Social Consciousness and Escape from Realism in New Central and Eastern European Cinema

in 24th Warsaw Film Festival

by Mihai Fulger

The 24th edition of the Warsaw Film Festival, with its competitive sections, special programmes and concurrent market, proved a good opportunity to identify some of the recurrent topics and recent trends within the cinema of Central and Eastern Europe. The new Romanian films, such as Radu Muntean’s Boogie, included in the “Discoveries — Visions of Contemporary World” section of the festival, or Radu Jude’s promising first feature The Happiest Girl in the World (Cea mai fericita fata din lume), presented at the “CentEast Market”, prefer pure realism. And rather than concentrating on social issues and their influence on the lives of characters, they foreground interpersonal relations (family ties, love and friendship) and what lies beneath them.                    

However, many young directors from other CEE countries pay much closer attention to social determinism and, at the same time, openly violate the borders of realism, so as to emphasize their message and to please their audience. For instance, migration, still a major problem in post-communist countries, and, more generally speaking, the phenomenon of leaving one’s native land and relinquishing one’s roots in order to find better living conditions elsewhere, are tackled in many feature debuts. Amongst others, Love and Other Crimes (Ljubav i drugi zlocini) by Serbian director Stefan Arsenijevic, Nirvana (Russia) by Igor Voloshin, Snow (Snijeg) by Bosnian female director Aida Begic and Cannes 2008’s “Un Certain Regard” winner Tulpan by Kazakhstan-born filmmaker Sergei Dvortsevoy. Films, which seem to convey — albeit sometimes in terms of not-so-happy endings — the message, encapsulated by the famous saying “Home is where your heart is”.            

Yet socially conscious realism seems to be no longer good enough for the young directors in the region. For example, even in a fiction film, using documentary techniques to depict the lives of several Bosnian women, separated from their (presumably dead) husbands by the devastating war from the mid-1990s (Snow), there is a clear touch of magical realism. It most obviously informs the character of the young boy Ali with his miraculously growing hair, who is seen as a symbol of perennial justice. Without uttering a single word, by the sheer force of his accusing eyes, he is capable of compelling a man with a guilty conscience to confess what he wanted to hide. In the bittersweet comedy Love and Other Crimes (part of “Warsaw Competition”), the director, who is also the main script-writer, manages to counter the dominant melodramatic elements from the second part of the film in the final surreal scene. Instead of dying after being undoubtedly shot to death, the main hero disappears thus presumably putting into effect his best magician trick.        

Another observation derived from the festival’s main competition: the influence of Emir Kusturica’s work is still very strong in the region, as can be seen, for example, in the Bulgarian film The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks around the Corner (Svetat e golyam i spasenie debne otvsyakade) by Stefan Komandarev, winner of the Jury Special Prize. Fortunately, there areother original and surprising films like the feature debut of Hungarian director Attila Gigor, The Investigator (A nyomozó), winner of the International Critics Prize (FIPRESCI Prize) in Warsaw, reinforcing our faith in the future of cinema.