«The big word: sustainability... »

The European flag flies proudly, promising respected rights and respectable prosperity. International corporations are currently colouring their image green and feminist. In EUROPA, Sudabeh Mortezai focusses on the vast shadowy areas behind all this. The two sides of Europe clash in an Albanian valley, revealing the price to be paid for success and the direction chosen for the future.

The two opening sequences in EUROPA are glimpses through a windshield: the first a violent confrontation between a world that has entrenched itself and one that experiences impotence in all its futility, the second a tourist-style view of a foreign city as two newcomers enter it in a taxi. Was it important to you in this film to raise awareness of the glass walls that exist within the continent of Europe?

That's a fine association that I wasn't consciously aware of. One word I like in the question is "entrenched". Because that addresses a lot of what we EU states are doing right now. We entrench ourselves against a dangerous world "out there", but that world is connected with us, and in fact we can’t cut ourselves off from it. There is also a disparity within Europe, and the film is about this power relationship within a hierarchy of countries, some richer and others less developed, inside the continent. I like the image of the glass walls, even if it was perhaps only subconsciously intended. The topic has been on my mind for a long time; the banking crisis, the economic crisis in Greece, the Trojka – they have revealed an extreme imbalance within a supposedly egalitarian system. In a way, it became clear that colonialism hasn’t really ceased, not even within our continent. Banks can be bailed out, but the situation is different for people in difficulties. This gave rise to a basic impulse to make a more political film.

The title, EUROPA, is associated with a double connotation: on the one hand, there is a desirable European set of values, but on the other hand, Europa is also the name of the company that employs your protagonist. It’s an international corporation that has appropriated land and power in Albania in a seemingly uncontrolled manner and unscrupulously contravenes the European values that are held in such high esteem. What ambivalences in the construct of Europe do you want to address?

The title is a deliberately chosen provocation, and it’s meant to hurt. We talk a lot about our community of values, and my impression is that many left-wing intellectuals are increasingly descending into uncritical European patriotism from fear of right-wing narratives; I think that's problematic. I notice more and more an unwillingness to engage in critical discourse. Of course, the conflicts that my film depicts at its core are global in nature and not limited to Europe. They arise from our neoliberal system, which exploits people as well as nature and the whole planet. Everything is so dominated by the drive for profits that real solutions are not sought; instead, a system of exploitation is disguised with beautiful promises via greenwashing or wokewashing. I wanted to expose this hypocrisy.

You have chosen a country in the continent about which very little is known. Why did you decide on Albania?

I was looking for a poorer, less developed country that is part of the continent and is striving to become part of the West. The countries with a communist and dictatorial past in particular have a powerful longing for the West, and often they descend quickly and unthinkingly into the other extreme of neoliberal capitalism, with all its dark sides. Albania is the perfect country because the population is incredibly pro-European and pro-Western, but at the same time it’s terra incognita; the only associations it has for most people are a few clichés – the Albanian mafia, sworn virgins and blood feuds. This is a kind of exoticism; those outdated elements only still exist in very remote rural regions. I’m much more interested in it as a dynamic country in upheaval. It went through a tough history under the communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, and the bumpy road to capitalism has so far entailed corruption and economic collapse. You can see the social transformation under way as the country tries to leave all that behind, to reinvent itself.

Your films are always characterized by the semi-documentary settings you work in. How did you create your own image of current Albanian society?

I went about it the way I always do: I just travelled around the country with a totally open mind, getting to know people and finding elements for the story and its characters from these experiences. I have been to Albania a lot since 2019 together with Mehrdad Mortezai, the producer of the film, who is also my brother; each time we ventured deeper and tried to build up relationships. On our first trip to Albania, because of the time of year we tended to stick to the southern part of the country. One place we found ourselves in was Poliçan, where a huge weapons and ammunition production facility was built from scratch under Enver Hoxha. Today it is an equally large industrial ruin, overgrown by nature. Part of it can be seen in the film. And the whole thing is replicated in a bunker complex over several hectares of mountainside. Enver Hoxha was so paranoid, he had hundreds of thousands of bunkers built in the country. There’s the original facility in a well-hidden valley, and he had a duplicate built in the mountains, so that in the worst-case scenario, production – and hospitals and schools – could be relocated there. This megalomaniac militaristic construction, which is in the process of decaying, provided such a powerful image. I knew right away it would be a key location in the film. Then one thing led to another. For example, the fact that the religious community of the Bektashi is very strongly represented there; it’s the site of their most important sanctuary.

