Identity Crisis By France Hatron

in 7th Bratislava International Film Festival

by France Hatron

It cannot be said that the films competing in the International Bratislava Film Festival will make your spirits soar, nor can it be said that they may cause you to look outside your own tribe for another community to join. In fact, with few exceptions – Friday or Another Day (Vendredi ou un autre jour – Belgium/France/Italy/Slovakia/Czech Republic); A Stranger of Mine (Unmei janai hito – Japan); Good Night, and Good Luck. (USA) – all competing features wallow in deep existential crises, induced by loss of identity, often symptomatic of East European cinema. This phenomenon might be explained by the seemingly hasty transition from a totalitarian political system to a relatively undigested democratic paradigm. It’s well known that too much democracy kills democracy, but it might additionally snuff out illusion, as well as a wish and a need to give life deeper meaning. This selection thus underscores alternatively, the lack of love and tenderness, as well as solidarity, in human relationships. Everyone for himself, and always for the worse, never for the best…

This survey of the social issues in European countries, in Portugal, Iran, Argentina, Mongolia and Norway is, however, not devoid of interest. Through individual situations we are shown the psychological state of people living in these countries. For a variety of tragic reasons, people face a crisis, but never get a real overview of it. They suffer but never soothe their pain, never help each other. God is rarely if ever evoked in these films, and we might wonder whether religion will ever play a part in rescuing the protagonists from themselves. Characters are mostly pessimists, down-beat and selfish. The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu – Romania) is the most poignant demonstration of pervasive irresponsibility, as we witness indifference slowly killing a man, and as everyone around refuses to become involved in his plight.

Heroes ultimately lose their souls in this downward spiral. Some drown in memories and guilt as in: Kissed by winter (Vinterkyss – Norway) whose heroin, a doctor, has failed to diagnose her own son’s leukemia in time to save him, and is now resigned to a life marred by the shadow of her errors; and as in Odete (Portugal) where the protagonist ends uploosing her mind in an obsessive need to have a baby. She ends up living on a friend’s grave, in a state of false pregnancy. Others resort to violence at the point of acknowledgement of their hideous reality. Such is the case of a desperate Iranian father in Written on the Earth (Yadasht Bar Zamin – Iran) whom, mourning the death of his children, looses his mind and, hatchet in hand, goes on a killing spree of everyone else’s children, finally opting for the most radical escape from his pain: suicide. The themes of violence, death and self-mutilation were frequent in the selection. Even in Everything Is Illuminated (USA) where the ghost of Nazi atrocities hovers in the distance, and humor seems to prevail throughout the film, suicide finally appears, as a late but necessary choice.

The films all seem to portray human relationships in a similar way. Man-woman relationships lack love and bear the mark of a discouraging sexual domination by men, met with obedience from the women, even in cases where they appear to have an upper hand. The rape scene in Gravehopping (Odgrobadogroba – Slovenia/Croatia) is particularly violent and unbearable, as a young deaf girl gets crucified before being assaulted by a group of thugs. Homosexuals either live in secretive despair, as in Go West (Bosnia and Herzegovina), or in self consuming passion, which is the case of the two lovers in Odete; both depictions leading to the same unhappiness. Relationships between parents and children are also devoid of boundaries, and generations mix without respect for differences or social and moral codes. Gravehopping shows a girl molested by her father, who chooses to let him off the hook. In A Way of Life (Sposob zivota – United Kingdom) a young mother prostitutes her 15 year old friend in front of her own baby. In Something Like Happiness (Stesti – Czech Republic/Germany), a mother of two goes mad and is interned while a young neighbor obsessively looks after the kids, sacrificing her own happiness, her own neuroses ultimately exacerbated by this co-dependency on another’s children. No more harmony is to be found within the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. In Everything Is Illuminated, a grandfather commits suicide almost under the nose of his grandson, while in Gravehopping, the frequent suicide attempts of the grandfather seem a casual occurrence to the young grandson and his parents. And when it comes to relations between siblings, in Géminis (Argentina/France) we are once again far from conventional family love. Incest is broached with originality and complacency, despite the willing sister’s implicit suffering. As a result, their mother looses her mind upon discovery, and the gruesome climax of the picture is proof that even the “bourgeoisie” could die of its own boredom.

One of the roots of all this evil seems to be a lack of sexual role modeling, as seen in Géminis and Something Like Happiness. Moreover, a lack of cultural heritage is seen as the source of pain in all the depicted immigrants; all should perhaps take heed from the young American in Everything Is Illuminated whom, in his search for his origins goes as far as to collect all kinds of objects in plastic bags, even a slice of potato, to fill the emptiness and never forget. A funny bit which ultimately proves to be so sad…

By awarding the Grand Prix to Mongolian-German co-production, The Cave of the Yellow Dog (Die Höhle des gelben Hundes) by Mongolian director Byambasuren Davaa, well known from her first wondrous movie, The Story of the Weeping Camel (Geschichte vom weinenden Kamel), the Bratislava International Film Festival offers us an alternative to the ambient pessimism and absence of boundaries so characteristic of the official selection. The film reveals simple and healthy human relationships based on love and tenderness. A beautiful life lesson for the modern world!