How two Plotkistki tried to figure out new trends of screening on
the 14th Festival for Eastern European Cinema in Cottbus
Visiting the Cottbus Festival for Eastern European Cinema is always a hard thing to do – at least for Plotkists. For any reason, they always arrive just in between the last showings if they manage to get there at all. We had already twice lost most honourable members of the excursion on the way to proklaty “Chosebuz”, how the town in the very East of Germany is called in Sorbian, the local Slavic language. This might be, of course, because of difficult logistics and certain Plotkist confusion. But on a second glance “getting lost” seems to be part of the very mystery connected to the Cottbus festival, sort of mental preparation.
You already get involved in it while travelling through the beautifully flat and rarely touched landscape southeast of Berlin, where no mobile records. This Funkloch, how radio interruption is called in German, will soak you and pull you into a dramatic picture story, in which the sound is switched off forever. You’ll see thick forests dissolving into monsters of deserted industrial complexes stretching their rotten tentacles in the morning mist. You’ll see empty block buildings waiting for their “getting built back” (a neologism for deconstruction). Sometimes a shockingly proper new warehouse appears or a lonely person, waiting patiently at the station. This is exactly what you’ll see on the screen some 30 minutes later: the common post-fordist background of Eastern Europe.
Lost in Cottbus
You won’t be able to free yourself from the feeling of being lost even when you arrive in Cottbus at last: The only signs announcing an event in the city are posters of an eroticism fare extolling orgasm chairs and other exiting stuff against boredom. Don’t ask the locals about the festival’s location, they don’t know. Most of them don’t have a clue that a major international cinema event is going on in their city, and, especially, where. So getting to the festival is a job for detectives collecting cryptic hints like: “I saw a strange poster on the city hall, maybe it has something to do with this festival…”. Anyway, this time, luckily, a Cottbus enthusiast was with us who has taken part in pilgrimages to the Cottbus festival since its unspoiled beginnings and who knew where to go. And, on the last part of the trip, we were guided by the special guest representing the festival this year, showing us the gral of Cottbus.
Actually, the festival put emphasis on the contemporary Czech cinema this year and showed especially the “velvet generation’s” odeuvres. But we happened to watch nothing but films from Russia and Kazakhstan. Have a look what we saw and whom we met there and how we tried to figure out new trends of Russian/Kazakh screening…
The only female combined harvester
The Four – PLOTKI auditory award
The only female combined harvester
by Amelie Kutter
The first noteworthy film we saw was “Vremya Zhatvy – Harvest time” directed by Marina Razbeshkina, produced by Natalya Sheltukhina. Vremya Zhatvy is Razbeshkina’s first movie after a lot of quite successful documentaries. It is a monumental story about unconceivable sorrow brought to Russian villagers by the Second World War and the cynic inappropriateness of Soviet decoration ceremonies to the peoples’ need.
A young mother, the only female driver of a combined harvester in the district, lives in poverty but seeming harmony with her two sons and her husband who lost his legs in the war. But she is getting desperately depressive when the velvet Soviet flag, which she got as an award for her piece work harvesting, is slowly but steadily eaten up by mice. Since she is obliged to keep the flag in good conditions for the next winner, she is forced to win every year in order to hide mice-destruction and to avoid being charged at court.
Mice eat up the Soviet flag
This is just the tragicomic beginning of the family’s never ending story of suffering, told from the next world, by the younger son who was killed in the Afghanistan war and now reconstructs his memories via yellowed pictures. He turns these pictures into rather static sceneries like the curtain blowing at window of the wooden hut, the mother darning the flag, the father rolling on his small undercarriage, himself playing with his wooden truck. All these memories and souvenirs in the end get thoughtlessly disposed by a young girl, who could have been his daughter.
One might assume that this well done composition would somehow crush the fatalistic plot and bring in some reflection. But this turns out to be a dead hope. The whole film long you’ll ride on a wave of suggestive pictures celebrating the mother’s suffering by monumentalising traditional Russian and Soviet symbols: the traktoristka on her tank-like combined harvester, wearing a traditional dress made of coarse linen, stretching her dusty face with fierce determination against the burning sun; the Russian village as the origin of pagan and Christian rituals by which the plagued mother tries to free herself from depressions.
