By Robert Buckeye.
The centenary of the formation of Czechoslovakia and the half century commemoration of the Prague Spring transformed Art Film Fest in Košice, Slovakia (15-23 June) this year into a seminar on the myriad possibilities and uses of film. Its presentation of films on the inter-city train between Bratislava and Košice brought back the moment of Dziga Vertov. In Košice, its emphasis on both documentary and fiction films about Czechoslovakia reconfigured the festival. Documentaries on Leopoldov Fortress, one of the most brutal prisons in Communist Czechoslovakia or one on the lives of construction workers took their place alongside surrealist Czech animator and filmmaker Jan Svankmajer’s transformation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Alexei German Jr.’s Dovlatov, an account of the Armenian-Jewish poet unknown in his lifetime in Russia.
The names history books record – Masaryk, Stefanik, Valek, Meciar, Dubcek, Havel – had their place at Art Film but so too did those, in the words of Bertolt Brecht, who make history but are not known to history – Marta Kubisova, a pop singer whose voice became the cry of change in 1968 (in Olga Summerova’s The Magic Voice of a Rebel); six films by Fero Fenic, a director born near Košice, who made documentaries of the elderly; rock bands and construction workers in the easternmost region of Slovakia near Ukraine; Occupation 1968 in its stories of soldiers from Russia, Hungary, Poland, Germany and Bulgaria, who had been brought to Czechoslovakia to put down the 1968 uprising, looking back to 1968, remembering what it was like, and asking themselves whether what they had done had been right; individual memory collided with collective memory. (Directors from the five countries put the stories together in a film produced by Slovak director, Peter Kerekes.)
The question asked by the elderly veterans in Occupation 1968 – what would you do? – was the question asked in two of the most powerful films of Art Film, Erik Poppe’s fictional account of right-wing extremist Anders Breivik’s attack on a Socialist summer camp on the island of Utoya on 22 July, 2011 that in 72 minutes killed 69 youth, and Constantin Popescu’s Pororoca, an account of a 50-day long search of a father for his child who disappeared in a park; both seen against the overlay of dead children on Mediterranean beaches and children separated from their parents in America.
Poppe’s camera follows one of the teenagers, Koja, as she runs, not ever seeing the shooter, sounds of gun shots pursuing her, returning at one point to the compound in search of her sister, hiding behind trees, in culverts with other teenagers, comforting a girl who has been shot, pressed against the side of a cliff, sounds of gun shots relentless, deafening, continuing, always continuing. Fear from what cannot be seen but is known. Fear one cannot escape.
If the tension in U – 22 July develops from the speed in which events escalate but do not end, the tension in Pororoca develops slowly, a drip drip accumulation of details over 50 days, in which the father begins to be as much a detective as the police and soon begins to question the police investigation, increasingly believing he knows how his daughter disappeared. In a reprise of Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, the father shaves his beard and head and prepares for battle before he brutally murders the man he believes took his daughter. Each detail in the film is seen to have meaning by the father but what it means cannot be known.
There were other noteworthy films at Art Film. Alexey German Jr.’s Dovlatov, the story of the Armenian-Jewish poet in 1970s Russia, of his friendship with Joseph Brodsky, of their difficulty being published at a time when poetry served the state, describes in one week of his life – the talk, loves and disappointments of those whose lives circle around art, politics and the unimpressionable every day – what seems interminable. It was not until his death in 1990, while he was in exile in America (and after the Soviet Union fell), that Dovlatov became the well-known poet and cult figure that he is today. The slow, circling, stylized camera shots, the talk of what might be, of what was not, a drift that verges on an endlessness one cannot explain, all of it brought us back, both in style and feeling, to the Antonioni of La Notte.
Sebastian Lelio’s Disobedience follows his continuing consideration of the vicissitudes of love that he had traced already in Gloria, a middle-aged woman’s search for a second love, and in A Fantastic Woman, a transgender woman whose love has died. In Disobedience, Ronit, a photographer in New York, disaffected from her Orthodox Jewish community in London, returns for the funeral of her father, a rabbi. Her former lover, Esti, has married her brother. Even though they still love one another and Esti no longer loves her husband, her pregnancy complicates the matter. The last words of Ronit’s father, brought back by Ronit’s brother and Esti’s husband in the crisis that they face, are how are we to be free? It becomes the difficult decision two women whose lives have gone in different directions must make.
Nina, Olga Chajdas’s first feature film, is the story of a twenty year marriage between Nina and Wojtek that has seen better times, in part because they have failed to have children. They decide to hire a surrogate mother. After repeated failures to find a suitable woman, they meet Magda accidentally (Nina has hit Magda’s car, Wojtek repairs it). They like Magda. They believe she would be suitable. But Magda is a lesbian. Nina’s like becomes something more. She cannot resist a love that crosses class boundaries nor can Magda. At first Wojtek understands but then he cannot. Their lives had been trapped in roles they had developed and accepted. Now the script must be rewritten.
Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, a theater-based therapeutic exploration of the crises of teenage Madeline was greeted at the Berlinale with enthusiasm, but Nick James’s assessment of it in Sight & Sound as something less was also my response. Madeline’s attacks on her concerned but clueless mother and her free-spirit theater instructor to help her were eviscerating; needless and nasty. A film both pretentious and precious.
Eva Gardos’s Budapest Noir about the murder of a prostitute in a near-Fascist 1936 Hungary was as good as noir gets.
In My Generation, Michael Caine looks back on the Sixties (and his youth in the Sixties). Today, he said, they talk to their cell phones, consult their apps at every moment. In the Sixties we talked to one another. We had something to say.
Near Kulturpark the young who had come to Art Film slept in tents.
In various documentary presentations of Czechoslovakia between 1918 and 1990, the films were preceded by talks by university teachers to an audience of students.
Robert Buckeye’s most recent works of fiction are about Slovakia: Fade, a novel of Bratislava and Bathory, the last days of the infamous Countess Erszebet Bathory, imprisoned in her castle in Čachtice.