Pécs: New Waves from the East

By Steven Yates

chaos-xawery-zulawski.jpgChaos, 2006

In the southern Hungarian city of Pécs the local film festival completed its third programme of East European Films last October under the banner “Moveast”; the name inspired by a 1990s periodical from the Hungarian National Film Archive which reflected the same aims of covering the Central-East-European region. Pécs previously hosted a film festival that began in the 1960s and featured only Hungarian films. This was eventually lost but three years ago there was a successful nostalgic event based on it which made it apparent that Pécs could once again stage a film festival, only this time an international one. Indeed, “Moveast” is the first film festival in Hungary to have such a high profile so soon with both a main and now an international critics’ jury.

In the competition two films featured that were well-known from other festivals of the last two years. 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?) has won many prizes, notably the Caméra d'Or (Golden Camera) awarded to director Corneliu Porumboiu in Cannes for best first feature film. The Jasmila Zbanic-directed Grbavica did even better by winning the Golden Bear, the main prize at the Berlinale in 2006. This film follows the life of a single mother, and her dependent 12-year-old daughter who live in the Grbavica quarter of present day Sarajevo while still bearing the domestic, psychological and emotional scars of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, particularly the treatment of Bosniak women by Serbian troops. The film was awarded again as it won the FIPRESCI critics prize in Pécs. The main prize of the festival, the Golden Benjamin, went to another Serbian film, Nafaka, by director Jasmin Durakovic. His film is also about life in a Sarajevo neighbourhood; the only difference being that the plot takes place both during the war and after the siege of Sarajevo.

Christmas Tree Upside Down (Obarnata elha), has been another well-travelled film in festivals and this also forms something of a parable to the title, the tree passing through various lives as it makes its way across the winter landscape. Out of the six fragmented stories directed by Ivan Cherkelov and Vasil Zhivkov, that link the transporting of the spruce tree from the Bulgarian hills to a square in Sofia for Christmas, only a couple of parts lacked real substance in script and direction while the others were insightful docudramas that succeeded in depicting an overall impression of Bulgarian life today.

christmast-tree-upside-down-ivan-cherkelov-vasil-zhivkov.jpgChristmas Tree Upside Down, 2006 

Chaos, by Polish director Xawery Żuławski is, on the other hand, another example of a talented director whose high octane debut feature was made only by much uncompromising which, as a result, saw it take five years to complete. The disparate storylines of integrated characters are set around a manic Warsaw family and the backdrop of Poland’s capital hosting the European Economic Forum, which is threatened with disruption by anti-globalisation demonstrators. Chaos is full of energy and enthusiasm, often humourous, if perhaps over-ambitious and slightly cluttered. In this it is perhaps 25 minutes too long. Undoubtedly the film lives up to its title for it conveys an impression of contemporary Poland that is indeed chaotic and frenzied.

The Hungarian film Happy New Life, directed by ethnic Gypsy Árpád Bogdán, won a special mention from the main jury. The film tells of well known but still hidden aspects of many societies. Shot on digital and set in a nameless city, an 18-year-old boy leaves an orphanage not knowing who his parents were or what has happened to them. Though the orphanage intention was to make him feel Hungarian, he knows deep down he’s an orphan unwanted in another culture and with no identity. The film’s harrowing subject matter is supplemented with some unique and original cinematography making the orphanage seem like a high security prison and the outside world an open prison. In some ways Happy New Life’s use of stylized editing seemed to create a distance from the main actor, with whom it’s sometimes difficult to align on an emotional level, but this also underlines the numbness that he is feeling. The way an alienated city is conveyed is done particularly well as is the creative use of the digital.

“Moveast” provided enough reasons to believe it will have a long future and this film festival may be contributory in reviving Hungarian film culture. Hungary has of course a strong lineage in world cinema and the new generation of filmmakers (e.g., Nimród Antal, György Pálfi and Ágnes Kocsis) have won numerous awards in film festivals. The concurrent programmes and master classes this year created a lively atmosphere, with one addressing the Hungarian documentary industry, which has experienced something of a downturn in recent years. The master classes were also a much-needed prompt to national film criticism as there is currently no formal training for films critics in Hungary. By naming the festival “Moveast” the invitation implies that we should go and join them in time for 2010 when, as joint capital of culture, Pécs plays host to all of Europe.

Steven Yates is a freelance film journalist and one of the English language supervisors for FIPRESCI.