Celebrating Independent Coming-of-Age Cinema

in 17th OFF Camera International Festival of Independent Cinema, Kraków

by Malik Berkati

The coming-of-age genre in cinema, often considered the cinematic counterpart to the Bildungsroman in literature—a genre focused on the psychological and moral growth of its protagonist from youth to adulthood—has, in recent years, expanded its presence in the cinematic landscape. Previously intertwined with comedy, it now delves into the realm of drama, often with a strong social focus. These films no longer solely reflect the challenges and rites of passage into adulthood, often depicted by affects, emotional impulses, or confrontation with adults, but also direct confrontations with societal structures.

This evolution parallels changes in society itself, and the increasing presence of female filmmakers has ushered in a new era for coming-of-age films. Throughout the 20th century, the genre’s protagonists were predominantly male, embarking on journeys aimed at navigating the chaotic realm of adolescence and transitioning into adulthood marked by a certain conformity, reflecting the cultural norms and expectations of the time. Moreover, they often adopted a tonal balance between humor and sadness to explore themes of identity, friendship, and first experiences (love, loss, success, failure, etc.).
However, this narrative landscape has undergone a significant shift in recent times. No longer confined to the experiences of male characters, many contemporary coming-of-age films center around female protagonists or female-led ensembles, offering more complex portrayals of the realities faced by adolescents and young adults. Their journeys no longer solely revolve around fitting into societal norms but rather focus on finding personal identity and navigating their place in the world. While, like every genre, some narratives still adhere to conventional storytelling tropes, themes, and clichés, particularly in mainstream productions, the realm of independent cinema has witnessed the emergence of filmmakers who eschew traditional approaches. They pave the way for fresh perspectives in character choices, storytelling techniques, and cinematography, all of which delve deeper into the complexities of the human experience and the dynamics of the societies they depict.

Furthermore, two notable characteristics manifest within this evolving genre: the emergence of a generation of adults who, having lived through periods marked by selfishness and egocentrism, find themselves confronted by their own children. This marks a reversal of attitudes that one could refer to as a ‘reversed coming of age’. Additionally, there is a growing recognition of the intersectionality of struggles within these narratives, reflecting the multifaceted nature of contemporary societal challenges and identities.

The selection of films for the international competition of the OFF Camera International Independent Film Festival of Kraków is intriguing in this regard: out of the ten films in competition, seven can be associated with the coming-of-age genre, one with a late-stage ritual passage, and one with what was earlier referred to as a ‘reversed coming of age’.

Let’s start with the latter, She Came at Night (Přišla v noci, Czech Republic) by Jan Vejnar and Tomáš Pavliček. The story follows Jirka and Aneta, who have become accustomed to their quiet, comfortable life and stable relationship. They’re not in any rush to make major life decisions; they enjoy living in the cozy apartment they inherited. However, one night everything changes when Jirka’s long-lost mother, Valerie, unexpectedly appears. Despotic, moody, and over-the-top, Valerie brings chaos and confusion into the couple’s tidy world, constantly testing and violating their boundaries, much like an adolescent would do.

The Hypnosis (Hypnosen; Sweden, Norway, France) directed by Ernst De Geer reflects this trend of extending the transition to adulthood over time, a phenomenon often referred to as ‘adulescence’ or ‘kidult.’ The story follows a young couple, Vera (Asta Kamma August) and Andre (Herbert Nordrum), who are working on an app aimed at improving women’s health in developing countries and ensuring their reproductive safety. In order to secure investors, they must participate in a pitch session led by a startup guru. Their meticulous planning aims to propel them into the big leagues, but a wrench is thrown into their plans when Vera, unable to quit smoking, decides to try hypnosis. The result is spectacular, albeit not as intended: she loses all social filters. This leads to complete misunderstanding within her social circle but ultimately paves the way for her to discover her true self.

The Quiet Maid (Calladita, Spain) follows Ana (Paula Grimaldo), a recent arrival from Colombia who secures a job as a maid at a luxury villa on the Spanish Costa Brava. The villa is owned by affluent art collectors who spend their summer holidays there. Ana works tirelessly from sunrise to sunset, enticed by promises of regularization documents. However, she soon realizes these promises are empty, and being treated merely as a tool by her wealthy employers only intensifies her dissatisfaction. The film combines a critique of class and migration policy systems that enable exploitation, while also depicting the struggle of a young woman to emancipate herself from the determinism of her circumstances and origin. It emphasizes the right of each individual to find pleasure in their life despite societal constraints.

Empty Nets (Toorhaye khali; Germany, Iran) by Behrooz Karamizade tells the story of Amir (Hamid Reza Abbasi) and Narges (Sadaf Asgari), both in their early twenties, who share a deep love for each other. However, the rigid social norms and class boundaries prevalent in Iranian society pose significant obstacles to their happiness. Coming from a poor, lower-class background, Amir works part-time as a waiter, striving to accumulate enough savings for a dowry and gain approval from Narges’s father. After getting fired from a restaurant, Amir is desperate; he takes a job at a local fishery where he becomes involved in a lucrative but highly illegal business. Meanwhile, Narges tries at all costs to postpone the arranged marriage planned for her by relatives. Behrooz Karamizade successfully blends genres, merging social drama with coming-of-age themes, addressing numerous pressing issues that extend far beyond the Iranian context. The film speaks to the yearning for freedom among young people who feel as though they are drowning in the vast graveyards our seas have become, rather than continuing to suffocate in their limited, horizonless worlds.

