Money for Nothing?

in 25th Warsaw Film Festival

by Melis Behlil

The FIPRESCI Jury at the impeccably organized 25th Warsaw Film Festival was entrusted with the task of giving a prize to one of thirteen films, all first and second features from Eastern Europe.  While this may sound like a rather straight-forward category, it raises two predicaments. In addition to the classical problem faced by anyone interested in national cinemas (“what does it mean that a film is from somewhere?”), how would Eastern Europe be defined? Luckily, the films were chosen for us, and we didn’t have to concern ourselves with the geopolitics. Eastern Europe generally brings to mind the countries formerly united with the Warsaw Pact, now mostly members of the European Union. As we watched our films, however, I noticed a certain tendency among these films that set a clear partition between those from the EU countries and those that were not. I do realize that such a statement is a gross generalization; nonetheless, a very clear division between thirteen films viewed over a week tempted me to formulate a thematic pattern I have observed. For full disclosure, I must note that I come from Turkey, whose elusive attempts at an EU membership may have rendered my perception somewhat selective.

It must be a coincidence that we first watched the four films that were not from EU countries: George Ovashvili’s The Other Bank (Gagma Napiri) from Georgia, Gulshat Omarova’s Native Dancer (Baksy) from Russia (although set in Kazakhstan), and Asli Ozge’s Men on the Bridge (Koprudekiler) along with Mehmet Bahadir Er and Maryna Gorbach’s Black Dogs Barking (Kara Kopekler Havlarken) from Turkey. All four, to greater or lesser extent, revolve around money, or lack thereof. The young protagonist of The Other Bank, portrayed wonderfully by Tedo Bekhauri, tries to survive on his own in a hostile environment, resorting to various scams. Survival is also at the heart of the two Turkish films; where men work hard on the bridge to make ends meet, Selim and Chacha from Black Dogs Barking attempt to enter the underworld to move upward in life, to tragic consequences. And in Native Dancer, which tells the story of an elderly shaman, it is the involvement of gangsters that sets the events into motion.

Ignas Miskinis’ Low Lights (Artimos Sviesos) from Lithuania was the first on our list from an EU country, and the contrast was startling. Three upper-middle class urbanites in their thirties drive their cars in the darkness of the night and encounter random strangers, all in an attempt to escape the mundanity of their lives and the alienation experienced in the big city. Similar themes informed a number of the other films such as Pawel Borowski’s Zero from Poland. Foxes (Listieky), Mira Fornay’s debut feature from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, told the story of two Slovak sisters in Dublin. The film focuses on the troublesome relationship between the two sisters and not on migration problems, as a film from the previous decade might have done. Even as the main protagonist in Kamen Kalev’s Eastern Plays from Bulgaria lives in near-poverty (as his step mother likes to point out), it is his drug addiction and his struggles to hold on to a meaningful life that define him. Roland Vranik’s Transmission (Adás) from Hungary is set in the near future where television and computer screens no longer function. While the premise sounds like a science-fiction story, the film concerns itself with the despair of the people when they are forced to interact with one another rather than with their screens. The sense of alienation, isolation and despair brings to mind another era in film history, the Italian cinema of the 1960s. While I could not possibly compare any of these films to the works of Fellini and Antonioni, their overall themes do bear a similarity that warrants a mention.

There are of course other films on our list that do not center around desperation (whether for money or for meaning). Both entries from Romania, Radu Jude’s The Happiest Girl in the World (Cea mai fericita fata din lume) and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (Politist, Adjectiv) tell stories of ordinary people in their daily lives, with very long takes. And the recipient of the FIPRESCI Prize, Borys Lankosz’s brilliant Reverse (Rewers) from Poland, is a black comedy largely set in the 1950s.

As I was heading to see the last film on our list, I was curious if the pattern would hold. It’s Aron Matyassy’s Lost Times (Utolso Idok), a beautifully shot story about a young man and his mentally disabled sister. Having lost their parents, the two siblings have to make it on their own, leading the brother to delve into smuggling gas from Ukraine. Smuggling and survival in an EU country? Was my pattern falling to pieces? But then I remembered the title that preceded the film: 06-1997. Lost Times was set seven years before Hungary’s accession into the EU. No need to worry. Admittedly, it would be quite a stretch to claim that EU membership is the one variable that makes a difference in these films’ themes. But thirteen is a large enough number that leads one to think it just might…

Edited by Yael Shuv