Hormones Flying Over Eastern Europe

in 13rd Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Belinda van de Graaf

It struck me that only one of the ten competition films that I saw in the former East German city of Cottbus, was dealing directly with the changes in Eastern European societies. In Babusja Russian director Lidija Bobrowa showed me the glitzy bad taste villas of the Russian nouveau riche, the so called New Russians, and I was reminded of the war in Chechnya, the horrors going on in Grozny. To tell her story of a society in transition Bobrowa took the sentimental route, showing the odyssey of a Russian granny (babusja) no longer needed by her family members. ‘If you replace the people in this film by animals, you have a Disney film’, as Hungarian filmmaker and member of the main jury György Pálfi (Hukkle) aptly noticed. His funny anger didn’t prevent the film from winning the main prize. As a portrait of a society in transition with the foundation of the family fading, this film took a bath in folklore and nostalgia, and went away with it.

Most East European directors in this year’s competition took another route, that of the ‘boy meets girl’ story, in all its varieties, from ‘pas-de-deux’ to ‘ménage-a-trois’. With five out of ten competition films dealing with the subject of boys searching for girls in the streets of St. Petersburg, Budapest and Warsaw (the Russian film The Stroll, the Hungarian film Happy Birthday! and the Polish film Success…) and men and women breaking out of unhappy marriages to have more happy love affairs (the Chech film Faithless Games and the Polish film Changes), hormones were really flying over Eastern Europe. Seeing these films in a row, in a three days film marathon in Germany and Poland, was quite absurd. It brought to mind a popular song by French dance-duo Daft Punk: ‘One More Time’, composed on a happy, but more noteworthy repetitive beat.

The finest film to us, the Fipresci jury members in Cottbus, was The Stroll (Progulka), the Russian film made by Alexej Utschitjel that could, in a strange way, be a companion piece to Sokurov’s Russian Ark and Kossakovsky’s Hush! (Tishe!), all set in St. Petersburg, and all presenting carefully constructed city tales in which a radically static or radically free wheeling camera style turns out to be the centre of attraction. In a way, The Stroll takes you out of the Hermitage, out of history, and throws you on the streets of modern day St. Petersburg where a ménage-a-trois enrolls before your eyes. The camera registers the encounter of two boys and a girl, in a dizzying documentary style, as if the action was shot in real time, in one take. The good news: The Stroll, with its burst of energy, is also about a society in transition, only less obvious than the one way nostalgia of Babusja.