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Return to Europe trailer. © 2007 pre tv. All rights reserved.

Filming change: Return to Europe

April 2008

The documentary series Return to Europe started as a series of conversations in cafés in Vienna between Gerald Knaus (ESI), Knut Neumayer (ERSTE Stiftung) and Martin Traxl (ORF/3sat) in early 2006. A brainstorming session in the garden of Bosporus University in Istanbul followed in July 2006, with Gerald, Knut and Martin agreeing on the format of the series: a journey with 10 stops, passing through all of South East Europe, and ending on the shores of the Bosporus.  

The films focus on people who struggle for democratic values, who fight to overcome legacies of conflict and to create a new Balkans. We met human rights activists and journalists, subsistence farmers and business tycoons, football stars and prime ministers, all telling their own stories of how their societies – and their lives – are changing. 

The research for Balkan Express/Return to Europe consisted of more than 1,000 interviews by ESI analysts in 10 countries, as well as in Brussels, Vienna and Rome. In June 2007, script writers Wolfgang Stickler and Gerald Knaus joined director Peter Beringer in Macedonia to begin to work on the ground. Different teams of directors, camera operators and ESI analysts were later to travel to Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Istanbul. Filming concluded in July 2008. The whole project, which lasted 13 months, involved 6 directors, 6 cameramen, 190 days of shooting, 140 taped interviews and 400 hours of footage.  The films were first broadcast on 3sat and ORF, starting in April 2008.  

By early 2009 some 4 million people had watched the films on 3sat and ORF. ERSTE Stiftung and ESI also organised three dozen film screenings across Europe: from Tbilisi to Barcelona, Berlin to Istanbul, Warsaw to Pristina, and Budapest to Belgrade. Every day, an average of 2,700 people visit, the film website. 

In late 2008, Return to Europe was awarded the "Erasmus Euro Media Grand Award" for outstanding European media production by the European Society for Education and Communication (ESEC). The series was selected from among more than 250 applications from all over Europe by an international jury. ESEC Chairman Thomas A. Bauer noted that the series "combined inspired directing with sound scientific research".

The series also received positive feedback in the press.  The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that "this remarkable documentary series destroys all clichés". Die Zeit and Süddeutsche Zeitung called the film on Turkey a "fascinating kaleidoscope of impressions" and "a great documentary".  The former chairman of the International Commission on the Balkans, Giuliano Amato, wrote that "these are documentaries all of us citizens of the European Union should have the opportunity to see".

European policymakers agreed. When the series was screened in the film theatre of the European Commission in Brussels, Olli Rehn, EU Commissioner for Enlargement, praised it as a "a compelling documentary series about the Balkans and Turkey".

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