Out of the Comfort Zone

in 26th Festival of East European Cinema, Cottbus

by Victor López González

Sometimes, the one and only thing you need to improve yourself and expand your vision and concerns about the world around you is to leave your comfort zone. This kind of abstract solution can be translated in many ways and may involve different aspects, but, I have to say that after leaving my so-called “comfort zone” – or “routine”, or however you want to call it – for a few days, I realized that the effort is totally worth it.

In this particular case, the utterly rewarding experience of attending the 26 th edition of the FilmFestival Cottbus implied drastic changes to my daily life, such as flying away from Barcelona’s sunny and warmish winter to dive into Germany’s snow showers and freezing temperatures, turning my healthy Mediterranean diet to an authentic feast of pretzels, Curry- Wurst and pickles and, last but not least, leaving behind my beloved blockbusters and indie horror movies to fall completely in love with the eclectic, fascinating, and inspiring – and, also, sadly unexplored in many regions – films that Eastern European cinema has to offer.

Leaving aside some specific cases, such as the insufferable and pedantic art-house experiment All the Cities of the North (Svi severni gradovi), directed by a presumptuous Dane Komljen who went onto the stage and introduced his work, urging the crowd to “forget any assumption about how films should be” before the screening, this Cottbus Film Festival has been the perfect screen to project Eastern European motion pictures to worldwide audiences; bringing them closer to the usual multiplex film buffs and pulling away this unfair image of pretentious, dramatic, deep, boring and slow-paced movies usually connected with them.

Productions like the violent, slow-cooked and breathtaking crime thriller Dogs (Câini, Bogdan Mirica) and his atmospheric view of the Romanian wastelands through the lens of the best classical westerns; or the unexpectedly brilliant debut film The Last Family (Ostatnia rodzina, Jan Matuszynski) – a portrayal, halfway between thriller, biopic and black comedy – of the bizarre Polish painter-turned-pop-icon Zdzislaw Beksinski; or the hilarious mockumentary from Slovenia, Houston, We Have a Problem! (Houston, imamo problem!, Žiga Virc), are just a couple of examples among a significant number of films shown at the festival that are capable of breaking stigmas and prejudices.

Of course, in-between ludic or escapist works, we’ve been able to enjoy deeper and devastating screenings, filled with all the socio-political backgrounds and concerns that constitute the leitmotif of Cottbus FilmFestival; they stand out thanks to their ability to mix such sensitive themes with astonishing achievements in cinematography and filmmaking. The House of Others (Skhvisi sakhli, Rusudan Glurjidze) and his asphyxiating, even if unbelievably beautiful, visual poetry shot in 4:3 aspect ratio to show the horrors and anguish of the exiled victims from the Georgian civil war, could be the best sample of how this committed cinema – maybe hard to face without some perspective – could satisfy an outsider.

Nevertheless, the most important lesson I have learned during my journey through FilmFestival Cottbus is that European Eastern cinema has absolutely nothing to worry about with respect to the gigantic film machines of Hollywood. Kills on Wheels (Tiszta szívvel, Attila Till) may be the most accurate illustration about how a small European production can compete with almost any American action blockbuster without trouble; it is doubtless the best movie of this festival’s edition. The way this director portrays serious topics in such a clever, sensitive and likable way, covering them with such a delicate layer of cheerful but bittersweet sense and mixing genre of the criminal thriller with black comedy make his second feature film the perfect excuse to unite critics, filmmakers and, especially, the public.

Watching a movie receive a standing ovation – clapping, cheering and yelling included, as the romantic comedy Planet Single (Planeta singli, Mitja Okorn) after more than two hours of clichés, common places and – I hate to admit it – an enjoyable, funny and sweetened story is a symptom that something has been done pretty well, because the client, i.e. the audience, is always right.

I can’t recommend strong enough that you also leave your comfort zone and discover things –movies in this situation – that otherwise you’d never even imagine. Who cares about the weather or the food when you have all of Eastern Europe to discover through films?

Edited by Birgit Beumers