European Film Festival 2023: What to Watch

Now in its 10th year, the European Film Festival in South Africa will take place from 12-22 October, 2023. Staged in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, the festival presents a strong line-up of sixteen films screened in cinemas with free screenings available online. Beyond the film selection, the festival brings filmmaker engagements, community centre and schools’ programmes with further events at the Alliance Française in Eswatini and Lesotho.

Bookings are now open. Visit the European Film Festival website for more information or how to guide. Here’s an overview of this year’s film line-up from across the European continent with many award-winning features from debutants to film-making veterans:

20,000 Species of Bees (Spain)

20,000 Species of Bees is an award-winning Spanish drama film and feature film debut for writer-director Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren, starring Sofía Otero, Patricia López Arnaiz, Ane Gabarain and Itziar Lazkano.

Set in the Basque Country during a summer among the beehives, an eight-year-old transgender child explores their identity with the women of their family, who simultaneously reflect on the complex layers of their own lives. This compassionate and richly textured chronicle of an eight-year-old’s gradual transitioning and its effect on their family is ultimately about tolerance and acceptance, as well as a fascinating study of womanhood that extends beyond motherhood.

Anatomy of a Fall (France)

Married writers, Sandra and Samuel, live in a French Alps mountain chalet with their visually-impaired son, Daniel. When Samuel falls to his death, Sandra is arrested for murder and put on trial.

Justine Triet’s compelling psychodrama adheres to “near-perfect craftmanwomanship” when it comes to filmmaking standards, winner of the coveted Palm d’Or. Filled with breathtaking contrasts, sharp dialogue and enthralling courtroom scenes this is a mystery thriller of rare intellectual and emotional depth. A fluid and ambiguous deep dive into marital power dynamics, it’s further enhanced by Sandra Hüller’s authentic performance with fine supporting performances from Swann Arlaud and Milo Machado Graner.

As In Heaven (Denmark)

Set on a farm in the late 1800s, As In Heaven is taken from the perspective of 14-year-old Lise, the oldest of a large group of siblings, who must prepare to become the woman of the house.

This engaging, powerful and timely coming-of-age drama is inspired by Marie Bregendahl’s 1912 novel En dødsnat. Directed by Tea Lindeburg in a debut feature, it confronts the impact of ignorance in the face of superstition as personal and social costs add up under the pressure of exclusionist dogma. An incredible performance from Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl as young Lise and beautiful cinematography mirror the slow-creeping anxiety and distress of her emotional journey.

Close (Belgium)

Leo and Remi, two thirteen-year-old best friends, experience a rift when their schoolmates become aware of the closeness of their friendship. Leo struggles to understand what has happened after their intimate and seemingly unbreakable bond is suddenly, tragically torn apart.

Close is a beautifully shot, emotionally transformative and unforgettable portrait of friendship, love and healing, starring Eden Dambrine and Gustav de Waele. Lukas Dhont’s intimate and evocative coming-of-age drama won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and earned an Oscar nomination at the 2023 Academy Awards.

EO (Poland)

EO is a road movie with a difference, taking a donkey’s-eye view of the world. Seen through the eyes of a donkey named EO, life becomes uncertain after he loses his circus home and embarks on a journey that sees him encounter a spectrum of humanity. This “beguiling and often brutal” film features the likes of Isabelle Huppert, the work of legendary Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski.

Doing some of his best work at the age of 85, Skolimowski compels this empathetic drama, using a sparse script and breathtaking imagery to allow us to see the world differently. Recipient of the Jury Prize at Cannes, it was Poland’s submission for Best International Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards.

Golden Years (Switzerland)

Newly retired, Alice and Peter are ready to enjoy their golden years. But a cruise trip through the Mediterranean reveals pent-up marital problems that force them on separate journeys of self-discovery.

Humorous and light-hearted, Barbara Kulcsar’s film starring Esther Gemsch and Stefan Kurt is also refreshingly honest and insightful about aging. Golden Years is a breakout Swiss hit that reminds us that the quest for happiness and personal growth is a lifelong journey.

Goodbye Julia (Co-production)

Brought together by fate, Goodbye Julia is a Sudanese drama about two women who hail from different regions of Sudan. Mona, an upper-middle-class former singer from the North, tries to alleviate her guilt for causing the death of a Southern man by hiring his unsuspecting widow, Julia, as her maid.

Beautifully shot by South African cinematographer Pierre de Villiers with a moving musical score by Sudanese musician Mazin Hamid, Goodbye Julia is the astonishing directorial debut of largely self-taught film-maker, Mohammed Kordofani. Starring Eiman Yousif, Siran Riak and Nazar Gomaa, this powerful and suspenseful drama brings to life the complex issues of racism, discrimination and secession in Sudan. Goodbye Julia won the prestigious Prix de la Liberté, the first film from Sudan ever to be presented at the Cannes Film Festival.

Il Boemo (The Bohemian) (Czech Republic)

Il Boemo journeys with Josef Mysliveček, a Czech migrant and acclaimed 18th century opera composer. Admired by Mozart and able to charm the most demanding of audiences in Italian high society, the biographical music drama chronicles Mysliveček’s life as a cosmopolitan playboy interloper.

Il Boemo is immersive, thanks to Mysliveček’s glorious operatic arias and a vivid blend of rich historical locations and grandiose design work. The Czech Republic’s submission to the 2023 Academy Awards, Václav’s strong biopic speaks to musical creativity, opportunism and opulent Venetian lifestyles with Vojtěch Dyk in a lively lead role.

