The Satanic Cult of 1 May and a Whiff of Buñuel in Minsk

in 24th goEast IFF Wiesbaden

by Katrin Hillgruber

The main programme of the 24th Festival of Central and Eastern European Film goEast presented discoveries from Hungary to Kazakhstan.

For Budapest film student Dávid Mikulán, it began ten years ago with a chalk line on the tarmac that he saw when he was interviewing passers-by. He followed it with his skateboard and camera until he came across the unsupervised boys Sanyi and Viktor. From this moment on, the chalk line becomes a narrative thread modelled on the ancient Parcae, and the wildly charming brothers determine the story of the film KIX with their breakneck actions between pranks and street art: For example, when they thunder against an iron church door with a football, until an irritated clergyman appears; or when they wave with a Hungarian flag, declaiming on a skateboard that the city belongs to everyone – especially including those who, like them, live six to a grandmother in 28 square metres.

With their long-term documentary KIX, Dávid Mikulán and Bálint Révész provide an impressive testimony to social sensitivity in Viktor Orbán’s clean-cut Hungary. But it is above all the rousing, anarchic joie de vivre of the young protagonists that makes KIX a cinematic stroke of luck. Wiesbaden’s goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European film recognised this early on and had included the unusual project in its East-West Talent Lab.

Several of the sixteen films in the main competition were dedicated to the hardships of pubescent boys and the helpless, and to catastrophic educational measures of their fathers. In the patriarchal system of ex-Soviet territories such as Kazakhstan or Yakutia, mothers remain in the background or are absent, as in Dmitrii Davydov’s austere black-and-white drama Plague (Chuma), which is only bathed in pastel colours by an aurora borealis at the bitter end.

goEast director Heleen Gerritsen and her highly committed team are working intensively on the subject of “Decolonising the (Post-)Soviet Screen”, the title of an anthology edited by Gerritsen and Irina Schulzki (Apparatus). Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a local film industry has emerged, largely unnoticed by the West, in the Russian federative republic of Sakha (Yakutia). Its representatives reject cooperation with Russian studios as a matter of principle and film in their indigenous language: for them, this is a question of national dignity.

In his feature debut Bauryna Salu, Kazakh actor Askhat Kuchinchirekov illustrates the nomadic tradition of giving the first-born child into the care of the grandmother. When she dies, twelve-year-old Yersultan, who toils in the salt mine and is therefore barely able to go to school, has to return to his parents’ home, but his parents have become strangers to him. In addition to the acting performance of its desperate young hero Yersultan, the film captivates the viewer above all with its aesthetics, in which the barren Kazakh landscape becomes the protagonist.

Andrei Cohn’s film Holy Week (Săptămâna Mare), which already screened in the Forum of this year’s Berlinale, is characterised by magnificent, densely filled tableaux in the style of 19th-century landscape painting. In his free interpretation of the novella The Easter Torch by Romanian national poet Ion Luca Caragiale (1852-1912), Cohn also tells the story of a man who wants to do everything right and not offend the village community on an idyllic lake in the southern Romanian region of Dobruja. But the innkeeper Leiba (Doru Brem) is Jewish and, unlike his Christian neighbours, does not colour Easter eggs with his pregnant wife (in an impressive performance of Nicoleta Lefter).

Such trifles fuel the latent anti-Semitism in the village and foreshadow a silent catastrophe, beginning with an unsolved criminal investigation: Who kicked the pregnant Sura, who is intellectually superior to her husband, in the stomach? At the end of the 19th century, she languishes without adequate medical help. Cohn’s adaptation impresses with its careful framing and use of Caragiale’s language, which he carefully modernises. 

In the third year of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, the excellently programmed goEast Festival dealt with many difficult, stressful and yet inescapable topics. The international guests were all the more enthusiastic about Wiesbaden’s hospitality, whether on the ‘Rhine, Wine and Rhymez’ boat trip including readings, at a solidarity party for Ukraine or receptions with vodka, pickled cucumbers and local sparkling wine. The curved, all black, white and gold interior design of the Caligari FilmBühne, whose ceiling lights disguise themselves as leaves, is a guarantee of atmosphere. 

There, director Mladen Đorđević from Belgrade made an astonishing connection between the communist cult of 1 May and Satanism with his exuberant black comedy Working Class Goes to Hell (Radnićka klasa ide u pakao) about self-empowerment of the proletariat through black magic. He had already devoted himself to this unconventional subject in his semi-documentary film Vienna Hallways (Sumrak u bečkom haustoru; 2020). It shows how poorly paid Serbian taxi drivers in Vienna are drawn to a clairvoyant fellow countrywoman.

In the visually appealing black-and-white satire Citizen Saint (Mokalake Tsmindani) by Georgian director Tinatin Kajrishvili, the workforce of a mine threatens to go mad over a miner who has petrified himself into a saint on a cross, and suddenly disappears. A documentary film from Georgia also stood out for its particular originality: Smiling Georgia by Luka Beradze. Nine years after President Mikheil Saakashvili’s election campaign promise to provide all voters in need with dentures, the filmmaker literally looks the people in the mouth. Saakashvili lost the election, the dentures never materialised. The teeth that overzealous dentists pulled from numerous villagers click like falling grains of maize. An imaginative subject, but the research on the topic should have been even more intensive.

In Oxygen Station (Kysneva Stantsiya), Ukrainian director Ivan Tymchenko tells the life story of Crimean Tatar human rights activist Mustafa Dzhemilev, who was exiled to Siberia by the Russians in the Olympic summer of 1980, as a candy-coloured romantic tragicomedy. Dzhemilev’s all-powerful public prosecutor and personal adversary strides through space and time as an evil magician. In a factory, the dissident, weakened by a 303-day hunger strike and under round-the-clock surveillance, has to fill heavy oxygen cylinders and yet never gives up. It is no coincidence that this is reminiscent of the fate of the late Alexei Navalny. Mustafa Dzhemilev is oxygen for the Ukrainian nation, explained the director.

Is it allowed to laugh about the persistently oppressive conditions in Belarus? Even that was possible in Wiesbaden, thanks to the flourishing ingenuity that Andrei Kashperski displays in Processes (Procesy). Born in Brest in 1995, the young director was forced to move to Poland after the outbreak of war. In his episodic film, which is as lurid as it is grumpy, a lumbering militiaman takes in three arbitrarily arrested students in his two-room flat. He accommodates them in the children’s bunk beds and routinely beats them up in the bathroom. His wife, in her pink plush slippers, takes an increasing liking to the house slaves.

Meanwhile, well-behaved schoolchildren are given a guided tour of the KGB, where an entire department dreams the same thing every night: of rain, flowers and the funeral of the so-called First Person, after the latter has an accident during a collective sauna session. Panic breaks out among the functionaries about the next night. Just as the well-endowed clique of friends in Luis Buñuel’s masterpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie; 1972) is prevented from having dinner together by mysterious incidents, the officials in Processes can no longer go to bed without fearing their common nightmare. In this captivating scene, a whiff of Buñuel wafts through Minsk and with it the insatiable hope for change.

Katrin Hillgruber
Edited by Birgit Beumers