Face to Face – Negotiating Cultural and Regional Identity in Cottbus

in 23rd Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Dennis Vetter

As a global form of art, cinema is a language, engendered from the overlapping of various cultural fields. The geographical origins of individual films tend to be blurred due to  commodification by film markets and their sub-industries. While a growing number of national cinemas have to face diminishing funds, co-productions have become a core approach to bring projects to screen, especially when a bigger number of independent filmmakers are concerned. It seems however essential for our culture, which regards film as part of society, to take into account the filmmakers’ initial creative intentions as well as their background. Of course, film is a subject to numerous influences before and during production; it is a compromise reached after intense negotiations between economic pressure and artistic freedom, narrative vision and cinematic craftsmanship. And yet, as films travel throughout the festival circuit, it is the specific trademarks of the film auteur, his or her awards that get center stage, overshadowing the films’ social roots and regional character. A-festivals, with their rich international selection, have cultivated a film scene, which foregrounds the most sophisticated voices of contemporary international cinema, harbingers of existential cinematic truths that transcend national borders.

A deeper, more edgy and nuanced insight is flaunted by regional festivals that seek to provide comprehensive overview on a smaller scale. Showcasing special programs of amateur works or university projects,  these festivals expose the context of local film cultures, and reveal regional identities.

In Cottbus, both the authorial and the regional trends were presented in a balanced way. Being an indispensable part of Cottbus’ cultural scape, the festival showcased a representative selection of Eastern European films, but along with the main competition, allowed also for a glimpse at more marginal cinematic phenomena through countless sidebars.  At its 23rd edition, the “Specials” program presented “Domownja. Sorbian life on film,” which offered a realistic portrayal of the arguably most marginalized ethnic groups in Germany. A retrospective was dedicated to Sorbian filmmaker Donald Saischowa, who started his international career in the region. “National Hits” and “Russky Den (Russian Day)” put Russia  –  whose presence at the festival has been palpable over the recent years  – again in focus, and the Russian films managed to garner considerable attention. Since Cottbus is located at the border of Germany with Poland, this national cinemas was also highlighted, and “Polskie Horyzonty” presented four examples of contemporary Polish auteur cinema.

The opening and closing films were also selected with respect to the common regional identity, and reflected upon the shared history of Cottbus and its neighbors East and West.  The program “GlobalEAST” tracked Eastern European influences in the cinemas of Australia and New Zealand, and this year’s Festival Focus “Dinkhen!” was about cinematic representation of Sinti and Roma, tracing their cultural traditions across the globe. The retrospective program, presented the rubrics of a state sponsored series about German youth from an Eastern European perspective. Thus yet again Cottbus achieved an impeccable balance between regional consciousness and global perspective, confirmed by the Cottbus Co-production market “Connecting Cottbus”, which hosted young film pitchers and industry professionals for the 15th time.

As its blub indicates, Cottbus presents itself quite honestly. Anecdotes about local politicians and the regional soccer team were told with the same earnestness that marks the way festival communicates and is organized. While the local and international relevance of the festival for the city and the region of Lausitz has been forcefully recognized by all attending officials,  it was eloquently reflected in the responsive way in which Cottbus inhabitants followed screenings and festival-related events. While in cities like Berlin the plenitude of middle-sized events compete for audience attention, the light spots and blue markings of the Cottbus festival dominate the city landscape and its citizens. “Weltspiegel”, mirror of the world, was the program devoted to the most intriguing contemporary films from around the globe. In the face of the pessimistic economic situation of the region, heavily dependent on questionable players, the euphoria this program generated has acquired a symbolic value.

Still, despite the euphoria, a better curatorial work on selection level would do the festival a lot of good in the future. Moreover, a few serious questions about the competition were discussed at the numerous sidebar events, and few talks with filmmakers were scheduled, implying lack of ambition on behalf the festival organizers to explore closer connections with the film industry –  an effort, which could contribute substantially to the development of the festival. Instead of seeking a constructive dialogue between the cultural and the industrial aspects of cinema, the tendency of separating them has been impinging in various ways an increasing number of festival events.