What made you decide to work with a professional actress in a leading role for the first time? How did you choose Lilith Stangenberg?

The idea of working with a professional actress came about at a relatively early stage. If I had cast Beate as I have done in previous films, where I chose real people who are similar to the fictional characters, I’d have been faced with the difficult task of finding a sober female manager. I considered it but soon discarded that option. Beate is someone who has to play a role all the time in her job, so it made sense to cast a professional actress for this role. She is practically never a private person; that only sometimes shines through, when her composure falters slightly. I also thought it was right that she has a different energy in the game than the lay people. She comes from a world where she isn’t allowed to be natural. Lilith Stangenberg impressed me very much in Wild, long before the idea of EUROPA came up. When casting director Eva Roth suggested her and we met at the audition, I was quickly convinced that she had to play Beate. She is radical and intrepid in her work, which I really like.

You depict three worlds of women – the wives living in the countryside, whose role is dictated by a patriarchy they seem to accept, a generation of daughters striving for a Western, urban life, and the protagonist, who represents a system in which women have career opportunities but are ruthlessly placed under pressure in an extremely patriarchal world. What thoughts did you have about your female characters?

The subject preoccupied me on several levels. Beate is in a position of power. But this power comes at a price. I play with this when Beate talks about empowerment of young women in her clichéd speech at university. She manipulates the young women, but she also believes in it herself – because she has power. But what does empowerment mean? If a woman gets power in an inhuman or destructive structure, is that any better because she’s a woman? Of course not. Large corporations like to ornament themselves with women power, diversity, climate protection... they like to use all the important issues of the day to cultivate their image. EUROPA makes the point that whenever you decide to work in our hierarchical, profit-oriented and actually dehumanized system, you pay the price. It doesn't matter whether you're a man or a woman. If you are willing to pay, you can move up. It costs a lot more for a woman to get into a position and hold it.
The character of Besa as a representative of the young generation, especially young women, was particularly important to me, because they occupy a key position in social change. The young women I spoke to in Albania have a positive attitude towards their families and their culture. But they wouldn't hesitate to do everything required if the opportunity arose to work for a big company and carve out a career. Emigration is a big issue in Albania. I believe there are more people of Albanian descent living outside the country than in the country.  

The main male character, a farmer and beekeeper who is reluctant to leave at any price, is deeply rooted in his faith and represents something that forms a clear contrast to the prevailing logic – he is satisfied with what he has. It really could become the zeitgeist for us. How painful is it to see that a path is being taken when you know it’s not a good path?  

The big word: sustainability... Of course, it makes me sad and angry. There are still ways of living, even here in Europe, which constitute a sustainable, humble but good life, rooted in basic needs and basic happiness. We actually think it’s utopian, not being so greedy and wasteful. There are communities which still live that way, but our economic system is destroying them. We go to the expensive organic shop and buy fair trade. If you buy vegetables or meat in Albania, everything is organic and regional, because there is no industrial agriculture and no factory farming there; that’s the tradition. They are living our dream of becoming smaller and more sustainable, and it hurts to see where the journey will lead them when they are deceived by the West. I don't want to romanticize it, but this sustainable way of life will give way to the logic of corporate greed, in the name of a supposed modernization. There is an awareness of this in these countries, and people are fighting for their interests, but at the same time they quickly find themselves in a dilemma. These are the challenges they face and the area tension the film occupies.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
July 2023

Translation: Charles Osborne