Seyran Ateș: Sex, Revolution, and Islam is among the films in Hot Docs' The Changing Face of Europe program.

The Changing Face of Europe: A World of Stories at Hot Docs

Partnership with European Film Promotion boasts diverse docs

15 mins read

Hot Docs audiences looking to discover a world of stories will find them in the festival’s program The Changing Face of Europe. Now in its fourth year, the Changing Face of Europe offers a curated selection of docs that reflect the contemporary politics of a continent in transition. The program is a partnership between the festival and European Film Promotion (EFP) that brings ten films offering vibrant and diverse perspectives from European filmmakers.

“Our showcase The Changing Face of Europe examines very timely topics within the landscape of contemporary Europe – immigration, populist movements, a rather new economic anxiety,” explains EFP managing director Sonja Heinen via email. Heinen says that EFP collaborated to highlight European stories through documentary thanks to the added urgency that non-fiction films afford their subjects. “In my opinion documentaries nowadays – from an artistic and aesthetic perspective – are more important than ever,” adds Heinen. “They are a source of information but, at the same time, offer a true emotional and sensual experience.”

The partnership began when Heinen met Hot Docs programming director Shane Smith at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. Although Hot Docs obviously screens European films throughout all programming streams, the themed global spotlight offers a specific chance to connect docs with audiences, buyers, and other programmers searching for works that reflect a world in transition. “It’s an additional opportunity for films from the continent to be brought into the festival through a very specific partnership,” explains Smith in a call via Zoom. EFP member countries submit a shortlist of titles to Hot Docs for consideration and the programming team curates the selection as it would other themed programs in the festival.

“The EFP is able to give us some really informed recommendations to curate the program,” notes Smith. “It’s also a chance to see films from smaller regions and countries that are less prolific in terms of documentary production and to give them a platform to have their work included an amplified by the festival.” This year’s selection includes docs from major producers like Germany, Italy, and Spain alongside films from the Czech Republic, Serbia, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Georgia, among others.

The Changing Face of Europe reflects the growing demand for diverse representation that’s dominated conversations around programming in North America. The majority of films in the program have female directors or producers, while many films deal directly with questions of representation and belonging. “We talk to the members about what we’re looking for in the program,” explains Smith. “It’s called the Changing Face of Europe, so we’re looking for emerging voices, fresh perspectives, and engaging ideas.”

For example, Nefise Özkal Lorentzen’s Seyran Ateș: Sex, Revolution, and Islam offers a portrait of the titular Turkish-German activist and lawyer who experienced the fight for gender equality in a new light after becoming one of Europe’s first female imams. Similarly, the Wim Wenders-produced A Black Jesus observes a confrontation of values in a small Sicilian town when a Ghanaian refugee volunteers to carry the village’s prized Black Jesus statue during an annual parade. Welcome to Spain, meanwhile, spotlights the stories of refugees and migrants who’ve come to the country in search of a better life, whether fleeing persecution for their sexual orientation in their native countries or simply hoping to provide new opportunities for their children.

“The programme seeks to showcase new voices telling new stories about the world we live in through a European lens,” says Heinen. She explains that part of the agreement with Hot Docs is to reflect and amplify diverse voices empowered through these stories. “This aim is part of the nomination and selection process: EFP is the international network organisation of all the national film promotion institutes in Europe. Each of them, from altogether 37 European countries, can nominate a film or two. We ask the national institutes from the beginning to consider that at least one of the films they submit should be by a woman and/or by a director of diverse ethnic /cultural background.”

One example in The Changing Face of Europe that highlights this diversity in terms of both filmmaker and subject is Kateřina Hager’s A Marriage. The film tells the story of Czech woman Zdenka who befriends a Pakistani computer whiz named Tabish online and eventually marries him in real life, only to spend their marriage apart when Czech officials challenge its legitimacy. A Marriage, like Welcome to Spain and A Black Jesus, demonstrates how questions surrounding migration and mobility are at the forefront of the program.

Audiences can also find romance in The Changing Face of Europe’s Faith and Branko, directed by Catherine Harte. This is the story of Faith, a British artist, who falls in love with Branko, a young Roma violinist in Serbia. The film observes how Faith and Branko negotiate their different backgrounds and worldviews while maintaining a relationship/creative partnership that changes with the world around them.

“Love stories of this kind, with such strong outstanding characters, are just captivating!” observes Heinen. “When you feel true love, you want it to overcome all obstacles. You want to face what the protagonists face, and you want to dig into their personality. I think this opens the audience up for the pressing issues.” Audiences searching for emotionally engaging docs can also check out The Changing Face of Europe’s Raise the Bar, which focuses on a girls’ basketball team in Iceland where young players are shaped to be tomorrow’s leaders. As with the love stories, the sports documentary hook is a door through which audiences can explore larger conversations about gender parity and the ongoing fight against the patriarchy.

