Is Neo-Realism Back Again?

in 14th Bratislava International Film Festival

by Julia Khomiakova

The four of ten competition films of the 14th International Film festival in Bratislava tell us about unemployment. The plots of Present Time (Simdiki zaman, dir. Belmin Soylenmez, Turkey), Lotus (Xiao He, dir. Liu Shu, China), Curses of the Cage (Essa maldita vontade de ser passaro, dir. Paula Fabiana and Adrian Steinway, Brazil) and Crawl (dir. Herve Lasgouttes, France)  are all about young people who, after losing or hopeless search for a proper job, find a somewhat primitive and even shameful “gig” which, firstly regarded as something temporary, turns out to be a strong mouse trap very difficult to get out. A victim is needed to get rid of this “curse of a cage”, be it a good-bye to former ambitions or loss of somebody you love, or great efforts on behalf of the whole family.  Well, young years are full of life-long mouse traps like, for example, the unlucky marriage of Mina, protagonist of Present Time who, abandoned by her husband, can find no other job except as a fortune-teller in a street cafe. However, the young authors evidently see no way out for their young characters. Clara (The Curses of the Cage) dreams of returning to ballet although she doesn’t seem like a promising dancer; Mina dreams of emigration to the USA, where nobody and nothing is waiting for her; Yoav, son of two old Israelites (Epilogue, Hayuta ve Berl, dir. Amir Manor, Israel) had already left for NY, which has broken his parents’ hearts.  Enthusiastic socialist Berl and his faithful wife Hayuta had once given their best  years to build Israel, which now seems alien to themselves: “We had built Israel, while they [corrupted governments] sold it!” – says Berl in rage: patriot and devoted socialist, he is everything but a “doting Jewish Dad”. A similar accusation comes from the elderly Chinese cinematographer, interviewed by Lotus: “In our time we the young Communists were ready to do everything for our motherland – not for money or for one’s own sake. As nowadays!” And it is important that nobody – neither parents nor children –  denies that corruption and amorality reign supreme! Nevertheless their sincere indignation cannot unite parents and children against the ruling monster of global imperialism as it frightens them all. And, what is even more sad, nothing can provide shelter or asylum – neither family (La Sirga (dir. William Vega, Columbia), nor art (The Curses of the Cage), Hold Back (Rengaine, dir. Rachid Djaidani, France), Oh Boy (dir. Jan Ole Gerster, Germany).

What else keeps people going? A faith? Well, in Hold Back which seemed to me epigone after the “Dogme 95” films of Abdellatif Kechiche and Laurent Cantet, we see that Islam is helpless before racism: a black Moslem is still unacceptable by a white Moslem (although living in France and equally alien to locals). “Tradition makes me strong” – says Slimane in Hold Back. However, tradition should yield when love (or at least strong passion) appears.  ‘Why do you wear your scarf, is it really necessary for a believer?” – asks a Bosnian young girl in Children of Sarajevo (Deti Sarajeva, dir. Aida Begic, Bosnia-Herzegovina), and Rahima the protagonist answers: “Let us not speak about politics, better let’s have a smoke”. The political aspect in question, as the reporter of Russian “Komsomol’skaya Pravda” newspaper had revealed, is that Saudi Arabian organizations pay 200 euros per month to women who wear scarves! Well, since Rahima hardly makes both ends meet, she needs this aid to raise her junior brother (both are orphans of war). At least Rahima (and Aida Begic?) differentiate between faith and economic necessity. But … is this what Bosnians were fighting for, killing and dying? Do these 200 euros amount to a decent price of destroying Yugoslavia? In any case, it is important that now it is at least possible to shoot feature films suggesting an European “parallel reality,” and concerning ethnic communities or ethnic mafia. However, these are not mainstream movies, and nobody except for film festival audience sees them.