Mavka: The Forest Song (Ukraine)

Based on a 1911 play by Lesya Ukrainka and co-directed by Oleh Malamuzh and Oleksandra Ruban, Mavka: The Forest Song tells the story of a young forest spirit who falls in love with a human musician. Torn between her love and her duty to protect the forest, Mavka must make difficult choices as a conflict over the source of Life, echoes the real-world conflict between humans and nature.

Adapted from a classic work of Ukrainian literature, Mavka: The Forest Song is a poignant, uplifting and beautifully animated film with strong underlying messaging. A story for all ages about the magical power of love, it transports viewers to a world of magic, mystery and folklore through stunning visuals, vivid colors and intricate details.

Mikado (Romania)

Emanuel Pârvu’s second feature film, Mikado, is a taut, visually-stunning and engaging family drama that evolves into a serious social drama, raising questions about moral and possibly criminal responsibility.

When Magda offers her expensive necklace to a sick child, her controlling father intervenes in a bid to find the truth only to jeopardise their already fragile relationship. Pârvu’s incisive Kafkanian approach cleverly unwraps a complicated situation full of hovering ambiguities and power dynamics. Strong performances from Ana Indricau as Magda and Serban Pavlu as her father hold the drama’s emotional core under Pârvu’s subtle and complex direction.

Mother (Bulgaria)

Mother is a powerful and moving Bulgarian drama from Zornitsa Sophia, which tells the story of Elena, a theatre director whose desire to become a mother seems impossible. Finding new meaning in life, she develops a life-transforming theatre programme for Bulgarian orphans. When she’s offered an opportunity to work with orphans in Kenya, Elena faces a difficult and life-changing decision.

Inspired by the true story of Elena Panyatova, a remarkable theatre director and cultural activist, Mother benefits from heartfelt performances, stunning visuals, and delicate storytelling. A poignant and balanced portrayal of the complexities and challenges of motherhood, it also contends with the ever-present problems of global inequalities.

Narcosis (Netherlands)

Narcosis is a poignant and stirring story about love, loss and acceptance. The drama centres on a close-knit family, whose lives are changed forever when an adventurous and much-loved father fails to resurface during a dive in Boesmansgat, one of the world’s deepest underwater caves in the Karoo. Left with a house full of memories, a mother and her children become entangled in their own search for answers as they deal with their loss and start a new life together.

Strong cast chemistry and a compelling performance from Thekla Reuten provide Narcosis with a mature and refreshing authenticity in the family’s approach to grief and their changed world. Meticulously crafted, well-acted and brilliantly filmed with sensitivity by Martijn de Jong, the award-winning Narcosis was selected as the Dutch submission to the Academy Awards.

Nayola (Portugal)

Nayola is an animated adventure drama directed by José Miguel Ribeiro and based on the play A Caixa Preta by José Eduardo Agualusa and Mia Couto. Set in Angola, the film follows Nayola, Yara and Lelena, three generations of women plagued by the long civil war. Nayola goes in search of her missing husband, Yara has become a rebellious teenager and subversive rap singer, while Lelena tries to contain her for fear of the police coming to arrest her.

A powerful and moving story of resilience, hope, and the enduring power of love told from a female point-of-view, ,em>Nayola interlaces the past and present, exploring the impact of the war on the lives of women and children. Nayola is visually stunning, using its rich and riveting visuals to enhance its bold storytelling, infused with a touch of magic realism.

The Eight Mountains (Italy)

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Paolo Cognetti, The Eight Mountains is a deep meditation on our capacity for friendship, love and loss as well as an epic journey of self-discovery set in the breathtaking Italian Alps. After meeting as children over a series of summers, Pietro and Bruno reunite as adults to build a mountainside cottage, a site of both reflection and reconciliation.

A bittersweet drama of mystery, passion and rivalry from directors Charlotte Vandermeersch and Felix van Groeningen, The Eight Mountains is ultimately a story about the search for shared purpose and navigating divergent paths. The winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival, this is a breathtaking, gripping, profound and thought-provoking drama about the nuances of a lifelong friendship with heartfelt performances from Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi.

The Old Oak (United Kingdom)

Set in a village in the Northeast of England, The Old Oak follows the lives of townsfolk as they struggle to cope with the closure of the mine and the arrival of Syrian refugees. Ken Loach’s last film, this powerful and moving story explores poverty, homelessness and immigration.

The Old Oak features strong performances from its cast in Chris McGlade, Ebla Mari, Dave Turner and Debbie Honeywood. An exploration of important social issues and labour rights, it serves as a fitting swansong for the legendary filmmaker. Laced with compassion and kindness, it doesn’t pull any punches in its show of solidarity and “presentation of the world not as Loach thinks it should be, but as it might and can become”.

The Teachers’ Lounge (Germany)

The third feature from İlker Çatak, The Teachers’ Lounge follows Carla Nowak, a young teacher who decides to investigate the theft of one of her students’ valuables. Leonie Benesch’s breakout lead performance as Carla, finds her playing an idealistic, sympathetic and committed mediator to her students, colleagues and outraged parents against escalating divisions, prejudices and cliques within the school system.

Set against the rise of social media and fake news, The Teachers’ Lounge trades in dramatic tension as it examines the ripple effect of a small decision that comes to invoke a thought-provoking and incisive commentary about conformity, rebellion, racism and intergenerational mistrust.