The Film Festival Cottbus: 21 this year! One might then pause to consider, with the festival attaining maturity (if we were to arbitrarily decide that 21 is, as we do with humans, a marker of such): does its mission still hold up to scratch? Much as queer film festivals are given every few years to undergo crises of purpose, interrogated from within and without to ponder whether they are still necessary, given all the gains made… is there still a point in having a “festival of East European cinema” – is such a socio-politico-historico-geographical focus still constructive in 2011? (When suddenly it’s so much of Western Europe that seems on the brink of going down the tubes…)

Well, in short, yes it is. At the Film Festival Cottbus, which conceded only the slightest of head-starts to Germany’s broader push for re-unification and which is located in Germany’s East just 30km from the Polish border, with Sorbian, a Slavic minority tongue, routinely accompanying German on signage about town, it is borderline impossible not to find – or be made aware of – auguries, yardsticks and milestones everywhere as to the state of Eastern Europe and its nations vis-à-vis those of the West, and with respect to the former’s integration with the latter. All that which is of the East is most appreciably an ongoing central preoccupation within it and within its cinema.

This preoccupation is, however, a rather bipolar affair. While there are great wellsprings of nationalistic-cum-regional pride – as with it being Poland’s turn to enjoy the poisoned chalice that is the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, and in Poland and Ukraine’s joint hosting of the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship(1) – that pride is always countered by a cynicism and even despond which is oh so appreciable in the festival’s programming, where there is an irresistible temptation to read often bleak narratives as allegories for the struggles of whole New European nations, and to presume them intended as such. Perhaps it will ever be so.

On to the program: Opening Night

I have to hand it to a festival that dares present as its curtain-raiser Lech Majewski’s Młyn i krzyż (The Mill and the Cross). Far from an obvious party starter, The Mill and the Cross is easy to admire but hard to love, no matter how beguilingly grotesque its Inquisitorial and Passion play imagery, nor how intriguing its central conceit. The Mill and the Cross presents Breughel’s epic 1564 painting “The Way to Cavalry” as a series of alfresco tableaux vivants, set against backdrops derived from actual Breughel paintings, each with umpteen superimposed planes of period-accurate goings-on offset against it, with the allegorical aspects of “The Way to Cavalry”’s scenes being explained by Breughel (Rutger Hauer!) as he goes about composing them. Charlotte Rampling and Michael York make appearances too in what proves to be a curio more interesting in theory than in practice.

Features in competition

Vladimir Kott’s Gromozeka takes place in a Moscow winter of burgeoning discontent, as three men – old friends and one-time bandmates (a remarkably common trope in Post-Communist film narratives) – have stories running in parallel outlining their struggles with middle-ageing gracefully and ethically. Mostly good-humoured, if still nonetheless rather bleak, there is one particularly troubling plotline revolving around one of the three winning back his aloof daughter’s affections by maiming her! (So as to end her career in porn, natch.) Gromozeka won Vladimir Kott the Special Prize for Best Director, and landed the Audience Award too.

Občanský průkaz (Identity Card) is an overlong, but quite enjoyable slice of Czech draft-dodging, coming-of-age Ostalgie from Ondřej Trojan, helmer of 2003’s enduring Želary, with one outrightly hilarious scene, another few with no small amount of charm and/or pathos and a nice Commie Mod Squad plot twist, while feature debutant Leszek Dawid’s FIPRESCI Prize-winning Ki (My Name is Ki) has more than a touch of the Ken Loaches about it as it follows the problematic parenting of its struggling, flighty, eponymous single mother protagonist, beautifully played by Roma Gąsiorowska, winner of the prize for Outstanding Actress. (The prize for Outstanding Actor went to Gagi Svanidze for his role in the Georgian film Marilivit tetri [Salt White, d.Keti Machavariani], which I have to confess I fell asleep during.)

Based on a true story, Krzysztof Łukaszewicz’s Lincz (Lynch) is a fairly mainstream production, if quite a violent one utilising a colour palette as jaundiced as its weltanschauung, in which a grizzled old man (Wiesław Komasa) terrorises the community of a small village, eventually to be brutally murdered by his victims. But… who’s really to blame – did society not make him that way? And is Polish law enforcement in rural backwaters not a byword for incompetence; does the law there not sometimes have to be taken into one’s own hands?

While Lynch is reasonably compelling, Anca Damian’s Crulic – drumul spre dincolo (Crulic – The Path to Beyond) presents a much more interesting – and far more poetic – exploration of the failings of Eastern European legal systems. A documentary, it reconstructs the 33-year-long life of a Romanian man, a life tragically abridged after his hunger strike, undertaken in a Polish prison, proved insufficient to draw attention in Poland or in Romania to his wrongful imprisonment.

