Young Filmmakers and Contemporary Subjects

in 16th Black Nights Film Festival

by Janusz Gazda

The FIPRESCI jury watched thirteen films from ten Baltic countries, which were directors’ first or second films (6 directors were over 40 years old, 4 in their thirties, and only three in their late twenties, which suggests that in these countries it takes a long time to make a debut or a second film).  After the preliminary elimination, only three, the most interesting,  films remained the subject for further jury discussions. Namely, The Daughter (Dotsh; dir.: Aleksandr Kasatkin i Natalya Nazarova, Russia), Oh Boy (dir.: Jan Ole Ferster, Germany) and Loving (Milosc; dir.: Slawomir Fabicki, Poland).

Conclusion one. Most of the films presented lacked clear, expressive visual style; the images most often resembled a serial TV production. There were, however, two exceptions. Oh Boy is not only a rather complex and delicately sketched portrait of a young man, who is not able to find his place in life, but is also an engagingly suggestive portrait of a city. The manner in which the city is photographed emphasizes the inner unrest and internal instability of the main character.  

The creators of The Daughter built upon the scenery of a poverty-stricken, post-Soviet Russian small town: upon the light changing during the day, and upon the landscape in order to emphasize more distinctly and precisely the emotions, generated by the moral instability, or quandaries concerning searching for meaning of human fate and religion.

As far as visual style is concerned, one more Estonian production is worth mentioning here. Demons (Deemonid; dir.: Ain Mäeots) tell separate stories of three people, who succumb to the demon of gambling and are unable to face the truth. They are also incapable of entrusting their secret to  anyone close and thus flounder in the chains of lies. The photography in this picture was inspired to a certain extend by the visual art of commercial.

Conclusion two. Concerning the subject matter of the films presented, only one of them was capable of grasping a moral or social problem, which represents a vital problem of the modern world.  It was The Daughter, which touched upon the topic of religious extremism and its effect on one individual. It also presented extreme situations in which the  individual has to act in the face of unpredictable and unexpected danger.

Another social matter, which attracted my attention, was the situation of emigrants from former communist countries. The main character of the Swedish film Eat, Sleep, Die (Äta, sova, dö; dir.: Gabriela Pichler), made in documentary style, is of Balkan origin. A Muslim girl with Swedish citizenship, she has neither the educational background nor any particular profession, and finds it difficult to get a job in spite of the energy and effort she puts into it.

The only interesting aspect of the German-Ukrainian-Serbian picture Eastalgia (dir.: Daria Onyshchenko) was the way its main characters – a Ukrainian widow and a divorced Serb – were depicted. They both lead solitary lives struggling with everyday problems, having left their adult sons in their respective home lands. These people meet accidentally and, not without effort, try to break down the barriers dividing them, and get a little more intimate with each other. The film includes several precious observations of everyday existence: she secretly moonshines, perhaps solely for herself, and he, despite his advanced age, tries his luck in a boxing ring. However, since most of the narrative actually evolves in Belgrade and Kiev (where their sons live), the film acquires the tone of quite a coarse melodrama, complete with demonic female characters.

The social problems, one’ struggle with everyday duties or poverty, were also vestigially present in The Daughter and in the Latvian-Icelandic film Mona (dir.: Inara Kolmane). Despite the latter’s intriguing beginning (a rich businessman from Riga arrives in a provincial, poor Latvian town for his uncle’s funeral), it gradually morphed into a cross between melodrama,  horror story and a fantasy, while the eponymous local beauty – a delicate, fragile and sensitive girl – arouses passion, enthrals the businessman, and yet remains in her native town for good, finally marrying a local drunkard.

Conclusion three.  A recurring motif in a few films was the growing-up pains, typical of adolescence, more specifically, the difficulties in finding one’s place in life due to immaturity. Apart from Oh Boy, the other films dealing with this subject matter, were not particularly exploratory, neither were they interesting as far as the way of filming is concerned, but were certainly worth mentioning. The Latvian People Out There (Cilveki tur; dir.: Aik Karapetian) was a kind of a black sociological documentary, showing the everyday life of a (Russian!) group of boys, who inhabit a vast housing estate on the outskirts of Riga and commute every day to the centre in order to break into cars and peddle the stolen staff to a trafficker (of Caucasian origin!). The protagonist is a son of a formerly acclaimed scientist, who now leads a quiet life of a pensioner, but is filled with remorse for not being able to bring up his grandson as a decent human being. The grandson, on the other hand, characteristically blames everyone around for being poor and therefore believes that his thieving is justified. The author of the film leaves the characters with no hope for change.

It is in Oh Boy and Almost 18 (Kohta 18; dir.: Maarit Lalli; Finland) where one could find a glimmer of hope. In these films the adolescent crisis is seen only as a temporary condition and has its source in the inevitable psychological pains of growing up, rather than in social circumstance.  Almost 18 is a set of stories about five young men from Helisnki who are going to turn 18 the following year. They have no material problems, lead a calm life until suddenly things become complicated, and a conflict arouses between them and their parents (another remark: only one pair of parents is not divorced). The reasons for this crisis are several: the first is their need for freedom – interpreted by each of them in his own way – which invariably clashes against the rules, imposed by the parents. Another reason is their growing awareness of the conflicts between their parents themselves; yet another and one of the most  problematic is the necessity of taking responsibility for one’s own decisions. The film dwells particularly on their adolescent infantilism, which may be typical for a 17-year old youth, but becomes intolerable and abnormal if found in an adult 35-year old husband, who is soon to become a father. And such is the case with the character of the Norwegian film The Almost Man (Mer eller mindre mann; rez.: Martin Lund). Its protagonist is 35, married with a an expecting wife, but behaves as a young boy both at home and in his workplace. It is supposed to be a comedy, but is heavy-handed, and lacks inspiration or grace.  It only makes the viewer recall nostalgically the ingenious I vitelloni of master Fellini

Conclusion four. Concerning Estonian films – apart from the above mentioned works, as a FIPRESCI jury member, I managed to watch three new films from Tallin.  In the Soviet times, ambitious Estonian film makers, who struggled for independence from the system,  were eager to make films on historical subjects – for example, 19th century conflicts between poor Estonians and wealthy German merchants or landowners – and also looked for inspiration in the Estonian folklore in order to stress their Estonian identity in the face of the overpowering Soviet regime. Today, with Estonia independent again, the film-makers may most probably find it unnecessary to manifest their Estonian character and culture. They are therefore making films on contemporary subjects, usually pursuing several film genres (social or psychological drama, thriller or pastiche of the gangster genre).  The most interesting one is the French-Estonian co-production by an Estonian director, A Lady In Paris (Eestlanna Pariisis; dir.: Ilmar Raag). It featured a clash between two human beings: the still magnificent Jeanne Moreau played an Estonian, who has spent most of her life in Paris and an Estonian lady (Laine Mägi); and between two cultural myths: that of the Frenchwoman (open, natural, morally unrestricted, free from any superstitions and prejudices, loving life and men) and her Estonian counterpart (reserved, constrained by hard moral and social rules).

Edited by Christina Stojanova