Film Spaces in Eastern Europe and Beyond

in 14th goEast Wiesbaden

by Ciprian David

At some point during my stay I realized that, when it comes to speaking about German cities, there is a pretty blunt but common unit of measurement which people tend to use. With a few exceptions, it is all about whether a place was bombed or not during World War II.


Hessian capital and home of the goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film, Wiesbaden is one of Germany’s beautiful cities — it wasn’t bombed back then. This puts the city in the position of being a somewhat obvious symbol of the persistence of culture through different regimes and violent ages. At the same time, it gets to impress with its looks. For a film scholar and critic, this impression naturally gets amplified, because Wiesbaden encourages one to go and spend time among people with similar interests, rather than spending all one’s free time watching and writing about films. I came to perceive the festival and the city as a synonym for sitting on a bench in the sun and talking about films, for entering a cinema to be sucked into a film world and leaving it two hours later to be blinded by the sun. The atmosphere, a brew of Middle and Eastern European flair, so very similar to the Balkan spirit, has always allowed me to perceive goEast as a kind of cinephile’s sping break.

This year’s edition of the festival was special. In contrast to previous years, I largely watched films which were in the competition. A tough task, since the symposium and the retrospective sections of goEast get better each year, and especially tough now, when 35mm projections are becoming more and more the exception, so that I missed screenings of films by Skolimowski, Zulawski, Zanussi and other masters of the Polish New Wave, as well as a retrospective of Szumowska’s oeuvre.

Interestingly, watching only competition films placed me in a position I had never experienced in previous festival years, and the films shown had a lot to do with this experience: for the six days of the festival I felt like a tourist in different sorts of spaces — some very filmic, others quite national, altogether a dynamic cultural carousel, just like film in its early years. In the vein of this emotional relationship with the festival, I’d like to use this space in order to textually reproduce that marvelous carousel.

Worlds for Grown-Ups

We experienced an explosive beginning to the competition thanks to the Kazakhstani film Little Brother (Bauir). With its brilliant opening in what seems to be a military school system, the film invites us to get gradually acquainted with some of the aspects of its protagonist’s everyday life. Scene after scene, the provincial world around the young boy opens itself to us as a metaphor of social mishaps in Kazakhstan. As we get to know the main character and the way he interacts with everyone, we realize that the militaristic depiction of the school system was only part of the film’s way of treating a sensitive subject: when everyone goes away, to study or to find work in another city, or sometimes just to leave behind the struggles of a tough life, children tend to get left behind. Little Brother’s main character is one of these children and the societal migration portrayed in the film forces him into a position where he doesn’t belong. He becomes a bearer of everything the others have left behind. He takes care of the family house, preserves the tradition of the place, and even works in order to survive. Of all the characters in the film, this young boy is the adult.

The set-up contains all the ingredients for melodrama and tugging at the audience’s emotions, but one of the film’s greatest aspects is that it chooses to take the hard path in this respect. By constructing a caricature of the world, with a young boy at its center whom everyone treats as an adult, the film takes us on an absurd trip which gradually pays off as we slowly come to understand that he, the main character, is only an idea. He is what society needs him to be and must lose anything that doesn’t fit into the scheme. No time to play, no time for joy, no time to rejoice in the beauty of the landscape. In the end, his character has an impact on the way we perceive everything around him. His seriousness makes every adult look blunt, makes the countryside feel like a desert, and shows us over a whole series of absurd humorous moments how dystopic a normal life can be under these circumstances.

Playful Child Spaces

A very similar film comes from Georgia. Blind Dates (Shemtkveviti paemnebi) revolves around a character who can be seen as the opposite of Little Brother’s young protagonist. This man is already forty, still lives with his parents, and seems to have only one friend, his cousin. As one would expect, he is searching for a female friend — rather passively, but at least he is trying. And he would probably succeed too, if it wasn’t for the bloody camera, because it is the film’s gaze which turns everything the wrong way, starting from the very first minutes. For the entire film, the lens enjoys framing him in awkward postures, making him a subject of our irony, and rendering everything around him artificial. In very few shots, his universe becomes a symbolic one. And he, of course, doesn’t fit in. Instead of letting the main character pursue his wishes, the framing of the camera invites our humor to invade his space — the narration gets his parents in this space too — and a series of unfortunate coincidences take him to a whole different ending than he may have hoped for.

Despite cornering its main character into passivity, the film constructs and maintains a fabulous drive from the start. Fascinatingly, the method used to achieve this is as simple to explain as it is difficult to realize. At any moment, the central conflict of the film is clearly drawn between the framing of the main character by the camera and a sharply written script, reminding us that this space we keep seeing is, despite the ominous presence of this man, not at all his space. It’s the film’s space, in which the protagonist dwells only in order to entertain a black-humored audience. And each new scene adds to the flood of conflictual or comical elements that encumber him and us from the very beginning; these elements, in their perseverance and intensity, take Blind Dates to a tragicomic peak.

Labyrinths of Thought

Getting a bit abstract about film spaces leads, when it comes to this year’s competition, to Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Când se lasa seara peste Bucuresti sau Metabolism). While some may view this film as a masterpiece, the acclaimed Porumboiu’s third film is so strictly tied in with the director’s oeuvre that a good share of the audience may perceive it as a hermetic work, lost in the ideological adventures of its maker. But as one of the admirers of this film I am going spend a few lines diving into Porumboiu’s film spaces.

