Pride, Prejudice, and Stereotypes
The Bratislava International Film Festival is held literally in the middle of Europe, in a city traditionally considered to be on the border between the European East and the European West. Maybe the location was the reason that made me look at this year’s ambitiously set and well-rounded program, first and foremost as an excellent basis for a screen dialogue between Eastern and Western Europe. Furthermore, festivals seem to be today the only place where Europeans can still carry out this kind of cinematic conversation. Exposed to a commercial distribution, dominated by American productions, nowadays European audiences barely have access to their neighbors’ cinemas. So, I was intrigued by the variety of European films, shown in and out of the festival competition, which have been inspired by the East-West contact. Therefore, I took the challenge to go after screen representations and self-representations of East Europeans and West Europeans.
At the end of the event I was disappointed to discover that more then one decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and claiming a Europe ready to integrate its East, we still reproduce and develop screen stereotypes of misunderstanding, disrespect and ignorance. East Europeans appeared in the festival selection of West European films predominantly as illegal immigrants, prostitutes, and criminals. I could best illustrate this attitude with a description from the synopsis of “Brucio nel vento” (“Burning in the Wind”), a co-production between Italy and Switzerland, shown in the European Film Section: “Tobias Horvath was born in a “village without a name” somewhere in Eastern Europe. He grew up in poverty, fatherless, and with a mother who was an occasional prostitute”. However, it was not only the Italian director Silvio Soldini who labeled an East European character as a marginal. Even young directors from the East, like the Romanian Calin Peter (“Maria”) and the Slovenian Damjan Kozole (“Rezervni deli”/”Spare Parts”, shown also in the Section “European Film”) followed that stereotype. Presenting East Europeans on screen generally as marginal characters belongs to a tendency of misunderstood social criticism, which threatens European cinema with a loss of its artistic strength. This trend puts especially the new East European cinema in danger, modifying it into a marginalized duplicate of Western sensitivity and interpretation. Copying and imitating the worst Western stereotypes about their own reality, the majority of young directors from the East limit their themes according to Western clichés, stay away from a lot of important dilemmas in their own societies, and eventually lose genuineness and authenticity of their films.
The same problem emerged from the depiction of West European characters, which were represented on screen predominantly as unscrupulous exploiters, slave-drivers, and sexual perverts, as in two films from the competition: the Austrian film “Struggle”, and again in “Maria” (a co-production between Romania, Germany and France). Overrated social criticism prevented their directors from giving a proper picture of how human beings approach other human beings without the clichés of a social struggle between presumably wealthy and bad people from the West, and supposedly poor and good guys from the East. From this point of view, I give my preference to those young European directors who succeeded in uncovering different levels of reality, and who examined them without forced social criticism, and with no trouble-free escapism, as well. I would like to mention Vladimir Moravek (“Nuda v Brne”/”Bored in Brno”), Marek Bukowski (“Sukces…”/”Success…”), and Michael Pfeifenberger (“011 Beograd”). The last film, screened out of the competition, presented a more productive direction in portraying young people from Eastern Europe, even if they exist on the edge of chaos and crime in a city recently troubled by war (Belgrade.) Pfeifenberger, like Moravek and Bukowski, escaped the stereotype because he preferred to portray personalities than rendering social categories. Moreover, all three young directors never forgot to shape their stories with a sense of humor, even black or uneasy, but tough enough to set up the directors’ distance from the pathetic stereotype of the lost marginal East European.
© FIPRESCI 2003