Blending and Remaking

in 8th Transilvania International Film Festival

by Julia Khomiakova

A program of both fiction and non fiction films? Well, this may be congenial for a festival, held in Transilvania, located in the Carpatian region, with its specific blend of Latin, Slavonic and Hungarian languages, cultures, lifestyles… Maybe this blend would always remain a distinctive feature of this young, yet developing festival.            

However, filmmaking practices nowadays increasingly overwhelm geo-cultural traditions. Film production, filmmaking and, what is more, the art of the film itself has been transformed by new facilities which make shooting, sound recording and editing easier, quicker, more accessible… The documentary Constantin si Elena/Constantin and Helen by young Romanian director Andrei Daskalescu is the best example of how to make a very emotional and deep movie with your own high definition camera in your own Grandpa and Gradma’s house. In addition to the sophisticated shooting and editing skills of the filmmaker, one cannot but appreciate the fact that the reminiscences of the elderly couple (often comparing their hard yet happy youth to modern times) feature no references to the Communist regime, Ceausescu’s dictatorship, the revolution of 1989, the EU… There is no doubt that, in their time, these topics have been important for this peasant household, built on love and hard work, with a soft spot for the arts (Constantin sings in the church choir, while Elena weaves traditional Romanian carpets and writes poems). Yet Daskalescu has rightfully decided that dispensing with concrete time- and space-related details would make his film more universal. Indeed, worldwide, traditional life styles are bound to extinction. None of the couple’s children lives in this village anymore!  But could they have stayed? And, for that matter, could any of us have stayed – at least those of us who have their roots in the countryside but, in spite of nostalgia, would never leave the city? A process that has nothing to do with post-socialism for it is a global one.                

Shooting (at least with an amateur digital camera) is now available even for the blind! The Iranian film 7 zan filmsaz-e nabiha / 7 Blind Women Filmmakers was, of course, coordinated by director Mohammad Shirvani who taught seven women at a different stage of blindness (some of them born blind) to handle the camera. Their stories, more or less tragic, sometimes optimistic, but always shocking and impressive, are, of course, physically painful to watch. This movie, definitely worthy of an ecumenical jury prize or a human rights’ organization diploma, made me however think very seriously about the new perspectives in filmmaking. What’s next? Festival of films shot with mobile phones? Sections of films at the IDFA or in Leipzig, shot with security cameras?  H-m-m-m…  What would become with the art of the VISUAL image which, least we forget, cinema has been associated mostly with for the last 114 years?              

The Icelandic film Sveita brudkaup/Country Wedding (dir. Valdis Óskarsdóttir) is a feature comedy shot on film, but in a “home movie” style. The action – which seems to be kind of traditional for Icelandic films – takes place on two buses, taking guests to a wedding ceremony, since Inga, the bride, has decided to have her wedding in a solitary church, surrounded only by relatives and close friends. The newly weds, let us be honest, are closer to 35 than to 30. But Inga is determined to make her neurotic dream of getting married in a white gown come true, just like every girl. However, patriarchal wedding customs are just funny after 3 years of cohabitation … And the camera starts shaking (imitating a home-movie style) every time the characters are doing something odd, just obeying artificial traditional stereotypes, and stands still when focusing on some sad truth from the real life.                

The visuals of the Danish film Den du frygter/Fear Me Not have nothing to do with the “Dogme” films, which made me admire the director Kristian Levring for holding his own ground.  The shooting is beautiful and the film is still very Danish. The story of a man over 50 who eventually leaves his family, is also told in the Canadian film Le grand depart/Honey, I Am In Love (dir. Claude Meunier), only this time the main character leaves his wife for another woman – young and pretty. The latter film, unfortunately, is more superficial than expected within the context of the accomplished psychological dramas that characterize the French-Canadian cinema from the last decade or so. And this makes one inevitably turn to high-quality documentaries — I mean the ones, which succeed in turning interesting facts into a metaphor…                

