The European Parliament’s love for cinema – a report on the 2014 LUX Prize

Each screening of a film nominated for the LUX Prize is preceded by a title that states “The European Parliament believes in European films”. Culture isn’t a priority on the work plan of the newly elected European Parliament, so perhaps that statement isn’t entirely true, but the LUX Prize proves that even politicians can be cinephiles. Awarded since 2007, the three LUX Prize nominees are selected by a panel of film professionals while the winner is selected by the Members of the Parliament. The initiative has come a long way in the past seven years – the three nominated films are now subtitled in all 24 official languages of the European Union and screened within the LUX Film Days in more than 40 cities all around Europe.

The LUX journey begins in Venice and ends in Strasbourg and this year, I was lucky enough to follow the journey from beginning to end. At the Venice Film Festival, the films were screened as LUX Prize nominees for the first time. For the next four months they would travel around Europe and in December the winner was announced in Strasbourg.

Past winners of the LUX Prize include well-known films such as The Broken Circle Breakdown and The Edge of Heaven as well as smaller films such as Shun Li and the Poet and When We Leave. Notably, they all deal with universal social themes – the films are diverse, but always topical. This year’s selection includes the Polish Oscar frontrunner Ida by Pawel Pawlikowski, Girlhood by the young French director Céline Sciamma and the first Slovenian film ever to truly cross the borders, Class Enemy by Rok Bicek. Curiously, this year’s nominees all deal with youth, but the selection panel members I’ve talked to all assured me the connection was incidental – they select the films they believe to be the best among the 10 films on the initial shortlist. Other shortlisted films this year include Force Majeure, The Wonders and White God.

As a member of the 28 Times Cinema programme I was also a LUX Prize ambassador – a role I was happy to take over this year as Slovenia found itself nominated for the LUX Prize for the first time ever. I participated in the LUX Film Days in Ljubljana (where the Class Enemy screening was the central event, followed by a Q&A with the director, actors, Members of the European Parliament and myself) and La Ciotat (where the audience embraced the film and me, as its representative of sorts, surprisingly well). The last act was the event in Strasbourg – a press seminar on the topic of European cinema and the award ceremony.

Predictably, Ida was this year’s winner, continuing its awards season success that also includes the European Film Award for Best Film, a Golden Globe nomination and an Academy Award shortlist mention. On paper, Ida’s success worldwide could be (and generally is) considered surprising – it’s a period film shot in black and white in Polish language – but the unconventional aesthetics can’t hide the film’s mediocrity. The story of a young Catholic nun discovering her Jewish background sounds familiar. Thematically, Ida offers nothing fresh on the subject, which is a shame because the topic remains a sensitive one in Poland and deserves stronger cinematic representation. The story’s simplicity is concealed by the stunning cinematography and bold out-of-centre framing which feels fresh at first but is eventually quite distracting. A standout, however, is Agata Kulesza’s raw performance as the young nun’s aunt – Kulesza does good work even though the film doesn’t provide her character with a good arc. At its 82 minutes, Ida feels much longer but doesn’t leave much more of an impression. It is a well-made film, but ultimately a forgettable one.

On the other hand, Girlhood is anything but forgettable. Céline Sciamma’s third feature film is full of energy but it also offers more perspective than a youth film usually does. It follows Marieme, a young girl in the suburbs of Paris, who joins a group of girls who change her life around. They show her a different lifestyle and Marieme, who just wants to escape the difficult home environment, gladly accepts before realising this is not who she really is. With Girlhood, Sciamma makes strong points about self-image, changing your life to fit in and especially womanhood in modern society. These girls compete with each other for boys’ attention without realising they should unite and celebrate each other. The ending doesn’t offer a clear resolution because that’s simply not the way things happen. But it promises an escape, it promises a possibility. Girlhood truly proves Sciamma as a great talent. Her characters are sharp and unique but always fully fleshed-out. Her direction is flashy but never over-stylised. She deals with social topics, but she doesn’t preach or generalise. She captures reality and makes it her own. I’m really excited to see what she does next.

But as much as I love Girlhood, Class Enemy is the LUX Prize nominee I’m most passionate about. After winning the main International Critics Week prize at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, it has been playing festivals and collecting awards all over the world. In a bigger context, its success isn’t exactly overwhelming, but for a Slovenian film, it’s unprecedented. But that’s not because Slovenian cinema has been overlooked internationally. Even as part of Yugoslavian cinema, it never reached the peaks Serbian cinema in particular did, but the cinema of independent Slovenia has been particularly insignificant. It’s also impressive that Class Enemy, the film that would tower over the rest, is a directorial debut by Rok Bicek, the youngest director ever nominated for the LUX Prize.

Inspired by true events Bicek witnessed in high school, the film deals with a group of students who rebel against the school system and their new German language teacher in particular after the suicide of one of their classmates. It’s a tense and uncomfortable film without any easy conclusions. The students perform their uprising without any sensibility and consideration for anyone but themselves. While the death of their classmate Sabina is tragic, it’s even more tragic to see these young people avoiding responsibility and failing to act as adults even though they’re on the brink of adulthood. The question that remains isn’t whose fault it was that Sabina killed herself. It’s whose fault is it that these students cannot see the world isn’t black and white. Is it the insensitive teachers, the relentless school system, the corrupt country? Class Enemy doesn’t offer an answer to the problems it depicts. It’s a layered, remarkable film about the blindness of youth that should be compulsory high school viewing. I strongly recommend it and hope it finds a place in the world of European cinema and begins a new, better and fresher era for Slovenian cinema.

LUX