Through a Painful Lens

Observations on the Competition Films in Cottbus 2018

This is the third time that I have had the pleasure of representing INTERFILM on an Ecumenical Jury, following Locarno in 2000 and Karlovy Vary in 2005. Cottbus was a film festival like no other because its focus and remit is on Eastern European cinema, and I was struck during the five days that the festival, now in its 28th year, ran, just how limited, and limiting, so much of my usual film-going experiences are compared to the challenging and poignant fare that is being made, often on a shoestring budget and without any guarantees of commercial distribution, in the former Communist countries.

Many of the films dealt with the trauma of life under a very different political system, as we saw with The Delegation (Delegacioni, dir. Bujar Alimani, Albania, France, Greece, Kosovo, 2018), which focused on an Albanian political prisoner being brought back to Tirana in 1990 in order to give evidence against the former regime, but in which he never reaches that destination. Throughout all of the films in competition was the question of whether, both as individuals and as a nation, the correct path has been taken, and whether there might be opportunities to move on and, even, redeem the past.

One of the most harrowing films we watched to this end was The Load (Teret, dir. Ognjen Glavonić, Serbia, France, Croatia, Iran, Qatar, 2018) which presented a Serbian truck driver carrying in the back of his lorry a mysterious cargo from Kosovo to Belgrade in the 1990s. When we discover that the load might consist of the remains of children massacred during the Serbian war we see how hard it is for the protagonist to return to his own family for whom he has been a largely absent and silent figure (they have no idea how he makes his living). In protecting his wife and a son who barely recognize him we were put into the position of asking whether any sacrifice is too great to bear when one’s family is not just compromised but estranged from the difficult responsibilities – indeed, the ‘load’ – that we must sometimes carry.

Multi-cultural and multi-faith perspectives were in the frame throughout the festival, as evinced by Rejected (Otvergnutye, dir. Zhanna Issabayeva, Kazakhstan, 2018), which looked at issues around family honour in Kazakhstan where a young woman gives birth outside of marriage and is both ostracized and beaten by her brother (in the presence of her young son). In action films like Die Hard (dir. John McTiernan, 1988) we are used to the hero being beaten to a pulp and pushed to the limit, from which he will always return. Here, in marked contrast, the female protagonist is assaulted and she goes back for more – and ends up dying of a broken skull. There was a tenacity on display, but there was no room in the culture delineated here of even an incipient feminist consciousness and the film presented us challenged us to see the world through a very different, and painful, lens.

We were also brow-beaten by Jumpman (Podbrosy, dir. Ivan I. Tverdovskiy, Russia, Ireland, France, Lithunania, 2018), during the screening for which there were many young people present, and the filmmakers themselves represented a younger demographic. Our senses were assaulted with an amoral, but compulsive, delineation of a teenager who jumps in front of cars when they are passing at speed and manages to survive what should be life-threatening injuries as part of a financial scam that extends to the police and judiciary.

Another film, Via Carpatia (dir. Kasper Bajon & Klara Kochanska, Poland, Czech Republic, Macedonia, 2018), wrestled with the contemporary refugee crisis as a Polish couple go in search of the husband’s father who it turns out is in a refugee camp in Macedonia. Again, we were not afforded the luxury of a ‘happy ending’ and this had the effect of inviting us, the audience, to ask ourselves how we too might respond when faced with a crisis outside of our control and the extent to which we might be prepared to extricate ourselves from our cosy and familiar lives and take a risk that leads us not just outside of our comfort zones but could put our safety and security at risk.

By contrast, Crystal Swan (Khrustal, dir. Darya Zhuk, Belarus, Germany, USA, Russia, 2018) was a breath of fresh air as we got caught up in the life of a young DJ in Belarus in 1996 who creates a fake story in order to convince the authorities to let her enter into the United States so that she can participate in the Chicago house music scene. She doesn’t quite reach her destination but embarks on a new one after getting embroiled in the lives of the family whose telephone number she gives out in lieu of her own for the visa authorities to ring, and tries to persuade them to disseminate her lie. She realizes that the price isn’t worth it. After an outstanding opening, the film took a different direction, literally and metaphorically, to the one we were expecting, and, as with Via Carpatia, the question arose as to what happens when someone sets out on a journey but ends up following a different path to the one in which they have invested their hopes and staked their personal and financial security.

We were also taken on an unexpected path when we watched Take It Or Leave It (Võta või jäta, dir. Liina Trishkina-Vanhatalo, Estonia, 2018), a very moving film about a young man in Estonia who discovers that his ex-girlfriend has just given birth to his child. She doesn’t want to keep the baby and wants her to be adopted but he takes the child on and we see his transformation from angry, vicious thug to doting father. But then the mother decides three years later that she wants custody after all. Although it bears more than a passing resemblance to Kramer vs. Kramer (dir. Robert Benton, 1979) the film then presents us with the unexpected twist that maybe he isn’t the father after all. In Estonian law only biological parents have rights when it comes to their children and the film invited questions as to the nature of parenthood and how best to protect the interests of the children over whom we have jurisdiction and responsibility.

Together with the other members of the jury – Barbara Schantz-Derboven, Gunther Weyrich and our Ecumenical Jury President Guido Convents – I watched a dozen competition films after which, in a sealed room, we adjudicated on the film that warranted our prize. The criteria was that we should honour a film of (i) high artistic quality, which lends expression to (ii) a human viewpoint or which stimulates debate, and either raises audience consciousness of the transcendent dimensions of life or portrays values in the spirit of the Gospel, and to (iii) Christian responsibility and human progress, such as in terms of respect for human dignity and human rights, liberation, justice, peace and reconciliation, and solidarity with minorities, the disadvantaged and oppressed, and (iv) have a universal impact.

Out of such tough competition the film to which we awarded our Ecumenical Jury prize was a Russian picture called Ayka (dir. Sergey Dvortsevoy, Russia, Germany, Poland, Kazakhstan, China, 2018). In an unconventional, kinetic and visceral style of filmmaking the director, Sergey Dvortsevoy – his first film in 10 years – brought us the story of a Kyrgyz migrant worker, Ayka, in Moscow. It was a hard-hitting film. But, in depicting the exploitation and hardship of illegal migrants we applauded the film for giving a face to the faceless, and we felt that the audience was challenged to discover the sufferings of the marginalized. We were delighted when the main Festival Jury also awarded its prize to Ayka. At the ceremony to close the festival on the night of Saturday 10 November the main prize was awarded to Ayka for the way it managed to surmount the borders between fiction and real life and to open our eyes to the struggle of economic migrants, which was identified as the global challenge of our times.

Cottbus was a challenging but paradoxically uplifting occasion which helped us see that cinema can be a force for change, and for overcoming the barriers that lead to prejudice and oppression, as well as having the capacity to titillate, excite and enthral. Cottbus is one of the most important and distinctive European film festivals and is living proof, now well into its third decade, that cinema can not only entertain the world. It can transform it also.