EXCLUSIVE: "An Zéro" - ARTE film disavowed by its own director

By Bill WirtzMisch Pautsch

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The ARTE-NDR docu-fiction "An Zéro" imagines Luxembourg after a nuclear disaster. Director Myriam Tonelotto speaks about how the broadcaster twisted her work into a sensationalist film that goes after the Grand-Duchy - and about the alleged attempt at suppressing her dissent.

What would happen to Luxembourg in case of a major disaster? That was the question that Myriam Tonelotto aspired to answer when she was hired by ARTE-NDR to produce “An Zéro” (Year Zero). The docu-fiction features Luxembourgish “Capitani” star actor Luc Schiltz as well as major Luxembourgish political and societal figures, and runs the following scenario: after an accident at Cattenom nuclear power station, the Grand-Duchy descends in chaos. With refugees scrambling for their belongings and seeking a new place to live, what happens to the things that made the Grand-Duchy unique? Where do language and culture fit into the search for a new home, and what does the Greater Region lose in value when Luxembourg practically vanishes? Being a docu-fiction, the fictional story is supported by input from a large number of panelists.

"However, I am required to inform you that Myriam Tonelotto does not approve of the final version of the film."

E-Mail: Invitation to the pre-premiere

This single sentence sparked the curiosity of many pannelists and jumpstarted the investigation by Journal. Why exactly did the director who worked on this project for months not approve of the film?

Myriam Tonelotto has worked in the film industry for 30 years, having been a film directing teacher at the French SciencesPo (the Paris Institute of Political Studies), and the last twenty-nine working directly with Franco-German state broadcaster ARTE. She is no stranger to the question of nuclear energy. In 2016, ARTE aired her movie “Thorium, the Far Side of Nuclear Power”. “An Zéro” she says, was not supposed to be a movie that purely addressed nuclear energy, but which outlines the social dynamics of a major catastrophe while helping the audience understand this peculiar dwarf nation that is Luxembourg. To that end, Tonelotto got major political and societal figures on board: Energy Minister Claude Turmes, Environment Minister Carole Dieschbourg, Economic and Social Council Chief Jean-Jacques Rommes, former Minister of Culture Erna Hennicot-Schoepges, or University of Luxembourg constitutional scholar Luc Heuschling.

© Studio Wildbee

“I wanted to make a movie that shows the openness of Luxembourg, its multilingualism, its strong association with the Schengen Agreement. If this country were to be hit by a major catastrophe, what would happen to all of these notions”, explains Tonelotto, who also claims that ARTE-NDR did not share her take on the cinematographic value of the production.

Severely altered

“It started when they asked me to cut out significant parts of the existing film”, says Tonelotto. The NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk – regional German state broadcasting channel) office described the director as being too closely linked with the Grand-Duchy, in which she lives. Tonelotto lays out her interaction with Claudia Cellarius (NDR), who dismissed her vision of the movie by saying “Yeah, yeah, I know you like Luxembourg…”. The production team then started to demand intrusive alterations to the movie, leading to a complete revamp.

As a guest on the film myself, I had first-hand experience of this process, and was able to compare both versions of the film. The ARTE-NDR edit removes any parts that describe Luxembourgish culture and the country's social fabric in a positive light. References and contextualisation to the national motto “Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn” have been removed, as well as passages mentioning how beautiful the country is. The ARTE-NDR version paints a grim version of the nuclear catastrophe, and heavily emphasises Luxembourg’s role in Europe as a financial hub instead.

As the director Myriam Tonelotto tells Journal: “The programme team made a number of things very clear. They rejected the concept of Luxembourg as an interesting country, and they removed those aspects that were scientifically founded.”

Scientifically questionable

To Tonelotto, the ARTE-NDR version that is set to hit TV broadcasting in the upcoming month, will create unnecessary panic. “One of the intentions of the film is to show that Luxembourg could suffer from considerably more damage through public overreaction. In many stages of a nuclear accident it is wise to follow official guidelines and stay indoors, but the scenario they now paint will make residents believe that their only option is to escape. This has made it into an un-scientific anti-nuclear power movie.” The director states that the motivations of the programme team is, to that end, ideological.

