Billing itself as the world’s leading festival of Eastern European Cinema, FilmFestival Cottbus (which ran November 6 to 11) inspires great expectations in its international guests and journalists, as well as residents of this small German city near the Polish border. A stated focus on Eastern Europe doesn’t automatically make Cottbus the best place to discover the region’s cinema, though. Festivals such as Karlovy Vary (Czech Republic), Cinema City (Novi Sad, Serbia), and Sofia (Bulgaria) all provide some platform for their own national cinema, past and present. They are also international festivals, showing films from across the globe, but they naturally develop good relationships with neighboring countries. As a result, these festivals always screen highlights of contemporary Eastern European cinema: perhaps not as extensive a selection as Cottbus, but just as judiciously chosen.
Festivals that take place in smaller cities usually benefit from buzz: with little else going on, the festival can take over. Cottbus sidewalks were cleverly painted with long blue stencils of a film strip, which visitors could follow from one festival venue to the next. Although locals flocked to actual screenings, the streets of the city were all but deserted. By contrast, last July in Wrocław (Poland), you couldn’t turn around without bumping into the New Horizons film fest. Half the city seemed to be lining up for tickets, a giant screen was set up in the main square for open-air screenings; a festival sponsor set up a temporary urban beach; and every other day illustrious guests like Dušan Makavejev or Carlos Reygadas gave extended interviews, free to the public.
The 22nd edition of Cottbus, meanwhile, hosted retrospectives of Branko Schmidt and Helke Misselwitz, relative unknowns outside their home countries (Croatia and Germany respectively). These two directors along with many others attended the festival in force: rare was the film that didn’t have its post-screening Q&A. But the festival failed to take full advantage of their presence to host a greater variety of events, like lectures, debates and master classes. The event list at the back of the festival’s program guide had no English translation, and the events that were advertised to foreign guests consisted mainly of parties and receptions. Similarly, the festival’s Facebook page and Twitter feed are exclusively in German: not so smart for a festival that aims to have an international profile.
Yet Cottbus excelled in translation at the film screenings themselves: headsets were offered to everyone, and you could listen to the film’s dialogue translated into German or English. The English translation seemed unnecessary, since the films were already subtitled in English. Accustomed to films dubbed into their own language, the Germans extended the same service to English speakers, some of whom enjoyed the opportunity to focus their attention on the image. The headsets were a godsend for simultaneous translation of director Q&As, avoiding the monotony of repeating every question and answer.
Since I was a member of the FIPRESCI jury, my job was to choose the best film of the ten in the international competition. Although none won me over entirely, all the films were of decent quality and presented at least one interesting or surprising element. The strongest film overall was Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog, winner of the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes, where it was also nominated for the Palme d’Or. At Cottbus, the FIPRESCI prize went to Kolka Cool by Juris Poškus. While not as grand or unified in its effect as Loznitsa’s film, it was equally enjoyable: these two films were by far the most visually accomplished in the competition. Kolka is the name of a small Latvian village, and the film revolves around a group of young people with nothing to do. Given that it can be categorized as a “slacker” film, Kolka Cool is surprisingly lyrical: the camera finds beauty in everything, from the actors’ faces, to the trees, meadows, and beaches around them. Rather than a caricature of provincial boredom, the film portrays Kolka as a place almost mystically suspended in time: with nothing else happening, every movement, every word takes on a strange power. Still, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the dialogue is often very funny.
Another surprising combination of artistry and entertainment was Kokoko, directed by Avdoyta Smirnova. The title refers to the word “Rococo” as mispronounced by one of the film’s main characters, Vika. She’s a vulgar sort of woman, all blonde hair, high heels, and short skirts, but with a heart as big as her cleavage. A theft on the overnight train to St. Petersburg throws Vika together with Lisa, a quiet, cultured academic. An unlikely friendship develops, which starts off as comedic but becomes darker as Lisa tries to shape Vika to fit her world. Unfortunately, the director doesn’t succeed in smoothly shifting our sympathies away from Lisa: the changes in her character seem sudden and grotesque. Little wonder, then, that the director is frustrated by audiences who see this as a film about class differences, when it is intended to condemn those who force their idea of happiness onto other people. Yet the film stands out for the skillful performances of Anna Mikhalkova and Yana Troyanova, who shared the best actress award for their respective portrayals of Lisa and Vika. But an almost equally important role is played by the sets: Lisa’s apartment (her grandfather’s old art studio) and her office at the ethnographic museum. Full of history, packed with papers, books, and artifacts, both locations create a mysterious, near magical atmosphere. This could have been transformed into something more gothic and menacing later in the film, but again the opportunity was missed.
