North. Freedom. Hope. Science. By Julia Khomiakova

in 17th Tromso International Film Festival

by Julia Khomiakova

What is your first thought when you hear about the festival in a north Norwegian city, the nearest to Spitzbergen? Arctic snow, Northern light, reindeers, huskees, trolls… to these images of Tromsö — both the city and the festival — you should add several research centres on oceanology and other natural sciences, the university, unique Polar museums. In a word, Tromsö, in spite of its high-level hotels and various tourist attractions like dog-sleigh rides, whale safari or arctic diving, is not a polar resort (as it may also be!) but first of all — a city of scholars. The magnificent musical piece “Ruthless Gravity” from Craig Armstrong’s album “As If to Nothing” played before each festival screening, with its rhythm imitating the radio signals which naval ‘marconi’ send from one ship to another, is congenial to the spirit of this sea-side city with its Museum of Telecommunications. Well, any human is like a ship in the roaring ocean of human passions, and what is cinema art if not — among others — a way to communicate?

For this reason Tromsö needs a special film program taking into consideration that scientists and engineers don’t need pictures which may be considered as pieces of some ‘pure art house’ or ‘art for the sake of art’. The audience here wants to see films in which there is not only art house but also some new information about the life in another country. And why not? Sad that nowadays both filmmakers and producers take into consideration either a possible reaction of the so-called ‘festival audience’ (consisting mostly of art professionals) or the so-called ‘wide audience’ (consisting mostly of teenagers) but very seldom — a possible reaction from educated people of technical, natural and other sciences which run into millions the world over and need serious, intellectual (yet not sophisticated) movies. This is stupid and unfair. Shall it ever change?

Tromsö is one of few festivals ready to challenge this by proving the necessity of films serious in their social, historical and other contents. The purpose is not to present much national cinematography but a deeper and broader view of a country telling something which TV news and documentaries will never tell. I guess that 60 per cent of the Tromsö audience are the same people every year, and the festival team is ready to meet its demands in deeper impact. This explains why the 13 films of the competition program presented not 13, but only 9 countries (taking into consideration that Borderpost (Karaula) by Rajko Grlic was made by five now independent states — Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Serbia (and there was the UK, too), but the subject is the former Yugoslavia in 1987, so we can count them as one country in this very case, which is not ‘titoism’ (but sooner — anti-titoism). There were three films from Argentina: Glue (Glue – Historia Adolescente en media de nada) by Alexis Dos Santos, Chronicle of an Escape (Crónica de una fuga) by Israel Adrián Gaetano, Born And Bred (Nacido y criado) by Pablo Trapero; three from Germany: Lucy by Henner Winckler, Requiem by Hans-Christian Schmid and Longing (Sehnsucht) by Valeska Grisebach; and two from China: Still Life (Sanxia Haoren) by Zhang Ke Jia and Taking Father Home (Bei Yazi de Nanhai) by Ying Liang.

It may be interesting to notice that in both Chinese films the action takes place in the same region of the Yangtze River, which should be drowned when The Three Gorges Dam protecting the other regions from floods gets ready. This is a metaphor for some elements of Chinese traditional life style which, whether you like it or not, will eventually disappear as a result of the next national breakthrough towards progress, etc. Well, any Asian or European industrial country had experienced, long ago or recently, this painful price of progress. What are the results, however?

The most popular situations in the programme were — as they call it in Russia — incomplete families: single mothers (the protagonist of Lucy by Henner Winckler is 18-years old Berliner Maggie whose baby daughter Lucy born from the infantile and irresponsible boy is her biggest problem but at the same time — the most exact indicator of her relationships with her men), children left by their dads and eager to find them (Taking Father Home by Ying Liang), fathers desperately trying to establish contacts with their children, once left (Still Life by Zhang Ke Jia, Colossal Youth (Juventude em marcha) by Pedro Costa, Portugal) or estranged after their daddies’ marital cheats (Glue by Alexis Dos Santos, Longing by Valeska Grisebach) or moms’ and brothers’ love adventures (Lucy by Henner Winckler, Family Ties (Gajokeui Tansaeng) by Kim Tae-Yong, South Korea). When at the beginning of Born and Bred by Pablo Trapero there appears a happy, wealthy, harmonic couple adoring their daughter, every spectator immediately understands that a disaster is going to happen, otherwise it should be not a film but a story from a glamorous magazine like “ELLE” or “Vanity Fair” — a story of never existing good life. The audience (and myself) liked Kim Tae-Yong’s Family Ties — if only it was a Korean movie! In its film language it is a European movie, just shot in Korea with Korean actors, just like the Russian Relations (Svyaz’) by Dunya Smirnova. This is maybe an inevitable (yet not very promising) stage of filmmaking in a very specific country where many people are ready to get as close to Europeans as possible — and then disappointed, standing at the backyard… Pessimistic is the image of the modern teen-agers (Glue, Lucy, Taking Father Home): poorly educated, indifferent to anything except for their family or sexual problems, always ready to smoke a joint, never willing to read a book… I wonder why filmmakers have forgotten about a keen sense of justice which (together with sexual pre-sentiments) marks the peculiarity of this age. Well, they forget a lot, which is very sad.

