Category: East European Cinema

Glory (Slava, Bulgaria-Greece 2016)

‘Linesman’ on the railway, Tzanko (Stefan Denolyubov)

This is the second of a loose trilogy of Bulgarian films about social issues in one of the newer member countries of the EU by the team of Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. I reviewed the couple’s earlier film The Lesson (2014) here. The second film follows the first in looking for ideas in local newspaper stories which are then used as a stimulus for developing more complex dramas. The first film seemed to me a social realist drama which used some familiar genre tropes at certain moments. I thought this second film was slightly different in bringing together two central characters whose stories mesh in interesting ways and which was mostly coherent in engaging with genre ideas. I’d need to go back to the first film to check, but it might be that the camerawork by Krum Rodriguez is this time ‘looser’ with hand-held shallow focus in the modern style rather than the ‘documentary observation’ of The LessonSome of the same crew and the two principal actors reappear from the first film.

The punning title needs translating to reveal its significance. It refers to both the recognition of a ‘hero’ in the tradition of the worker-heroes of the era under communism and to the object which is used to represent that recognition – a traditional Russian wristwatch with the brand-name ‘Slava’ or ‘Glory’. The worker in this case is Tzanko Petrov, a ‘linesman’ on the railway who checks the track and in particular the rails and their attachment to the sleepers. One day he discovers a pile of banknotes lying on the track. He quickly decides to alert the police. This action is brought to the attention of the ministry of transport and in particular the energetic and relentless Julia Staykova, the head of public relations. She immediately begins a media campaign which will see Tzanko summoned to Sofia where the minister will present him with a new watch. But Tzanko is not ideal PR material. He is a loner with a speech impediment. Julia herself is also distracted by her own personal issues and in particular her current infertility treatment. Added to this is the context of corruption in the operation of the railways – the reason why celebrating Tzanko’s public-spirited action is so important for good PR.

Trousers must be exchanged on the orders of Julia (Margita Gosheva, left)!

Out of this promising mixture of narrative threads Grozeva and Valchanov have created a black comedy which works on many levels, shifting from moments of near farce (more trousers being dropped for non-sexual reasons than I’ve seen for a long time) to sometimes quite sad and sometimes quite brutal episodes. There is an open ending, but one with little hope that all will end well.

Julia Staykova is played by Margita Gosheva, the teacher from The Lesson and again she gives an excellent performance as the driven Julia. Stefan Denolyubov, the moneylender in The Lesson unrecognisable behind long hair and a wild beard, plays Tzanko. His is an equally good performance in a role which, like Gosheva’s, requires a wide range of skills. In the Press Book on the New Wave Film website, the directors suggest that they first thought of the PR boss as a man. I was surprised because in the UK I tend to assume PR people are very often women. I think they made the right decision in the end.

The EU does play a role in the narrative, if only because the corruption on the railways might cause problems for future EU support which is being discussed in the background as the events unfold. Otherwise the main social issue in the film is perhaps the extent to which traditional (or perhaps ‘pre-1990’) Bulgarian society is coping with global modernity, whether it is mobile phones being answered in the fertility clinic in the midst of consultations with a doctor or the frantic attempts of a TV crew to present the best image of the railways in an online news report. Tzanko is a little behind these changes as a rural worker, though possibly only because he still has a human touch. Crucially it is the loss of his Russian watch with the engraving on the back representing his father’s love that he really cares about.

There were just a couple of puzzling moments in the film. At one point a prostitute appears and I wasn’t sure why. And the infertility treatment baffled me as I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Otherwise I was engaged throughout. I watched the film in a new cinema, part of a multi-purpose arts centre. The disadvantage I discovered was that the removable seating (to convert the venue for theatre and music events) creaked and groaned as people came in late and I lost concentration during the opening scenes. I’m increasingly concerned by the new kinds of auditoria that are being opened – I haven’t yet ventured into an Everyman or an Odeon de Luxe with squidgy sofas and tables. Oh, how I pine for the artplex in Nimes with a comfortable seat, complete darkness and no distractions! Still I was grateful to see Glory in one of the handful of venues to risk a subtitled film in the ‘Awards’ season. Don’t miss it if it comes your way – this director couple have real talent.


