By Brian Brooks | Indiewire December 12, 2009 at 10:22AM
The European Film Awards, now in their 22nd year, are decided on by the 2,000-plus members of the European Film Academy, which is physically based in Berlin. The German capital also hosts the awards ceremony every other year, though for its 2009 edition it passed the honor to the German town of Essen and the surrounding Ruhr area, in the west of the country. With the European Film Awards weekend, the Essen/Ruhr area officially kicks off its 2010 European Capital of Culture celebrations (a title the industrial Ruhr area shares with Pecs, in Hungary, and Istanbul).
The festivities started on Friday evening with a special gala screening of "Looking for Eric," the latest film of Ken Loach, this year's recipient of the European Film Academy Lifetime Achievement Award. The film was preceded by a half-hour conversation with the 73-year-old director, who immediately showed his flair for political outspokenness by suggesting he was happy to be in the industrial heartland of Germany, which reminded him of the fact Britain "used to have an industrial heartland too, until Thatcher put a dagger through it in the '80s."
Loach also revealed that his wife thinks his great passion isn't filmmaking at all but soccer, which is probably why French soccer star Eric Cantona got in touch with him to make a movie about Cantona's relationship with his fans. At the European Film Awards ceremony to pick up his lifetime achievement award, a day later, Loach started off by saying, "Life can't get any better than getting an award from Eric Cantona." Their collaboration, "Looking for Eric," is an unusually lighthearted film in the director's oeuvre, but this doesn't mean that the director has started to mellow with age.
In the Lichtburg theater in Essen before the screening on Friday, Loach revealed that his next film is about an employee of a contractor company working in war-torn Iraq. "The film will be about the consequences of fighting this illegal war for the people who fought in it and also for the millions in Iraq that suffered," said Loach to a round of applause.
On Saturday night, the official awards ceremony of the European Film Awards took place in a decidedly more glamorous setting: the Jahrhunderthalle in Bochum, close to Essen. Far from the well-oiled American awards machine, this European film party was true to the spirit of the continent: messy, cacophonous, multi-lingual and passionate about arts and politics. This could be seen not only in the nominations - would the Academy ever put films like "Let the Right One In" and "Fish Tank" into its Best Picture category, or nominate Lars von Trier for directing "Antichrist"? - but also in its red-carpet approach, where one of the names most in demand by autograph hunters was not some European glamour-puss du jour but revered auteur Michael Haneke, who obliged - with a smile.
He would keep on smiling all night as he was the happy recipient of three awards during the evening: European screenwriter, European director and European film of the year, for his Cannes Palme d'Or winner "The White Ribbon." If any film profited from some added European momentum in the U.S. awards race, it is this Sony Pictures Classics release. Haneke's "Cache" already won the Best European Film in 2005, and the director said he was surprised he won again so soon after that honor, and that he was particularly pleased with his screenwriting award, his first.
Two other films on Sony Pictures Classics' slate were also awarded: Jacques Audiard's powerful prison drama "A Prophet" won Best Actor for young Tahar Rahim and the Prix d'Excellence for its team of sound designers, while composer Alberto Iglesias was crowned European Composer 2009 for his work on Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces."
Last year's Oscar winner Kate Winslet was named Best Actress for her work in "The Reader," and "Slumdog Millionaire's" Danny Boyle picked up the Audience Award. (The release calendar for the European Film Awards runs from July 1 to June 30.)
The evolving nature of European cinema was also underlined by two new awards: an award for successful co-producers (for their body of work) and a new category for animated European films. They were won by Jani Thiltges and Diane Elbaum, and Jacques-Remy Girerd's "Mia and the Migoo" respectively. The largely self-financed "Katalin Varga," a revenge tale set in the Hungarian-speaking part of Romanian Transylvania directed by Brit Peter Strickland, was named European Discovery of the year, and thus showed that it is not necessary to have a rich producer attached to make an award-winning film (the film also won a Silver Bear at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival).
Isabelle Huppert, when accepting the European Achievement in World Cinema award, went on stage visibly moved, and said in English: "I think I should speak French, I am a French actress. Or European. But what is a European language? Cinema could be a European language." The redheaded icon then continued in French: "I always felt I was a European actress, from the beginning. Cinema is a journey within each person as well as in the world at large."
[The list of 2010 European Film Awards winners are available at indiewire.com]