I have never thought that anybody could make an interesting movie about deaf and dumb people after Pavel Medvedev’s Wedding of Silence. However, it has happened!  The pulse of documentary cinema is that of life itself, with its boundless possibilities – such as, for example, a chance to start hearing even when born deaf. In Shablul Bamidbar/Voices From El-Sayed (dir. Oded Adomi Leshem, Israel). However, reclaiming one’s hearing could be daunting for those whose bodies and minds are not prepared. All the more that in this Bedouin tribe, where many kids are genetically deaf, life is well accommodated to their needs. Therefore most of the deaf Bedouins shun the chance of a free operation that would allow them to at least hear human speech as getting used to hearing is painful. Well, any knowledge is painful! Here the documentary fact turns into a broader metaphor of human fear of knowledge, of reality…                              

The Finnish feature Kiellety Hedelmä/Forbidden Fruit (dir. Dome Karukoski) also focuses on a community. The story begins in a village, populated by conservative Laetherians (Finnish protestant confession, rather multiple and very strict). It is easy to guess that at the end of the movie the main character, an 18-year-old blonde Raakel, would leave the community and her family, and embrace the normal contemporary life.  At the same time Raakel has nothing against Christianity, Laetherianity etc. It is important that she still respects not only her parents’ faith but also the sense of being protected, which is the best redeeming factor of a communal life. Nor does Raakel leave because her religion strictly forbids pre-marital sex and even make-up. The problem, to my mind, is that no really strong person could ever endure such a closely controlled lifestyle … or probably this is only my understanding, and not that of Raakel and her likes? This film invites us to come up with our own interpretations without offering any answers. Well, indeed religion is a very intimate issue. Besides, there is an opinion that atheists leaving different confessions are different people because they stop believing in different gods. Therefore, an Orthodox atheist is different from a Protestant or a Muslim atheist. In Russia now the so-called Orthodox cinema is very strong, but mostly it is documentary. Besides, there are many other films about followers of “new religions”. In none of them however had I ever encountered a definitive answer to a couple of basic questions: 1) What made you join this religion? 2) What made you abandon this religion?

Another strong influence on fiction cinema is the historical TV documentary drama – one of the fastest developing genres nowadays. This is also natural: the 20th century left us a legacy of stories and subjects that used to be closed at some point. And, until it is not too late, there is an attempt to film witnesses and survivors. The Hungarian film A Nap utcai fiúk / Sun Street Boys (dir. György Szomjas) is based on archive fragments from popular Hungarian newsreel, made before 1956 – all of them known to Hungarians and to those who have seen enough documentaries about that tragic autumn. In addition, the script and the movie blend documentary footage (strictly following the dates of the events), with archetypal images from Hungarian art and revolutionary mythology. Unfortunately, those who do not know Hungarian history well would not be able to appreciate how skillful this blend is. The main character recalls his youth and first love. The girl, as one could guess, was shot at the barricades. Inspired by the example of Hungarian heroes of yore, yet not strong enough to withstand the force of the occupants, she, like so many other ordinary Hungarians, was killed in a senseless way. Would it not have been easier and cheaper to make a documentary? I would have preferred something simpler. Yet the authors’ choice was determined by their duty to the memory of those, who would never have an individual monument because they died as a part of a crowd, too young to achieve anything significant in their lives. And with regard to some other citizens of Budapest … well, as they say in the US, “they are lying like eyewitnesses”. So, the main character is not a hero neither is he a traitor, neither has he the desire to lie about his heroic deeds, but is just mourning that he could not save his girl. Not enough for a serious success.            

