Rebels in a World of Great Traditions

in 10th Geneva International Film Festival

by Peter Steinhart

I have always admired the courageous decision of Cottbus, a charming little city near the German-Polish border, to establish a festival for the presentation of Eastern European films at a time when everybody else in Eastern Germany was only interested in imports – cultural and consumer goods alike – from the Western World. As newcomer at this festival – now in its 14th year – it was amazing to observe how much the visitors from different parts of Central and Eastern Europe mingled not only for friendly conversations, but also for business talks – amazing for somebody who during the last years, while travelling quite often in those countries, realised the sad tendency of even the smallest nations to turn their backs against each other.

Cottbus is a university and college town and therefore one of the few places at the Eastern outskirts of Germany where the exodus of young people to the West, to regions with lower unemployment rates and more career possibilities, is not being felt as a local problem. The students of Cottbus are lively in the screenings, and they don’t keep themselves back to the part of distant observers. To the many awards which have been distributed at the end of a festival with some 150 films (so I was told – I did not try to check this number in the catalogue myself), squeezed into only four days of screenings, belonged also the prize of a local students jury for the best directorial debut. This went, together with many other awards (from the Ecumenical Jury, the FIPRESCI, the voting audience etc.), to this festival’s Hungarian darling, Nimród Antal’s Control.

The fact that the International Festival Jury’s Main Prize for the Best Film went to another directorial debut – Schizo from Guka Omarowa, Kasakhstan – shows the success of the selection committee with their ambition to put the focus of the festival on young talents. Schizo is an excellent new example for the development of a genuine Kasakh cinema, which since the end of the Soviet Union was distancing itself from Russian style filmmaking by a taciturn tongue-in-cheek attitude in the description of skillful survivals in a ruthless world of poverty and underworld careers.

Those brilliant works of a refreshingly youthful cinema, combining authentic local colour with witty variations of patterns from Western genre movies, were naturally surrounded by many pieces of a more traditional, specifically Eastern European mold of filmmaking. There are still, for instance, many pathetic Russian films with moral messages around, sometimes told in a fascinating Soviet Old Master’s style, like Swoi, a war-time movie with the central figure of a hardboiled anti-Bolshevik “kulak” who finally joins forces even with a Stalinist Tshekist (secret policeman) for the “fight against the enemy of our motherland”, directed by Dmitri Meshkhiyev and in Moscow honoured with many awards as this year’s most important film.

A retrospective Focus on Czech films from the last decades was updated by new productions in a rather old fashioned Czech comedy style and by vivid discussions between delegates of the Prague film world about the image of their national cinema in the Western world. Some confessed to be annoyed by the lack of sympathy at selection committees in the great Western European film festivals, while others (like Jana Cernik from the Czech Film Centre in Prague) were full of self-criticism: “We [the Czechs] still live from [the fame of] the sixties.”

But whether old fashioned or youthfully rebellious, the 14th Cottbus edition of Eastern European cinema presented a remarkably high standard of quality. On the contrary to great international film festivals with predominantly Western selections, I was never bored.

Peter Steinhart