Arte has launched “Faces of Europe”, an impressive series of half-hour docs documenting how we live, broadcast each weekday at 6.30 p.m.

Tue Steen Müller
Previous founder/editor of the DOX magazine.

Brief Encounters

The series features straightforward, unpretentious documentaries on Europeans, their lives, their surroundings, their work, and sometimes even their inner thoughts and dreams.

“The Masseuse from Karlovy Vary”, “The Photographer from Riga”, “The Countess from Sartène” are some of the titles. “Hassan” or “Eva” or “Didda are others”. “A Shop in Paris” or “A Shop in Istanbul”, “The Bridges of St Petersburg” and “Uzupis”. “The Republic of Angels” are all documentaries – and they are all part of the new Arte strand “Faces of Europe” (“Visages d´Europe/Gesichter Europas”), that in 2007 will be aired every weekday at 6.30 p.m.

The documentaries are 26 minutes long and the intention is to invite the viewers to meet people in the so-called “geographical Europe” (Arte is German/French). ZDF is responsible for 70 of the 260 “Faces in Europe” documentaries (50% of the total), while the rest of the German contributions are handled by the ARD stations (e.g. WDR, NDR, RBB). Arte France produces the other 50%.

ZDF’s editorial staff specifies that “themes for the series could be subject-related (e.g. celebrations), focus on places (marketplaces, shops, Italy, etc.) or be personal (strong women, my world).”Arte France has chosen a concept called “Bienvenue chez…” (Welcome to…) about “European women and men of all conditions, all ages and from all countries.”

No Problems, Please!

The tone of the documentaries is light. No problems or (major) political problems are raised. There are those who might call the series whitewashed of all stains, very politically correct and worthy of applause from the EU. It has been said that the well-behaved cultural channel of Europe, Arte, takes no chances and does not know the meaning of the words “provocation” or “debate”! The opposite view, if you choose to be positive, is that Arte is doing what most national broadcasters avoid in their narrow domestic programming. Arte takes us to ordinary people living more or less ordinary lives and makes us meet them in these everyday lives to hear what they think and do. A little dreaming and philosophy are conveyed and lots of daily reality.

At the time of writing, around fifty “Faces of Europe” have been broadcast. DOX has watched half of them. Most are about ordinary people and ordinary life, some have been made playful and cinematic, while others are driven by words subordinating the image.

A Man in Paris

holger-preusseA charming, charismatic man-Armenian by origin and a refugee from Turkey-is the main character in “A Shop in Paris”, by Holger Preusse and Valerie Theobaldt. He is cornered in a colourful oriental shop in Rue Lamartine, talking to his colleagues and to the shop’s owner Madame Kathy, a Greek. The sweet man is a philosopher of life who pushes not only spices, but also wisdom over the counter to his customers-and to us, the viewers. This is a nice documentary and the directors are able to create an atmosphere.

“We want as much diversity from one programme to the other as possible,” says Linde Dehner, one of the ZDF commissioning editors behind “Faces of Europe”. Dehner is also looking for different cinematic approaches from one documentary to another. In the guidelines she has set up with her colleagues, filmmakers are given creative freedom in terms of the music and are urged to be ready to capture unplanned events. At the same time, “the camera should convey the proximity of the protagonist, as well as present everything that surrounds the main figure with intrigue and humour.”

A Man in Brussels

Like Sezan in Paris, “Hassan” (the name of protagonist and title of the film) came to France from another cultural background: his parents are Algerian and Hassan grew up in Belgium. On entering his shop, you meet ‘un grand enfant,’ as his mother calls him, as he is still surrounded by toys, which he sells. He is a collector with a complete collection of Star Wars paraphernalia and other objects from sci-fi films. He is clever, loves cartoons, reflects on life and love and the possibility of having children-all in a clear, playful narrative form set up by director Patric Jean (“Letter to Henri Storck: The Children of Borinage” and “La Raison du plus fort”).

Arte France commissioned three bigger companies for the production-RIFF International, Cinétévé and Les Films d´Ici. The one about Hassan is produced by the latter, whose executive producer Serge Lalou says, “All the new space on cable and digital television is taken over by magazines and talk shows. Can we invent a kind of documentary approach compatible with the economy of this part of television? This is what we wanted to do here.”

