By Robert Buckeye.
Film festivals not only screen films we should see but also give us a reading of the field. At Art Film Fest this year, its first in Kosice after 23 years in Trencianske Teplice, the footprint of David Lynch was inescapable. In films from Canada, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the fractured narrative, hyper-real if not surrealistic world that is a Lynch film could not be missed. That, and, as in any Lynch film, rabbit holes dropped into, dark sides not seen, fugue states that must be lived.
In Andre Turpin’s Endorphine (Canada), a teenage girl has witnessed her mother murdered and believes she did nothing to save her. She circles endlessly around what happened – what she did or did not do – in a series of what ifs that escalate endlessly; what she sees, hears, believes or imagines a kaleidoscope of the real. A noir detective story whose clues remain unsolved in a landscape at moments difficult to recognize.
In Stepan Altrichter’s Schmitke (Czech Republic), an engineer is sent on the road to repair a solar windmill located in a backwater in the Ore Mountains on the border between Czech Republic and Germany. He finds himself in a surreal world he does not understand only to lose himself, literally, in woods, which the longer he remains lost in them assume philosophical intimations that become, at moments absurdly, what we recognize to be life.
In Peter Bebjak’s The Cleaner (Slovakia), Tomas works for a funeral parlor cleaning apartments and houses after someone has died. He is drawn to a woman whose aunt has died and begins to haunt her apartment. She is an orphan whose wealthy parents have been killed in a car crash and has been raised by her brother, a drug addict, who brutalizes her. He is a reform school product whose mother has killed his father. A film about family, class, voyeurism, brutality and first love like Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
Films from Serbia, Tunisia and Egypt took us into worlds we would just as soon leave: presents that cannot be lived and pasts that cannot be escaped. In Mirjana Karanovic’s A Good Wife, a highly controversial film in Serbia in which Karanovic both directs and stars, the good wife, discovers a video of her husband killing prisoners during the war. In the highly-charged discussions in Serbia over accountability for past atrocities, her husband believes that the past is the past, it must be let go. When one of their friends who served with her husband decides to go to the authorities to tell them what they had done and dies mysteriously, she takes the video to the authorities. She knows what has happened. It can’t be let go. In this subtle, restrained film, the past and present are shown in a detail – glance, gesture, silence. The unspoken speaks, as it always does, often in ways that what is said can never be heard.
In Leyla Bouzid’s As I Open My Eyes, which takes place in Tunisia in 2010 under the pre Arab-Spring dictatorship, a young woman, no more than a girl, sings protest songs in a rock band that draws the attention of authorities. She is imprisoned, questioned, tortured. A story of love and anarchy, of protest and innocence come up against the world: youth does not know power and what it will do to maintain itself. Her mother consoles her in the only way she can. She has a voice. She must sing.
Both The Good Wife and As I Open My Eyes are conventionally shot films, dependent on scene, actors and story and are not likely to receive the attention that films which depend on visual effects, cutting edge narratives, the spectacular or outrageous do. We mislead ourselves if we believe that the simple is easy to achieve. For a scene or action, gesture or word to be effective in such a film it cannot call attention to itself. (In this regard, we might add Ivan Ostrochovsky’s Koza [Slovakia], a desolate road movie about an over-the-hill fighter out of work who must return to the ring to raise money for his wife’s abortion.)
Mohamed Diab’s Clash takes place in Cairo, two years after the Egyptian revolution. The action of the film takes place in a police van transporting protesters to prison or death. What happens inside the van is no less chaotic and frightening than what does outside between soldiers and protesters. Like Aleksey Gherman’s Hard to be a God one cannot describe or explain the constant, unrelenting, unforgiving horror other than to experience it. Clash is never less than anarchic if fully realized.
Ben Wheatley’s High Rise, his adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel, and Jerzy Skolimowki’s 11 Minutes, his first film in eight years after a 17-year hiatus before that, were films that were as violent and incomprehensible as Clash, not as a consequence of political unrest but of everyday life. In High Rise, residents in a high-tech concrete skyscraper develop anxiety and feelings of unrest because of failures and flaws in the design and operation of the building that soon escalates into battle between those on the lower floors who are less well-off than those on the higher floors. What happens is whatever happens. No violence or perversion is too much. Id let loose. Anarchy.
In 11 Minutes, Skolimowski presents the unrelated stories of several Warsaw residents in eleven minutes of their lives that come together for no reason in an unforeseen catastrophe in a city square. A bus crashes. A couple fall to their deaths from a high rise. Several nuns die. None of the stories are related but when they intersect, like billiard balls bouncing off one another, they create a disaster that could not be foreseen. In a stunning conclusion, Skolimowski’s camera pulls back from the square to a sky-high view of every neighborhood in Warsaw only to pull back even farther to what seems to be every place in the world where disaster will strike for no reason in a mosaic that reminds one of an Anselm Kiefer painting.
Two films presented aspects of the many variables of love. Urzula Antoniak’s Nude Area, a silent film about the developing love between two young women, has no story. Its narrative, if you will, a series of moments between the women, is, one might say, the only possible narrative of love: glance, gesture, movement, action, decision. What is said about love Antoniak argues can never be said but can only be seen. Its title, “Nude Area,” of course the place we let ourselves be seen as we are by the one we love.
Tomasz Wasilewski’s United States of Love is three stories of love that are not realized. A wife is attracted to a priest she cannot love and makes the husband she does not love a surrogate for the priest. Her love-making to her husband is enlivened as it had not been before. A professional woman, a school principal, who has not been married but had an affair for years with a married man is rejected when the man’s wife dies unexpectedly. An aging, overweight teacher loves her young neighbor who wants a career as a model. One night when the girl does not show up for dinner at the teacher’s apartment, she discovers that the girl had been raped by a photographer who had promised her a career in modeling. In the only way it is possible for her to love, the older woman washes the naked body of the passed-out girl, removing evidence of semen. Love is not what we want it to be these stories say but what we make of it, however we can.
The colors of Nude Area are sharp, bright, clear. The vibrant colors appropriate to the emotions of love. In contrast, United States of Love is shot in washed-out, muted colors emphasizing the emotions of love when it is not what we want it to be.
As it has in the past, Artfilm screens films that were at the Cannes festival just weeks earlier. This year there were seven Cannes films in Kosice, including Cristian Mungiu’s The Graduate, which gave Mungiu the Best Director award at Cannes; Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d’Or; Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, that many at Cannes thought should have been awarded best film; Cristi Puiu’s Sierranevada, which everyone at Cannes praised. These were films about family, although the one that forms in Loach’s film about an old man living in a technological world he cannot manage was not biological. They have been written about extensively elsewhere. There were also Asian, Slovak and American Independent films at Artfilm. It is not possible to see all the films of any festival, but the ones I saw at Artfilm were excellent, which is not the case at most festivals.
Film critics may think films are worlds that may take us away from the world or return us to it. The world outside the theater, however, is a place, unlike the one we have just left. At the Slavia café between films, Kosice bumped up against film and, as in the last pan of Skolimowski’s film, my neighborhood at home also edged into the afternoon. I saw Tomas in The Cleaner lying under a bed in the apartment of the woman he loves walking alongside a Slovak and his girl in Kosice. I saw the love of the married woman in United States of Love in an aunt I visited when I was a boy. We need to know where we are. I was an American far from home, aware where he was not.
Robert Buckeye is author of five books of fiction, including Still Lives, a novel about the Kent State shootings, and Fade, a novel of Bratislava, and has written articles on literature, art and film. He divides his time between Vermont and Bratislava.