Graduation (Bacalaureat, Romania-France-Belgium 2016)

After the all too common long wait, the UK finally got this 2016 Cannes prizewinner (shared Best Director for Cristian Mungiu) at the end of March 2017. It was worth the wait. I have only a fleeting acquaintance with Mungiu and the rest of the ‘Romanian New Wave’ of the last ten years or so, but I recognised the basic elements of this type of film – a single setting and a group of interlinked characters involved in relatively routine actions. The skill comes in scripting the scenes in such a way to build a strong central narrative ‘line’ while layering the narrative with several different forms of commentary.

The first thing I noted was that this is a co-production with France and Belgium – ‘Why Not Productions’ and the Dardenne Brothers’ company ‘Les Films du Fleuve’. Both companies work with Ken Loach and other leading filmmakers such as Jacques Audiard. Romanian films need this kind of outlet. Although Graduation was the third best performing Romanian film at Romanian box office, it was still only able to take €145,000. Romanians are not very interested in their own cinema. Directors like Mingiu must sell their films in the international market and therefore the films must have universal elements in their stories – or their local stories must appeal to international viewers.

The ‘inciting incident’ in the narrative for Graduation is an attack on a young woman one morning on her way to school. Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) has a lift to school from her father but stops in a small building site expecting to meet her boyfriend (who is late). Slightly injured and shaken up by the attack (which we don’t see), she is hindered in her preparations for her final exams at school where she is an ‘A’ student – but otherwise this could be a disturbing and unfortunate incident but nothing more. But Eliza’s father Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a surgeon at the local hospital and he seems even more upset than Eliza. He has invested a great deal in Eliza’s education and now she must get high grades to win a scholarship at a ‘prestigious university’ in London. He isn’t prepared to see her fail.

Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and her father Romeo (Adrian Titieni) at the school graduation event

Romeo believes himself to be a man of principle and honour and he despises what he sees as the disease of corruption in Romanian society. But he is also aware how things work in Romania and he can’t stop himself trying to do his utmost for his daughter. He starts by trying to get her more time to finish her exams (she now has a bandaged wrist) but soon finds that he could exert more pressure to ensure she gets the grades she needs. The narrative is set in Romania’s second city, Cluj in the Carpathian mountains, but we don’t see much of this large city, just a few streets and public buildings and on one occasion the grassy top of the ski jump in summer where the police are conducting a search for Eliza’s attacker. Romeo is there because the police officer in charge is one of his old school friends and a source of advice on how to play the system. Reading reviews, I can see that this focus on corruption is read by most critics in relation to the inability of a generation of Romanians to free themselves from the culture of survival under the Ceaușescu regime in the 1970s and 1980s. I can certainly see this, but I don’t think viewers in other societies should be quite so judgemental – similar systems operate in many parts of the world. Which school you went to and who you know is not at all unhelpful in getting access to many things in the UK.

Romeo watches Eliza ride off with her boyfriend

Mungiu develops the narrative slowly. It’s almost like a web made up of the surgeon’s interactions with a diverse group of people. Romeo is gradually trapped in the web and his secrets are exposed. Questions are posed about several characters, many of whom are inter-related in different ways. About halfway through the film I thought to myself, “This is enjoyable and well done, but I’ve seen the like before”. Then Mungiu started to up his game and bring in more elements. For a UK viewer the London connection is ironic – Romeo declares that Eliza will be so much better off in London (where women aren’t attacked in the street!) and where there is no corruption (another misconception?). We also might wonder whether a bright young woman like Eliza shouldn’t stay and help to build the new Romania. But mostly, I think, we are concerned about what is happening to Romeo (and to his depressed wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar) and his elderly mother – there is a family melodrama of sorts in the mix). Some of the questions posed by the narrative are answered, some are left open. It’s quite a long film (128 minutes) but it is always engaging and in many parts gripping. This is what I consider to be ‘quality cinema’ – entertaining and thought-provoking. The script by Mungiu and his direction of excellent performances by his cast are tight and efficient. I hope he finds his audiences. As of the first week of April, Graduation had made approx. €1.6 million in Europe as a whole.

