Midway through my second year at the Odesa International Film Festival (OIFF), a curious feeling began to emerge from my screenings. To the extent that films festivals can hope to sponge up something of the mood of their times, the atmosphere that permeated the most interesting things I saw at OIFF was, quite fittingly in 2019, one of acrid anger and despair. Nestled along the shores of the Black Sea, replete with stunning 19th century Italianate architecture and immortalised on celluloid by Sergei Eisenstein in his 1925 Battleship Potemkin, Odesa hosted OIFF’s 10th edition earlier this July. A relatively new addition to the European festival circuit, the short history of OIFF has grown indissolubly tied to the conflict that sprawled East of the port city just a few years back. In the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Russian masked troops invaded Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, a military coup that culminated with Russia’s annexation of the region. Now a couple of months after my trip to the Ukraine, and five years since the conflict broke out, the dispute has moved to the European Court of Human Rights, where the Ukraine is denouncing the atrocities Moscow allegedly perpetrated during and after the 2014 crisis.
So close is Crimea to Odesa that if you squint hard and the night sky is clear enough, you can watch the peninsula’s lights shimmer across the Black Sea. And if film festivals can often be blamed for some dangerous solipsism, lulling attendees in ivory towers that remain somewhat insulated from the world at large, nothing could be farther from the truth in a city just a few hundred kilometres away from a region still grappling with fierce intramural tensions. In 2014, OIFF’s fifth edition almost did not happen. Scheduled just four months after Crimea’s annexation, and two after Odesa witnessed the death of 43 pro-Russian activists in a fire started in mysterious circumstances, then-international Jury President Peter Webber wondered if it made sense to organise a cinematic “feast among famine”, a doubt that grew more acute after a couple of explosions hit Odesa and flight MH17 was shot down during the extravaganza.
To its credit, OIFF never turned a blind eye on the crisis, and the latter has long served as the festival’s omnipresent leitmotiv. In 2018, my first trip to Odesa, OIFF brought home Sergei Loznitsa’s Cannes prize-winner Donbass; watching the large portmanteau of the war-torn Ukrainian region a few years and few miles away from the conflict’s epicentre, surrounded by an audience to whom that war still rang close, ranks among my most visceral moviegoing experiences. Portraits of and footage by Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov – arrested by Russian authorities at his home in Crimea in May 2014 and sentenced to 20 years in prison on trumped up terrorist charges – would predate all screenings I attended at OIFF (as I type these words, festival and country can finally celebrate Sentsov’s freedom, as the cineaste was released in a prisoner exchange earlier this month).
Beyond its militancy and keen eye for domestic politics, the festival has proved pivotal in revitalising national cinema, boasting competitive sections devoted to Ukrainian features and shorts. And while my schedule this year offered few options from either program, the 10th OIFF allowed ample time to catch up with works imported from other fests across the continent, old and recent. If not a dissection of Ukraine’s present-day ills, my second trip to Odesa painted a larger canvas that captured much of our pestilent zeitgeist. Curiously, that canvas began with a film from seven years ago.
The Winter of our Discontent: Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth’s The Fifth Season
Having shared with co-director and wife Jessica Woodworth OIFF’s top Duke award in 2017 for their dark comedy King of the Belgians, Peter Brosens returned to Odesa to helm the edition’s international competition jury. And with a Special Screening sidebar essentially designed to showcase old works from the festival’s illustrious guests (this year featuring the likes of Ken Loach and Sergei Loznitsa, among others), Odesa used the opportunity to dust off a doomsday drama Brosens and Woodworth world premiered in Venice in 2012, La Cinquième Saison (The Fifth Season). It’s the globetrotting directing duo’s third feature together. In Khadak (2006), Brosens and Woodworth trailed behind an epileptic Mongolian sheepherder grappling with an animal plague; in Altiplano (2009), they moved to Peru’s Andes, fumbling after a couple of westerners caught up in a campesino upheaval triggered by a mercury spill from a local mine. The Fifth Season brings the action closer to home, as the apocalypse unfolds in an unidentified Francophone village in the middle of the Belgian Ardennes. “Broadly speaking,” Brosens told the audience of OIFF’s Rodina theatre, “this is a trilogy about the violence of mankind against nature.” But in Brosens and Woodworth’s cinematic universe, mankind’s violence exists in a dialectic relationship with nature’s vengeance. In Khadak, the animal plague threatened to wipe off nomadism and the shepherds’ community; in Altiplano, the mercury leak blinded the campesino populace. The Fifth Season follows the same dynamic, but in the trilogy’s last chapter, the apocalypse takes on a far larger scope.
