Tearing down walls. Cinema, Europe and AEGEE in the 80s

“Cinema, Europe, and AEGEE… What kind of relationship exists between them?” You may have asked yourself this question when you saw the title of the article… and no, it is not a joke. This is the start to a brief series of four articles about the links that exist between cinema, Europe, and AEGEE to understand the history of this organization in the continent over its life of more than thirty years, from the 1980s  to the 2010s.

Before we start, perhaps you have another question: why use cinema to explain the history of Europe and the development of AEGEE? Well, because cinema is a useful tool which helps us understand the society of many different countries. Taking some of the research work that has been done, some historians like Marc Ferro (1924), Pierre Sorlin (1933), or Shlomo Sand (1946), it shows surfaces and shadows that reveal the attitudes of the people; regardless of the place and the period in which we are studying. This is what Ferro calls a “counter-analysis” of the society, with elements and aspects that were hidden until they are revealed some years later.

This is one of the aims of this series, written in a way that is  easy to read for any kind of reader, as a way to divulge these three elements. In the first chapter, we start with the 1980s (travelling with a DeLorean, of course!) and we talk about the one film that shows the general situation in the continent: The Name of the Rose (Jean Jacques Annaud, 1986), based on the novel written by Umberto Eco (1932-2016) in 1980, and one of the most successful best-sellers of the end of the 20th Century.

Northern Italy, year of 1327: Twenty years before the arrival of the Black Plague, in a Europe which was in a complete crisis, even in the Catholic Church. Two Franciscan monks, William of Baskerville (Sean Connery), and Adso of Melk (Christian Slater), arrive at Benedictine abbey where there have been  some mysterious murders. Monks and peasants, deeply afraid because of the recent events, think that behind these crimes was the Devil itself. However, William, a skilled investigator, with the help of the young Adso finds that these crimes were linked to the library where some manuscripts and palimpsests of remarkable authors of the Antiquity were copied and translated through generations.

During the film, William is the object of the mistrust of the authorities of the abbey due to his findings, like the abbot (Michael Lonsdale) or the venerable Jorge of Burgos (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr.), and is accused of the crimes of two heretic monks, Remigio da Varagine (Helmut Qualtinger) and Salvatore (Ron Pearlman). An anonymous woman is in love with Adso (Valentina Vargas), and the protagonist has to fight in a trial against an old enemy: Bernardo Gui (F. Murray Abraham), an inquisitor based on a real character of the period who would use fear to manipulate defendants and juries and obtain his victories in trials.

What is behind the story of The Name of the Rose? Set in the 1300s, it speaks more about the 1980s than about the beginning of the Late Middle Ages. Firstly, around the abbey, there is an atmosphere of ignorance and fear built by a decadent Church in which people like Adso can be lost in a labyrinth built by these two elements. In the library, hidden in a big tower, there are many secrets in books that, if read, can destroy that state of things and make people think freely. The main character mentions, for instance, Aristotle’s missing essay Comedy, the second part of the Poetic in which the Greek philosopher talked about the benefits of laughing and fun as a base of comedies. There is a control over what is published and, at the same time, the minds of people are manipulated by the authorities until the moment of the rebellion, which was initiated after decades of abuse by heresy.

Umberto Eco, one of the most important professors of Media, Language, and Semiotic from the 1960s, wrote the book inspired by his studies and previous research to show the power of the words in controlling people, amplified by mass media like television, radio, and the press. And that control was possible in a world in which two great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, had a long rivalry based on controlling two big blocks, using espionage, making military alliances, supporting different regimes to obtain strategic victories, and holding a terrific nuclear arsenal since 1945.

The Cold War between these superpowers was still dangerous and attempts of creating a united Europe were impossible since the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 by the signing of the Treaty of Rome. For Western European countries integration was a goal, while for the Eastern European countries was controversial. Some people wanted to join the EEC as a way to solve the political, economical, social, and cultural difficulties their countries had since the 1970s. However, others wanted to continue living under the communist regimes, mainly for the fear of what was beyond the iron curtain. Workers’ unions and political movements opposing communist regimes, right from Poland to Romania, and from Bulgaria to the G.D.R., fought against them in a period of control of liberties of citizens. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev (1931), tried to reform the structures of the country through the Perestroika policy that ironically accelerated the end of the system in a few years time.

1980s would go down to be considered as the decade in which, by the same mix of fear and ignorance of the abbey of The Name of the Rose, walls were built everywhere: in politics, economy, society, culture, language… Some of them were erected after the economic crisis of 1973 in which many countries recovered after dramatic changes in industry and in trading. But at the same time, some walls were being destroyed. Businesses and companies from different countries established the basis of the globalized world by creating a money-making culture that is still working today. New inventions, like P.C’s and mobile phones, even global TV channels like CNN or MTV, were used for the first time, beginning a new era of mass media. New N.G.O.’s increased their activities in the defence of global peace in a world filled with  local wars (Amnesty International), and for the preservation of the environment (Greenpeace). Walls also existed in the field of the sexual orientation, the A.I.D.S. epidemic being a real problem which awakened  the solidarity among victims.

By the time the EEC became the European Community with the signing of the Single European Act of 1987 which was formed by twelve countries (Greece entered in 1981 and Spain and Portugal in 1986), AEGGE was born. It was founded on April 16th 1985, by Franck Biancheri (1961-2012), a French student of Political Sciences.  He had the idea of founding this young students’ organization –first called EGEE and then AEGEE in 1988- along  with the development of the Erasmus Programme in which international exchanges between students from different universities was possible. The main structure was created, the first antennae were founded by passionate people, and the first agorae took place, making possible the exchange of ideas, ways of life, and experiences that made AEGEE what it is, along with the celebration of the first Summer Universities.

In those first five years of existence, with a lot of optimism, and with the confidence of creating a better and borderless Europe, AEGEE entered into an age in which the continent experienced a mix of joy and fear. If somebody wants to understand AEGEE, it is necessary to understand the spirit of the 1980s decade. In a humble way, the first students that were part of it helped realise these ideas and projects, destroying the walls of a continent artificially divided by that feeling that Eco spoke of, and Annaud showed, in The Name of the Rose. Ignorance and fear always goes against those who create them, and that happened and we have seen that happen on November 9th 1989, in Berlin. That was the beginning of a new era and AEGEE would be a part of it.