Patrick Majerus is head of division of the Luxembourgish unit for “radioprotection”, which lays out crisis scenarios in case of a nuclear accident. Also interviewed in the film, he confirms to Journal that he agreed to be in it, in order to educate residents about the scientific realities of an accident in Cattenom. After having seen the final edit, he describes the movie as hyperbolic, and far removed from an actual crisis scenario. “The movie gives the impression that the entire territory of Luxembourg would become uninhabitable in case of an accident in Cattenom, which has little to do with the truth.”

In a very recent feature by Dennis Normile published in “Science”-Magazine, the question of weighing social stress against precautionary evacuations after the disaster in Fukushima is discussed. Exercise habits, dietary changes, disrupted familial and community life, it says, result in severe social stress, which might lead to impoverished health of the evacuated population. “An Zéro” is thus commenting on a highly debated scientific question – while taking artistic liberties and, one could interpret, sides. To Myriam Tonelotto, it was important to outline that the panic created by a nuclear disaster could easily be worse than the effects of radiation itself. The final edit of the movie, she says, does not reflect this.

"A caricature of the Luxembourgish economy."

Jean-Jacques Rommes, former president of the Economic and Social Council

Jean-Jacques Rommes was the president of the Grand-Duchy’s Economic and Social Council at the time the film was shot. Speaking to Journal, Rommes says that he is the victim of a mischaracterisation. “I was asked about what would happen if the Luxembourgish economy were to crumble. I explained that it would cause a major shock in international financial markets, and illustrated this with specific numbers.” In the ARTE-NDR edit, one panelist explains that “Luxembourg could not continue to be this tax haven, this black hole of international finance [anymore]”, followed by Rommes explaining the size of the Luxembourgish finance sector.

For all intents and purposes, Rommes’ quote appears to validate the previous statement, as if he agrees with it. “They make it seem as if the biggest tragedy to Luxembourgers is the loss of its status as a tax haven.” Rommes says that he has voiced his concerns to the production team: “They made me into a film extra of a caricature of Luxembourg’s finance sector.”

The production team of “An Zéro” was able to alter the composition of the statement of its guests due to a recording technique of Tonelotto. Guests were invited on the set one-by-one back in summer of 2020, and interviewed in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions. On set, they first gave their interviews and were then asked by the director to look both left and right while mimicking approval and disapproval. All guests were transparently told that they will be edited together during production in order to show a coherent discussion—making it seem that they were all in the room together. This enabled the possibility of deceptive editing, which some guests have explained happened to them. Myriam Tonelotto says that her version of the film did not engage in such deception: “I committed to respecting the context of the panelists’ statements.”

Journal has also received information that Prime Minister Xavier Bettel strongly advised Environment Minister Carole Dieschbourg and Energy Minister Claude Turmes against participating in the film. When requested for comment, Claude Turmes said that there were no such comments from the Prime Minister. Film Fund director Guy Daleiden says that Xavier Bettel did not participate because he refuses to be featured in films supported by the Fund.

"The programme team made a number of things very clear. They rejected the concept of Luxembourg as an interesting country, and they removed those aspects that were scientifically founded."

Director Myriam Tonelotto

Former Prime Minister and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker also refused to partake as a panelist. Talking to Journal, Juncker says that he refused to be in the film because he has had bad experiences with French TV broadcasters: “My experience has prevented me from agreeing to be in this film. I did not fully understand what the film was trying to achieve, nor did I want to go on camera before consulting with the current government.” When informed about some of the panelist feedback on the film, Juncker shows being unsurprised, given some of his adverse experience with French TV was with ARTE.

Director alleges to having been threatened

“When I saw the final edit of the movie, I immediately protested to ARTE and NDR”, says Myriam Tonelotto. To her, the movie was now both unscientific and ideologically anti-Luxembourg, and she asked to have her name removed in the broadcast version. Instead, says Tonelotto, she wanted to appear as “Alan Smithee”, indicating  a cinematographic disowning of the film.

