News from the East By Isabelle Danel

in 19th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Isabelle Danel

As every critic or cinema buff might have noticed, at least with three major features films in the last two years (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu by Cristi Puiu, 12:08 East of Bucharest by Corneliu Porumboiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days by Cristian Mungiu), the Romanian cinema seems in such great shape that it has been labeled a “New Wave”.

Looking at the films submitted by each country for the “Foreign Language Academy Award” and shown during the 19th Palm Springs International Film Festival would confirm that something important is happening in Eastern European countries. Not only because of the opening of frontiers (which is a theme of many of the films) but also because young people who grew up during the Communist era are now graduates of cinema schools keen to tell a story and show their skills behind a camera.

Except for the veteran Nikita Mikhalkov (born in 1945) who presented 12, a Russian remake of 12 Angry Men by Sidney Lumet, most of the directors in competition were born in the seventies and have directed no more than three films. Amongst them is our FIPRESCI Grand Prize Winner, the Croatian Ognjen Svilicic (Armin) who has all the qualities of a great director. But he was not the only one to give us hope for the new East European generation.

Even if far from perfect, the Estonian film The Class (Klass) portrays a shy adolescent harassed by his co-students suddenly protected by one of them, the plot developing towards a terrible killing on the campus. Under the heavy shadow of the widely acclaimed Elephant by Gus Van Sant, the filmmaker, Ilmar Raag, shows remarkable qualities in directing the young actors and capturing the emotions of what it is like being trapped in adolescence. The Bosnian Srdjan Vuletic, with his second feature-length movie, It’s Hard to Be Nice (Tesko je biti fin), follows the steps of a man — husband, father and taxi driver — in Sarajevo trying (hard) to find its way out of petty jobs and dangerous games. Also functioning as the portrait of a country recovering from war damages, this story of a reconstruction works on two levels and beautifully portrays the struggle for life today in East European countries. So does the Bulgarian feature, Warden of the Dead (Pazachyt na myrtvite), directed by third time director, Ilian Simeonov. As the title indicates, the subject is about the confrontation with death by the living. Somewhere in Balkans, a boy, who works in a cemetery, tries to keep their memory alive as long as he remembers. This surrealist parable looks at the way life always wins even in the most violent periods.

Croatia, Estonia, Bosnia, Bulgaria: this welcome awakening of a new generation of directors from the East reflects the awakening of their own countries.