For me, it all connects with his previous feature film, Police, Adjective, the story of a policeman morally fighting the institution he belongs to in order to keep a clear conscience. In that film, the main character’s profession provides quite a few opportunities to air some of the director’s views on cinema, especially on the relationship between the camera and the captured world. In fact, the film can be read as a dissection of the observation process. The observational act in Police, Adjective is split into two parts — pure observation, a process in which reality is accurately captured by the observer, and secondly, construction of meaning, consisting of interpreting and contextualizing the observed. In order to precisely demonstrate the fact that both observation and interpretation occur at some point during the observational act, Porumboiu creates a conflict within his film, between the policeman and his personal views on one side, and the police force as an institution with accordingly institutional views on the other side. These two opposed views are each tied to a set of tools (the first developed in relation to the policeman’s life experience and the second dictated by law). The final dialogue of the film lets these views clash and the institutional view wins the argument. But there’s a catch to the whole process: Police, Adjective, while being a film, relies on a camera in order to visually demonstrate the aforementioned thesis. So in order for the argument to be valid, the camera must be invested, to a certain point, with the ability to accurately capture the reality it uses for the demonstration. So the camera is assigned the axiomatic function of a neutral observer.

Metabolism indirectly questions this axiomatic relationship between camera and reality. Starting with a dialogue between a filmmaker and one of the actresses of the film he is shooting, Metabolism’s opening allows the director to explain his cinematic philosophy and his dependence on 35mm material and the time restrictions that come with it (ironically, Metabolism was shot on 35mm but the distributor wouldn’t agree to send the festival a physical print). While pursuing the director/character’s obsession with details and with the sense of authenticity he imperatively demands of his crew, Metabolism at the same time traces the interdependence between the film being made and the director’s caprices. While having an affair with the aforementioned actress, he avoids shooting sessions in order to spend time with her planning her nude scene. This scene is continuously changed according to the evolution of their relationship, and in the end it will be almost completely removed from the film. While at this point the camera may still be invested with the ability to capture reality, the script it will shoot turns out to be very unstable. It keeps changing form and grows to have far less in common with reality as a product of the director’s vision than with a combination of his casual emotional states at the moment of the shooting. We are slowly guided to the conclusion that the reality Porumboiu invests so much thought into dealing with is nothing more than a farce. Implicitly, the question of the ability of the camera to capture this reality is brutally reduced to a technical aspect, devoid of any meaning.

Metabolism is filmed in a style which accords with its subject. Its long shots are so obsessed with the characters that they often show them in blurry surroundings, rendering the space around them futile. And when spaces aren’t blurred out, they are sterile enough to shift the focus onto the characters. Apartments, hotel lobbies, streets and restaurants become platforms for Porumboiu’s thoughts. They are only there to underline their artificiality and add to a sort of limbo that traces the limits of the Romanian New Wave, which began out of a sensual impetus and a need for a national cinema to connect to reality, then grew more and more intellectual and sophisticated.

Playful Intellectual Spaces

While also promoting a decisive intellectual standpoint (although mainly via its storyline), Estonian director Veiko Õunpuu’s Free Range — Ballad on Approving of the World (Free range — ballaad maailma heakskiitmisest) nests itself in quite a connotative space, both in relation to film history and in respect to its openness towards the audience. Following a young writer’s pursuit of a meaning of life and his total rejection of society’s productivity imperatives, the film creates a fascinating space at the outskirts of so-called civilization — a space filled with unproductive efforts at not taking society too seriously. Drinking, whoring and rants against capitalism fill everything between company buildings and sites, improvised homes in former factories and party basements; they even get projected, partly through irony and partly through desperation, through the camera lens in abyssal sea and skyscapes.

Through the distorted point of view of this space and that of its dwellers, society itself is caricatured, which leads to a certain balance between the conflicting ideologies of the film. The notion of balance, though, is shown a blunt middle finger as the raw images get loaded with kitsch artifacts, pointing either at the materiality of the film or at the impossibility of the aesthetics in this depicted film world. The anti-aesthetic stance of the film goes so far in its denial of beauty that anything seems possible. Towards the end a white horse glides in slow motion across the screen as an ultimate symbol of kitsch, and we all wonder how the film managed to strip this motif of any aesthetic connotation, whether good or bad.

Free Range would probably have been a masterpiece had it been created a few decades ago, but released today it is a very dangerous film. Intriguing as it is, it polarizes, and there is always a flip side attached to such oeuvres. While denying any sense of aesthetics, the film discreetly cultivates its own style and thus loses its consistency. The cinema verité camera, so obsessed with avoiding artificially composed frames, ends up recalling the iconic camerawork of Antonioni — of course, taken instrumentally out of context here. The set design and costumes of the characters, their postures and mimicry, reinforce this nostalgic feeling, together with a whole row of locations packed with books, booze and misfit furniture. In the end, one might coherently watch this film as a quirky hymn to the beatnik era, and this reading wouldn’t necessarily be wrong at all.


After leaving the cinema I was under the impression of having seen the film of a prodigious teenager. Free Range’s exorbitant rebellious verve, wrapped in visuals alluding to iconic moments of film history, were a way of playing dirty and being well aware of it, like flashy teenagers packed into room. A few hours later, at one of the festival parties, the film became a metaphor for all the life energy floating around me, smelling of beer, vodka, cigarettes and hormones, and talking film into the ground.

And if I ever got film-drunk at this year’s edition of goEast, it wasn’t because of the desolate or desperately nationalist spaces coming from Russia, nor because of the astonishing set design to show the Romanian communist era in a whole new light, nor because of the graphically elaborate take on morality and values seen in the Polish Ida; it was because these very unusual spaces, often on the brink of absurdity, always concisely embodied film ideologies.

Edited by Lesley Chow