My girlfriend and I have this horrible joke that we tell each other after getting depressed by the very limited range of possibilities for cultural workers or indeed almost anyone in our Eastern European country. “At least there’s no risk of terrorism” is the one-liner we comfort ourselves with and while it is a bit tasteless, it does mark the general attitude towards the Western world – we have neither their advancements, nor their troubles. Even if the lines sometimes get blurred, we always know what the core Western values are and what the challenges ahead offer. As for the East, are we all doomed to face the same issues Ukraine has? Or is it just the emigration, the corruption and the prejudice? Who knows, the only thing for sure is that we are not the West.
The two competition programs of the Vilnius Film Festival aka Kino Pavasaris in Lithuania – New Europe – New Names, comprising best debut or second features and documentaries, and Baltic Gaze, featuring more established directors from the region – tackled the issue of Eastern European identity head-on. Sometimes it seemed intentional, sometimes less so, but the films on display offered nuanced interpretations that all felt connected in their quest to define how one deals with the past, present and future in a homeland that is not yet the first world and no longer the second.
On the One and the Many
Perhaps no film portrayed the social issues better than Šventasis (The Saint) from Lithuania. It takes us back to 2008, as the economic crisis reaches a provincial town. After getting fired from his position as a mechanic, Vytas (Marius Repšys) starts looking for a new job, but even if there were any positions available, his heart isn’t really in the process. Vytas much prefers sneaking away from his wife and daughters to chat with Marija (Gelminė Glemžaitė), a local hairdresser he fancies.
The director, Andrius Blaževičius, explained that it was only in post-production that the title was changed from “The Crisis”, and mostly due to the fact that it was decided that no sane person would pay his hard-earned money to see a movie called “The Crisis”. The original title is more appropriate though, as the film is dedicated to such a wide range of different catastrophes that you can’t help but feel it’s held together only by the countless ways everything is turning to shit. It’s not that a crisis of self-image, family, economy or even faith (in God, in the future, in anything) doesn’t reflect our eastern present, it’s just that not all of them seem to have been portrayed completely earnestly.
The funniest scene in the film, for example, involves a peculiar job interview with an older gentleman quoting Paulo Coelho, and works as part of the whole in about the same way a slapstick bit would work in The Godfather. The scene is as funny as one might hope from the premise, but on the whole, The Saint is quiet, and decidedly grey and empty. Including one over-the-top comedy character is following your writing, not controlling it. Similarly, the titular character, a local nut claiming to have seen Jesus, feels neither here nor there, and seems to exist within the story for the same reason he’s in the title – for there to be something, anything other than the bland nothingness of despair.
This, however, is the exception to the rule as for the most part The Saint uses cliché movie moments, contextualising them in a new, more relevant way. The screenwriters solve Vytas’ relationships with his two women without the use of dialogue in either of the scenes. And coming minutes after he explodes with violence (the only instance, but a brutal one) it feels very authentic in its portrayal of how people around these parts function – we don’t talk about feelings, even if we have to resort to punching because of it. To capture these nuances is to get to the very core of the locals and even when choosing a somewhat formulaic story, it still feels authentic. There are many of these small instances in The Saint – the devil is very much in the details and it’s the little things that make the whole endeavour feel like so much more than the story of a marginalised man.
Ostatnia Rodzina (The Last Family), from Poland, deals with similar issues while constructing a biography of an artist’s family: Zdzisław Beksiński (Andrzej Seweryn), a painter famous for his dystopian surrealism, his wife, Zofia (Aleksandra Konieczna), an amateur painter and the general glue-like personality of the family, and their son, Tomasz (Dawid Ogrodnik), a music critic, a translator and a depressed man above all else. They were a dysfunctional bunch to say the least and director Jan P. Matuszyński has recreated their conflicts without the overly sentimental and simplistic tendencies of most biographies.
