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The East West Index survey points out the underrepresentation of Eastern European films at festivals


- Bringing together festival programmers from both parts of Europe, the 23rd Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival aimed to open minds to bring different cinemas together again

The East West Index survey points out the underrepresentation of Eastern European films at festivals
(l-r) Luciano Barisone, Nikolaj Nikitin, Ivan Ostrochovský and Ewa Szablowska at the East West Index presentation

Analysing the last three editions of seven documentary film festivals from Western Europe (Visions du Réel, CPH:DOX, DocsBarcelona, DocLisboa, DOK Leipzig, FID Marseille and IDFA) and comparing them to eastern European festivals such as Beldocs, Dokufest, Ji.hlava IDFF and others, the East West Index survey highlighted the under-representation of eastern European films in Western Europe.

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The survey focused on figures of festival films coming from different regions of the world, with an emphasis on the difference between Eastern European and Western European films. The percentage of films from Eastern Europe in the programs of these key European documentary film festivals was often below 10% and often lower than the percentage of Northern American films at those same festivals.

A discussion of the results presented followed, with speakers Luciano Barisone, producer and former director at Visions du Réel, Nikolaj Nikitin, artistic director of Prague IFF – Febiofest and former programmer for the Berlinale, Ivan Ostrochovský, producer at Punkchart Films and Ewa Szablowska, programmer at New Horizons sharing their own experiences and opinions.

Marek Hovorka, the director of Ji.hlava IDFF, who moderated the discussion, first noted that many Eastern European filmmakers prefer their films to world-premiere at Western European festivals, expecting to receive better recognition there. Ivan Ostrochovský agreed, rhetorically asking why filmmakers only see themselves as “good” if their films are screened in the West.

Some of the speakers as well as members of the audience pointed out the survey’s shortcomings: the number of films actually produced in Eastern and in Western Europe was missing, making it impossible to put the findings of the survey in a proper context. Ewa Szablowska noted that “high production” countries such as Germany, France and the UK should not have been taken into account, and that smaller Eastern European countries should have been instead compared to smaller Western European countries. Nikolaj Nikitin added that the concept of “country of production” was problematic as well: often, the filmmaker comes from one part of Europe, but makes films elsewhere, usually due to financing reasons. “Where does the film come from then?” he asked. “Is only the money important, or is the talent as well?”

These arguments aside, Marek Hovorka noted that the figures in the survey paint a clear picture of under-representation of Eastern European films. In his opinion, Eastern and Western Europe are growing more and more apart, thereby losing the common space needed for dialogue. The second part of the discussion revealed that, in the West in particular, little motivation exists for paying attention to the issue. Luciano Barisone commented on his work at Visions du Réel: “Cinema has to explore the human soul, not territories. I move by that. It has to evoke, not inform,” repeating the tired argument often used by male film festival directors when justifying the lack of gender diversity in their programme.

But as noted by a member of the audience, there is an unconscious bias at play here. “If all of your life, you watch films from the West, you won’t understand films from the East. If all of your life, you watch films made by male filmmakers, you won’t understand films made by female filmmakers.” Marek Hovorka agreed, adding in conclusion that an open mind will bring East and West together again, and that Eastern Europe also needs more influential cultural institutions of its own that would give value to Eastern European films without them looking to the West for recognition.

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