To the End of the World and After

in 5th Odessa International Film Festival

by Alexandr Gusev

Programmers of the Odessa International Film Festival have usually tried to find a compromise between the tastes of cinephiles and the mass audience with an emphasis on films which they have classified as “art mainstream”. However, last year the organisers chose to give up this concept in favour of making the festival in particular a response to the difficult situation in the country. The 6th Odessa International Film Festival may be considered a kind of tuning fork of the events and moods of Ukrainian society. For example, amongst the most notable programs can be noted a selection of documentary films about the protest movement, “Way to Freedom”, and a retrospective, “Odessa in fiamme: Occupation/Liberation”, composed of movies that were created in the majority more than half a century ago and dedicated to the events of World War II. A couple of years ago, many of the pictures of “Odessa in fiamme” might have seemed to be interesting only as museum artifacts of propaganda. But the events of our day allow us to see in them, covered with ideological dust, genuine evidence of the tragedy experienced by individuals and peoples whose orderly life was swept away, destroyed by historical cataclysms.

The situation in the country was also reflected in the selection of films of the international competition. Often it seems that movies filmed by foreign cinematographers are allegories of sorts of Ukrainian reality. Thus, Atom Heart Mother (Madare ghalbe atoomi) by Ali Ahmadzadeh tells of two girls who cannot get rid of a demonic stranger, and was read as a parable of dictatorship and of ordinary citizens who are trying to ignore the reigning tyranny as long as it does not intrude upon their existence or change it forever. The High Sun (Zvizdan) by Dalibor Matanic, dedicated to the Balkan conflict of the ’90s, became painfully topical for the Ukrainian audience. The three stories set in differing decades constituting the plot of the film tell of the love of a Croatian boy and a Serbian girl against a backdrop of a national catastrophe. Characters are performed by the same actors to emphasise the timeless nature of the tragedies of nations and individuals.

Many movies were filled with a sense of a crisis of civilisation, a collapse of social ties and a disruption of contact between members of different generations, with Bridgend and H among them. In Jeppe Rønde’s Bridgend, a notorious affair concerning the suicides of dozens of inhabitants of a Welsh town becomes the starting point for a grim narrative about the attraction of young people to death. The metaphor of death became a forest that called out to those disillusioned with the world of their parents. The beckoning thickets remind one of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. But if the forest of the poem is owned by God, in Bridgend it belongs to an infernal power as a space of animal instincts, dark pagan beliefs and self-destruction.

The same applies to the forest in Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia’s H., whose characters are also seeking shelter under its shade, trying to escape from a place covered by entropy: Troy, New York, which seems about to share the fate of the eponymous city of Homer.

This topic of a clash between nature and civilisation, in the most visually exquisite and metaphorical film of the festival, Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente) by Ciro Guerra (given a Special Mention by the International ?ompetition Jury), is revealed as an appeal to one of the central themes of art: our search for Paradise Lost, a search for God that becomes the more desperate the deeper we dive into the heart of darkness.

The winner of the Grand Prix of the festival, which is awarded according to the results of audience voting, and the Jury Prize for Best Director, was Mustang by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, about schoolgirls who are kept as victims of domestic imprisonment for their behavior, considered dissolute from the point of view of their fellow villagers.

Being a fortuitous combination of artistic skill and entertaining story, to produce a poetic, beautifully filmed tale, Mustang can be considered quite appropriately to belong to the old concept of “art mainstream”. The preposterous harassment that the girls have to endure from their relatives is convenient to consider as an example of the absurd injustice towards women in a number of Eastern countries. But for many Ukrainian citizens, it would be useful to learn the lesson contained in this picture: that a brutal imposition of family values can only destroy families or turn them into a shelter for violence and hypocrisy.

The International Competition Jury (as well as the National Competition Jury) named as Best Picture Eva Neymann’s Song of Songs (Pesn pesney), an adaptation of the novel by Sholem Aleichem. Although, according to its plot, the movie is a chamber love story, Song of Songs is, like many movies of the 6th OIFF, filled with foreboding of approaching historical disaster. Song of Songs recreates, returns to us at least on the screen, the destroyed, forgotten, forever lost world of the Jewish towns of Ukraine and the beauty and charm of their life, manners and characters. Neymann’s picture often resembles a revival of a museum exhibition, which even more sharpens the sense of loss that is caused by watching. Because the space in which the action unfolds is a shtetl circa 1905, it is for us a museum of lost images, especially literary, familiar to us from the books of Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bruno Schulz. These images sometimes appear like volumetric paintings whose characters are engrossed in some business or frozen in expressive poses, like ghosts, visiting us from the realm of the dead like unsteady, fragile memories.

The plot of its literary source, a piercing love story of a boy and a girl, is not lost amongst these static pictures but interwoven with them, like a stream of love exclamations from Sholem Aleichem’s hero interwoven with passages from the Biblical “Song of Songs”. The doomed feelings of Shimek and Buzya rhyme with the doom of their entire world which, in less than half a century, will be razed to the ground. But the passion of young people, played out in the decorations of Jewish antiquities and expressed by words of the Eternal Book, testifies to the inevitability of revival and to the ultimate triumph of life and love.

Edited by Cerisse Howard