The Cottbus competition clearly followed the logic of representation. The selection of films from Poland, Serbia/Switzerland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Ukraine/Turkey, Romania/Hungary, Russia, Slowenia/Croatia, Slowakia/Czech Republic, Croatia/Serbia, Romania/Moldova was meant to offer as wide a panorama of contemporary post-communist cinemas as possible. This was however done at the expense of the quality of individual works. Few titles went convincingly beyond what has already been established as stereotypical Eastern European themes of pessimism, emotional bluntness, national trauma, post war history, frustrated youth, criminality, the portrayal of misfits and social drawbacks.

Papusza by Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze was possibly the most ambitious film of the competition program. Based on the story of Bronislawa Wajs, the film aims at depicting the life of two generations of Sinti and Roma in Poland. Unfortunately, the beautiful images, captured by the two DOPs fail to compensate for the lack of narrative flow. The directors’ ambitious attempt at forcing the story into a series of captured moments, creates a distance, and ultimately the uncanny impression that these moments are actually staged.

The most hermetic cinematographic experience however was Withering (Odumiranje) by Miloš Pušic. The director’s attempt to explore the reasons why people keep leaving rural Serbia is sabotaged by the irritating ambivalence of each and every character he introduces. Even the characterization of the protagonist Janko, who is ready to sell his father’s land and grave to a bunch of grotesque tourist types, remains morally aloof. Which is strange in a film that aims zat establishing a philosophical link between the characters and their motifs to hold onto a piece of land and face all hardships – even if that means losing grip of their humaneness, becoming desperate, depressed, violent, curt and frustrated – with the only hope they might prevail at some point. Yet, with its brave and balanced sense of humor, this family tale provokes moments of inner confrontation and self-realization that create a touching parable of contemporary life outside and inside of the city.

Miracle (Zázrak) starts out in a simple and straightforward way by unconditionally drawing a desolate picture of Slovakia, featuring a dumb neo-Nazi rapist, drugs, pornography and prostitution. These are the characteristic features of an environment within which a young woman grows up. Like her peers, she seems lost and incapable of dealing with this world. A much more sophisticated picture of Slovakia has been recently offered in Mira Fornay’s My Dog Killer that got awarded in February at the IFFR [www.negativ-film.de/2013/01/the-real-thing]. What however makes Miracle special is the actress in the main role, Michaela Bendulová who was discovered in a youth center for girls by director Juraj Lehotský. Drawing from her own experience, she creates the powerful emotional core of the film. For her role, which transcends banality and nihilism, she received the Best Actress award. The festival jury awarded Aleksandr Veledinsky’s The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (Geograf Globus Propil) the Best Feature, thus emphasizing the director’s “exquisite mastery of his craft and great playfulness”. The story of an alcoholic loser who ends up as a teacher and emerges as a modern saint, manages to convey an almost tender mood and philosophical reflection despite a couple of rather bland moments of alcohol-infused drama and overacting.

Fully convincing were only two titles. The first was The Major by Yury Bykov, which uses the familiar plot about uncompromising cop thriller to hash out existentialist moral dilemmas, transcending not only the limits of its genre, but also the concrete context of contemporary Russian society. The outcome of the deadly struggle between police and civilians is determined by the brutal ‘eye for an eye’ logic of social Darwinism, which questions the value of life in a society, defined by violence and corruption. For his bluntly hypnotizing deployment of cinematic devices, Bykov received the Best Director award.

The Unsaved (La Limita de Jos a Cerului), this year’s pick of the critics’ FIPRESCI jury, manages to tell a story without mannerism and unnecessary exaggeration. Based on a screenplay by the well-known Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu (Police, Adjective), and director Igor Cobileanski, the film follows a young Moldovan man in his daily struggle to survive under the unbridled forces of market capitalism. The smart, warm-hearted and loving perspective of this magnificently crafted film consistently avoids pessimism and celebrates life by preserving each and every character’s hope, dignity and autonomy. 

The issue of autonomy, independence and interdependence was actually thrown in high relief at the festival, where audience expectations, critical demands, industrial needs, the festival’s own traditions and its local context, were negotiated at every event. The question, which remains open, is whether accommodating compromise is the only alternative. For any aspiring festival event should stand firmly by its identity, which justifies its right to exclude, curate, provoke, arrange. Cottbus would benefit a lot from a more rigorously defined agenda regarding its supporting programs, but especially regarding its competition, if it were to seek look beyond the limitations of its current economic constrains and regional context, and wishes to play up its potential as a cultural juncture.

Edited by Christina Stojanova