If there is anything that defines Southeastern European films, it is, on the one hand the region’s diversity, and on the other, particular facts that the countries share. Distinct cultures, customs and values – with certain similarities – mark the personality and soul of each place. But almost all the countries in the region share a recent past of tyranny, war, radical political change, significant poverty and unemployment.
The need for funds to produce films in the region is great, but even greater is the urgent need to tell stories. The films in competition at this year’s Sarajevo Film Festival – all from Southeastern Europe – were compelling, with a strong presence of new talent. The filmmakers denounced the ills of their societies and explored the persistence of hope in the face of desolation and instability. The 17th edition of this festival invited audiences to appreciate the region’s distinctive points of view and narrative styles, and to discover elements of local cultures.
This list of must-see’s, most of which have already been to other festivals, is based on the Competition Program. In some films, war wounds are still in the process of healing, in others, the urgent topics vary. But, as Howard Feinstein – who has resigned effective the end of the festival after more than ten years in charge of Panorama and Tribute To sections – mentioned in his program, “There is no one overriding horror that dominates all others.”
“Avé,” directed by Konstantin Bojanov. Written by Konstantin Bojanov and Arnold Barkus. Cast: Anjela Nedyalkova, Ovanes Torosyan. (Bulgaria)
First time director Bojanov tells the story of Avé and Kamen, two teenagers that meet hitchhiking from Sofia to Ruse. He is on his way to a young friends’ funeral, she is a runaway in search of her drug-addicted brother. While Avé’s compulsive lies get them into trouble, they will face a gradual transformation. “Two mirrored stories about confronting death and love at a very young age. They are not able to rationalize it. They spontaneously react,” said Bojanov, who discovered Nedyalkova – in the role of Avé – a non-professional actress who is an ideal fit for this slow-paced road movie.
This sensitive, simple film takes care of every detail, including the sound mixing and original music of veteran Tom Paul (whose projects include Born Into Brothels and U2 3D), intimate cinematography and the use of Foley artists. In a sense, Avé and Kamen don’t lie; they decide to simulate a different life for themselves. In fact, everyone in this film wishes to live another life. This is especially captured by a scene of family grief, in the vein of Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration,” which tells so much with so little.
“A Trip,” written and directed by Nejc Gazvoda. Cast: Nina Rakovec, Jure Henigman, Luka Cimpric. (Slovenia)
Ziva, Andrej and Gregor are best friends since high school. Ziva is smart and sweet, always taking care of the two boys. Andrej is the gay friend —a masculine, non-stereotyped portrayal— who hates everything and doesn’t care about anything but fun. Gregor is a Slovenian soldier deployed in an international war mission in the Middle East. After many years apart, they reunite for a trip to the coast, like they used to do when they were younger. The trip begins with childish fun and memories, all of them sharing their current, seemingly satisfactory life situations. But as time goes by, secrets and true problems are revealed.
“Our generation has so much to say, but they say it only between themselves, because there’s a feeling that they can’t do anything to change the country,” said 25-year-old first-time director Gazvoda. Drawing a parallel between Slovenia’s political present and the friendship between the three, everything is apparently great, but actually at risk. Speaking out and acting will change them forever, even if what they will face in the future is even worse than not acting.
“Loverboy,” directed by Catalin Mitulescu. Written by Catalin Mitulescu, Bianca Oana and Bogdan Mustata. Cast: George Pistereanu, Ada Condeescu, Ion Besoiu. (Romania)
Luca is a loverboy, an alluring 20 year-old who works with other loverboys to seduce girls. They make them fall in love before ensnaring them in a prostitution network – a difficult to dismantle reality in today’s Romania. Luca is insensitive, incapable of loving anyone or feeling interest for anything. He is in a constant rush to simply live in the moment, day-to-day, as a way to cope with an empty life. A new potential victim, Veli, will involuntarily shake his life.
“‘Loverboy’ just wants to feel all the time, and he is starting to get hungry about loving and settling. But when you’re all the time running, it’s very hard to accomplish it,” said Catalin Mitulescu about his character. This film is another account of the sense of hopelessness suffered by the region’s youth, who grew up without the presence of parents because they had no choice but to work abroad. It is also a story of a raw, visceral, uncommunicative character who faces for the first time his worst fear and most urgent reality check. It isn’t going to jail, it’s not even dying… it’s discovering love and meaning in life, and finding that this can hurt more than anything.
“Breathing,” written and directed by Karl Markovics. Cast: Thomas Schubert, Karin Lischka, Gerhard Liebmann, Georg Friedrich. (Austria)
Roman Kogler, a 19-year-old who when younger apparently killed another teen, is serving time in a juvenile detention center while waiting for parole. Because he has served half of his sentence, he is allowed to work in a job on probation. After several failed attempts, he finally finds a quite particular one in a funeral service company that picks up dead bodies. While he gradually adapts to his new job, he wonders about his past, and searches for his biological mother for the first time.
The film works like a Swiss watch – let’s rather say an Austrian watch – on multiple levels. The narrative deploys three layers: growing up in an orphanage and later serving in prison, working daily with the dead, and the difficulty of reintegrating into society. Schubert’s acting is simply impeccable. “It never happened to me before, to find such a young, natural talent in a non-actor, so emotional and instinctive. From the very first casting session I knew he was special, and when we shot the first scene I knew I made the right decision,” noted Markovics, longtime actor but first time director, who recently won an award in Cannes Director’s Fortnight. The subtleness, the realism, the superb acting and the invisible but distinctive direction makes this film one of the most solid selections in the festival.
“The Turin Horse,” directed by Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky. Written by Béla Tarr and László Krasznahorkai. Cast: János Derzsi, Erika Bók and Mihály Kormos. (Hungary)
“As a filmmaker you can’t judge, or watch or say anything in a few sentences, because the totality – how are we getting the whole world, nature, animals, society – is so, so complicated…”
What else can we expect from Béla Tarr? Master of sequence shots and long takes, he was paid tribute in the festival back in 2006, and still does not tire of exploring provocation. It is 1889: according to a story, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed the whipping of a horse while traveling in Turin, Italy. This event shocked him so deeply that he was later diagnosed with a mental illness. We see in the film what happened before that event, to the horse, the horse’s owner – a long suffering but sometimes delusionally optimistic peasant who works with his horse – and his daughter.
I’ve seen many films that purposively move slowly to make the audience feel a sense of claustrophobia or of the harshness of life; it has never been so justified before. With pristine black and white, powerful use of silence, precise, scarce dialog, and a chilling apocalyptic vision, this film – with reminiscences of Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” – condenses elements of the other regional films into one.
Yes, the film is excessively dark, but it’s also an urgent call for collective reflection. One of the film’s dialogues says it all: “…the world has been debased…touch, acquire and thereby debase. It’s been going on like this for centuries…sometimes gently, sometimes brutally…the sky is already theirs and all our dreams…there is neither god nor gods…there is neither good nor bad… I thought that there has never been and could never be any kind of change here on earth…but this change has indeed taken place.”