Director Petra Seliskar,
Slovenia, 2013, 90 min
Mother Europe gave birth to many children. She raised them with love and with care. Among the children were Belgium and the twins called Denmark. Mother Europe kept having children. So many children that in the end she could no longer keep track of them. She still cared about all of them but she had to let them go. She could no longer control them. As all children do, Mother Europe’s children grew up and became independent from her. In the end, the children moved out of their childhood home and created their own, unique homes. They were out of the hands of Mother Europe. They created their own rules and borders now.
This allegorical story is told in Petra Selikar’s feature documentary called Mama Europa. It’s a documentary dealing on a practical level with the existence of borders and how people’s lives are influenced by them. The film is also a more metaphysical examination of what borders mean. What is a border exactly except for some lines on a map and how do we perceive borders? For starters, borders are a human notion, a human invention; a way of structuring our world and separating one group of people from another. But why separate people? Of course we can find historical reasons for the existence of borders. And perhaps practical reasons as well. Some will argue that borders are necessary in order to control large geographical areas such as planet Earth. Others will argue that borders and the units they create make people more competitive, more inventive. A third argument – and there are probably many more – could be that people need a sense of belonging and that this sense of belonging needs to be somewhat limited to an area we are able to grasp the notion of. However, you could find many arguments against borders as well. Why this need to limit ourselves? Why do we separate people when we are more or less the same and share the same world? Borders lead to dissatisfaction, to conflict, to war, to death. As one of the characters in Seliskar’s film says: ”How great this world would be if humans did not exist”.
I said earlier that Petra Seliskar’s film is a metaphysical one. By that, I mean that the film does not deal that much with a political or historical discussion about borders. The notion of borders is perhaps the essence of the film. And Petra Seliskar has chosen a rather original way of structuring this examination. She has made the film with her four-year-old daughter Terra. The child Terra (even her name is relevant) creates drawings of the world with its many countries and confusing borders. Where does Croatia stop? Where are Macedonia’s borders? This graphical starting point leads to reflections and discussions between mother and daughter. The mother has had a longer life. She has history within her. She knows why the borders are as they are. But the child is free of history. She is not yet influenced by rules, assumptions, prejudices and history. She asks freely and with curiosity. This is perhaps a romantic notion. Does a child have a more honest and authentic kind of access to the world? Not necessarily. Can the child be used in a film to bring forth something a grown-up cannot? Yes, it seems so when watching Mama Europa. Terra is an intriguing character. As she wanders around the poppy-seed field and engages with the world with curiosity, examining the ants in the earth, we cannot help but wonder what we as grown-ups do in the world. Not only how we create borders but generally how we treat our planet. These sentences might sound sentimental but Mama Europa is by no means a sentimental film. It’s a warm, generous and often funny film depicting different generations and their stories related to borders – for instance a 98-year-old Slovenian man, who was forced to pretend to be Italian under fascist rule, experiencing the 1920 pogrom against all things Slovenian.
A weakness in the film is the imagery. It does have some interesting archival footage but I am not sure the present day imagery is strong enough to meet the demands of a feature-length documentary. The many infantil animations bring very little to the film. And the number of scenes with Terra creating yet another drawing makes for a rather repetitive structure.
However, the themes of the film keep bringing the it back on track. The reflections – not so much made by the characters in the film, as the people watching – comprise the real strength of Mama Europa. Do we believe in the notion of nations and borders? A scene in the film comes back to me: Terra and Petra walking near the sea and talking about how fishermen are fighting about who gets which amount of fish. Which fish is a Croatian fish and which one is Italian? How can you tell? Fish is fish and the sea is open to anyone. It reminded me of the great Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska whose poems should enlighten us about the ways we divide and limit ourselves. Szymborska gets the final word, a few lines from the poem “Psalm”: “How leaky are the borders / we draw around our separate nations! / How many clouds cross those boundaries / daily, without even paying the toll!” And then the ending of her poem, and thus this review as well: “Funny, isn’t it, how only what’s human is truly alien? Everything else is just mixed vegetation, a few subversive moles, and the wind.”_