Aferim! (Romania-Bulgaria-Czech Republic-France 2015)

Still of Toma Cuzin, Teodor Corban and Mihai Comanoiu in Aferim! (2015), © Big World Pictures (from

Still of Toma Cuzin, Teodor Corban and Mihai Comanoiu in Aferim! (2015), © Big World Pictures (from

The Leeds International Film Festival Catalogue has this film described as

“a tense, atmospheric Romanian western . . . “

I rather wondered about this but several friends recommended it. The film does bear comparison with quite a few westerns though it is set in the early C19th. It is set in Wallachia, which is close to Bucharest and includes rolling plains, but also woodlands, rivers and some hills.

Across this territory ride Costandin (Teodor Corban), a constable, and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu). They are chasing a runaway gypsy Carfin (Toma Cuzin) on behalf of a local Boyar (noble and landowner). Carfin, like many of the servants in this time and area, is equivalent to a serf, at the mercy of the lord. In fact, as the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Carfin’s sins are greater (or lesser) than this.

The gypsies, as it still the case in parts of Europe, are on the end of racist exploitation and oppression. Costandin represents this hierarchical and privileged system. And his conduct is ensured by the system whereby he is paid by results rather than by wages. This is no independent police force, and a judicial system seems entirely absent. The power of the Boyar is apparent in the submissive response that Costandin receives on almost every occasion.

As Costandin and Ionita ride the father talks incessantly: much of the time imparting his experience to his son. Other character also talk volubly. They meet an Orthodox priest whose long rant exhibits prejudices about almost every conceivable class and ethnic group except the ones to which he belongs. Also along the way the pair meet an encampment of gypsies, poor rural peasants and craftsmen: and late in the film a fair where among the items for sale are adult and children sold as slaves.

The film offers a caustic portrait of this reactionary and oppressive society. But it does so with great skill both in the performances and in the production values. The film was shot in black and white anamorphic Eastman 35mm film stock. It has a tendency to site people in landscapes in long shot, visually pleasing and reminiscent of some classic westerns. It runs for 108 minutes and has English subtitles. However, it has also been copied onto a DCP (very likely only 2K) and I am sure that 35mm would have given greater definition, especially in the depth of field. It has an 18 certificate in the UK, due to very strong language, some violence but presumably also for a sequence where Costandin arranges part of Ionita’s education.

One Floor Below (Un etaj mai jos, Romania 2015)

Sandu Patrescu (Theodor Corban, left) confronts his neighbour (Iulian Postelnicu) who has commissioned him to undertake a seemingly meaningless change of vehicle registration.

Sandu Patrescu (Theodor Corban, left) confronts his neighbour (Iulian Postelnicu) who has commissioned him to undertake a seemingly meaningless change of vehicle registration.

The Romanian ‘New Wave’ which started to have a major impact on the festival circuit in 2004 has been one of the strengths of the Leeds Film Festival for several years and this was evident in the healthy audience for an afternoon screening in this year’s festival. Unfortunately it’s one of the recent film movements that I haven’t really caught up with (the unwatched DVDs are on my shelves waiting for my attention – lack of time rather than interest). As a result perhaps, I was not alert enough to spot the crucial significance of a scene early in the film and the result was that I felt slightly cheated and frustrated at the end. The fault is mine, not the film’s.

Radu Muntean is a central figure in the New Wave and this, his fifth feature, was shown at Cannes this year in the Un certain regard strand. The central character is Patrascu (Teodor Corban, an actor associated with New Wave films). Muntean presents to us the daily incidents of Patrascu’s life – taking his dog Jerry for exercise in the park, squabbling with his young teenage son who is obsessed with videogames and Facebook and then doing his job. Patrascu and his wife run a small business which provides a service to iron out the tedium and bureaucracy involved in registering motor vehicles in Romania. It took me a while to work this out since the first job appeared to involve a film production company. The important narrative incident occurs when Parascu hears shouts and bangs in the apartment below in his block. He stops to listen but then decides it’s not his business. Later it transpires that a young woman has died in the apartment. Questioned by the police, Patrascu says nothing. We presume that in Romania the legacy of Ceaușescu’s brutal repression is such that 25 years later middle-aged people like Patrescu are still careful about what they say. The bureaucracy that provides Patrescu with a living must be part of this legacy as well – as is the network of contacts that he methodically maintains. He can queue-jump on behalf of his clients mainly because of these contacts. At other times though Patrescu shows himself to be an ‘ethical man’, e.g. in his support of the girl who has died when others start to repeat gossip about her.

