Fedeora’s first jury composed for the most important film event in Eastern Europe, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, focused on the East of the West section. Described as a selection of “Brand new films from Central and Eastern Europe” on the festival’s website, it is hard to tell how the programmers decide which of the films they select go into this section, as the main one also features a significant number of titles that fit the aforementioned description. These observations aside, our jury faced an interesting, if not exactly dazzling choice of 12 films. This text focuses on the more memorable ones.
Starting from the geographically easternmost film, Kazakhstani director Aktan Arym Kubat’s Mother’s Paradise (Raj dlja mamy) is a bleak social drama about two brothers, schoolboys who live in heavy circumstances with their mother (Olga Landina), her father (Mikhail Zghilov) and his sister (Natalya Arinbasarova), while their own father is looking for work in Russia. Discovery of their mother being a prostitute falls hard on the elder brother’s shoulders, but like everything in this film, his reaction, as presented to the audience, is understated. The script was written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and cleverly steers clear of any kind of over-the-top bathos usually associated with stories about children living in poor conditions. But Kubat (whose The Light Thief /Svet-Ake/ was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes in 2010) goes around the mother-son relationship in too wide a circle, leaving the audiences ultimately unsatisfied, although he does achieve an elegant form of lyricism.
Salt White (Marilivit Tetri) by Ketevan Machavariani from Georgia is similar in tone, though a shade lighter, and even less eventful. The story without an actual plot follows a policeman (Gagi Svanidze), a waitress (Nino Koridze) and a homeless girl (Fea Tsivadze) who live in a town on the Black Sea coast. Their paths intertwine, the waitress falls for the policeman, and tries to help the homeless girl, but none of this leads anywhere in particular. The locations are stunning, the actors’ faces are striking (too bad their roles don’t provide a chance to use them more) and the camera work is expert, but this is not enough to compensate for the essential emptiness of the film as a whole.
Things are much more colourful and dynamic in uneven, but intriguing There Was Never a Better Brother (I ne bylo luchshego brata), an Azerbaijan-Russia-Bulgaria co-production directed by Murad Ibragimbekov. Based on the novel by the director’s father Maksud, the film stars Sergey Puskepalis, best known for the Berlinale Silver Bear-winning role in How I Ended this Summer (Kak ya provel etim letom). The story takes place in 1970’s Baku, where Jalil (Puskepalis) works in a post office and keeps bees as a hobby, a picture of stable life. His younger brother Simurg (Evgeny Tsyganov) is completely different, engaging in criminal activities after he comes back from a stint in the frozen tundra. A beautiful young woman further complicates things between the brothers. The film’s visual aspect is its strongest suit, shot by Ivan Gudkov in lively colours with strong contrasts between individual scenes, and special effects (mostly concerning the bees) are reminiscent of works by the region’s most famous filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov. Or maybe they just used the same VFX company.
On the other end of the spectrum lies Victor Ginzburg’s Russia-US co-production Generation P, based on the cult novel by Victor Pelevin. The dizzying story of the 90’s transition in Russia goes in all directions at practically the same time, tackling politics, economy, media, religion, philosophy, mythology, psychotropic drugs and the essence of the Russian soul, which means the film is as jumbled as the novel. Acting (Vladimir Yepifantsev in the main role), digital cinematography (by veteran Aleksei Rodionov), and editing – clearly the most daunting task on this project, credited to no less than four people – manage to keep the film together, at least for this critic who had read (and loved) the source book. For a material this hard to adapt for screen, the film is a success, but to those unacquainted with Pelevin, Generation P will most likely be too puzzling to follow with full focus for the whole running time of 120 minutes.
Belvedere by Bosnia’s Ahmed Imamovic (Go West) is a drama dealing with consequences of the Srebrenica massacre. The main character Ruvejda (Sadzida Setic) is middle-aged widow living in the eponymous refugee camp with her sister (Minka Muftic) and her sister’s adolescent son Adnan (Adis Omerovic). Ruvejda’s brother Alija (Nermin Tulic) is an alcoholic invalid – he stepped on a landmine during the war and now he has no legs – who drowns his sorrows in copious amounts of beer. They all very obviously suffer their losses – each of them lost at least one family member in Srebrenica – and some of them too obviously: Tulic in the role of Alija is a case study of overacting bathos. The film is black-and-white until Adnan goes to participate in a Big Brother-like show in Belgrade, and the parts of the film happening in the show are in full TV colour. The idea of counterpointing the black-and-white bleakness of the refugee camp with lively colours of the reality show’s antics is good, but the execution doesn’t achieve the desired effect – it trivializes the strength of poetic images of suffering instead of heightening it. And the poetry is also over-accentuated, with verses of the famous Bosnian poet and screenwriter Abdulah Sidran (Kusturica’s Do You Remember Dolly Bell and When Father Was Away on Business) in voice-over, underlining shots of the Srebrenica cemetery and grieving women.
The only animated film in the competition was George the Hedgehog (Jeż Jerzy) from Poland, based on the cult graphic novel series of the same name. Directed by Wojtek Wawszczyk, Jakub Tarkowski and Tomasz Leśniak, it follows the hedonistic, skateboarding hedgehog who is chased by mad scientists and two neo-Nazi skinheads. The mad scientists have the idea that they would clone George, turn him into a media sensation and thus control the country. Not very plausible, but on the other hand, this is a cartoon and the scientists should be mad for a reason. The film is very much reminiscent of the seminal Fritz the Cat, both in style and content, but is uneven throughout. It’s full of big-breasted, scantily dressed women (all crazy about George), alcohol, drugs, gross-out jokes and all kinds of excess. The film satirizes everything that its creators consider wrong about contemporary Poland, not falling short of attacking the Catholic Church, and is enjoyable and amusing most of the time, but the poorly executed ending leaves an underwhelming feeling.
Besides FEDEORA jury’s winner Marija’s Own (Marijine by Željka Sukova, read about it in the article by Eva af Geijerstam), the best film in the competition won the prize of the main East of the West jury – the Macedonian Punk’s Not Dead (Pankot ne e mrtov) by Vladimir Blazevski. Mirsa (Jordan Simonov), the singer of a punk band which last played together 17 years ago, is now in his forties and still lives with his mother, occasionally selling weed for Albanian dealer Gzim (Xhevdet Jashari). Gzim is connected to a shady foreign NGO who use the tensions between Macedonians and Albanians to their advantage. They have the idea of organizing a concert of a Macedonian band in the Albanian-dominated part of the country and Gzim asks Mirsa to re-form his band for this occasion. After Mirsa convinces the only member of the band still living in Skopje, drummer Ljak (Toni Mihajlovski), and bringing along his girlfriend Nina (Kamka Tocinovski), they go in search of the guitarist and the bassist, in Serbia and Bosnia.
Punk’s Not Dead won East of the West for good reason. Although it has its flaws, such as a dramaturgically messy second act, it does have a beginning, a plot and an ending, and characters the audiences care about – which can’t be said for most of the other titles in the selection. The low budget is compensated for by enthusiasm, the film radiates energy with a definite punk attitude and, above all, feels honest. The ending itself is particularly well conceived and executed, and feels right without being in-your-face politically correct.
Overall, the East of the West section in this year’s Karlovy Vary edition was not on the highest of levels. Was it a poor year for Eastern European cinema? Or maybe the programmers didn’t pick the right titles? Festivals do have their ups and downs, just like filmmakers, and national cinemas on the whole, so there is room for improvement on every front.
Vladan Petkovic, Serbia, FEDEORA jury member