Going East By Mateusz Werner

in 60th Locarno International Film Festival

by Mateusz Werner

“Is Romania ready for Europe?” asks a local disco star during his performance in Florence, Italy, just before the New Year’s countdown. “Yeeessss!” answers the crowd of Romanian immigrants, bursting with enthusiasm. “Is Europe ready for Romania?” “Yeees!” the crowd shouts again, dancing and flailing around.

This dialogue, quoted from Federico Bondi’s Black Sea (Mar nero), might sound quite bitter and sarcastic to Romanian audiences, but not particularly so to those who visited the Locarno Film Festival this year. If only “readiness” could be understood as a desire for better understanding each other; the list of films shown here in the various programs and competitions speaks for itself. The number of films screened in Locarno which were produced in former Soviet countries, or deal with subjects related to the world outside of the Western bubble of wealth, demonstrates a curiosity in the festival’s programmers, perhaps even a hunger for knowledge. Let me present just two examples from the international competition.

This is probably the best word to use: Exchange. It describes the work of the Romanian truck driver in Emmanuel Finkiel’s Nowhere Promised Land (Nulle part, terre promise) as he transports whole factories in pieces from France to Hungary with his huge lorry, and to Black Sea’s Angela, a young Romanian hairdresser who assists an old lady from Florence as her servant. Both deliver their cheap labor, their obedience and patient kindness and get Western salaries in return.

Is this enough to drive a feature film? Not really, even if this exchange is placed in its current context as a massive socio-economical process — perhaps the largest one since the end of the Second World War. Nevertheless, behind the banal framework remains a question, quite intellectually provocative and clearly far from politically correct: What kind of exchange — if any — is taking place here besides the economic one? Or, to put this another way: What can people like Angela offer the Western world, apart from their basic skills? Will their contribution influence the identity of this cultural community in a larger perspective? To be precise, this isn’t about globalization, a virtual melting-pot of trends and cultural patterns; this ongoing physical integration of dozens of millions of new citizens goes much further, and will seriously affect the future of European society.

Well, films like Black Sea or Nowhere Promised Land, which are directly focused on the subject, hardly come to satisfying conclusions. Rather, they reveal the dark consciousness of “Old Europe” — represented in Finkiel’s movie by a French manager responsible for relocating factories to countries with cheaper human resources, and a female student who travels around Eastern Europe filming ordinary people she meets in trains and on the streets. They both try to talk, touch, smell, have sex and empathetically feel those whom they meet on their way — Poles, Hungarians, Kurds, whomever — without prejudices and accepting differences. Even the selfish and vicious old madam from Black Sea finds some sympathy for her Romanian servant after tough rehearsals of a domination-submission game. But why all that? There is some rhetoric on “sensitive souls”, “spontaneity”, “natural strength”, and “passion for life”. There is also a certain feeling of guilt, because of economical exploitation and cultural paternalism; the typical signs of post-colonial syndrome.

But is there any space left for a real relationship to develop between protagonists? Any platform for serious exchange? Very little, if at all.