Eastern Europe (and More) in Focus

in Festival of East European Cinema, Cottbus

by Claus Löser

With its 31st edition, the Cottbus Film Festival once again proved that it is a vital hub for Eastern Europe. Founded 31 years ago by enthusiasts from the GDR film club scene, the focus in Cottbus has been on transnational understanding from the start. More precisely, the heading “Eastern Central Europe / Southeastern Europe / Caucasus” would better describe the vast region represented here. This year’s competition presented feature film productions from Russia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Croatia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, as well as from the Caucasus states of Georgia and Azerbaijan. The works, often co-produced, talked vividly about historical and current tumults and their associated trauma. The films themselves represented attempts to counteract these experiences artistically, fulfilling an urgently needed, almost therapeutic function – their very existence already setting signs of hope.

Other works dealt with transformational problems since 1990. In Leave No Traces (Zeby nie było śladów, 2021), Jan P. Matuszyński takes up a factually based case of perfidious state arbitrariness against rebellious young people in Poland during the state of emergency after 1981. In Sughra’s Sons (Suğra və oğulları), Ilgar Najaf tells the unknown story of Azerbaijani deserters during the Second World War and of the reprisals of the Soviet power. Spiral (Spirál, 2020) by Cecilia Felméri describes the desperate and finally failed wish to exist self-sufficiently in a remote region of Hungary. In Compartment No. 6 (Hytti Nro 6, 2021) by Juho Kuosmanen, a young Finnish archaeologist sets out from Moscow searching for prehistoric traces in the post-Soviet Murmansk. She soon realizes that the most important adventures are just nearby and in the present. This “railroad movie,” which was awarded the jury’s prize in Cannes, is at the same time the only competition entry that has already found a distributor in Germany (eksystent-Verleih München).

This year’s FIPRESCI winner also belonged to these “transition dramas,” such as Brighton 4th (2021) by Georgian Levan Koguashvili. A former Soviet wrestling champion sets off from Tbilisi to New York to free his son from the clutches of the Mafia. In the former dreamland USA, he finds numerous stranded people from the former Soviet Union, fighting with and against each other in a daily struggle for survival. As an actor, the main character Levan Tediaschwili is self-taught. As an athlete, he was a multiple USSR and Olympic champion. He creates around his character a consistently superb and admirably calm atmosphere. Brighton 4th is a silent and complex film, standing in the long tradition of Georgian cinema, at the same time utterly new in its global perspective and the description of global migration movements.

The drama 107 Mothers (Cenzorka, 2021), by Peter Kerekes, honored with the Cottbus main prize (EUR 25,000), testifies to the potential of co-productions in the region. Kerekes is Slovak, he co-produced with partners from the Czech Republic and Ukraine, and the film was shot in Odesa. Seemingly a “women’s prison film,” it is nevertheless far removed from the genre’s clichés. 107 Mothers accompanies women who have been imprisoned as murderers or slayers for years. Some of them became mothers behind bars. Their children stay in prison until they are three years old, when a course is then set. Either the mothers are pardoned, or their children go to live with relatives. Otherwise, the only option is the orphanage. In a mixture of documentary and fictional scenes mixing prisoners and actresses, we get close to the emotionally disturbed women. Having been shot over several years, the children grow up in front of the camera. We hope this empathetic film, which poses universal basic questions, will soon return to our “normal” screens.

Claus Löser
Edited by Anne-Christine Loranger