Innocence - lost or regained? By Antonia Kovacheva

in 35th Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Antonia Kovacheva

First kiss, first coitus, first ever blood running from a dying or awakening body. First murder and first love. First film. First winner’s extrasystoles, first pride of international recognition. Submergence into the abyss of social and sexual knowledge; the flatness of death; the eroticism of fame and temptation of public attention. All of this happened both on the Dutch festival screens and in front of them, in the cinema halls. Familiar, on the face of it, stories about the generation gap, children-parents conflicts and coming of age, proved to be surprisingly mature, though insufficiently rebellious personal statements. Made by first or second-time directors, the 14 competition feature films shaped a promising silhouette of the future film generation. Some of the most interesting works however, revealed significant similarities – in subject, in storytelling, in the director’s approach to territories of human existence, generally believed to be a twilight zone. There was even peculiar similarity between the titles, such as Old Joy, USA and Ode to Joy (Oda do radosti), Poland. Or Taking Father Home (Bei ya zi de nan hai), China and Walking on the Wild Side (Lai xiao zi), China/France. And finally such as A Summer Day (Un jour d’ête), France and Early in the Morning (Un matin bonne heure), France/Guinea. Yet much more eloquent than that concurrence of the titles is the similitude of episodes, scenes and atmosphere in films, written and directed by people from different cultural backgrounds and places.

Pious incest

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Peru. A bed and a father, recumbent between his two teenage girls in it. Made almost as ethnographic documentary, the Peruvian Madeinusa is a subtle parable about a girl named Madeinusa, pronounced [maden’uza]. She takes as a sign the fact, that her name is stamped on an unknown man’s shirt – Made in USA. In that bed, the father wants to do.what?! .take his own daughter in a strange way. With love and care, without any touch of perversity or forbidden desire or suggestion of incest. Just as a duty and a long-established ritual. Watching the scene with “civilized” expectations of an embarrassing-to-be event, the viewer is not given the chance to comprehend it as a brutal act. The girl carefully refuses. Her reason – she must remain chaste till the next day’s ceremony, when one of the young women from the village will be c r owned the Holy Virgin. This is a great honour, a dream, a sacred moment of a lifetime. Afterwards, during the next three days of the Holy Week, Jesus is dead and has not yet been resurrected, so He can’t see what’s taking place on the Earth, therefore there is no sin. And Madeinusa makes her slip-up – to be deflowered by a personable stranger passing by, rather than by her father. By a Gringo. To follow her heart instead of submitting to the rite. Still other trivial spectator’s assumptions fail to come true. The father finds out what Madeinusa has done and comes home not to punish, but to take what belongs to him. Or at least what has remained. As if nothing has happened. Just like with the sleeping Jesus: pretending that a thing, if reportedly unseen, does not exist. Maybe the father is not angry, because he deeply respects the local belief. Maybe he is simply wise. No answer. Murders come in the wake and those are already sins. But, no, not because people have been killed. The Holy Week is over and Jesus sees again.

Having the basic plot of a closed community and an intruder, who will catalyze events and will die at the end, Madeinusa tells a much more complicated story in an unusual way. The first-time feature film director 30-year-old Claudia Llosa, has transferred her own script onto the screen with an intelligent approach to ambiguous would-be readings of the cinematic fable. She challenges the audiences’ habits to predict the film’s plot and to locate the film’s message. No preliminary judgment on the part of the director. No verdicts, no accusations. Passionate observations instead and uniquely authentic performances. The only thing needed is a public without prejudices, an audience emotional and smart enough to comprehend the philosophical and psychological power of the movie.

