A few weeks ago 22 culture ministers, and EU Commissioner Vassilliou, signed a document with the slightly pretentious title ”Decalogue for Europe of Culture” which solemnly declares that culture ”embodies the values of democracy in all the nations of the EU” and that a Europe of Culture ”ensures absolute freedom of creation”.
Among the signatories where the culture ministers of Greece, Hungary and Portugal – although in Portugal culture is currently not important enough for there to even be a Minister of Culture, but rather a Secretary of State for Culture.
Over the past months I have been travelling to meet FERA members in Greece, Hungary and Portugal. I wanted to see and hear first hand what it is like to be a filmmaker in the countries that struggle the most right now.
In Athens I met directors Sifis and Costas. They are also active in a small association for short and documentary filmmakers called MIKRO with about 50 members.
They told me that the Greek Film Center has not awarded any grants for the past two years, and even very successful filmmakers are about to give up.
till they try to document what is going on in their country at this time of crisis. Equipped with a small digital camera, they take to the streets to capture the frustration of the steel workers on strike, and the disillusionment of the unemployed youth – which very much mirrors their own.
In the evening we went to a taverna where Lefttsatsis, an actor friend who had just played the role of Plato in an upcoming film, got everyone to sing along to heartbreaking traditional songs until the early morning hours.
For Sifis, Costas, and their friends the concept of the single market makes no sense: ”Imagine that the logic of the market now means that Greece is importing tomatoes from Belgium! Before we all grew our own on every balcony or backyard. We have been made to depend on others for things we used to do much better ourselves”.
Other guests came to join our table. A young woman named Christina told me that she had just lost her job as a pre-school teacher because the government had to lay off public sector employees. So only two years after finishing her own
higher education, she had to go back to waiting tables at a café rather than teaching kids.
The people’s own point view is very different from the somewhat spiteful reports the rest of Europe reads about lazy Greeks who retire at 55.
The following day I walked around to see the sights: Pnyx – the birthplace of democracy – where all Athenian citizens had the right (and duty) to attend and vote on all decrees before they became law. The Theatre of Dionysus where before large audiences comic poets filled their plays with stinging criticism of all the leading politicians of 5th-century Athens – with state funding. A reflection on how important theater was in the life of an Athenian citizen, and a powerful force for the molding of public opinion. Many of the comedies satirizing democracy and its practitioners were awarded prizes for excellence in dramas such as Aristophanes’ Knights, in 424 B.C.
I ended my historic tour at the Stoa of Attalos, in the Agora (picture above), which was also the site of the 2004 EU enlargement signing ceremony of the ten new acceeding members. One of the new members was Hungary.
In Budapest I met directors Béla and András. The Hungarian government is not awarding prizes to those who satirizes its officials, but has rather introduced a new controversial media law to silence critical voices.
I was there to show support for the 43rd Hungarian Film Week that had been organized on a voluntary basis, as the government offered no financial support. But the filmmakers themselves wanted to show the Hungarian public that their national cinema is still viable, vigorous and many-sided.
In the past year the main responsibility for the national film industry has been moved from the Ministry of National Resources to the MInistry of the Interior, and the executive body for funding the professional industry is under the authority of re-patriated ”Terminator” producer Andrew Vajna, who has been the government film commissioner for a year. In theory the Ministry of National Resources is still supposed to deal with ”artistic films”, but there is no budget for them.
The day before, Vajna reportedly got up and left a debate with the film industry, insulted by the criticism they voiced.
Béla expressed little hope for improved communication, so he and a few colleagues each put 10 € on the table and resolved to try to set up an alternative fund.
”Hungarian cinema is an integral part of both our national and European culture”, he said. ”The films made in recent decades just like the ones presented during these days are about Hungarian people, life in Hungary, our country and our fate - in an individual and free manner. I hope that these days will strenghen our solidarity and give all of us inspiration and hope for our work”.
They asked me if there are any possibilities for additional support at the European level. I had to give a less than optimistic answer, but promised to investigate.
Lisbon I met directors Margarida and João.
Margarida’s latest feature film Passion had its cinema premiere just two days earlier. The Secretary of State for Culture was present and, beaming with excitement, he talked about his plans for sorting out the financing of Portugese films. it seemed a little too good to be true…
Margarida explained how she now has to face closing down the small production company she co-owns with a fellow (Swedish) director. Their modus operandi with a modest mix of short films, television commissions, and stage projects is too fragile for the current crisis. Sadly this will also mean that the technicians and assistants they hire will lose their jobs.
After two successful short films, João is about to finalize his first feature film, shot in Africa, which he is producing himself. Last year the Institute for Cinema and Audiovisual (ICA) awarded grants for this and another project he is working on. Ten days ago, he was told that these grants will not be paid until 2015 (!). As a small entrepeneur this puts him in an impossible situation. How can he access credit in these times? A ruthless and irresponsible way to treat creative talents.
While it is sadly unsurprising that filmmakers in these countries are experiencing very tough times, what is even more alarming is that the financial crisis also seems to be a pretext for public instiutions, such as national film funds, to abandon core democratic principles such as transparency and accountability in the way they function.
2012 will be a year of crucial decisions concerning pretty much every aspect of European filmmakers’ professional life: New rules for state aid to cinema, the relationship between film financing and online distribution, enforcement of authors’ rigths to secure fair remuneration, and negotiations on the Creative Europe Programme.
Yet, one of the non-signatories to the recent Decalogue was the Danish Minister of Culture. The motto of the Danish EU Presidency this spring is ”Doing more, with less”.
Back in 1999, the European Commission articulated the values underlying cultural objectives in the audiovisual sector in a statement that all the member states should still keep in mind:
The audiovisual media play a central role in the functioning of modern democratic societies. They…help to determine not only what we see of the world but also how we see it…and have a major influence on what citizens know, believe and feel.
In Europe’s audiovisual sector, we always do more with less – even with nothing. So this time around if politicians want to ”ensure absolute freedom of creation” so that we can fulfill our potential to influence what citizens know, believe and feel about Europe, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the Danish approach be revised to ask Sifis, Costas, Béla, András, Margarida and João: ”Do even more, with just a little more”.
Elisabeth O. Sjaastad