78 Days (78 Dana, Serbia) by Emilija Gašić is a bewildering film in its construction, adeptly utilizing the aesthetics of home videos to skillfully blur the lines between fiction and documentary. Set in 1999 during the Kosovo war, the film’s title refers to the 78 days of bombing in Serbia by NATO troops. The story follows sisters Sonja, Dragana, and Tijana, who document their daily lives with a camcorder after their father is drafted into the army. The film captures routine household chores, party games, innocent quarrels, but also moments of joy and tragedy. This intimate, cozy world of video recordings seems to be the girls’ only refuge from the reality of war sirens and exploding bombs. Gašić deftly combines the perspective of each of the three girls, who, because of their age, perceive this painful experience in a unique and idiosyncratic way.

Three films represent, each in their own way, a more classic coming-of-age narrative

The classical subject: Silent Roar (United Kingdom), directed by Scottish filmmaker Johnny Barrington, presents a tale of grief and loss intertwined with elements of fantasy. Dondo (Louis McCartney), a teenage surfer, struggles to come to terms with his father’s tragic death at sea, despite a year having passed. His friend Sas (Ella Lily Hyland) serves as his main source of support, though their relationship is somewhat ambiguous. The narrative introduces an important mystical element: Dondo experiences unusual religious visions. His quest to find his father becomes a journey of self-discovery for a rebellious teenage soul, fraught with inner anger and conflict with his surrounding reality.

The classical protagonists:  Paradise is Burning (Paradiset Brinner; Sweden, Italy, Denmark, Finland), directed by Mika Gustafson, revolves around three sisters: 16-year-old Laura (Bianca Delbravo), 12-year-old Mira (Dilvin Asaad), and seven-year-old Steffi (Safira Mossberg), who reside in a working-class area in Sweden. Despite the summer setting typically associated with freedom and carefree living, their circumstances are far from idyllic. Since Christmas, their mother has been absent, leaving Laura to shoulder her responsibilities. This situation has not gone unnoticed by social services, and at any moment, an intervention could separate the girls and place them in foster families. Laura fights with all her might to preserve the sisterhood that is dear to her heart and soul amidst the faltering world of adults.

The classical narrative thread: Forever-Forever (Nazavzhdy-Nazavzhdy, Ukraine), directed by Anna Buryachkova, follows the journey of Tonia (Alina Cheban), a mysterious teenager who unwittingly captivates the attention of boys. Transferred from a city high school to one in a suburban housing project, she quickly befriends a group of local teens who explore abandoned buildings on the outskirts of town. She catches the eye of two very different boys—Zhurik, a caring and witty charmer, and Sania, a brooding drug dealer. As this love triangle ensnares them in a dangerous, intricate web of passion and desire, a brutal secret from Tonia’s past suddenly resurfaces. Set in a world defined by the gender prejudices of a brutal post-Soviet reality, the film delves into the complexities of teenage relationships amidst a backdrop of societal challenges.

The two winning films of the International competition and the Polish competition are also powerful coming-of-age narratives

Power Alley (Levante; Brazil, France, Uruguay) by Lillah Halla won The Mastercard OFF CAMERA 2024 Andrzej Wajda Krakow Film Award for a film that embraces, with cinematic energy, a theme at the intersection between the individual struggle to forge a future and a life in accordance with one’s aspirations, and the collective fight to rectify societal injustices based on gender. The central theme revolves around the right to bodily autonomy and the right to abortion.
Sofia (Ayomi Domenica Dias), a promising 17-year-old volleyball player, learns that she is pregnant on the eve of a championship that could seal her fate. Not wanting this pregnancy, she seeks an illegal abortion, as it is not possible in Brazil. She becomes the target of a religious fundamentalist group determined to stop her at any cost. But neither Sofia nor her loved ones intend to blindly submit to the fervor of the masses.
Lillah Halla injects disruptive energy into an ultra-conservative atmosphere constrained by religious dogma, celebrating collective action, solidarity, and sisterhood that permeates the screen and, despite the drama, provides a refreshing vitality, accompanied by pulsating electronic music. The fact that Power Alley won the main prize at a festival in Poland, a country whose laws regarding abortion rights are similar to those prevailing in Brazil, is symbolically a powerful sign.
Upon receiving her award, the Brazilian director concluded her speech with these words: ‘I dedicate this award to the decriminalization of abortion everywhere in this world!’

Imago (Poland, Netherlands, Czech Republic) by Olga Chajdas, on the other hand, won the Polish competition. This feature film carries within it a powerful, desperate energy that constantly places its main protagonist on the thin line of reason. Another unique aspect of the film is its co-writing between director Olga Chajdas and its lead actress, Lena Góra, who is also the daughter of the real-life character she portrays: Ela ‘Malwina’ Wyczyńska. This interplay of roles and mirror games also serves the psychological exposure of the protagonists and the unfolding drama. 
Imago tells the story of a complex bond between a mother (Lena Góra’s grandmother) and her daughter, Ela, of an insatiable need for freedom, the right to be wild and free in life as well as in artistic creation. The film begins in 1987 in the Tricity region, on the Baltic coast, a place where alternative music flourishes, and ends at a highly symbolic moment—two years later, after the first free elections in Poland. Ela, who, when unwell, stays in a psychiatric hospital, tries by all means to find a connection with a mother seemingly devoid of emotions. In love with a painter consumed by his art, she becomes pregnant.
Driven by rock-punk and psychedelic music, Imago offers a fascinating dive into the Polish counterculture of the late 1980s and the unique destiny of a woman considered by many to be crazy, whose story is extended by her own daughter’s portrayal.
In her concluding statement at the festival’s ceremony, Lena Góra paid tribute to her mother by saying: ‘Thank you for bringing me into this world; I am proud to have a mother like you!’

Malik Berkati
Edited by Amber Wilkinson