By Robert Buckeye.
Film festivals can be cruise-liner worlds with several thousand people removing themselves from the world for a period of time to see films, make connections and do business Nick Riddick writes, but not all cruise ships are alike nor do they go to the same places. Some may be no more than tramp steamers that trawl waters towards places only the committed or curious go. One of these was the Tallinn festival last year which provided a tour of the site for the Zone in Andrey Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Another is the festival Tilda Swinton hosts in Nairn, Scotland, her home town, showing DVDs for neighbors and friends although film-goers come from as far away as Papua New Guinea and Helsinki. “You had little old ladies in Nairn,” she says, “watching The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.”
This year Artfilm in Trencianske Teplice, Slovakia, screened a half-dozen films that showed at Cannes just weeks before, including David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills and Michael Haneke’s Amour. If Artfilm might seem at first to be a cut-rate Cannes, without its glitz, glamour and expense, it does so because film – or at least film at festivals – is seen to be universal.
No matter how universal films might seem to be, however, they are always tied to their time and place. For festivals to embrace a “Family of Man” perspective is to overlook, if not deny, crucial differences. What we see depends on where we are, which we glimpse in American adaptations of Breathless, Rashomon and Seven Samurai or Chinese and Korean adaptations of What Women Want and Castaway which screened last year at Artfilm.
“We’re in Europe,” the Macedonian actress Labina Mitevska noted, speaking at Artfilm a few years ago, “but we’re not a European country.” If King Kong is the West’s racist archetype for Africa, Count Dracula is its example for Eastern Europe. In Bram Stoker’s novel, Jonathan Harker realizes once he reaches Dracula’s castle in Transylvania that he has left civilization. In Guy Maddin’s film, Dracula is Oriental. In order for the West to confirm its supremacy, it must see Eastern Europe to lack order, civility and knowledge. Anyone east of Prague understands his second-class subscription to civilization.
To see Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis in Trencianske Teplice, then, is to see in vitro two worlds. The turmoil of the masses outside Robert Pattinson’s stretch-limo is the world the West wants to both dominate and keep at bay. The world inside the stretch-limo is nevertheless the world the youth of the East seek as they flocked to see Cosmopolis and Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love at Artfilm. (More than half at Artfilm are students.) The Slovak film, Tigers in the City, made by a crew and cast of young Slovaks, was a Bratislava version of an Allen film. At the same time, Artfilm’s emphasis on films from Eastern Europe brought us back to where it is. If Artfilm screens film from all over the world, it also stays at home.
All nations fail, Norman Davies writes, but there is a difference between those that think they will last and those that believe they will fail. The long history of Eastern Europe is a constant reminder that the future is problematic, the past never more than a ruin, the present in its backwaters only men standing on street corners, spitting on sidewalks, smoking cigarettes, staring at the emptiness of the day. “Our history is not marked by great passions,” Edvard Kocbek writes, “its poverty does not permit the assumption of any weighty mission.” What one’s history is determines what one’s films are.
If there is an emphasis in films from the East that is missing from those in the West, it is that of everyday life and, in particular, the daily struggle for existence. The simple act of waiting in the East implies a world different from that in the West, as Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which was seen last year at Artfilm, defines in a film so absolute it admits no compromise. The aesthetic of these films is minimalist, their pace slow, if at times frenetic to escape the nowhereness of nowhere, and what beauty, if not transcendence in them lasts but a moment. Its titles – Just the Wind, Beyond the Hills, Rose – may seem to be nondescript in the West, but their restraint speaks of an austerity that underscores an aesthetic.
Violence in films from the West is for the most part personal or gratuitous but in Eastern Europe it rarely is. Unsettled debts of history are always in play. Ethnic differences never disappear and flare-up suddenly as they do in Wojciech Smarzowski’s harsh, relentless film, Rose, set at the end of the Second World War, about Rose, a woman who struggles to survive among the Masurians, an ethnic group which has lived on the same land for centuries. The Masurians speak German but now must speak Polish and their land once German has become Polish in the division of territory after the war. Rose becomes a victim of the hatred of one side for the other.
