Documentary or Fiction?

in 22nd Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Tomislav Šakić

“Is it documentary or fiction?” asks a slightly confused lady in the dark of the Cottbus Stadthalle as another lady is whispering to her the story of the Bosnian film ”Children of Sarajevo” (”Djeca”) during the festival’s trailer. Maybe the confusion of an average German movie-goer tells everything there is to know about “Eastern European” cinema or “foreign cinema” as a whole. Seeing the world through the window of cinema is probably as old as movies themselves, despite the later “formative” traditions in approaching the art of film, and it applies even more when world cinema is in question. When watching foreign, “exotic”, non-Hollywood film or anything from so-called “world cinema” (as though Hollywood is not a part of the world), people – and that includes film programmers and critics – see, through the film, a country, with its landscapes, streets, people, faces, and languages: the daily life of another world.

This traditional issue – realist vs. formative approaches to seeing and understanding cinema – comes into focus on occasions such as this, when a whole festival is programmed around the idea of cinema’s cultural difference, be it Balkan cinema, Mediterranean cinema, or the Eastern European cinema to which Cottbus is dedicated. Of course, every one of these labels can be easily disputed—as easily as such labels were introduced in the first place. Apparently, for Cottbus, “Eastern European” as an adjective has lost its present-day context, and instead refers to pre-1990 divides, counting only films from the area described by the former geopolitical term of Eastern Europe: contemporary use of the term “Eastern Europe” is typically only geographical nowadays. This year the festival’s international competition spread its nets as far as Kazakhstan (the Kazakh-Japanese co-production ”The First Rains of Spring” / ”Koktemnin birinshi zhanbyry” co-directed by Erlan Nurmuhambetov and Sano Shinju): Kazakhstan in hardly Eastern Europe but yes, it is a former Soviet republic. The festival’s definition is underlined by a major exclusion: Germany. Namely, the former East Germany (DDR), where Cottbus itself is located: it used to be in Eastern Europe after all, and the division of the Germany and the city of Berlin was symbolic of the East/West divide. In fact, in a cultural way the division of Germany into East and West is still symbolic, especially because new German cinema, in works such as ”The Lives of Others” or ”Good Bye, Lenin!”, was the first to deal with the post-Communist heritage, mentality, and the idea of nostalgia. In this festival’s selection, Germany was included only as an occasional co-producer on a number of films, thus projecting the image of otherness (including the heritage of Communism and the problems of transition, which are the sole issue of almost every film showcased in the competition) outside of its borders, to the East, while presenting Germany as a helping country at the gates of old Europe. (Similarly, this year Cottbus showcased recent Croatian cinema and prominent Croatian director Branko Schmidt, as Croatia is entering the European Union next summer).

This kind of festival programming on the one hand reinforces the traditional notion of national cinema(s), projecting into non-Hollywood film the idea of national representation according to which national cinema mirrors its nation’s daily life and values, or at least inevitably reflects them. On the other hand, and paradoxically, it seeks to confirm intercultural connections, be it through co-productions, which have been the main aim of European cinema for many years now, or though festivals like Cottbus itself, as a means of promoting intercultural cinema and films which are willing to (re)present topical issues or serve as bridges among cultures. It is not surprising, then, that the major winners at Cottbus were “topical films” which were least liked by the FIPRESCI jury.

The Grand Prix winner, Polish film ”Women’s Day” (”Dzien kobiet”) by first-time director Maria Sadowska (a major pop singer in Poland) is basically an acceptable TV-quality film which won over the audience as well as the film professionals of the main jury with its story of a woman promoted from clerk to manager of a supermarket chain store; she fails to maintain her ethics and then, being unable to adjust to Poland’s new working “ethics”, fails, is abandoned by the system, and fights against it in court. The character’s development remains mostly unmotivated and her own ethics partially unresolved: it is apparent from the beginning that she is not capable of being a manager, but is driven by money and sex. In the end, she does not actually fight against an unethical system, but only for her own compensation after she is fired. The film is subsequently a confused and unfocused critique of a newborn capitalist society typical of most countries from Serbia and Croatia to Poland: this failing, however, seemed not to hold much importance for spectators when they were presented with a particularly topical movie.

If ”Women’s Day” is a small-scale Polish ”Erin Brockovich”, then the other Polish winner, ”You Are God” (”Jestes Bogiem”) by second-time director Leszek Dawid is a Polish ”8 Mile”, with its story of a famous Polish hip-hop band whose leader committed suicide at the brink of the band’s national success in 2000. The predictable story and lack of any real social commentary in the protagonist’s rap lyrics (or in the film in general) may have been lost as a result of cultural difference – the very title of the film and the protagonist’s major song, “I am God”, are probably very controversial in the context of mainstream Polish culture.