Within the frameworks of the festival there was a panel discussion about the barriers between film art, film critique and film audience in Eastern Europe. The problem is, however, that not only cinema but culture in general is losing its common basis and common language. Even in the competition films (Hold Back, Oh Boy) you cannot help but feel a bitter irony towards modern art with its shocking and epatage qualities – in other words, towards its destructive instincts. But outside the walls of theatres and studios there is a real life full of dramatic social-psychological problems and multicultural collisions, which this “modern art” prefers not to notice. So, it is not surprising that many young filmmakers as the ones already mentioned, move closer to classic Italian neo-realism.

However who would ever deny that the audience, living such a hopelessly hard life, needs entertainment movies, which also deal with social reality? Well, Serbian Bojan Vuletic in his Practical Guide to Belgrade With Singing and Crying (Practican vodic kroz Beograd sa pevanjem i plakanjem) told us four tragi-comic stories (definitely influenced by Emir Kusturica), full of Balkan-Slavonic music and songs. But music, fortunately, is not the only element that marks the couleur local. In the fourth short story, Orhan, a Turk living in Germany falls in love with a beautiful Serbian, the single mother Jagoda. Her knowledge of Turkish words and customs shows how deeply have Serbs “internalized” the culture of their Osman occupants during those 400 years of Ottoman occupation. This makes Jagoda feel a bit Turkish while Orhan, in his turn, feels somewhat Serbian (why not, if one is to recall the number of Slavic women, held in harems during said 400 years?) This explains why Orhan has chosen Belgrade for his business! Well, while Serbia shall probably never forget the attacks from East and West it was subjected to throughout its history, Bojan Vuletic makes a gesture of good will by showing to the world that love can be stronger than nationalism. A young author may still hope (and must hope!) that this love, just like the love between an Arab and a Jew in Hold Back, may last forever. Youth is youth.

However, in some competition films (La Sirga, Children of Sarajevo, Present Time) a young woman or a girl is so severely bogged down by poverty and vulnerability that no place for love is left in her suffering heart.  Which is probably the worst. Because if not now, then when will she experience love? And who would be able to conquer a young heart, burdened so heavily? Who would be that man?

The protagonist of Oh Boy, performed by young promising actor Tom Schilling, also looks for a new way in life yet never finds it – and not because of poverty or vulnerability.  Niko is the only son of a wealthy Dad who bought him an apartment and pays for his college education until he discovers that Niko has stopped going to school 2 years ago.  All doors seem to be open for Niko, yet he, just like the ordinary fisherman Martin in Crawl, can’t find anything that would keep his interest long enough.  The only thing this young post-industrial man cares about is freedom… well, until he (unlike Martin who has two loving women – his sister and girlfriend) finds out that nobody really cares for him. Is he doomed to die alone as the old Friedrich whom Niko occasionally meets in a cafe? Friedrich left Germany in 1941 but is now alien in his own native city of Berlin, barely understanding its new dialect. Is thus loneliness and alienation the price of his freedom?

Oh Boy, our prize winner, also touched on our nostalgic memories of black and white cinema and gave a healing relaxation to our eyes, tired after seeing so many films in digital projection. I joined in the flash-mob of young Slovak film critics in support of celluloid cinema – both for shooting and screening. But more important was the appeal to remember that we are citizens! At the end of Oh Boy Niko, for whom the WW2 is nothing but a mainstream movie about love between a Nazi officer and a Jewish woman (he recalls seeing the set of such a film) suddenly becomes a secret trestle and makes it clear that Niko is not only a consumer but also a citizen – of what, though?

It is significant that in most competition films except for Lotus and Epilogue, the characters don’t ever think they are also citizens.  State and public institutions exist out there, totally detached from their lives, showing no protection or assistance. So, who are these people who grew up within the last 36 years (the average age of the competition films’ directors)? Are they lonely wolves, degenerated playboys or slaves, or psychopaths ready to blame their complexes on the whole world? Yet above all: where are the people who prefer to notice the other, different young people I know – authors, producers or officials in film foundations?

Edited by Christina Stojanova