When I started this blog just over a year ago, I did so with a long list of ambitions, chief among them being that I was going to keep the promise of its subtitle “a survey of Central and Eastern European cinema” by visiting the Gdynia, Plzeň, Budapest and Sarajevo Film Festivals every year and thereby end up sampling the vast majority of the region’s cinema. (The first three festivals round up almost every Polish, Czech and Hungarian feature made in the previous twelve months, while Sarajevo screens a generous cross-section of work across the whole of south-east Europe).
Sadly, the demands of a full-time job, limited annual leave, and especially a young family (to say nothing of the expense) meant that this was never going to be more than a pipe dream - but I am at least going to Sarajevo this year (I should be en route right now, if this appears when scheduled), which would probably be my first choice out of the four festivals anyway. This is partly because I’ve been before (in 2006), so it’s a known quantity, but mostly because it means I can at least make a small step in the direction of correcting this blog’s rather overwhelming bias towards central Europe in general and the cinema of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in particular. My site logs frequently show people optimistically clicking on ‘Serbia’ or ‘Slovenia’ and usually being disappointed (unless they were actively looking for the longlist of Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations), so at least over the next week or so there should be plenty of new material on that front.
The full programme can be downloaded here (as a PDF). I’ll mostly be skipping the western European, Asian and American titles (which are primarily intended for locals who might otherwise not get a chance to see them - in favour of as much regional produce as I can fit into my schedule. I certainly plan to watch the entire competition (as I did last time), sample a fair chunk of the documentary strand and generally catch up with other south-east European films I might have missed or never had the chance to see. Fingers crossed I’ll have reasonable online access throughout (last time, the main Festival centre laid on free terminals, and my hotel claims to have internet facilities), so I’ll be able to post pretty regularly over the next week.
Anyway, I’ve still got several hours to arrive, check in, get my bearings and attend the opening night film - Aida Begić’s feature debut Snow (Snijeg) - and party, so in the meantime I’ll try to recall as much as possible of what I saw in 2006. Then, the opening night film was Corneliu Porumboiu’s delectable 1208 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?, Romania), which I blogged about here (and reviewed at greater length in the October 2007 issue of Sight & Sound). The only thing the highly varied eight-film competition had in common was that precisely none of the titles achieved British commercial distribution. The standout for me (and the festival jury, which gave it the top prize and Best Actress) was the one I saw first: Andrea Štaka’s Das Fräulein (Switzerland, IMDB/Variety), a Swiss-set, Balkan-themed drama about three women of different generations and backgrounds (they’re Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian, though they emigrated at different times, in at least one case before the early 1990s wars) who end up working in the same Zürich café. Thanks to two superb performances by veteran Mirjana Karanović and newcomer Marija Škaričić (either of whom could have won Best Actress - it went to Škaričić in the end) and sensitive direction that knows when to leave things unsaid, it crammed a huge amount into a brief 81 minutes.
Although they certainly had their moments, I was much less impressed with the next two films, Miroslav Momčilović’s Seven and a Half/Sedam i po (Serbia, IMDB/Variety) was a collection of seven short stories, all featuring a breach of one of the seven deadly sins, and all more or less equally mean-spirited, despite some inventive staging (each episode is given a different style) and occasional hints at greater depth. I was equally underwhelmed by Jasmin Duraković’s Nafaka (Bosnia, IMDB), though have to acknowledge that it was one of the festival’s runaway audience hits if the reaction at the screening I attended was anything to go by. This was unsurprising, because of all the competition films it was the one most squarely aimed at locals, and this sprawling, picaresque recreation of the siege of Sarajevo had plenty of crowd-pleasing set-pieces, even if it failed to add up to much more than a series of overt Emir Kusturica homages. One point of interest is that the treatment of the UN officials is every bit as cynical as that shown in Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land (2001), the surprise Oscar winner that put Bosnian cinema on the map at the turn of the millennium.
Much better was Antonio Nuić’s All For Free/Sve džaba (Bosnia, IMDB/Variety), a gentle, more than somewhat Kaurismäkian road movie in which a man loses all his friends in a single tragic accident, and decides to spend his inheritance on a mobile bar, which he drives from town to town - the film’s title revealing his somewhat unsustainable sales pitch (and it’s unsustainable in more ways than one, as local business don’t take too kindly to a rival giving drinks away). At around the halfway mark it turns into a love story, albeit one as bittersweet as everything else in the film. Rakan Rushaidat’s performance as the film’s well-meaning but hopelessly idealistic protagonist won Best Actor.
The next two films had an altogether steelier edge. Branko Schmidt’s powerful The Melon Route/Put lubenica (Croatia, IMDB/Variety) which set the tentative relationship between a war veteran and a Chinese immigrant whose entire family has drowned en route westwards against a well-drawn portrayal of the day-to-day operations of viciously amoral people-smugglers. The climactic bloodbath is hardly surprising, but grimly satisfying given the well-deserved payoffs. Radu Muntean’s Paper Will Be Blue/Hîrtia va fi albastră (Romania, IMDB/Variety) made an effective contrast to Corneliu Porumboiu’s film in that it actually reconstructed the Romanian revolution, from the point of view of an elite militia platoon whose mission is to prevent their colleagues from defecting to the anti-Ceauşescu cause, even though the dictator’s downfall is no longer in doubt (it’s set during the long night of 22 December 1989, after Ceauşescu famously betrayed on live television that he was no longer in control of events). Not unexpectedly, even these nominally ultra-loyal diehards have their misgivings, which creates much of the film’s considerable tension.
I don’t remember much about Péter Mészáros’s Kythera (Hungary, IMDB/Variety/Eye For Film), aside from the way it fused langorously beautiful images of an idyllic Greek island voyage with a far harsher account of the disintegration of a relationship. I also can’t give a fair appraisal of Faruk Lončarević’s Mum’n'Dad/Mama i tata (Bosnia, IMDB), because the DVD screener I watched was of an incomplete print that was lacking any titles or special effects sequences. That said, it was reasonably clear what was missing, and I’m not sure greater surface polish would have changed my opinion that this was a great idea for a short (it’s about an elderly couple whose drab existence is being broadcast to the world, Big Brother style, lending a voyeuristic edge to their final breakdown) that didn’t manage to sustain my interest when stretched to feature length. But it won the festival’s Special Jury Prize, so I may well have missed something significant.
Anyway, that was 2006. Now for 2008…