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Prix Europa 2013

The winners and more from the Prix Europa 2013 festival, plus some observations about the use of paper in radio.

Yours truly in Berlin, at what's left of Checkpoint Charlie

I planned to write more regularly about the Prix Europa festival in Berlin, but had to shelve that optimistic idea as we – the jury members – were listening to 33 radio documentaries in just five days and discussing all of them. For those who don’t know: If your piece runs on this festival you are automatically a jury member, just like that, and have to listen and vote. You can’t vote for your own piece. At the end the numbers go through some kind of algorithm and out come the winners, who are announced during a special event and then crowned during yet another special event which involves politicians and other hotshots.

So who were those winners? Well, not me. In the category investigative radio the best production was from Sweden, “The Girl Who Got Tied Down”. If that sounds like a Stieg Larsson title you’re right; the late author once said that everything that happened in his “Millennium trilogy” had also happened for real in Sweden in one way or the other, and this radio documentary by Swedish reporter Daniel Velasco illustrated that point rather eloquently. Here’s the synopsis:

Nora was forcibly institutionalized for her self-destructive behaviour. At the age of 17, while placed in residential care, she took to prostitution without the staff intervening. One day she was tied up and brutally raped by a sex-client. When Daniel Velasco begins interviewing Nora the rapist is still a free man. It is a shock for both him and Nora when, three years on, her assailant is suddenly arrested and they are informed that he is former police inspector Göran Lindberg, a well-known feminist known as “Captain Dress”. Nora steels herself for her meeting with him in court but breaks down afterwards. She ends up in psychiatric care. She tries to be assigned to a female psychiatrist, but her senior consultant has other plans.

The documentary did exactly what an investigative story should do: Cause mayhem and scandal. Heads rolled. Things changed. And one of the things that made it really stand out among the other investigative pieces was that you really got to know the main character, or victim if you like, the girl Nora.

In the “documentary” category, the winner was “Message in a Bottle”, an amazing and beautifully told story from Ireland by Peter Mulryan and Liam O’Brien:

On Christmas Day 1945 American Serviceman Frank Hayostek stuffed a note into a bottle and tossed it from his troop carrier, eight months later it was found on a beach near Dingle in County Kerry by Breda O’Sullivan.

He was 21, she was 18. Breda wrote back to Frank, and in turn Frank wrote to Breda – and so a trans-Atlantic friendship started. Frank put aside $30 a month to come a visit Breda, it took him 6 years to save enough to fly to Ireland.

And so on August 5th 1952 Frank arrived in Shannon airport.

Would there be a romance? The world’s press clearly hoped so, for they picked up on this impossibly romantic story and descended on Dingle en masse.

What happened next was part circus, part tragedy…

You can listen to it, here.

These festival competitions are a bit like horse races – I was told that the winning Irish piece was entered as well at an Irish radio festival and didn’t even make it through the pre-selection – and there were other documentaries that were really great as well even if they didn’t win. Like, for example, the intriguing “Dearest Ulrike“, by fellow Dutchman Joost Wilgenhof, about people who are still inspired today by Ulrike Meinhof. Or the sweet and elegant “Camp Sisterhood“, by Charlotte Rouault and Benoit Bories, about three women who managed to survive a Nazi camp through their friendship. Leave it to the Brits to turn a simple crossing of the Channel – to the continent, after all – into a mythical journey in “Nights of Passage” and to the Czech to serve up some of the most surreal dialog I’ve heard on radio in “I am Your Son Too, Adolf“. I also very much enjoyed the solid journalism in “Tanks For The Caliphate” and “The Echo Chamber: The Story of Jihad Jane“.

Anyway, the trip here was certainly worth it. It is a nice festival, I met great people, listened to great stories, and we made a serious attempt to drink the BBC into bankruptcy. All good.

That all said, it was a rather curious sight to see a group of people, in the year 2013, wrestling with heaps of paper while listening to the various pieces, trying to keep up with the printed English translations of the stories which were obviously produced in a plethora of European languages. The sound of 60 people turning pages simultaneously while trying to listen to radio is something to behold, as is the massive amount of paper this festival wastes.

In other words, we need an app. I want to be able to select a documentary from any European station on my smartphone, select my language, and get subtitles displayed in sync with the radio story. Ideally, this can then also be projected in festival settings, like, on a screen or something. It would all need some kind of standard format to avoid having to install tens of different applications. It would vastly improve the reach of documentaries that are not produced in English. How hard can this be?

For those of you who are wondering if I will now go back to Panama, the answer is, “not yet”. I’m off to the Middle East in a couple of weeks for a well deserved holiday to report on and around the ongoing war in Syria. And yes, radio work will be involved.

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