School System, Classroom Bullying and the Subsequent Trauma – a Strong Theme in Contemporary Cinema

in 15th International Film Festival Bratislava

by Miroslav Lanik

At the 15th International Film Festival “Bratislava”, held at the lovely eponymous capital of Slovakia from 6th to 12th November 2013, we had the chance to see in the competition for first and second feature films works from different countries :  Turkey, Ukraine, Slovenia, Sweden, Croatia, Bosna and Hercegovina, Russia, Italy, Germany. They covered a wide variety of subjects, one of which – as is to be expected – was love in all of its diversity: lesbian love in Anne Zohra Berrached’s debut Two Mothers (Zwei Mütter), ruined  by an irresistible ambition for conceiving a child; love for sale, replaced by a burning desire to be loved for real in Love Me  (Lyuby mene), an Ukrainian- Turkish co-production.

Other themes of note I would like to mention were corruption, treated in the Russian drama The Major (Mayor) and ethnic intolerance in A Stranger (Obrana i zaštita), a Croatian—Bosna and Hercegovina co-production. The Mayor is a chillingly astute drama with superior camera work, high-paced editing and sound-track, composed by writer-director Yuriy Bykov, who also plays one of the main character. A Stranger features a hero, who is forced to cross the invisible line that separates two communities (Christian and Muslim) in Mostar. This dilemma triggers serious psychological consequences in the main hero. Directorial debut of Bobo Jelcic,  A Stranger reveals a compelling story of everyday life in a divided society, a world where paranoia, comedy and drama coexist.

Both Yuriy Bykov and Bobo Jelcic won Best Director Award in Bratislava ex-aequo.

Two movies on a classroom theme strongly resonated at the Bratislava Film Festival: The Reunion (Återträffen) from Sweden  and Class Enemy (Razredni Sovražnik) from Slovenia. By skillfully blurring the boundaries between fiction and  reality, The Reunion deals in intelligent and engaging manner with marginalization, bullying, the complexity of group dynamics and power struggles. Anna Odell – who is not only the director, but also plays herself in the main role – was inspired to make this unusual film after learning that her classmates were organizing a reunion, where everyone except her was invited. Intrigued to find out the reason for her exclusion and curious to see what would happen when old truths and hierarchies were questioned, Anna brought a film crew to the event. The first part of the film, showing the twentieth high school graduation reunion, is staged as a fiction film, shot and edited in the Dogme style. The second part where Anna examines the reactions of her classmates, on the other hand, takes the form of a documentary. The movie is notable also for its very good choice of music, exemplified in the final scene by the beautiful birds-eye shots, accompanied by Laurie Anderson’s song. In addition to the Student Jury Award, Anna Odell was also granted the  Best Actress Award for her role in the film.

The other film on a class-room theme, which I personally found even more fascinating, was Class Enemy, the debut of the young Slovenian director Rok Bicek, which won the festival Grand Prix as well as the Fipresci award. This movie was again inspired by a real event the director lived through: the suicide of a girl from the school he attended. The class featured here, in their final year before graduation, gets a new class-teacher, who is also their German language teacher. In the fabulous interpretation of Igor Samobor, the teacher is as rigorous and strict “as a German” — a role that brought Samobor the Best Actor Award at the IFF Bratislava. The disagreements between the teacher and the students are fuelled by a female student’s recent suicide, and not before long her classmates identify the new teacher as the culprit. Led by nascent rebel leaders, the students’ resistance escalates, eliciting the teacher’s response. Unfortunately, the students realize too late that not everything is black and white. The growing tension is portrayed form the point of view of students, teaching staff, parents and the director, with superb audio/visual brilliance.

The film has a great screenplay, brilliant dialogues with quotes from Thomas Mann. Class Enemy reminds of the French film The Class, but I have to admit that I liked  the Slovenian movie better for its excellent progression and oppressive atmosphere. And for the director’s amazing eye for detail in tracking down blatant contradictions. The uses and abuses of “racism” is a case to point. Špela, a female student, is in the habit of calling the teacher Nazi, but does not have a problem disparaging her Asian classmate as a “rice grower.” Another instance of the power of detail is the teachers-parents meeting, where it becomes immediately obvious from the carefully emphasized behavioural intricacies and reactions who is whose parent without any verbal explanation. Rok Bicek’s sense of detail privileges the usage of warm yellow colours in contrast to the chilling tale – at first, yellow is the colour of the T-shirt, worn by the student who kills herself, but gradually the whole class ends up wearing a yellow piece of clothing.

… After seeing the film, I felt that being a teacher was the most difficult profession in the world…

Despite financial problems, change of venue from a shopping mall multiplex to traditional film theatres, the 15th  International Film Festival Bratislava offered a program of real quality.

One can only hope that the festival would withstand all challenges and we will meet again next year at the IFF Bratislava.

Edited by Christina Stojanova