Shot in Hans Bruch Jr.’s fittingly glacial, tin-tinged palette, The Fifth Season opens in a farming village in the proverbial middle of nowhere – a remote, insular universe that straddles past and future. Save for a couple of tractors and a few other modern-day vehicles, Igor Gabriel’s minimalist production design gives the whole setting a temporal ambiguity that grows eerier as the doom approaches. Winter’s coming to an end, or so it should. As the village braces for a traditional end-of-winter festivity, the townspeople gather around a bonfire that will usher in the new season. Except the pile of wood and the straw man towering above it, much to the folks’ surprise, won’t ignite. It’s the first in a long series of inexplicable events that lock the community in a protracted winter, as nature mysteriously refuses to follow its course. Seasonal title cards notwithstanding, time stalls in a glacial impasse: seeds refuse to sprout, cows stop giving milk, and the bees – looked after by a local philosopher-cum-apiculturist and his disabled son – die in their hives. Pointedly, Brosens and Woodworth (in writers-directors double shift) are not so much interested in the nitty gritty of the environmental Armageddon, but on the consequences it bears on the community’s social fabric. Faced with food shortages and few hopes to survive, the village succumbs to a fratricidal war, as people turn against each other, fighting to pull through with any means necessary.
“The film is a sensorial experience,” Brosens had boasted minutes ahead of the screening, and sure enough, The Fifth Season thrives on its stunning visuals. Each shot is here gorgeously studied and impeccably composed, a parade of lyrical images that sends one’s eyes agog. But all that beauty is also the film’s curse. For Hans Bruch Jr.’s images do not add up to a satisfying whole; if anything, that hyper-studied composition detracts from emotional oomph and rebuffs emotion. Even as things in the village get ugly, even as people plunge into an abyss of moral decay, all the violence always retains a certain theatricality, a cerebral attention to detail that pushes away when it should draw closer. Scraped of its gorgeous make-up, The Fifth Season can hardly stir pathos from a script replete with oft-abused tropes (the dichotomy mob vs Other, here pivoting on the village turning against the disabled child and his benevolent father), generic symbolism (a beheaded rooster, a tractor spinning on itself to echo an eternal loop, a mob wearing long nosed Venetian-style masks) and unnervingly self-serious dialogues (“Solidarity is ephemeral and charity is no good” croaks a farmer, with the beekeeper quoting Nietzsche’s aphorisms minutes after). The result is a parade of wonderfully crafted tableaux that remain somewhat emotionally sterile – a joy for the eye, to be sure, but one that’s ultimately as glacial and detached as the world it captures.
Hell is Empty: Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole
Having spent a good hour and a half caged in Brosens and Woodworth’s wintry purgatory, it felt great to leave the Rodina theatre to bask in the lush vermilions and emeralds glowing all through Dylda (Beanpole). Ostensibly born with the ambition to serve as the “Cannes of Eastern Europe”, OIFF certainly does import many a gem from its French cousin, granting Ukrainian audiences access to films that would seldom make it onto the country’s silver screens, and festival circuit regulars an opportunity to catch up with stuff missed at previous fests. And so I did with Kantemir Balagov’s enthralling sophomore feature, which bowed in Cannes’s Un Certain Regard earlier this year, leaving the sidebar with an award for best directing.
