The Cottbus Film Festival 2007 Report

By Milja Radovic, member of the Ecumenical Jury

The Cottbus Film Festival is the international film festival with a focus on the East European cinema, which continuously supports and promotes authors from this region since 17 years. In the avalanche of the commercial films around the UK cinemas, it was inspiring to look at these films which provide quality films regardless of their budget. This look had a refreshing impact showing that the East European cinema kept its strength and specific style of cinematic expression that gives to the locality of the stories universal impact and importance. I was privileged to participate on the 17th Cottbus Film Festival as one of four members of the independent Ecumenical Jury, presided by Jakob Hoffmann.

According to the criteria of the Ecumenical Jury the winning film has to meet standards not just of high artistic quality and inventiveness but also to express the human condition in diverse situations and raise discussions on values and transcendent dimensions of the everyday life. In this sense, the Ecumenical Jury encourages films which 'support justice, peace and reconciliation, and show respect for human dignity'. Supporting films that are coming from local cultures, the Ecumenical Jury supports diversity that contributes to the development of dialogue on humanity 'outside of the borders of nationalism'.

Many films met the above standards and The Ecumenical Jury had a difficult task to choose the best film out of ten in the Feature Film Competition.

The Banishment (Andrei Swjagintsew, Russia, 2007) deals with lost bonds, love and alienation, hate and redemption embodied in the complex story of relationship between a husband and wife. Dramatic content, supported with Biblical images, is encapsulated in beautiful photography and wide shots of nature. The use of iconic images and cinematic rhythm reminds of Tarkowsky.

Tricks (Andrzej Jakomowski, Poland, 2007) tells a story of a boy Stefek, who tries to find his 'lost' father and reunite his family by performing childish tricks only understandable to him and his older sister, who already faced with first difficulties of life do not want to destroy brother's naïve faith in happy endings. It is a story of lost and regained in hopes within a society where happy endings are not expectable. The director slowly develops the plot offering an insight into the 'child's perspective' of the grown-up world.

Travelling with Pets (Vera Storoschewa, Russia, 2007) is placed somewhere in the Russian province, and follows the story about Natalia, a young woman who after she stayed without her husband, rediscovers herself. Natalia who never lived in a happy marriage, into which she was taken from an orphanage, now discovers a completely new world of possibilities. In this process she finds love but she is also faced with decisions that she has to make in remaining true to her re-discovered self. Through this contemporary fairy tale, Storoschewa poetically but convincingly develops both the plot and Natalia's character. The Ecumenical Jury awarded Travelling with Pets by Vera Storoschewa with the following explanation: “The film relates the story of a young woman who finds her independence following the death of her husband. In a series of carefully composed tableaux, the director has constructed a modern fairy story about a woman who stands her ground against all expectations. The poetic power of the main character serves to give the film an additional layer of significance above and beyond its immediate context”. Travelling with Pets deals with the question of a woman, but opens up many other existential questions such as the one of freedom and choices, loneliness and happiness in the context of dependency on personal decisions. Storoschewa offered new and refreshing approaches to these questions, with a  humour that only emphasizes the uniqueness of the main character. Natalia, from the impression of the 'fool' that she gives in the beginning of the film is brilliantly transformed into the woman that carries in the most vulnerable questions of being. Through re-found love and freedom, she evolves from the obedient servant into the liberated person.

The Focus of this Festival was after many years devoted to former Yugoslavia. The “After Yu” Focus program was shown a range of films coming from the former republics of Yugoslavia. In a number of films screened from the region of former Yugoslavia (but also extended to some films from the neighbouring countries such as Greece) I chose several to discuss. Many films deal with current socio-political problems or its impact on ‘ordinary people’, which I find as one of the most important aspects of the films. Coming myself from Serbia, it was the most recognizable context and this is one of the reasons why I am introducing several Serbian films into this review. On the other hand a documentary that speaks about the Black wave, or new post-Yugoslav co-production of Rajko Grlic are films that I believe might have significance and importance, especially for the film scholars, in re-contextualizing the Balkan cinema and re-thinking its future possibilities. 

Documentary Censored without Censorship (Milan Nikodijevic, Dinko Tucakovic, Serbia, 2006) re-actualizes the Black wave movement that started in Tito's Yugoslavia in the early sixties and finished in the early seventies. Black wave movement was not just a critique of the Yugoslav system, in sense 'capitalism vs. communism', but left wing, sometimes even Marxist critique of the corrupted ideas of socialism and its bureaucratic system. Through the exploration of the people from the margins of society, authors questioned system and its values but also depicted reality that was never shown before on the 'big screen' in Yugoslavia. The documentary highlights the socio-political context in which Black Wave occurred, how and why the authors and their films, master-pieces of Yugoslav cinematography were persecuted to be banned at the end. Yugoslav authors who refused to adopt 'politically correct language' which would mean denying of the critical point of view, were exposed to a form, in words of one of the authors, 'soft dictatorship' political methods, which in reality resulted in the 'bunkering' of the films. In this sense, this documentary informs us not only about a certain political context in Yugoslavia, but also about the potential that cinema has in 'breaking through' the political and ideological concepts of the society. This is the reason why the Black wave films did not loose on their actuality, at the contrary they challenge film authors to re-think about the critical voice that cinema has.

