New Waves, New Ideas… Old Scars

in 63rd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Steven Yates

How long exactly is a generation? How much does a generation progress from the previous one? These are among many poignant questions to address in regards to nations that were once part of the old USSR, whose aftermath continues to have an effect on the subsequent generation. It’s quite appropriate then that the Generation section of the Berlinale should include films that illustrate the lives of people in the many CIS nations, also with an encouraging presence of female directors.

Mother, I Love You (Mamu it Tevi Milu) by Janis Nords is a very intriguing film from Latvia which portrays the difficult situation between a struggling mother and her introverted young adolescent son Raimond. There is no father at home and Raimond’s mother works long hours at a clinic to make ends meet with little time for her emotionally demanding son. Raimond attends a local school specialising in music but the formality and unfriendliness provokes his indifference, eventually earning him a severe reprimand. Worried his initially oblivious mother will discover this, particularly when he requires her signature on his censure, he becomes embroiled in situations that will lead him deeper into trouble. Meanwhile, he discovers his mother has been deceptively exaggerating her night shifts so she can spend time with her new male companion. Shot on digital with mature production values, this is a surprisingly realistic drama, detailing Raimond’s emotional isolation while, both visually and narratively, conveying his school and neighbourhood as a bleak, and uncaring place to grow up. The director is both sensitive and sympathetic, telling the story entirely from Raimonds’ point of view.

Another Generation entry, MARUSSIA, a co-production from France and the Russian Federation, shares with Mother, I Love You the relationship between mother and offspring and also questions the responsibility of motherhood in difficult situations, here on a more desperate level. Directed by Eva Pervolovici, MARUSSIA is exemplary of the generation of displaced Russians over 20 years after the new freedoms, including relocation into other parts of Europe. The Marussia of the title is the young daughter of Lucia, a mother who has relocated from Russia to Paris, as she sees no future in her homeland. The premise of the film shows mother and daughter evicted from their temporary lodgings by their Russian acquaintances and so ensues days and nights homeless on the unforgiving Parisian streets struggling with their trolley suitcases, searching for somewhere else to stay and ultimately live. In this not so magical mystery tour, over the following five nights they will shelter with a Russian Orthodox priest, in a homeless hostel, party with a benevolent young local, hide in a cinema, then spend the fifth in a hotel with a surprisingly accommodating Russian artist.

The film depicts the strength of Lucia’s character, using her good looks, elegance and charm (she claims to be an artist) to negotiate in heart-wrenchingly desperate situations without being manipulated and being totally committed to Marussia. This loving bond between mother and daughter shows through and progressively makes Lucia’s character sympathetic, after first seeming irresponsible. The short time spent with the chance acquaintance, including romantic undercurrents, underlines this; foregoing the arrangement of a long-term shelter in order to safeguard Marussia. Ultimately, however, a tired and fed up Marussia decides upon her own free will, so creating a tense finale.

In the Forum section, In Bloom (Grzeli nateli dgeebi), a Georgian-German-French co-production, is the first feature film by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, exemplifying Georgia’s move into co-productions to raise its profile and do justice to the new wave of talented filmmakers emerging. In Bloom snapshots the country’s troubled recent history. Set in Tbilisi in 1992, just after the Soviet era has ended, civil war is raging in the province of Abkhazia. Against this backdrop, two innocent fourteen-year-olds, Natia and Eka, realize their innocent formative years have ended with only domestic chaos, insecurity, jealousy and violence to mirror the region’s troubles. Eka is growing up without her father and rebelling against her concerned mother and her older sister, while Natia’s alcoholic father terrorises her entire family. Outside their families, the two friends still cannot find peace — not in school, not in the bread lines, nor on the unsafe streets. An admirer gives Natia a pistol containing a single bullet then later another admirer abducts her, both acts being catalysts to catastrophe. In Bloom masterfully depicts a year zero Georgia with its portrayal of opposites: the soft with brutal, melancholy with aggression, absent love with cold-blooded violence, while serving as a requiem for tradition, childlike naiveté and a sense of the idyllic. Ultimately, it is an authentic document of a place and time, which for many reasons would have been almost impossible to make in 1992.

The Competition section entry from Kazakhstan, Harmony Lessons (Uroki Garmonii), was written, directed and edited by Emir Baigazin. However, at the Berlinale, it was his Director of Photography Aziz Zhambakiyev who won the main prize for an outstanding artistic contribution, elevating this film and Kazakh cinema into global focus. Aslan is a 13-year-old boy living with his grandma and attending a troubled village school where corruption and violence conflict with his perfectionist aspirations. His nemesis is the school’s gang leader Bolat, who humiliates him in front of his classmates and violently extorts money from the other pupils. Determined to rid his school of crime, Aslan plans revenge on Bolat.

In Harmony Lessons there appears to be a conspicuous allusion towards the recent Student (2012) by fellow Kazakh director Darejan Omirbaev, itself a film based on Dostoyevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment (1866). Indeed, the pacing and structure of the two films are similar; both having closed episodes, like short films in themselves, with an almost exaggeratedly slow, meditative, hypnotic style, akin to contemplative cinema. Therefore, it will be interesting to see if a particular formal Kazakhstan style of filmmaking emerges or whether Harmony Lessons is merely a unique homage to the renowned Omirbaev by first-time director Baigazin.

Steven Yates