Posted by keith1942 on 28 November 2013
The trio on the road
This was a feature in the European Catalyst programme at the Leeds International Film Festival. It was there as the first example of what the Catalogue termed the Romanian New Wave. I have to say that I am sceptical of the notion of a Romanian New Wave. There have certainly been some interesting films produced in Romania in the last few years. 4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 days (4 luni, 3 saptamini si 2 zile, 2008) was the best, though also the most downbeat of those I have seen. However, I tend to think of ‘new waves’ in terms of the nouvelle vague or of Dogme 95, where there is both a recognisable group and a coherent approach which is distinctive and which to some extent subverts the conventional, even in art cinemas.
If there is a Romanian New Wave then this feature did not inspire my interest. It was the most unrewarding of all the films I saw during the Festival. The basic plot follows two young men with a girlfriend who drive from a coastal town to Bucharest. They are carrying, for money, a bag of medical products. You might surmise that the medicines turn out to be something less healthy and more illegitimate.
Most of the film follows the journey of the trio, with disruptions caused both by other groups and their own inexperience. For me the journey went on far too long: I actually found this film (running 90 minutes) seemingly longer than the several three-hour epics also in the retrospective. I friend said the film reminded him in an odd sort of way of Mean Streets (1973). And it did have the tone, but not the skill, of early films by Martin Scorsese.
Moreover, I got little sense of any distinctive Romanian culture or situation. The Catalogue suggested the film offered “incisive reflections of his home country”, [i.e. the Romanian director Cristi Puiu). In fact I found the film rather conventional in both plot and the contradictions faced by the characters. It did not help that the film was screened in a not very good quality 35mm print. There were only ten celluloid prints during the Festival and this was likely the worse.
My feelings were that the concept of European Catalyst film did not really embrace this film. In fact I am not convinced about the worth of the concept itself. Still I have attended Festivals where the worse film in the programme was below the standard of this feature!
Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: Leeds International | Leave a Comment »
Posted by nicklacey on 13 September 2013
Train of hope
This fascinating youth pic, from the Czech New Wave, both ‘universalises’ the teenage (or early-20s) experience and sets in squarely in its time. The time was just before the ‘Prague Spring’, but clearly government influence was already loosening, particularly with the relatively graphic nudity and the scene where the youth union meeting is satirised. Being a teenager yearning for a (sexual) relationship is the predominant narrative of youth pics and Czechoslovakia in the ’60s was no different. In fact, it was accentuated by the 16:1 ratio of women to men in the blonde’s (Andula) town, Zruc. To counteract the problem the local factory’s ‘social director’ persuades the army to move a garrison of men to the vicinity. However, they turn out to be middle aged reservists of little interest to Andula and her friends.
The troops’ arrival is one of many comic set pieces in the film. The girls, and the town, are full of hope until the balding men arrive who promptly march to their barracks singing a ridiculous song of blood and glory. Similarly in a dance hall three men bicker amongst themselves on how try of pick up the girls. They send a waiter with a bottle but it’s delivered to the wrong table. Writer-director Milos Forman’s observes all this affectionately, he is not mocking the small town travails of his characters.
As was much European cinema in the ’60s, the Czech New Wave was a ripple of the French nouvelle vague and the long conversations between characters reminded me of early Godard and there is a wonderful moment of Czech surrealism where a necktie is found around a tree when Andula walks through the wood for an assignation that never happens. The dancehall scene reminded me of the one in Billy Liar, shot three years earlier, emphasising how, in the sixties, youth culture was becoming internationalised.
Forman cast locals, mostly non actors, giving the film a realist edge that adds to the charm; it’s not surprising that Ken Loach often cites it as a favourite film. Its political edge is seen when the youth union meeting, of women, is asked to vote to be chaste. Only Andula, hiding at the back, doesn’t put up her hand in favour emphasising the conformism expected by the Establishment at the time. However, while she is something of a rebel, Andula is also a victim; she is betrayed by the smooth talking pianist. Their ‘love’ scene, with the recalcitrant blind, is funny. Overall the film is suffused with a melancholy tone; it entertains but doesn’t forget the pathos of young lust.
Posted in East European Cinema | Tagged: Melodrama, New Wave | Leave a Comment »
Posted by nicklacey on 30 August 2013
The bad and the good?
