The Black Man Is White By Antonia Kovacheva

in 10th Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema

by Antonia Kovacheva

“I looked through the fence into our neighbors’ yard. Over that night alone, it had become a state border and the beautiful garden all of a sudden proved to be a passageway for military units. The war wrought its ravages across Europe. Serbia and Bulgaria were enemies at the time. From behind the fence, I saw a black man for the first time in my lifetime. An unbelievably tall Negro from the French army gave me a friendly wink despite my obvious astonishment.”

I still remember my grandmother’s story about her first glance at the outside world, personified by the radiant beam of a black foreign soldier. It happened during World War I and she might have been 12 at the time. My Granny died at 97, surviving several wars plus Communism. An educated and wise Bulgarian woman, she lived almost a century and never in her life did she think of her homeland and Europe as different things. “The Balkans”, “Western Europe”, “Eastern Europe” as political, social or historical terms meant nothing to her. She knew better than taking borderlines seriously, given how quickly they could be moved and the cost of all that. Finally, she proved to be right. People started transforming borders, every inch of which had been defended once to the last drop of blood, into imaginary lines on the map. Few were to foresee how long it would take to eliminate yet another boundary — that of the Iron Curtain. In 1989, like my grandmother in her childhood, people from the West looked East through the ruins of the political fence and saw — a black man. The East-European post-communist black man. White actually, same speech, same look, same origin, same cultural roots but nevertheless a black one.

More than a decade later, the 15th edition of the Cottbus Film Festival still celebrates the “black” cinema of Europe. The cinema from ex-socialist countries. At the time this cinema entered the “free” world with its social and mental burdens. Its sensational locality was welcomed with zeal and the familiar “Helsinki Watch” enthusiasm. Later the interest focused on other, more exotic places on Earth and film events such as the one held in Cottbus remained the only opportunity to learn about the developments in the European cinema ghetto.

Well, the answer at Cottbus this year was: There is no longer a film ghetto in the Eastern part of Europe. There is no longer self-underestimating, no more self-pity, no more Bronx complexes. At least as far as the festival selection was concerned. Instead, there was irony. Rage and anger are the power of the weak. Irony is the power of the strong. Most of the movies in the Cottbus feature film competition boasted a touch of irony. As regards the past and the present. As regards reality and cinematographic imagination. As regards expectations. Both intended and unintended irony.

There is irony by default in the prevailing genre of the competition films — bitter-sweet philosophical comedy, fueled by dark tender humor. A suicidal widowed old man finds love while his son earns his living as a funeral orator in the Slovenian film Gravehopping (Odgrobadogroba). His deaf-and-dumb sister is raped, the man who loves her dies after taking revenge and she hides in his car just to be buried alive with her beloved. As much as this sounds totally depressing and crazy, actually it is definitely not. Quite the contrary, the film’s ending cathartic, revealing beauty in tragedy. Revealing love and hope between death and violence.

An old man is in love with a plastic dummy girl. Another elderly father braces himself to make a parachute jump. In the meanwhile, his son desperately fights to win back the love of a girl in the bizarre Czech comedy Wrong Side Up (Pribehy obycejneho silenstvi). The mother in the family is clinically mad. Death is once again stalking at the end. The son, an employee at DHL airport services, locks himself up to be delivered to his future bride’s home. But he is wrongly air-mailed… to Cuba. The guy inside could definitely die, but maybe he will not. One ends up smiling, rather than feeling sad.

The Russian mockumentary The First People on the Moon (Pervyje na lune) teases and provokes the viewer. On the face of it, the movie is a merciless mockery of the former Soviet Union’s obsession to be the first in everything even manipulating history. In essence, the film pays homage to Fake in the cinema, ridiculing the power of the film as a document of the times. The documentary shots are not documentary, not to mention the events. But there are some real newsreels which turn everything upside down and intentionally disorient the audience. A character in the film says: “It happened and it was filmed. It was filmed hence it happened.” The film itself simply asks: “Are you sure?”

Nobody could be positive what kind of a movie is the Hungarian so-called mainstream film Stop Mom Theresa! (Allitsátok meg Terézanyut!). Everything is Hungarian there – the language, Zsuzsanna Racz’s bestselling novel on which the script is based, the sets, the actors, the everyday life on the streets, the nouveau riches, the blue-chip offices and ritzy mansions. And yet, at the same time, nothing looks Hungarian. The actors have been dressed and shot like Hollywood movie stars. You look at the leading Hungarian actress Gabriella Hamori as Kata and you start thinking of Calista Flockhart from Ally McBeal, of Julia Ormond in Sidney Pollack’s Sabrina, of Jennifer Lopez in The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan, of Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts in their popular screen romances. The male parts ape Harrison Ford, Dylan McDermott, Matthew McConaughey, and so on. At times, the plot leads directly to Sex and the City and well-known Hollywood romantic dramas. Commercial cinema all right, modeled on the Hollywood blockbuster. As one could assume, the budget was not of Hollywood scope. There is no parody at all, everything is straightforward. At the same time, director Peter Bergendy looks from behind every frame at the audience with an ironical smile. He has made a true Hollywood A-movie with completely Hungarian stuff. A movie intriguing enough to draw wide audiences and winking at those having more sophisticated expectations.

Generally, this was the collective message conveyed by all the Cottbus competition feature films. Whatever our expectations have been and maybe still are, a mature generation of filmmakers has grown up. They have global self-confidence irregardless of their local budgets. They make movies in compliance with the modern conventions of film art. They know no fences, borders or iron curtains. Irregardless of their nationalities, birthplaces and education, they do not feel themselves outsiders. And their films are not outsiders. Is this not good news?