To Forget the Past

in 32nd Moscow International Film Festival

by Carmen Gray

“I would only have to forget the past,” exiled Hungarian politician Anna Kéthly says with wry, pointed irony in director Márta Mészáros’ biopic The Last Report on Anna (Utolsó jelentés Annáról) in response to a secret agent attempting to lure her back to her homeland. Having resisted both fascist and communist dictatorship, she refuses to regard historical remembrance as negotiable. Such weight of memory, and the complexity of being tied through origin to a homeland which is less than hospitable, formed a recurrent thread in the films showing in competition at the 32nd Moscow International Film Festival.

The powerful dialogue of Mészáros’ film is filled with reflections on politics and conscience which bring to mind the conviction to “live in truth” famously set out by Czech writer (and later president) Václav Havel, and often espoused by Soviet-era dissidents. It’s a preoccupation which also permeates Czech director Irena Pavlásková’s FIPRESCI prize-winner An Earthy Paradise for the Eyes (Zemský ráj to na pohled) which, with an endearingly light and humorous, yet assured touch presents a personal snapshot of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia- from the tanks rolling into the capital in to crush the Prague Spring through to the arrest of Charter 77 signatories — from the perspective of middle-aged, vivaciously attractive Marta (a role which afforded Vilma Cibulková a well-deserved Main Jury Best Actress award win) and her two teenage daughters. Always with one or another man on the go, Marta is reluctant to be overtly political, but is linked to dissident circles through her writer ex-husband and lovers, one of whom is based on Havel himself. Deciding against emigration, she and her daughters try to live as fully as before, but the impingement of surveillance and oppression leads them to an increasing awareness of the inextricability of politics from the daily fabric of existence and the necessity of taking a stance — echoing the conception of the “indivisible nature of spiritual and civic freedoms” Havel himself often spoke about, as well as his notion of the “criminalisation of difference” under totalitarianism- whereby anyone with the courage to express a divergent view or lifestyle outside greyed and deadened official lines can expect serious trouble from the authorities. Indeed, the competition films often focused on the personal stories of individuals only to stress their responsibility as inherently political social cogs in the repressive systems in which they are stuck, either using their will to resist or being passively complicit. Kéthly gives explicit voice to this in The Last Report on Anna, as she responds to the agent, when he professes to have nothing to do with politics: “Of course you do, you are just not aware of it.”

In a number of the films, and naturally reflective of an increasingly mobile global population, characters have been separated from their homeland not from overt political oppression but from immigration conceived of as a means of bettering life quality and alleviating financial hardship — though with it comes a foreign system which it’s shown can be just as debilitating in its prejudices and arbitrary demands.

Very overt about the tyranny of “rules” which citizens, and more particularly migrants, are subjected to in corporatised western society is Dear Alice from director Othman Karim. Set in urban Sweden and evidently heavily indebted to past Oscar-winner Crash in both its form and concerns, it traces several intersecting plotlines, from a migrant Ugandan handicraft seller having trouble making ends meet who becomes entangled in impersonal bureaucracy and paperwork when trying to obtain social support to a family man who discovers when fruitlessly trying to wire money abroad for his ill father that he has been placed on a suspected terrorist list, and whose surname Said his wife has been asked to give up as a condition of making partner at her law firm. Racial tensions also simmer towards boiling point in Turkish director Nesli Çölgeçen’s Brought by the Sea (Denizden gelen), in which a troubled ex-policeman tries to get around the faceless, standard procedures of the ruling authorities so that he can take care of a young African boy he has found at the beach who’s been left stranded after his mother drowned while they were trying to cross illegally into Greece. Breaking the law is again sympathetically portrayed as a final desperate, pragmatic resort in The Albanian, a German-Albanian co-production directed by Johannes Naber, in which the namesake character goes to Germany to earn the money he needs to marry his pregnant girlfriend and becomes involved in illegal immigrant trafficking, while getting into trouble with the police is what prompts Slavi, the main protagonist of Bulgarian director Ivaylo Hristov’s Footsteps in the Sand (Stupki v pyasuka), to defect to the west. Set in the no-man’s-land transit of an airport and making prodigious use of flashbacks, the latter film sees Slavi come back to Bulgaria many years after and tell a customs official his life story, before returning to visit the sweetheart of his youth.

When the socio-political climate and mode of governance represented is so diseased and corrupted, the value of dissent so high and so much at stake to lose, the espousal of uncompromising commitment to an ideal is perhaps more natural thematic currency for a film than give-and-take tolerance, which must be reciprocal. But one film, Serbian director Srdjan Karanovic’s World War I-set Besa presents a particularly hopeful vision, albeit in a perhaps overly schematic form, of inter-cultural understanding and co-habitation, through the deep bond which gradually develops between Slovenian Lea, whose husband has left the small Serbian outpost they’ve been living in for Belgrade to help with the war effort, and Azem, the Albanian who has made a solemn vow to look after her until his return and protect her from the threat of local hostility. Even this film carries with it the ache of loss and nostalgia, as like Slavi in Hristov’s film, Lea’s absent husband returns to shaken and changed emotional terrain, both in turn bringing back to mind a poignant line of dialogue from The Last Report on Anna, the mood of which hangs over much of the selection like a memorial inscription: “I grew old in exile”.