Fresh Air in Ukraine

By Steven Yates

fresh-air-agnes-kocsis-.jpgFresh Air, 2006

The recent Kiev Film Festival had an excellent main competition that showcased some of the best new talent in European Cinema. These films included Euphoria (Eyforia) by Russian director Ivan Vyrypayev; The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), an accomplished first film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; and 12:08 East of Bucharest by Corneliu Porumboiu. The competition also included all four films short-listed in the category European Discovery, presented to a young and upcoming director for a first full-length feature film at the 2006 European Film awards. The four films are: 13 (Tzameti) by Gela Babluani, France/Georgia; Fresh Air (Friss Levegö) by Agnes Kocsis of Hungary; Retrieval (Zodzysku) by Slawomir Fabicki, Poland (though scheduled in the competition program, it was not screened at Kiev); and Pingpong by Matthias Luthardt, Germany.

Fresh Air is the first feature by Ágnes Kocsis following her previous short film 18 Pictures from the Life of a Conserve Factory Girl which has won awards and been highly acclaimed. With such a promise of talent, the true test of her aptitude was whether she could make the transition into engaging feature-length films. The casting process was an initial problem as Izabella Hegyi had never acted before and was studying fashion when Ágnes Kocsis saw her sitting alone in the corner of a classroom after previously being unable to cast anyone suitable from 2,000 girls. Fresh Air was co-written and directed with Andrea Roberti, who had previously worked on her short films. It won the Best First Film at the Hungarian Film Week this year and recently won the FIPRESCI prize in Warsaw so couldn’t be awarded in the same section in Kiev (that prize going to Euphoria by Ivan Vyrypayev). It also played in competition in Cannes, Karlovy Vary’s Critics Choice, and more recently the London Film Festival.

Fresh Air tells the story of Viola (Julia Nyako) and her daughter Angela (Izabella Hegyi) who are living in a flat on a Hungarian council estate. Both of them are alone and frustrated and do not communicate apart from when they join each other on the couch to watch their favourite soap opera. They are also both dedicated to keeping the flat clean and fresh while looking for a certain escape from their daily routines. Viola works as a bathroom attendant and is searching unsuccessfully for a new man while Angela is studying to be a fashion designer. Also, Viola is often surrounded by the colour red and Angela the colour green, thus conveying their emotional detachment.

fresh-air-agnes-kocsis-2.jpgFresh Air, 2006

The film subverts traditional narrative structure because we are often surprised at where the story is taking us. For example, in the opening sequence Viola is at a ballroom dance class, one of her failed attempts at meeting someone special, and it is clear she is not enjoying herself. One of the other students walks her home and then admits he wants to be her full-time companion. She spurns his advances but, instead of the dancing class playing a significant role, we never see this or the man in the film again. The equilibrium is not broken until near the end, although there has been a somewhat precarious stability up to this point. When this happens, it is dramatic but in a plausible way that still quadrates with the mood and atmosphere of the film. However, it is this wait that builds tension because up to this moment we have become very engaged in the lives of the mother and daughter despite or as a result of their humdrum existence.

Ágnes Kocsis admits to liking directors from Godard, Fellini, Antonioni and Truffaut to Bunuel and Olmi. However, it’s difficult to find direct influences from those directors in this particular film. The long-shots with static camerawork more conjure up Jim Jarmusch’s first work Stranger than Paradise, but with a contemporary European realism thrown in (oddly enough Angela is reminiscent of the character Eva in Jarmusch’s film who was played by another Hungarian actor Eszter Balint). What the director does share with Jim Jarmusch is an unequivocal sense of humour despite the often desolate desperation that Angela and particularly Viola find themselves in. Angela has a real sense of fun at times which has conceivably been passed down from her mother in happier days.

Ultimately, Fresh Air is a film about emotions, communication and loneliness made with a directorial style that is indirectly acknowledging of influences yet neoteric and engaging. Taking the notion that life has no plot, it’s almost akin to watching a fly on the wall documentary about two people over a period of time until something interesting happens that will alter their lives in a hopefully positive way. In this instance, if not the happiest of denouements, mother and daughter are brought together again, something we had been hoping for throughout the film.

Steven Yates writes widely on film and is a member of FIPRESCI