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Politics and film

Julian HaleNovember 25, 2013

How relevant is religion in a European society that is growing increasingly secular? The European Parliament's film prize tackles this and other pressing questions on the big screen.

Film scene from "The Broken Circle - Breakdown", Copyright: Menuet Films/Pandora Film Verleih, 2012
Image: Menuet Films/Pandora Film Verleih, 2012

Dieter and Elise's relationship is rooted in their shared love of singing bluegrass music in bars around Belgium. But their bond begins to disintegrate when their young daughter dies of leukemia.

Belgian filmmaker Felix van Groeningen tells their fictitious story in the 2012 drama "The Broken Circle - Breakdown," based on a play by Johan Heldenbergh. In the film, a turning point in Dieter and Elise's relationship comes when they see US President George Bush explain in a televised speech why he vetoed stem cell research - research that could have altered their daughter's fate.

Dieter, an atheist, rails against the conservative religious beliefs he holds responsible for the stem cell research veto, effectively blaming the religious community for his daughter's death. Elise, on the other hand, is deeply religious. The pair's conflict is irreconcilable and Elise moves out.

"Broken Circle Breakdown," which is one of three films shortlisted for the European Parliament's LUX Prize for European cinema, touches on a volatile issue that has been gaining traction in recent months: the role of religion in contemporary European society.

Stem cell research - which, broadly speaking, pits religious opponents against secular backers - is one key component of that debate. Paedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church and other embarrassments, such as the German clergyman dubbed "bishop of bling" for extravagent spending habits, have cast further doubt on the Church's role in society.

Film scene from "The Broken Circle - Breakdown", Copyright: Menuet Films/Pandora Film Verleih, 2012
The death of a child is the turning point in "The Broken Circle - Breakdown"Image: Menuet Films/Pandora Film Verleih, 2012

The power of politics on screen

Isabella Preuer, who participated in specially organized LUX Prize workshops for 18-to-25-year-olds at the Venice Film Festival in August, said that "The Broken Circle - Breakdown" could help jumpstart public discourse about stem cell research and religion in society.

"There are two extreme positions, two characters that are so opposite that you can ask people whether they are more on one side or the other and start a debate," Preuer told DW. That is precisely the aim of the Lux Prize, which was established in 2007 to "cast an annual spotlight on films that go to the heart of the European public debate.

"During the Venice Film Festival, people were crying after the film was shown," she told DW.

For Doris Pack, an MEP, president of the European Parliament's Culture Committee, and one of the creators of the Lux Prize, "The Broken Circle - Breakdown" had particular emotional poignancy: She, too, lost a daughter.

In one of the more touching scenes, a bird dies by flying straight into a window. Dieter and Elise's daughter holds it lovingly and refuses to hand it over to her atheist father, who tells her to throw it away "because it's dirty." Later on, Elisa puts up pictures of birds on the window to prevent others from flying into it.

The film implies that, when Elisa sees a bird, she thinks it could be her daughter coming back in another form. Dieter is unable to accept her methods of coping.

Symbolic image of cells under a microscope, Photo: Courtesy of W.S. Hwang / dpa
The stem cell debate hits a nerve in European societyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"You could have a debate about whether you should believe if a child who died could come back as a bird or something like that," said Preuer. Is there an afterlife in the first place? The question becomes all the more relevant as Europe grows more secular.

"Religion does not play the same role as it did many years ago," admitted Doris Pack. "In our time, we are full of doubts. I'm a Christian and a believer. Even if I'm a believer, sometimes you should ask yourself what you believe in and why."

No stone left unturned

For the past seven years, the LUX Prize - Lux is the Latin word for "light" - has been casting the spotlight onto major European issues ranging from illegal immigration and xenophobia to joblessness and crime.

The 2010 winner, a German film called "Die Fremde" (The Stranger), tackled the touchy issue of honor killings. Doris Pack pointed out that the film was shown at a school on the German-Luxembourg border and discussed with teachers and children.

"Film is a modern tool to communicate to an audience which won't listen to us politicians when we speak in the political arena," said Pack.

Filmmaker Felix van Groeningen, Photo: Hans De Greve
Belgian filmmaker Felix van Groeningen showed his work at the Berlinale this yearImage: Hans De Greve

The 2011 French winner "Les neiges du Kilimandjaro" (The Snows of Kilimanjaro) opens up a Pandora's Box of issues relating to class systems within a society. In a nutshell, a middle-class trade union official and his wife deal with a lower-class man who has been fired by the official and then robs him and his family at gunpoint. Last year's victor, "Io Sono Li" (Shun Li and the Poet) from Italy is about an illegal Chinese immigrant in Venice who is exploited by a Chinese business and seeks to pay them back so that she can be reunited with her child.

"Illegal immigrants working for Chinese industry could be happening in our neighborhood," warned Pack.

European movie tour

By selecting films highlighting current social and political debates, the LUX Prize hopes to make a contribution to building a stronger European identity. For this year's award, a jury of industry professionals have whittled a list of 17 films down to three finalists: "The Broken Circle - Breakdown" (Belgium), "Miele" (France, Italy), and "The Selfish Giant" (UK). The winner will be announced on December 11.

The three films are currently on tour across Europe, being shown with subtitles in the EU's 24 official languages.