13th Cottbus Festival of East European Films

Report by Ron Holloway

Roland Rust, as astute a film critic as he is festival director, hit the nail right on the head when he chose Russian cinema as the focus of the 13th Cottbus Festival of East European Films, scheduled 4-8 November 2003. The front cover of his Filmfest Cottbus catalogue, depicting Russian winter caps atop movie seats, signaled the string of awards showered on the entries at this year’s festival. Indeed, all three of the competition awards for feature films went to Russian directors, in addition to a special prize in the short film competition. And both the FIPRESCI (International Critics) and the Ecumenical Juries doubled up on the same opinions of the International Jury, and a jury for intercultural communication picked a fifth Russian film for its favorite. Never mind that these winners were produced in different corners of Russia. A cornucopia of awards like this seldom happens in any key international jury.

          Lydia Bobrova’s Babusya (Granny), already honored with the St. Petersburg Statuette, the Grand Prix of the Festival of Festivals, was awarded the Main Prize and the Audience Award at Cottbus. It’s a poignant tale about a grandmother who has literally sacrificed everything – house, money, babysitting, whatever – for the welfare of her children, only to be abandoned in her old age by uncaring inlaws. Granny is emblematic of the hard times faced by many senior citizens in Russia today.  - good, deserving, forgotten people, whose pensions don’t stretch much beyond the bread line. This is the third film in her trilogy about the daily cares and chores on little people on the edge of society, following Hey, You, Wild Geese! (1991) and In That Land  (1997). A director who prefers working with nonprofessionals, Lydia Bobrova is often hailed the legitimate successor to the late Vasily Shukshin (1929-1974).

          As for the other Russian highlight at Cottbus, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Vozvrashchenie (The Return) has been riding a wave of festival success since the film was snatched from Locarno by Venice - where it was awarded the Golden Lion - and is currently the Russian nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. At Cottbus it was awarded the Special Prize for Best Director and the Ecumenical Prize. The story of two boys who are divided on whether or not to accept a father who has returned home after a long absence, The Return is set in a provincial town and against a rough landscape in northern Russia. Possibly to test the boys’ manhood, the father takes them on a kind of survival trip to an isolated island in the middle of a lake, where a tragic accident occurs. A film that can be interpreted from social, political, and religious standpoints, The Return in any case hails the advent of a talent director whose stylistic approach to filmmaking is reminiscent of the early work of Andrei Tarkovsky.

          Alexei Uchitel’s Progulka (The Stroll), awarded the Special Prize for an Outstanding Artistic Contribution by the International Jury and the FIPRESCI prize, is as much about the city of St. Petersburg as it is about young people in this new age of mobile phones and the easy life. The story of three youths in a Jules and Jim setting, Olga (Irina Pegowa), the girl in the group, is constantly telling tall tales to keep the atmosphere alive and moving as the threesome “stroll” through the city, while the two lads are never quite sure if she is just playing one off against another for the fun of it. In the end, their ploys and tricks against the lure and snares of St. Petersburg are more than they can handle. Quite fittingly, The Stroll also received the Findling (“Boulder”) Prize given the Cottbus Student Jury.

          In the Focus on New Russian Cinema, Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dom durakov (House of Fools) well deserved the runnerup Grand Prize it had received at the 2002 Venice festival. It captures the madness of the war in Chechnya by placing the front lines of the conflict on the very doorstep of a hospital for the insane. Although an “oldtimer” in the Cottbus program, House of Fools was awarded the festival’s Dialogue Prize for Intercultural Communication, an award that in turn dovetailed neatly with the “Connecting Cottbus” forum of open-ended talks and discussions on the Russian cinema today. In this regard FIPRESCI and the Filmfest Cottbus presented a joint project titled “East European Young Critics’ Forum,” an important theme in view of the splurge of new film festivals and related events in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Another film seminar, titled “Europe’s Far East Dialogues about Russian Film,” was sponsored by the Interfilm, the Evangelical side of the Ecumenical Jury.

          The Stadthalle, the new flagship venue for Filmfest Cottbus,  is equipped with screening venues, a press center, and a deck of computers to suit most any need of a critic or visitor. And the 120-page catalogue offers a wealth of information in German and English on the current status of Russian and East European cinema. An hour’s drive away from Berlin and located near the border to Poland, Cottbus is ideally situated as a festival link between East and West.






Main Prize for Best Feature Film

Babusya (Granny) (Russia), Lydia Bobrova

Special Prize for Best Director

Vozvrashchenie (The Return) (Russia), Andrei Zvyagintsev

Special Prize for an Outstanding Artistic Contribution

Progulka (The Stroll) (Russia), Alexei Uchitel


Main Prize for Best Short Film

Mala nesdeleni (Small Untold Secrets) (Czech Republic), Mira Fornayova

Special Prize

De Lana Caprina (Russia), Elena Sorokina




FIPRESCI Prize (International Critics)

Progulka (The Stroll) (Russia), Alexei Uchitel


Ecumenical Prize

Vozvrashchenie (The Return) (Russia), Andrei Zvyagintsev


Don Quixote Prize (International Federation of Film Clubs)

Neverne Hry (Faithless Games) (Czech Republic/Slovakia), Michaela Pavlatova

Special Mention

Maria (Romania/Germany/France), Peter Calin Netzer


Findling (Boulder) Prize by Cottbus Students Jury

Progulka (The Stroll) (Russia), Alexei Uchitel

Prize for Best Debut

Maria (Romania/Germany/France), Peter Calin Netzer


Audience Prize

Babusya (Granny) (Russia), Lydia Bobrova


Dialogue Prize for Intercultural Communication

Dom durakow (House Of Fools) (Russia/France), Andrei Konchalovsky


Cottbuser Filmschau Prize

Just a Little Movie (Germany), Heino Neumann