Rather than resorting to a conventional documentary approach, Claudiu Crulic’s story is told drily in first person, beyond-the-grave voiceover (by Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov), with the events detailed animated utilising a variety of lo-fi techniques. Cut-outs and watercolours feature prominently, but there’s a wide, yet coherent, array of pictorial and animation approaches employed throughout.

A distressing montage of actuality footage during the closing credits outlines the facticity of Claudiu Crulic’s innocence and illustrates some of the political ramifications in the wake of his death, which nobody, tellingly, is keen to accept any fault for. Crulic won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.

Best of all competition entries was Portret v sumerkakh (Twilight Portrait, Angelina Nikonova), an assured new entry into the rape-revenge canon at the more arthouse (vis-à-vis exploitation) end of the spectrum. That said, I nonetheless draw great comfort in its director/co-writer being female, as it couldn’t help but become much more ideologically problematic were its principal creator to have been a man. This is because after its bourgeois protagonist (Olga Dykhovichnaya, superb) is gang-raped by a group of policemen, she comes increasingly to identify with them, becoming a habitué of their societally lower milieu, casting aside her partner and all her vacuous, well-to-do friends in one fell swoop and shacking up with one of her rapists. It’s Stockholm Syndrome, rape-revenge style. Only… will there even be any revenge?

When come finally it must, the revenge assumes truly surprising – and pointedly ethically challenging – dimensions. A very assured and intelligent work, Twilight Portrait deservedly landed the festival’s Main Prize for Best Film.

Lastly, Nariman Turebayev’s Solnetchniye dni (Sunny Days) is an extraordinarily bleak affair by any measure. The perversely admirable (and parodic?) rigour of its ascetic form – the camera never moves – is a perfect analogue for its protagonist’s life’s midwinterly going-nowhereness. Sunny Days, were it ever somehow to find distribution, would make for even worse a Kazakh ambassador than Borat!

While the standard of features in competition was generally quite high, Crulic and Twilight Portrait excepted, they were all rather conventional narrative feature films. This is reflected, possibly unconsciously, in the festival catalogue which, in its synopsising, scarcely refers to aesthetic matters or strategies, instead almost wholly privileging summaries of the films’ narratives. (To the festival’s credit, though, the catalogue is a handsome, bound production.)

Is this reflective of wider trends in contemporary Eastern European filmmaking, in turn attached to a great lessening of state subsidisation of film production relative to bygone glory years of the ’60s? Could such formal and aesthetic innovations as are largely absent from current-day productions in post-Communist states but as were the stock in trade of, for example, the films of the Czechoslovak New Wave, be in fact reliant upon regimented societal repression in order to emerge and flourish? Is widespread formal innovation somehow, alas, a function of the degree to which the state will subsidise film production over the degree to which the state stifles freedom of expression?

Also: where now there is often a deeply mordant bleakness there once was also bleakness, but far greater tempered by a joyous black humour. Where are all the birdies, orphans and fools(2) of yesteryear, revelling in their gallows saturnalias? A lot of the protagonists in contemporary Eastern European cinema are really giving lumpen a bad name.

Two highlights outside of competition

Alongside Twilight Portrait and Crulic, the two other strongest features I caught were in sidebar programs, where one often can’t help but feel much of the strongest programming generally resides.

Cooperation with Wroclaw’s Nowe Horyzonty festival has lead to Cottbus now offering “Polish Horizons” each year, under which banner could be found the truly remarkable and original Sailor (d. Norman Leto). (I missed all of another newly annual Cottbus staple, “Russkiy Den” – Russian Day, literally – that’s a whole day at the festival’s most attractive venue, the 100-year-old, newly restored Art Nouveau Weltspiegel, given over to new Russian works.)

The opening gambit of Leto’s highly provocative film – equal parts hilariously supercilious lecture series, with Leto the lecturer, and ugly, punk rock-infused love story – is to promise to illuminate “morphological differences in anatomy” between “the brain of a genius vs. that of a fucking idiot.” (3) And so, at intervals throughout Sailor, we are granted quite astounding visualisations of neural activity, often very beautiful if (surely!?) scientifically unsound, illustrating the cognitive activity of people variously extremely intelligent and extremely simple (amongst whose latter ranks Sailor doesn’t hesitate to include the religious…)

The phenomenon of synaesthesia – here, the seeing of (traumatic) sounds – is visualised in a captivating, bravura sequence. But Sailor‘s most extraordinary moments come in its presentation and close-up forensic investigation of “lifeshapes” – stunning, otherworldly, computer-aided visualisations allegedly accurately representing the influence a given person has upon their milieu within their lifetime, as a measure of the worth of that person’s life on Earth. Magnificently arbitrarily, a chief example proffered is that of Geraldine Chaplin!