Audiences who want to see how European filmmakers engage with Indigenous stories as truth and reconciliation remains a hot topic on the Canadian front can check out Eatnameamet – Our Silent Struggle, directed by Suvi West. The film unpacks the legacy of colonial violence in Finland and the state’s theft of the Sámi people’s native lands, observing the resilience of a community in search of reparations.

“It is our aim to show the change, what influences and moves people in Europe even today in the 21st century,” explains Heinen. “The film is very suitable to put a finger in the wound, to point out abuses, and to rethink one’s own behaviour. The Finnish contribution is such a film, which, yes, can also contribute to reconciliation.”

Stories from the COVID-19 pandemic are everywhere in the festival, and the spread extends to Europe to show how filmmakers observed the early phases of the virus. Director Andrea Segre witnesses Venice in lockdown through his film Molecules and captures a snapshot of the radical changes in human activity in a city normally overrun with tourists. “Molecules is a documentary collage with an exceptional cinematography,” says Heinen. “The never-seen emptiness of Italy’s tourist hotspot Venice is an incredible setting for an intimate story about the director’s relationship to his dead father.”

Molecules is one title in the program that Heinen recommends for audiences seeking docs that are more formally and aesthetically rigorous. She also singles out Salomé Jashi’s Taming the Garden as a title that will wow audiences with its outstanding cinematography. Taming the Garden comes to Hot Docs after acclaimed stops at Sundance and Berlin where it drew praise for its cinematically striking observation of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s project to uproot trees for his private arboretum. Noting the film’s breathtaking visuals, POV’s Sandi Rankaduwa called the film “a reminder that the beauty of nature provides living pieces of art that surround us” while reviewing it at Sundance.

Heinen hopes that audiences will be provoked to see the fuller picture of Europe, its beauty and complexity, through the ten stories presented in The Changing Face of Europe. “They are incredibly powerful and engaging,” says Heinen. “We are focusing on stories that explore how we (as individuals, as citizens, as countries) navigate the shifting sands of our times, the world around us and our history.”

The film screening in The Changing Face of Europe are:

(loglines courtesy of Hot Docs)

A Black Jesus
Dir. Luca Lucchesi | Germany

At the height of Italy’s migrant crisis, a tiny Sicilian town received over a thousand asylum seekers. But when an African refugee volunteers to carry the hallowed Jesus statue in the village’s annual procession, traditional Christian values must reckon with new social realities.

Eatnameamet – Our Silent Struggle
Dir. Suvi West | Finland

The colonization of Sámi lands by Finland was an historic crime, and decolonization today is the only remedy. From demanding truth and reconciliation hearings to debating self-determination rights, this portrait of Sámi multi-front activism maps a blueprint of resistance.

Faith and Branko
Dir. Catherine Harte | Serbia/UK

United by their passion for Roma music, cosmopolitan Faith and shy, sweet Branko marry on a whim—but their unlikely love story begins to crack as their clashing cultural values and lifestyles slowly tear them apart.

A Marriage
Dir. Kateřina Hager, Asad Faruqi (co-director) | Czech Republic/USA

When Zdenka in the Czech Republic falls in love online with Tabish in Pakistan, they marry—but five years later, Czech immigration still refuses him entry. With humour and grit, the couple must prove “real love” to a government and themselves.

Dir. Andrea Segre | Italy

In February 2020, filmmaker Andrea Segre was locked down in Venice, his late father’s hometown. Emptied of all distractions, the city and a grieving son confront the fragilities of their foundations, finding extraordinary beauty in the powerful presence of absence.

The New Plastic Road
Dir. Myrto Papadopoulos, Angela Tsaousis | Germany/Greece

In 2004, China reopened Silk Road trading routes with impoverished former Soviet states such as Tajikistan. One hard-working man discovers the unexpected costs of trading with a global economic giant.

Raise the Bar
Dir. Gudjon Ragnarsson | Iceland/Finland

How controversial can one basketball team of eight-year-olds be? With an unorthodox coach and training method, a tight-knit group of empowered Icelandic girls demand to play against boys and call time out on patriarchy.

Seyran Ateș: Sex, Revolution, and Islam
Dir. Nefise Özkal Lorentzen | Norway

A bullet to the neck, fatwas and 24-hour police protection are just part of being one of Europe’s first female imams. When Seyran Ateș opens Germany’s first liberal mosque, radical change meets modern Islam.

Taming the Garden
Dir. Salomé Jashi | Switzerland/Germany/Georgia

Why dig up 15-storey-tall, hundred-year-old trees in Georgia to replant them in a mysterious private garden on the Black Sea? This fascinating glimpse at a powerful man’s staggering whim is simply too strange not to be seen.

Welcome to Spain
Dir. Juan Antonio Moreno Amador | Spain

When Seville’s last brothel is repurposed into a refugee reception centre, cameras move in to capture the newcomers’ impressions of Spanish life. With 1970s style and satire, the migrant crisis comes into a refreshingly human focus.

For more information about films in The Changing Face of Europe and for tickets, please visit Hot Docs and European Film Promotion.

Hot Docs runs April 29 to May 9.

This article was sponsored by European Film Promotion.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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