Eastern European Films at this Year’s L.A. Film Festival (Film Review Article)

It is hard to imagine any of this summer’s movie events as anything other than preamble to the much-anticipated release of Christopher Nolan’s latest thinking-man’s blockbuster, Inception. Nevertheless, while the big screens were lying in wait for their crowds, the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival (June 17-27) was in midst of a small transformation. With a change of location that has had veteran festival goers grumbling about the schlep from Westwood to downtown LA (though the parking is no doubt a welcome novelty), a line-up that is far less headliner-heavy but with a greater eye for international features, the festival is changing its usual tune with a new artistic director, the movie critic and long-time senior editor of Newsweek David Ansen. This year’s festival shifted its focus from bigger names to the smaller (but no less exciting) films from newcomers from around the, including Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

Bibliothèque Pascal, 2010. Written and directed by Szabolcs Hajdu, produced by Iván Angelusz, Andras Hamori, and Gábor Kovács. Germany, Hungary, United Kingdom, 2010, 111 mins, 35mm.

Orsolya Török-Illyés as Mona in Szabolcs Hajdu’s 'Bibliothèque Pascal', 2010. Image courtesy of L.A. Film Festival.Bibliothèque Pascal, written and directed by Szabolcs Hajdu, tells the story of Mona Paparu, a young mother of Hungarian descent living in Romania who tries to regain custody of her young daughter. In order to have even the slightest chance of seeing her daughter again, Mona is asked to recount the details of the last few years to her child’s social worker, whose impression will ultimately decide whether they will reunite. And so the film begins, with Mona reinventing her difficult past, including the time spent in a brothel in Liverpool, in the most whimsical, fantastical, and unbelievable way possible.

Mona’s time spent in the imaginary brothel, the Bibliothèque Pascal, like scenes from Jeunet’s nightmares, are at once the most visually disturbing and stunning sequences of the whole film. Here, even literary masterpieces can be transformed into sexual fantasies for the consumption of the bored and wealthy of Liverpool, and it is difficult to miss the film’s weak jab at stereotypes of debauched Western capitalists.

Though the film is beautifully shot, and Orsolya Török-Illyés’ performance as Mona is convincing, it is difficult to follow the film’s overall message, which seems to be more about storytelling in general than about any cohesive story in particular. Mona’s character is an especially problematic one, and she rarely leads more than a passive role in the happenings of her own life. Not to mention the fact that we are left wondering why Mona’s tall-tales are so disturbing if they are her chosen method for coping with life’s mishaps. The only time we do hear Mona’s true voice and the only hint at her “real self” seems to be when she is sharing her stories with her daughter in her native Hungarian. When she does, it is as if Mona finally, if all too briefly, comes alive.

In the end, Mona is forced to disclose a blander, more “accurate” version of her story, and it is not surprising that it only takes her a minute to tell it. You can’t help but hope that Mona will regain custody of her daughter, while at the same time you remain unconvinced, and stop to wonder (if for only a second) that it might be better for everyone if the child wasn’t returned to its delusional mother.

– Ana Mitrovici

Vlast (Power), 2010. Directed and produced by Cathryn Collins, with Cathryn and Pilar Crespi as executive producers. USA, 88 mins.

It is no difficult task to cast a Russian political leader in a villainous role, so well suited and familiar are tsars, and general secretaries to intrigue, coups and corruption. Vladimir Putin gets similar treatment in Vlast (Power), Cathryn Collins’ directorial debut, which sets out to tell the story of the jailed Russian oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Combining interviews taken with figures very close to Khodorkovsky, stock news footage and photographs, the film pits both men against one another in order to give shape to the events that ledKhodorkovsky from his cushy position as CEO of Yukos, the now defunct oil company founded in the early 1990s, to Siberian imprisonment that may last another 22 years, if the Kremlin gets its way.