Another real gem was to be found in the globalEAST sidebar, another newly annual strand of programming highlighting collisions, happy and otherwise, of East with West (and sometimes with other Easts as well). Sérgio Tréfaut’s Viagem a Portugal (Journey to Portugal) tells a simple, sad story of a Ukrainian woman (Maria de Medeiros) stranded at Faro Airport on New Year’s Eve, desperate to see her Senegalese husband (Makena Diop) but stymied in her attempts to do so by an incredulous airport immigration official (Isabel Ruth) who can, all too believably, suspect only the worst of both this dolled-up young lady who speaks no Portuguese, and, in separate interrogations, her long estranged husband, no matter that he might claim to be a qualified doctor.

A sound premise, then. But what elevates Journey to Portugal above most of the rest of the festival fare, atop its handsome black-and-white photography, is a formal conceit which works beautifully: Tréfaut regularly re-presents large conversational exchanges, changing only the camera’s point of view so that it’s trained only upon the faces and bodies of one party rather than, as just previously, the other. It might sound all too literal, but it really is very effective at giving an audience pause to consider that in any given argument, there might well be something to the other side’s “point of view”.

A few final thoughts

I feel the festival is lumbered with something of an albatross in one of its principal venues, Stadthalle – Cottbus’ City Hall. Well might it be “Brandenburg’s largest event building”,(4) capable of seating up to 2,000 people,(5) but it’s not a cinema, doesn’t remotely have the ambience of one, is – at least in my experience – regularly stricken with projection problems, and is further hamstrung by not having a decent sound system in place – two large speakers at the front of house does not surround sound make! Ondřej Trojan was even moved – and decorum as a festival guest be damned – to kickstart his Q&A after a screening of Identity Card with a bitter apology for the poor standard of its projection. Sadly, his was not the film screened at Stadthalle most blighted by it. (There’d in fact be quite a few contenders.)

More positively, the Weltspiegel is a wonderful cinema; I wonder though could more not be made of the Opening Night venue, the gorgeous, sumptuous Secessionist Art Nouveau State Theatre?

Another credit to the festival: it attracts guests galore, and lengthy discussions with filmmakers after screenings are the rule rather than the exception.

However, it strikes me that the festival runs a day short. While it might well span six days, the first is mostly given over to the Opening Night festivities, and the Closing Night awards ceremony and party occurs on day five, rendering for many the festival’s final day precipitously close to a write-off – or should that more positively be spun as a tribute to the festive spirit that pervades the festival?

There were whole sections of the program I couldn’t find time to delve into but would have liked to. I missed all of Retrospective: Location Lausitz, a focus on films made in Lusatia, the historical region containing Cottbus, many of which were concerned with the energy industry – open-pit mining is endemic in Lusatia – and which looks like it might have contained a real Joker in the programming pack in Johanna Ickert’s Energieland (Land of Energy), an examination of the divisive issue of subterranean carbon dioxide storage in Lusatia featuring interviews with employees of energy giant Vattenfall, acknowledged perpetrators… and principal corporate partner of the festival.

The energy industry and film festivals always make for strange and awkward bedfellows and I could never help but be a little suspicious every time the Vattenfall promo appeared in the sponsors reel, accompanied by cheering from a section of the audience…

The 21st Film Festival Cottbus
1-6 November 2011
Festival website: http://www.filmfestivalcottbus.de

Endnotes

  1. Even just a cursory glance through the statements from a typical array of dignitaries at the head of the festival catalogue (pp. 10-16) will provide ample testimony to this assertion. The football especially crops up time and again.
  2. With apologies to Juraj Jakubisko.
  3. The festival catalogue synopsis on p. 165 begins ‘“The brain of a genius vs. that of an idiot: morphological differences in anatomy”’, but I’m sure I recall the phrase “fucking idiot” being used in the film instead… and several times at that! Perhaps even with certain variations – “fucking cretin”, “fucking moron”, etc.
  4. Per the “official Internet portal of the university city of Cottbus”: http://www.cottbus.de/gaeste/wissenswertes/buehnen/stadthalle_cottbus,40000198.en.html.
  5. Ibid.