The Heart of the Matter

in 10th Geneva International Film Festival

by Miguel Somsen

There are films that win awards. And then there are films that win our hearts. Somnambulance from Estonia’s Sulev Keedus and Harvest Time from Russia’s Marina Rasbeschkina are two of them.

I had the chance of seeing both of them at the 14th Cottbus Film Festival of Eastern Cinema, which ended November the 6th. Although both movies had the ungrateful role of playing against each other in the feature film competition, they still ran like soul mates, trying hard to put themselves on the map – the map of this new generation of emerging artists from Eastern Europe and the map of the human heart, the only heart that matters.

The setting of Somnambulance takes us to the coast of Estonia at the end of the Second World War. In a nomansland, where hope has given place to solitude and despair, we get a glimpse of a father and daughter fighting over her decision to stay ashore, after she has missed the one-life opportunity of fleeing to a safer harbour in Sweden. The father is a dedicated lighthousekeeper but it is the teenage daughter who keeps the flame of the movie alive, bordering on a state of panic and lunacy we could hardly call a daytime dream. Along comes a stranger – who may or may not be real. Adrift goes the stranger – which may or may not be a projection from the young girl’s racy sexuality.

But where Somnambulance ends Harvest Time begins. In Marina Rasbeschkina’s debut, you have to be awake to the harsh reality of collective Russia in the fifties. The movie is a gracious and delicate story of one woman’s attempt to obtain the obtainable. As a sole worker in the family (the legless husband drowns himself in vodka every day) she still manages to win a Red Flag from the Communist Party, a primus inter pares with subtle irony. But that’s just the beginning, because this symbolic reward is probably much more than she can handle.

Keeping the family together is a giant task, but now the responsibility is daunting – she has to prevent the Red Flag from being destroyed by the mice at home. Those damn rats are like merciless bureaucrats eating out the system from the inside. And the woman is just like Penelope – but with a task of Ulysses. Sewing the red banner at night and working the white fields in the day, living up to the expectations of being also the most likely winner next year. That is probably her only way out of this survival conundrum.

These two films work together like state-of-the-art magic, weaving a strange feeling of synchronicity and insight. The end of Harvest Time is a small surprise which anyone can interpret in their own way, even if it falls into Somnambulance territory: in today’s Russia, half a century later, a stray oblivious girl finds the historical red banner inside a trunk and wears it in her hair in the streets, unaware of the continuous somnambulance that is supposed to be the new state of Mother Russia.

Miguel Somsen