New from Eastern Europe

in 26th Warsaw Film Festival

by Thomas Rothschild

If prison representation in film since the times of James Cagney and Paul Muni has become a metaphor for society, post-communist Eastern Europe must certainly be a huge prison. The character Silviu in the Romanian feature film If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle by Floran Serban is near to being released from prison but prefers to protect his individual integrity by not sticking to the rules. If he wants to have a coffee with a young woman, he has the coffee, whatever price he has to pay for it. Matilda in another Romanian film, Outbound by Bogdan George Apetri, is allowed a day off from prison for her mother’s funeral. She has another three years to serve and tries to escape from the country. But there is no hope in a world of greediness, hatred and crime. She will have to go back to prison. But the asylum in Sweden to which a refugee from Belarus is sent with her little daughter, or the hospital in which Prioska in the Hungarian film Adrienn Pál works, look very much like prisons. Crime, brutality and loneliness is found all over the place. It isn’t a very comforting picture young eastern film directors deliver from the world they live in.

The Warsaw International Film Festival is an excellent opportunity to get information about newcomers in Eastern Europe. Not only is the programming really professional, also the organization has standards not often reached at events of this kind. The FIPRESCI jury, concerned with first and second films from Eastern Europe is treated so friendly and looked after so efficiently, that work becomes a pure pleasure in Warsaw.

One of the few films that brought some light in to the rather gloomy portrait of Eastern Europe was Elephant by Russian director Vladimir Karabanov. A circus elephant is sick and is to be put down. The driver that is to transport the animal to an animal’s hospital “steals” the elephant. A female clown follows him and a kind of difficult friendship develops between the two. One might be reminded of Fellini’s La strada (1954) here. The poetical journey works on two levels, on a concrete one with wonderful shots of the elephant in different landscapes and a symbolic one: the elephant of course is also a metaphor for luck or hope or something alike. Elephant was one of the most original and most touching films in the Warsaw Festival.

The Polish films such as The Christening by Marcin Wrona, Lynch by Krzysztof Lukaszewicz and also Between Two Fires by Agnieszka Lukasiak show a world full of brutality. Only one of the young Polish directors in the Warsaw competitions chose another approach. Marek Lechkis’ Erratum is a quiet film about a man returning to the place of his childhood. Like Ingmar Bergman’s Sarabande (2003) or Stéphane Brizé’s Not Here to be Loved (Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé, 2005) this is also a film about the conflict between a father and his son. It is the camera work of Przemyslaw Kaminski that has a great part in the value of this wonderful picture. It is Lechkis second film – in eight years!

Hunting Down Small Predators is the first film by Tzvetodar Markov from Bulgaria. It consists of clichés only, but that is not a mistake. By quoting situations and re-creating the atmosphere of classic gangster movies and dedicating them to the children that grew up in “the years of transition”, Markov suggests that these clichés haven’t lost their meaning. This debut is already a masterpiece in its technique as well as in its acting.

Warsaw is nearer to Berlin than, let’s say, Stuttgart. But the film-goers in the West know more about Texas or Oklahoma than about Eastern Europe. In the evening, in the Club Harenda, Stefan Laudyn, the director of the Warsaw International Film Festival, plays the guitar. Relaxed and joyful. We need Eastern Europe more than it needs us.

Edited by Steven Yates