Steve McQueen's Hunger Legacy

in 30th Warsaw Film Festival

by Hanna Margolis

The Warsaw Film Festival celebrated this year its 30th anniversary. It begun as the Warsaw Film Week in 1984, presenting the most interesting arthouse films from Western Europe. This was still during the communist times. Since then a lot has changed.

Poland became a democratic country, and the festival ranks as one of the most prestigious in the world. It is now one of fourteen events recognized by FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers Asociations) as international competitive film festivals. Since 1995 WFF organises Warsaw Film Foundation, held under the honorary patronage of the Minister of Culture and National Heritage and the Mayor of Warsaw. The Festival has become an important institution in the film arena in Poland. In time, it has undergone great changes. When it was launched, Poland’s economy, including its cinema culture, was drowning in a deepening crisis.

Currently, since the Polish Film Institute has been established, things have been improving. More and more films that gain wide international recognition are being produced. In Poland, there is a large and interesting community of professionals associated with film production. However, a larger participation of this community in the festival events would be desirable.

While the first editions of the Festival were focused on the Western European and the USA cinematography, at present the geographical direction of the spotlight runs along the Moscow-Beijing line.

This year’s FIPRESCI competition has been an interesting blow-up of issues concerning both the region, and its filmmakers — it honoured the best debut or second full-length film of directors from Eastern and Central Europe. The main award went to the Moldovan film What a Wonderful World (Ce lune minunata) by Anatol Durbala. Since gaining independence in 1991 there has been practically no film industry in Moldova. The film is very modest, but with a very good screenplay, very well structured and narrated. It tackles problems of new democracies, and of small countries gaining independence — the violent dissent against the conservatively minded authorities.

The authorities are the same people who over twenty years ago were the young contesting avant-garde, and who triggered gaining independence of Moldova, but now are corrupt and looking to the past. Those two worlds are bridged by the main character — a man who, returning home from an American university, is like an extraterrestrial, a person from a different civilization, and as such is unaware of threats, which leads him to an unexpected end.

Another film worth mentioning is the Ukrainian film The Tribe (Plemya)directed by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, a previous award-winner at the Berlinale and in Locarno, among others. The Tribe had already received the Grand Prix in Cannes in the Semaine de la Critique section. The film relates (exclusively in sign language) the brutal reality of a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf mute children.

The legacy of Steve McQueen’s Hunger, the film recognized in 2008 by the Certain Regard section at Cannes, can be identified in both films. Through precisely structured narrative the world is depicted as a trap with no way out, yet with no clear distinction between the oppressors and victims, where everyone is implicated in a brutal game. Their form is also similar – long-takes with practically static camera happening in real time, while the camera is positioned slightly above the heads of the characters. These means serve to involve the viewers in a way that they become unwilling “witnesses” of the traumatic events. Like Hunger, both films employ monotony, and repetition of scenes, as well as masterfully arranged locations and interiors to convey the meaning in place of the silent characters.

Many films tackle traumatic events involving both single contemporary characters (the Bulgarian film Lesson (Urok), the Latvian film Modris) as well as historical traumas like, for example, the problem of mass deportations to Siberia shown by the experimental stop motion form in the Estonian film In the Crosswind (Risttuules) by Martti Helde.

Also, a certain self censorship can be observed, for example, in the Turkish film Across the Sea (Deniz Seviyesi)of Esra Saydam and Nisan Dac, where the form of a well structured melodrama conceals political, social, and religious content which are the real motifs behind the heroine’s behaviour.

To sum up the competition section of the first and second films from Eastern and Central Europe it can be ascertained that there were excellent films like Wonderful World, The Tribe, In the Crosswind and Modris. There were also films which in spite of good acting, camerawork and the overall conscious approach to the topic seem to be characterized by amateurish screenplays, and inefficient storytelling — both, after all, elemental aspects of narrative filmmaking.

Edited by Michael Pattison