Too much pathos
The textbook to these stereotype pictures is super pathetic, overloaded with sentences like: “He could live without legs, he could live without a job, but without her love he was sentenced to death”. Soon you’ll feel heavily indoctrinated by neo-conservative ideology reaffirming national mourning about the “second patriotic war” and values like family memory and tradition.
Brrrrrrrr. A look in the festival catalogue reveals that this is not the only film that takes up Soviet screening traditions and gives a new interpretation of traditional virtues.
Another interpretation picked up in a bakery shop
Moved by such insights in contemporary Russian screening we left Obenkino and staggered to the next bakery to have a short snack. Sleepy Cottbus did not adjust bakery production to the risen demand from festival visitors, even in the fourteenth year, so we were happy to get at least a somewhat wet cheese-something. While it was warming up in the microwave oven a Russian speaking couple dropped in. I asked them if they’d just seen the movie. The girl had watched it the day before. It turned out that they were young Russian Germans, who’d moved with their parents of German origin from Russia to Cottbus, and who rather by accident got a glimpse at the festival. The girl was quite enthusiastic about “Vremya zhatvy”.
Why? “Oh, it was pretty much sad”, she sad. “I was quite depressed, had a good weep. But I liked the message. It’s too sad that the young girl didn’t keep the souvenirs in the end. How she threw the old wooden tools away, they didn’t mean anything to her. I think we should worship our family memories if we’ve got the chance, and we should keep our traditions. I’m very happy that I still have a grandmother who tells me stories of that time…”. With this interpretation in our mind we went on, through slight rain, to see the next film at the city hall.
by Kristine Höltge
Schizo got the jury award for the best film shown at the Cottbus Festival. It is directed by Guka Omarova, a movie actor and director from Kazakhstan, and produced by Sergey Brodov (Russia) in collaboration with Kazakhfilm, Les petites Lumieres and Kinofabrika.
„Schizo“ is 15 and wants to be a man. In his eyes, a real man is one who brings money home to his family, one who’s a good lover, one who sometimes plays with the kid – and one who is involved in illegal business. And that’s the way he copes with dreary life in a province in Kazakhstan.
Here, illegal box fighting seems to be a lucrative business. The boyfriend of Schizo’s mother offers him to take part in these activities. Schizo is supposed to recruit fighters: strong guys who’d give their right arm to win a Mercedes by knocking down the rival in the middle of a bellowing crowd. Schizo takes his job seriously – until he witnesses one of the boxers dying from his injuries left alone in a corner. The boxer managed to entrust the prize money and his wife’s address to Schizo. When handing out the money to her, Schizo enters from rough into apparently warm and soft life – just for a while and then more and more often. He tries to be reliable. She doesn’t take him serious. At first …
A touching movie about every day’s struggle to survive in a lethargic and kaput area where a crowd of unemployed stands at the harbor waiting for a job all days long, where people dismantle non-used power cables to huckster them on the market. Moral values don’t count; social relationships degenerate to murder.
Schizo, trapped in dangerous braveness, pubertal illusion, and blurred self-perception, seeks to keep what he considers higher virtues: honesty and pride.
The FOUR – PLOTKI auditory award
by Amelie Kutter
Chetyre (Four) is directed by Ilya Khrzhanovsky on the basis of a screenplay written by Vladimir Sorokin, complemented by Kirill Vasilenko’s music and produced by Yelena Yatsura/Filmocon. It was presented at Cottbus as a “surprise”, a showing outside of the regular festival programme. PLOTKI-visitors found that this was definitely a mistake. “Four” was the best film we saw at Cottbus. It would have owed more attention. Beneath you’ll read why we decided to dedicate the symbolic PLOTKI auditory award to Chetyre/ Ilya Khrzhanovsky.
