When I made a film about the European Union, I hoped it would provoke a debate both in Britain and the rest of Europe. What I did not expect after the BBC broadcast of The Great European Disaster Movie this week was a storm of insults, abuse and half-baked, inaccurate allegations from rightwing commentators and Eurosceptic media organisations about its motivations.
I was labelled a new Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who directed the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, commissioned by Hitler. This time the propaganda, it was alleged, came on the orders of Brussels. The film’s executive producer, Bill Emmott – who debated the film in a panel discussion on BBC4 after its screening – was also attacked.
We were both bemused. Why are anti-EU opinions always deemed to be just, respectable opinions, while a film on the EU by two independent journalists exploring how the present crisis came about is vilified as dangerous “propaganda”? It was striking that the most visceral reactions came from people who had apparently not watched the film.
The result of two years’ work and a rare European co-production between the BBC and the Franco-German channel Arte, our film was born of an aspiration to widen the European debate, to move it away from the rights and wrongs of current EU conduct to the long-term consequences of the EU imploding. Far from being an apology for the status quo, the film includes severe criticism of EU institutions and of European leaders’ failure to present an alternative vision to the narrow-minded nationalism fuelling the rise of “insurgent” anti-EU parties all over Europe.
The central question we wanted to ask was, what would be the worst-case scenario for Britain and the rest of Europe if there is a collapse? And what could be done to avoid it?
Most of the critics failed to notice that the film’s central message is, as the Telegraph’s Mary Riddell wrote, “irrefutable”. The British mainstream parties, as she pointed out, have lost the ability to “think big” about the role of Britain in the world. The fact that Riddell was alone in grasping the film’s message appeared surprising. But was it really?
The hostile nature of the Europe debate in the UK is of course not new. What is new, in my view, is how the British blindspot on this question has widened, while the clamour of anti-EU voices has become deafening, overwhelming any hope of constructive debate. Should we not respond to this with a robust, reasonable set of arguments on what the realistic options might be? Is it possible that the reactions of many Europhobes were also motivated by the fact that the film is a rare attempt to move the debate beyond the anti-EU shouting, while accepting criticism and proposing urgent reforms?
We quote President Obama in the film – hardly a Brussels propagandist – telling David Cameron “that it makes sense to see what you can fix in an important relationship before you break it up”. Is anyone seriously talking about this in the run-up to a general election?
It is to the BBC’s credit that it co-produced this documentary – as far as I am aware, the first it has made on the EU in 11 years. But it is again a measure of the British neuralgia about Europe that the film was pulled from the schedule several times, and the version that was screened was shortened to accommodate a “balancing” panel debate, packed with anti-EU figures such as Peter Hitchens and Ukip MP Mark Reckless. I was not invited, and was left wondering if the BBCeven feared that critics of the film would be further incensed if I – an Italian – was heard contributing to the programme: yet another EU migrant stealing a British job.
But how did the Europe question become quite so toxic? If 45% of British people want to stay in the EU, as a YouGov poll indicated recently, then surely they have the right to be properly informed of what awaits us, and from a wide variety of voices. When I moved to the UK in 1998 I was struck by the opening lines of agreat book by Hugo Young, This Blessed Plot: “This is the story of fifty years in which Britain struggled to reconcile the past she could not forget with the future she could not avoid. A story of an attitude to history itself and to a question: could Britain accept that her modern destiny was to be a European country?”
Almost two decades later there is still no answer. If anything, the reasonable voices who tried to offer an answer have become fewer and quieter. This can’t be good news for anyone.
Annalisa Piras is an Italian film director/writer and journalist based in London. She is a former London correspondent for L’Espresso magazine and La7 TV. Her documentary Girlfriend in A Coma (2013) was nominated for an Italian Golden Globe (Best Documentary) and for a CinEuphoria Award (Best Documentary). She directed, produced and wrote The Great European Disaster Movie, a feature documentary on the crisis in the EU.