East Side Story By Ronald Bergan

in 22nd Warsaw International Film Festival

by Ronald Bergan

Watching a number of films from East Europe at this year’s Warsaw festival, one is struck by how much more they have in common than a similar selection of West European films. Films from East Europe tend to be more pessimistic and are inclined to have a more political dimension.

Three films from Romania, one from Bosnia and one from Russia demonstrate this tendency. All three Romanian films were concerned with the downfall of Ceausescu in 1989. The first, and weakest, was Catalin Mitulescu’s The Way I Spent The Rest Of The World (Cum mi-am petrecut sfarsitul lunii). Although the background of the film was the last year of Ceausescu’s dictatorship, which did affect all the characters, it was, at its heart, mostly a rather familiar rites-of-passage comedy-drama. Radu Muntean’s low budget The Paper Will Be Blue (Hirtia va fi albastra)was more adventurous. Shot in haunting semi-monochrome as a semi-documentary, it recreates the chaos that reined during the first night of freedom when nobody knew which side anyone was on.

In a way, Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12.08 East of Bucharest (A Fost sau n-a fost?) reflects the chaos of that night, but seen from the perspective of 2006, 16 years later. On the anniversary of that fateful day, the owner of a local television station invites two guests onto his talk show to share moments of revolutionary glory. However, it turns out that nothing is very clear. Doubts arise as to who was a hero and who wasn’t, and who was where. The director, who was only 14 at the time, approaches the subject in a satirical manner, also playing with the notion of cinema and the ‘truth’ as represented by television. It ends with a very moving symbol of the spread of revolution. The lights of the city go on one by one, while snow falls to cover the memories which become myths.

Films made in the ex-Yugoslavia find it very hard to escape the memory of the relatively recent war. Bosnian films seem especially obsessed by it, for understandable reasons. Jasmila Zbanic’s Grbavica (the name of a district of Sarajevo) is one of those well-intentioned films where the humanistic subject — women and children who lost their loved ones during the war — is the raison d’etre of the film, while the way the message is delivered is of little importance. The rather conventional style undermines the film’s power to move, and the repercussions of the war, many years later, almost seem an excuse for a mother-daughter drama, ending with a melodramatic revelation. Politics and contemporary historical events often seem to merely be a springboard for the actions of characters in films like these, without any attempt to analyse the situation.

Fyodor Bondarchuk’s The 9th Company (9-yar rota), takes the war in Afghanistan as its subject. One of the first Russian films to deal with the war, it loses its intrinsic interest by the excessive Hollywood blockbuster style. Bondarchuk should have taken heed of the expression ‘less is more’ and perhaps should have watched the war films of Sam Fuller and Klimov’s Come and See instead of Rambo and Saving Private Ryan.

Not all East European films have a political backdrop, though this does, at least, add some interest to mediocre films. The Russian film, Avdotya Smirnova’s Relations (Svyaz) did not need any such extra device, being a compelling story of adultery that could easily have taken place in Rome or Paris instead of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Thankfully, its model was not Hollywood but European art films. As Europe becomes more and more united, there will be more and more films whose stories will not be specific to one country or another.