Skating to Victory By Damir Radic

in 17th Ljubljana International Film Festival (LIFFE)

by Damir Radic

Among the many interesting choices at the respectable Ljubljana International Film Festival, the FIPRESCI jury gave its award to a film from the only programme section mostly dominated by pretty weak or mediocre films.

That programme, named South by Southeast, consisted of the films from Southeast Europe. This selection confirms that currently Croatia (represented by Hrvoje Hribar’s What Is a Man Without a Mustache? / Sto je muskarac bez brkova?, Branko Schmidt’s The Melon Route / Put lubenica and Antonio Niuc’s All for Free / Sve dzaba, Hungary (Szabolcs Hajdu’s White Palms / Fehér tenyér) and Romania (Catalin Mitulescu’s The Way I Spent the End of the World / Cum mi-am petrecut sfarsitul lumii) have the strongest production in the region, although the average quality of the region’s productions is not very high. In the end, we decided White Palms was the best film in the competition … or, at least, the film with the smallest number of flaws.

White Palms is the story of a Hungarian gymnast named Miklós Dongó; director Hajdu says the story is autobiographical, and the character is a composite of himself and his brother Zoltán Miklós Hajdu, who plays Dongó. It opens as the protagonist arrives in Calgary, Canada, to begin a new life as a gymnastic coach. After an incident, he begins to train a capricious young gymnast, Kyle Manjak (Kyle Shewfelt), seen as Canada’s great hope for winning the gold medal at the world championship in the Hungarian town of Debrecin . But a dubious relationship with Kyle awakens in Dongó troubling, disturbing memories of his own childhood, when he endured torturous physical and psychological treatment by his own coach.

The cold gray atmosphere of Calgary, and Dongó’s disorientation in his new environment, lead directly to the flashbacks of his sadistic training as a ten-year-old boy in Debrecin. As well, his parents are represented in an exaggerated way – his father and mother are one-dimensional greedy creatures who only want their son to collect as many medals as possible, no matter what the cost.

On the other hand, the film’s depiction of young Dongó’s miserable, isolated life, and his bold attempts to set himself free from the bonds of his parents’ and coach’s shared obsession with success, is truly impressive. But, while director and screenwriter Hajdu devotes enough time to the protagonist’s childhood, he does not really expand upon the relationship between the adult Dongó and Manjak, which seems to be rather uncertain, as is a naïve attempt at parallel editing in the film’s climactic moments.

But if we’re still discussing the film’s good points, we can point out its lack of sentiment or melodrama, which could have taken the material in a very soapy direction; the convincing, naturalistic performance by Zoltán Miklós Hajdu; a fine appearance by Gheorhe Dinica as the rigid coach with sadistic inclinations, and above all an evocative atmosphere, which is always of crucial importance.

Having proven himself as a gymnast at the world championship in his hometown, Miklós Dongó finds his freedom in a famous Canadian artistic circus. In a similar way, the auteur Szabolcs Hajdu has succeeded in creating a good piece of art in spite of all his missteps.