Great stories must be dead, or rather the dead must be making stories.
The man with a white beard stuck all over his face and in Russian attire of the yesteryears looks prophetic; his eyes reflect both experience and wisdom. I could guess his age by the husky, cracked voice and the wrinkles around his eyes; he was certainly over sixty. By the fifth day of the 32nd Moscow International Film Festival I have already seen quite a lot of films screened in the competition section and — phew, none of them could quench my thirst for good movies. As I was taking a stroll near Red Square in the evening and went into a cafeteria just opposite the Bolshoi Theatre to have a cappuccino, this man just joined me at the table. We said hello to each other and, as I explained my intent, he started to explain.
“Oh, well, we are playing Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Bolshoi, it’s his 150th birthday this year, you know. I have just finished my make-up and, as usual, the girls are taking their time. So I’m here to sip some coffee; moreover, I always like talking to strangers, they are sometime immensely enlightening, you know — I am from the countryside and we like chatting for hours.” Then, after a pause, he asked me: “How was your experience, I mean the films you have seen so far?”
“Well, mostly the stories seem to be half-baked, like pieces collated unevenly, and they are pretty predictable: no new approaches, no new cinematic style, no new treatments, nothing notable in particular; no fulfilling experience so far. I guess there seems to be a dearth of interesting stories and filmmakers. We had already celebrated fifty years of the French New Wave, and this year Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960) also has its 50th birthday; I think craving for films which can offer something new in terms of content, style and technique is only fair.”
“Oh, don’t tell me that, don’t tell me that,” the man literally screamed at me. “You are now in the land of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev, Sholokhov — all great story tellers, you know. And we have great filmmakers, like Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Kuleshov, Chukhrai, Tarkovsky, Klimov — and all of them enriched cinema with a new idiom, style and expression.”
“And I noticed places like Turgenevskaya, Pushkinskaya, Chekhovskaya, Mayakovskaya here. The wind of Moscow seems to be carrying the fragrance of its rich artistic heritage. However, I guess something has gone missing in the films I have seen these days. Say, for instance, the Turkish film Brought by the Sea (Denizden gelen) by Nesli Çölgeçen, the Canadian film Cole by Carl Bessai, and the Spanish film by Ventura Pons, Drifting (A la ventura), are based on insignificant, common-place stories complete with some formulaic film-making style. The first tries its level best to prove its protagonist as humane as possible in his desperate bid to rescue and relocate an immigrant child in order to wash off the guilt of causing the death of an African immigrant. The second deals with an inter-class and inter-racial love story, while the third explores the pervert sexual advances of its female protagonist and, alas, the images concerning her experience with charity work in Africa haunt her only during coitus. “The South Korean filmmaker Park Dong-hoon made an epic movie with his Enlightment Film (Gye-mong young-hwa); the story revolves around three generations of a family and the time spans from the Japanese colonial era to the present. However, the story unfolds in a disoriented manner right from the beginning and cannot maintain its rhythm until the end. The French competition entry, Michaël Cohen’s It Begins with the End (Ça commence par la fin) is best summarized through it title — or rather its synopsis; this is ‘just another story about a man and a woman, another story of love’, to which one can only add ‘in which sleaze reins over substance”.
“Oh my god, now let me get you right: the stories are the same old stuff, nothing interesting.” The man nodded in agreement with a smile.
“Well, there are other kinds of movies as well. The history of war, aggression, occupation is its leitmotif; you will always find two or three films in every festival, mainly from European countries. Digging up new graves, exhuming new stories has become a kind of obsession, a favourite pastime for many of these directors. One can indeed make great films using this stuff. However, I think contemporary life, the trial and tribulations of people in the fast-changing world with the worst-ever recession and the cascading effect of the economy going topsy-turvy now and then also deserve some kind of space on the sacred ‘golden section’ of cinema. Don’t you think so?”
