Four years ago Guardian Video teamed up with the theatre company Headlong to create a nine-part drama series called Brexit Shorts, stories from across the UK giving a range of views on Brexit. When we took the series to European film festivals, the common feedback was that Europe was rarely mentioned in the films and that the series showed up Brexit as more of a domestic debate. With this in mind, we wanted to directly focus on Europe by giving voice to the rich diversity of language and culture across the continent. We commissioned high-profile scriptwriters from Germany, France, Spain, Poland, Ireland, UK and Sweden to write works of fiction that explored their country’s relationship with the EU.
How much do we know about how Europeans feel about Europe? How does the history of each country influence its relationship to the EU? And how does that affect people’s daily lives? We knew these films had to be about delivering a script that was rich in emotion and information as well as visually placing the viewer into a specific cultural environment.
This script, written by Alice Zeniter, came as a great surprise to us. In 2005 the French held a referendum to decide if they should ratify the proposed constitution of the EU. The no campaign won with 55% of the votes. Two years later with the Treaty of Lisbon, President Nicolas Sarkozy ignored the referendum and pushed the constitution through parliament regardless. The young woman in the film expresses how it feels to have your voice ignored: she believes in the EU but for her it should be more about the citizen, not the consumer. This film looks at what happens to a generation whose commitment to democracy has been so undermined.
A lorry driver reflects on how hard it was to do his job before the Schengen agreement and on the lack of trust at borders. “I gave half my life to waiting,” he said. Filmed in a lorry park on the border with Germany, just east of Berlin, we encountered every nationality of driver, stopping off for food, conversation and a cigarette. Through the lorry driver, the episode’s writer, Jakub Żulczyk, wanted to explore the impact of freedom of movement (having seen his entire peer group emigrate to western Europe the moment Poland joined the EU in 2003). The driver comments on the difference between his life and that of his sons: “You can do whatever you want. The world … Europe, it’s a completely different place to 20 or 30 years ago.”
We were unsure whether to include a UK episode, thinking that perhaps we’d covered the UK’s relationship with the EU through our previous series Brexit Shorts. However, it was pointed out that those films looked more at national politics than at the UK’s relationship with the EU. We wanted to see how British values differed from those of other EU countries.
The writer, Clint Dyer, embodied this through the story of a bailiff emptying the house of an unsuspecting couple, showing a particular British individualism in opposition to European collectivism. The bailiff does his job with little empathy, believing that in order to fulfil his role as a good citizen he must work to financially contribute to a strongly capitalist system, yet at what cost?
While the big topic for Europe is immigration, in Spain it’s emigration, particularly for the young. The writer, Blanca Doménech, grew up in a small rural town and understands the pull of local community and local traditions. The woman in her film is grappling with her boyfriend’s choice to leave their home town for a city he doesn’t know, to clean toilets or answer phones in a call centre, and to live in a house packed together with other immigrants. The woman in the film is angry that the EU has encouraged a generation to abandon where they’re from. Doménech warns that we should be careful of ignoring that impassioned voice.
This script dealt with Germany’s difficult and complex relationship to its past and place in Europe. The writer Marius von Mayenburg chose a Neanderthal as his main character because, as he says, “I wanted to see him talking from the perspective of someone who has experienced war. Who has experienced historical guilt. And who believes that this guilt leads to a commitment of responsibility for the following generations.” The Neanderthal says: “If we don’t want to live together, we’re going to die together.” The film was partly shot on a darkly lit stage at the Schaubühne Theatre in Berlin, creating a surreal environment that gives the film a timeless setting.
We shot this film in a heatwave in the beautiful countryside of Söderköping, south-west of Stockholm. The dad in this film describes how social media has reduced Swedish politics to soundbites. The writer Jonas Jonasson, known for his acclaimed book The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared says this script shows how “democracy as we know it can be dismantled by democratic methods”. The script goes on to poke fun at Swedish arrogance when the character says that “We didn’t really join the EU, we rather decided they could join us.”
According to the writer Lisa McInerney, “any script on Ireland’s relationship to the EU has to be seen through the lens of Brexit so that’s why I decided on framing my character as a young woman breaking up with her English boyfriend”. Played by the Harry Potter star Evanna Lynch, the character says that “I have to go on without him. I don’t mind, it just feels weird.” McInerney describes how the EU greatly elevated Ireland’s status on the European stage. They were no longer viewed as the poor relations of the British but were quickly seen as a symbol of the progressive politics that the EU stood for, and her lead character demonstrates that emboldened position.
At a time of divisive politics, these stories go beyond news headlines to enable us to access the personal in the political.
Europeans: dramas from a divided union launched on the Guardian on 2 March and will tour to a variety of European film festivals. The series is available with French, German, Swedish, Spanish, Polish and English subtitles.
Jess Gormley commissioned Europeans for the Guardian and produced the series in collaboration with Headlong