Strong Films from the East – Small Selection from the West

in 31st Moscow International Film Festival

by Beat Glur

The Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF) still seems to be rather a festival for the cinema from the East than a showcase of the world’s best in new cinema. The competition of its 31st edition in 2009, with 16 films from 14 countries, was of generally high quality, but the strong contenders were mostly from the Eastern European countries.          

Eight out of the sixteen films in competition were made in Eastern Europe – Ukraine, Georgia, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary, and three came from the Russian Federation. With only two films – one from Italy and one from Switzerland – and no film from important film producing nations such as France, Great Britain, Germany or Spain, the Western European competition selection was hardly representative. Asia participated with three films: from Iran, South Korea and Japan. The remaining three official contenders were from Israel, Mexico and the USA.              

The opening film Tsar by Pavel Lungin was also Russian, and the closing one was the world premiere of Public Enemies by Michael Mann (USA). The competition featured another five world premieres, all from the East. The other films in competition were, with two exceptions, international premieres. This makes the official section of the MIFF more exclusive than in previous years.          

Unlike in comparable A-festivals such as Rotterdam, Karlovy Vary or Locarno, the Moscow IFF is not a showcase for young cinema, or for a first or a second film. With a few exceptions, almost all the filmmakers in the official program were over 50 years of age. Only one film, Five Days Without Nora (Cinco dias sin Nora) from Mexico, was a first film, and its director, Mariana Chenillo (b. 1977) one of the youngest filmmakers in competition.            

Unfortunately, like so many other important festivals, the Moscow International Film Festival is getting bigger and bigger, and – alongside the official section – showcases a large number of other programs and retrospectives. Apart from a second competition, Perspectives (featuring 14 films from 13 countries), the Moscow festival offered no less than ten Out of Competition Programs, five Retrospectives and eight Special Programs with a total of about 500 films.            

The competition had its strong moments, mainly with films from the East, often set in the near past, and produced with a relatively high budget. The Russian entry The Miracle (Chudo) by Aleksander Proshkin, for example, was set in a small town in 1956 and based on real events. The story of Moscow-born Nikolay Dostal’s Pete on the Way to Heaven (Petya po doroge v tsarstvie nebesnoe) – first prize of the official jury – was situated a few years earlier, around the time of Stalin’s death, in a settlement near a reformatory camp. And the Polish entry The Little Moscow (Mala Moskwa) by Waldemar Krzystek was set in the sixties in a Russian military camp in Poland.              

Consequently, most of the prizes, awarded by different juries, went to films from Eastern Europe. The films in competition were all either political or social dramas, with the Mexican and the Swiss entry being the only lighter fare. The biggest crowd pleaser in competition was the Russian Pete on the Way to Heaven, spontaneously applauded several times during the screening. Yet audiences at the official screenings seemed to be much less enthusiastic than elsewhere, with standing ovations being a rare exception.      

The competition remains the main concern of the MIFF since Moscow is positioned closely to A-festivals like Karlovy Vary (July), Locarno (August) as well as San Sebastian and Venice (September). While the Moscow competition had its strong moments with films from Eastern Europe that were of political relevance and of high artistic quality, a few contenders – it is enough to mention the US-entry The Missing Person by Noah Buschel – did not merit their participation in an A-festival competition.      

Edited by Christina Stojanova