Bridging East and West, Past and Present By Larisa Malyukova
The film festival goEast is conceived as, and year after year realized as a forum for problem dialogues. The organizers try to find points of contact between Eastern and Western mentalities and touch upon the sore points in the relationships between different ethnic groups and between “old” and “new” Europeans, and to understand the reasons of eternal conflicts. The cinema of Eastern and Central Europe tries to capture “a new reality”, not only looking at people from the street, neighbors, and immigrants, but also — through the lens of historical experience — at the classics.
In the competitive films of the festival that was born on the threshold of the century this effort to connect the present day of the former socialist countries to their muddled and dramatic past can be felt most acutely. In their intimate, personal, and subjective film-stories, the filmmakers follow Stanislavsky’s recipe: not just to tell about certain events, but to look for a hidden meaning, a spiritual essence, a core — in order to establish their relevance for the present.
In the film The Gift to Stalin (Podarok Stalinu), the Kazakh director Rustem Abdrashev tells a tale of survival of Stalin’s genocide from today’s perspective. Even in these inhuman conditions of humiliation and the mass campaigns that were designed to strip man of his dignity, the inhabitants of a small Kazakh aul preserve their humanity when they rescue a Jewish child. The concise plot, in which the child’s destiny appears tied to the destiny of the country, is a little rectilinear and maybe lacks polyphony and nuances. Therefore the past in this film looks as if it had been reconstructed. There is no purposeful dialogue with the present-day.
Help Gone Mad (Sumasshedshaia pomoshch’) is an eccentric story about the misadventures of the Belarusian gastarbeiter Zhenya in Moscow. Director Boris Khlebnikov portrays a strange, modern society in which there may be normal people, but they soon turn out to be gangsters who plunder and beat up visitors, including the Belarusian gastarbeiter. All the other characters of the film are somewhat mad — even the very naive Zhenya (a variation on the character of Ivan the Fool from the Russian fairy tale), the policeman (in each phrase of the newspaper announcements he sees his dismissal note), the Muscovite who shelters the gastarbeiter (the holy fool with Don-Quixotian manners), and his clumsy daughter… Reflecting on Khlebnikov’s filmic metaphor, one comes to the sad conclusion that society, deprived of a clear moral reference system, gradually goes mad.
The Bulgarian director Javor Gardev shifts a thriller into a circus arena. Zift is an energetic cocktail of a crime story about the theft of a diamond, of black humor and a socio-historical backdrop of the Stalin era. Strangely enough, this grotesque black-and-white film-show creates a sensation of the intolerable and infinite absurdity that reigned behind the “iron curtain”.
In the Croatian-German Buick Riviera two compatriots — citizens of the former Yugoslavia — meet on a snowy road in the distant North Dakota. But the war of the 90s has turned the Serb Vuko and the Croatian Hasan into mortal enemies. Wherever they are, they are at loggerheads even today, 17 years later: Vuko is rich, Hasan is unemployed, and their fatherland is many thousand miles away. The innocent meeting of yesterday’s compatriots turns to a fatal duel. The director Goran Rušinovic creates tension in the quiet road-movie by turning it into a thriller. The minimalist visual effects hint at the metaphoric quality. For example, the hero clears the windscreen of his car from snow (the car is a Buick, the embodiment of his youth dream), trying to wipe away with it the terrible memories of the past. On the infinite road covered with ice the Serb and the Croatian travel in one car, trying to overcome their mutual hatred. And it seems that this slippery “road” of eternal animosity has no end…
The past interferes in the present. People cannot get rid of their traumas of loss, humiliation, and pain. They feel the weight of this burden. It is most bitter when the victims of the terrible past are children. ??do, from the Georgian film The Other Bank (Gagma nariri), is only 12 years old. The Georgian boy undertakes a dangerous journey to the enemy Abkhazia to find his father. The film by George Dvashvili is shot in a traditional manner: dozens of filmmakers have told stories of a girl or a boy looking for the father. The discovery of this film lies in the acting of the young Tedo Bekhauri in the lead role. His eyes look into different directions, as though one part of his soul lives still in his childhood, while the other is already drawn into a heartless war. Even the adults in this film, irrespective of their nationality, are victims of war, all absorbed by its vortex and unable to find a way out.
The Romanian film The Happiest Girl in the World (Cea mai fericita fata) is an ironical tale of the speedy unification of the former socialist countries with Europe, now aspiring in every way to adopt a western way of life. Delia is one of many — an ordinary, spotty and fat girl, who has been lucky: she sent off three labels of a well-known multi-fruit juice brand and won a car. The advertisers need just that: a winner from the common people — “Everyone can win!” — “Smile into the camera, Delia! Broader! Drink some water! More! More! Repeat for the double: ‘I’m the happiest girl in the world!’ – Why you are sad? We’ll change your hairdo… Make-up… My God, she’s got a moustache! A broader smile, Delia! Do you have teeth? Drink, and enjoy!” This modest film by Radu Jude shows how, within a day, the characteristic features and dreams of an individual are erased, transforming man into a brand. A consumer society does not need people: it is satisfied with consumers.
Alexei Balabanov’s Morphia, which is based on the themes of Mikhail Bulgakov’s works, is also concerned with the destruction of personality. The hero, Doctor Polyakov, slowly perishes after a potion enters his bloodstream. But the world around him — a fine and harmoniously constructed world — is also poisoned by the “morphine” of the revolution. The ugly reality, in which the uneducated Boor reigns and indulges in excess, resembles a drug addict with withdrawal symptoms.
The well-known Czech director Petr Zelenka tries to understand the contemporary world through the lens of Fedor Dostoevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. A troupe of Czech actors rehearses within the precincts of a Polish factory a theatre performance based on the motives of the classical novel. Gradually the walls of the semi-demolished factory, the diabolical hooks and piles, the fire-spitting steel furnaces become not just scenery, but an image of the hell of passion and mutual misunderstanding in which the heroes are plunged. The only spectator is a factory worker, who has just lost his child, and who seems the most genuine character. The total lie and the complex truth, belief and nihilism, money and unselfishness, lack of consciousness, passion, cynicism, treachery – for the filmmaker these themes and problems have long gone beyond the limits of the novel. The actors live and lose this daily “hell” not only on stage… The final shot marks the suicide of the only spectator and effaces the last link between stage and reality. The actors, dressed in suits, exit the “backstage”, and Dostoevsky’s characters leave into reality.
The apparently modest, low-budget films of the competition touch upon problems that are relevant to Europeans today. They contain no edification. But the best films help to understand their own world against the background of a transient and changing country, Europe, or world. They ask questions that are vital for an understanding of the spiritual essence of the dramatic and unpredictable present.