Ethical and social problems on the screen

Report Jameson 15th Cinefest Miskolc International Film Festival. By Mariola Marczak
The Guilty

Award Winner: The Guilty

The organizers of the Jameson 15th Cinefest Miskolc International Film Festival, which took place on 14-23 September in Hungary, provided a variety of topics and film genres in the schedule offered to the festival audience. The viewers had an opportunity to get to know the latest movies from all over the world, a majority of which had their Hungarian premiere during the festival in Miskolc. We watched film productions from many European countries (Hungarian, Dutch, British, Slovenian, Slovakian, German, Russian), as well as from distant ones (Canadian, American, Chinese, South Korean, New Zealand, Japanese). Since this is what has been happening for 15 years, no wonder that this festival is very popular, especially among viewers who are happy to be able to see the latest most interesting achievements of world cinematography produced during the previous year. Except for the screenings in competition there is a section called “Open Eye,” which makes a truly valuable addition to the festival programme. You can find here movies awarded or mentioned in juries’ verdicts during various other film festivals (for example Blackkklansman by Spike Lee).

Free entry for the public

One of the unique characteristics of the Hungarian festival is that all the screenings are free. When money does not matter, everybody can realize how many true cinema lovers there still are, because the screening halls were full and the foyers overcrowded. In Miskolc you can meet both professionals of different film-related jobs and ordinary viewers even from abroad who come here for years. This happens because of the low-key character of this festival and its quite easy-going atmosphere. The festival has not transformed into a massive marketing undertaking yet and this is why ordinary viewers can easily have a chat over coffee with a director or an actress, they can have an animated discussion with a film critic during one of the numerous Q&A sessions or exchange opinions with an owner of an art-house cinema.

The Festival’s Main Prize and the Ecumenical Award for The Guilty

The Guilty by Gustav Möller (Denmark 2018) awarded with the Emeric Pressburger Prize, the Festival’s Main Prize, and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, is the convincing winner of the Jameson Cinefest Miskolc 2018. The film is based on the genre scheme of thriller. This seemingly static film whose action takes place mainly in three rooms of a police station actually draws the viewers’ attention. Jacob Cedergen plays the role of Asger, a policeman on a night duty, and focussed totally on it and showing strong inner tension. Only by the end of the shift he takes a call from a kidnapped woman who tries to hide from the kidnapper who she is calling. The precisely constructed screenplay delivers surprising turns in the way of thinking of the hero and of the viewer. As it might be expected from a thriller, the film engrosses us until the last scene. The valuable aspect is that the story persuades the viewer that even an average man bored with his job, although he is a loser, or being unlucky in life, or having made some life mistake, may become “a fellow creature” for another human being, may be able to support or to help them. The story also makes us aware that in everyday situations of the developed Western society we make ethical decisions rooted in the system of values, connected strongly with our personal experience. This is what determines our tendency to make severe and hasty judgments of other people’s attitudes and our ability to verify them. The movie forces viewers to consider the question what the Christian approach towards another person is or can be in the contemporary world.


The question of faithfulness to imponderabilia

Another film in which the ethical subject was fully elaborated on is the German film The Silent Revolution by Lars Kraume (Special Mention of the International Jury). The German director took up the topic of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and its bloody repression by the Soviet tanks. He based his material on an authentic occurrence, which took place in East Germany, where a group of high school students decided to celebrate the Hungarian martyrs with a moment of silence, inspired by the news that one sportsman died in the Soviet military intervention. The teenagers are repressed as “counter-revolutionists” and strongly manipulated to denounce their gesture and to turn in the initiators, who are to be expelled from the school without any right to graduate elsewhere. Thus the game for collective loyalty, self-dignity and solidarity among friends begins. It is the question of faithfulness to imponderabilia – the elementary universal ethical rules, among which freedom and the truth stand at the top of the hierarchy. The young people are successful in this test. The optimistic ending seems to be naive but it follows facts. All the rebels stay unite in solidarity, therefore they are expelled from school and the majority of them escape to the other side of the Berlin Wall and continue successful happy lives in West Germany, in the free world. However, they all sacrificed something, quitting their families and places close to their hearts. Nothing changed in the communist Germany as their antagonists stated but still they won from the moral point of view. The victory has its symbolic meaning and it built them.

There is also an interesting thread of the parents of particular protagonists of the final class of the high school. Some of them were Nazis who exterminated other nations, others were communists who together with the Red Army killed those who used to be killers. Still, parents from both sides of the historical barricade who were still alive manage to make a gesture of loyalty and love towards their children. They help their sons and daughters to escape, taking on themselves the predictable consequences resulting from the rules of the communist system in which they live (GDR). Here we also have a certain schematic pattern: the young people are beautiful, kind and noble, their fathers appear worth of the respect of their children in spite of their previous guilt. It is a strongly persuasive message, creating an unambiguously positive image of the Germans from both totalitarian systems: the Nazis and the communist ones.

