An Eastern European Melting Pot

in 25th FilmFestival Cottbus – Festival of the East European Cinema

by Anita Skwara

Turning 25 means that you have the experience to make thoughtful decisions, as well as being young enough to pursue new paths. The 25th edition of the festival was a multidimensional event, befitting the complex landscape of Central and Eastern Europe. The films presented in the three competitions and ten sections created an extraordinary panorama, representing the past, present and future of this region’s culture.

The notion of a “melting pot” is generally used in reference to the United States. However, after experiencing this year’s selection of films in Cottbus, one feels compelled to apply the same concept to the geographical and cultural diversity of Central and Eastern Europe. The overwhelming challenges that this region faces – refugees, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the situation in the Balkans in the aftermath of fierce conflicts – were reflected on at the festival’s venues. The 25th anniversary jubilee was a celebration of cinema and the responsibility it carries for the mental, intellectual and spiritual future of this part of the continent. Accordingly, the usual glittering atmosphere of most film festivals was absent – at Cottbus, even the “red” carpet was blue.

István Szabó was the Honorable President of this year’s Festival, an iconic director with a fascinating body of work. The feature competition presented twelve films: a matrix of the richness and diversity of Central and Eastern European filmmaking. As far as narrative strategies, artistic inspirations and cultural context were concerned, two key themes emerged: the necessity of memory and the necessity of dialogue. These issues were traced in all of the films.

We witnessed a dramatic collision of cultures and languages (the Polish-Israeli film Demon), as well as a number of abandoned family conversations (Olmo Omerzu’s international co-production Family Film and the Croatian movie Ungiven by Branko Schmidt). The power of memory was highlighted in the most awarded film of the festival, the extraordinary The High Sun (Zvivdan) by Dalibor Matanic. This Croatian-Slovenian-Serbian co-production presents, in masterfully narrated form, the individual tragedies of an overwhelmingly bloody civil war: one which occurred, not in the distant past, but at the end of the 20th century, in the middle of “our” world and experience.

However, it would be incorrect to summarize this wonderful festival only in terms of drama and tragedy. Frequent laughter was heard at screenings. Applause was given not only for grandiose pictures, but for films vibrating with humor, wit and optimism – for instance, the Audience Award went to a Slovenian comedy, Jan Svitkovic’s Siska Deluxe, about three losers finding their paths in life. That laughter was very welcome this year. All the best, Cottbus!

Edited by Lesley Chow