The International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) has used film to reflect on European culture, politics and identity.

The State Of Europe programme at this year’s IFFR was the brainchild of artistic director Rutger Wolfson.

In advance of the European elections, he wanted the festival to reflect on European culture, politics and identity.

As he wrote: ‘The historical project of the European unification has lost much of its lustre. Peace and prosperity, the two main forces that have driven Europe, are still relevant today but feel worn out.

“Politicians seem unable to convey a convincing alternative future perspective and many citizens are angry, disillusioned or have lost interest completely.”

Rising debt, the spectre of nationalism, the colonial legacy and the tension between EU Member states are all factors in the modern Europe.

For his programmers, this huge subject initially seemed daunting – a project for historians and politicians from the EU’s 28 member states, perhaps, but not necessarily one for film curators.

“It took the programmers two or three months before we saw opportunities,” says programmer Gertjan Zuilhof.

“Now, I am quite happy because it (The State Of Europe) gives an opportunity to show there is important, very vital cinema still going on in Europe. At the beginning of the idea, it was mainly political and there was no connection with cinema.”

Gradually, the programmers saw ways of interweaving the cinematic and political elements. They were also reassured that The State Of Europe wouldn’t be off putting to the festival’s non-European guests. Outsiders, they discovered, are intensely curious about the European culture and politics.

“For me as a programmer, to a certain extent I ignored political questions,” says Gerwin Tamsma, who has overseen the Grand Tour sidebar, which is intended to take festivalgoers on a journey through contemporary European cinema.

In programming Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, Tamsma wasn’t trying to make a political point, although he acknowledges the film has a strong political dimension.

He says: “The film speaks for itself. It is not only a political statement. Firstly, it is cinema. Even if it is ‘Loachian’, it doesn’t mean Clio Barnard has the same political views as Ken Loach.”

Panels and debates

Accompanying the films, there have been debates and panels. “Europe is a big thing and so we organized big talks,” says Zuilhof.

On Sunday, heavyweight German cultural philosopher Peter Sloterdijk was in town to ponder European matters.

He asked for the festival to screen Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, Esfir Shub’s 1927 film and an ominous warning – in the eyes of some observers – of what may be waiting for contemporary Europe.

Zuilhof’s EU-29 programme aims to look at “filmmaking and subjects that are not rooted into European history.”

He wanted to look at work done in the margins and addressing such subjects as immigration and exclusion. One of the films, Karin Junger’s Sexy Money, is not even shot in Europe. Its subjects are Nigerian women who’ve returned home after spending time in Europe, where they ended up in prostitution.

“It is completely shot in Nigeria but the women all have experience in Europe and they talk about that experience,” Zuilhof states.

One of the key films in the section is Claire Simon’s Gare du Nord, set in the vast Paris railway station and exploring the relationship that springs up between a young researcher with Algerian roots and an older French woman.

Mart Dominicus, the Festival’s acting director, cites Gare Du Nord as “a very interesting impression of Europe nowadays, a melting pot not only of different people but also of different stories and different moods.”

He sees Simon as “a figurehead” of the whole programme.

Programmer Evgeny Gusyatinski’s My Own Private Europe ponders questions of European identity and culture in an intimate and personal fashion.

As Tamsma notes, The State Of Europe will remind viewers of Europe’s achievements in cinema and culture but will also show another side of the European project.

“Of course, Europe may have brought many interesting things to the world but there are also many dark things,” he adds. “These films are there to put up a mirror to anyone who cherishes his European superiority complex.”