From Transition to Accession

in 25th FilmFestival Cottbus – Festival of the East European Cinema

by Moritz Pfeifer

2015 marked the 25th anniversary of the Cottbus Film Festival. Created shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, the festival initially aimed to bring Eastern European films to attention and observe how filmmakers reflected the transitional changes in post-communist societies. Since then, many national cinemas in the region have recovered from the shock of transition. With the re-establishment of working film industries, some Eastern European productions are even enjoying domestic and foreign success comparable to that of their Western neighbors.

For instance, Dalibor Matanic’s The High Sun (Zvavdan), which won the Main Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize in Cottbus, was the third most successful Croatian opening since the country’s independence in 1991. Confronted with a fading East-West divide, new conflicts, and more and more productions, the festival’s 25th anniversary provided an opportunity to review the political and social transformation that defined its beginnings and to seek new perspectives for today.

In homage to its transitional origins, the festival screened a series of features from Germany, Poland and Russia in a section called Transformation of Remembrance. The selected films portray the tumultuous 1990s as a time of social unrest, political distrust and economic misery, with Aleksei Balabanov’s Dead Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki) painting the most apocalyptic picture. Contemporary filmmakers’ memories of the period are no less somber. Both Nikola Vukcevic’ The Kids from the Marx and Engels Street (Djecaciizulice Marksai Engelsa), a film from Montenegro which screened in the National Hits section, and Visar Morina’s Babai, a Kosovan flick in the Spectrum program, create narrative conflict out of post-communist slump. 

A lot has changed since the 1990s, and the contemporary societies of the films in competition seem to have left some of the transitional hardships behind. Middle-class ennui tears a family apart in the Czech Family Film (Rodinný Film) and becomes a racist-authoritarian nightmare in Demon, the late Marcin Wrona’s final film. Behind the shiny surface of Chemo (Chemia) lurks a deadly cancer, the agonizing pain of the main character pointing up the social malaise of modern day Poland. Although less glossy, a reluctance towards too much realism could also be seen in Vasiliy Sigarev’s dark satire The Land of Oz (Strana Oz) and the Serbian buddy-comedy Siska Deluxe, both films disguising the gritty facts of poverty in humorous fairytales. Despite their dissimilarities, all of these films share a penchant for social criticism which connects them to the films of the 1990s and to eastern European cinema in general. So perhaps it is not so much the themes – collective apathy, economic distress – that have changed as much as the way in which they are presented. Newer films prefer subtle irony to frantic cynicism, emotional investment to cool detachment.

This can perhaps best be seen in The High Sun, which depicts the gruesome ethnic conflicts following the collapse of Yugoslavia in three Shakespearean love stories set in 1991, 2001 and 2011. Each time the couple are on different sides and the impossibility of love becomes a metaphor for the cross-generational continuity of ethnic problems in post-Yugoslavia. Matanic’s personal and emotional approach to this much-treated conflict makes it stand out. Indeed, in light of the overwhelming amount of films on the subject which try to avoid feelings though the tried-and-tested method of distanciation (such as Srdjan Dragojevic’s Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, screened in Cottbus in 2012), Matanic’s account of war doesn’t fear the emotional reality of those who suffer most from it. Stretched out over twenty years, the film is also a powerful case study of historical recurrence. The party atmosphere in the last episode looks like a glistening façade of racial peace veiling lingering prejudices. This mirrors some of the other films in competition, which present life as a social masquerade hiding unhealed wounds.

One gets a similar impression looking at the cityscape of Cottbus. Once a blue-collar town with dingy concrete blocks and potholed roads, the city has, over the years, restored its picturesque city center and architectural monuments. The city’s newly polished appearance may, however, distract from some of its older problems. Cottbus is also the home of frequent incidents of right-wing extremism and xenophobia, which have increased during the recent migration flows. Aware of these tensions, the festival has been organizing film screenings in the neighboring cities of Luckau and Lübbenau, as well as film seminars in schools in and around Cottbus since the Summer of 2015. The festival’s special section Islam in Eastern Europe is also an important contribution to combat religious intolerance and racism.

While the anti-immigration protests that were taking place in Cottbus during the festival hardly went unnoticed, it is a pity that the festival lacked the courage to mobilize its audience to participate in the pro-migrant rally that was taking place simultaneously. Here, too, history proves to be somewhat repetitive. Twenty-six years ago, Cottbus was the last city in the GDR to have held a Monday demonstration to protest against the dictatorial regime of East Germany. Even though the Cottbus Film Festival clearly represents internationality and solidarity through its program and special events, sometimes it may not be enough to merely represent. This is, at least, what most of the films that participated in the festival were about. There was a missed opportunity here. A headline like “Festival-goers Leave Cinema for Migrants” would have served not only migrants, but the festival as well.

Edited by Lesley Chow