“You know, I think it is because every war leaves behind an immeasurable catastrophe, unfathomable nightmares and what not. Indeed, these continue to haunt future generations; the stories of the past influence the artist and he uses them in his creative work. However, then it cannot be a recurrent motif — unless you have something really astonishing or rather worth filming. I think the reason is somewhere else, because urban life takes away from us many good things: the valued experience of streets and countries, interaction with commoners; it has almost blocked the outward journey of the soul to the vastness of society and the people around you, to nature, where the chirping of the birds and wind-caressed trees creates the earth-song. Our whole existence has become very limited and kind of boxed, devoid of experience and exposure, where seclusion often leads us to aberrations of all sorts. Here you would not gain the prerequisites that a great artist should have in abundance.”
“Yeah, it’s true. All the films with strains of the past are well made, however. The Czech An Earthly Paradise for the Eyes (Zemský ráj to na pohled) by Irena Pavlásková has an impeccable fluidity of narrative; it is about the protagonist Marta, her two daughters and her ex- and present husbands, and their gradual involvement in the dissident movement at the time of the Soviet invasion of 1968. I think the film deserves more kudos for the immaculate acting by Vilma Cibulková. In the Polish film Little Rose (Rózyczka) by Jan Kidawa-Blonski the time was again 1967. The film is about a Security Service agent’s ploy of engaging his beautiful lover Kamilla to track the activities of the writer Adam Warczewski, but then the plan goes haywire when Kamilla develops an intense relationship with Warczewski instead. All cliché-ridden stories, you know? However, the story of Besa, a film by Serbian director Srdjan Karanovic, may sound little more interesting. It deals with Filip, the principal of a gymnasium, who takes the call of the First World War, leaving behind his young wife Lea to be looked after by an Albanian, Azem, who is also the school custodian. The Albanian gives Filip his solemn oath, the besa that he will protect her from all adversities at any cost. Vulnerable because of her beauty and vivacity, Lea finds herself a target of Filip’s compatriots who make advances to exploit her, but Azem stands like a stone wall, so much so that he even reprimands a military officer, thereby inviting serious trouble for him in the process. Humane as the characters may be, their relationship develops from paranoia to proximity to some extent, but Azem falls short of breaking the besa. Do you not think it is a fairly good story of cultural conflict, their values and mores, even if there is nothing special about the cinematic style, the slow-paced narrative with some melancholia which beautifully epitomizes the pain and agony of the characters as well as the uncertainty of the raging war? The only thing that mars film’s overall beauty is the unconvincing portrayal of Lea by Iva Krajnc, who remains vivacious throughout, as if she is oblivious about the time and — even more so — about the imminent danger for her husband.”
“Indeed, this is a good story — albeit with a predictable ending. You know the best values are still intact where the sweeping influence of modernity has not yet taken place. Though it is not necessarily always true; sometimes the situation, reality, or rather compulsion takes a toll on all these.”
“I guess you would have loved another film, which echoes what you have said sometime back: it is about man’s relations with the wild, with nature and animals. The Russian movie Sparrow (Vorobei) by Iurii Shiller is based on a legend that a large herd of horses appeared many years ago in the village of Vasilievka, and the villagers have developed a passionate and inseparable bond with the animals. However, the failed crop of the season and the resulting economic problems force the villagers to give away the horses, even reluctantly, for slaughter; The only one to resist is the little boy, Mitia Vorobiev, the son of a shepherd. Unfolded in a verdant green landscape, the film suffers from structural loose ends from the start; when it attains its composure, it once again slips into melodrama – enough to ruin a film despite its refreshing and heart-rending subject.”
“I think this is a challenging story for any filmmaker, and unless you are able to endow it with the right rhythm, lyricism and finesse, its beauty will be lost.”
“Yeah, I think you are right. Well, these are the films I have seen so far, and you can see that none of them are really fully satisfying. It seems that the great stories must be dead…”
“Or rather the dead must be making stories”, he quipped back with an ear-splitting giggle and without more ado, he jumped from his seat to say goodbye. My time has come, my dear friend; we had a really interesting meeting. I hope we will meet again soon.”
Out of the cafeteria I went, down to the Kitai-Gorod metro station to go back to the hotel at Kievskaya. The next few days were hectic, as we had to catch as many as three films without a break, and then occasionally we went to see important milestones around Moscow. We enjoyed everything — but not the films; we waited for something outstanding until the end. However, nothing unexpected happened.