Throughout the thirty-year long story we see glimpses of what can be considered a commentary on the Soviet system, with new apartment buildings seemingly never getting finished and elder relatives slowly and pointlessly dying out, but The Last Family is more philosophical than it is political. It’s a film about dealing with oneself and with those too different to connect with. It has long become a norm to point out how modern people are unable to connect with one another, and that idea indeed lingers around in the story, but Matuszyński goes much further, making such isolation from one another seem inevitable and, putting it in the simplest terms possible, not that big of a deal.
When at the slightest whiff of danger the father breaks the door of his son’s apartment, we empathise with him, but when in twenty years’ time, having survived Tomasz’s suicidal moods hundreds of times, he just walks away from an identical situation, we accept that, too. Matuszyński manages an incredibly difficult task – to portray depression and indifference with the sombre style that captures, but doesn’t judge or acquit. Thus, the fact that The Last Family was announced as the winner of the New Europe – New Names competition is neither surprising, nor undeserved.
In our world of safe spaces and triggered reactions (M)uchenik (The Student, based on the work of Marius von Mayenburg) from Russia feels like one of the more topical works. The film’s premise – what if someone used freedom of speech with such malevolence that he’d be able to become a totalitarian leader of thought – is tricky to pull off without sounding like Paul Ryan, and director Kirill Serebrennikov just about manages.
Like most stage-to-screen films this one uses the image merely to capture the words and as such feels much more like a filmed play than a legitimate arthouse film. As the story progresses, the twists and turns only prove what the initial fears might have been – there’s a reason most dramatic “everyone dies, marries or both” type of plays don’t translate to a much more realistic medium. However, at an idea level, The Student is as stimulating as one might hope any film to be. There’s a fine line between respecting a life choice and bowing down to whatever it wills, and the film, or rather, perhaps, the play, dances right on that line, never overstepping its mark and steering into conservatism, but extrapolating the weirdest of what our liberal culture brings us.
On the Historic Past and the Historic Present
Soviet-born Ukrainian citizen Vitaly Mansky starts his documentary Rodnye (Close Relations) with a conversation with his mother on the history of their family. The mother is adamant they’re Ukrainian, even though they don’t seem to have a drop of Ukrainian blood in them. They’re Lithuanian Poles who at some point became Ukrainians and then Soviet citizens. Or vice versa, who’s to say.
The extended family is scattered all throughout the country: Odessa, the separatist area in Donbass, Crimea. If it were a fictional movie, the viewer wouldn’t buy Mansky’s characters – it seems almost impossible that people from an almost identical background would interpret the world around them so differently. Putin is Hitler for some and Putin is God for others, with little to no reason or explanation, but always with the greatest conviction.
We’ve heard that truth is never white nor black a billion times before, but Mansky captures the exact opposite – the personal truth never falls in the grey area. The relatives in question are convinced without a shadow of a doubt, in some instances by things they know they’ve made up themselves, and the very notion of a rational discussion seems laughable. These are people with no historical backbone to rest on – their roots are Lithuanian and Polish, their past is Soviet and their present Ukrainian. In this mess who are they if not their own making, and wishing to simply belong to one of the conflicting sides, how can they not dedicate their entire essence to establish an immovable, irreplaceable nationality?
Close Relations is a documentation of one family’s identity, but it ends up as such a complex web that one can only sadly agree with the skeptical attitudes portrayed in it – as long as identity is that personal and that robust, we will cling to our beliefs more than we do to facts. Setting out to portray the different attitudes to the war in the Ukraine, Mansky captures the very formation of national identity that feels relevant and profound.
It’s a shame Moteris ir ledynas (Woman and the Glacier), a Lithuanian documentary so tedious and speculative even the English title is grammatically awkward, won the top Baltic Gaze prize over Close Relations, but a meaningless stream of slow-motion avalanches is indeed more comprehensible than a discussion on identity. The film by Audrius Stonys hardly feels worth a discussion: it’s an hour-long nature photo shoot that miserably fails to extract the least bit of information about the titular woman, or indeed of anything else, and should be re-edited into a pretty music video for an ageing indie band.
The historical Wołyń (Hatred) focuses on much the same Ukrainian region in a different, yet surprisingly similar context. In the years of World War II, the Volhynia region was part of Poland, even though a vast majority of its natives were Ukrainian. In 1943-44, under the Nazi occupation, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army murdered an estimated 80 to 100 thousand Poles in their fight for independence.