Two films — Borderpost by Croatian Rajko Grlic and Chronicle of an Escape by Israel Adrián Gaetano — tell about the recent past. Borderpost is a tragi-comedy about the Yugoslavian army before the crush of the federation, without any nostalgic motives. It’s evident that Rajko Grlic still hates the gone-away South-Slavonic state where bad guys, Bosnian Moslems and imperial Serbs, disturbed the unhappy Croatians (in this movie a Dalmatian soldier is the only good guy among the rest). This film, sometimes funny, in its structure is very similar to Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land: from comedy to tragedy. Besides, it is full of dirty scolds. As a Slavonic-speaking viewer and listener, I felt terribly ashamed when the next English dirty word appeared in the subtitles while at the same time three original words were heard (luckily, most of the audience in Kulturhuset were not Slavonic-speaking). Of course it happens in the army. But this is not the only realistic method, especially I remember the year 1987 when I was 24. At that time in socialist countries we did not only scold but also — reflected, revolted, hoped… Strange that Rajko Grlic who was 40 at that time (and far from the military service age!) does not remember the time which was very, very polyphonic.

Of course Tromsö is the place to screen an anti-clerical film — Requiem by Hans-Christian Schmid — not only because it is anti-Catholic (in this town there is a Catholic church, the most Northern in Europe, and a small Catholic monastery peacefully coexisting with the local Protestants). The action takes place about 36 years ago and is based on a real story of exorcism in a small German Catholic town. The victim of ‘possession’ was a sick young woman who mostly needed a doctor but her crazy and ignorant family and priests brought her to exhaustion and death. However, what this film (with its evident parallels to Friedkin’s The Exorcist) really lacks is a socio-psychological research: how could it happen in a civilised country and why could nobody give help to a vulnerable young woman, Michaela, who suffered from neurosis or hysteria much more than from demons? And who was even more sick — morally — around her?

You couldn’t find too many proper fiction films on history at the festival that was shot in the last year. This is why in Tromsö, besides the competition program, a lot of documentaries were shown in different sections. Even in the competition program there was one film which was a documentary: Colossal Youth by Pedro Costa, Portugal, was shot in a real suburb, and all characters were played by their prototypes. Chronicle of an Escape by Israel Adrián Gaetano, based on memories of the Argentinean junta victim, won one the festival prizes mainly because of its more or less true background.

Two films in the Tromsö program — the somewhat superficial Norwegian Winterland (Vinterland) made by Hisham Zaman, Norwegian resident and émigré from Northern Iraq/Kurdistan, and the more dramatic Waiting (Attente) by Rashid Mashawari (Palestine-France) — were also full of tragi-comic elements. How different may be life for a Moslem man or woman in different countries! And, of course, in Norway it is better than in Palestine where a will to retain the national identity makes life very dangerous. Also on this theme was the Russian-speaking Israeli documentary The Stage (Stsena) by Pyotr Mostovoy — also based on casting, very funny and then, in turns, very sad.

The FIPRESCI Jury was happy to declare the prize to Still Life by Zhang Ke Jia (more correctly written in the festival catalogue as Jia Zhangke). This film possesses a proper balance between its socially important contents and the artistism. Besides, you will never say that Jia Zhangke is an epigon of Zhang Yimou, or Chen Kaige, or Jiang Wen. He belongs to the so-called sixth generation of Chinese film directors, and his background doesn’t spoil his own films. Our decision was unanimous — thanks to the atmosphere of Tromsö, clear local water, fresh polar air, whatever more… “North. Freedom. Hope. A country without frontiers. Snow without filth — like a long life without lying…” I remembered these lines of Vladimir Vysotsky experiencing this feeling of justice after the closing ceremony was over. They say that the Arctic is a magnet, and those who had ever tried the polar parallels and meridians may get addicted to it forever.