A Film in Three Acts

The Filmmaker at the Hungarian-Serbian border

Shortlisted for AHRC Research Film of the Year 2019

Who is Europe? Trailer

WHO IS EUROPE? (2019/30 mins) is a split-screen documentary in three acts. Filmed in Dresden, in Melilla (a Spanish exclave in Africa), and on the Hungarian/Serbian border, the film presents snapshots of the ongoing ‘crisis of identity’ in/of Europe.

Clip from Act 1 – Dresden

A series of dualisms underpin the filmic treatment: ‘then and now’, ‘us and them’ and ‘here and there’. These are expressed in a split-screen format by a poetics of juxtaposition to highlight contrasts and dissonances. In portraying the tensions over the different experiences and understandings of Europe today, this film raises critical questions for our times: Who is Europe? Whither Europe? Who belongs?

Clip from Act 2 – Melilla

WHO IS EUROPE? was made as part of an Europe-wide EU-funded research project, CoHERE – ‘(Critical Heritages: performing and representing identities in Europe)’, led by Prof Chris Whitehead and Dr Susannah Eckersley from Newcastle University. A key focus of the research, and the framework for the film, was on the ways that heritages are often used to create division, exclusion and isolation. For example, in Act 1 supporters of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) mobilise memories of the Allied bombardment of Dresden in 1945 to advance an anti-migrant politics today. While in Act 3, the emergence of a securitised border in Orbán’s Hungary is not simply a barrier against migrants from the Middle East and Africa (such as those young Moroccan men and boys in Melilla in Act 2), but is a new iteration in the palimpsest of divisions and orderings of Europe and its peoples.

Clip from Act 3 – Tompa

WHO IS EUROPE? is also a provocation about what is meant by ‘heritage film’ and how we understand the relationship between research and film. The filmmaker and heritage researchers supported each other in approaching documentary practice-led research, not simply as a supplementary ‘show-and-tell’ concerned with ‘communicating the research’ to audiences, but as a different form of creative, critical and political research practice that offers alternative visions and understandings.

Still from Act 1 – Dresden

In DRESDEN, the split-screen makes palpable the clash of opposites circulating in heritage practices in present-day Germany. Using an observational style, McDonald captures the attempts by right-wing German nationalists to instrumentalise the annual commemoration of the Firebombing of Dresden in 1945 to seek legitimacy for a stridently nationalist German identity in 2018. However, the nationalist attempts to use the bombing attack by British and American forces in 1945 to carve out a right-wing anti-immigrant German identity today does not go unchallenged by the youth of Dresden—be they anti-fascist activists demonstrating on the streets or schoolgirls dancing in the city square!

Still from Act 2 – Melilla

In MELILLA, one of two Spanish cities situated in Africa, hundreds of migrant young men and boys from neighbouring Morocco, known as “Harragas”, risk their lives trying to illegally board ships bound for mainland Spain. In this city known for its rich heritage, McDonald spends time with these young homeless migrants and allows them to use his mobile phone to communicate with home and speak into the camera to communicate with the outside world. In a reflexive attempt to redress the power imbalance inherent in “dialogues” about young Muslim men migrating from Africa to Europe, McDonald insists that they, the ignored and demonized youth, talk, and we, the privileged viewers, listen.

Still from Act 3 – Tompa

In TOMPA, McDonald is drawn to a small border-town as a base to visit and film the barrier-border erected by the Hungarian Government to stem the flow of migrants entering from Serbia into Hungary as a gateway to western Europe. Evocative visuals of this desolate place and encounters with the Hungarian border-guards are set alongside provocative testimonies from two of the increasing number of German citizens who are choosing to migrate to Hungary in the wake of the refugee crisis and its perceived impact on German society.

Trailer with Spanish Sub-titles

Contact: Ian McDonald at Ian.McDonald@ncl.ac.uk


Academic advisors:
Prof. Chris Whitehead & Dr. Susannah Eckersley

Produced by Geetha J for interventions


Harraga Asociación, Asociación Pro.De.In. Melilla, Abdelhakim Main, Jose Palazon, Antonio Ruiz, Cristina Puigdengolas, Natalia Pereira, Tamzin Hummerstone, Laura Paterson, and all the young Harragas on Melilla. Snezana, Nino and Reiner from Tompa.

Arrangements: Thereza Webster, CoHERE Project Manager. Film@CultureLab, Newcastle University.

Translation and Subtitling: Screen Language

Spanish version of film translated by Amanda Nicolas Foulser, Juliet Foulser, Alex Ferrer-Yulfo, Lander Velazquez Rodriguez.

 CoHERE received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement 693289