Some films of the program looked like a revival of traditional cinema. Why not? Should ‘auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to min’? The Italo-Romanian film Mar Nero/Black Sea (dir. Federico Bondi) tells a very typical and almost neo-realistic story of the Romanian Angela (Dorothea Petre), a young woman who comes to Italy in order to make some money for her father living in a small town at the Danube delta – one of the poorest Romanian regions. Angela’s boyfriend (Vlad Ivanov) hardly makes ends meet. Angela easily finds a job as a caregiver and easily learns Italian, closely related to Romanian. Her elderly employer (Ilaria Occhini) symbolizing “the old lady Europe”, is irritated by Angela’s manners. Mistrusting of “this Gipsy”, she eventually understands what brings them so close. Each of them cannot rely on moral support from the man who happens to be their close relative. Whatever happens, the new friends can rely only on themselves…This touching yet rather time-sensitive movie is obviously inspired by the Romania’s fresh EU membership, which made it possible for Romanians to work legally in Western Europe. Was this political move the only way to save Traian Basescu from what happened to Nicolae Ceausescu 20 years ago? In Transilvania, a relatively well-to-do region (still very cheap in comparison to Moscow!!!), life is easier than in other Romanian regions – like that of the Danube delta, for example, as shown in Black Sea. However it is becoming evident that “the elder brothers” and “the old ladies” from the EU with their promises of financial support for “the new Europeans” were either very naïve or…or what? Anyway, both main characters come through as very convincing not only thanks to the expressive typages of the actresses, but also to their really good acting..                

Good acting and Eric Lin’s camera are the strongest points in The Exploding Girl (dir. Bradley Rust Gray), a story of a twenty year-old-college student Ivy (Zoe Kazan), who spends her summer vacations at home in New York. Her boyfriend uses this chance to say “I love another girl” over his mobile phone – much easier than saying this and looking into Ivy’s beautiful eyes. What is the reason – just an end of a love story or a sad consequence of the fact that charming Ivy is suffering from epilepsy? Ivy is young enough and, besides, she has charmed another guy ready to be next to her in trouble (for how long?) However, Ivy understands that her health problem will never go away and tries to be nice, at least… This film definitely brings to mind some motifs from Krszysztof Kiesliowski’s Double Life of Veronica, although I am not sure whether Bradley Rust Gray has ever seen it. This may be just a coincidence – skillful yet boring. Zoe Kazan is probably the only actress in this program whom you could remember (and maybe recall the whole film only due to her acting, very thorough and realistic). Only Zoe Kazan? Yes! Sad. But not surprising.  It seems that semi-documentary arthouse cinema is less and less in need of bright actors’ personalities.  Would the actors of today be honored in 2059 like the Romanian stars Mircea Albulescu and Florin Piersic, or Claudia Cardinale who were invited to receive life- achievement awards at TIFF-2009? I have every reason to doubt…                    

Zift (dir. Javor Gardev) was successful not only at multiple film festivals including Moscow but also in Bulgarian cinemas. A criminal black comedy is always rather popular, especially since in Bulgaria this genre is not very common. This anti-feminist black-and-white movie is full of hints to the times when, as a Russian joke goes, the Bulgarian elephant was the younger brother of the Soviet elephant. However, in this movie there is nothing anti-Soviet or anti-Russian. The subject is criminality which exists everywhere and does not depend on politics.  Is this a way to explain why things are like this in post-socialist countries? Well, if the audience accepts it – why not? This is easier than something else.                      

The FIPRESCI prize winner Kan door huid heen/Can Go Through Skin (dir. Esther Rots, Netherlands) is a film which could have been different if not for the budget constrains. Deprived of investments, Esther Rots decided to shoot the film by following the story as it got written: one step at a time. Another turn in the narrative – another day of shooting. In fact, this method resembles documentary filmmaking: you start shooting without knowing how the story would end. The dramatic story of the 30-year-old Marieke, abandoned by her boyfriend and then raped by a pizza-carrier, is, to my mind, more or less remindful of Kira Muratova’s films Long Good-Byes and Asthenic Syndrome. Marieke, feeling absolutely destroyed and misanthropic, moves to the country, where she eventually finds a new hope. The semi-documentary way of shooting makes Can Go Through Skin a bright example, reaffirming the afore mentioned tendency of modern arthouse cinema: a fictional story, rendered non-fictional in an artificial way, interspersed with intertextual references, with acknowledged (and non-acknowledged) quotations from other films. Does this tendency really have a serious potential? I don’t know. One thing is for sure: this is an inevitable phase in the history of film-making, we will have to just wait and see.

 Edited by Christina Stojanova