A follow up to the 28 year-old Russian’s 2017 Tesnota (Closeness), Beanpole is as visually gorgeous as it is emotionally devastating. It unfolds in a moribund post-WWII Leningrad (present-day St Petersburg), a few months after one of the longest sieges in history claimed over 4 million casualties among Nazi forces, Red Army troops, and city residents. Eponymous Beanpole is Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a twenty-something almost unnaturally tall and cherubic former soldier suffering from a post-concussion syndrome that sends her into epileptic fits. Relieved from her frontline duties and recruited as nurse in one of the city’s overcrowded hospitals, she spends her days tending to shell-shocked comrades and looking after the little son of her best friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), while the young woman is busy on the front. The war ends; multi-medalled Masha returns home, but not before one of Iya’s epileptic crises accidentally kills the child – a sentence the war-battered mother registers with disarming matter-of-factness. A shrapnel wound made her infertile, but only swelled her urge to have “another human inside [her]… a child to hold onto.” Iya has killed her son, Iya will have to birth her another one in return.
Where The Fifth Season conjured a fictional apocalypse – however fictional a climatic catastrophe of its kind can be in 2019 – Beanpole bleeds with the vividness of a real-life tragedy. Leningrad’s 872-day siege left over a million civilian victims, most of whom died of starvation; as an ultimate means of survival, thousands of others resorted to cannibalism. The war is over, and the wrecked city should ostensibly celebrate its heroic survivors, but in Balagov’s brutal drama, fanfares ring out of place. In a pivotal early juncture, a party spokesperson pays a visit to the hospital to hand out some food rations to injured veterans, but her gratitude is met with a sarcastic applause. Much like Brosens and Woodworth’s village, this is a world trapped in a putrescent, protracted decay – a perfectly still wasteland devoid of life and spinning in an eternal loop, where even the sound of a ticking clock accrues a grimly ironic echo. “There is nothing left inside you to beget life,” hospital administrator Nikolay (Andrey Bykov) tells Masha, though the sentence could very well extend to the city as a whole. In a world undergirded by almost unspeakable devastation and horror, where people throw themselves under trams and veterans beg to be euthanised, laughs feel out of place; when an ecstatic Masha tells Iya she’s “sorry to be so happy,” while ebullient at the thought her friend may be pregnant with the new baby she owes her, the apology feels devastatingly genuine.
That war is a dehumanising, soul-shattering cancer is hardly a novel point to raise, and yet Beanpole shimmers with the glow of an uncharted territory. Shot by Ksenia Sereda, graced with Olga Smirnova’s period-faithful costumes, and wrapped together by Sergey Ivanov’s impeccable design, the world Iya and Masha fumble into is one of lush colours and exquisite textures – from the girls’ dresses to the interiors of the apartments they share, the windows draped in long, top to bottom curtains, and brass bed frames, and cast-iron fireplaces. Balagov’s is a stunning film, but its beauty is sick. Everything from the flat’s chipped wallpapers to a splash of paint suggests an agonising world that’s only just started to reckon with the war’s traumas. Even the sun that beams into the hospital wards feels almost unnaturally yellow, a radioactive, moribund light sending out its last flashes before fading into perpetual darkness. And yet, for all its bleakness, there are moments when Beanpole shows a certain affection for its deranged, broken heroines. Unlikely as it may sound, Balagov’s is also a love story – a desperate one consumed in the searching glances exchanged by Miroshnichenko and Perelygina, and restituted in all its tragic splendour by Balagov’s hyper-close ups and long takes. In a film replete with standout scenes, the moment Masha tries on a gorgeous emerald gown and twirls into Iya’s epileptic embrace may well what comes closest to encapsulating Beanpole’s lacerating beauty.
All the Devils are Here: Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite
While not an apocalypse tout-court, Bong Joon-ho’s superb Parasite reeked of a similar stench of decay. Much like Beanpole, a series of unfortunate screenings clashes meant I could not catch it in Cannes – where it went on to win the Palm d’Or, the first Korean film in the fest’s 72 editions – so I was grateful OIFF could show it to a full house in the iconic 1,200-plus-seat Festival Palace theatre. As if to resume the critique of socio-economic disparities underscoring two of last year’s greatest offerings (and Cannes prizewinners), Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palm d’Or Manbiki Kazoku (Shoplifters) and Lee Chang-Dong’s Beoning (Burning), Parasite delves into class struggle through the darkly comic prism of a poor family doing all they can to ingratiate and infiltrate their better-off doubles.
