A Cornucopia of Talent

in 16th OFF CAMERA International Festival of Independent Cinema, Kraków

by David Katz

A great advantage and privilege of attending OFF CAMERA in Kraków this year was to be exposed to films, stories and voices I wouldn’t ordinarily have access to. Of course, you might add, this is the purpose of visiting any festival. But at the higher-profile and more extensively covered international events, your gaze is misdirected towards the shinier objects and what you have more base familiarity with, although these are the fundamentals of our journalistic work. Being on a jury, my first-ever after many years writing, is more akin to having an expertly curated multi-course meal, or selection of meals, given not every dish will be to your exact taste. I would commend the programming overall for its focus on topicality, and its internationalism, forgoing titles that have over-performed in sales and critical acclaim, and providing an ideal and rigorous environment to view them.

I’d like to use this space to shine a light on two works that necessarily couldn’t be awarded by our jury, also composed of the Dutch critic Sebastiaan Khouw and the eminent Polish film theoretician Wiesław Godzic. Our own final decision came down to Damian Kocur’s already much-celebrated Bread and Salt, whose own virtues have been enhanced in my mind with various Polish colleagues attesting to its difference to recent examples of the national cinema. 

My clear favourite from the 10-strong Main Dramatic Competition was Spanish filmmaker Pilar Palomero’s Motherhood (La Maternal), an eerie, stark and yet compassionate study of teenage pregnancy. A perennial issue of social concern, especially instrumentalised by the tabloids and reality TV of my home country of the UK, Palomero’s film avoids sensationalism as she tracks the sorry circumstances of 14-year-old Carla (the amazing Carla Quílez), who falls pregnant to her best friend Efraín. She is then absconded to a shelter in Barcelona where she’ll deliver and raise the baby in collaboration with social workers, all while her ailing mother Penélope (Ángela Cervantes) – who evidently had Carla young herself – is gradually reintegrated into her life. With its parched use of natural light and crepuscular interiors, and its surprising reliance on ellipses, the film reminds convincingly of Claire Denis, whose own Nenette & Boni also concerned the ambiguous fallout of teenage pregnancy. After her more accessible debut Schoolgirls (Las Niñas), which was a notable career-cementing success at home, Palomero appears as a leading light of Spain’s current wave of female auteurs, moving the needle of the country’s elite filmmaking away from the artifice of Almodòvar.

Do You Love Me?, the Ukranian coming-of-age drama, was another prime highlight of mine; the main jury clearly agreed on its qualities, and singled it out, so it’s only fair to give the limelight to A Room of My Own (Chemi otakhi), yet another gem from Georgia, where many of the most exciting new cinematic voices seem to be arising from. Compared to the more formalist likes of Dea Kulumbegashvili and Alexandre Koberidze, Ioseb ‘Soso’ Bliadze comes across instead as a humanist, intimate dramatist, here surveying the transient domestic life of his key protagonist Tina (Taki Mumladze, also the film’s co-writer), a young, unemployed divorcee awaiting her new boyfriend’s return to Tbilisi, as she temporarily moves in with Megi (Mariam Khundadze), a remote call centre worker with a more liberated attitude. Initially, the film feels too wedded to its unassuming casualness, as their poky apartment becomes a sanctuary, awash in sparsely attended parties soundtracked by Spotify, from the trauma and discord Tina is fleeing. But the emotionally transparent and ingratiating performances from the two female leads eventually reel us in, and the viewer is left feeling like a further, valued guest of this “room”, with the individuality of Bliadze’s storytelling and the characters’ arcs uniting in tandem.

David Katz