The narrative moves into its final phase when a young neighbour asks Patrascu to re-register his vehicle and then wheedles his way into Patrascu’s household, befriending his wife and son – offering them advice on a new computer etc. You can probably work out what eventually happens – it was because I didn’t recognise who this neighbour was that I literally ‘lost the plot’ at this point. When I realised what was happening I felt rather stupid. It occurs to me that this film has some similarities to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and that film’s mix of a police procedural and a drama about relationships in families and communities. One Floor Below doesn’t approach the epic scope and narrative complexity of Ceylan’s work, but its focus on ‘smaller’ stories is just as valid and I should have got more from this than I did. Reading other comments on the film, however, I see that I was not alone in missing aspects of the narrative and that’s going to be a risk in making films like this.

The High Sun (Zvizdan, Croatia-Serbia-Slovenia 2015)


I found this feature the most impressive new film so far at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is part of the Official Selection programme and it will be interesting to learn how the Jury rate it. This is a portmanteau film with three love stories. The director and writer Dalibor Matanić is quoted in the Festival Catalogue:

“As a filmmaker I have been long intrigued by the ever-present inter-ethnic hatreds in the Balkan region, and conflicts rooted in war, religion or politics. With this film, I wanted to explore three separate stories of a Croatian boy and girl from a Serbian family, across three decades. The stories all take place in the same location, in the sun-scorched villages, and the young lovers are always in their early twenties. Using the lens of these three stories, I wanted to tease out the accumulated atmosphere of evil that smoulders among the damaged communities in the region.”

The films are set respectively in 1991, 2001 and 2011. The leading characters are played across the stories by the same actors, who are excellent, especially Tihana Lazovic and Goran Markovic. The characters in each story are discrete but certain characteristics re-appear to good effect. The setting is a coastal area, with low hills and a lake [probably connected to the sea] in which the characters swim. The area is semi-rural and rather different from the city of Zagreb, to which one couple plan to flee.

The film is beautifully photographed by Marko Brdar. The range of close-ups to long shots is exemplary in presenting the characters and situation. There are some fine tracking shots and the use of Steadicam for tracks and simulated hand-held shots. The sound track is equally good. There are distinctive musical themes and songs, though the latter are not translated in the subtitles.

There are visual motifs which provide suggestive comment. At various time the characters swim in the lake: once a single person, then a couple, then a whole crowd. And there is fine underwater camera work at this point. Cars are also important in the plot and setting. The buildings are evocative, first the traditional houses, then derelict buildings, then finally a series of new builds. In one fine repeated shot a young woman sits in an exterior passage as a lone dog lopes by. A different dog appears in another sequence, again with a lone character, suggesting their alienation from others.

The catalogue suggest that ‘love can finally take root’. I felt that the final resolution is ambiguous, leaving a poetic question mark over this journey through two decades of confluent.

The film runs for 123 minutes, it did not seem that long. It is in widescreen colour with English sub-titles. And it is showing again at the Hyde Park Picture House on Thursday November 12th at 8.30 p.m.

LFF 2015 #2: Thirst (Bulgaria 2015)

LFFThirst opens with a long shot of a road snaking its way up a hill towards the camera position. The credits appear to the left of the ‘Scope frame and in the distance a figure is running up the road towards us. I was immediately struck by resemblances to other films such as Zvyagintsev’s The Banishment or Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak which start in similar ways.