First and foremost, the film tries to clarify the murky waters that surround not only Khodorkovsky’s fall from power, but also his domination of the Russian oil market in the 1990s. A dubious hero, Khodorkovsky seems to have emerged from the impenetrable maze of Russia’s early attempt at capitalism with his fair share of illegal dealings. Collins’ interviewees hint at the type of criminal activity linked to Khodorkovsky’s name during this time of mafia wars and business assassinations, including the murder of the troublesome mayor of Nefteyugansk in 1998, embezzlement, and tax evasion. Khodorkovsky’s move into the political arena in the 2000s, his worry over Russia’s isolationist tendencies, and above all his support of Putin’s opposition recast him as fierce patriot, concerned for the future of the country and unwilling – even in the face of imminent arrest – to flee his homeland for the safety and comfort of life abroad.

When facing the facts surrounding the case, no one can doubt that Khodorkovsky’s current persecution is more political than legal. With Khodorkovsky out of the picture, Yukos’ stocks were auctioned off privately to a company that would later merge with Gasprom, now Russia’s largest energy company with the government holding a controlling stake. Nevertheless, Collins’ treatment of the topic is less persuasive and more heavy-handed than one might expect from a film with such a readily convincing argument. Though Collins interviews three journalists and a historian, the major cast of characters is made up of Khodorkovsky’s mother and son, his lawyers (Pavel Ivlev, now a fugitive in the U.S., and Anton Drel) and former employees.

Beyond this lack of variety, the film panders too obviously to American sentiment; most of the Russian figures speak in English, the music composed by Sophie Solomon varies between ominous Twin Peaks-y keyboards and more traditional Russian folk themes and, finally, the hyperbolic parallel drawn between Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment and Stalin’s purges does much damage to the credibility of the film and to the gravity of the Khodorkovsky’s. There is a great story here – not just about Khodorkovsky, but also about the many Yukos employees who have faced imprisonment and Putin’s wrath – but Collins doesn’t quite manage to tell it.

– Maria Corrigan

Eastern Plays, 2009. Written and directed by Kamen Kalev, executive producer Maya Vitkova,  and produced by Kamen Kalev, Stefan Piryov, and Fredrik Zander. Bulgaria, Sweden, 89 mins, 35mm.

Eastern Plays is an impressive first feature by Bulgarian director Kamen Kalev. The center of the film is the character Itso—played by and loosely based on the life of Christo Christov, who died shortly before the film was finished shooting. Itso, a young artist, is recovering from a methadone addiction. The beginning of the film signals his unhappiness when we see him in a variety of situations, repeatedly drinking beer instead of paying attention to his girlfriend. He forgets her birthday; half expecting this, she has made dinner reservations for the two to celebrate. Since Itso is uninterested in making basic conversation with her, she storms off and leaves midway through their meal. Walking home, Itso drunkenly stumbles into a violent assault by a group of neonazis on a vacationing Turkish family, who had also been dining at the restaurant. Georgi, Itso’s brother, happens to be one of the perpetrators of the attack. The violence is startling and serves as a narrative catalyst, enabling Itso to feel again. Itso and Isel, the Turkish family’s daughter, quickly find themselves in a star-crossed attraction, and meanwhile Itso also reaches out to Georgi, steering him away from his new friends.

In a resonant scene, Isel sneaks away from her family to go to a local music club with Itso. In broken English, she speaks of the “feeling that the world is shaking,” that we’re “sick inside” and “everyone can feel it.” If we didn’t feel it before, by this point in the film, we do feel Isel’s words, and they reach beyond the local problem of racism in Bulgaria, into a more global malaise that the film confronts head-on. Isel’s parents cut their trip short a day early, and she is soon gone. Towards the film’s end, while the rest of the town seems asleep, Itso walks through a deserted street, and encounters an old man who asks him for help carrying things back to his apartment. Up in the man’s apartment, Itso makes himself at home, and falls asleep. He wakes up, no longer facing an old man but a baby. There is a casual hint that this is the old man’s grandchild as he leaves the building, passing a woman on his walk out, but there is also a surrealist allegory to the experience that can’t be dismissed. Eastern Plays is both bold and ambivalent; it isn’t sure where this generation of Europe is headed, but it compels us to look.