Polish cinema, with its two films made by or about pop stars, was basically the only one in the competition desperately looking for its own topical issues and failing artistically at delivering it, submerging itself in Hollywood story models. The rest of the showcased films were more or less characteristically “national”, non-Hollywood or indeed (Eastern) European cinemas, be it in their storytelling, cinematography, or representative topical stories. Thus, the Bosnian film ”Children of Sarajevo”, mentioned earlier, was more or less lost in cultural translation. A Western spectator would probably think that the film’s issue is the Muslim headscarf which the main protagonist, Rahima, is wearing, and the very fact that she is a Muslim in Sarajevo. However, the film is in fact a social commentary on Bosnian society, with Rahima and her brother being – as the title says –children of Sarajevo, with their parents killed in the war, and social services on their backs. Rahima became a strictly observant Muslim during the time she spent in a commune as a result of her post-war drug addiction. Meanwhile, those around her are mainly traditional secular Bosnian Muslims, as is hinted at many times in the film’s dialogue. The major moment, the one when she is verbally attacked because she doesn’t know or care how to decorate a Christmas tree (which is actually decorated on New Year’s Eve, in secular tradition, as the film takes place on that day, not on Christmas day as the Western spectator might expect), her answer is not that she is a Muslim, but that she was brought up in bomb shelters. So the film’s topic is not religion but the war and the social consequences of a post-war and transitional society and its lack of values. The major problem with the film is that director Aida Begic makes a typical mistake (seen in many films in this festival and in this type of cinema generally): presenting a series of unfortunate events in the characters’ lives, with nothing in the least bit positive in their surroundings, while leaving a glimpse of hope for the film’s final scene. In addition, Begic underlines the hidden issue (the war psyche) through sound editing, making everything around her main character sound like guns and grenades, from omnipresent New Year’s fireworks to the sound of cars passing over a bridge.

In the same way, everything is unrealistically distorted and dark in Croatian-Bosnian co-production ”Halima’s Path” (”Halimin put”) by Croatian director Arsen A. Ostojic. This film seems to have been made about a topical issue, intended for foreign audiences and festivals which seek these kinds of films. Like ”Children of Sarajevo”, it is too exaggerated, only this time by offering an imaginary idyllic image of a 1970s Bosnian village (which feels like medieval times), and then inevitably ending with the 1990s war and its aftermath. Crying actors, seriously upsetting scenes dealing with recognition of victims’ bodily remains, Bosnia imagined as a country with no roads, normal houses, up-to-date clothes, and barely any sign of modern civilization (either in 1977 or 5 years after the war), overuse of traditional Bosnian sevdah in the soundtrack, and the director’s control over the effect of the film’s story leave audiences in tears. But these same elements also hide the fact that Bosnia is orientalised in this film, and are used to achieve exactly this kind of emotional response in the audience; meanwhile, deeply traditionalist (and even nationalist) structures are basically not criticised, and are even confirmed in the end. Specifically, the film shows a Muslim father who accepts his runaway daughter and the children she had with a Serb only after it is established that her husband was involved in war crimes. The film’s main melodramatic and clichéd storytelling device is that the Serbian father unknowingly killed his lost son.

Arsen A. Ostojic’s film, which received the audience award and a special mention from the main jury, can thus serve as a warning to anybody who is looking at movies to fit a type of programming – be it topical films, festivals like Cottbus, or those trying to capture audiences with tear-jerking stories and superficially intercultural films. On the reverse side of the coin was FIPRESCI’s winner, ”Kolka Cool”: director Juris Poskus offered a subtle social commentary on Latvian society with his portrayal of a lack of perspective among young people living in the provincial village of Kolka. This commentary was skilfully integrated, hidden behind visually stunning black and white photography reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s early work. The director’s depiction of the ennui of youth evoked Nouvelle Vague and Eastern European New Cinema of the 1960s, especially in shots that captured the melancholy and beauty of everyday life: specifically, the poolside sequence, the scene on the shores of the North Sea, and the film’s beautiful ending.

The film most diametrically opposed to all others in the competition was Sergei Loznitsa’s ”In the fog” (”V tumane”): with a story in the tradition of Dostoyevsky, it followed the travails of two partisan soldiers and their prisoner lost, actually and metaphorically, in the fog of war and human ethics. From the extraordinary opening sequence of the battle aftermath, to an ending literally in the fog, it is a philosophical and metaphysical journey into the heart of darkness, where only the prisoner (basically a yurodivy or holy fool, who goes from acceptance of destiny to a final speech about the essence of the human soul) serves as the ethical axis. Topical? Yes. But subtlety is the word.

Edited by Alison Frank