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Everything new on the Eastern (Film) Front

Poles and ex-Yugos clean up at this year's excellent Cottbus Film Festival. Yesterday the final curtain fell on the 22nd edition of Europe's premiere Festival for East European cinema in the town of Cottbus, just outside Berlin.

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Lubina winner Maria Sadowska with Katarzyna Kwiatkowska, In The Fog, Halima’s Path, Kolka Cool

Yesterday the final curtain fell on the 22nd edition of Europe’s premiere Festival for East European cinema in the town of Cottbus, one and a half hours south east of Berlin. As at all festivals, a jury handed out prizes galore, no Palmes or Bears but ‘Lubinas’ (‘Charming girl’ in Sorbian, the language of the local Slavic minority). Ten feature films competed this year, from Russia, Kazakhstan, Latvia and three from former Yugoslav republics – but next-door neighbour Poland got the upper hand.

The top prize, along with €20,000, went to director Maria Sadowska, a Polish musician rewarded for her debut film Women’s Day, an endearing tale of modern Poland, a social-epic that glorifies the determination of working class underdogs (to be more exact, “underbitches” working in a discount supermarket) in the face of the evil, macho capitalism plaguing the country – think Polish Erin Brokovitch with social realism undertones in the style of a superior public TV production – definitely not our first choice, but worth seeing.

The Special Prize also went to a Polish film, You Are God, underscoring the talent of filmmaker Leszek Dawid (who came to Cottbus last year to show My Name is Ki and left with a Lubina for his female lead). His 2012 biopic on legendary rap group Paktofonika’s lead vocalist Magik, an Ian Curtis-like fallen genius, is not only one of the most-hyped Polish movies of the year, it manages to find a cinematic voice and aesthetic that transcends the immediate hip hop sycophancy. The group’s fans will think they’re leaving the cinema too early. We thought the narrative would have profited from a good 20 minute trim – but overall You Are God is effective, well-crafted cinema with a great Polish hip hop soundtrack.

A recurring theme at Cottbus was war, as in Berlin-based Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s multi-honoured In the Fog, a slow-burning human drama set among partisans in German-occupied Soviet Union which, expectedly, reaped a Lubina for its male lead Vladimir Svirski and also an ecumenical prize.

More disturbingly topical were the films dealing with the aftermath of what’s been conventionally labelled the ‘Balkan War’. The 1990s Yugoslavian independence wars, and ensuing mass killings perpetrated  by the Serbians in Bosnia have proved rich material for recent movies – even Angelina Jolie had a go at it with her nauseating Land of Milk and Honey. Unsurprisingly, directors from the former Yugoslavia have too – and three films that competed at Cottbus come to grips with the never-healing historical trauma from the perspective of today’s post-war societies, whether in rural Bosnia, Belgrade or Sarajevo.

Whereas Halima’s Path  (about today’s Bosnian survivors’ struggle to find the mortal remains of their loved ones killed during the war, the mayor of Sarajevo’s favourite film according to its show-off director) comes across as an over-the-top tear-jerking crowd pleaser which, not surprisingly, scored the Audience Award, Serbian Redemption Street chooses art house political thriller aesthetics and war crime investigation to dig into the murky collusion between past war criminals and justice officials in today’s Serbia. Lead actor Gordan Kičić has the aura of a worshipped star (which he is in Serbia). The plot, although at times mired in genre clichés, captivates throughout – so we thought and so did the Jury which awarded Miroslav Terzić a best Debut award.

Unfortunately, The Children of Sarajevo left empty-handed. Aida Begić’s hand-held camera sticks tightly to the life-routine of the hard-working Dusan, a young Bosnian woman left alone to fend for herself and her teenage brother by the war. The film holds an unflinching, uncompromising gaze on a society torn between nouveau riche arrogance and petty crime. This bleak social realist take on post-war Bosnia might not be a crowd-pleaser, but it lingers in the mind.

The Latvian movie Kolka Cool, directed by Juris Poskus, got luckier and definitely deserved its FIPRESCI-award (courtesy of the International Federation of Film Critics). In a bold black and white, Poskus captures life in the Baltic-coast provinces as wasted away by 20-something Andza and his small group of buddies, an empty life filled with booze and cigarettes, endless hanging out only interrupted by bouts of pointless violence – a humorously told and beautifully shot ode to a new generation of unrepentant losers. Their non-commitment applies to work as much as it does to the girls they ‘love’– a sharp take on the superfluous man of post-EU Baltic society, the Oblomovs of the New Europe.

Beyond the competition highlights, Cottbus is also the opportunity to discover the under-exposed cinema of not-so-far-away European countries – Croatia this year – and films you will never manage to catch on Berlin screens – Russian directing star Balabanov’s film Me Too, for one. The unexpected pleasure this year was to see Croat director Branko Schmidt in the flesh to comment with an endearing humour on his personal transformation from Croatian nationalist during the war into staunch critic of the very Republic of Croatia he fought to support. The veteran director joined this year’s festival jury, bringing along four of his previous films including his latest work, Cannibal Vegetarian, Croatia’s submission for next year’s Oscar. Cannibal is the work of an angry citizen determined to expose the corruption of his country and its elite – in this case the medical profession through the story of  a successful, talented  (and vegetarian) gynecologist ready to walk over dead bodies for money. It is also a very convincing, extremely well-acted piece of immoral ‘human comedy’ – one of the highlights of this festival.

As every year, Cottbus was a very well organised, thoroughly enjoyable experience – light years away from the Berlinale’s unfriendly assembly-line processing of filmgoers and journalists. Cosy screenings in the city’s impromptu cinemas and theatres, followed by animated discussion with filmmakers (who you can meet at the bar afterwards), parties in cellars, friendly dedicated workers… our only gripe was this year’s trailer which seemed determined to cram every cliché about Eastern Europe into 20 seconds in a well-intentioned attempt to promote the multiculturalism between the Croatian Riviera and Siberia. It was a bit embarrassing and you had to sit through it before every film.

Nonetheless, with 150 films (all with English subtitles and/or simultaneous translation) from across the former Eastern Bloc and 19,500 visitors (1/5 of the city’s population!), Cottbus is and remains Europe’s annual rendezvous for East European cinema and we love it. Same place, same time next year!