Saturday, November 7, 2009
Money for Nothing? Eastern European Films at Warsaw Film Festival
(this article will be published on the FIPRESCI web site)
As the FIPRESCI Jury at the impeccably organized 25th Warsaw Film Festival, we are entrusted with the task of giving a prize to one of thirteen films, all first and second features from Eastern Europe. While this may sound like a rather straight-forward category, it does belie two predicaments. In addition to the classical problem faced by anyone interested in national cinemas (“what does it mean that a film is from somewhere?”), how would Eastern Europe be defined? Luckily, the films are chosen for us, and we do not have to concern ourselves with the geopolitics. Eastern Europe generally conjures to mind the countries formerly united with the Warsaw Pact, now mostly members of the European Union. As we watch our films, however, I notice a certain tendency among these films that set a clear partition between those from the EU countries and those that are not. In some strange way, the non-EU films tend to have money (or lack thereof) problems at their center, whereas films from the EU countries have other concerns. I do realize that such a statement is a gross generalization; nonetheless, a very clear division between thirteen films viewed over a week tempts me to formulate a thematic pattern. For full disclosure, I must note that I come from Turkey, whose elusive attempts at an EU membership may have rendered my perception somewhat selective.
It must be a coincidence that we first watch the four films that are not from EU countries: George Ovashvili’s The Other Bank (Gagma Napiri) from Georgia, Gulshat Omarova’s Native Dancer (Baksy) from Russia (although set in Kazakhstan), and Asli Ozge’s Men on the Bridge (Koprudekiler) along with Mehmet Bahadir Er and Maryna Gorbach’s Black Dogs Barking (Kara Kopekler Havlarken) from Turkey. Here is where the financial troubles start: the young protagonist of The Other Bank, portrayed wonderfully by Tedo Bekhauri, tries to survive on his own in a hostile environment, resorting to various scams. Survival is also at the heart of the two Turkish films; where men work hard on the bridge to make ends meet, Selim and Chacha from Black Dogs Barking attempt to enter the underworld to move upward in life, to tragic consequences. And in Native Dancer, which tells the story of an elderly shaman, it is the involvement of gangsters that sets the events into motion.
Ignas Miskinis’ Artimos Sviesos (Low Lights) from Lithuania is the first on our list from an EU country, and the contrast is startling. Three upper-middle class urbanites in their thirties drive their cars in the darkness of the night and encounter random strangers, all in an attempt to escape the mundanity of their lives and the alienation of the metropolis. Same themes inform a number of the other films such as Pawel Borowski’s Zero from Poland. In this tale of intertwined lives, a few of the many characters do have money problems, but the greater underlying subject matter is human relations in a big city. Listieky (Foxes), Mira Fornay’s debut feature from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, tells the story of two Slovak sisters in Dublin. The film focuses on the troublesome relationship between the two sisters and not on migration troubles, as a film from the previous decade might have. Even as the main protagonist in Kamen Kalev’s Eastern Plays from Bulgaria lives in near-poverty (as his step mother likes to point out), it is his drug addiction and his struggles to hold on to a meaningful life that define him. Roland Vranik’s Adas (Transmission) from Hungary is set in the near future where the television and computer screens no longer function. While the premise sounds like a science-fiction story, the film concerns itself with the despair of the people when they are forced to interact with one another rather than with their screens.
The sense of alienation, isolation and despair brings to mind another era in film history, the Italian cinema of the 1960s. While I could not possibly compare any of these films to the works of Fellini and Antonioni stylistically, their overall themes do bear a similarity that warrants a mention. There are of course other films on our list that do not center around desperation (whether for money or for meaning). Both entries from Romania, Radu Jude’s Cea mai fericita fata din lume (The Happiest Girl in the World) and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Politist, Adjectiv (Police, Adjective) tell stories of ordinary people in their daily lives, their styles defined by very long takes. And the recipient of the FIPRESCI Prize, Borys Lankosz’s brilliant Rewers (Reverse) from Poland, is a noirish black comedy largely set in the 1950s.
Heading to watch the last film on our list, I am curious if the pattern will hold. It is Aron Matyassy’s Lost Times (Utolso Idok) from Hungary, a beautifully shot story about a young man and his mentally disabled sister. Having lost their parents, the two siblings have to make it on their own, leading the brother to delve in smuggling gas from Ukraine. Smuggling and survival in an EU country? Is my pattern shattering? But then I remember the title that preceded the film: 1997. Lost Times is set seven years before Hungary’s accession into the EU. No need to worry. Admittedly, it would be quite a stretch to claim that EU membership is the one variable that makes a difference in these films’ themes and this is most likely a happenstance. Nevertheless, thirteen is a large enough number that leads one to think it just might…