The cinema of Eastern and Central Europe is essentially a dark and pessimistic one, with a strong social and political message. It makes sense considering the social and political upheavals the people have endured since the birth of film a century ago. It has ever been thus even though the stories, and sometimes the styles are new.
I was fortunate enough to be exposed to films of the area since university. As a film and arts student, I got to know ‘foreign’ films in depth and had occasion to see products of the area, from the silent to contemporary era. Also at the time, such films were regularly available in Toronto’s theatres; it was a more adventurous era cinematically and artistically speaking.
European films were also seen occasionally on Canadian television, especially on a landmark series “Saturday Night at the Movies” on the provincial television series hosted by Elwy Yost. His show became a staple for a broad demographic of viewers and gave tantalising glimpses into the wide world of international cinema. We learned that life in Europe is vastly different from life in North America.
Today as a critic, my focus is necessarily on mainstream Hollywood and independent films, and less on foreign fare. So it was with tremendous joy that I participated on the FIPRESCI jury at Warsaw in October. We were charged with viewing a selection of 13 films from Eastern and Central Europe, some superb, some good and some middling to poor. It was a diverse group representing Poland, Romania, Russia, Georgia, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Germany, Turkey, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, some co-produced with Ireland, Sweden, and the Netherlands.
The Warsaw FIPRESCI jury chose Boris Lankosz’ Reverse / Rewers a darkly comic story of three women in 1952 Warsaw, who live in a pre-war tenement and worry about their future. Things are grim because the Soviet occupiers make it hard to get ahead, and they are under constant threat of imprisonment for saying or doing the wrong thing. A secure future depends on the youngest woman finding a suitable / rich / connected husband. After rejecting various drunks picked by her mother, she is saved from a mugging by a handsome young fellow and they begin an intense but strangely distant sexual relationship. He is not all they think him to be; in fact, he brings nothing but bad luck and tragedy to their lives. Fast forward to the present day and she is an old woman in an ultra modern Warsaw. Lankosz shot the fifties portion of the film in nostalgic black and white and the modern sequences in colour, which suggests today’s happier Poland, finally rid of the Soviet invaders and their treachery.
George Ovashvili’s The Other Bank is a heartbreaking study of a young boy’s solo journey across Georgia to find his father after he discovers his mother has become a prostitute. They are extremely poor and while she knows he’s disgusted, it is her only option to put food on the table. He doesn’t tell her he is leaving, and embarks on a long and life changing journey that pits him against the world – he is abused by most of the people he meets along the way. Occasionally, but rarely, someone extends a hand to help. The boy pretends to be deaf and mute so that he won’t give himself away as a foreigner because political tensions are high and traditional territorial enemies pose a deadly threat. Ovashvili says the film is based on a true story of a boy a colleague found sleeping under a park bench. He took the boy in, heard his story, but the boy disappeared before the film was made.
The ever present and repressive politics of the past which breed separation and otherness is a familiar thread through the 13 films we saw. They vary is many ways, but the overriding impression is that society is reshaping itself, but poverty and insecurity are driving forces, especially in the worldwide economic slowdown. Also we see that it’s hard to say goodbye to the past. There is a dour heavy heartedness about these films and a total rejection of Hollywood’s artificial values. This cinema looks at the lot of the ordinary person, puts it into perspective and within the often painful political totality of Eastern and Central Europe.
No wonder it’s dark and pessimistic, but it is also an affirmation of life and renewal under the most difficult circumstances.
© FIPRESCI 2009