An Overview: Barely Pushing the Envelope

in 19th Tromsø International Film Festival

by Radovan Holub

One of the northernmost festivals in the world, the Tromsø International Film Festival takes place mainly in the darkness of the “polar night”, with just four hours of daylight in a 24-hour period, which is a good time to go to the cinema.

But as the festival winds down, the days start to become brighter, and northern Norway looks forward to the 24-hour days that arrive in May. Symbolically for the summer period, in Pal Jackman’s brand-new Norwegian film, Shooting the Sun (Jernanger, 2009), the main character, a grumpy old sailor called Eivind, can be seen aiming his rifle against all penetrating sun rays.

Tromsø has a world-renowned avant-garde library, architecturally similar to Berlin’s House of World Cultures, the “Schwangere Auster”, where a part of the Berlinale festival was held in the 1990s. The Tromsø library hosted a special series on Czech literature under this year’s festival sidebar, “Czech Retrospective”. Also famous is the University of Tromsø, with some 7.000 students from around the world, and a domestic brewery, Mack, which is successfully fighting here against the Heinekens and Carlsbergs. In spite of its position in the heart of wilderness, Tromsø offers top-flight festival facilities, including seven cinemas (one of it is a multiplex) and exquisite hotels.

Since Tromsø is an audience-oriented festival, it seems like a good idea to list the films which resonated most strongly with that audience:

Shooting the Sun, Pal Jackman, Norway, 2009.
Cloud 9 (Wolke 9), Andreas Dresen, Germany, 2008.
It’s Not Me, I Swear! (C’est pas moi, je le jure!), Philippe Falardeau, Canada, 2008.
The Good, the Bad and the Weird (Joheun-nom, Nabbeun-nom, Isanghan-nom), Kim Ji-woon, South Korea, 2008.
Dr. Alemàn, Tom Schreiber, Germany, 2008.
Country Wedding (Sveitabrudkaup), Valdis Oskardottir and cast, Iceland, 2008.
Mermaid (Rusalka), Anna Melikian, Russia, 2007.
Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle, UK/USA, 2008.
Heart of Fire (Feuerherz), Luigi Falorni, Germany, Italy, Austria, France, Kenya, 2008.
Involuntary (De ofrivilliga), Ruben Østlund, Sweden, 2008.

Let me stress the Czech presence at this year festival, with Petr Zelenka on the forefront of the Czech delegation. The Czechs were given a special retrospective which, together with the competition program, “Horizons” sidebar and the Russian and French sections, attracted the most viewers. The Czech spotlight was a hot ticket, thanks to the current Czech EU presidency, and featured couple of Czech New Wave films from the golden sixties which were probably the most fruitful time for Czech cinema, as an artistic revolt against the establishment exploded into an artistic focus on the lives of average people, poetry and imagery. (Forgotten notions of cinema nowadays, right?). I personally experienced an unusual moment, encountering a long queue that blocked a snow-covered street in front of the Verdensteatret cinema, as audiences flocked to a screening of Vera Chytilova’s 1966 classic Daisies (Sedmikràsky).

Other sections featured Czech films, too: European Film Academy winner Renè by Helena Trestikova; The Karamazovs (Karamazovi) by Petr Zelenka; Night Owls (Deti Noci) by Michaela Pavlatova and Bohdan Slama’s Country Teacher (Venkovsky Ucitel).

Renè and Citizen Havel (which was also shown in Tromsø) clearly show that Czech documentaries can attract an international audience, as happened with Czech Dream and will surely be the case with an upcoming documentary on a public row about the attempts to situate an American military base and radar array in Czech Brdy area.

René is the story of a delinquent, René Plasil, who was sentenced heavily for petty theft as a pickpocket, spent half of adult life in Czech prisons, lost the love of his life to heroin addiction and who ultimately can’t believe he can build a life outside of prison. He robbed the apartment of the film’s director, Helena Trestikova, who’d been his most frequent prison visitor; he even stole the camcorder she’d loaned him so he could shoot footage of junkie communities that nobody from the outside world could penetrate. René died recently of a drug overdose.

Two Russian films should be mentioned: Mermaid, which enjoyed worldwide success last year, and Shultes, which premiered in Venice and screened far less often.

Mermaid is about a girl who loves the open landscape, the sea and the surf, but at 17 moves to walled-up Moscow, where she discovers her ability to make wishes come true. She falls in love with an advertising manager, a young “new Russian” named Sasa. The world of advertising and the shuttered-up society to which it caters contrasts wonderfully with the open landscapes she views as her freedom.

Shultes plays out a very interesting issue of loss of emotions in contemporary society, following a 25-year-old athlete who, after a car leaves him suffering from partial memory loss, makes his money picking pockets and stealing cars. He is a masterful thief. He is silent, his poker face offering no emotion. It seems he could eventually fall in love with a girl he robs on the street when he later meets her in hospital, seriously wounded. We hope he’ll find better days, but it’s a vain hope: He goes to find her passport he threw into a garbage can, but just to find out where she lives so he can rob her flat. The film’s ending is surprising, and could be interpreted in more than one way.

Let me also mention Dr. Alèman, an interesting German film about a young doctor who travels to Cali, Colombia, after finishing his studies. Curious about the Cali slums, he falls in love there, which makes him vulnerable. It is a remarkable film.

The Norwegian entry Shooting the Sun, featuring the excellent actor Bjørn Sundquist, is a potentially interesting movie, but unfortunately the director fails to create a compelling story, as the plot moves around in circles. It’s an old, well-known failing of European cinema — a story which fails to reach from A to Z, ending up stuck somewhere in the middle. Hopefully, script doctor Martin Daniel did his job well in Tromsø, so that Nordic filmmakers will understand how essential is to have better and more vivid stories, as was the case with Slumdog Millionaire or our prize-winner, Revanche. The FIPRESCI prize in Tromsø can be seen as proof that perfect stories still exist. Even in European cinema.