending, says Holland, is that they want more politics, not less, in their movies.
“The majority of European films deal with the very personal issues, what the French call the “non-realistic” problems,” Holland says. “I respect all kinds of the cinema, if it’s good, from very commercial, special effects movies, to animation to drama, to very artistic experimental cinema, but speaking to audiences, I think that films that have substance, that take the temperature [of political issues] head on are the ones that can get viewers to leave their nice warm homes and go out to the cinema.”