In March, at the time the European Union was busy celebrating its 50th anniversary, a documentary had its world première in the European Parliament in Brussels. “Au Coeur de l’Europe” by Sergio Ghizzardi covers the main events in EU politics in 2005, from the rejection of the proposed European Constitution in France to arguments between the UK and the other member states over a new budget. Subtitled “the most difficult job in the world” it focuses on the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and the various pressures he had to deal with in 2005 to move the European project forward.
You might think that members of the European Parliament (MEPs) would have seen enough of Barroso in their daily business, but the event was popular and the audience attentive. Even when the subjects are as close to home as this, documentary screenings in the Parliament are well-attended and considered by their organisers an effective way of attracting attention to a particular issue. A documentary can take the viewers where they otherwise might not go and, through images, makes a more direct connection than a report or a speech.
What Gets Shown?
Documentaries are screened quite often in the Parliament, mainly in Brussels but also in Strasbourg. However, the types of film and the settings in which they are shown vary considerably. Sometimes the documentaries are of high cinematic quality, such as Thierry Michel’s “Congo River”, but they may also be campaign films from environmental or social grassroots organisations.
There is little restriction to what can be shown in the Parliament. If an MEP wants to show a film – or can be persuaded to host the screening of one – there is usually no problem getting it seen. The line would be drawn for anything promoting religious or racial hatred, but in general such films are not put forward for screenings.
The sort of audience that a documentary gets in the Parliament varies dramatically. Sometimes the screenings are low-key, almost private affairs that appear on the weekly agenda but are not promoted more broadly. For instance, in June Green MEPs gathered to watch “Uno di No”i, a documentary by Dietmar Höss about Alexander Langer, founder of the Italian Green Party.
At other times the screenings are an event, as was the case for “Au Coeur de l’Europe”. Made independently for television and broadcast subsequently on Arte, the Parliament was the perfect place for the premiere given the subject matter. The host for the screening was Martin Schulz, leader of the Parliament’s socialist group and one of the participants in the film. Another recent ‘event’ screening was James Tusty’s documentary “Singing Revolution”, screened as part of a celebration of Estonian independence.
When it comes to sparking debate in the Parliament, a documentary is likely to have more impact if it is integrated into the MEPs’ work. Aside from the gatherings of the whole assembly, the official business of the Parliament takes place in committees dedicated to particular issues. These will occasionally view documentary material as part of their sessions, but time is necessarily limited and only short films or excerpts can be presented.
More time is available, and the audience bigger, in meetings hosted by the Parliament’s political groups, and documentaries frequently turn up in this context. Last year, for instance, a public hearing on human rights in North Korea included a showing of “Seoul Train” by Jim Butterworth, Lisa Sleeth and Aaron Lubarsky, a documentary about a network of safe houses and hidden routes by which Northern Koreans can escape to the South. In February this year Yury Khashchavatski’s film “Kalinovski Square” about the 2006 elections in Belarus was screened in a study day on the country, while in May a roundtable on the Andijan massacre saw excerpts of a work in progress by Michael Andersen called “Andijan” – a massacre foretold. The response of the Parliament will be worked into the final film.
The extent to which showing a film in the Parliament has an influence on EU policy is harder to judge. Sander Francken, whose documentary “Dealing and Wheeling in Small Arms”was shown there in February, is convinced that he was able to tell MEPs something they didn’t know, but it remains to be seen whether this will result in action.
“The parliamentarians were not aware that hundred of thousands of small arms, which were collected and stored in Bosnia after the war with the financial support of the European Community, have been and are currently being sold to so-called ‘legal’ arms dealers,” he explains. “They transport them to, amongst other places, Central Africa where they not only cause lots of victims, but also seriously disturb the democracy and development processes in which the same European Community yearly invests millions of euros.”
His film, which amongst other locations takes the viewer inside the Bosnian arms dumps, was not intended to speak directly to policymakers. Its aim was to raise public awareness about the international trade in small arms and increase pressure on politicians to agree a treaty preventing it. Francken concedes that six months on from its limited cinema release in the Netherlands there has been little impact on the public.
However, an MEP saw the film at a UN conference in New York, and arranged for an evening showing at the Parliament. Because of the screening, one of the experts Francken interviewed in the film was present during the day to testify before the Parliament’s security and defence subcommittee, producing a double effect.
“A surprising effect of the film is that it has a much more direct effect on politicians and people who are already involved and aware of the issue,” Francken says. “Experts who’ve dealt with the issue for many years have seen the film and say that for the first time it appeals to their emotions. That’s exactly what a film can do.”
Lobby groups can also find an audience for their films through sympathetic MEPs. For them the aim of a screening is to contribute to an ongoing political campaign by reinforcing previous contacts or introducing the issue to those not directly involved in it. As well as MEPs and their staff, the Parliament in Brussels is a good venue for reaching other policymakers, lobbyists, non-governmental organisations and the press, all of whom frequent the building.
Films dealing with the environment, development and women’s issues are particularly noticeable, thanks to the high level of lobbying on these issues. A recent example is “Chicken Madness”, made by journalist Marcello Faraggi for a group of development NGOs and screened at the Parliament in January. The short documentary describes the dumping of frozen chicken pieces on the African market by European traders and the impact this has on local producers in Cameroon. It also shows the collaboration between NGOs in Africa and Europe to try to change the situation.
A screening in the Parliament was important, even if the MEPs themselves can do little to change the issue. “If it’s shown in the European Parliament, they have to take it more seriously in Africa,” explains Karin Ulmer, policy officer with Aprodev, an association of European development organisations that works closely with the World Council of Churches. “European and international support is essential for the campaign in Cameroon.”
While individual MEPs are usually the motivating force for screenings, there appears to be a growing interest among the political organisations for using documentary images. “Documentary filmmakers have skills in provoking emotion in people or getting a message across, and sometimes rhetoric from a politician just won’t be able to do that,” explains Edel Crosse from the press office of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.
“If you show a professionally made documentary, it does the work for you.”
She is particularly struck by a recent experience with “Through the Bars”, a documentary produced by Bulgarian National Television about five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death in Libya for allegedly transmitting HIV to their patients. With the permission of BNT, Crosse and her colleague Jeroen Reijnen edited together a three-minute summary of the film, which was shown at a press conference in the Parliament, and many journalists subsequently came to the screening of the hour-long film, along with MEPs and representatives of the Bulgarian community.
“The reaction was incredible,” Crosse recalls. “I think it definitely made people more sensitive to the message. Even though the families were there, and that was a really strong message in itself, just to watch the nurses behind the bars and hear them describe in their own words the torture – nothing can replace that.”
Again it is unclear whether the screening will have a direct impact. “The aim was to keep it in the press, which was very important.” Crosse and Reijnen are now exploring the possibility of making their own short documentaries to show in the Parliament and to send out to the media and the public.