Lucy Popescu heads to European Literature Days in Austria, and discovers how the exuberant 10th anniversary of a small European literary festival, Literaturhaus Europa, held in the Wachau region, throws into sharp relief the cultural poverty we face post-Brexit.
European Literature Days frequently punches above its weight, luring prominent international writers to participate in workshops and panel discussions over a long weekend. The theme this year was film, literature and literary adaptation.
Outside the major film festivals, I can think of few places where you would find the wonderfully eclectic, inspired pairing of international screenwriters such as Olivia Hetreed (who adapted Wuthering Heights and Girl with a Pearl Earring) and Austrian Kathrin Resetarits who wrote and directed Licht. While Romanian screenwriter Razvan Radulescu, who co-scripted The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) and Tuesday, After Christmas (2010), was paired with illustrious German novelist Katharina Hacker. Her 2006 novel The Have Nots was awarded the German Book Prize and was made into a film, directed by Florian Hoffmeister in 2016.
Perhaps the most memorable discussion was between Hungarian director and screenwriter Ildiko Enyedi and Bosnian director and screenwriter Jasmila Zbanic. Both filmmakers are highly original in the way they explore the human psyche and the crossing of borders. Enyedi’s latest film, On Body and Soul won The Golden Bear at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival and was widely praised in the UK while Zbanic’s hard-hitting feature film, Esma’s Secret, won the Golden Bear in 2006.
Enyedi talked about the importance of location in her films. On Body and Soul is set in an abattoir, an inhumane workplace where a fragile love affair blossoms. Two workers from the slaughterhouse meet in their dreams as deer and fall in love which, Enyedi observed, is an act of self-preservation in a cruel world.
Location is also important in Zbanic’s 2014 comedy Love Island. In a holiday resort on a Croatian island, characters step out of themselves, boundaries blur and anything seems possible. A pregnant French woman, her Bosnian husband and a Romanian seductress form an unexpected love triangle. Zbanic bravely tackles LGBT issues, a sensitive subject in her native Bosnia. But the biggest challenge of attracting funding and worldwide distribution for her films, Zbanic claims, is not her gender or provocative subject matter but the fact that she is from a small country in Eastern Europe.
Zbanic is unlikely to make it to the UK in the near future, either for a screening or to discuss her film work, because the UK government is making it increasingly hard (or prohibitively expensive) for international artists, writers and filmmakers to participate in cultural exchange. This was evident at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival where various writers were initially denied visas.
According to the festival director, Nick Barley, a dozen invitees, from the Middle East and Africa and one author from Belarus, found it hard to obtain a visa. They were asked to provide three years’ worth of bank statements to demonstrate financial independence, despite the fact that the festival was paying them for their talks and guaranteeing to cover their costs while in the UK. These particular writers had their applications refused at least once.
It’s a shame that the Home Office has created such a hostile environment as we will all be the poorer if we don’t make international speakers feel welcome here.
The diversity of the writers that come to European Literature Days every year is exhilarating and the discussions are always refreshing. International film and literature enable us to appreciate different worlds and cultures, a plurality of opinion helps to expand our minds. Now, more than ever, we need to keep these windows of understanding and opportunity open and continue to enrich our cultural knowledge.
Lucy Popescu is a writer, editor and arts critic with a background in human rights. She worked with the English Centre of PEN, the international association of writers, for over 20 years and was Director of its Writers in Prison Committee from 1991 to 2006. Her anthology, A Country to Call Home, focusing on the experiences of young refugees, was published by Unbound in June 2018. She also compiled and edited A Country of Refuge (2016), a collection of writing on refugees and asylum seekers by some of Britain and Ireland’s finest writers. Lucy is a volunteer writing mentor for ‘Write to Life’, the creative writing group at Freedom from Torture.
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