A Fest in the Time of Pandemic

in Molodist – 49th Kyiv International Film Festival

by Alexandr Gusev

“…We’ll drink the maiden’s rosy breath” – filled perhaps with Covid? (from Alexander Pushkin’s Feast during the Time of the Plague)

The transfer in 2018 of Molodist, which for over 45 years was held in late October, to the last week of May, was the result of the voluntary decision of the new festival management and led to a sharp drop in attendance. The current dates in August are evidence of the professional enthusiasm and dedication of the organizers to their work, and their desire not to let time get out of joint in these difficult days for Ukrainian culture. Holding the festival as real event significantly shows the strength of the Ukrainian film industry, for which hard times had begun even before the lockdown and the introduction of quarantine, starting with rather dubious changes in the State Film Agency’s administration and down to the closure of the capital’s art-house cinemas after sustained efforts of the Kiev authorities. Moreover, the last victim of the municipality was the Cinema Kiev, the permanent festival center of Molodist since 2007. The main site of the 49th Kiev International Film Festival is now Cinema Zhovten, the only surviving art-house cinema.

However, the trials seem to have only encouraged the organizers. The festival passed without delays or cancellations of screening sessions, which the regular visitors of Molodist were used to treating condescendingly, and, following the Kiev International Short Films Festival held in early August, it presented a mixed virtual and actual format that is innovative for the region. While the most desperate moviegoers were once again enjoying the recently forbidden cinephile pleasures in the screening rooms, those more circumspect could view the competition program on their PCs thanks to the festival website.

In this shaky, anxious atmosphere of the present days, the festival’s ability to act as a platform for the demonstration of national cinema is of particular importance. Obviously, therefore the organizers chose the Ukrainian film The Forgotten (Zabuti, 2019) by Daria Onyshchenko as the opening film.

The Forgotten became the second significant work after Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass (2018), which takes place on the territory of eastern Ukraine, captured by pro-Russian forces. Unlike Loznitsa’s film, criminals dressed in military uniforms, journalists fabricating news for separatist TV channels, and shameless officials of the so-called “People’s Republic” appear on the margins of the plot. In the foreground stand the heroes who are far from sympathizing with the separatists and Russian occupants: an unemployed scientist who takes part in organizing smuggling, and his wife, who teaches Ukrainian language at a school and is forced to undergo retraining as a Russian teacher.

The authors expressively show the ridiculous and terrible reality of the puppet state with its claims to protect traditional values, the reproduction of Stalinist practices and criminal lawlessness – the reality in which the inhabitants of Donbass are forced to exist. But the genuine drama in the narrative gives the impression, which grows stronger as the action develops, that the citizens of Ukraine under occupation have been abandoned and forgotten by their state and their compatriots, who are ready to dismiss them as vicious ignoramuses intoxicated by Russian propaganda, collaborators of invaders, and terrorists.

Another film dedicated to the tragic events in the southeast is the documentary film by Korney Gritsyuk, Train Kyiv-War (Poizd Kyiv-Vijna, 2020) from the program “Ukrainian Premieres”. The film, set in the wagons of the Kyiv-Konstantinovka train that has become the main transport link of the Ukrainian capital and the region suffering from hostilities, is a desperate, somewhat chaotic and invariably piercing stream of evidence and arguments. This polyphony creates an expressive, painfully recognizable image of ideological struggles, social problems, heroism, stupidity, selflessness and the ability to forgive.

If the premieres of Ukrainian films, which brought together the creators with their relatives and members of the domestic film community, were sold out (given the quarantine restrictions, however, only half of the 414 seats in the Zhovten cinema’s main hall were available), foreign films did not call for much interest: about fifty spectators gathered at the evening competition screenings. Obviously, in addition to the immediate threats of Covid-19, there was a lack of information related to the closure of international festival sites. It was all the more interesting for bona fide festival visitors to let cats out of the bag in the competition program.