– Jeff Scheible

Disko ja tuumasõda, [Disco and Atomic War], 2009. Written and directed by Jaak Kilmi and Kiur Aarma, produced by Aleksi Bardy, Annika Sucksdorff, Helsinki Filmi, and Kiur Aarma.
Estonia, Finland, 85 mins.

Jaak Kilma’s Disco and Atomic War (2009) documents a decades-long cold war television battle, yet the film begins and remains most effective as autobiography.  Kilma grew up in Tallin, Estonia, born into an illicit family business: the creation of illegal converters that facilitated the reception of Finnish television from a strategically-placed tower across the Finnish Sea in Helsinki.  In reenactments, the film shows Kilma as a child watching Dallas and sending synopses of every episode to his niece and playmate, who lives in Southern Estonia, outside the reach of Finnish signals.  The niece relates these episodes to a steadily-increasing audience of neighbors and relatives. When J.R. dies in the season-ending cliffhanger, unable to wait for the resolution of the mystery, she invents one of her own.  In addition to the reenactments, Kilma uses archival footage, expert interviews, and several voiceovers to narrate ideological battles with a dry wit.  His disquisition on “soft power” could at times benefit from softer techniques, and the soundtrack’s repetitive and cyclical use of the whirring sound of a film projector and television PSA chimes quickly become grating.  Nonetheless, every bit as much in the thrall of capitalist television as the Estonians portrayed, the film effectively lampoons the futile attempts of Soviet officials to stem the flood of Western images.  In the face of official attempts to block reception, residents find ever more inventive ways to receive the steady stream of American films, Finnish disco lessons, and European softcore coming over the air.  The film’s most indelible image, even if possibly apocryphal, is a sea of apartment balconies in Tallin at night, lit only by the post-coital glow of cigarettes following the screening of the steamy French Emanuelle (1974) on Finnish TV, the film’s signifier for the imminent fall of the USSR.

– David Gray

Quchis Dgeebi [Street Days], 2010. Directed by Levan Koguashvili, produced by Arhil Gelovani, Gia Bazgadze, and Levan Korinteli, and written by Levan Koguashvili, Boris Frumin and Nikoloz Marri. Georgia, 86 mins, 35mm

Rare is the film that has its audience sympathizing with a heroin-addicted, dead-beat dad. Still rarer is the film that has such a character at its moral center. Georgian director Levan Koguashvili’s first feature film, Street Days, mixes black comedy with a bleak realism from its hand-held camera aesthetic in order to depict the ill-conceived adventuresof Chekie and his contradictory goals of procuring his next hit and providing his ex-wife and child with the type of money that will protect them both from eviction and his own continuously plummeting reputation. Koguashvili depicts Tbilisi as a city of winding streets and dead-ends, and Chekie, masterfully played by Guga Koteshvili, is caught between opposing forces; the cops want him to set up Ika, the teenage son of his high-school friend, now a high-ranking minister, in a drug bust, while Chekie hopes that the same man might be the solution to his wife’s financial misery. http://tr.natashaescort.com

The usual trappings of a drug movie are, for Koguashvili, mere scenery as Street Days quickly sets up the addiction in order to focus more closely on the family and societal relationships that hang in the balance. The search for heroin is constant, but in terms of the narrative, it is only the motor that propels Chekie into encounters with a wide range of characters. Tbilisi seems like a tiny village with so little space that everyone is crammed in together tightly; Chekie waits for his next hit on the corner of his son’s school, Chekie’s dealer lives at home with his father, who loudly bemoans his son’s choices and scolds every customer who comes by, and Chekie is constantly and hilariously at risk of bumping into childhood friends in inconvenient moments.

Koguashvili’s film is fascinated by the bonds between generations, but has no simple message to take away. A powerful directorial presence, he balances the absurdities of city life with the bleak and casual treatment of everyday existence and the result is a film that is both terrifically funny and terribly painful. In the end, there are no rehab centers, only families and Street Days explores both the warmth and claustrophobia encountered in these spaces.

– Maria Corrigan