Connecting Blue Lines

in 26th Festival of East European Cinema, Cottbus

by Elena Rubashevska

The small city of Cottbus is situated in the federal state of Brandenburg and mostly known as a university town. As Cottbus is in the former German Democratic Republic, its streets present a mixture of architecture so typical for all the countries that went through the socialist era. There are the characteristic panel blocks, and right around the corner there is classical German church; when looking up, there is a signpost in two languages, since Cottbus is the cultural center of the Lower Sorbian minority. Every November, the streets of Cottbus get painted with blue lines in order to connect all the main locations of FilmFestival Cottbus, which is regarded as the most important festival of Eastern European cinema worldwide.

The 2016 FilmFestival Cottbus was the 26 th edition of this annual event. Almost 200 films from 45 countries with a running time of approximately 145 hours were presented at seven venues over the course of six days, including 19 world and international premieres and 76 German premieres. Besides, the CoCo (Connecting Cottbus) film industry platform brought together filmmakers, producers and potential financiers in order to help them find each other and move their ideas closer to production in a comfortable and productive setting. The diversity of FilmFestival Cottbus was represented also by the age of jury members: the youngest at 16 years old, and the oldest born in 1926.

Although the festival atmosphere was really hospitable, comfort is not what FilmFestival Cottbus is looking for. First and foremost it focuses on controversial and often painful political matters that Eastern Europe confronts right now. But it’s not only Eastern Europe that matters: the festival started on the day of the US presidential election, so the participants all waited for the results, ready to discuss the probable influence and possible changes that will take place in the nearest future. Also, this year’s festival had a special focus on Cuba, in order to explore the transformation that Cuban society is undergoing now. Viewers could discover a Cuba beyond jolly music, salsa dancing and vintage cars. Problems of poverty, hunger, prostitution and gender identity were raised. The other important (and traditional) section was the Polish Horizon programme, which presented a lot of features from Poland. Some of them were made in co-production with countries such as Armenia or Ukraine, and that fact undeniably revealed the similarity of problems in Eastern Europe.

Watching films at FilmFeatival Cottbus is not an entertaining pastime at all; many stories required a certain educational background. Without fear, the filmmakers talked to the audience about refugees, minorities, lawlessness, abuse of authority and personal tragedies in war-torn regions. Sometimes there was hardly any applause after the screenings – not because the films were not good enough, but because the audience found itself reflecting profoundly over fundamental questions of existence. Still, there was a place for experiments and genre variety. Classical dramas, such as Dogs (Câini) by Bogdan Mirica pictured the outrageous defencelessness of people in Romania, no matter whether they are average citizens or special service officials. The witty mockumentary Houston, We Have a Problem (Houston, imamo problem!) by Žiga Virc exposed the essence of dictatorship in a perceptive and clever manner. The Russian feature Zoology (Zoologiia) by Ivan Tverdovsky created a specific mood by telling a surrealistic and ironic story of a woman with a tail. The Hungarian film Kills on Wheels (Tiszta szívvel) by Attila Till skilfully combined drama, comedy and action. The last film shown at the main competition, Planet Single (Planeta Singli) from Poland, directed by Mitja Okorn, happened to be a romantic comedy, and that seems to be symbolic in a way: it was good, after a lot of extremely serious screenings, to realize that simple happiness is possible, and that ultimately love is all we need.

The Blue Lines of FilmFestival Cottbus led participants and guests from Russia to Cuba, from reflection to laughter, from devastating despair to inspiring hope. Facing urgent problems of modern society, this festival builds bridges between countries and discovers talents from all over Eastern Europe, presenting films to the western neighbours. And it will continue doing this, speaking about often unpleasant questions of utmost importance – no matter if it’s about economics, discrimination, nationality, gender, or especially politics. Because, as the saying goes, if you don’t deal with politicians, they are going to deal with you.

Edited by Birgit Beumers