In particular, the Molodist competition could boast the world premiere of the Israeli film The Death of Cinema and My Father Too (2020) by Dani Rosenberg, which should have been shown at the canceled Cannes Film Festival. With its loose structure, a complex interweaving of fictional and pseudo-documentary, a mixture of family troubles of the character-director, the filming process of his new movie gradually derailing, and scenes from this movie, the film requires a fair amount of patience from the viewer and sometimes becomes quite tedious. But it is this confusion that perfectly conveys how painfully a work of art is born, especially a cinematic work, for whose creation the author must subordinate his neighbors to his will as they, alas, strive to realize their own ideas and concepts.

The main value of The Death of Cinema… is that the movie expressively shows one of the main sources of our inspiration: the desire to hold on to lost time, to give immortality to our dear and loved ones. The apocalypse which, according to the script of the film being shot, falls upon Israel, was born in the fantasy of a filmmaker who expects to meet soon the end of his own world. “My days are numbered,” shouts the director’s father, chosen as the performer of the role of himself, “why did you hang on to me with your cinema?” – “I shoot because you are dying”.

If the work of the protagonist Rosenberg’s film is inspired by his family, in the French-Luxembourgish-Belgian film Two of Us (Deux, 2019) by Filippo Meneghetti, the family bonds, on the contrary, hinder the self-expression of the heroes. The mother of the family, tired of being a prisoner of the moral notions of her relatives, decides to throw off the veil of shame from her lesbian relationship with a neighbor, but does not dare daze the children with the details of her personal life, which she has hidden for decades. When a stroke, embodying conventions and prejudices that impede our realization, ties her to bed and deprives her of speech, the heroine’s lover tries, under the guise of friendly participation, to gain the right to care for her. The excellent performance of Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier, a special poetic atmosphere created with amazing skill for a debutant director, and the relevance of the problem of our painful dependence on close people during the days of quarantine provided Meneghetti’s film with sympathy for usually opposite categories of viewers in their tastes: Two of Us received the Audience Prize and the FIPRESCI Award.

The film Kuessipan (2019) by Myriam Verreault was awarded the Grand Prix of the festival; it is dedicated to the liberation from the stereotypes imposed by the environment and, at the same time, to the awareness of one’s family and cultural identity. The central character is a girl from the Innu in Uashat-Maliotenam, who is endowed with a poetic gift. She is fully devoted to her family, yearning for more in the limited world of their ideas and occupations. Her going beyond the limits established by the age-old way of her people, an affair with a white boy and enrolling at university are perceived by some of her fellow tribesmen as an escape and even betrayal. But only when she is accepted in the “big world” she has the opportunity of being heard, casting her voice on behalf of a small people languishing in oblivion and social lawlessness.

For the first time since 2008, the members of the main jury, embarrassed by the abundance of strong works, decided to award the Grand Prix to two films simultaneously. The second winner of the “Scythian Deer” award was Identifying Features (Sin Señas Particulares, 2020) by the Mexican Fernanda Valadez about a woman from a run-down Indian village searching for her son, who disappeared while trying to cross the border to the United States. The heroine’s odyssey along the route of illegal migrants appears as a journey into the heart of darkness of civilization, which condemns its poor citizens to wandering full of dangers and without any hope of protection from government agencies.

Based on true events, Song Without a Name (Canción sin nombre, 2019) by Peruvian Melina León won the Ecumenical Jury Award. The film is devoted to a similar problematic: the central character, also woman representative of an indigenous population, is trying to return a child taken away immediately after birth in a clinic whose administration trades in illegal adoptions. However, the tragedy of an illiterate Indian woman without a passport does not interest officials and police officers, who refuse to even register her appeal. Her wanderings through the corridors of institutions are presented like the ordeal of the land surveyor K. in Franz Kafka’s The Castle (it is no coincidence that the camera floating by the bookseller’s tray captures a photo of the writer), as the eternal drama of a person trying to have their rights respected or at least attract the attention of the state’s leviathan.

The interest in eternal, “doomed questions” and at the same time the ability to change or adapt to the imperative requirements of the time was demonstrated in 2020 by the Molodist team, which managed to take the festival out of the blind zone of the lockdown and show the skill that has not betrayed it before to acquaint the domestic audience with significant works of cinema.

Alexander Gusev
Edited by Birgit Beumers