We just finished our launch in the restaurant of the Oktyabr cinema complex and I went to the festival office to discuss something. When I emerged from the office after a while, I found that my colleagues had already left for the hotel. Loitering around Oktyabr, I once again saw the man in a slightly different traditional attire, with his Santa-Claus-like beard. He approached me like an old acquaintance with a friendly smile in his face.
“Oh, my dear friend, today we have another show nearby. As usual, I finished my make-up early and thought — why not have some espresso at the Oktyabr, and maybe I have a chance-meeting with you. And here you are.”
“I told him the reason for my being there and he said ‘Console yourself, man. May be they have far better or more important things to do’.”
“May be it is my good fortune, now we can have another round of discussions on cinema, or not?”
“Oh sure, it’s my good fortune as well,” he nodded. We then went upstairs to sit at a table, ordered two cups of espresso and I continued my story.
“There was a good suspense thriller from Hungary/Austria, Der Kameramörder by Robert Adrian Pejo. However, this is another average film. The Bulgarian film Footsteps in the Sand (Stupki v pyasuka) by Ivaylo Hristov has an interesting story as well, which — in a messy way — portrays a man’s tryst with destiny after a failed love affair makes him morbid and desperate, leading him on a journey across frontiers to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sweden’s Othman Karim’s Dear Alice (För kärleken) was much better in parts, as it deals with issues of racial discrimination very emotively but then it juxtaposes other plots along its narrative that weaken the stronger part and blur the whole thing, finishing with a quick-fix solution. The Last Report on Anna (Utolsó jelentés Annáról) by legendary Hungarian filmmaker Márta Mészáros portrays the life of exiled leader Anna Kéthly. The film turns out to be stern critique of the present maladies of governance, in particular its scorn and disregard for the memory of the uprising of 1956. Apparently it echoes Mészáros’s own grouse and concern for her beloved country. The film is well made and indeed laced with poetic flair so typical of her work; however, it is not necessarily her best work, nor her worst.”
“Well, I see nothing much interesting in these films either,” the man said, his eyes curiously fixed on me.
“Two films, one The Albanian (Der Albaner) by Johannes Naber and Brother (Hermano) from Venezuelan director Marcel Rasquin had quite different stories. The Albanian unfolds with a promise: the vast and lush green landscape endows it with a different freshness and lyricism. The love story fits perfectly in to this setting. However, when the protagonist Arben leaves for Germany to earn his dowry, the scheme of things changes to follow a clichéd route — and the hope fades. Brother, on the other hand, is about two gifted soccer players, Daniel and Julio; the former is an exceptional striker and latter the captain of the neighbourhood club, La Ceniza. Both were raised as brothers in a Venezuelan slum. When Daniel dreams to play professional football, Julio feeds the family through his nexus with the local Mafiosi. Suddenly, out of the blue, tragedy strikes: their mother is accidentally shot dead by a friend of Julio. Daniel has a tough time trying to decide his future: revenge is inevitable, but not before his dream is fulfilled. The film progresses well to a certain point and then it takes a corny route to wind up in a predictable ending, making it a poor saga of revenge rather than a triumph of will and magnanimity.”
“What do you think, my dear friend, is the reason for such a poor fair of films in an enormous festival like Moscow? The films must be overlooking the good stories, as we all know it is now more market-driven than ever. Or may be the filmmakers are surrendering to the dictates of the producers to opt for an assembly-line production rather than something more creative, innovative and experimental to avoid the risk of failure.”
He stood up at once: the wrist watch in his hand reminded him of the time. The show started in a few minutes.
I was short of words to appreciate the veteran artist’s apt observation. As we left the cafeteria, I murmured to him: “May be your guess is right: your analysis is brilliant.”
“Do you know what role I play: Mikhail Astrov, Chekhov’s alter ego. Since I am in the same show-business, amongst the dissimilarities I could easily distinguish the similarities and the associated problems. I hope you have a great time for the rest of your stay here. Good bye.”
We shook hands, exchanged a smile and then he hurriedly walked to the pedestrian subway passage to cross the neon-lit road. The next day, as I was about to bid farewell to my hotel, I noticed the river Moskva flowing quietly. And for sure, some 230 kilometers away, quiet flows the Don.
© FIPRESCI 2010