Danny Singh, born and raised in London, but now based in Rome and Canterbury, gives creative English language lessons and teacher training courses all over Europe. He also offers stimulating monthly presentations on language related issues at Rome’s biggest international bookshop and has his own YouTube channel which contains a series of interactive English video lessons. He is author of two books, “I was a happy man...then one day I came across Laughter Yoga” and “Learning English through the mind and the body” and is currently working on his third book, “Life is full of surprises”. He regularly attends Pilgrims TT summer courses as a guest speaker.
Website: www.laughnlearn.net Email: email@example.com
YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/channel/UCA2CFTD27Yw6Lf7kOW0PbOQ/videos
Rotterdam film festival
The Rotterdam film festival is my favourite film festival and up to now, the only one that I am willing to attend at every opportunity. Low budget, independent films, documentaries, no special effects, the very antithesis of Hollywood and Bollywood. The 2014 festival was no different. I saw a plethora of films, not all 300+, but certainly a good number. I rarely if ever, see a film that I dislike. Even the slowest, most difficult, least audience-friendly films always have some educational element.
The most difficult one that year (2014) was an Indonesian film about a poet who had been imprisoned in 1965 during a period of political turmoil. The whole film was set in a prison, showing the pain and suffering of the prisoners. Difficult, yes! However, I now know about the political turmoil in Indonesia in 1965 and even more importantly, of this great poet, should I decide I wish to further pursue study of his work.
Another exceedingly difficult film was an Austrian film about a very rare disease. The main character in the film actually suffers from this very disease and it wasn’t pleasant viewing at all. However, once again, I now have a basic knowledge of this disease and can deepen my knowledge of the subject, if I so desire!
My second favourite film was a Turkish one, “I am not him”. This was a humorous story of double identity, a subject which was dealt with by the great Kieslowski in, The Double life of Veronique and has been used in various other films. However, on this occasion, it went a bit further. This leads me on to my favourite film of the festival, which also deals with the problem of identity.
The main character in the film Mother Europe is a five-year-old girl appropriately named Terra. She has a Slovenian mother, Petra, who is the director of the film and a Macedonian-Cuban father Brand, who is the cameraman. Most of the film centres on spontaneous conversations between mother and child. Even if the mother Petra may have had particular intentions when planning the film, Terra has no script and so is playing herself and not another person’s role. We see the film through the eyes of Terra, a world full of borders.
As the director herself says, “After Slovenia became part of the EU and entered Schengen, our nomadic life became quite complicated. I am Slovenian and my partner and cinematographer, Brand, is Macedonian. Brand needed a visa for every country apart from his father’s home Cuba and the Balkan countries, with the exception of Slovenia. A visa application procedure was a long waiting queue in front of embassies, that could last for days. It was an endless struggle to be able to travel with my partner – even after Terra was born. But this never stopped us from travelling from one festival to another, finding shooting sets at some friends’ places. When Terra was two months old, she already had 14 stamps in her passport.”
One of the main issues of the film is borders and how governments are willing to mess up the lives of ordinary people, their relationships and their identity, all for the glory of borders. The film analyses the meaning of borders, the politics, the use of history, the absurdity of bureaucracy, the mistakes of education, on a journey through Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece and back. This is all that Terra knows, fences, barriers and border controls, while Petra tries to explain how different life was in the past, when this was all one country and no passports, visas and police checks were necessary to go from one place to another.
All through the film Terra is drawing, because she can express herself better while she is illustrating her point of view. After making a map from her home to her grandmother’s place, she decides to illustrate her travel through all the European countries she had visited. Finally, she draws a map of Europe, discovering that it is more complicated than drawing the whole planet Earth.
To try and help Terra understand the past and how it was, we are introduced to a series of fascinating characters. One of the most important is Boris Pahor, a famous centurion Slovenian writer, who takes us back to Trieste in 1918. As a child back then, he realized that borders had changed his life. He was forbidden by the Fascist government to use his mother tongue in public. He explains how many things changed overnight for non-Italians in Trieste, which used to be the biggest multicultural trade city in central Europe. Aside from his detailed descriptions and flashbacks of childhood memories, we see some archive material from the period, including the London Treaty, which brings home the reality, if we are still in any doubt.
Another interesting man is Branko Baric. He is a nature lover, hence lives well away from the city. His sense of humour, irony and wit has the audience laughing for long periods as he recounts his amazing story. He was born in a country that does not exist. Wherever he goes, he is considered as different. When he goes to Italy, he is regarded as Slovenian, when he is in Slovenia, he is considered a Croat, when in Croatia, they see him as a Serb and so on. These experiences have caused him to develop a closer relationship with his dog Max and his chicken Cvetka than with human beings. “How great this world would be without human beings on Earth”, he says.
We are also introduced to some fishermen who search for the tri-border on the Adriatic Sea between Slovenia, Italy and Croatia.
Terra gets to meet Vasko and Tina from the Anarchic punk band, Bernays Propoganda and we see and hear them playing some of their songs. Terra discovers however, that even these younger friends of hers are going through incredible bureaucratic procedures to obtain visas for their tour and a passport for their dog, Chuckey. She tries to help by sending a letter to the bureaucratic headquarters in Brussels.
The problem of borders, identity and the mistreating of people by governments is often depicted in films and so it should be, as it is a reality. In the film, A Touch of Spice, we saw how a government can decide to expel you from a country at the touch of a button, changing your life and your relationships forever.
This film deals with a deadly serious matter, however, its brilliance is in the fact that it is made audience-friendly, thanks largely to the role of Terra, with her wide-eyed innocence, her drawing, pictures, use of colours, as well as the other fascinating personalities that we are introduced to. The songs and music of the punk band also gives it a different dimension. The archive material used in the film is hugely significant and this was indeed one of the discussion points at the question-and-answer session at the Rotterdam festival. Does it make the film better or not? In my opinion (and talking to other members of the audience), it does indeed!
There is a plethora of activities that can be done with this material. Starting with the film, Mother Europe, which has short clips on YouTube, you can contact the film director, Petra Seliskar, who would be more than happy to bring or send the film to your school, after which, a full-scale discussion could be had on a range of topics contained within the film.
Another film which covers the subject of borders, human rights and freedom of movement is, A Touch of Spice. I have written a detailed article on that film with some great ideas to bring into the classroom after watching it. The article was published in the February 2015 issue of Pilgrims’s online HLTMAG. http://old.hltmag.co.uk/feb15/less02.htm.
The subject of borders, human rights and freedom of movement has always been important, but never more than now. We have history where India/Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, Ireland, the Windrush scandal, not to mention the numerous countries in Eastern Europe which have regularly had their borders changed show what detrimental damage can be caused by randomly or otherwise shifting borders. We now have Brexit in the UK, which while not specifically changing borders, will change the lives of a whole generation of young people who no longer have the opportunities that many of us had to travel, live and work freely in 27 different countries. Travelling between the UK and EU countries will still be possible, but become far more complex and bureaucratic, like it has done for Petra’s family, as they travel around countries that previously had no borders. Let’s not forget the Covid-19, which has almost forced everyone into a sense of isolation, where even moving among regions within the same nation is considered a crime, let alone daring to venture out into other lands, an imposition that may or may not be necessary in order to defeat this hideous virus, but nonetheless creates borders and confines within our minds.
Danny Singh, Italy