Chetyre is a rush and moving composition, harsh and bitter, full of absurd comic. So extreme, so true. This idea will appear in your mind already when you get overrun by the introduction: You’ll see a crossroad in a stone-cold nightly winter town, a shop with dolls like man in the background, a group of dogs in front, crouching on the street, sometimes adjusting their position, accompanying a calm soundtrack with their barking. Suddenly, four tremendous jackhammers hit into the asphalt, right in between the deathly shocked dogs. They start hammering with an ear-splitting noise, which gets mixed with panic barking.
Three stories in FOUR
Dogs, brutal machines, dolls – that’s what you’ll see again and again while watching Khrzhanovky’s collage. It combines the stories of three characters: Marina works as a prostitute and returns to her native village for the burial of a school-time friend; Oleg deals with meat and lives together with his servile father in a flat, which is overcrowded with porcelain dogs; and Volodya, the piano-tuner, who will be caught and deported by the police without any justification.
These three characters meet by accident in a bar in Moscow, where they all go to have a hang out after having finished their work at night. They end up in an absurd pseudo competition about who is telling the most exciting story about his or her job. This is the moment when it proves to be a big benefit to the film that a writer, known for his absurd stories, Valdimir Sorokin, sketched the text. Marina pretends to work in a public relations agency, which promotes Japanese air condition machines. They provide, in Marina’s imagination, a relaxing and cheering atmosphere to all workers. Oleg, in contrasts, presents himself as an officer at the President’s administration who’s in charge of providing drinks to the Kremlin and who knows all details of “His” drinking habits.
But Volodya surpasses everyone with his story about the Soviet cloning tradition, which is continued – among others – by him, a genetics engineer. He thrills the whole thing by telling that cloning of human beings has been a main secret business during Soviet times, which was very successful, especially if one cloned a human being FOUR times. And he adds a futuristic or maybe ironic feature by claiming that thousands of clones, who were kept in closed areas because of their diseases, now live among us.
Thrill to hell
This alarming feature will be the background for the three characters’ stories which are then again told separately and which all together lead through a personal hell: Volodya being arrested and turned into a simple registration number in a labour camp, than deported to the war in Chechnya; Oleg finding out that he, the specialist on all sorts of meat and pork, did not know about the special breeding “round piglets”. Marina, who gets involved in an infernal guzzle, which is arranged by a dozen drunken elderly women after the burial of their friend. They all live together with a totally stoned and lost young man under kind of incest conditions in their native village. This isolated rotten village keeps alive through the cooperative production of dolls made out of bred – and it was the same chewed bred Marina’s friend died of.
A piece of art
But it is not just the absurd imaginary told at the frontier between cruel Russian reality and insanity, which is so fascinating. The whole film is art. First because of the industrial-electronic soundtrack composed by Kirill Vasilenko – it provides the film with a permanent carpet of sounds, ranging from all sorts of mechanical and animal noises to jarring folklore singing and an increasing volume of deconstruction noise.
It is art as well because of the pictorial composition, which congenially corresponds to the music (or is it the other way round?). It shows moments of pausing in intimate close-ups (the piano tuning, Marina waking up at her flat, Oleg watching TV) and long spans of increasing tension, as for example Marina’s endless walk through vast and destroyed areas, up to the horizon and down into the mud. The permanent motion of the characters is interrupted by pausing but also by shocking dense and roaring scenes like the wild guzzling in the village or formations of speeding machines like the jackhammers, the snowploughs, the planes transporting the soldiers to Chechnya.
Sure, some episodes seem to be an unnecessary and annoying exaggeration: the old drunken women taking off their clothes collectively, touching their breasts to get some sexual satisfaction; or the “fact”, that parts of the meat in Oleg’s refrigerated storage date back to the 1960s. On the other hand, this flat exaggeration helps to get out of the nightmare.
Trends? The singing women
All the three films present landscapes of mental devastation caused by the contradictions of (post communist) life, which does not care about human beings and at the same time is produced by them. It is all about cruelty of living conditions. But this is a very vague parallel one could find – except from the post-fordist scenery which embeds Schizo and Four. But another one is surprising: Is it an obligatory in Russian or Kazakh cinema to show a woman singing loudly Russian folklore screened in a frontal zoom and being presented as a moment of Eros and pride? Somehow none of the three films could go without that …