Film Images of the Eastern Territory

in Festival of East European Cinema, Cottbus

by Viera Langerova

Film Festival Cottbus, which started a few years after the collapse of communist regimes, offers the most prestigious East-European cinema to its local and international audience. After 30 years of its highly successful existence, its primary orientation to post-communist countries is changing as the shared experience of life in totalitarian regimes is becoming more and more blurred, especially for the younger generations. The territorial vectors also need a refreshing restart for several reasons. The first is the “renaissance” of Central Europe which has emerged from the ruins of former Soviet satellites and renewed its democratic traditions. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia became united through the Visegrad formation and proclaimed their togetherness with Western cultural and political standards. The second one lays on a bit of a geographical puzzle marked by which country is more west, Czech Republic or Austria?

The term “East” has stretched a bit south and to the middle and far east. Although seemingly ironic, we are fully aware of the global tendencies changing traditional classifications and creating borderless and cross-cultural spaces. This new concept was skillfully presented in the festival program.

The melting pot of sagas

The global circulation of people, cultural overlaps, and confrontations were the leitmotifs of almost all the films in the main competition. The FIPRESCI award winner, Brighton 4th (2021) of Georgian director Levan Koguashvilli, was one of them. The setting of this touching story is about a father, a former Olympic wrestler from Tbilisi, Georgia, who comes to the US city of Brighton to save the miserable life of his son. The latter, a poor gambler who lost more than he could gain, gets his father in touch with a blend of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, fighting for a better future. The son’s debts are high, way over the father’s means, so he decides to duel with the Russian mafia boss. If he wins, the debt is paid off; if he loses, it will be doubled. The film is about dignity, which is sometimes more than the price of human life, a value somehow lost in the flow of new pragmatic pressures. The father’s sacrifice is not overly pathetic or emotional, contrary to the fashion adopted by most post-communist films of the 90s, which favored victimization. It reminds us that the life of immigrants trying to get a new home and a bit of understanding isn’t easy anywhere and that we shouldn’t forget it, especially today.

We see heroes “on the road” in the story of the Cannes-awarded Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen. The dynamics of Compartment No.6 (Hytti Nro 6, 2021) evolve almost solely in the train from Moscow to Murmansk. Laura, a young Finnish woman with strong lesbian ties to Irina, her bohemian friend with volatile morals, is fixed to petroglyphs, those carvings on the northern taiga’s stones. In a shabby train wagon, she meets Vadim, a wandering worker with a destructive affinity to alcohol. Kuosmanen shows this road movie with unusual authenticity without plunging into meaningless realism. Atrocities and signs of civilizational decline serve as a counterpoint to human courage, will, and the precious bond of friendship. The fact that these qualities are paradoxical, unequal, and far from neat and comfortable settings does not diminish their preciousness, forged in unusual conditions.

The creative team of the winning film 107 Mothers (Cenzorka, 2021), by Slovak director Peter Kerekeš, found their engaging and alarming story in a women’s prison in Ukraine. They crashed into an interesting character, the prison guard, a young unmarried woman who is also the prison’s censor. One of her duties is the reading of letters, coming and leaving the prison. Her endless search for a suitable partner makes the reading of love words intimately dramatic. The film’s central figure is Lesya, a pregnant prisoner who killed her husband and is condemned to 7 years in custody. Her little son is growing and meets his fate when he is 3 years old. According to the prison’s law, this is the age when he has to leave his mother. We are witnesses of her desperate effort to send him to her relatives, the only other option being the orphanage. The lives of both women will cross in a silent act of sharing, and the fate of the little boy saved. The combination of documentary and feature elements gives here an impressive effect of more profound insight into closed settings. It gains the double result of authenticity and emotional impact reached by the staging of some images.

A more enjoyable journey is offered by the Slovenian film Orchestra (Orkester, 2021) by Matevž Luzar. Although these brass band musicians’ adventures in Austria are an occasion to amuse the audience through generational encounters between young digitalized fans and fatherly lovers of beer, it also displays delicate cross-cultural surprises. The link to Forman’s Firemen’s Ball is the grateful bonus of this black-and-white delight.

East forever

The variety of the East European destiny would not be complete without the memory of the regime that kidnapped the greater part of the European territory for decades. The Polish film Leave No Traces (Zeby nie było śladów, 2021) by Jan P. Matuszyński talks about the murder of Gregorz Przemyk, an innocent student caught and beaten to death by state police. His friend Jurek, the only witness, becomes the target of brutal prosecution, which has no scruples to use any methods to cover their crime.

The odyssey of a teenage couple for the illusion of boundless freedom is told in the Russian film In Limbo (Mezhsezonie, 2021) by the remarkably gifted director Alexander Hant. Hant had already amazed the public with How Viktor ‘The Garlic’ Took Alexey ‘The Stud’ to the Nursing Home (2017). The film had won the main prize in the East from the West program of the Karlovy Vary International film Festival.

The main competition program has introduced an extraordinary supply of new talents with high-quality films, which made the role of all the juries more than difficult. Worthy of attention were the female film directors showing interesting stories and demonstrating the skills to tell them in original esthetics. It was undoubtedly the case for the film Looking for Venera (Në Kërkim të Venerës, 2021) by Norika Sefa from Kosovo or Spiral (Spirál, 2020) by Hungarian director Cecilia Felméri.

Festival of revelations

Cottbus in November is the right place to go for film critics who keep track of East-European cinema. The program testifies that the selection team headed by artistic director Bernd Buder has access to all known and unknown film destinations and knows how to smell a good film.

Viera Langerova
Edited by Anne-Christine Loranger