A Look from the Coffin

in 29th Warsaw Film Festival

by Gideon Kouts

Death, fear and despair, violence and loss of social awareness — these were the main themes brought by the new Eastern and Central European cinema to the 29th edition of the Warsaw Film Festival.

Late sight and sound waves of wars in Yugoslavia, Chechnya or Abkhazia seem to be reaching the consciousness of the young generation of filmmakers only now. It is quite normal — the best movies about World War II or the war in Vietnam were done several, even many years later. But the vision of war and chaos take the form of an allegory of today’s political and economical situation. According to many of these movies, Eastern Europe finds itself today in a much worse state of war: war against established social order, politics, culture, education, family and human values. There are no more sacred institutions. All are corrupted, but the answer has nothing to do with any common shared values. There is no hope, no pity for the weak, no good feelings, democracy is more than suspect — the imaginary quest, according to the directors, for freedom, equality, fraternity is probably responsible for today’s chaos. Those films often seem to flirt with the far right, fascism and nihilism as the only possible answer. The criminal and skinhead milieu seems to be normative among today’s Eastern European youth. The Whirlpool (by Vuk Kosovcevic, Serbia) tells the stories  of Bogdan, an aggressive, but somehow likeable, skinhead leader; Kale, a gangster;  and Count, a graffiti artist who is battling the ghosts of the war by drawing a whirlpool which, he believes, will suck out all the dark shadows from his past. From the Director’s statement: “All those who lived in the Balkans during the 1990s felt the strength of being in a whirlpool like state. We were sucked into it against our will, and even today we can’t seem to get out”… So the film is about today. From an iconographic point of view, the city is deserted, the streets are empty, the few people who try to venture out of their (mostly lousy) homes risk their lives. Human relations are based on physical force and domination. The most common conversation is done with the fists, and the punches are always terrible, bloody, sadistic and bigger than life — one cannot understand how the victims can easily continue to the next scene without a long convalescence. Relativism and a bloody (not “classically” black) kind of humor take the place of eventual satire.

Take, for instance, hospital and medical workers, a sacred category in the history of the movies, which gave birth to many heroes who sacrificed their lives to save other people or to bring dramatic plots to a happy ending. In Eastern Europe, this is not the case anymore. Hospitals are a replica of Hell, medical workers are of Satan’s seed. In The Gambler (by Ignas Jonynas, Lithuania-Latvia), the Paramedic Vincentas organizes an illegal game within the hospital in which the life or death of the people he was supposed to save are at stake. In Heavenly Shift (by Mark Bodzsar, Hungary), Milan, a former medical student, deserts from the army in Serbia and gets a job in the Budapest ambulance service, where he realizes that the doctors often allow people to die. Finally, he finds that the safest place for him on this crazy earth is inside a coffin in which he will try to help his girlfriend to escape from the hell of Sarajevo.

The police force is corrupt, of course. The Major (by Yuri Bykov, Russia) runs over a boy, causing his death. His friends from the police want to cover up his deed. Killers can, on the contrary, be rather nice. My Dog Killer (by Mira Fornay, Czech Republic-Slovakia) shows, as many others, a skinhead milieu in which a  dog  who kills a boy is 18-year-old Marek’s best friend. These films are the most known in this wave, already selected and awarded in other festivals.

Within this dark framework a refreshing surprise came from Love Building (by Iulia Rugina, Romania), which criticizes the institution of marriage (and couples’ therapy) with originality and good humour.

The most popular model of filmmaker for this new Eastern generation is, apparently, Quentin Tarantino. Well, he is also an idol for many of their Western counterparts. But most of the followers seem to try to copy, and often pervert, his artistic use of violence, for instance, just to make us indifferent to it. This is not only a problem of lack of material resources which make this cinema surprisingly poor compared to the multimillion dollar production of the original. Perhaps taking as point of reference the glorious tradition of Russian, Polish or Romanian cinema, even in the most subversive way, would do much more good to the new Eastern European cinema than any unsuccessful quest for imaged “globalization”.

Edited by Alison Frank