Lif(f)e’s Perspectives

in 31st Ljubljana International Film Festival

by Žiga Brdnik

This year’s Ljubljana International Film Festival’s (Liffe) competition programme, called Perspectives, focused on first feature films by directors from all over the world, truly serving us with insightful perspectives on the ever more absurd contemporary life in the Western world. Through five films, carefully picked by festival director Simon Popek, we got to know how it is to be: an assistant in the misogynist film industry, an adolescent in a disappearing Parisian suburb, a young man in the perspectiveless Balkan countryside, an immigrant from the South in North Europe, and an amnesia-stricken individual in modern estranged society. All of them are life forms of the modern Western (wo)man that are more and more common and cause tensions in the split inner worlds of people and among different cultures, without real answers for how to change or step out of the complex, hypernormalised zeitgeist of our era.

Like a Rat in a Maze

The winner of the FIPRESCI prize Exile (Exil, 2020), a Kosovo-German-Belgian co-production by the director Visar Morina is an extremely tense social thriller that grips the spectator for two hours, not letting him go from the harsh and paranoid world of an immigrant from Kosovo living in Germany. With exceptional use of film language, elaborate characters, a multi-layered story and very effective music, it uncompromisingly puts us in the shoes of Xhafer, who feels at every moment that he is a foreigner, but because of the subtle mechanisms of systemic racism unsuccessfully seeks a solution as well as his vanishing identity like a rat in a maze. The outspoken racists are absurdly enough a relief for him, as he tries to find the intangible source of his otherness and suffering. Are the North and the West really a promised land for people with a lack of perspective in their homeland, or does the violent integration into cold, estranged societies take a bigger toll?

A similar maze is built around the protagonist of The Assistant (2019) by the American director Kitty Green. Jane is a young, ambitious, aspiring producer, that works as an assistant for one of the top names in the business. She is quiet, hard-working and diligent and thus in some sense a favourite of the big boss. But she senses the abuse of power by the man in charge who is using his position to seduce young women who are trying to succeed in the film industry. A big dilemma arises in her as she is trying to alarm her co-workers and the responsible officer, but they all advise her to keep silent if she wants a career. Will she talk and try to end this gruesome practice – without any assurance of success – or be quiet so as to advance her own interests and become an accomplice? In only a single day of a lower-positioned assistant, we can sense the whole complexity of a misogynistic system that has been built around the film industry, protecting and even encouraging sexual predators such as Harvey Weinstein – to name only the most controversial one.

Cutting the Roots

Patriarchy is not only oppressing women but also men that are not of its very narrow prescribed type of how a “real man” should be. If you don’t have a job, a girlfriend, and are still living with your parents because you can’t afford to live on your own, you do not fit this description. If you are quiet, sensitive and introverted, you don’t have a chance in a macho-driven capitalist society, especially when it’s mixed with stiff traditionalism like in modern-day Serbia. That is the everyday hell of Dejan, the main character of the film My Morning Laughter (Moj jutranji smeh, 2019) directed by Marko Djordjević. He must literally cut off his roots that are painfully binding him and making him suffer because he is not how he should be. The ambivalence of patriarchy is personalised in a strange guru of sorts, played by the cult actor Nebojša Glogovac in his last role before his death. He reads Dejan and his mother well, but then violently attacks them under the belt by being vulgar, aggressive and macho, which has the opposite effect from what is wanted and needed. The film is shot on an extremely low budget, which gives it a special roughness and perspective through narrow framing; it also includes one of the most peculiar, clumsy, and awkward sex scenes in the history of film, which is all the more convincing as a symbol of this suffering young man’s adulthood.

If some must cut their roots to regain their freedom, others are forced to cut them or perish. This is the story of a young French boy in the film named after him and his home neighbourhood Gagarine (2020) and directed by Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh. The once famous Parisian suburb has grown old and has to be demolished because it doesn’t comply with living standards anymore. The fatherless Gagarine, who is also being neglected by his mother and therefore all alone without his mates, doesn’t want to accept this and is slipping into dreams of being an astronaut to fly away from this painful solitude. But friendship and love can be stronger than buildings and thus an answer to our ever-growing anxiety and loneliness. The latter also haunts the protagonist of the film Apples (Mila, directed by Christos Nikou, 2020). Because he can’t cope with a big loss in his life, he wants to cut off everything and begin anew. He fakes amnesia so as to get a new life by the authorities, but forgetting of course can’t be always the solution. Sometimes you must accept the harsh reality and summon strength to go on. When the time is ripe, it can be as easy as eating an apple; when it’s not, it can be almost impossible. But that’s life, and the perspective you can create on it can help you understand it, cope with it and maybe even sometimes love and enjoy it.

Žiga Brdnik
Edited by Nace Zavrl