Meet the Kims: marooned in a crammed basement with no reception and a small strip of street-level windows against which passersby either piss or vomit, unemployed father Ki-taek and mother Chung-soon (Bong regular lead Song Kang-ho, and Chang Hyae-jin) live in close quarters with their college-age son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam). But university is a chimera for both: chronically cash-strapped, the family has barely enough money to survive, and must work all sorts of menial jobs to drum up some cash. Until the deus ex machina: a friend moves abroad, and gives the son a chance to bluff his way into an elite family, and serve as their daughter’s private tutor. Meet the Parks: affluent architect father Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun, as seen in Hong Sang-soo’s Oki’s Movie and Our Sunhi), hypochondriac and hyper-controlling mother Yeon-kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong), teenage daughter Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), and primary schooler Da-song (Jung Hyun-jun). They live in an architectural orgasm of a house: a plush mansion cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (who shot Burning and Bong’s 2013 Snowpiercer) dollies in and out of its all open floor design, a miracle of window walls and wooden floors. The two families are essentially specular, one the affluent copy of the other, and it doesn’t take long for the Kims to infiltrate the Parks, supplanting the in-house staff through a series of comic and brutal escamotages. But just as easily as they can replace others, their newly acquired position is susceptible to the same dangers. Bong’s is a zero-sum parasitic game: for every person stepping up the ladder, others lurk in the darkness, plotting the same.
As a parable of haves and have-nots, Parasite is a tale of dichotomies. Lee Ha-jun’s production design heightens the socio-economic disparities of the two households by concocting two diametrically opposed abodes: the Kims’ derelict and subterranean cave-like home versus the Parks’ luminous villa (pointedly, the light is a privilege for the rich alone). Yet Parasite never simplistically pigeonholes either family into moral categories. The poor are not the heroes, nor are the rich the villains: for every moment in which the script (co-authored by Bong and Han Jin-won) stirs contempt for Parks’ odious sense of entitlement, there’s another in which the Kims’ ascent along the ladder takes on a horrid, spiteful shadow. And this may well be Parasite’s crowning glory: oscillating between irony and tragedy, stirring as many chuckles as it prompts spine-tingling moments, Bong’s is a guttural, darkly humorous howl at a system reasserting its foot-on-throat dominance over those forced to the periphery. In the predatory, all-against-all world its characters are mired in, the single most illuminating statement may well be uttered by the Kims, whose Ki-jung reproaches her father for feeling guilty about the demise they brought on the Parks’ former staff: “focus on us,” she hisses. There is no space for pan-proletarian empathy – or pan-parasitic solidarity, if you will. Echoing another title from Cannes this year, Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, this is a dissection of capitalism at its most execrable, inhumane lows – a machine where the best the poorest can aspire to is some leeching, and flickering, short-lived mirages of respite.
Bong’s Palm d’Or was my last OIFF screening. As I stepped outside the Festival Palace, my mind jolted back to the deranged characters dotting Brosens and Woodworth’s wintry nightmare, and those careening through Balagov’s post-siege Leningrad. With the benefit of a few weeks’ time since my flight home from the Ukraine, these three films, the most singular I saw at OIFF, have lodged themselves in my memory as an unlikely triptych, a trilogy about mankind’s barbarisation understood through the prism of a climate catastrophe, a war, and a soul-shattering capitalist nightmare. That the overall picture they patched together registered so timely is further evidence of OIFF’s ability to stay attuned to the world at large, and to the Crimean conflict in particular – an unresolved crisis that continues to hover above the festival, and will do so for the next foreseeable future. Small and young as it may be, OIFF’s should not only take pride for nurturing the country’s cinematic output, but for shedding light on the conflict’s legacy, and the malaises plaguing the world beyond it.
Odesa International Film Festival
12–20 July 2019
Festival website: https://oiff.com.ua/en