To a Dog you're the World, to your Girlfriend you're never Sure

By John Gorick

time-to-die-dorota-kedzierzaska.jpgTime to Die, 2007

The Trieste Film Festival is one of the premier events for Central, Eastern and Balkan cinema and offers a rare insight into the developments within the film industry from those regions. As films begin gradually to find an audience in the “old” Europe and beyond, European production companies such as Canal+ and ZDF are starting to put their financial weight behind projects hitherto only funded by government departments or culture quangos. The results are higher production values and more marketable films; but sometimes less risk-taking and more formula-driven scriptwriting and direction. The advantage of the Trieste Film festival is that you still get a heady mix of everything.

Polish films shown at this year’s festival, winning both the jury’s award and the popular public prize. The festival jury picked out Plac Zbawicela (Savior’s Square, 2006), directed by Krysztof Krauze and Joanna Kos-Krauze. An intensely gruelling domestic drama it tells the story of one family’s descent into hell after they lose all their money when a property developer goes bankrupt. They’ve already moved in with their mother-in-law, thinking that soon they’ll be moving into their shiny new condo on the outskirts of Warsaw. But the money they invested has been lost and the pressures of living with the mother-in-law are too much for wife, Beata (Jowita Budnik). Struggling to cope with raising two children with no money under the nose of her husband’s impatient mother she cracks up and things go from bad to worse, as her husband then runs off with another woman. It’s difficult to see where the blame really lies, as no-one is faultless or heroic. This is the film’s real strength – it’s unwillingness to take sides. The script was developed by both the directors and the three main actors and is very powerful. But it’s grim, very grim.

More appealing to the general viewing public was Pora Umeriać (Time to Die, 2007), directed by Dorota Kędzierzaska. It stars (and was written for) Danuta Szaflarska, one of the most famous Polish actresses of the 20th century, now in her 90s. She is tremendous as an old lady, Aniela, living in her dilapidated yet still beautiful house, alone except for her dog. Not much happens but Szaflarska brilliantly evokes a long life lived within the confines of one building under very different systems of government and of a woman having to come to terms with what her legacy will be. Director of Photography, Arthur Reinhart uses the actual, old glass of the building to create misty flashbacks of years gone by. It’s a simple, cheaply made film carried by a single superb actress and directed with great sensitivity. Unusually for an East European film it manages to be both uplifting and profound.

The two Czech films in competition both seemed quite slick and clearly were aimed at a television rather than a cinema audience. Jan Svěrák’s Vratné Lahve (Empties, 2007) was scripted by and stars his father, Zdenek Svěrák. (The same combination was responsible for the Academy-award-winning Kolja in 1996.) It’s an amusing story about a retired teacher not really wanting to grow old quietly and endangering his marriage in the process, but really serves as a vehicle for Zdenek Svěrák’s comic persona as the playful and energetic former teacher. It’s enjoyable but feels a bit like a Sunday night TV movie.

iskas-journey-csaba-bollok.jpgIska's Journey, 2007

Pravidla Lži (Rules of Lies, 2006) from Robert Sedlácek is somewhat more gritty. It’s a thriller set in a therapeutic community for drug addicts (“We’re here because there’s nowhere we can escape ourselves”) in the Czech mountains. Each has to come to terms with their past as they strive to determine which one of them may or may not have killed one other drug addict. The acting is excellent and there’s plenty of tension but flashbacks are used to fill in the gaps in the storyline and it all feels a bit contrived. There’s also a disappointingly bathetic “Where are they now?” – type ending; but again, it would make a pleasing TV drama on Channel 4 perhaps.

