Eastward, ho! Feature films at goEast 2019

in 19th Festival of Central and Eastern European Film goEast, Wiesbaden

by Birgit Beumers

The 19th edition of goEast took place in Wiesbaden (Germany) from 10–16 April 2019 and presented a strong competition of ten feature and six documentary films from Central and Eastern Europe (and including Central Asia). This mix of documentaries and features is quite unique for a region-focused event and allows juries to see tendencies across different genres and evaluate trends as they emerge, especially in areas where often the relative financial independence of the documentary form (thanks to lower budgets) advances new ideas that are later picked up in the feature form, as has been the case with Marina Razbezhkina’s documentary school in Moscow, which certainly set new benchmarks for a whole generation of young filmmakers who moved into feature film (and sometimes television series).

goEast is organised by Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum which, since 2018, comes under the management of Ellen Harrington. The festival is directed by Heleen Gerritsen, who has brought together and amazing programme and managed to widen the festival’s scope by including pitching sessions for short film projects, and by introducing a VR section for projects from Eastern Europe – and finding sponsors for awarding those works with the RheinMain Short and the Open Frame awards respectively. The city of Wiesbaden and a stunning team of tireless temps and volunteers makes this a very “homely” event for a jury that has to work hard, watching 16 competition films over five days – and reaching a decision, which was in our case fuelled by the desire to go for an ice-cream at the end of a long day and leave the Caligari cinema, one of the few cinemas from the 1920s that is still fulfilling its purpose, which makes a wonderful setting for viewing.

Whilst most of the six documentaries (discussed here by Giuseppe Sedia) could easily be described as the strongest part of the competition, the feature films offered an interesting survey of themes and forms. Above all, there is the tendency for co-production, which raises not only the budget for a film but, if it is a true co-production, also makes for a wider appeal beyond national distribution.

The Romanian feature Moon Hotel Kabul is a good example of a co-production between Romania and France. The film was directed by Anca Damian and received backing from CNC and Eurimages. It is visually polished and tells about the investigative journalist Ivan Semciuc, who returns to Bucharest from Kabul to find that his translator Ioana, who stayed behind, has committed suicide. Gradually he reveals her involvement in a secret service operation and a mores sinister take on her death. Having spent the last night in Kabul with her, he feels obliged to take her body back to the family and make sure she gets a proper funeral – despite her suicide. Not deprived of humour and including some phantasmagorical scenes, the film’s weakness lies in the emphasis on narrative that often makes it resemble a television drama rather than a film that may seek to explore the narrow line between truth and fiction in the journalist’s reporting and the façade that a secret agent builds for protection.

Another co-production, here between Azerbaijan, Germany and Georgia, is End of Season, a feature film by the Azeri filmmaker Elmar Imanov. Films from Azerbaijan are few and far, and this film on a contemporary urban topic is a welcome addition. The story focuses on the family of Samir and Fidan with their 18-year-old son Mahmud, who live a middle-class life in a large apartment block until suddenly the wife, Fidan, disappears. Her vanishing act highlights the fact that really, the husband, wife and son know fairly little about each other and have no time for each other. The disappearance brings to the fore how suspicions arise from this lack of knowing the other person: does the wife have a lover, as the husband suspects, or has she really had an accident, almost drowning in the sea and suffering from memory loss upon being rescued by fishermen? The film raises questions without necessarily providing clear answers. The strong performance of the lead actors maintains the ambiguity of motivations. The images of suburban housing in Baku are juxtaposed with views of the beach and the Caspian Sea. At the opening and in the finale, these housing blocks become actors in their own right, animated through light in the windows and replaced by drawn lines, as the music of Nena’s 1983 hit “99 Luftballons” (99 Red Balloons) sounds, reminding us of the peace movement of the early 1980s against the deployment of missiles in Europe and the fear of physical devastation. Indeed, the balloons, mistaken in the lyrics for enemy fighter jets that wreak destruction, echo Fidan’s disappearance: her husband Samir sees the shadow of a rival when trying to find an explanation for her disappearance just as she is considering accepting a job in Germany.

The Czech-Slovak co-production Moments (Chvilky), which first screened in Karlovy Vary’s East of the West competition, is a strong debut by Beata Parkanová. It tells about the young Anežka, who cares for her parents and grandparents and everybody around, but not for herself. She absorbs everything, but is unable to articulate her own wishes or problems, as is evident when she turns to a psychiatrist for help and remains speechless. She has built up a façade that she cannot drop, maybe because there is nothing behind, and maybe because she is afraid of looking at herself. In this sense, she belongs to a generation that has become used to resolve others’ problems but never looks inside, maybe for fear of discovering a void, or one of the conditions (dementia, alcoholism, psychiatric disorders) that affect her family. In a sense, the viewer wants to know more about her character, but is – often frustratingly, but consistently – denied access.