Movie Knowledge

  • Movie directors who sign a movie with this pseudonym officially disavow the film itself. Coined in the 1960s by Directors Guild of America (DGA), directors that were dissatisfied with the final edit showed to the audience that they do not recognise being the owner of the project. Famous examples include the music video "Some Kind of Monster" — Metallica (2004), and The Cosby Show, "You Can't Stop the Music", episode 22 of season 8 (1992). The Luxembourgish Film Fund had a previous case of a director disowning a film by using “Alan Smithee”, as Journal revealed in an interview with then Communications Minister (and now EU Court of Justice judge) François Biltgen -- “Sub-Below” (2003).

"My experience has prevented me from agreeing to be in this film."

Jean-Claude Juncker, former Prime Minister

“In 30 years of film direction, this has never happened to me”, says Tonelotto. I’ve been clearly told it would be ill-advised to talk publicly about my rejection of the film.” According to Tonelotto, she was warned “your film career will be done”. After an internal negotiation between the producers and Tonelotto—which includes Luxembourgish production company “SkillLab”—the final edit names the director as “Myriam T.”. The new agreement will also allow her to publish her own version of the film online, right after the premiere broadcast by ARTE and NDR. Tonelotto confirms that she intends to publish this version for free on YouTube.

Former Minister of Culture Erna Hennicot-Schoepges, who also appears in the film, says that Tonelotto’s version is “more objective”. Speaking to Journal, the retired CSV politician says it is an educational exercise to compare both versions of the film once they’re available: “It’s a lesson in how films are made.”

Despite the directors protest, the version she disavows will be broadcasted on TV. The broadcast date for the film is set for April 21, as ARTE confirms when requested for comment. This would be the version featuring the editing many panelists describe as deceptive.

The position of the Luxembourg Film Fund is delicate to say the least. The organisation is led by Guy Daleiden, a trustee of Prime Minister Xavier Bettel. The ARTE-NDR cooperation is the first of its kind for the fund, which itself supported the film. When confronted with the choice of supporting a rogue director or the prospect of giving a Luxembourgish production project access to the joint monthly viewership of 35 million people, Daleiden seemingly chose the latter, despite the film's messaging. It is possible that past events have had an influence on Daleiden’s decision-making. An internal audit of the Film Fund had raised eyebrows two years ago, as it found that Daleiden was overtly involved in every decision-making process in the fund. Adding to that report, which was revealed by RTL, the LFF was found to have both communication and accounting irregularities.

According to its financial records, the Luxembourg Film Fund provided funding of more than €36.5 million for 80 film projects in 2019. In 2020, the Fund provided financial support for 19 projects for a total of €10 million. With a funding allocation of €1.15 million, “An Zéro” makes up 10% of the Film Fund’s quarterly fund allocation. The Luxembourg Film Fund is thus providing almost 75% of the total budget of “An Zéro”.   

The pre-premiere

On March 7, “An Zéro” was first shown at its pre-premiere at the Luxembourg Film Festival. Following the screening of the film, co-director Julien Becker answered questions in a Q&A, in which he reveals the reason why the name “Cattenom” hardly appears in the film (actors refer to the power plant as “the power plant”). According to the SkillLab producer and co-director, the ARTE production team was opposed to the use of the word, in order to protect those who made the film in Luxembourg from potential lawsuits. When asked by Journal, Becker confirms that ARTE believed that electricity provider EDF (Electricité de France) could sue the production company in case Cattenom was too prominently featured. ARTE is a public broadcast joint venture of the French and German state. The French state is a majority shareholder in EDF. To Myriam Tonelotto, this excuse is not valid: “EDF would never sue a French public broadcaster. That is pure paranoia.”

Luxembourg Film Fund Director Guy Daleiden, when questioned by Journal at the pre-premiere, says that it is not the role or mission of his organisation to intervene in the creative productions they fund. “It is not for us to decide what is in a film that we contribute to”, says Daleiden.

Claudia Cellarius from NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk)—who worked on the production from the German side—declined commenting on the allegations of threats.

Journal has also learned that one participating panelist has considered pressing charges against the film production.

Note from the editor: Some of the information in this article has been acquired through first-hand knowledge of our journalist Bill Wirtz, who very briefly stars in this movie. Behind the scenes knowledge on the recordings, guests, and the pre-premiere of the movie stem from this information. This also allowed Journal to review and compare both versions of the movie.