“Where are you actually from?”
That’s the question put to a German girl newly arrived in England on an exchange trip. After all, she can’t be a German, because she’s wearing a headscarf.
This is a scene from the short film by English director Charlotte Regan. And I wouldn’t have told you about it in advance if scenes like this hadn’t long been the sad reality here, too.
“Paired Up” – that’s the title of the film – could be set in many places in Europe.
Like the other films in “The Love Europe Project”, it asks questions about identity, both as we perceive it ourselves and as imposed by others. What does it mean to live in Europe? What does it actually mean to be a European?
Questions like these reminded me of my meeting a few months ago with the Berlin-based author Nicol Ljubić. Asked what Europe meant to him, he replied with just one word: “Freedom.”
He told me about a trip with his father to the country of his birth, Croatia. The customs official at the Italian-Slovene border waved them through, without even glancing at their passports. For us, that’s an everyday occurrence, nothing out of the ordinary.
But for Ljubić’s father that was not the case. He had crossed that same border once already, albeit in the other direction, more than 50 years ago, as a refugee. In the darkness, and constantly afraid of being apprehended by Yugoslav border officials.
To my mind, it is stories like these that make it clear that Europe is also a matter of perspective.
For Nicol Ljubić’s father, the Europe on the other side of the Iron Curtain was nothing less than a dream. A place of freedom.
And, as accustomed as we may be to it, this freedom is not something that can be taken for granted. At a time when a trip to Warsaw is hardly any different from a trip to Munich, this is something we need to remind ourselves of.
That applies to me, too, born in 1966 and having grown up in West Germany. Everything that goes to make my live good and enjoyable – freedom, democracy, the rule of law, civil rights – was already there. I didn’t have to fight for it.
And sometimes I have the impression that many people, in my generation and others, believe that all this is a given.
But it is not a given, as very quickly becomes clear if you take a look around the world, and Europe too, by the way.
An outside perspective often helps us realise this. And the personal, very human perspectives on Europe that become visible in “The Love Europe Project” will help.
Freedom, as many of the films show, needs to be constantly defended.
We are currently seeing how nationalists and populists are trying to restrict our freedoms, by preaching isolationism, and by defining freedom in exclusive terms, as only for Germans, only for white people, only for those of the same political persuasion.
Their greatest accomplice in this is indifference. The opinion polls for the European Parliament elections at the end of the month forecast a stronger showing for right-wing populist groups. Sometimes I have the impression that we are all just accepting this too quickly, too easily.
Yet the vast majority of people want a free, fair and tolerant Europe. As the opinion polls show. More than 80 percent of people living in our country are pro-European. Perhaps this would be a very good time, then, to speak out on the issue.
Ms Sperl, I think it’s fantastic that your field, and you in particular, are doing precisely that – with something great, namely films.
Yes, we know Europe is not perfect. There is the Europe of social inequality. The Europe of prejudice. Many of the short films tonight make this clear.
But they also make it clear, indeed they make it much clearer, that what connects us is far greater than what divides us. And ultimately it is up to us to decide what kind of Europe we want to live in. Because Europe, as the films demonstrate, is created first and foremost by interpersonal relationships.
The English schoolgirl doesn’t shake off her prejudices until she has contact with the German Muslim. Even though the German schoolgirl never answers the question of where she’s actually from.
Perhaps because the answer is not at all as straightforward as it seems. She could have said “I am a German.” But she could also have said “I am a European.”
The fact that she could have given this answer is down to the united Europe. This Europe does not seek to erase our national identities. On the contrary: there is no contradiction in being a Berliner, a German and a European.
Ladies, Ms Sperl, you want to move people with your films. Do that. Take away our fear, give us courage and open us up to feel keenness and interest. In the European identity, whose beauty lies in the fact that it does not divide us, but unites us. In all our diversity.
Thank you for doing that with this project this evening.