The Quiet Heroism of Women

in 44th Molodist International Film Festival

by Janusz Gazda

Molodist FIPRESCI jury this year watched and judged 12 feature length films. Half of them cantered on dramatic public or private situations, involving women. These films, in my opinion, were the ones that stood out. In many countries, including Europe, women’s issues are continuously in the focus of cinema, journalism, television, the press as well as of humanitarian and charitable organisations, fighting for human rights.

The importance and popularity of this subject undoubtedly raises the social status of these films, but here it is manifested with resounding authorial energy. All six films were poignant and well constructed, with interesting and psychologically truthful and powerfully enacted  female roles. Their main feature was the observational sensitivity of the filmmakers, whose films vividly describe the atmosphere and the circumstances within which the featured events evolve.

The Bulgarian – Greek co-production The Lesson (Urok), by Kristina Grozeva and Petur Vulchanov, and the Georgian production  Brides (Patardzlebi), by Tinatin Kajrishvili,offer  evocative portraits of women struggling with the challenges of everyday life. It is on their shoulders, and not on those of their male partners, that care and responsibility rests, and not only for maintaining the emotional closeness of the relationship, but also for the financial security of the family and especially of their young children (both heroines are mothers). Impressive is their foresight, portrayed by the authors as a kind of heroism.

In The Lesson we have an interestingly drawn moral dilemma: in a small Bulgarian town Nadezhda, a young teacher, is looking for the thief in her class so that she can teach him a lesson about right and wrong. But when she suddenly finds herself in great debt to a loan shark, she is unable to find the right way out. The protagonist of Brides lives with her two small children in the suburbs of Tblissi, Georgia. She and her partner would have been just an ordinary family if he had not been arrested and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. Between the wedding in prison and the monthly visits there, a routine sets in, he is inside, she is outside. Will they ever be able to overcome this double reality? – is the question the film poses.

In  Difret by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari (Ethiopia, USA), we witness quite different circumstances and morality. The film takes place in a Muslim populated area of Ethiopia. Three hours outside of Addis Ababa, a bright 14-year-old girl, on her way home from school, is kidnapped when men on horses swoop by. The brave Hirut grabs a rifle and tries to escape, but ends up shooting her would-be husband. In her village, the practice of abduction into marriage is common and among Ethiopia’s oldest traditions. Meaza Ashenafi, an empowered and tenacious young lawyer, arrives from the city to represent Hirut and argue that she acted in self-defense. Enforcing the civil authority, Meaza boldly embarks on a collision course with the customary law, risking the ongoing work of her women’s legal-aid practice to save Hirut’s life. In this engrossing and significant film, based on a real-life story, an aggressive and deep-rooted patriarchy is shown flourishing beneath the layer of polite social customs, creating a harsh and inhospitable environment for women.

Two other films focused on important issues of emigration of nationals from poorer countries into Western Europe, exposing conflicts between local and imported customs and cultures. In Macondo by Sudabeh Mortezai (Austria), a Chechen widow whose husband died during the wars, finds it hard to build a life in a new, culturally alien place; she works hard to support her children, but is constantly stressed out because she cannot speak the local language. Her son Ramasan, now considered the man in the family and in charge of his mother and two younger sisters, bears a lot of responsibility for his 11 years of age. His world is contained within Macondo, a tough ethnic neighborhood in the industrial suburbs of Vienna. Ramasan speaks German much better than his mother and often translates for her school- and government-related documents. With time, a relationship, maybe even a romance, between the widow and her Chechen neighbor evolves. The romantic alliance grows slowly and delicately in accordance to tough Chechen traditions. The mother is worried whether her son would be able to accept  this new and substitute ‘father figure’.

In Victoria – a Tale of Grace and Greed by Men Lareida (Switzerland, Hungary), a young Roma girl – who feels alienated and badly treated in her home country of Hungary, where she helps her mother run a not very profitable vegetable market stall – decides to emigrate and work as a prostitute in Zurich. There, night after night, she stands under the dim street lights and waits for customers to satisfy them inside their cars on dark parking lots. The thought of what she will do with all the money when she gets back, helps her fight her fear and disgust. Despite her miserable situation in this world of violence and fast sex, she also finds love and friendship. Eventually her ‘luck’ runs out, she gets badly beaten by a pimp, and is saved from terrible death by a friend, who is herself beaten to death by the ‘owner’. The heroine succeeds in escaping back to Hungary, but without any money. 

Despite the differences, both films have an educational mission for western societies: they wish to show and sensitize the west to the lot of the immigrants in their midst. The lot of ‘the  others,’ who are also searching, and hoping to realize their dreams of a better life.

And finally, a completely different portrait of a woman, offered by Correction Class (Klass Korrektsiyi) by Ivan I. Tvardowskyi. Modern day Russia. A secondary school. A class of so called ‘problem’ children, disabled mentally or physically. Our main heroine is a very intelligent and well read girl, but unable to walk and confined to a wheel chair. The school is not accessible for pupils like her: she and her heavy wheelchair have to be carried up the stairs into the classroom on the 2nd floor. This portrait of difficult youth (first love, first sexual attempts, but also – envy, cruelty, attempted rape) does not succeed in engaging us as much as the portrait of the female teachers. They create a system of educational repression (thought discipline leading to humiliation of pupils; issuing of orders, enforcing absolute obedience; weeding out of any original and autonomous thinking) which brings to mind the Soviet way of controlling and ruining society. School becomes a metaphor for a repressed society. Correction Class belongs to the group of very rare Russian film, presented at the Kiev festival under the rubric Films of Moral Anxiety.

Edited by Christina Stojanova