A more powerful film came from Hungary. Iszka Utazása (Iska’s Journey, 2007) tells the story of the eponymous Iska, a 12-year-old girl from a very poor family, growing up in one of the grimiest corner’s of Eastern Europe, a coal-mining town in the Southern Carpathians. She earns a living recycling scrap metal from an old rubbish dump but all that money has to go back to her alcoholic parents for schnapps. She and her sickly sister end up in an institution for runaway children and her mother comes back to claim her but then leaves the sickly sister behind as she’s too much of a burden. Iska goes on the run with a young male friend from the institution but is then picked by two guys who are evidently human (sex) traffickers. She thinks that they might take her on a “luxury liner” to Spain, where she thinks her real father now lives, but she and a group of other young women are being shipped across the Black Sea to Turkey. The film ends with her witnessing the rape of one of the other women signalling the effective end of Iska’s childhood. It may sound very depressing but director Csaba Bollók’s ability to present the film entirely from Iska’s perspective makes for a moving and touching story. He’s helped by the perfect casting of Mária Varga as Iska. (Bollók actually found Varga scouring for scrap metal in a town very much like the one in the film). On the surface she seems naughty and insolent but we also see her tender side as she gives one of the (female) doctors at the institution a head massage and compares herself unfavourably to a beer bottle with a deposit on it: “How much money did you get for me? Am I worth less than a bottle?” Though she never cries in the film we see the reflection of rainfall crossing her face. Her sadness is all internalised and is counteracted by her otherwise positive attitude. The camerawork of Francisco Gózon is excellent throughout and the film is a great example of a single director’s vision of a story rather than the hybrid production of various funding bodies.

In a similar vein Ulrich Seidl’s Import Export is clearly a singular film of the director’s own making. Two lives are presented as mirror images of one another. Olga, an attractive young woman from the Ukraine, is a single mother working as a nurse. She wants her life to change and needs money. At first, she tries working in the online porn industry but that’s not for her. So she goes to Austria, finds work as an au pair, is sacked and then works in an old people’s home where she finds a kind of peace. Paul is a macho young man living with his mother and stepfather in Austria. He has debts and takes on a job as a security guard, but is humiliated by a gang of Turkish-Austrian youths and loses the job. His stepfather decides to take him on a road trip to Ukraine to set up some old-fashioned gambling machines there. The repellently chauvinistic stepfather is intent on getting Paul laid, preferably at the same time as himself. Paul doesn’t want that and just seeks “harmony” with the world around him.

import-export-ulrich-seidl.jpg Import/Export, 2007

Thankfully there is no attempt to merge the two storylines. But both present an interesting portrait of two young people trying to find a constructive way forward in a cynical and aggressive world that seems to have it in for them. Seidl’s eye for the visually ridiculous brings a lot of humour to the film, be it a row of trainee cleaners all dressed in bright green practising floor polishing; or the ludicrous nature of physical training for security work. The film is perhaps a little gratuitously sexually graphic in places but even then Seidl can make us laugh by showing Ukrainian girls struggling learn the right German words for over-the-internet dirty talk. The film is an excellent examination of two young people trying to find their humanity within the vast ocean of seamy human behaviour. Whereas other characters abuse the foreign and alien, the two protagonists simply try to get on with those they meet. What makes this particularly interesting is that Seidl chooses two quite unlikely protagonists for this show of quiet decency. The acting is very good throughout with a special mention for Michael Thomas as the repulsive stepfather.

Other films in the Feature Competition struggled to get beyond the formulaic or the completely implausible; but this festival consistently picks out a few gems from an area of the cinematic world that is just beginning to be discovered anew. As if to prove this the festival was opened by a special screening of the latest film from the Czech director Jiří Menzel, Obsluhoval Jsem Anglického Krále (I Served the King of England, 2006). Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal, it has nothing to do with the British royal family but is the story of the rise and fall of Jan Dite, an apprentice waiter, in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. It’s all filmed in a very burlesque style by Menzel and is all the better for it. It shows a director at the peak of his game and the lead actor, Ivan Barnev, is also superb, exhibiting comic physical acting worthy of the silent film greats. The film is funny and moving but also manages not to skirt over the difficult political issues of the time, such as the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. This film may have been very well funded, but the style is still utterly distinctive.

John Gorick is an actor, freelance journalist and Japanese translator living in London