Wiesbaden goes East

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

by Giuseppe Sedia

The backbone of the programme in Wiesbaden is all but a fixed structure when it comes to the films cherry-picked for the competition. The goEast film festival waits for the tide to turn before trying to source, year after year, the finest productions from Eastern Europe, Russia and the post-Soviet states. In her second edition at the head of this successful creation of the German Film Institute & Film Museum (DFF), Heleen Gerritsen and the festival staff selected six full-length documentaries that were thrown in the fray with 10 features films. The festival that will celebrate its 20th revelry in 2020 took very little non-fiction rough with a lot of smooth this year. To each their own, but the set of documentary films screened in Wiesbaden could be easily divided into two blocks of equal size. On the one hand, a bunch of productions filmed with dispassion, using static and un-empathic shots characterized by relatively high informative value. On the other, a more accomplished trio of family-centred works, in which the emotional participation of the camera seems to prevail in recounting more intimate stories with gentleness and a zest of humour which never hurts.

To the first group of films belong Acid Forest (Rūgštus miškas), The Stone Speakers (Kameni govornici) and Hungary 2018, the latter directed by Eszter Hajdú who had been previously sighted in the German spa town with Judgement in Hungary in 2014. On that occasion, Hajdú had been the recipient of the Best Documentary Award of goEast. Her most recent film focuses on the unsuccessful electoral campaign for the national parliamentary elections of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány. The Magyar politician did not really leave the government in a blaze of glory ten years ago, and his exit de facto paved the way for Viktor Orban’s dominance on the Hungarian political scene. The outcome is not enrapturing, but Hajdú’s film is not a puff piece about Gyurcsány and shows significant amount of footage from Orban’s ruling Fidesz party. Sarajevo-born Igor Drljača submitted to goEast The Stone Speakers, which had screened at the Berlinale earlier. Drljača’s film exudes an unfulfilled potential in terms of irony, while describing Bosnia and Herzegovina attempts to boost the local economy with tourist attractions as sometimes created out of thin air. The interviewees certainly did not help Drljača here in his task, showing no emotional involvement in their accounts delivered with a flat and official-ish pitch. With its static high-angle shots, Acid Forest is too minimalist to be a nature documentary that could appeal to a mainstream television audience. The Lithuanian cineaste opted for not taking a clear stand on the subject of her film, just like Drljača did. That said, the film of Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė faces the viewer with an emotionally compelling dilemma. “To cull or not to cull” the population of black cormorants that took control of the pine trees woods on the UNESCO-blessed Curonian Spit? The birds are killing all the trees because of their highly corrosive droppings. The tourists on the viewing platform surrounded by a naturally Hitchcock-esque scenery have mixed feelings towards the feathered lords of the dying forest.

The remaining trio of documentary films includes White Mama (Belaia mama), Home Games (Domashni igri) and Strip and War, which are all partially shot in some grey and stifling communist-era flats in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus respectively. More importantly, these titles can be grouped together for their capacity to deeply affect the spectators without resorting to sentimental manipulations, especially the first two productions. They could have garnered ex aequo the audience award for best non-fiction if such a thing had existed in Wiesbaden. Co-directed by Zosya Rodkevich and Evgeniya Ostanina, White Mama follows from a very close distance the life of a large patchwork family, whose delicate balance is suddenly disrupted by the arrival of another boy to feed and love. The mother, Alina, does her best to welcome at home the adopted child without neglecting the other kids. White Mama is a sincere and rewarding work that demands a lot of energy from the casual viewers, but ends up offering even more to them. Rodkevich and Ostanina manage not to be perceived as camera-armed intruders while filming the household. The same goes for Alisa Kovalenko in her sophomore full-length documentary Home Games, which offers an unfeigned portrayal of another Alina, a girl who works hard to obtain her first call-up with the Ukrainian national team but is suddenly forced to devote her attention to the sustenance of her younger siblings. The documentarist shows deep respect for Alina but does not pull punches in recounting her dreams while they are getting shattered outside the pitch. Strip and War had its world premiere at goEast, and it is rather a male affair. In this non-fiction piece, Andrei Kutsila portrays the cohabitation of two relatives in their tiny apartment on the outskirts of Minsk: a retired military man afflicted with chronic nostalgia for the Soviet era, and his grandson Anatol who works as stripper but is striving to become a ballet dancer. The generational and cultural gap between the two is significant. Anatol prefers to go shopping to get some gaudy accessories for his performances, whereas his grandfather continues to wear his showy uniform, half-covered with military medals. Nonetheless they have in common the ability to maintain a remarkable level of discipline in their everyday life. Strip and War presents two different worlds that are not juxtaposed, but wittingly put near each other without force. Kutsila’s non-confrontational and inclusive approach lends itself well to define the spirit of goEast from its very beginning.

Giuseppe Sedia
Edited by Birgit Beumers