Europe, film studies and the social sciences

By Mariana Liz

This post summarizes the main findings of my doctoral research, which is published as a book. It also discusses the current challenges for contemporary European cinema research, reflecting on the role film studies might occupy within the social sciences.

Ten years ago, I took part in the European Voluntary Service (EVS) programme in Perugia, Italy. I lived and worked with two other volunteers, one from Austria and one from Latvia, and we were constantly asked to give presentations in schools about our ‘European identity’.

The fact that we had one was a given. The fact that we would know how to define it, not so much. Still, we were prompted to design posters with images of tasty food and sunny places (at least in my case – I am from Portugal), and to talk at length about differences and similarities between our nations, about humanism and universality, and about European values.

This experience led me think about what this supposed European identity might be. As my background was in film, I was particularly interested in finding out whether cinema had been part of the construction of a European identity, and, if so, how. Just as the EVS experience had taught me, European programmes such as this, and the work of EU institutions more generally, played a big role at least in launching discussions about the topic.

Therefore I designed a research project that brought together an analysis of the idea of Europe and of European cinema, and in which the work of the EU would be considered in detail.

My project was fine tuned during the first meeting with my PhD supervisor. I think at the time we joked about the relevance of this research for a UK university – why would someone from Portugal, who had just moved to the UK from Italy, via Spain, go to London to conduct research on Europe? Ten years later, and in the face of Brexit, the joke is significantly less funny.

This research project seems at once incredibly relevant (Europe and the EU is all everyone talks about – or at least was, until Donald Trump’s election in the USA – with claims for stronger national sovereignty echoing across the globe) and more irrelevant than ever (not only is the EU on a clear decline, but also the enormity of the issues affecting the world today might have actually highlighted Europe’s insignificance).

Book “Euro-Visions” by Mariana Liz. Source: Bloomsbury

Cultural approaches to the idea of Europe stress the association between Europe and the past, invoking key moments such as Hellenism, Roman law, Christianity and the Enlightenment as founding blocks of European identity. Scholars have also suggested the idea of Europe is based on key oppositions, such as Christianity versus Islam. At the same time as Europe is perceived to be in opposition to the ‘other’ (whatever this ‘other’ might be), European identity has either been seen as compatible with other identities or, paradoxically, equated with universality.

The link to the past, being oppositional and being universal are very general characteristics. The efforts of EU institutions to engage with these debates are similarly vague. Despite the myth that circulates in Euro-circles about Jean Monnet’s supposed quote: ‘If I would start again, I would start with culture’, the founding fathers saw the EU essentially as a market project. They adopted a functionalist view that believed that once economy was integrated, so would culture.

Hence, the first EU audio-visual policies were established around 1990. The last phase of the MEDIA Programme (before it was merged onto Creative Europe in 2014) focused essentially on film distribution. At this point, the European Commission identified as the primary role of cinema its contribution towards the creation of a transnational community (similarly to the imagined, national community described by Benedict Anderson as early as 1983), underpinned by a sense of belonging. From then onwards, an emphasis was put on initiatives promoting film literacy. MEDIA’s promotional material around these years highlighted the value of ‘cinephilia’ and framed the knowledge of European cinema in a positive, ‘loving’ rhetoric.

The MEDIA programme celebrates 20 years. Source: European Commission

The determinism that characterises EU film and cultural policies has backfired dramatically. The EU disingenuously seems to have expected only ‘positive’ emotions to emerge – whereas, in fact, negative views of Europe and European institutions are widespread and growing. BBC Radio 4 recently discussed the decrease in the number of European films shown in UK screens. One of the people interviewed argued that being exposed to European cinema was incredibly important for the knowledge (or lack thereof) of other European people and cultures. But is this really the case? And what does this mean for the study of Europe in film, and of European film?

Cinema tells the most varied tales of Europe, from the lives of historical figures to holidays and tourism, and moments or journeys of exclusion. It tells these stories in the most varied ways too, employing, for instance, camera movement, editing and sound to make points about the fluidity of contemporary Europe, the similarities that exist between its spaces, and the linguistic differences that separate those who inhabit it. Cinema’s prestige, dimension and ability not just to tell stories, but also to audio-visually rehearse them, should not be overlooked.

Reacting to developments in US politics since January 2017, Mark Shiel has questioned the methodologies used by film and media scholars, in particular those applied to the understanding of the ‘relationship between political participation and screen culture’. By focusing on cinema, and privileging textual analysis, are we ignoring important information on media usage and consumption, or being too slow to react to the complexities of the contemporary world? Would more focused audience studies, particularly related to audio-visual literacy, for instance, contribute to a better understanding of the relationship between Europe and its citizens, between politics and culture?

Uncertainty has become a key issue for the idea of Europe. While European cinema does not settle uncertainty, it might mirror it, and in doing so, contribute to the emergence of meaningful narratives, ways of telling stories or of grouping image and sound that might lead to a more harmoniously imprecise definition of Europe – in sum, to a more manageable uncertainty. A good example is Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016), winner of the Golden Palm at Cannes and of a BAFTA for Best Film, and a film that has prompted important debates on social exclusion and inequality in Europe.

There is no doubt that image and communication are key in contemporary society. The methodological challenges outlined above should be seized as a chance to bring the study of film closer to the social sciences.

Future European cinema research should necessarily involve not just defining a corpus that is appropriate for film studies (and thus engaging in debates about the post-cinematic), but also thinking about how to frame uncertain Europe in a way that is not too uncertain, too vague or, as Zygmunt Bauman would have put it, too ‘out of touch’, and in modes that necessarily differ from the models political institutions in Europe have offered us thus far.

Mariana Liz completed a PhD in Film Studies at King’s College London in 2012. She taught at King’s and Queen Mary, University of London, and at the University of Leeds, in the UK. She is the author of Euro-Visions (2016) and co-editor of The Europeanness of European Cinema (2015). She has published on contemporary European cinema and Portuguese film in Studies in European Cinema and the Journal of Romance Studies, among others. From April 2017, she will be a postdoctoral fellow at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais, University of Lisbon, Portugal.


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