Online Jury Duty and Some Noteworthy Films

in 24th Sofia International Film Festival

by Petra Meterc

Sofia Film Festival brings around 85 thousand viewers to the cinemas every year. The festival is aimed at showcasing the best films from all over the world, but it also specialized in showing regional films from the Balkan area, as well as in presenting new Bulgarian fiction and documentary films. The festival promotes cooperation between local and international artists at a parallel event, called Sofia Meetings Co-production Market, which usually brings together around 300 experts each year. As such, the festival presents a hub for film artists in the southern Balkans, and is one of the leading festivals in this regard in the region.

This year’s edition should have taken take place between 12th and 22nd March, but was cancelled just a couple of days before the opening due to the pandemic situation.

Despite the initial plans of solely postponing the festival, it was carried out mostly online at the end of June/beginning of July and we were kindly invited to sit on the first online jury ever during the pandemic. While the festival would withhold  some of the films until the fall, when it would hopefully become possible to screen them to local audiences in cinemas, it also endorsed its own online edition by localizing  the festival, thus  enabling audiences from all over Bulgaria to see quality arthouse films from their homes.

While everyone stayed at home, the festival kept e-mailing us an imaginary daily reports from the postponed festival, reminding us of the various programmes, offering us readings about the selected films, posting video messages from directors, and even allowing us to watch a few masterclasses. This resulted in an extremely lively communication with the festival management, the virtual festival audience and the participants that not only gave us some very useful insight about the films and the filmmakers, but also reaffirmed the hope that we would all return to cinema halls soon.

The jury experience was of course different than usual. Watching the films from home means being forced to see them on small screens and sometimes to even negotiate the quality of the image depending on the speed of the internet connection. All of this inevitably worsens the viewing experience, although what I personally missed the most were the discussions with the other two jury members after each film, which has been happening so naturally at ‘live’ festivals. These discussions allow you to grasp the viewpoints of the other jury members, and they are usually very intriguing and inspiring. While we just met online once to determine the winning film, it would perhaps be better for future online juries to consider meeting up a couple of times before the final discussion in order to share impressions, opinions, thoughts…  Still, it was not a problem to agree on the films we all liked and to select the winner.

Besides the FIPRESCI prize-winner, Those Who Remained (Akik Maradtak, 2019) by Barnabás Tóth, there were a few other films from the competition section that I feel should be mentioned.

The Chinese film Send me to the clouds (Song wo shang qing yun, 2019) by director Congcong Teng, tells the story of a young journalist, Sheng Nan, after her being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Because the treatment is expensive, she needs to find a quick way to earn money, therefore accepts an offer to ghost-write the biography of a business mogul, while at the same time coming to terms with her fate and planning on experiencing sexual pleasure for one last time before starting the treatment. The humorous tone of the narrative, dealing with Sheng’s dysfunctional family, a misogynous environment and slightly desperate romantic investments, may strike one as a bit over the top at times. Yet a comic approach to such topical issues as the position of professional women in a society, which believes that unmarried and childless women over thirty are simply failures – let alone affected by ovarian cancer, which can completely change a woman’s body and fate – seems in this case a very fresh decision indeed!

Then there was the Turkish film Steppe (Bozkir, 2019) by Ali Özel, which unexpectedly won the main prize at the last year’s International Antalya film festival. Because of a dam planned to be built in their valley, old Ahmet and his nephews have to move out from their village to a new settlement, where they are given new homes. Ahmet however stubbornly refuses to leave the house he has called home for most of his life, and also leave behind his late wife grave. So his nephews call his son Harun to come and help them convince the old man to move. The serene rhythm of the film balances delicately between incredible sights of Turkish landscape and simple village life, and the growing tensions among the male family members, which come to a head at the family reunion. Yet although incapable of expressing their resentments and traumas directly, they try to find, each in his own way, words and gestures which would somehow express the compassion they feel for each other in a violently disruptive situation they have no control over.  By focusing on the pain of the wonderfully portrayed male characters, the director – though carefully avoiding any political allusion – still manages to criticise such projects. While flooding whole villages or towns and thus destroying communities and lives has been a worldwide phenomenon, related to modernisation and going back more than a century now, a telling case to point is the ancient Turkish town of Hasankeyf by the Tigris River which – along with its natural habitat and archaeological sites – is about to be flooded so that a dam could be built on its site.

Another film that left a strong impression and nurtured high expectations for future works by British director Nathalie Biancheri, is her feature-length debut Nocturnal (2019). The film foregrounds an unusual relationship between the thirty-something handyman Pete and the high school student Laurie, both residing in a sleepy coastal British town. Pete, who approaches Laura for a reason that is only revealed in the final part of the film, has never left the little town and is quite repressed emotionally. His incapability of articulating his thoughts and feelings is oftentimes expressed with a rarely seen authenticity and gentleness by the actor Cosmo Jarvis. Because Laurie remains oblivious to Pete’s true motive for spending time with her, she, in a brash teenage manner, falls for him romantically. So we observe two outsiders in the midst of a depressing town, entangled in an intimate relationship for all the wrong reasons. This mismatch allows the director to paint two different perspectives on the evolving drama – by contrasting the characters’ ways of expressing themselves, their relational confidence and body language, she subtly distinguish Pete’s working class background from Laurie’s middle class life.

Petra Meterc
Edited by Christina Stojanova