Looking East By Jan Olszewski
“Go West, young man, and grow with the country”. Horace Greeley’s famous motto was meant as a battle cry, encouraging young people in America to conquer parts of the land not yet disclosed to the settlers. The motto of the Wiesbaden Film Festival goEast has a different meaning. It tries to convince people living in the middle of Europe, mostly Germans, to turn their heads towards the Eastern parts of the continent, to see and understand what is going on there. To make it possible, films from East Europe are invited and shown in competition.
So, then, what is going on there? Very different things — good, bad and very bad. As could have been expected, the bad ones prevailed. The troubles shown in the films were quite different, but they had one thing in common: they were affected by Soviet domination which lasted till the beginning of the Nineties. Since governments in Russia during the past century were never elected in a proper way, it may be said that Russia was under Soviet occupation as well.
Anyway, the remnants of the Soviet presence could be felt on the screen during the whole Festival. Cargo 200 (Gruz 200), a Russian film directed by Aleksei Balabanov, is the most obvious example of it. The time shown here is the year 1984, the place — the city of Petersburg, close to the Finnish border. Old Socialist values and formulas, mixed with influences from the West, are losing their grip, complete decay is closing in. Corruption overtakes everything, especially the police, where brute force makes the militiamen feel omnipotent. Simple people, in their own way, try to imitate them.
In most of the films, however, the Communist rule has already been gone for several years, giving way to freedom. But freedom brings unlucky results. Despotism is gone, corruption remains and is growing. A lot of people try to make money at any price, forgetting about human values. Family disintegration became commonplace — and is now the main subject of these movies. The Estonian film Magnus by Kadri Kousaar deals with it in the most frightening way. A young boy was abandoned by his parents: they entered some fishy business, divorced, then disappeared. Now 25, the boy gets in touch with his father and informs him about his desire to commit suicide. The father, a personification of ugliness and evil, finds the boy’s decision quite reasonable. One is almost unable to believe in this story — but it is based on actual facts. So, Horace Greeley’s motto has been now replaced by a new one: “Get rich, young man, and don’t give a damn for anything else”. Evil is frightening and ugly, but sometimes it might become impressive. In Magnus it almost does.
Anyway: there were ten films here, ten similar stories. Among them, a peculiar group of four might be singled out. These four not only show things that went wrong, like in the rest of them; they also try to find a way to make things better. In Patchwork (Kurak korpe), a film from Kazakhstan, the director Rustem Abdrashitov suggests the troubles of the modern (or postmodern) world might to some extent be cured, when patterns of folk culture and old tradition would be respected. The film At the River (U reki) from the Ukraine by Eva Neymann says more or less the same thing, only the folklore has been replaced by the tradition of “high culture” from the turn of the 19th century, as depicted by Chekhov. Of course, both rescue proposals are not quite successful, being a poetic dream rather than a pragmatic device. In the Russian picture Simple Things (Prostye veshchi), by Aleksei Popogrebsky, we meet a whole group of totally corrupted men, mostly physicians. Their arrogant way of life seems awful, but it soon becomes evident that they might be broken very easily by the pressure of women. This happy ending is acceptable, but only under one condition: we have to believe female obstinacy is never connected with any kind of evil. Shakespeare had some doubts about it once.
This leaves us with one picture: the Polish All Will be Well (Wszystko bedzie dobrze). The only chance for rescue here, as expressed by the director Tomas Wiszniewski, is faith in God. The main protagonist, a boy of 11, goes on a pilgrimage, praying to the Holy Mary, hoping a miracle will save his mother who is dying of cancer. The mother eventually dies. It seems the prayers have not be fulfilled. But then, at the end of the story, some miracle really happens, only not the one the boy has been asking for.
Of all the ten features presented at the Festival, the Estonian Magnus and the Polish All Will Be Well had the most different proposals, standing on two opposite extremes: Magnus making a journey to the end of the night, as Céline once did, All Will be Well looking for tiny rays of hope in the darkness. In the end, the FIPRESCI prize went to Magnus, not a bad decision at all.
One doubt remains, however. The decision might be understood as a proof that evil has a fascinating influence on all of us. Would this be another symptom of the Soviet heritage?