Marks for the Future's Grade Book

in 39th Warsaw International Film Festival

by Dinu-Ioan Nicula

Scheduled in the week leading up to Poland’s general elections, the Warsaw Film Festival took place on the background of conflict between the youth and the generations of their parents, whom it accuses—nothing new under the sun!—that they would be indoctrinated by conservative television discourse. Under the sign of the same dispute, there was a film that could be seen in the commercial network of the Polish capital during the festival. Green Border (Zielona granica) by Agnieszka Holland presents a Manichaean vision on the migrant issue, but is ultimately saved by an exceptional female character, one of perfect humanity (capital role for Maja Ostaszewska, who debuted three decades ago under the direction of Steven Spielberg in Schindler’s List).

The FIPRESCI jury’s target was to evaluate the creations in the category „Opera Prima” (the first or second feature film of the author), in total being eight fiction or documentary films. The distinction was unanimously awarded to the Hungarian film Without Air (Elfogy a levegö), by Romanian-Hungarian director Katalin Moldovai. In an unexpected rhyme with Agnieszka Holland’s recent large budget production, the film builds on her old opus, Total Eclipse (1995), whose recommendation made in 2017 by a Romanian teacher to her 16-year-old pupils became the cause for a scandal, prompted by a homophobic parent. All this led to the teacher’s resignation. Deftly, the still young director concealed the Romanian coordinates, without completely breaking them, the casting being carried out in an area of Romania where 90% of the population is Hungarian. It is a way of launching an implicit diatribe against the policies of the Orbán government, resistant to European desiderata. The dialogue—acting and character—between the teacher played by Ágnes Krasznahorkai and the headmistress played by Romanian actress Tünde Skovrán reaches high artistic levels. The woman who believes that the cultural act eclipses any ban, placed below a certain age threshold, is confronted by her colleague —and friend, until then—who thinks the funds that the school risks losing from the municipality are more important than the ambition of a teacher. As a result, the dispute takes place in front of a committee of people who have not even seen the incriminated film.

The Ukrainian-German documentary Iron Butterflies, an investigation with experimental cinema allure into the downing of Malaysian flight MH 370 in March 2014, knocks open doors of the public’s hearts. Director Roman Liubiy had the chance to access Russian military archival material and capitalized on it in a manner that avoids patheticism, offering a credible perspective on the tragic event a decade ago that preceded the conflagration. A war in whose whirlwind the K1 fighter from Romania, Gheorghe Ignat, also entered: former hope of national boxing, ended up (like other boxers) in underworld environments and then in prison, he reprofiled not only sportingly, but also humanly. The American-Ukrainian documentary The Crossing: Consequences of the Truth, made by Andrew Didway, centers on this unique hero, who was also present in Warsaw to promote the film. The warmth with which he got involved in helping refugees from a war desired by others, not by them, conquered the public, always willing to offer understanding for this kind of bad boy with a golden heart.

Bigger than life was also the gallerist battling cancer, in I Will Not Die (Nem halok meg), the Hungarian documentary with naturalistic accents directed by Asia Dér. There are, of course, countless people seeking salvation within their own country, and some of them are those who have taken shelter in the disused galleries of the Kharkiv metro; their exponents are a boy and a girl aged 11-12, Niki and Vika, the heroes of the film Photophobia, by the Slovaks Ivan Ostrochovský and Pavol Pekarčík, which was also the production awarded with the prize for Best Documentary Film. The poetry of love that develops between the two is in itself a plea for life. In a comic key, the Polish film Pray for peace, Train for War (Chcesz pokoju, szykuj sie do wojny), made by debutante Agnieszka Elbanowska, provided a satire of the degringolade of masculinity in adolescent form, the background being a paramilitary training camp. The dry humor makes the message acquire, at times, a meaning difficult to detect.

More explicit in reflecting the underlying madness that haunts the meridians is Lithuanian-born Polish director Vita Drygas’ documentary Danger Zone, a look at the war tourism, with the acuity needed for case studies, which ultimately constitutes more a potpourri of siren songs than a symphony of the human. This turns into animality with Ukrainian Denis Tarasov’s Diagnosis: Dissent, the thick-stroked story of the repression committed by the Soviet medical authorities in the ’70s (with undisguised references to the present) against an radio-editor who not only loved American hard rock, but also smuggled it on-air. His confrontation with his father-in-law, then with brutes from the secret services and from the psychiatric prison-hospital, becomes repetitive and linear.

With interest were received fiction creations directed by two actresses well-known in their own countries. The Clowns (Blazny), by Polish actress-director Gabriela Muskała, analyzes from the position of an insider the thicket of interests and feelings concerning a film casting called by a fellow countryman awarded at Cannes Festival. Aiming to say a lot with the help of metaphor, the movie falls into the sins of many productions signed by actors, who too ardently want assimilation into the director’s guild. More fluent is Dyad, by Bulgarian Yana Titova, focused on two rebellious high school girls: a ready money girl with a Bovarian mother and her band of mischiefs, ready to resort to any expedients (beyond the limits of inhibition) to reach across the Atlantic. The theme based on contemporary clichés overshadowed the qualities of the film, even if it has already won numerous national distinctions in Bulgaria.

Rightly, the Grand Prize of the Warsaw Festival went to the Venezuelan-Argentine film La Sombra del Catire (directed by Jorge Hernández Aldana), a tribute with western means to Glauber Rocha’s Aesthetics of Hunger, the South American cinema being still an inexhaustible source of gems.      

Dinu-Ioan Nicula
Edited by Savina Petkova