New Films from Eastern Europe: Dealing with Reality By Julian Petley

in 17th Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Julian Petley

The ten films in competition at this year’s Cottbus film festival came from countries as varied as Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Russia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Georgia and Poland. Indeed, quite apart from its excellence in so many other ways, one of the basic virtues of Cottbus is that it simply reminds us that, in spite of all the immense difficulties of one kind or another faced by the countries of the former eastern bloc and Soviet Union, they still manage to produce films – moreover, films which, in spite of their relative invisibility outside their countries of origin or the festival circuit, are both eminently cinematic and highly revealing about the culture within which they were produced.

The two strongest contenders in the competition were both from Russia – The Banishment (Izgnanie), directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev and Travelling with Pets (Puteschestvie s domashnimi zhvotnymi), directed by Vera Storozheva. Zvyaginstev’s debut feature The Return (Vozvrashcheniye) won numerous awards in 2003 (including the ecumenical jury prize in Cottbus), and his second was thus eagerly awaited. An intensely atmospheric, brooding study of long-gestating tensions and problems gradually welling to the surface during a family holiday in a remote old house in the country, the film weaves a powerful spell reminiscent of Tarkovsky. Zvyagintsev really knows how to use his settings — interior and exterior, intimate and expansive — to maximum dramatic effect, whilst biblical allusions, mythological references and a score derived from Russian orthodox chants and Arvo Pärt constantly suggest the wider resonances of this particular family drama. This all works very well whilst what is eating away at the heart of the family remains shrouded in mystery, but, unfortunately, once the secret is revealed, the spell is considerably dissipated and the film begins to seem distinctly over-long at 150 minutes.

Travelling with Pets is the third feature directed by Vera Storozheva, who has also made over 25 television documentaries. Far less heavyweight than The Banishment it is nevertheless a remarkably assured and highly imaginative film. No wonder, then, that it won five prizes at Cottbus, including the FIPRESCI prize and two from the festival jury. At its heart is a radiant performance by Kseniya Kutepova, a young stage actress for whom this, almost unbelievably, is her screen debut. Here she plays Natalie who, suddenly finding herself on her own when her railway worker husband dies, begins to experience her surroundings as if for the first time, and gradually establishes a new life for herself. Described thus, the film sounds distinctly slight, trite even, but right from the very opening shots one is immediately struck by the freshness and originality of its vision. Of course, the trackside setting lost deep in the vast expanses of rural Russia would be a gift to any film-maker with even half an eye for landscape, but Travelling with Pets is so much more than simply picturesque. As we accompany Natalie on her voyages of discovery, we too, thanks to the transformative power of cinema, begin to discover the world anew. Natalie herself is at her most fascinating before her wayward and capricious behaviour is finally explained (after which point the film does occasionally succumb to the whimsical), but even after this her performance remains absolutely central to the film’s creation of a truly magical aura.

The possibility of a new life is also the subject of the Kyrgyzstani Pure Coolness (Boz salkyn) and the Polish Tricks (Sztucki). In the former, directed by previous Cottbus prize-winner Ernest Abdyjapariv, a young woman from the city goes to the country to meet her husband-to-be’s parents. Whilst there, she becomes the victim of mistaken identity and is ‘stolen’ as a bride for another man. In a complete reversal of Soviet-era films (where modern urban values won out over traditional rural ones), she decides to give her new life a try. Original though this twist may be, though, it simply isn’t convincing, however beautifully the film registers the mountainous countryside in which the city girl ends up as a shepherdess.

Meanwhile in Andrzej Jakimowski’s second feature, Tricks, a young boy living with his mother and older sister begins to think that a man whom he regularly sees at the railway station may in fact be his long-lost father. This child’s eye view of adult life set in a sleepy Polish town during the hot summer days has a good deal of the charm associated with the Czech cinema of the 1960s, and the performances of the two young leads are particularly natural and likeable. Amusing, engaging and occasionally sad too, this is a film which works very well both as a straightforward story and, in an entirely unforced way, as a wider picture of life in contemporary small-town Poland.

Life on a vast rubbish dump outside Belgrade is the subject of Aleksandar Rajkovic’s Hamlet, an adaptation of the play set within the Roma community and performed largely by non-professionals from within that community. This is a far grimmer picture of Roma life than that painted by Emir Kusturica, and close in spirit to the “Black Wave” of Yugoslavian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s (not least Aleksandar Petrovic’s 1967 masterpiece a I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Skupljaci perj). Of course, only someone entirely devoid of visual sense could fail to exploit the dramatic possibilities of such a hellish setting, and Rajkovic comes through with flying colours here; the only problem, however, and it’s a major one, is that the film appears to have been shot largely in natural light and many scenes are quite simply too dark, in the literal sense of the word. This is a pity, as it does seriously detract from what is in every other respect a fascinating reworking of the original play. OK, so it’s not Kozintsev, but it’s not Olivier either.

Two films dealt with recent conflicts, Aleko Tsabadze’s The Russian Triangle (Rusuli samkudhedi) and Kristijan Milic’s The Living and the Dead (Zivi i mrtvi). The first concerns a Moscow law student of Georgian descent who, whilst on work placement in the city’s criminal investigation department, discovers that a series of murders are linked to the conflict in Chechnya. The most interesting part of the film is its portrayal of the wretched state of Russian veterans of the campaign, but too much of the time it plays simply as a crime movie (and a pretty unlikely one at that). Meanwhile The Living and the Dead interweaves two stories of two groups of soldiers making a hazardous journey through the same hostile mountain terrain: six Croatian combatants in 1989 during the Bosnian-Croatian conflict, and six Croatian and Muslim soldiers in World War II. The narrative has the distinct merit of showing the historical continuities between the two conflicts, albeit not in any great detail, but unfortunately (like parts of The Russian Triangle) the film never really gets beyond telling us that war is hell. However, what is perhaps most striking about The Living and the Dead is that it is actually a co-production between Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and thus, like the Cottbus festival itself, a clear sign that cinema has an extremely important role to play in fostering international co-operation, not least between formerly hostile or estranged powers.