By Howard Feinstein | Indiewire March 18, 2008 at 8:19AM
As goes Ohio, so goes the nation. If the saying holds water regarding the upcoming presidential election, then so goes the nation--into a ditch, to paraphrase Senator Barack Obama. If only the expression were applicable to our cloned film festivals. Here's one that veers off in a different direction. The 32nd Cleveland International Film Festival, Ohio's biggest movie event, had two provocative strands that set it apart. (Nearly 300 films unspooled March 6-16 at a multiplex inside the city's restored 1929 train station, a fabulous structure that is more a naturally lit galleria than claustrophobic mall.) What other U.S. fest has been prescient enough to mount a retrospective of the work of fearless Filipino director Brillante Mendoza? His low-budget films, which fuse documentary and melodrama in a daring way, move you as they move: Motion and emotion co-exist, tugging at your viscera and heart in equal measure.
And what other American festival has a competition of films from Central and Eastern Europe? Eastern European cinema is "hot" these days (Romania's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" for example), but Cleveland has been screening these movies since the '80s. (Of course, the demographic of the city is heavily Eastern European.)
Another reason to be enamored: In a viper's nest of fests where longing to be first overrides serving the locals, Cleveland offers a whiff of purity. "We care about what our audience wants," says artistic director Bill Guentzler. "That a film has played every other festival in the U.S. indicates that it's probably worth showing. We don't care about premiere status."
Locals appeared content. Screenings were packed. The audience prize for best movie went to "One Bad Cat: The Albert Wagner Story," by Cleveland-born filmmaker Thomas G. Miller. Juries awarded Russian director Vera Storozheva's "Travelling With Pets" best Central and Eastern European film (I was a member) and Harald Friedl's "Out of Time," from Austria, best documentary.
The prolific Brillante Mendoza began directing three years ago at the age of 44. CIFF showed four of his six features. He probes interpersonal relationships, be they tender or antagonistic, in the context of social issues endemic to the Philippines.
The only misfire is "The Teacher," a simplistic doc about a young indigenous Aeta's attempt to instruct her people how to fill in ballots. In the doc-like feature "Slingshot," his best work, a horde of small-time thieves and drug dealers---mostly shirtless teenaged boys--are aggressive with one another, like animals in a bullring. Mendoza's hand-held camera runs amok in the streets of Manila's slums. He shoots not only the guys plying their trades but religious processions and political campaign rallies. The nation is so corrupt that a politico pays the boys off for support.
The lovely, tripartite "Summer Heat" is more languorous and affective. Mendoza pits a father against each of the three grown daughters he loves to denigrate. The man especially despises the lesbian Jesusa, who passively accepts his cheap jabs. Equally emotional is "Foster Child," in which a poor foster mother becomes unhealthily attached to an adorable three-year-old. Scenes in an orphanage are heartbreaking, as are those in the suite of a luxury hotel where the woman hands the boy over to wealthy Americans who, by comparison, seem like kiddie collectors. The disparity is heartbreaking.
The Eastern European films also smack of a gap, one rooted in economics. The rapid demise of Communism and the ensuing capitalist blitz have led to the loss of guaranteed basics like shelter and health care, a decline in income for the majority, and, for a few hustlers, new money without an accompanying value system. The salient characteristics of these movies are the plight of individuals who are isolated from the larger social order; and violence, earned dramatically rather than imposed gratuitously.
The most poignant of those spotlighting loners is "Travelling With Pets." In this extraordinary achievement, Storozheva, with a light touch, blends naturalistic observation with magical realism. The plot: In a rural wasteland, a beautiful young peasant woman lives like an ostracized serf under the thumb of her much older authoritarian husband. His sudden death frees her to explore popular culture, new technology, and, above all, her sexuality, of which she takes command. In Croatian filmmaker Ognjen Svilicic's "Armin," a crass Bosnian stage father forces his withdrawn teen accordionist son to audition for a movie in Zagreb. Armin captures the joyless fatalism of Bosnians today as well as the peculiar decor that is all the rage in ex-Yugoslavia.
In Czech director Jiri Vejdelek's delightful "Roming," an assimilated young academic is a voluntary outcast from his Gypsy family, who live in the traditional manner, one that society deems vulgar. His father manipulates him back into the fold and its way of life. The fine Latvian film "Vogelfrei" is divided into four sections, each by different directors, which represent stages in the life of the protagonist. Painfully shy, he finds solace while in his twenties by reinventing himself as a condescending bourgeois, but remains nevertheless persona non grata. Friendless as well is geriatric Aniela, a cultured relic of the Old World of civility in Polish director Dorota Kedzierzawska's pretentious if artful "Time To Die." She is despised by the neighboring parvenu, who finds her dilapidated but elegant pre-war house an eyesore; after all, he owns an utterly charmless new concrete home.
In Hungarian filmmaker Csaba Bollok's "Iska's Journey," you empathize with the 12-year-old title character, who is beaten by her drunken mother when she doesn't earn enough from plowing through rubbish heaps in their sad Romanian town. Iska is too much of a lone wolf to survive in the orphanage that takes her in, but a glimmer of hope arrives in the form of a doting boy who brings her out of her shell. Just as she learns how to relate to others, two men kidnap her and sell her to pimps. Beata is a country girl who marries into an urban blue-collar family in the middlin' Polish film "Savior's Square, by Krysztof Krause and Joanna Kos-Krause. Embroiled in a futile attempt to recoup from unscrupulous developers their loss on a home they were purchasing, her spiteful mother-in-law and weak husband project their frustration onto her. She becomes an exile in her own home.
And then there was violence.
In the mediocre Estonian movie "The Class," by Ilmar Raag, bullying schoolmates push two high school boys way over the edge. They mow down fellow students in the lunchroom: It's "Elephant" with explanation. One of the most original, if bizarre, films is Russian director Alexei Balabanov's "Cargo 200," set in 1984. We don't see the war in Afghanistan that is frequently referred to, rather we experience a microcosm of it in the form of the perverse actions of a powerful but impotent killer policeman. This transgressor rapes (with a bottle) a young woman and shackles her to his bed, then tosses the body of her soldier fiance on the mattress. Grotesque, but it IS a black comedy.
War is visible in Georgian filmmaker Aleko Tsabadze's Russian film, "The Russian Triangle." Though we view flashbacks of nasty battles in Chechnya, the movie is more about a dishonored police cadet's frantic search for a serial killer of Russian soldiers. He discovers that the man is in fact Chechen and is conducting a vendetta against the Russians for having killed his wife. The cadet begins to feel sorry for him. In Sdran Golubovic's excellent revisionist thriller "The Trap," from Serbia, a solitary murderer is also sympathetic. Desperate to pay for his child's heart surgery, an "ordinary" engineer hires himself out to a newly rich businessman as a one-time assassin. The victim is another rich man whose success he envies. Commerce has replaced politics as a motive. This is the new Eastern Europe.