The other films screened in the Focus section, shows that films coming from the former Yugoslavia are strongly engaged with the social issues of the 'society in transition' and people from margins. Zilnik's provocative Kenedi se zeni (Kenedi is Getting Married, Serbia, 2007) that follows the path of the immigrant, Kenedi, in his daily struggles, reveals the life on the edge of modern society. Last part in trilogy about Kenedi’s life, depicts the attempts of the emigrant from the ‘border’ of Europe, Serbia, and from the ‘border of the border’ (Roma from Serbia), to get a better life somewhere else. He finds a job in a sex-industry but then learns about gay marriages, which he believes could enable him to gain a status in an EU country.

The problem of the people from the margins of the Serbian society is depicted in another film Hamlet (Aleksandar Rajkovic, Serbia, 2007) which was screened in the Competition section. Hamlet’s story is placed in the borders of Belgrade, which seems to be ‘so close but yet so far’ from the main characters, kept in poverty and rules of the local clans. The film paints reality of both Balkans and Europe’s favelas, but due to the use of certain stereotypes it is arguable to which extent it contributes in promoting Roma’s population in different ‘light’ from the already stereotyped view in Serbia (such as, Romas are responsible for their poverty as they are ‘society within society’, and not adapted to the modern system).

Emigrants and those who stayed in ‘mother-land’, their fears and hopes are depicted in the first feature film of Ivan Zivkovic, Hadersfild (Huddersfield, Serbia, 2007). The consequences of the recent socio-political events in the Balkans are revealed through the story of friendship of so called 'lost generation' of the 1970s. Another film that deals with social problems is Klopka (Trap, Srdan Golubovic, Serbia/Germany/Hungary, 2007). A young educated couple, used to cope with ‘usual’ daily problems (such as privatization of firms and low income), finds themselves in a dramatic and unsolvable situation when doctors discover that their son has a dangerous heart disease. An operation abroad is necessary for the child to survive, but this operation requires an amount of money that parents do not have and cannot find anywhere. In a helpless situation, the main protagonist, father, is offered that amount in return for assassinating another man. This is a story of moral dilemmas and choices in the society with no moral dilemmas left, where everyone struggles to survive the best they can. It is also a story of human tragedy, love, deceiving and redemption. By revealing to us a melting of the ‘middle class’ and the raise of the new class of extremely wealthy ones, Golubovic paints strongly and convincingly  some of the most important issues in Serbia nowadays.

Armin by Ogjen Svilicic (Croatia/Bosnia and Herzegovina/Germany, 2007) placed in a contemporary Bosnia and Croatia, describes existing stereotypes, mostly ‘Western’ stereotypes, as a consequence of the Yugoslav civil war. The war, its victims and their stories are ‘to be consumed’ in the west. A story of a boy, who goes to audition for a foreign film with his father, is a story of rejection of commercialized ‘global compassion’, instead of which father chooses ‘anonymity’  for the sake of love for his child.

Rajko Grlic’s Karaula (Border Post/Bosnia and Herzegovina/Great Britain, Croatia/Macedonia/Serbia and Montenegro/Slovenia/ Hungary, 2006) represents the first post-war ‘Yugoslav’ film.  Karaula describes events in the border post of Yugoslav army, placed near Albanian border. With a doze of humor Grlic tells a story of several protagonists, in year 1987, when also Milosevic’s popularity was rising (showed just in one short scene) Lieutenant in charge for the border post wants to improve his career, but suffering from a sexually transmitted disease he cannot leave the place for several weeks and therefore he ‘invents’ a story of gathering of the Albanian ‘forces’ at the border. He gives ‘high alert’ to the soldiers, who now also can not leave the post as long as he cannot. Grlic’s story many recognized as an allegory for the break-up of Yugoslavia, but the film also carries a dozen stereotypes that can be undermining for some audiences in understanding this allegory. However, the case of Grlic’s film shows that transnational cinema can be not just popular, but also required, especially in the re-establishment of corporation between former republics in film industry.  Such films could have potential to promote ‘what we have in common’ instead of ‘natural’ differences and that is maybe its most important aspect. 

Truly, post-Yugoslav films have more in common than in differences. Not just that they use the same language and deal with the similar problems and mentality, they also actualize contemporary issues. Now when the war is ‘behind’, the new reality and new problems that occurred on the daily basis are in the focus of the film authors. The ex-Yugoslavia region, for a long time was a synonym for the one of the bloodiest conflicts in a recent European history, and therefore perceived as the region of the ‘other’ Europe. The area of former Yugoslavia is mainly nowadays the region of transformation. This transformation includes sometimes very dramatic effects, which are depicted in some films, such as economic stratification of society, and migrations. At the same time it is important to bear in mind that transformation also includes changes and improvements as well as divorce with dangerous ideologies of the 1990s.

The films addressed the most common and existential issues of corruption, poverty and unbalanced and unclear change of standards.  Therefore this area of ‘others’ is not anymore just a potential political problem, which was a stance that produced a number of stereotypes in the cinema both domestic and foreign, it is an area of a potential. The cinema has something to say, and this time this is not just about the stereotypes of the ‘wild Balkan man’ (Frederick Jameson). It is about the reality of life on the ‘political space of integration’. It is about the cinema which has critical observation and depiction of existing issues. And it is about the issues, which are not just ‘local’ anymore, but a very part of contemporary Europe.