The running figure is a teenage boy who it later turns out has to run 4,000 steps each day to prevent the heart attacks suffered by his father who monitors the lad’s progress from his position up a tree (where he sneaks a crafty fag). When the boy stops he spots a young woman and an old man by the side of their truck. The fifth principal character is the boy’s mother who has moved into her father’s old house at the top of another hill. She earns the family’s money by washing the bed linen from hotels (presumably in the valley below). Each day a driver delivers soiled sheets and collects the washed and ironed replacements. The only problem is that there is a drought and each day the water supply is disrupted, making the washing business increasingly difficult to manage. But the girl and the old man are a water drilling outfit. She divines where the water is and he organises the drilling. Problem solved – or is it?

There is certainly a strong indication that this is an ‘elemental story’ with possible ecology issues as well as metaphorical meanings. Asked about ecological questions, the debutant director Svetla Tsotsorkova replied that she hadn’t thought too much about them. The story was actually inspired by her own family memories – her grandmother had washed sheets for hotels. Another question in the post-screening discussion was: “How does this film relate to Bulgarian cinema more generally?” Tsotsorkova replied that perhaps it did resemble films made in Bulgaria during the 1960s and into the 1980s. It has a timeless feel with little dialogue and unnamed characters. The two younger characters are played by non-actors and the older characters by veterans of Bulgarian cinema. Working with a much older male screenwriter, Tsotsorkova gradually refined the script and the film as screened runs 90 minutes.

The boy and the girl rest outside an abandoned church.

The boy and the girl rest outside an abandoned church.

The family on the hill has a settled but restricted life before the arrival of the father-daughter water drillers. They have different ‘thirsts’ for all kinds of things besides water to wash the sheets and their ‘Eden’ is eventually destroyed when they seek to quench those thirsts. The girl in particular is a fascinating character and her back story works well with an excellent performance to suggest an ancient story of disruption of the family unit. The LFF audience clearly enjoyed the film which works wonderfully as an aesthetic experience as well as a gripping tale. It’s a remarkable début film that will stay with me for a long time. Reading various interviews with the director after the screening I was intrigued to see that she name-checked Andrea Arnold as a filmmaker she admires and thinking about the connection I can see that though the films are very different, Arnold’s work on something like Wuthering Heights does share the same sense of people and places.

I hope this gets UK distribution. Properly handled there will be an audience for a film of this quality and I’d like to watch it again.

Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013)

One of the many stunning compositions from IDA with the low horizon and extended 'sky room' in this long shot.

One of the many stunning compositions from IDA with the low horizon and extended ‘sky room’ in this long shot.

This vies with Phoenix as my film of the year (i.e. seen in a UK screening). It’s a perfectly formed art object that is both engaging and moving. It has been celebrated around the world and has recently been in UK cinemas after a winning a prize at the London Film Festival a year ago. We’ve had to wait a year but it has been worth it. I’ve watched the film twice now and in between screenings I spent a couple of days researching the work of the director Pawel Pawlikowski for an introductory talk. I enjoyed the research very much because it seemed that as I re-watched clips from the earlier films I’d seen and sampled some of the director’s TV documentaries from the 1990s, I began to see the continuities and the links between ostensibly different projects. Ida has been seen either as Pawlikowski’s ‘comeback’ film or as a revelation for those who have not known about the earlier films. Whether or not the concept of a director with ‘personal vision’ as an auteur still has mileage, there is no denying the continuities between Pawlikowski’s films.

Pawel Pawlikowski left Poland with his mother some time in the 1970s and eventually arrived in 1977 in the UK aged 19. His career as a filmmaker began in the late 1980s with documentaries mainly focusing on quite controversial figures in Eastern Europe. My notes for the film introduction can be downloaded here: Pawlikowski Background Notes.

Ida is a short film (just over 80 mins) and a plot outline would suggest that relatively little happens. A young woman, Anna, who we presume has grown up in a convent is now 18 and in preparation to take her vows when she is told that she has a relative, her aunt Wanda, and that she should visit her before she takes the final decision to commit to Christ. Anna is not sure what to expect but Wanda eventually provides surprising information about Anna’s Jewish family, including Anna’s birth name, ‘Ida’. Reluctantly at first (in Wanda’s case) the pair undertake a road trip to uncover the past. They meet relatively few people and the ‘action’ is limited but there is so much going on in the unspoken exchanges between characters and in the presentation of sound and image that we experience an immensely rich narrative.

