The European Parliament last week announced Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War as the winner of the 2018 LUX Film Prize. The comedy-drama – an international co-production between Iceland, France and Ukraine – beat off stiff competition from Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx and Mila Turajlic’s The Other Side of Everything.
Woman at War, Erlingsson’s second feature as writer/director, blends absurdist comedy with intimate drama and thrilling set-pieces to both move and amuse audiences in equal measure. At the heart of the story is the complex subject of climate change, which Erlingsson professes he wanted to “attack with a smile” and offer a glimpse of hope that it isn’t too late for the tide to turn on one of humankind’s most pressing issues.
I don’t see much hope around me, but real courage is only possible when there is no hope. It’s attacking both climate change approaching and how much of a culture of denial exists, how easily environmentalists can be categorised as enemies of the state.
The charming film follows 40-something Halla, who on the surface appears to be a mild-mannered, unassuming music teacher. In secret, however, Halla is an eco-activist who uses ingenious guerilla tactics to wage a one-woman war against the energy corporations that are disrupting the previously pristine Icelandic countryside. As the narrative progresses, she struggles to continue juggling her clandestine activism with surprising revelations in her personal life as the local authorities draw closer in their hunt for the lone radical ‘terrorising’ their land.
Erlingsson acknowledges that Halla is not a typical protagonist but believes that is the same reason that audiences are responding so strongly to her. And insists her makeup as a deceptively strong woman is what makes her the perfect figure to lead his onscreen revolution. “She’s an environmentalist who has turned very radical.. it’s all so complicated now. The world needs saving these days and in the environmental battle women are often very frontal there.”
While Woman at War is a worthy winner, either of the runners-up would have been equally deserving. Styx is a pulsating drama which confronts the migrant crisis. It tells the story of a doctor who sets on a solo voyage across the South Atlantic Ocean and is forced to weather a terrible storm. She survives the ordeal, only to encounter a stricken fishing trawler full of desperate African refugees. Shot almost entirely at sea, it is a film which shakes audiences out of complacency when facing the issue.
The Other Side of Everything, meanwhile, is an intimate documentary which takes an introspective look at the turbulent political history of Serbia with a specific focus on the dissolution of Yugoslavia. It is mostly made up of conversations between Turajlic and her mother Srbijanka, a former activist and university professor, which profoundly blurs the personal and the political until they are one and the same.
The annual LUX Film Prize was established by the European Parliament in 2007 in an effort to raise awareness and encourage public debate about some of today’s main social and political issues. Since then it has served to make the highest quality European films available to more European audiences, with each of the three shortlisted finalists being subtitled in the 24 official languages of the European Union.This translation is so important – especially for smaller films who find their audiences limited by their language.
Between October and December each year the three finalists travel across Europe for a series of free screenings, accompanied by director Q&A’s and live debates – just last week Styx and The Other Side of Everything made their way to the Cork Film Festival. In addition to this, the LUX Prize also supports the further distribution of the finalists – one aspect of post-production in which European cinema is sorely lagging financially in comparison to its American counterpart.
Speaking in Strasbourg on the eve of the award ceremony Turajlic stressed the importance of art for continuing to cultivate diversity within Europe and expressed her hope that the European Parliament “understands the reach” of their initiative. “It has taken the films to screenings in countries that maybe they wouldn’t have gone on their own and engages whole other types in audiences in conversation.”
Fischer agreed, pointing out how many people have approached him at international screenings of Styx and said that, before watching the film, they had “seen the stories on TV, heard them on radio but not been able to emphasise.” He believes that the LUX Film Prize provides a necessary platform for people of “different opinions to clash, co-operate and get to know the other side.”
Evelyne Gebhardt – Vice President of the European Parliament – admitted that “perhaps in the last few years we (politicians) have not been good enough storytellers. The positive stories of Europe are often forgotten – we need to inform and share the stories of the positives. And not doing so has been a mistake that we have made. Maybe stories need to be told differently. That’s what the LUX Prize does.”
“The challenge for storytellers is to make their narratives stronger,” agreed Erlingsson. “All politicians are storytellers and all storytellers are, in a way, politicians. And we really need good storytellers now.”