Festivity and Crisis

in 22nd Festival of Central and Eastern European Film - goEast, Wiesbaden

by Konstanty Kuzma

Perhaps for the first time since its inception in 2001, the 22nd edition of the goEast film festival in Wiesbaden, Germany (19-25 April) might have been more political than the organizers would have liked. If the founders from the German Film Institute (DFF) conceived the event with a mission to offer “important insight into the everyday lives of our Central and Eastern European neighbours”, this year there was just too much insight to process in too little time. Already before the festival opened, the programmers and directorate faced the difficult task of preparing an edition at a time when two countries from its core region of interest were at war. Would Russian films screen next to Ukrainian ones? Would Russian filmmakers be invited to join juries and Q&As, and thus inevitably come into contact with their Ukrainian colleagues at a time when the Russian state is invading Ukraine? While many cultural events are currently facing similar problems, for an event whose expertise lies in the region of Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, and which operates from a country with a historical responsibility towards that very region, the stakes are extremely high.

In the end, the goEast board opted for a compromise, allowing for independent Russian films to screen and compete, but asking state-funded directors to withdraw their submissions. Framing the exclusion of state-backed projects as the choice of the directors shows that the organizers were very much trying to please everyone. And yet, tensions ran high when several Ukrainian filmmakers and representatives who were present and/or invited deemed the inclusion of any Russian submissions unacceptable. Though the festival organized a panel discussion on the issue of boycotting Russian cinema to give a voice to those unhappy with the festival’s stance, the stakes of the debate were never clear. The festival organizers claimed that they had followed the boycott, while the Ukrainian panellists disagreed. Meanwhile, several Ukrainian panellists claimed that the total boycott they were calling for was not really a “boycott”, possibly for fear that their call would be seen as equalling Russian citizens with the Russian state. While it was admirable of the goEast team to let Ukrainian panellists voice their concerns, the festival should be aware that one cannot have it all at once – only “asking” state-funded directors from Russia to withdraw and later claim to have participated in a boycott.

Artistically and logistically, the 22nd edition was certainly a success. Save for the mask mandate that the festival decided to enforce (possibly because Wiesbaden’s population is ageing quickly), it felt like things were back to normal. The competition, reduced to 14 submissions instead of an originally programmed 16 films, ran strong with a typical panopticon of styles: there was your tale of empowerment, observational documentaries, mainstream submissions, and harrowing dramas that would result from or spiral into violence. Violence was a motor of the two films our FIPRESCI jury awarded, too, though in each case the directors steered clear of sensationalist exploitation. Laurynas Bareiša’s Pilgrims, which we awarded the FIPRESCI award for Best Feature, documents the distrust and latent brutality in a village where a gruesome crime happened many years ago. The two protagonists of Pilgrims revisit the village to process their trauma, only to find that the wounds and ways of the past are far from gone. The FIPRESCI award for Best Documentary went to Boney Piles (Terykony) by Taras Tomenko. The documentary follows a young teenage girl who is growing up in Eastern Ukraine; the film has thus become sadly topical, though the director approaches his subject with admirable patience and analytical precision.

Konstanty Kuzma
Edited by Birgit Beumers