It might as well be Transnistria today or the Rusyns of Eastern Slovakia who became an independent country for the first time in their long history on March 16, 1939 and on March 17 was occupied by Hungary. (Last year Alexej Fedorenko’s Silent Souls, which won best film at Artfilm, was about the Merya, an ethnic group in Russia so small it is considered defunct.
In Bence Fliegauf’s Hungarian film, Just the Wind the age-old enmity against the Roma surfaces in the murder of a Roma family. No one claims to know who did it. Every Roma family that lives nearby, whose lives are, in any event, always a struggle, now must also live in fear for their lives. Whatever help they seek is of little help. One by one they are tracked down in a racist pogrom. That Fliegauf says that it is all just the wind suggests it cannot be other than what it is.
Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills re-tells a recent event in Romania of a young woman killed in a monastery in an effort to exorcise the devil in her. The woman, Alina, an orphan, has returned to Romania from Germany to seek out the woman she loves, Vochita, who was raised in the orphanage with her. But Vochita has become a nun and tells Alina that if their love is to continue it must include God. What one does in the name of God and what one does in the name of love are not, Mungiu says, the same, even if both are done, “with the absolute conviction they were done for a good cause.”
In an interview, Mungiu describes meeting the woman whose story is the basis of his earlier film, Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, fifteen years after her illegal abortion in Romania. Neither of them have forgotten it. “It seems,” Mungiu adds, “that it is much more important now than when it actually took place.” In a land where the future has always been uncertain and the present a struggle, only the past remains. His films rub the scar.
In each of these three films, there are moments of beauty, if not beatitude in difficult circumstances: when Rose and the man she loves are in a rowboat on a lake; when a young Roma boy walks aimlessly in the woods enthralled by what he sees, forgetting for the moment the threat the family fears; when Alina lies in bed with Vochita in the monastery.
Sex or love, at least as it was presented in films from the West like Malgorzata Szumowksa’s French film, Elle, about college students in Paris who prostitute themselves to pay for school, is often abstract, distanced, removed we might say, in a way that it is not in Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love, a film about middle-aged Austrian women who travel to Kenya to pay boys for sex. Seidl’s films have always been, in one way or another, about colonization, but this is his clearest exposition of it. It may be sex the Austrian women seek, if not a glimpse of love, but it is prostitution they practice. The dynamic of the buyer and the bought, however, may shift as Luis Buñuel has shown. The women are both colonizers (white) and colonized (women).
Seidl’s films have a repetitive quality that give them force in spite of their endlessness, but Paradise: Love lacks the lifting moment of Import/Export when Olga, a Ukrainian nurse, who has come West to Vienna to make a living she cannot get at home sits at the bed of the one of the elderly in the nursing home she works in cleaning floors.
If the students in Elle talk reflectively about their prostitution and even romanticize it in a way that Juliet Binoche who writes their stories cannot (her relationship to her husband is changed by her growing awareness of how men treat women), it permits Szumowska to keep sex and love intellectual in a way Maja Milos’s Serbian film, Clip, does not. Jasna, a teenage girl alienated from family and school, escapes her life in music, drugs and sex. The rawer, the more intense the activity, the more she feels she is alive. When we see an enormous penis crossing the screen towards an open mouth we know we are not in Elle. Not since Larry Clark’s Kids have we seen as unconditional a rejection of how we live.
In Angelina Nikonova’s Twilight Portrait, which won best film this year at Artfilm, Marina, an upper-class professional woman whose marriage is in crisis, is beaten and raped by three policemen and later becomes a sex slave of one of them.
We need to leave Trencianske Teplice and go to Krompachy or Spisska Kapitula where Martin Sulik’s film, Gypsy, stages Hamlet in a Roma village that, “clings to a steep hillside with steep rough paths and homes that are permanent shacks with pieces of galvanized tin as roofing,” in order to grasp that everything is of its time and place. Shakespeare in Krompachy or in Warsaw during the Second World War is not Shakespeare at the Vic. Gypsies acting Hamlet are not gypsies as we know them. “Every historical period,” Jan Kott writes, “finds in [Shakespeare] what it is looking for and what it wants to see.” To see there from here we must enter its world.
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.