It’s a sign of our times that as soon as Hatred premiered, it was condemned and even banned in Ukraine on the count of it portraying a one-sided retelling of history. These claims seem nothing short of preposterous after seeing the film itself. Director Wojciech Smarzowski is so careful to convey both the inverse of the killings (Poles killing Ukrainians) and the wider political context in which they occurred, that I can recall only a handful of war movies less one-dimensional than Hatred.
Through one character, a young Pole named Zosia (Michalina Łabacz), Smarzowski tells the story of pride turning into hate and patriotism into xenophobia. Never has a 150-minute long historic film seemed more exhilarating – the deaths all come unexpectedly, but always make sense, the conflicts enrage, but can be traced back to their very inception. And when the slaughtering begins, one is so in tune with the context in which it springs, that the horrors seem not only justified, but necessary to tell the story truthfully. To use one’s right to being offended at Hatred is not only taking it very simplistically, it’s intentionally looking for things to get offended about, and seems somewhat offensive in itself.
On the Hopeless and the Hopeful
Of course, not all films at the festival were philosophical inquiries into identity. The French have their romantic comedies, so clichéd you know the ending before you even sit down, and we have our social government critiques, just as predictable and not nearly as funny. They’re more boring to watch than the new Transformers, and while the cause behind them seems important, they themselves do not. Any social critique is only valuable if there’s at least a whiff of freshness to it. And these films, all on the hopelessness of fighting the system, have none.
The Serbian Rekvijem za gospodju J. (Requiem for Mrs. J, Bojan Vuletić), the Romanian Caîni (Dogs, Bogdan Mirică) and the Bulgarian Slava (Glory, Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov) all have the exact same comments, storylines and conflicts. All three tell the tale of an honest person facing a dishonest system. The protagonist must always be a man or a woman of few words, explain the issue concerning him/her to a stream of uninterested and distant supporting cast members and, most importantly of all, face a violent ending, either killing, dying or at the very least witnessing death. It must always be a slow-burner (ideally so slow one falls into a meditative trance), but with some dark humour to it, because the satire tag is so much more appealing than the social critique one.
Lastly, we need to talk about Agnieszka Holland. Her Silver Bear-winning Spokot (Spoor) is the biggest name and the most ambitious project in the competition programs. Holland tries to make a completely new type of thriller and point out every possible social problem whilst at it. As ever with quests that ambitious, it falls flat on its stomach, and leaves one to laugh in the sort of pitying way an artist never strives for.
Janina (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka) is a semi-retired teacher living in a small village in Poland. Murders start happening. She’s connected in a way that would be predictable if it was less stupid. There is also a wide variety of sidekicks, all in the race for worst written character in recent memory, and at times you start wondering if this is, in fact, a parody of the genre. How else should one interpret those playing-in-the-snow montages or the hacker who turns the whole town’s electricity off with about two seconds of keyboard bashing?
But if that’s the case, the very backbone of the film would have to be ironic too, right? It very clearly isn’t, and Spoor makes an obvious statement both on cinema and on the world we live in – a statement that, like, say, all men are born equal, shouldn’t really be proven via parody elements. While one must admire the initiative of redefining the thriller genre, Holland’s latest falls under one of two categories: it’s either part unintentionally laughable, or part ironic, part serious. Either way, it’s a failure of colossal proportions.
The two competition programs at the Vilnius Film Festival didn’t offer any ground-breaking Eastern European perspectives in film. But they did gather work that captured the current mood, struggle and issues of the region. The social dramas, satirical looks and provocative historical thrillers all explored the issues that matter here and now, from corruption to nationalism, from PC culture to Crimea. The stale outweighed the original, as ever, but when discussing the cultural background, the cliché is as telling as an experiment, if not more so. These were movies true to the region and the attitudes in it. For better or for worse.
Vilnius International Film Festival
23 March – 6 April 2017
Festival website: http://kinopavasaris.lt/en/about-festival