Cinematic Tendencies of the New By Steven Yates
by Steven Yates
The Moveast International Film Festival in Pécs is named after a 1990s periodical from the Hungarian national Film Archive which reflected the same aims of covering the Central-East-European region and represents the struggles the countries involved have faced since 1989. Where they believed they would independently integrate into Europe, these nations have found that the West treats them as a periphery, almost one East European state. In this, the festival attempts to bring these 14 countries together again, as one, sharing their own national struggles collectively. As another new film festival, Pécs, now in its third year, conjures up pungent thoughts such as: “What can a new film festival offer?” Well, for a start, Pécs already had a film festival that began in the 1960s and featured only Hungarian films. This was eventually lost but three years ago there was a successful nostalgic event based on it which also made apparent that Pécs could once again be home to a film festival, only this time an international one.
The countries represented in the program — Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, the Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Austria and Hungary — had at least one entry in all the festival’s various competitions, with the exception of Slovakia. This is not to say that all 37 films in the program were concerned with national struggles and oppression. Some are comedies, for instance the Czech Republic entry Experts (Experti) by Karel Coma; others are childhood adventure stories, like The Ghost in the Swamp (Duh u mocvari) from Croatia by Branko Ištvancic; or adult pilgrimages, namely the Macedonian entry The Secret Book (Tajnata kniga) by Vlado Cvetanovski.
Christmas Tree Upside Down (Obarnata elha, directed by Ivan Tscherkelov), coincidentally forming something of a parable to the object of the title, has been another well-traveled film in festival competitions. Out of the six fragmented stories by Vasil Zhivkov that link the transporting of the spruce tree from the Bulgarian hills to a square in Sofia for Christmas, only a couple of parts lacked real substance in script and direction while the others were insightful docudramas that succeeded in depicting an overall impression of Bulgarian life today. Chaos by Polish director Xawery Zulawski is, on the other hand, another example of a talented director whose high octane debut feature was made (the director informed me) only by much uncompromising which, as a result, took five years in which to complete. The disparate storylines of integrated characters set around a manic Warsaw family is often humorous, while the film lives up to its name in depicting an impression of contemporary Poland that is indeed chaotic and frenzied.
Regards programs outside of the main competition, the organizers hadn’t forgotten about children and the young at heart don’t miss out either as successful cartoon series, long cartoons and animated films were screened continuously on a giant projector in one of the Pécs main squares. The Czech Republic was represented with a retrospective program as was the Ukraine with a program of films from the last two years. However, there was a conspicuous weighting of some films in the program as well — a total of nine films in the program from Poland and six from the Czech Republic. As a fairer division, perhaps there should have been between two or three from each country. Also there were countries missing. Where was Slovakia, Byelorussia, the three Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania)? Albania? Even Greece is part of the Balkans. There would have been room for a film from each of these countries to contend for the critics’ prize.
Further questions inevitably arise out of the self-conscious programming of films from this part of Europe: “Are there any good or original stories at the moment?”; “Are films nationalistic or self-reflexive?” Some of the films in competition do have their flaws as well. Take the example of Macedonia’s The Secret Book, with its undercurrent of nationalism in regards to Macedonian folklore; or Experts, an update of the Czech comedy aimed at the younger generation, but more of a parody on Czech comedies of the past, with too many gags making it feel like it was made for TV. In this another question immediately arises: “What should a Hungarian film festival be doing now that it is represented by an international jury?” The most important thing is naturally to have a strong program of films then all else should follow. However, is there a film culture in Hungary outside of Budapest? Is it enough?
Our critics’ prize went to Grbavica. That Grbavica should win when Bosnia-Herzegovina doesn’t have a film industry of note is all the more remarkable. Despite the minor aberration regards its inclusion nearly 20 months after it won the Golden Bear in Berlin, the truth was that it was the most superior film in competition. What also helped Grbavica was that the FIPRESCI competition was cut to 12 films, one from each country by a first time director or young filmmaker. Of course, it would be more prevalent to have awarded a more recent film but alas, by this criterion, it meant 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?) by Corneliu Porumboiu and Grbavica were of a considerably higher standard. Grbavica also won the award of the International Student Jury.
There was even better news for Bosnia and Herzegovina, winning the festival’s main prize, the Golden Benjamin Award for Nafaka. Thus, all the main awards went to this fragmented film country. Director Jasmin Durakovic was at the festival to pick up the award in person. There was some cheer for the local crowd too as the film Happy New Life, made by Hungarian ethnic gypsy Árpád Bogdán, won a special mention from the main jury. The film tells of well known but hidden aspects of any society. Shot on digital and set in a nameless city, an 18-year-old boy leaves an orphanage not knowing who his parents were or what has happened to them. Though the intention is to make him feel a Hungarian, he knows deep down he’s an orphan unwanted in another culture and with no identity. The film’s harrowing subject matter is supplemented with some unique and original cinematography making the orphanage seem like a high security prison, the outside world an open prison. In some ways Happy New Life’s use of stylized editing seemed to create a distance from the main actor of whom it’s difficult at times to align emotionally with. Instead, we simply feel cold. If the director can learn to foreground actors’ emotions as much as with visual effects, he will be a very interesting filmmaker.
On the whole, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Moveast will have a long and bright future. The small and friendly city is a perfect setting, with everything just a short walk away from the press centre, namely the two cinemas; Cinema Urania and Cinema Apolló. The co-current programs and master classes this year created a lively atmosphere in the press centre. One addressed the Hungarian documentary industry which has had something of a downturn in recent years and barely exists at present. The film critics’ workshop was presented by György Báron, chairman of the Association of Hungarian Film critics and also head of FIPRESCI in Hungary. Following on from last year’s successful first event, this is a much-needed program for national film criticism as there is currently no formal training for films critics in Hungary.
Indeed, this film festival may be contributory in reviving Hungarian film culture. Hungary has of course a steep tradition in world cinema and the new generation of filmmakers (e.g., Nimród Antal, György Pálfi and Ágnes Kocsis) have been making their presence felt, winning numerous awards. Furthermore, the assumptions that, after many years of oppression, these countries have wanted to move West by joining the EU, in renaming the festival Moveast the invitation implies, culturally at least, that we should go and join them before 2010, the year Pécs will take centre stage.