Coming of Age By Pablo Utin

in 48th Thessaloniki International Film Festival

by Pablo Utin

The Thessaloniki Film Festival’s international competition is composed of first and second films by usually young directors. This year one of the most outstanding characteristics of these films was the way in which these films approached the issue of teenage angst and confusion. It seems that quite often first time directors tend to make their first work about characters coming of age. Their films seem a way of growing up, as if parallel to the characters portrayed, also the director is going through a transformation, leaving behind his years as an aspiring director in order to become part of the professional (“grown up”) filmmaking community. Coming-of-age films are not exclusive to young or debutant directors. But there is something fresh when a new director, discovering for the first time the art of making a feature film, makes a film about teenagers discovering for the first time, and in an anxious way, sex, violence and the beginning of life as adults. This year, the Thessaloniki Film Festival had a lot of this freshness.

A fellow film critic, surprised by the pessimistic view of all these films, asked me during the festival why young people today feel such despair. Today you have a lot of freedom, a lot of possibilities before you, she said to me. Possibilities that we didn’t have, she added. My answer was that 20 or 30 years ago, young people had much more security. Even when they were rebellious or revolutionary and took chances, they could do it because most of the time they knew they already had an apartment their parents gave them as a present, or they eventually could find a job that would pay them a salary. In today’s world most young people have to pay high rents, work in temporary jobs or as free-lancers, and the future is never certain. Society gave the young freedom, but the price was to take from them the secure basis that let them embrace that freedom in a positive way.

The Thessaloniki film festival competition showcased films about young people and teenagers filled with angst and confusion. Not films that take the approach of teenagers such as in Stand by Me or The Goonies, but films that are much more influenced by such classics as Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups), or relatively new films like Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål and Larry Clark’s Kids.

Although most of the competition films approached “young, lost and alienated” themes, I would like to focus on three of them that were, in my view, quite outstanding: Mushon Salmona’s Vasermil from Israel, Karin Babinská’s Dolls (Pusinky) from The Czech Republic and Jonás Cuarón’s Year of the Nail (Año Uña) from Mexico. It seems some of the filmmakers use the coming-of-age stories to try to make a comment on society. Through the eyes of a child growing up, you can see society in a crude, extreme, very direct and visceral way. Teenagers discover social power relations and sexual codes for the first time and they seem always ready to put them to test, confront them and clash with them. This is obviously the case of Salmona’s Vasermil. The film describes a low class neighborhood in Beer-Sheva, a southern city in Israel. Salmona grew up in this neighborhood and he went back there a few years ago to try and make a documentary on teenagers growing up there. Facing production problems, he decided to write a script about what he saw during his research.

Salmona recruited a cast composed exclusively of non-professional and unknown actors, and used a documentary style influenced by some works by Michael Winterbottom. Salmona believed that if he shot real teenage kids from similar backgrounds to that of the characters in the movie, his film would be filled with real low class teenage tension and angst. Following Truffaut, it would seem that a realistic, rough camerawork suits the theme of teenage alienation perfectly, and Salmona embraces this tradition. Vasermil centers on three kids: Adiel, an immigrant from Ethiopia, Dima, an immigrant from Russia and Shlomi, a Mizrahi Israeli. It is hard to forget the gaze of these raging kids, the feeling they are stuck and have no future. It is also hard to forget the few moments of camaraderie between them, when hope shows itself for a few moments. At the end, Vasermil becomes a strong denunciation of Israeli society. The film doesn’t really emphasize it, but every Israeli watching the film knows that in two years, these boys that have no prospects and no possibilities of coming out of their poor and violent environment will be drafted into the army, and from bad to worse, they will have to give their lives to a country that isn’t there for them when they most need it.

Karin Babinská’s Dolls centers on three teenagers as well. But if Vasermil was about boys and the violence that surrounds them, Dolls is about girls and their attempt to come to terms with their sexuality. Karolina, Iska and Vojta go on a road trip to Amsterdam and dream of fulfilling their sexual fantasies there. They are also, like the Vasermil kids, full of rage and confusion. Babinská uses a hand-held mostly shaky camera. The colors are toned down, and the editing focuses much on details of their actions, as if every single nuance or action is too charged to be ignored. This is how the girls feel. Everything is emotional, intense. Everything is being done for the first, and maybe the last time. This intensity and passion for things comes in contrast with the locations chosen by the director. Babinská decided to shoot in the most unflattering landscapes of the Czech Republic. The girls travel through impoverished, rotten landscapes. These landscapes could be seen also as expressing the girl’s inner struggles, their inner pain. Eighteen years have passed since the end of communism and in a way, these eighteen year-old teenagers represent this new era. They were born eighteen years ago in a country full of hopes and changes, and today they find themselves escaping from their homes through a path full of wrecks and no man’s lands. Their bodies, exposed and fragile, are too young to cope with this new, but broken society.

Cuarón’s Year of the Nail seems to be the most optimistic film of the competition. Using only still photographs taken by him through the course of one year, Cuarón arranged the photographs in a specific order so with the help of voice-over dialogue and narration they can tell a story. Most of the time we hear the characters’ thoughts. This gives the film a stream of consciousness’ touch. Sadly enough, this compelling approach to film wasn’t really taken to its full potential, and even if the story of a young Mexican teenager falling in love with a young American tourist is involving, his technique of telling the story seems too repetitive. Cuarón doesn’t explore the possibilities of the photographic images, he doesn’t make us look at them in unexpected ways, and he doesn’t play much with the tension between sound and image, and doesn’t try to make a comment on the difference between memory and photography. It seems like Cuarón forgot the history of cinema and such films as Marker’s The Pier (La Jetée) or even Eisenstein’s Bezhin Meadow (Bezhin lug). Cuarón could have played with the idea of remnants of something that got lost. Instead of a young, playful, experimental approach to his basically beautiful idea, the young filmmaker decided to tell the story in a straightforward manner, only replacing moving images with stills.

Having said that, Year of the Nail is an engrossing and quite moving film. It is interesting to see how Cuarón managed to invent a story from these photographs, and how the voice over gives a new interpretation to what we see, even if Cuarón didn’t deepen the theme. Most of the time we hear the characters’ thoughts — and Diego’s thoughts are mostly about sex. The film’s title refers to a nail buried in Diego’s toe. This painful nail hurts him and becomes a physical expression of his most inner pain. A pain he feels but doesn’t really manage to express. The pain of something inside him that is growing. It is a beautiful, poetic and moving idea. In Cuarón film, death and pain are around, but always mixed with life and hopes. Diego’s nail — that is the pain of growing up — might not be a social pain as in the other films, but it surely is an internal, physical and emotional pain that we are able to feel, because we all had once a nail buried in our hearts.