There is no better way to introduce the film than to give the director’s opening statement (from the Press Pack):

Ida is a film about identity, family, faith, guilt, socialism and music. I wanted to make a film about history, which wouldnʼt feel like a historical film; a film which is moral, but has no lessons to offer; I wanted to tell a story in which ʻeveryone has their reasonsʼ; a story closer to poetry than plot. Most of all, I wanted to steer clear of the usual rhetoric of the Polish cinema. The Poland in Ida is shown by an ʻoutsiderʼ with no axe to grind, filtered through personal memory and emotion, the sounds and images of childhood . . .

It seems to me that Pawlikowski succeeds in each of these aims. (Though the ‘outsider’ bit is possibly something for Polish audiences to comment on and they haven’t taken to the film as much as audiences in France or even the UK as far as I can see.) Much of the strength of the film does come from the director’s perspective – as an insider who became an outsider and who now returns unafraid to ask questions and ‘re-present’ the past. The power of the film comes from the astounding attention to the detail of the visual and sound images and the performances of the cast, especially the three leads.

An image from the blog by 'BB' demonstrating the use of lighting set-ups in the kitchen scene at the convent (see below).

An image from the blog by ‘Benjamin B’ demonstrating the use of lighting set-ups in the kitchen scene at the convent (see below).

The film was shot digitally using an Alexa 4:3 camera and the raw footage was then processed to create a monochrome film with a traditional Academy ratio and then further processed to add the grain effect of the filmstock used in the early 1960s. This process is described by ‘Benjamin B’ in his blog, ‘The Film Book’, which carries two features complementing an initial feature in American Cinematographer. These are a must read for anyone interested in the filmic image. There are several notable features of the images created in the film. As Benjamin B comments in his analysis of a short sequence, Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal, create pure cinema, ‘showing’ not ‘telling’ the story through a combination of acting, camerawork and sound related to a carefully structured narrative outline. The film also offers good examples of the old adage about needing a great deal of artifice to represent an image of ‘reality’. To achieve the ‘effect’ of natural light and simplicity in the depiction of the convent required careful placing of key and fill lamps. The effect works very well.

The two central characters of Wanda and Ida are played by Agata Kulesza, a vastly experienced actor and Agata Trzebuchowska a non-actor and this fits the narrative perfectly as Wanda has to drive the narrative and Ida has to respond to what happens. I was intrigued to discover that Agata Trzebuchowska had seen Pawlikowski’s earlier British films even though she was not involved in the film industry. I’m delighted that films do travel more extensively than might be apparent from the relatively meagre information we get from outside the US/UK film world.

I think Ida is going to be one of those films that “keeps on giving” – offering up new insights into how it can create meanings through camerawork, lighting, design, sound and performance. It has also prompted me to find the few John Coltrane recordings that ought to be played more often. The most striking aspect of the beautiful visual compositions is that they often place the characters in the bottom third of the frame, utilising a low horizon in landscape shots and producing a great deal of ‘sky room’. I haven’t quite decided what this means but it is distinctive and it certainly suggests a dialogue between characters and their environment. It also reminds me of the big skies in Academy frame compositions by directors like Kurosawa Akira and John Ford.

Just a thought, but this image is very similar to the opening shot of Lynne Ramsay's 'Ratcatcher'.

Just a thought, but this image of Ida wrapping herself in a net curtain is very similar to the opening shot of Lynne Ramsay’s ‘Ratcatcher’.

Since I started this posting several weeks ago the European Film Awards in December made Ida the big winner with a total of five awards – two for the film itself, two for Pawel Pawlikowski as writer and director and one for cinematography (shared by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski who both worked on the film). If there is any justice the film would win at the Oscars as well. If you haven’t seen it, the DVD is now out but do try and find it on a big screen.