Three historical features participated in the competition: the Czech-Slovak Jan Palach by Robert Sedláček, which offers a historical picture of the student whose act of self-immolation expressed his protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, or rather against the ensuing social non-resistance. The Estonian film The Riddle of Jaan Niemand (Põrgu Jaan), directed by Kaur Kokk, goes back further in time: set in the early 18th century, it depicts a rural Estonia devastated by years of war and plague. In circumstances of utter misery, an unknown man is found on the shore; he cannot remember who he is. He seems to be a doctor, but he might equally have been associated with the murder of the landlady of the estate where Niemand finds shelter. Both films are important documents for the history of their respective countries and, quite unsurprisingly, not co-produced. Cold November (Nëntor i ftohtë) is the debut by Kosovo filmmaker Ismet Sijarina, and is co-produced with Albania and North Macedonia, two countries that support the republic of Kosovo to find its cinematic voice. The film creates a moving portrait of the situation and tragedy of Kosovo Albanians when the region around Pristina came under Serbian governance in 1992, focussing on the personal life of a family where the husband is exposed to the threat of losing his job if not accepting the new Serbian management, the wife’s suffers job loss and a cancer scare, and the grandfather is wheelchair bound. The film dwells on the injustice of the Serbs vis-à-vis the Kosovo Albanians, highlighting the historical backdrop for a conflict that still flares up today. It makes for an interesting comparison with the recent Russian-Serbian co-production The Balkan Line (Balkanskii rubezh, 2019, directed by Andrei Volgin), which uses the 1999 conflict to highlight how Kosovo was plundered by Albanian warlords and to stress Russia’s role in the peacekeeping mission.

The Hungarian sci-fi movie His Master’s Voice (Az Úr Hangja) by György Pálfi is co-produced with Canada. Adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s “message-from-space” novel of 1968, it fails both at adapting the novel and at finding an original visual key, even though Pálfi visually quotes Tarkovsky’s masterful Solaris – yet without ever reaching the latter’s heights.

The theme of the young generation stands at the centre of Take me Somewhere Nice, a co-production between the Netherlands and Bosnia & Herzegovina, directed by Amsterdam-based Ena Sendijarević, who makes her feature debut with this film. Conceived in the tradition of a road movie, the film tells of the teenage émigré Alma, who returns to her native Bosnia to meet her father. The events that unfold are somewhat unbelievable, but allow the director to bring humour and comedy into a scenario that is full of tragic events: Alma finds her father has died; she is abandoned by her cousin; she is abandoned on the road, attacked by criminals, and almost raped. All the time she remains calm and cool, as if none of this could get to her – not unlike the character from Moments; she tries to find her identity and never gives up on the country that is hers, and yet no longer hers, while she matures from a teenager into a responsible adult on this journey. The debut film Acid (Kislota) by Aleksandr Gorchilin also portrays the lack of understanding sensed by the young generation in a subtle manner. An actor at the Gogol Centre in Moscow, Gorchilin could not attend the festival, as he was – unexpectedly yet happily – involved in theatre work following the release on bail of the centre’s artistic director Kirill Serebrennikov. Scripted by the playwright Valerii Pecheikin, the strong dramaturgy of this film garnered it the festival jury’s main award.

The FIPRESCI jury awarded the Kazakh filmmaker and co-founder of the Partisan Group that promotes independent filmmaking for films dealing with topics not supported through Kazakh state funds, Adilkhan Yerzhanov. He presented in Wiesbaden The Gentle Indifference of this World (Laskovoe bezrazlichie mira), a Kazakh-French co-production – his first. The film benefits hugely from the strong visual line constructed by the hand of its director and of the debutant cinematographer Aidar Sharipov (Tatarstan). It tells of the beautiful young Kazakh woman Saltanat, who is forced to work in the city to support her family back in the steppe following the bankruptcy and suicide of her father. This plot may be familiar, but there are two aspects that make this film such an outstanding achievement: first, Saltanat is accompanied by the somewhat retarded, yet artistically talented Kuandyk, who takes her on journeys into creatively created worlds. And second, the visual solution of juxtaposing not merely rural landscapes to modernist urban settings, but to set the world of visual art, specifically painting, captured within frames – picture frames and camera frames – into play with the rough reality of urban backyards, where the world in these frames offer a temporary refuge and escape from reality, a performance space for dreams that will never come true – and we know how this film will end. The film, which had previously screened at Un Certain Regard in Cannes, but not received any major festival prizes since its grandiose premiere, garnered both the FIPRESCI award in Wiesbaden, as well as the international jury’s prize for Best Direction.

Birgit Beumers