Chastity age and impartial camera

Somewhere in a small town of Patagonia, “en medio de la nada” as film subheading says. A bed and a mother with her teenage son, just a bit older daughter and her boy friend. Children watch TV; their mother comes home and literally climbs up the bed, making her way to the pillows and a better view o f the TV set, through the almost naked bodies of her human puppies. It’s a hot summer evening and everyone has thrown off as many clothes as possible. The bizarre scene, in danger of sounding at least strangely and (again!) embarrassing, is shot with an ultimate innocence. That innocence – do not mistake it for naivety – marks the whole Argentinean film Glue and its story about the son Lucas and first experiences in kissing, masturbation, self-improving as a mature man, doping i.e. inhaling glue. The mostly absent father is a promiscuous architect, regularly driven out and back into the house by his wife. Lucas hangs around town, courts Andrea together with his pal Nacho and gets high on glue with him, releasing their mutual homoerotic attraction just to stop at the point of “nothing has happened”. And then at a dance, the three teenagers hide in the toilets to start triple-kissing. Close-ups, slow editing and timing long enough to give an opportunity for calm observation. Embarrassment? No. Sense of guilt? Not at all.

A parallel jumps into mind immediately with a very similar plot. Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (I sognatori). What a difference in fact! Bertolucci’s teenagers keep observing and spying on themselves and each other all the time and the director insists on it, giving them a big mirror in the bathroom. Their sexual curiosity is strained. A tension rises in the trio and this is not physical, sexual tension alone. It is much more the instinct for superiority or submission, a fight of individuals not yet fully aware of their bodies’ inner forces. Between the teenagers in The Dreamers there is attraction, but rivalry and jealousy as well. They are curious but not innocent. The explosion at the end is inevitable. In Glue, written and directed by 32-year-old Alexis Dos Santos, the three youngsters simply share their (sexual) vital energy. It starts and ends without preparation or reflection. It simply happens in a teenagers’ universe – more sensitive than rational, more instinctive than motivational. And at the end of Glue, no explosion takes place. On the contrary, there is reconciliation of a family, no matter how short it would probably be. There is a befriending of father and son. There is peace and hope.

Guiltlessness as tragedy

Somewhere in the working-class quarters of Amsterdam. Just one bed. A teenage boy and a father. A ballerina tutu in their home to be found by the father in his son’s room. The son is too gentle, too vulnerable despite his sportive looks and muscles. Fiercely devoted to his boxing school, the father, when not teasing him directly, constantly hurts his own child with neglect and indifference. Compared to father’s boxing trainees, the boy is suspiciously different. Who is that young boy, leaving his own birthday party dressed in the pink tutu? A latent gay, a transvestite or simply not that a macho as his parent is? Who is his father, pretending to look for a shrink for his son? And why do they fight so hard? The Netherlands psychological study Northern Light (Langer licht) starts as a pretty well-staged traditional generation gap drama. Nothing suggests the sudden change of tone, the prompt revelations. And nothing resembles the ordinary plot twists of mainstream movies. A deep family tragedy has made the innocent father and son victims of agonising pain. And each of them desperately tries to cope with it in their own way. The instinct to hold someone responsible co-exists with the attempt to make people, you care about, invulnerable to loss and defeat. Cruelty has ousted love; alienation has replaced solicitude in search of inner stability and strength. And all this happens under the surface of everyday life in a sunny backyard of a quiet and cosy home, shifting the relations into an abyss of unachieved consolation. And yet, Northern Light deals with its tragic territories somehow lightly, leaving the viewer to find answers relevant to his/her personal understanding of life.

Innocent homo attraction

Somewhere in a French province in summer, a teenage boy dies in an accident on the soccer field. His death triggers hidden dramas, feelings of guilt, hints of corruption, carefully mentioned and followed by the French director Franck Guerin in his feature debut A Summer Day. Again someone must be held accountable, because a child’s death is especially unfair and redemption is needed. Meanwhile another teenager – the dead boy’s best friend Sebastian – finds himself orphaned. Amidst the quiet local community storm, Sebastian gradually realizes that he lacks his own, true identity. He wrongly thought he had it, while submitting to the natural boyish superiority of his lost friend. He tries to replace it with new attraction to some other guy. Involuntary glances, the unconscious leaning of their bodies to each other, the moments of spiritual intimacy in the warm grass of the fields. As much as it looks like an elegant and delicate homo erotic detail, it profoundly reveals the process of growing up. Sometimes – so very often, unfortunately -tragic things just happen in life without any particular reason. Without crimes, without culprits.

It comes as no surprise that young filmmakers are interested in young people’s problems. What makes the difference is the unprejudiced filming of issues. There is such a relief to find your own (professional) inertia challenged.