The Festival’s Grand Prize (Adolf Zukor Prize) and Prize CICAE

In Consequences by Darko Štante (Slovenia 2018) there is a reversed scheme of narrative about youth detention centres and about stalking of homosexuals especially in such places. This time, however, the homosexual appears to be a physically and psychologically strong man who becomes quickly a part of an inmate’s elite, using violence towards the weak, including his previous friends. It is revealing the footage with intimate sex scenes which results in one possible effect that he can imagine – a violent revenge. The movie has been skilfully built, but a scheme stays a scheme even if it is well applied, and thus it is not inspiring. This film can also be treated as an utterance concerning the situation of contemporary family, because it reveals the parents’ defeat in upbringing their son, which can be seen in the apparent lack of close bonds in their family. The son’s desire to get closer to his mother, as well as her rejection of him, are especially evident.

Films of ecological values

During the festival there appeared a micro-trend which can be named the cinema of ecological values. The main representative is the movie Leave No Trace by Debra Granik (USA, 2018), who won the prize of the Fipresci Jury. The film’s story has been precisely composed, the film is very well acted, the relationship between the father and the daughter has been excellently presented. In the narrative there is a very simple and banal thesis, explained directly, that the western civilization constantly destroys nature; and therefore we should come back to the original forms of living, which did not produce so much rubbish and did not require so much energy. These are statements present in many similar ecological dramas rooted in the hippie tradition. The father emotionally terrorizes his daughter, imposing the extreme attitude of total self-sufficiency. The director stands by the daughter’s side and her right to freedom, endeavouring to convince viewers that moderation is what seems best.


After getting in touch with a village of campers and wooden huts, the daughter starts to struggle for freedom, for her right to her personal way of life but in the community of people living similar lives close to nature and sharing her views. She needs elementary sanitary conditions and support of others. The settlement in the mountains has been idealized in the film; its image is far from the reality. All the inhabitants are friendly, help each other, spend their time around the campfire playing the guitar, singing and listening to each other. Nobody is employed, nobody works, unless for pleasure or to save part of nature (a woman with bees). They need little but the money for shopping simply is there when it is needed, the same concerns the doctor: he is ready to help for free when he is necessary. This film is also a voice on the subject of the crisis of the contemporary family, since the presented family is untypical, without mother and both of its members are somehow sociopathic, because of their inability to conform to society.


Films whose form derives from the new media

Among interesting artistic phenomena that could be seen in the festival offer, it is worth paying attention to films whose form derives from the new media, especially from the Internet forms of communication. Profile by Timur Bekmambetov (USA/UK/Cyprus/Russia) is the example that attracts the viewers’ attention, although there is little footage realized in the traditional way. The majority of film scenes and sequences record screenshots that appear on the film screen simultaneously or successively so that a viewer is able to recreate a sequence of Internet posts or utterances of film characters who communicate by means of different Internet communicators, especially those offered by social media. It can be seen that this way of filming is extremely static and not very filmic. Nevertheless, the film story draws the viewers’ attention both to the new filmic form and to the increasing film drama from the very beginning until the ending thanks to the perfect editing, good script and excellent acting of the protagonists. The drama gains increasingly more interest because an important social problem is being imaged on screen. The addressed problem becomes more and more universal and common as it deals with the process of recruiting young girls from Western Europe by the ISIS. The starting point for the script was an actual situation of a female journalist’s provocation. It made it possible to reveal manipulative methods of the ISIS terrorists in the Western countries while recruiting young women and to get to know about the channels of transfer they use.

New media were also applied as a form of recording “the stream of life” by the filmmakers of the American independent movie Ultralow by Nicholas Gyeney (USA, 2018). There is nothing original in this film except for simple inserting of semi-documentary homemade footage in the tissue of the auto-thematic film about the financial struggle of a small group of independent film producers who wish to have a great film career without any deeper reason. What is more, the result is simply boring. During most of the film screening we see just “talking heads” drinking beer or something else but the content of their chats constantly repeats. Making movies seems to be in the protagonists’ lives only the way to achieve financial success. It is a paradox that inadvertently the film gained the ethical message on the cynicism of young artists and the harmfulness of the lack of artistic ambitions and having nothing to say to the audience.

