By Robert Buckeye.
Cannes may be a place, but it is not place as we understand it, except as it exists as cinephilia on a screen. Berlin is a place, its past always brought to bear whenever the city or its people are mentioned. At ArtFilmFest in Trenčianske Teplice and Trenčín, Slovakia, this year, one could not escape place. In a region where politics, ideology and ethnic difference have interrupted life for centuries, there were twelve war films, three films about Roma, documentary footage of the Great Slovak Uprising in 1944 in which Slovak resistance to the Nazis broke out, a documentary about identity politics in Slovakia (Hungarians as Slovaks, Slovaks as Hungarians) and a composite film by ten Slovak directors about Slovakia since its independence in 1992.
“In the twentieth century,” the great Hungarian director, István Szabó, who received ArtFilm’s Golden Camera award, commented, “all of us here have suffered the same torments and had the same experiences. Though my parents lived in Hungary, they surely went through the same as their peers in Slovakia.” Although there were seven films at ArtFilm that screened earlier at Cannes, they arrived in Trenčianske Teplice as if Dziga Vertov’s train were still chugging through the countryside bringing film to those who knew where they lived but wanted to know what film had to say to them. Films take us to worlds we do not know but also return us to ones where we live. There may be resonance between one world and another, but we should not confuse them. We live in one world, but the one I live in is not the one you do. We need to know where we are.
Roma know that where they are is not where they are wanted. The young Romani woman in Petr Václav’s film, The Way Out, attempts to make a life for herself and her children, but is stopped at every point, not only by those who want nothing to do with Roma, but also by a government whose austerity creates rules that exclude them as well as by other Roma whose abject poverty prevents any community. She is defeated, but not beaten. Klaudia Dudová, a Roma, who plays the young woman, was awarded best actress and the film won The Blue Angel for best film. (The film was made only after 1500 interviews. Many of its actors are Roma.)
Andrei Zyagintsev’s Leviathan and Alexei German’s Hard to Be a God were about a place – Russia – but it was not the same place. In Leviathan, which won best screenplay at Cannes, its protagonist, Kolia, is a drunk who owns a house the mayor of the town wants for a development project but even though he won’t be bought out the government manages to acquire it. Leviathan is epic in scope, an indictment of the corruption of capital, government and church in Russia today as well as of its ancillary collateral damage – blackmail, beatings, drunkenness, adultery – but the film is predictable, all surface and no depth, its symbolism heavy, obvious. A film that sees Russia the way the West sees the East. Connect-the-dots for the passive viewer.
Unlike Leviathan, we cannot predict what happens next in Hard to Be a God other than to say it is always the same thing. We eat shit, German says, but there is always more shit to eat. On an alien planet in the Dark Ages, a man from planet Earth becomes a god because of his bloodthirsty, cut-throat bravery and rules the treacherous warring factions of The Greys and The Blacks on a planet that is not Earth, but might very well be. The three hour film is unrelenting. Rain never stops. Snot and blood cannot be wiped off. Deaths, always death, but never birth. As if the Russia that bypassed the steps towards civilization on its way to post-Communist Russia has today, German suggests, reverted to its feudal past. The film is incomprehensible but clear; never less than anarchic, if fully realized. Leviathan is destined for the multiplex. Hard to Be a God will be stopped at its doors. We may find the Russia we want, but in doing so may not see the one that is there.
In Hungary and other former Eastern bloc nations, stray dogs are rounded up and euthanized or shot on sight. In White God, thirteen-year-old Lili loses her dog, Hagen, because her father won’t pay the licensing fee for him. “Superiority has truly become the privilege of white, Western civilization,” director Kornél Mundruzcó notes. Disenfranchisement is its god. Control its holy ghost. As Lili searches for him, Hagen gets passed from one abusive owner to another, as is the donkey Balthazar in Robert Bresson’s film, Au hasard Balthazar. In the pound, he leads a mass upraising of 200 dogs to run amok, pillage and kill in Budapest. If nature is tampered with, Mundruzco implies, it can only be destructive.
If America remains a possibility in Eastern Europe today, an out there that is not here, despite its disruptive neoliberal capitalist imperative, it would be difficult to understand what would be made at ArtFilm of Shirley: Visions of Reality, one of the more radical and experimental films this year. Even in America many would not understand it. Shirley is an emancipated woman and radical actress who persists in the face of a world that turns its head away. Her story is told in a series of vignettes, each of which takes place on the same day, August 28 (except for the last), from 1930 to the sixties.
Each scene begins as a still life of Shirley copied from the women in Edward Hopper paintings. Each is a step in Shirley’s life from the Depression, through WWII and the McCarthy Era in America. Each is an episode in her vision of a radical left America, stretching from her first trip to Paris, in search of a life she cannot have in America, through her involvement in radical theatre, from Clifford Odets to The Living Theater. What has directed her life – determined it – even if it has not been realized, its Austrian director Gustav Deutsch implies, is necessary – crucial – and must not be forgotten.
If photography changed what painting became, Hopper’s paintings in Shirley alter how we see film. We can experience Shirley only if we take the time of its time, contemplate it, as we do a painting, in a way, say, that we cannot in Hard to Be a God, whose next scene is gone before we have even seen it. In other films, silence changed our experience of them. The space of silence is always a moment that contracts or expands but never accelerates. “A hand slipping ghostlike towards an object,” Maurice Blanchot writes, “that has become its own shadow.” In a theater at moments of extended silence, we become aware of a cough, a seat creaking, our own breath. The silence is palpable, as deep as the one within ourselves. In this silence we know what stillness is, and what it is like if nothing follows. The film has ceased to be what we expected it to be.
In Tsai Ming-Liang’s Journey to the West, a Buddhist monk moves step by imperceptible step through the streets of Marseilles as if it were a Zen exercise, pilgrimage or silence itself. The film is wordless except for overheard conversation of passers-by. In Corneliu Porumboui’s The Second Game, the filmmaker and his father watch a silent recording of a football match played on December 3, 1988. Every now and then father and son comment briefly in an over-voice. In Fernando Eimbcke’s Club Sandwich, a son’s first love and his mother’s reaction remain a silence that cannot be spoken but is clearly understood. (Eimbcke won the Blue Angel for Best Director.) An exception would have to be made for Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s Ukrainian film, The Tribe, a film about deaf-mutes, told in sign language.
It is not possible to see all the films at a film festival. I missed The Tribe and another Tsai Ming-Liang film, Stray Dogs, I would have liked to have seen. Films others liked I did not, but did not feel I should say anything. They will write about them. Some films may, as films do, take us away from them. Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur seemed a post-feminist re-make of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. At the same time, since I was at ArtFilm in Trenčianske Teplice in the Slovak Republic, I was reminded that Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose text is the basis for the Polanski film and who today is much maligned for his masochism, a word named for him, was in his time a staunch supporter of Slovak independence.
In discussion with Zuzuna, my contact at the press centrum, about The Way Out, she said, “You don’t understand, Bob. You don’t live among Roma as we do.” I began with place. I could not get away from it.
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.