The Attractivity of Traveling: Let's Go - Or Maybe Not By Ingvald Bergsagel

in 15th Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival

by Ingvald Bergsagel

Some people claim that the natural condition of man is to travel, not to settle down. That we can be happy only when living like nomads, gypsies or migrating birds. Some people disagree. But when attending a film festival like Sochi it’s tempting to be sympathetic to the theory of the naturally migrating man, even though this urge to move often proves itself destructive.

The Russian holiday resort of Sochi is situated at the western foot of the Caucasian mountains. People from more than 140 nationalities are living there. And even though the number of international tourists has ironically declined rapidly after the Soviet Union dissolved the annual number of visitors to Sochi outnumbers by far its permanent residents.

The competition program at the 11th International Film Festival is fittingly dominated by films where the main characters travel, long to travel or are fighting hard not to have to travel. Some of them need to escape an unbearable situation. Some go out seeking revenge, prosperity, a wider perspective or lost loved ones. But more often the traveling or the wish to travel is born out of negative internal and external forces.

The first film screened in competition was the melancholic Swiss production “November” where a middle-class family drifts apart when the mother and wife Marianne wins the big one at the lottery. Her daughter wants to visit her e-mail friend in the USA, while Marianne plans a trip to South America. The pot-smoking neighbor Iceman also longs to get away. Here the wish to travel is never fulfilled. Instead it vicariously becomes a destructive force, ripping the fragile nuclear family apart.

“November” was one of the best films in competition, and also in another highlight the protagonists traveling remains unrealized. The Polish film poem “Squint Your Eyes” (Zmruz oczy) that won the festivals main prize, takes place in an almost mythical rural landscape where the laidback caretaker of an abandoned farm refuses to leave. So does his young friend, a ten-year old girl who has run away from her family.

Though traveling is portrayed as important and necessary, the films seldom give this activity a positive spin. In “Struggle” (Ruth Mader, Austria) a young Polish woman travels across the border to Austria looking for a better life for herself and her daughter, but ends up being used and misused in several different and heartbreaking ways.

In the Scandinavian co-production “Bazo” (by Lars Göran Petterson) national borders are crossed in a crusade for revenge and twisted justice. In “Donau, Dunaj, Duna, Dunav, Dunarea” (by Goran Rebic, Austria) a handful of characters on a riverboat have different reasons for crossing a series of national borders along the Danube river, but none of them do it for pleasure. In the Danish film “The Bouncer” (by Jesper W. Nielsen) an old grumpy and senile man never stops talking about his wish to go back to the place where he once was happy, but the wish is not fulfilled until after his death.

The film in the Sochi competition program that portrayed traveling most positively and rewarding was probably the Swiss-French production “South of the Clouds” (by Jean-François Amiguet). That said, even here the adventures of a group of elderly mountain farmers who decides to take the train to China, is not without bitter aftertaste. Only one of the men reaches the final destination, and there, alone on the other side of the globe, 70 year old Adrian finally and melancholically manages to see his life, his loves and his losses in a clearing light.

Even if you don’t support the theory of traveling and migrating as the natural condition of man, people will always keep on moving, often for all the wrong reasons. Often out of desperation, because of poverty and persecution. But hopefully also with a realistic hope of something better somewhere else and along the way.