The Audience Award

Much nicer are the protagonists of Heavy Trip by Juuso Laatio (Finland/Norway 2018), losers from a Finnish province, doing dull or off-putting jobs (as work in a butchery). Most of them are despised by other inhabitants of their village but they have their own passion – a heavy-metal band which is, in a way, a kind of psychotherapy – a means of responding to their stressful reality. They are also keen to succeed but they are determined, full of ideas, ready to sacrifice. First of all, they need fame and success to reverse the bad luck, to gain the public’s love and the respect of co-inhabitants of their village. Lastly, it is obvious that this is necessary for them to rebuilt self-esteem. Only the beginning of the way to success, which is a result of coincidence and misunderstanding, becomes the start of a transformation which is to bring the respect of the local community and help them recover their self-confidence. The sense of humour presented in the film is unceremonious, because grotesque is the main convention of the film as it is coherent with the extreme means of expression used by heavy metal musicians. The action is dynamic, the story well told (the screen well-constructed), the particular scenes and sequences end with a comical punch line. Obviously, the heavy metal concert show at the end, with its characteristic symbols abusive towards holy Christian symbols, is unacceptable, even if such stylistics have been taken here in quotation marks of humour and grotesque.


Family dramas

Two family dramas appear to be weaker. They focus on the situation of women, and in one of them, Wildlife by Paul Dano (USA 2018), a false drama has been constructed. A man who lost his job because he was too proud to accept one humiliating situation at work decides to do seasonal hard work far from his home and family to earn his living. His wife almost straightaway finds a substitute, although nothing forces her to do so. The husband’s return confirms the collapse of their marriage. The fact that parting is a test for the couple and their relationship could be a theme for an interesting analytical drama. Unfortunately, we cannot see a real drama or even an attempt to give rational or emotional reasons for the wife’s unethical attitude, especially with reference to her loyalty, the more so as we watch the situation from the perspective of a pubescent boy, the couple’s son.

The hero of the Hungarian movie One Day by Zsófia Szilágyi (Hungary 2018) is better presented. She is a typical “working woman” who has a job and simultaneously takes care of her three children. She is quite well-organized, but the situation in which her husband betrays her and expects her compassion in excess is beyond her. This case would be interesting as a story thread if we could know better the point of view of her husband and his state of mind in this overburdened relationship, as well as the mental condition and feelings of the woman. Yet the worst disadvantage of the film is the badly constructed narration of the film story. This is the reason why the story is perceived as if it was a recording from a CCTV camera. The viewer has no chance to identify with this woman, to understand her or to sympathize with her. The story is completely cold and neutral and as a viewer I am totally indifferent to the plot, which means the film has little chance to draw viewers’ attention to the problem which it should have illustrated.

The other side of the problem is delineated in the film Ray and Liz by Richard Billingham (UK 2018). It shows a young woman who lives on the dole. Liz carelessly spends her modest income and does not take care of her children. The film delineates a certain margin of social life and uses naturalistic and over-expressive filmic tools. It exhibits pathology and physiology in a close-up perspective, abuses ugliness in order to demonstrate such negatively perceived elements of reality as dirt, insects, vomits, leftovers, fatness, the physiological side of old age, etc. This is the way of presenting the reality which crosses not only the line of good taste but also of humanistic approach to human beings and their communities. Even if the motivation of the director was positive, the result is hard to accept.

A similar statement can be made about the well-advertised film U-July 22/Utøja 22. Juli  by Erik Poppe (Norway 2018), but I am not sure about the good intentions of the filmmakers who stage the massacre caused by Oskar Breivik in one 72-minute shot from the point of view of one of the victims – a teenage girl looking for her younger sister. They did it without any moral background, without mentioning responsibility of the murderer for that horrible crime. It is as if they followed the way of thinking of the murderer, who “wanted to see how it is.” Focusing on the semi-documentary recording of young people, mostly children and teens, when their life is threatened so that the viewer can be present in the place of event, similarly to TV broadcast, is an undertaking of questionable ethical judgement.

The most interesting film possible to have been seen in Miskolc that offers a deeper insight into family relationships, this time between a mother and her adult daughter, was a Chinese movie called Girls Always Happy by Yang MingMing (China 2018), although the relationship of the two characters seems to be an example of a pathological relationship resulting from some psychological disorder. It is a cruel game or war between them, but through sincere talks and common meals, it reveals also family bonds, yet built not only on love but also hate.

Personal impression

During the Miskolc Film Festival and after seeing 19 films in competition two or three tendencies were noticeable. The first one is a lack of a directly expressed spiritual sphere, or even more so religion, in the lives of contemporary people. More than satisfying for common viewers, the festival variety brings disappointment to a filmologist or a film critic looking in the cinema for spirituality and traces of transcendence, interested in filmmakers that follow the tradition of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovskiy, Ingmar Bergman, or Federico Fellini. Secondly, there were “substitute topics,” treated rather superficially: ecology and the social situation of women for whom family and family relationships are always a kind of burden. Thirdly, the festival presented topics of the crisis of family and consequences of this crisis, although they have been usually disguised somehow. I find the last point to be the main ethical and social problem perceptible in the films seen at the festival.