As its title suggests, Maria Sadowska’s Women’s Day also centered on women, but its aesthetic was diametrically opposed to Kokoko’s, flooded with harsh light. The film brings together the real-life experiences of female supermarket employees across Poland, and piles them all on the head of one character, Halina. When she is promoted to manager, her bosses give her a stark choice: cut costs or lose her job. She quickly finds herself betraying the best interests of her former colleagues and friends, and finally launches a lawsuit against her employer. Yet Halina is a troubling character: from the beginning of the film, when she mentions the promotion, her teenage daughter questions whether they need the extra money. This makes it hard to justify Halina’s willingness to sacrifice everything to keep her new job. When she is finally fired for mistreating her colleagues, and finds that no other company is willing to hire her, Halina sues her employer in order to shift the blame entirely onto them. Although she persuades her former colleagues to testify against the company, the case is undertaken for her sake, not for the collective. The company is clearly the villain in this film, but Women’s Day also devalues the working classes: it portrays Halina as unwilling and unable to stand up for the common good until her own self-interest is at stake. Rather than exploring the grey areas it sets up, the film elides them with a conventional, simplistic face-off between good and evil in a Hollywood Western–inspired conclusion.
In spite of its limitations, Women’s Day won the festival’s Grand Prix, while Best Director went to another, more deeply flawed Polish film. You Are God is a biopic of Piotr ‘Magik’ Łuszcz, leader of Polish hip-hop band Paktofonika. If you didn’t read the program guide, you wouldn’t know that the film was biographical: aimed at a generation of Polish music fans already familiar with the group and its history, You Are God takes the audience’s emotional investment in the story for granted. Non-Polish audiences might well wonder why they should take an interest in a handful of painfully insecure young men whose lyrical talent and artistic honesty are only evident in a few scenes. The edginess of the film’s title, inspired by Magik’s song “I Am God,” also depends on a Polish context: the shock value of this kind of blasphemy has long been lost in most of the Western world. While the film is set in a disadvantaged, industrial region of the country, the band members and their music barely refer to the socioeconomic situation. If the film had more of a social conscience, You Are God could have been a modern answer to British New Wave film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, as the band members are faced with the choice between pursuing an uncertain musical future or resigning themselves to deathly dull blue-collar jobs.
The competition’s three entries from the former Yugoslavia conform to clichés about this region’s cinema, as all share the same theme: the wars of 1990s and their enduring consequences. The most engaging was Miroslav Terzić’s Redemption Street, which won the award for best debut film. Here, rookie war crimes investigator Dušan discovers the dangers of looking for men who don’t want to be found. The film evokes American thrillers of 1970s with its sleek visual composition, but also with its retrograde attitudes to gender. In this film, women are wives, mothers, and homemakers: they must be protected and kept in the dark about men’s business. When Dušan’s wife rebels against this enforced ignorance, the film effectively punishes her, reducing an entire gender to a cipher of vulnerability.
Children of Sarajevo
While Redemption Street centered on the perpetrators of war crimes, Aida Begić’s Children of Sarajevo concerned itself with the victims. Also set in the present day, the film follows Rahima, a young woman who has managed to rescue her brother Nedim from the orphanage where they were raised after the war. Rahima works as a cook while Nedim goes to school, but the threat of separation hangs over them: their lifestyle is constantly scrutinized by teachers and social workers who are more suspicious than supportive. While the film lacks clear direction, it benefits from a strong cast. Begić also makes original use of sound as a motivating force for Rahima’s wartime flashbacks. As the film is set around New Year’s, local kids are constantly setting off firecrackers which echo like gunshot. The rumbles of highway overpasses and railway bridges sound like bombs dropping. Yet none of these trigger Rahima’s memories—it is less obvious noises that haunt her. The whine of her vacuum cleaner reminds her of an air raid siren, and a van backing up recalls the memory of an enormous truck removing burnt-out cars. For the audience, anticipating flashbacks in the wrong places, there is a sense of their inability to comprehend the experiences of Sarajevo’s orphans.
Finally, the most divisive film of the competition was Halima’s Path, by Arsen Anton Ostojić. It recounts a love story between a Muslim woman and a Serbian man in Bosnia, starting in the Seventies, leading to tragedy during the war, and ultimately to a stark catharsis. Winner of the audience award at Cottbus, this film clearly holds great power over spectators, bringing many to tears. Yet the director employs methods that seem calculated to elicit a certain reaction from the audience. This kind of emotional manipulation is dangerous because it distracts the audience from the film’s underlying message, which they might otherwise question. Despite an epigraph saying the story is based on true events, the director acknowledged in the Q&A that there is no evidence that the film’s most shocking event ever took place. Its initial premise inspires hope, as it is based on cross-cultural understanding, but its conclusion reinforces divisions between communities.
I normally come away from film festivals with a litany of ads stuck in my head, but Cottbus had just one very pleasant ad from its “first partner.” The lack of advertising was welcome, but an associated lack of funding has its impact. While funding was never mentioned as a problem, I can’t help wondering whether a more extensive set of sponsors would allow the festival to attract bigger names and host more events. But you don’t necessarily need lots of money to inspire creativity—sometimes the opposite is true. Witness this year’s Cottbus trailer, the best I’ve seen at any festival. Directed by German film student Anne Münch, the trailer fondly and wittily sums up the spirit of an Eastern European festival, with all its different characters, creeds, cultures, and themes. If Cottbus can inject this same creative élan into next year’s festival as a whole, it may yet realize its aspiration to being the world’s greatest celebration of Eastern European cinema.