The abomination of war is accentuated in civil war; Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (original title translates better as Beautiful villages burn beautifully) covers the post-Yugoslavian war of the 1990s that foreshadowed the current ‘conflict’ between ‘the west’ and Muslims. Its complex structure focuses on a band of Bosnian-Serb militia who, amongst other things, burn Muslim villages. The main protagonist is Milan who, in pre-war years, ran a business with his Muslim mate. After scene setting, with a newsreel about the Brotherhood and Unity (such irony runs throughout the film) tunnel first opened in the 1970s, most of the plot takes place 20 years later in the dilapidated and unfinished tunnel as the militia seek shelter from the Bosnian army. Much of the narrative features flashbacks of how the disparate members of the militia joined up from the viewpoint of a number of them recuperating, after the event, in hospital.
Unsurprisingly the film divided opinion when it was release. In an excellent article Igor Krstic (http://www.kinoeye.org/03/10/celluloidtinderbox.php) notes that although Croatian critics dubbed the film pro-Serbian (Croatia was also embroiled in the war against Serbs/Serbia) it was also the first Serbian film to be successful in neighbouring countries after the war ended. While it’s easy to see why the film appears to be pro-Serbian, as we rarely get any other view than the militia’s, Krstic also demonstrates the film’s nuances; principally that the ragtag bunch of militia are not portrayed as likeable characters and in this the film is also challenging Serbia’s national mythology. One of the ways this is done is through the casting of Velimir Bata Zivojinovic as the unit’s commander; Zivojinovic starred in many Partisan films that were important in the myth-making of Tito’s Yugoslavia.
That said I did find the film disturbing. The Muslims who surround the militia are entirely dehumanised, Krstic himself points out that this is drawing of tropes of Hollywood’s representation of the Vietnam war where ‘Charlie’ was an invisible presence in the jungle. Krstic fails, however, to note that this is in itself racist – the enemy as the monstrous Other. Does that make the film racist? Not necessarily as it could be argued that this is a film from the Serbian perspective; no doubt being surrounded by others who want to kill you is a terrifying experience and the enemy will seem monstrous.
This is powerful film-making and draws upon the absurdist vein of Catch 22 and MASH; it’s a bleakly occasionally comic portrayal of the war that is brilliantly made and uncomfortable to view from a political standpoint.
Posted in East European Cinema | Tagged: Balkan cinema, Bosnia, war film | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 19 April 2013
Eli and Val – lovers re-united?
It’s the second year of the New European Features competition at Bradford and just like last year there is a Bulgarian entry. The two films are remarkably similar in institutional terms if not in plot and narrative. Avé last year had a director with some US background/training, a young woman with some international experience and a story concerning a journey and decisions about where she wanted to be in the future. All those three elements are also present in Faith, Love and Whiskey. The director is Kristina Nikolova and this is her first feature – although she has been working as a cinematographer for ten years. Her co-writer and editor is Paul Dalio. They met on a course at New York University Film School (there are several stellar names on the film’s “thanks to” list).
In the interview below, posted on YouTube, Kristina Nikolova tells us that the film is partly autobiographical and its title refers to a Bulgarian saying in which ‘Faith, Love and Hope’ is altered to replace ‘Hope’ with ‘Whiskey’. The film marries two strong ideas. One is universal – a romance about a young woman who must choose between security and passion. The director tells us that she thinks the film is more ‘mainstream’ than it is a ‘festival film’. I think that she is right but the specific Bulgarian flavour makes it special. She tells us that many young people leave Bulgaria looking for a better future but that they return each summer to spend a few weeks drinking like crazy and enjoying meeting old friends. I’ve forgotten the reference but I also read a review of the film that quoted an Economist article claiming that Bulgaria was the ‘unhappiest country’ in the world when income levels and happiness indices were correlated. I also found this entertaining article which suggests that the Bulgarian problem is a combination of poverty (comparing income to other EU countries) and a native ‘superstition and fatalism’. It’s easier to be miserable and to avoid problems by going out and getting smashed. Looked at this way, the film’s narrative makes a lot of sense.
Eli (Ana Stojanovska) is a vivacious and attractive young woman who has a relationship in New York, but who has come back to Sofia to see old friends. She meets them in a bar and goes clubbing and soon finds herself back with the wild and romantic Val with whom she takes a trip into the beautiful countryside. Back in Sofia, however, her American fiancée has arrived and is looking for her. On a basic plot level it’s all very straightforward. The romance is well presented. It’s sunny and hot, there are cool streams for bathing and the booze flows freely. The film was shot on Super 16 with saturated colours and it looks great. I also liked the music, much of it guitar music reminiscent of deranged surf guitar or the work of Link Wray. Val (Yavor Baharov) is a charismatic romantic lead on the edge of oblivion and John Keabler is the stuffy but wealthy American. The local culture is represented in several ways that recall Avé. Eli has lost her parents (there is an interesting reference to her mother) and the one person she really cares about is her grandmother who brought her up. Bulgaria seems to be a society of the aged waiting for the return of the young – there doesn’t seem to be a generation between.