“Faces of Europe” is part of the Unité Documentaire at Arte France. Elisabeth Hultén, Commissioning editor for Arte France, says: “We’ve asked the directors to follow a few common paths in each film. However, they were free to do so in their own creative way. Some examples: the characters introduce themselves in the opening. During another moment in each film the character tells the viewer something personal. And we must know the environment we’re in from the very start. We have worked with well-known directors, but also given a chance to young directors. And we are happy to say that new talent has been discovered!”

A Woman in Reykjavik

solveig-anspach-ouvDidda”, is a Films d`Ici production directed by Solveig Anspach, known for feature films and documentaries alike. Didda is a free-spirited woman with the enormous power often seen in Icelandic women. She works in a grocery shop but considers herself a poet and an actress, as she previously was in one of Anspach’s films. She is in complete control when the camera points at her, she masters (i.e. the director does) the small moments which results in a charmingly crafted and stylised half-hour documentary.

The documentaries about Hassan and Didda clearly demonstrate that the French approach to “Faces of Europe” was to look for characters with a dash of ‘extravagance’, or strong personalities, whereas the German contributions have focused on social aspects through character portrayals-how they live and how the geographic and demographic location has influenced them. One might say that the French go for the psychological, the Germans for the sociological.

Serge Lalou puts it this way, “Instead of ‘a television of subject’, we wanted “a television of encounters”. Singular encounters, where you have the right distance to the person you film. It is not the projection of something you want to say, the illustration of a pre-thought idea or comment. This, because of the short time involved, needed confirmed filmmakers and they were seduced by the idea of not making a film with a beginning, a middle and an end. They could invent something with more freedom (no need for coherence of time and space). So the ambition was to create a set of tools of how to film the other. There was not too much time but there was an occasion for intelligent television.”

In the guidelines for the filmmakers, Linde Dehner and her colleagues write that there should be “One charismatic protagonist with roots in the documented region. He/she should be lively rather than camera-shy and willing to provide the public with a glimpse of his private life […] The action could be one of the red threads of the film and provide the audience with a new perspective on a region or city. Information about the scenery, everyday life, and cultural inheritance should also be conveyed.”

A Woman in Karlovy Vary

This is precisely the case for Dascha, who works as a “Masseuse in Karlovy Vary”, also the title of the film directed by Rita Knobel-Ulrich. The character is a strong woman who has managed to survive the transition from having ‘patients’ in the luxury hotel during the socialist era, till now, where rich Russians and Germans come for a wellness treatment. Even the latest James Bond actor has been massaged by Dascha, who returns early in the evening from her posh place of work to a modest apartment in new Karlovy Vary. On Sundays she goes to her dacha in the countryside to enjoy time off with her grown-up daughter. The documentary is detailed with (a little too) much voice-off narration.

Budget and Production

For a half-hour production for “Faces of Europe”, ZDF pays EUR 38–45,000 and Arte France EUR 26,000, plus EUR 1,000 from the sales department that distributes the collection of films. In France the producers normally get to top this off with a subsidy from the CNC (the French film institute), which brings the average total up to EUR 45,000. Not a lot, but Serge Lalou from Films d´Ici finds it workable and economically viable for a production company if you get a commission for forty-five 26-minute segments to produce over a period of two years. Each film has been shot in four or five days and edited in seven.

To Be Continued?

Whether “Faces of Europe” continues is a topic of discussion at Arte Headquarters in Strasbourg. Linde Dehner estimates that 80,000–100,000 German viewers watch the programme, and Elisabeth Hultén adds that “We only have ratings for Germany, as there are not yet precise figures for the French digital network, on which “Visages d’Europe” goes on air. The first fifteen programmes were seen in Germany by a total of 1,403,000 viewers with an average of around 100,000 viewers per programme. The best score went to “Jim”, a Scottish brewer of whisky!”

Further details about “Visage d’Europe/Gesichter Europas” are available on http://www.arte.tv/fr/70.html , click “Les émissions de A-Z”.

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