Eastern European Films

in 14th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Bojidar Manov

Eight films from Eastern European countries were presented in the “Foreign language films” section in Palm Springs this year. The whole program consisted of 45 titles. Eastern Europe was represented by films from Russia, Poland, Slovenia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and during the communist period – despite of certain national, artistic and cinematographic differences – the cinematographic cultures of those countries showed some similarities where topics and propagandistic ideas of the official film industry were concerned.

During the first years after the Big Change certain symmetries remained in the development of these national film cultures, imposed by their common problems in the period of political, economic and social transition. This is the reason why many of the films from these countries share common themes, e.g. the collapse of the system, the mafia structures, the new oligarchic capital, people’s impoverishment, crimes, emigration of young people, wanderings of the intellectual elite, lack of perspectives etc.

At the same time the differences between them developed and became more distinct. This of course depended on the specific economic conditions of their transition, the restructuring of filmmaking (independent private producers instead of state funding), and co-productions with Western partners, national cultural traditions and the role of cinema schools.

On account of the eight films presented in Palm Springs, it is apparent that the similarities in Eastern European cinema no longer exist. Instead differentiations and distinctive approaches concerning problems, social and psychological ideas and cinema style became more visible.

For example the Czech film “Wild Bees” (Divoke vcely, directed by Bohdan Slama) preserves and conveys the best traditions of the Czech cinema from Jiri Mentzel’s time. That is a delicate glimpse at the life of the small people in the countryside, amplified with lyric humour and gentle irony. In a completely different manner, with a stormy humour reaching to burlesque and splendid harsh irony against the destroyed humanism, the impressive film “Philanthropy” (Filantropica) of the young Romanian director Nae Caranfil was created. Who, by the way, is of the same generation as Slama. “Philanthropy” successfully shows the complicated fate of the post-communist man. It is no surprise that this film became one of the favourites of the audience in Palm Springs.

In his turn the Hungarian Gyorgy Palfi takes a close look at the details of routine in an attempt to see the way in which they represent the big parabola of life in his meditative film “Hukkle”. And the Bulgarian-Macedonian film “Warming Up Yesterday’s Lunch” (Podgriava! ne na vcherashnia obed, directed by Kostadin Bonev) based on the life of a 60-years old woman, aims at interpreting the tragic history of time not as a survival of the individual, but as safeguarding of the language, origin and personal dignity during the years of the communist regime and its metastases today.

The Polish film “Edi” by the young director Piotr Traskalski presents a very interesting character. The idea of non-resistance to evil and forgiving goodness is similar to the ideas maintained by Tolstoy a century ago. This is surprising for such a young director today, in a time of destroyed humanistic values. The Yugoslavian film “Labyrinth” (a debut of the young director Miroslav Lekic) on the contrary only scratches the surface of an explicitly commercial plot, offering the audience an ordinary thriller – a kind of “Indiana Jones in Belgrade” style.

The approach of the new film “House of Fools” (Dom durakov, Russia) by the experienced master Andrei Konchalovsky is a bit surprising. For the first time in his rich filmography Konchalovsky is engaged with a political plot – the Russian war in Chechnya – and yet he certainly elaborates on the subject from a distance, that is from a highly psychological angle. The protagonists are patients in a hospital for mental diseases.

It is true that in a program of 45 carefully selected titles from all over the world, eight films is not so much. But it is enough to outline the obvious variety in Eastern European cinema and its intriguing development after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the difficult transition to democracy.

Bojidar Manov