One of the best scenes in the film, which seems to sum up the whole narrative, doesn’t involve Eli. She has gone out and left both John and Val with her grandmother. Val is forced to translate for the old woman and the American. We feel for Val who must tell John, in English, how delighted the grandmother is that Eli has found her rich American. The subtitles tell us that Val is translating correctly, avoiding the opportunity to damage his rival. Then at one point he forgets which language he is using and has to stop to correct himself. It’s a brilliant piece of cinema with so many issues about identity compressed into facial expressions and a slip of the tongue.
This is another shortish feature running just 75 minutes and therefore difficult to place into distribution. I think I read that the film was likely to get distribution in Bulgaria but I think it is unlikely in the UK. I decided on reflection (and thinking about the migration issues) that I liked the film a lot. The plot is simple, the theme is important and the execution is very good.
Interview with the filmmakers at Slamdance, February 2012:
Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Films by women, Romance | Tagged: Bulgarian cinema, migration | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 16 April 2013
Rene Bitorajac (left) as the gynaecologist with one of his drug-dealing police friends
It’s difficult to write about a film that I had to watch through my fingers on several occasions. I have a phobia about scenes featuring surgical operations and there are plenty of those in this film set in a leading clinic in Zagreb. Those green gowns and spurting blood are too much and if this film hadn’t been in the European Features competition, I would have given it a miss. None of this is meant to imply a criticism of the film. In fact, I thought it was rather good. The title refers to the central character who is indeed a vegetarian and is mocked because of it by his friends in the police force. But he’s not the stereotype veggie – indeed his appetites are voracious. He seeks sex, drugs, bling and fast cars. He relaxes by drumming on his professional kit and working hard in the gym. No doubt he is actually a highly competent gynaecologist and a cultured man but unfortunately he is so wrapped up in corruption that he can’t extricate himself.
This was the Croatian entry for the 2013 Academy Awards – which says something about the Croatian sense of identity. I’ve seen American reviews of the film which go with the character’s greed for money (and frequently compare him to the protagonist of American Psycho), but in the UK that isn’t really the issue – I think we home in on the questions about professionalism and what the subtitles refer to as ‘collegiality’. But of course neither Anglo or American perspectives can really explain the Balkan cultural issues. I’m guessing that somewhere in here is a metaphor/allegory for Croatia’s debate about joining the EU (which happens this Summer). There is still a great deal of baggage from the Yugoslavian past to work through before Croatia can be properly accepted. The issues highlighted in the film include blatant racism in the treatment of a Jordanian doctor in the clinic, the ex-military commanders trafficking young women from Ukraine etc. and the corruption and brutality that seems to permeate everything including a sporting culture that includes illegal dog fights.
The cinematography is mainly hand-held and though I find this difficult to watch, I can see that the approach is appropriate here. The film moves at a breathless pace and I find it hard to believe that it was only 85 minutes – I felt like I got more than 85 minutes of action. Rene Bitorajac as the central character, Danko Babic, is excellent. I kept finding him likeable even though I despised everything he was doing. That’s charisma. This is a strong contender for a prize – just like the other two films in competition that I’ve seen.
Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: BIFF 2013, Croatian cinema | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 14 April 2013
The two boys, unaware of the events to follow
One of the six entries in the European Features competition at BIFF, A Night Too Young is certainly distinctive but it will face problems because of its short length and possibly its subject matter. 65 minutes used to be the generally accepted point at which a film became a ‘feature’ rather than a ‘short’ – at least in France. At that length it presents a commercial distributor and exhibitor with the task of building a programme around it. In a festival like this it can be boosted with a longer ‘short’ alongside (as it was here).
The subject matter brings together adult partygoers and two 12 year-old boys. The boys are on the cusp of puberty as their discussion of sex in the opening scenes reveals. It’s the afternoon of December 31st in a small Czech town and they are playing on their sleds in the snow when they meet two men and a young woman. She asks the boys to buy some vodka for her from the store and to bring it to her apartment. They innocently do so and find themselves in a party situation with booze and dope and some serious tension in the air.
The director Olmo Omerzu is a Slovenian who has recently graduated from FAMU, the film school in Prague. It’s unusual that a graduation film gets to this length and even more that it gets into a big festival like Berlin and that’s down to some extra funding. Omerzu says that his influences include the Czech New Wave and that he cast the two boys partly because of the way that they seemed at times to resemble the two older men. The boy who plays Baluška (Vojtěch Machuta) has the most extraordinary face, sometimes impassive but at other times seemingly that of a much older man. The script is quite sparse in terms of dialogue and the whole narrative has the feel of a Pinter play. Our attention is drawn to the boys and we wonder what they are making of the events surrounding them. Omerzu has a background in “drawing comics for a Slovenian magazine” and there is something fantastical about how he visualises the mundane setting as the night draws in. New Year’s Eve is when we might expect a stranger knocking at the door and being invited in to join the party. It isn’t always clear what is actually happening and what is being imagined – and who by. The narrative isn’t quite linear – though I have difficulty remembering what happened and in what order.
