New Countries, New Cinema By João Antunes

in 16th Tromso International Film Festival

by Joao Antunes

The birth or rebirth of new countries in Eastern Europe, with the fall of the Soviet block and the end of the Balkan wars, led not only to a new geo-political map but also to a new film map. This fact enhanced the importance of film festivals like Tromso, where the program is not dictated by a group of mixed economical and diplomatic reasons, as we often see at the major events in this area — thus allowing more space to productions coming from different areas of the world.

The competition and the sidebars of the Tromso International Film Festival allowed the viewers, mainly young students from the very energetic academic environment of this northern Norwegian city, to see a few examples of the cinema those new countries are producing, often hidden only a decade and a half ago by their regimes.

We decided to choose three examples, from countries that did not yet exist in those times. One of them — Kosovo — still does not exist officially, but cinema already shows the way. Foreigners know from the news that most of these countries are really trying to do good. If movies are a reflection of reality, these three will show that — even if it’s visible that so much is still to do – are really on the good way.

A Few Feet Under

Coming from Slovenia, Gravehopping (Odgrobadogrob), by Jan Cvitokovic, is one of those movies that talk about the miracle life, even when death is all over it. That allows us to come out of the cinema with an optimistic smile, even when the darkest sequence is at the end. Using dark poetry and humour the young director (born in 1966 and already awarded in Venice for his first feature, Bread and Milk) shows an enormous dedication and tenderness towards his characters.

The entire movie turns around Pero, who has the most depressing work imaginable. He is a professional funeral speaker in a small town. However, sentimental and loving life, he is trying to save the lives and souls of the living around him: his father, a compulsive but always unsuccessful suicide candidate, the girl he wants, who has her own strange secrets, and his best friend who’s planning his own dramatic and spectacular funeral.

Using a simple narrative structure, but not afraid to put in action the most radical symbolisms — political, religious and philosophical — Jan Cvitkovic gives us in Gravehopping an allegory of life and death, of violence and harmony, of inner beauty and external ugliness. These are the forces fighting in a country where ancestral tradition gives way to a new order. The cinematographical quality of his work, well expressed in the outstanding final shot, gives him a sure place in the building of a new cinema in his new country.

Cinema With a View

Kukumi, directed by veteran Isa Qosja, is a clear and beautiful example of the geographic and artistic complexities of the movies made in this part of the world. The director was born in Montenegro, studied acting in Pristina and directing in Belgrade. Now, he presented the first movie from Kosovo, even before the country really existed.

But even if Kukumi is precisely situated in time and place, it gets more and more universal, leaving soon the political agenda to transform itself in a philosophical reflexion on the freedom of mind and body, on love and of mental sanity. It’s true the movie begins in 1999, when NATO forces occupied Kosovo to protect the area from Serbian attacks. But its beautiful storyline could take place wherever there’s a war, wherever there’s someone incarcerated because of their freedom of spirit.

Kukumi begins, and ends, in a mental institution. The climate of chaos, with all guards running away, allows the inmates to escape. There is then the via sacra of Kukumi, a kind of mystical character with the power to survive, and the enormous and simple-minded Hasan, and Mara, the woman both dispute. After all the situations they live through and the characters they meet on their way, there’s no other healthy solution than to return to their previous home.

With a simple message implied, Isa Qosja concentrates his efforts in creating an astonishing visual work from the camera movements and framing to the beautiful and smashing involvement of the three main characters in the landscape. A kind of Milos Forman meeting Antonioni, Kukumi is one of the rare cases where we can sense a view behind the camera, an idea of cinema and an artistic vision of the world we live in.

The Records They Only Want

Finally, in this short digression in this new area of film-making, we found The Shutka Book of Records by Aleksandar Maniae. Born in 1966, in Yugoslavia, but raised in Germany, Maniae graduated from the Prague Academy of Film and Television and decided to establish himself in that city. Even if officially credited to the Czech Republic, The Shutka Book of Records won the Audience award (as well as a FIPRESCI prize) for being the most popular movie from Serbia & Montenegro. But the story, if we can call it a story, takes place in Macedonia…

When we enter the cinema we surely know that we are going to see a documentary. But then, very soon we forget it. The Shutka Book of Records is a very entertaining movie. Aleksandar Maniae is one of those filmmakers who clearly understand that you have to entertain the audience (not necessarily in the Hollywood sense of the term), and does it thoroughly in this movie.

The main characters of the movie help a lot, although. Shutka, nicknamed Happy Valley, is a small village in Macedonia. It’s obvious by the images that Manic surely had as much fun to shoot his images as we have to see them, and that the place surely is among the poorest of the poor. But the people there are champions. All of them. No matter what: collectors of Turkish music, vampire hunters, creators of music videos, exterminators of evil genies, owners of fighting geese.

Allowing us to know a little more of this world, and by comparison putting our own values on stake, Maniae reflects on the connection between money, or the absence of it, and joy, about moral values, social standards, good taste and bad taste, myths and mystification. Luckily, even if we are almost all very different from the characters this movie shows, we surely know we are also laughing at ourselves. One of the wealthiest feeling, what The Shutka Book of Records gives us.