Native Films – Universal Experiences

in 13rd Sofia International Film Festival

by Einar Staalesen

I would like to call them Native films. It is a demanding business to make films with little or no money. But it has a positive side to it. When filmmakers remain close to home, the audiences warm up faster to their films and accept them as something familiar. All twelve films from the main competition program at the 13th Sofia International Film Festival confirmed that staying close to home is an advantage not to be ignored.

It is all about telling the story from within, of being in and part of a culture, of knowing the people and their mentality first hand, and not just by hear-say, or by studiously learning about them. It is about capturing that elusive ‘something’ about the social norms and the local ways of communication. And then there is the language: for some of us, the native tongue is a major part of the film experience.

It is exciting to experience the strength of the local at a time when movie-makers from rich countries often travel abroad to tell about other people and countries. Yet they rarely capture that extra ‘something’, which ensures the authenticity of stories told and people portrayed. The person close to the story brings the audience closer to the experience. Provided they succeed, naturally.

Cumbia Connection (Cumbia callera) belongs in Mexico. The film is part of the country. Its momentum is in the music, the dance and spirit of life, rather than the love story about the beautiful girl with two lovers she can’t choose between. Culture creates the film experience, culture and the happy-go-lucky attitude to life’s challenges. What we see we also feel! (Mexico, 2007, directed by René U. Villarreal).

Autumn (Sonbahar, Turkey, 2008, directed by Ôzcan Alper) also gets its force from within, from the contact with the people and their culture. And it has that extra ‘something’ as well, often found in many, maybe too many, films nowadays. We meet men in prison and men being released from prison. The director finds drama in these extreme situations.

Zift (Bulgaria, 2008, directed by Javor Gardev) is film about crime and punishment. It is also a film with a richly nuanced social background, well beyond the grasp of any foreign filmmaker. But more than anything it is a film with a special style.

Chiko (Germany, 2008, directed by Özgür Yildirim) is a film about drug business and other related deadly activities. We have seen similar films quite often, but the bonus here lies in its cultural specificity. It shows loving portrayals of mothers and of regular visits to the mosque for prayers. The young Mafioso is oblivious to the conflicts of the surreptitious and violent life he is dragged into. However in order to take the pulse of the authentic Turkish-German environment as the Hamburg-based Özgür Yildirim and his producer Fatih Akin do so successfully, one needs to be inside this culture.

The Happiest Girl in the World (Cea mai fericita fata din lume, Romania/Netherlands, 2009, directed by Radu Jude), the winner of the FIPRESCI prize, is a simple story, which says a lot. It is a challenge to make interesting about 20 almost similar scenes. A girl from the countryside wins a slogan competition and is about to take part in a commercial. That leads to several re-takes. With each new take, the scenes become more and more intense. During the recesses between takes, we are taken through talking pictures and illustrated talking, and those come quite naturally, the way director Radu Jude imagines them. The film would have been fundamentally different if made by someone outside the portrayed milieu. Well, it wouldn’t have even been made, because it would have been hard to convince commercial producers that such a thin story could reveal such depths. Very little happens in the film, but it has that special ‘something’. The Happiest Girl in the World could have actually been made in any country with a communist past and a new capitalist present, but only by a local filmmaker.

Regardless of background, some filmmakers succeed, others do not. This year’s opening film The Goat (Kozelat, Bulgaria, 2009, directed by Georgi Djulgerov) is a patriotic comedy precisely about seeing people both from the inside and from the outside. It is a rich film, however sometime loses its mark. And also loses some of its ethnic authenticity when an actress is turned into a Gypsy with the help of make-up! Native Dancer (Baksy, Russia/Kazakhstan, 2008, directed by Guka Omarova) is too much of a folkloristic depiction. While some audiences might find this entertaining, others would be deterred by its lack of empathy. Native Dancer tries hard to make the local more universal.

In my opinion they fail. Because the local IS universal!