I think I drew two main conclusions from watching A Night Too Young. First, this is what the industry often terms a ‘calling card’. In its present form it is unlikely to escape the festival circuit, but its strange attractions are likely to help Olmo Omerzu get funding for his next projects and I think we will see more of him in the future. (In another interview he suggests that this film has achieved distribution in Germany, Slovenia and the Czech Republic). Secondly, I was reminded of what a rich film culture there is in Central Europe and how we don’t see enough of it in the UK.
Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: BIFF 2013, Czech Cinema, Slovenian Cinema | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 25 October 2012
Marija Pikic as Rahima
My final film during my festival visit was programmed in the ‘Debate’ strand, though again, I fail to see what the debate might be – except that we might want to argue that most of us who live comfortable lives ought to appreciate much more how difficult other lives can be. But that can’t really be contested, can it? Children of Sarajevo is a dark film but the strong performances, especially by Marija Pikic as the central character Rahima, make up for that and give us a sense of hope.
Produced with support from production companies and funding agencies in France, Germany and Turkey, Children of Sarajevo still ranks as a relatively low budget film and most of the action takes place indoors or on local streets at night. Rahima is introduced as a young woman wearing a headscarf and from the inserts of video footage of the war in Sarajevo in the 1990s, we deduce that she survived the war (but lost her parents) and has turned to her faith in an attempt to make sense of her life.
Rahima has problems. She is the only breadwinner in her household and works hard as a chef in a large restaurant. She returns home to housework and the latest calamity to befall her young brother Nedim, still at school. The neo-realist narrative driver in this film is a broken iPhone – belonging to the son of a local wealthy politician, but broken, allegedly, by Nedim in an attack on the boy. We don’t know exactly what is in Rahima’s background, but she is treated badly by the school headteacher and by the corrupt politician, both of whom expect her to pay for a new iPhone. Nedim doesn’t appear to be a ‘bad lad’, just not very aware of everything his sister has to do for him and he starts to make the wrong decisions about getting involved in local criminality.
On the other hand, Rahima is very much part of a community, with a potential suitor and close supporters in her housing block. I’m not really sure that I appreciated the significance of the hajib she wears. (I live in an area where muslim women wear all kinds of combinations of veils and scarves.) Rahima is the only one of the women in the film to do this and she clearly has female muslim friends. I found a review of the film written after its successful Cannes screening (the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard competition) that discusses this issue and quotes the film’s writer-director, Aida Begic (who is also photographed wearing a headscarf). The East European Film Bulletin review by Collete de Castro suggests that: “In wearing the veil, Rahima is at once closer to God and further away. Hiding from the world, she is at once protected and exposed.” The director is quoted as saying that the idea for the film came to her when she realised that “we don’t believe in the reconstruction of our society any more, we’ve replaced dreams with memories”. That makes sense. The world she depicts in the film is no longer at war as such, but it certainly isn’t a world that is at peace with itself and there appear to be great inequalities.
This is an intense film that requires attention to detail. I hope it gets a wider exposure. Here’s a trailer:
Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Films by women | Tagged: Bosnian cinema, LFF 2012, neo-realism | Leave a Comment »
Posted by keith1942 on 18 June 2012
A few years ago a friend from the United States explained to me how the trailers there were now providing an almost complete skeleton of the film’s plot. It sounded as if you knew all about the movie before you went along to the screening. Now this approach seems to have arrived in the UK. An example would be the trailer for Carnage (2011), a film where four characters play through the breakdown of social courtesies and niceties. I liked Roman Polanski’s film but I would have enjoyed it more if the gradual social disintegration had not been blatantly signposted in the trailer.
So I was really impressed with Artificial’ Eye’s trailer for Bela Tarr’s latest and final grim masterwork, The Turin Horse (A torinói ió2011). The substantive trailer is a long take of an oil lamp gradually going out – a visual metaphor for the film which does not pre-empt either the narrative or the ending. My congratulations to whomever designed this. I should add that there is a slight indication of a lack of confidence, because this long take is followed not just by a title credit but a further frame containing quotes from reviews.
Still it is a trailer worthy of the film.
Here it is on YouTube:
Posted in British Cinema, East European Cinema, Film audiences, Film industry | Leave a Comment »