With two dynamic ladies, Natalia Semina and Kirsi Tykkylainen, as the general director and the program director respectively, it seemed quite fitting for the 29th Moscow International Film Festival to have as many as seven women filmmakers fighting it out in the competition section. Three of these seven were debut features. Perhaps it’s unfair to divide filmmakers along a gender line; perhaps these ladies too would want to be seen as “filmmakers” rather than “women”, yet it’s hard to ignore an overtly feminine voice talking to us in their stories, characters, style and treatment.
Broken English and The Park (Gongyuan) are based in two widely different worlds, the USA and China, but portray a universal dilemma, one which cuts across cultures: A modern urban woman’s inability to find a meaningful relationship. The heroines, Nora and June, are neither Bridget Jones nor Ally McBeal, the two glamorized icons of singlehood. They are far more real. Yet far from going deep into relationship chaos, Zoe Cassavetes’ Broken English essentially turns out to be nothing more than a sweet and comforting fairytale romance where the depressed heroine, who has hit the panic button after not being able to find the right man, ultimately does manage to procure a soulmate in the exotic and understanding Frenchman Julien. It’s a film which reinforces the significance of destiny, fate and chance. You know from the very start that all has to turn out well.
Yin Lichuan’s The Park is more relevant and realistic, especially in the urban Asian context, because it tries to locate the relationship mess within the larger problem of the growing generation gap. June loves her father, has care and concern for him in his retirement years. He, in turn, shows his affection by merrily cooking and cleaning for her. However, while the father wants her to settle down fast, June wants to take her own time in making the vital decision, feeling weighed down by her father’s expectations. Her father tries to go match-making for her even as she decides to do the same for him to fill up his lonely days. The principles and ideologies clash, but eventually the film fails to hold up as a compelling document; it remains flimsy, just touching the surface of its story rather than finding a more meaningful core.
On the contrary, Eva Neymann’s At the River (U Reki) poignantly shows two generations coming together in the twilight of their lives. An eccentric, childlike aged mother and her aging, hyper daughter bicker and quarrel but find completion in one another; they hold on to each other knowing that time has slipped past them. Vera Storozheva’s Travelling With Pets (Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi) has a woman, more like a spirit than someone real and human, who keeps floating on her own with her pet dog and goat for company, someone curiously whole and complete in herself. She doesn’t seem to need any human outside of her own self. Natalya, who comes from an orphanage is married to an unloving man and finds life and her own self after his death, in utter solitude. It’s a reverie on isolation, the narrative itself flowing like a dream.
But the two most refreshing explorations among these seven films turned out to be not really overtly feminist or feminine documents. Larisa Sadilova’s intensely moving take on the brutality underlying modern urban relationships, Nothing Personal, shows a man blatantly exploiting the women in his life. He gets interested in the lives of a pharmacist and another blonde woman, both of whom he has been observing through his surveillance camera. He gives the pharmacist a brief respite of happiness, bringing some joy into her life even as he grapples with the disintegration of his own marriage. But soon the hope he brings into the woman’s life gets extinguished as he decides to go back to the wife, not caring a fig about what might happen to her. The film, like life, offers no resolution. It just portrays relationships that are more ravaging than nurturing, more cruel than caring.
Angeliki Antoniou’s Eduart doesn’t just have a man as the central protagonist, it also shuns the regular women’s issues. Instead the film takes on the contentious contemporary political issue of illegal immigration. What happens when you are forced to leave your homeland to try and find roots, hope and freedom in an alien country? Do you ever get to belong to either the native or the foreign spaces? Or are you left hanging in the middle, in limbo, just like Eduart? The film opens with him in the mountains, at the border between Albania and Greece, and flashes back to tell us how, as an illegal Albanian émigré, he came to Athens in the hope of making it big as a rock star. He kills a client who picks him up from a gay club, returns home to escape the murder charges only to find there is no home for him in his own house. He is turned in to the police by his father for robbing his mother’s office. Eduart belongs nowhere; his only home seems to be the border or the prison. He has hardly any anchors in life other than a loving sister, a helpful cellmate and a German prison doctor who becomes like a foster father to him. Instead of exploring the political dimensions of his problem, Eduart prefers to play out the morality issue. The thwarted desires make Eduart reckless. He rejects every relationship, never accepts responsibility for anything, never feels guilty for any crime. As his father puts it, “it’s always someone else’s fault”. His journey in the film, then, is towards a moral awakening, of becoming accountable for his own life, deeds and decisions.
Ann Biller’s Viva mixes cartoons, farce, soap-opera and pornographic elements to present an over-the-top, confused and insanely silly look at a Californian housewife’s boredom and sexual escapades. The look is retro ’70s and the inspiration seems to come from the infamous sexual innuendoes of the British Carry On series. Biller takes on way too many responsibilities — in addition to directing, she produced, contributed music, wrote the script and played the title role. No wonder the strain shows. Needless to say, Viva turned to be the most berated and widely criticized film of the competition section, and also, perhaps, of the entire festival.