Young Directors Look at the World

in 41st Molodist International Film Festival

by Sergii Vasyliev

Dysfunctional family and psychological traumas were the main themes presented in the full-length films competition at the 41st Kiev International Film Festival Molodist. Debutant directors were focusing mostly on young characters and their specific ‘transitional’ problems. The passage from adolescence to adulthood, the quest for a place and a purpose in a life, the difficult relations with society and a search for a gender identity were at the center of many festival movies. It’s interesting, however, to note that some directors accompanied those difficult themes with an unusual and ambiguous look at the relationships of contemporary people with science, new technologies and art.

In the Land of Oblivion (Terre outrage) director Michale Boganim questioned the impact that the Chernobyl disaster had on the ordinary lives of citizens that were evacuated from their homes and suffered their family members deaths, killed in accidents. This French-Germany-Poland co-production was made with the assistance of Ukrainian cinema professionals and represented Ukraine in competition.

The movie was composed of two unequal parts. The first story took place in April 1986 just days before and during an accident. The ordinary people’s lives were shown in an idyllic and poetical way. Michale Boganim beautifully captures blossoming spring nature and then proceeds to show us the deadly impact of radiation – fishes are dying in a river, the trees are losing their green leaves, dark rain covers everything with dirt. Authorities and the army try to deal with this disaster by killing pets, burning houses, evacuating everybody and not telling anyone about the real causes of this situation which generates an atmosphere of confusion between the citizens.

The second part of the movie is tagged ‘ten years later’ and the feeling of confusion is consistently growing. But unfortunately it is growing not within the characters but within the spectators, because the story became a little bit difficult to understand. The characters are constantly trying to return to their abandoned and dangerous homes. The disaster brings with it radiation, a certainty of death and is regarded as a fate that revokes notions of time and future in the lives of the survivors. Their daily life rhythm is orchestrated by the visits to the Chernobyl area, hospitalizations, mourning for relatives that died because of radiation and by an anticipation of their own early death that seems inevitable to them.

It should be noted that Michale Boganim tries to change this obviously pessimistic approach a little. To show that life and nature are powerful enough to survive everything she uses an image of a tree that was planted right before the radioactive spread and had now grown. But due to the fact that we can’t see anybody near it and the only knowledge about it is coming from one of the characters, this tree begins to represent some sort of a fantasy and one more song of the discord with reality that occurs due to the Chernobyl trauma and the radioactive disease.

In the Belgian crime drama Bullhead (Rundskopp) director Michael R. Roskam tells a story of Belgian farmers and gangsters. They are using hormones and medical drugs to grow cattle more quickly. The movie looks like a re-enactment of an American crime cinema adapted to the way of life of the European countryside. It seems that Martin Scorsese is the likely role model for Michael R. Roskam. But he appropriates Martin Scorsese’s style by using the works of other directors that ‘modernized’ Bullhead (Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, for example). Due to this fact many elements of the story became clichéd and even look like caricature.

The most original element of the movie is its principal character – farmer Jackie, brilliantly played by Matthias Schoenaerts. At a young age he was brutally attacked and his testicles were smashed. So in order to survive he needed to take hormones and medical drugs on a regular basis. When he became a grown man, Jackie continued to take the medications (he called them “vitamins”), transforming himself into a bull-like man who can basically kill with his arms. But at the same time mentally he still remained a child and his gender identity was shaped mostly not on the model of humans but animals. Such a twist gives gravity to this crime movie.

The idea to rhyme ‘bull’ and ‘balls’ by telling a story about a character without testicles who is searching for his identity may be a little bit rough. But it’s introduced in a much wider context of the technological changes of essence in nature and human life. In one of the episodes the director captures an old billboard with the French slogan “Forcer l’avenir” on it. That’s basically what the characters are doing – ‘forcing’ the future and deforming nature with medical injections and at the same time losing ground and the perception of reality; a life that was changed through technologies came in fixed forms that aren’t beneficial for humans.

An alternative perception of reality based on the excessive use of the Internet was the main issue of the Polish movie Suicide Room (Sala samobójców), directed by Jan Komasa. It tells the story of a scared teenager from a wealthy family who runs away from his real life problems (in school everybody laughs at him because of his homosexuality) in the virtual reality of the Internet.

The movie begins with one video clip from YouTube and ends with another. And in between there are many scenes with CGI graphics – Jan Komasa uses it to show how avatars of real people interact in the virtual world. It seems that for director “real life” also holds no interest, just like with his main character. There is nothing specifically Polish in the movie and the plot doesn’t look very realistic at times, even if the idea that the Internet can push people to extremities and become real by its effects – even the suicide – is clearly pronounced. But at the same time the main question “Why didn’t the parents cut off the Internet connection of their clearly psychologically disturbed son at the beginning of the movie?” is left unanswered.