LIFF 28 #6: Corn Island (Georgia, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Hungary 2014)

The landscape view of Corn Island

The landscape view of Corn Island

This film is a joy to watch. Perhaps it helps if you’ve ever tried to grow your own maize crop, but the festival wins (Karlovy Vary and many others) and glowing reviews suggest that it’s not just me who was entranced by Corn Island. I’ll be surprised (and upset) if this isn’t picked up for distribution in the UK and many other territories.

The film’s narrative covers a summer growing season. Every spring the river Enguri washes fertile alluvial soil down from the Caucasus Mountains and deposits it further downstream creating temporary ‘islands’ when the river flow slows. These islands are sometimes large enough to attract peasant farmers to grow a crop – in the knowledge that when the heavy rains return, the islands will probably disappear. Into this dangerous environment comes an old farmer and his young teenage granddaughter who together methodically build a hut and then plant a maize crop. Unfortunately, the Enguri also forms the boundary between Georgia and the breakaway ‘autonomous region/republic’ of Abkhazia (one of four disputed territories in the region). The island is therefore on the front line in a dispute that has rumbled on since Georgia itself became independent of the former Soviet Union. Consequently, the old man and the girl feel under surveillance from passing motor boats of soldiers from each side of the dispute (plus soldiers on the shore).

The old man watches Azbakh soldiers depart

The old man watches Abkhaz soldiers depart

The film works brilliantly because it has the strengths of simplicity. Some of the reviews refer to ‘minimalism’ but I think that isn’t appropriate as the film is overwhelming in the riches of pure cinema. The cinematography (Hungarian veteran Elemér Ragályi) is breathtaking, whether it is the broad sweep of landscape of the hills and the river valley, the close-ups of the two characters building, fishing and sowing or the changing play of natural light on water and vegetation. Just as impressive is the sound design. I confess that I didn’t notice the music (which I think comes mainly at the end of the film) but I was aware that there is virtually no dialogue apart from the exchanges between the old man and the passing soldiers. The man and the girl don’t need to speak, they just get on with their work.

Grandfather watches the girl with the soldier

Grandfather watches the girl with the soldier

There isn’t a great deal of plot and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that a wounded soldier turns up on the island at one point. I mention this because it refers to a particular sub-genre of the ‘home front’ war picture in which wounded soldiers appeal to the goodwill of the peasants – and in doing so put their hosts at risk from ‘the enemy’. This then links to a second genre which is the ‘coming of age’ film. The girl arrives on her grandfather’s boat at the beginning of the film with a doll. The same doll makes an appearance at the end of the film, but the girl has by then already shown the signs of puberty, both physically and emotionally. Grandfather has to protect the girl as well as the crop. And this, in turn, leads us back towards the theme of fertility and the battle with nature to get the crop in before the rains arrive. When the rains come it means scenes that rival the best of Kurosawa and Tarkovsky.

The girl and her grandfather

The girl and her grandfather when the building begins

The performances are excellent, especially by Mariam Buturishvili, the first-timer who plays the girl against the veteran Turkish actor İlyas Salman as the grandfather. The production overall must have been an amazing experience. Writer-director George Ovashvili chose to shoot on 35mm because that is what he was most comfortable with. Initially he hoped to find a ‘real’ island as a location. In the end he decided to build an island in an artificial lake (which would also, presumably, be away from the actual frontline of a smouldering boundary dispute). In an interview Ovashvili explained that the crew actually planted and re-planted different maize crops as needed by the script – the film was shot in April-May and December so it couldn’t be ‘natural’. The results are amazingly good. An initial report suggested that the shoot cost just €1.4 million, but that extra funding was being sought for post-production. The production also involved cast and crew from 13 countries speaking 13 languages (a whole bunch of translators is listed in the credits). Ovashvili in the interview says:

I think the diversity of the crew has strengthened the universal theme of the film.

I’d have to agree. This is the Georgian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2015. I don’t suppose it will win and it’s a shame if most Academy voters will see in on a TV set. This is one film that you want to see on the biggest screen possible (in beautiful 35mm ‘Scope). Please, UK distributors, get this into cinemas!

The trailer from the Karlovy Vary Festival: