Sailing Through this Transitory Life

in 14th goEast Wiesbaden

by Anna Bielak

The portrayal of youth is a treacherous art. On the one hand, coming-of-age films may be marked by great energy, dynamics, hijinks, unpredictability and vivid experiences. Yet these same qualities may also turn a film into a chaotic, pretentious, naïve and unbearable piece of immature art. Even though the line between energy and chaos is very thin, filmmakers should be able to teeter on the brink and courageously flirt with the world around them. This may lead them to try out new modes of expression or to deliberately stake everything on one roll of the dice.

What’s the secret to creating such a film? The works screened at goEast this year proved that radical choices are good, whether in terms of form or plot. Even though adolescence abounds with new experiences, the young hero’s biography only takes up half a page; his life is now deprived of fairy tales, but the actual landmarks have yet to appear. This leads to a conviction that the sphere of youth is and should be an empty one. Some filmmakers try to capture this void by using clean and empty frames; others try to jumble up a surfeit of ideas. In both cases, this particular emptiness, ready to absorb all kinds of sensations and stories, is a great field for experimentation.

Among the admirers of minimalism at goEast were two profound directors: Pawel Pawlikowski, whose Ida received the Best Film award, and Serik Aprymov, honored with the Award of the Federal Foreign Office for his picturesque Little Brother (Bauyr). These two directors use a similar visual language which allows them to focus on their characters rather than on the world that influences their identities. Neither director is indifferent to social reality, but both try to capture it through the eyes of their characters.

In Ida, the title character (Agata Trzebuchowska) does not know anything about the world since she was raised in an orphanage by nuns. Just before her monastic vows, she is sent to her aunt (Agata Kulesza) in the city. Over a few days, Ida becomes acquainted with the painful truth about her family, and she needs to deal with the past and reorganize her future. In Little Brother, nine-year-old Yerken (Almat Galym) has been orphaned by his mother and abandoned by his father. With no other option, he waits for his older brother to come home and acts like an adult in the meantime. While Ida gets a momentary opportunity to become a truly independent person, Yerken gets the chance to act the way a boy his age should act. However, in both cases, these plot points are not defining. Both directors show that young people are not able to make any change, and instead they cruise in circles, waiting.

Similarly, Fred (Lauri Lagle), the protagonist of Free Range — Ballad on Approving of the World (Free Range — Ballaad maailma heakskiitmisest), cannot do much more than sail through his transitory life, afraid to breathe or rise. But director Veiko Õunpuu, honored with the goEast FIPRESCI Prize, portrays his young hero in a totally different fashion. He sees the emptiness of the character, but also tries to emphasize the great mess that youngsters have around them. Free Range… has a Beat-like surreal stream of consciousness which flirts with the poetics of Xavier Dolan’s brightly colored universe. This mesmerizing story about a hero fills the gap between generations, connecting cinematic and literary traditions and finding links between American beatniks, the French New Wave and the postmodern world which has brought us a new generation of hipsters.

Õunpuu’s Fred is one of those people that Jack Kerouac was fond of, the one who was “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the one who never yawns or says a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars” — and finally reach nothing. While Fred cruises in circles, the director himself heads towards a dead end without stopping. With great irony evident in the story and the caricatures of characters, Õunpuu avoids seeming pompous. He creates a special tone, similar to the one that Harmony Korine achieved with his insolent yet highly sophisticated Spring Breakers. By overloading his film with cinematic quotes, this Estonian director conveys the subtlest shades of youth. He knows exactly how to evoke emotions via surreal images, music and brilliant editing.

Õunpuu does not look for compromises, and thanks to this, he wins our admiration much more than directors who tell stories of gloomy youths in blue-mood aesthetics. Courage is needed to overstep the limits of control, not only for young protagonists, but for filmmakers who want to capture the youth experience and avoid shooting mediocre coming-of-age stories.

Edited by Lesley Chow