The fact that this unrealistic situation doesn’t bother the director at all also has a sense. The Internet in the movie is regarded not as a technological issue, an instrument of communication, but as a part of an objective reality we live in and can’t change. That’s why it is better to avoid it at all costs. This critical position is assumed by the main character of the Swedish drama Pure (Till det som är vackert) by Lisa Langseth. A young emotionally unstable girl, Katarina, from an unprivileged suburb, posts her sexual encounters with complete strangers on Facebook and thinks that the Internet influenced her unhealthy sexual behavior a lot. One doesn’t go without the other.

But in the meantime the Internet can do good things too. For example, in the Norwegian satirical comedy Happy Happy (Sykt lykkelig) by Anne Sewitsky a little boy adopted from Africa plays a ‘slave’ game with his neighbour of the same age. By watching Barack Obama’s speech on the web he somehow changes his submissive attitude. Even Katarina in Pure find in the Internet the sense of life by accidentally hearing Mozart’s “Requiem” on YouTube and becoming fond of classical music.

Art – and especially music – was shown as a life support in many movies presented in competition. For example, in Happy Happy singing in a choir helped an unhappy wife to establish her self-esteem. And in the Swiss drama Little Room (La Petite Chambre), by Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, an old man masterfully played by Michel Bouquet has found in classical music some support in a difficult life situation when his son decided to put him in a nursing home.

In Pure the role of music however is more ambiguous, even destructive. Katarina begins work at a concert hall, has an affair with a conductor and then loses her job when her lover sees a threat in a young girl. It could be a realistic drama about the cruel impossibility of social ascension but Lisa Langseth decides to direct a ‘ happy ending’. Katarina finds courage and determination in classical music and philosophical writings that she discovered just days ago, kills her ex-lover and gets her job back.

Alicia Vikander won the Yves Montand Prize for the best Young actor/actress with her performance of Katarina. She’s very touching. That’s why the audience greeted the killing with applauses – that was the only time during festival that people applauded during the movie. But at the same time it was a most immoral movie from the festival program and his idea couldn’t be greeted with such positive reactions. Recently acquired ‘high culture’ gives Katarina the power and immunity to act bad and do evil things. At the end she organizes concerts for unprivileged children, so effectively breeding a new generation of people that will stop at nothing to get what they want from life.

Culture is shown as a threat also in Pia Strietmann’s German movie A Family of Three (Tage die bleiben). It tells the story of a dysfunctional family – an unfaithful father, his adult son who lies about his career as an actor and rebellious adolescent daughter. They try to deal with the sudden death of their wife and mother. She was the author of a successful novel that not one of them has read. Only after her death do they decide to read it and find out that there is nothing harmful for them inside.

An asymmetrical answer to their mother’s creative activity is the ‘creativity’ of the young daughter shown by director. For the funeral she chooses an ultra-modern conceptual red coffin that looks more like a Formula 1 car. The decision is shocking for everyone who attends the funeral and her mother probably wouldn’t appreciate it even if the daughter says contrary. But father and brother support this crazy art decision because that can help them to unite after their loss.

Fortunately, there were movies that offered a more human approach to the social and psychological adaptation in difficult life situations. All directors seemed to agree that, in current moments of social disunity, family crisis, generational conflict and culture rivalry, human beings are trapped in problems that burden people’s lives. The most constructive way to solve them was shown in Runar Runarsson’s Icelandic movie Volcano (Eldfjall) and in the very clever Austrian drama Breathing (Atmen) by Karl Markovics that won the FIPRESCI prize and Grand Prix from the international jury of the festival.

In Volcano the main character – an old recently retired head of a family with suicidal thoughts – gradually overcomes his rough temper and finds reconciliation with his children and grandchildren by taking care of his truly beloved wife. The same uneasy way of accepting – and trying to understand – other people with their flaws and virtues takes up a 19-year old boy in Breathing. He was abandoned soon after birth and committed murder at the age of 14. Now he finds a job in an undertaking service and by confronting death and suffering, making sacrifices and showing patience, tries to reconcile with his past and prepare him for adult life. These two movies made in a slightly old fashioned way clearly showed that despite the ‘modern’ times we live in the effective recipes for the resolution of the main problems of human life have been left pretty much the same and are still working just as good.

Edited by Steven Yates