With films from Estonia, Georgia, Russia, Poland and Mauritania (the director of Timbuktu, Abderrahmane Sissako, sharpened his skills at Moscow’s film school), the east and its cinematic influence has dominated this year’s foreign-language Oscar nominations. (The other film in contention is Argentine.)
There isn’t a single theme tying the films together, but in its own way, each film that made it to nomination (or in Georgia’s case, the January shortlist) deals at once with the local and universal, rooting themes comprehensible to everyone in an unmistakably individual setting.
Some of the film directors may claim, as Andrey Zvyagintsev has done with Leviathan, that motifs in their films are relevant to all mankind. But the particular settings and periods of all the films cannot help but give viewers an insight into cultures and memories too often absent from contemporary cinema. Many of the stories told by the directors in these films are inspired by devastating events which have shaped their contemporary societies. While not documentaries, these films are far from fiction, with each picture telling human tales of a region coming to terms with its past.
Director: Zaza Urushadze
Set in a rural village in Abkhazia,Tangerines is a tale of pacifism set against the backdrop of the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia. The film follows the lives of two Estonian farmers, who remain in their village to harvest the annual crop of tangerines, despite the exodus of Estonians who return to their homeland following the outbreak of the conflict. When two wounded fighters — one a Chechen mercenary fighting on the Abkhazia side, the other a Georgian — turn up on their land injured but eager to avenge their fallen comrades, the two farmers nurse them back to health, and in the process come to learn about human frailty and the hope of atonement.
Corn Island (Georgia)
Director: Giorgi Ovashvili
A look back at a painful era of Georgian history, Corn Island takes place on the Enguri River, the dividing line of the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia during the 1990s. Set during a period that saw the region rocked by civil conflict, the film has been described as a subdued psychological drama, telling the story of an old Abkhaz man and his granddaughter living on an island during wartime. Choosing Abkhaz protagonists instead of Georgian ones, Ovashvili wanted to “open up the emotional side of [the conflict] and tell Georgian audiences the story from another angle”, a feat he achieves through his use of nameless characters and sparse dialogue.
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan has arguably become one of Russia’s most important films in recent years. Its divisiveness among Russians, who have labelled the film as anything from the most accurate portrayal of modern Russia to a Russophobic slur worthy of banning, speaks volumes about the film’s ambiguous themes. Leviathan chronicles the attempts of protagonist Kolya, a handyman living in Russia’s Far North, to resist the corrupt local mayor from seizing his land for his own construction project. The heavy vodka-drinking, infuriating bureaucracy and ultimate futility of fighting against injustice are, some claim, tropes unique to Russia. But Zvyagintsev’s assertion that the seduction of corruption and the defeat of good by evil — themes at the heart of his work — are common not just to Russians but to all mankind, leaves the interpretation of the film open.
Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako honed his cinematic craft at Moscow’s Federal State Film Institute during the 1980s, making a name for himself with the 1997 documentary Rostov-Luanda, about his journey to Angola in search of an old friend from film school. His latest film, Timbuktu, follows the lives of a cattle herder and his family, whose typically quiet lives are rocked by the occupation of Islamist fundamentalist group Ansar Dine in 2012. Sissako’s portrayal of jihadists in the film has been noted for its humanity — they are not without hearts, but rather they have taught themselves not to use them. Leaving aside the hysteria of trite, Hollywood “terrorism” movies, Sissako’s Timbuktu presents an unflinching look at the nature of intolerance and its decimation of diversity against the backdrop of a village under occupation.
Director: Pawel Pawilowski
Anna, a novice nun, is told by her mother superior to visit her aunt before taking her vows. Her aunt, a judge and communist party member, tells her two important things: that her parents were Jews murdered by the Nazis; and that her real name is Ida Lebenstein. The quest that ensues sees the protagonist, along with her aunt, search for answers about the death of her parents, in what becomes a spiritual and personal journey of faith for which the legacy of the Second World War is a backdrop. The black and white film has been praised for its privileging of the personal over the political, depicting the struggle to understand the past in its own right rather than being overshadowed by the Cold-War communism and post-war stupor that gripped Poland at the time.