Up in lights: the new east arrives at the London Film Festival

Up in lights: the new east arrives at the London Film Festival

With the BFI London Film Festival kicking off today, here are our eastern highlights from this year’s lineup: from gritty documentaries to exotic fairytales

7 October 2015

If 2014 was the year of Leviathan — the brooding, black comic epic that won Best Film in London and prompted controversy and discussion in Russia and beyond — then 2015 sees other new east nations come to the fore. Kosovo is represented for the first time (through Visar Morina’s Babai), and rising Bulgarian star Svetla Tsotsorkova will screen her debut feature Thirst. Elsewhere, Romanian crime dramas jostle for space with Polish black comedy and magical camels from Russia’s remote Kalmyk region.

If the geographical range represented at the BFI London Film Festival is as broad as ever, there are still threads linking these multifarious movies together. Many of these films bring to life characters who are isolated, outcast or lost in the world: using humour, tragedy and absurdity they turn our eyes and ears in new and challenging directions. Radical Slovak photographers, nineteenth-century Roma, children living in landfills, women living celibately as men in the Albanian mountains — even a 90-year-old talking parrot — it’s all on screen this year.

Something Better to Come (Russia/Poland)
Director: Hanna Polak

The Svalka, in the outskirts of Moscow, is Europe’s largest landfill. It is also home to a desperate, remarkable community of people. Beginning at the turn of the millennium, Polish filmmaker Hanna Polak spent 14 years in this unforgiving world: without funding and frequently alone, she broke into the site with only the equipment she could fit in a rucksack to document this parallel society of outcasts. Polak entered into a world where death from accident and disease is common. “You can be looking through the viewfinder on your camera, and the next second a truck hits you,” she admits.

It was here that she discovered the ten year-old Yula, who becomes the central figure in Something Better to Come. Quiet yet driven, Yula is an inscrutable but magnetic presence amid the squalor. “She had all these things that she wanted to say … [but] she always watched and observed. She had some kind of strength in herself, something different, I don’t know how to explain it,” Polak says. Before our eyes, Yula goes through adolescence and pregnancy, slowly revealing more of herself as she comes to terms with her life in the rubbish.

The resulting documentary feels rough yet focused, with unbearable pain laced through with brief moments of real joy. “You never usually go to this level of creativity,” Polak says of the four years she spent editing the material. “You’re forced to go so deep looking for connections.” Something Better to Come is a feat of documentary exploration and a tribute to people trying to survive in a squalid world.

Wave vs. Shore (Slovakia)
Director: Martin Štrba

Combining technical innovation with emotional honesty is never easy, but this is what Martin Štrba's documentary achieves. A fitting tribute to the Slovak New Wave of experimental photographers, of which he himself was a part, Wave vs. Shore plunges us into the world of illicit culture in 1980s Prague. Here the film’s protagonists — Štrba, Miro Švolík, Rudo Prekop, Jano Pavlík, Peter Župník, Tono Stano — meet at the prestigious FAMU film school and set about disrupting late-communist orthodoxy in their explicit and playful work.

“We simply printed our feelings on a sensitised film layer,” says Štrba. “If an exhibition was banned, it would move elsewhere, for example to Peter Župník´s apartment.” His film is loyal to this mantra of motion/emotion: a dizzying array of still images flash across the screen; Štrba switches from rough handheld footage to animation to recordings made over Skype. Much of the film is devoted to life after the New Wave had crashed upon the shore of mid-90s commercialisation, as Štrba reconnects with his old colleagues to discuss creativity in a world transformed by the events of 1989. The film is arguably most touching in these moments of reflection on lost youth.

“Once a wave comes into existence, it is natural that it will, seemingly, ‘fade’,” Štrba argues. “But the borders of [artistic] territories do not match the borders of political territories.” The world that birthed the Slovak New Wave is no more, but as Štrba hopes his striking documentary shows, its original vibrancy “continues to live on in the soul of society.”

[Translation for this interview: Alexandra Strelková, Slovak Film Institute]

Celestial Camel (Russia)
Director: Yury Feting

Co-written by veteran director and screenwriter Feting and Elzyata Mandzhieva, daughter of celebrated author Nimgir Mandzhiev, Celestial Camel is in its own unassuming way one of the more unusual films on offer at this year’s festival. Shot amongst traditional homesteads on the desert steppes of the southern region of Kalmykia, this is a children’s fairytale that grows out of local myths but ends up as a universal and surprisingly mature take on family responsibility, mortality and magic.

Altynka is a white camel calf fabled to bring rain to the parched steppe. When his impoverished owner sells Altynka to a Russian filmmaker, his young son Bair (nonprofessional debutant Mikhail Gasanov) sets off to retrieve the enchanted animal. His adventures unfold against a harsh, fascinating landscape rarely witnessed by outsiders. “It’s a fantastic place,” Feting tells me, “sometimes reminiscent of another planet. But one where people are all the same a part of Russia.” There is almost a documentary edge alongside what Feting calls the “mirage” of the narrative, which captures folkloric rituals as well as the intense relationship between man and camel in these remote regions.

The themes are universal, even if the landscape is exotic. “The Kalmyks told me: it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” Feting says. “You just have to ask for rain with sincerity. You have to speak to God in your own language.” In this spirit, he is hoping that young London audiences will react with the same rapturous engagement that greeted the film at its premiere in Berlin.

Thirst (Bulgaria)
Director: Svetla Tsotsorkova

Remarkably assured for a feature debut, Svetla Tsotsorkova’s minimalist drama unfolds in the dusty Bulgarian mountains. A husband, wife and teenage son live in an isolated wooden house in the foothills, scraping out a living washing the sheets of a local hotel. Faced with a drought, they take in a father and daughter to divine and drill for water. From this simple premise, Tsotsorkova traces an oblique narrative of suspicion and sexuality.

Amid stifling heat and sparse dialogue, every glance is laden with unease. The cast is uniformly excellent, although special praise is due to Monika Naidenova as the bristling, inscrutable water diviner. Two years of casting from 3,000 potential teenagers has paid off for Tsotsorkova: Naidenova brilliantly portrays how her character’s unsettling influence on the couple’s son (Aleksandar Benev) grows by degrees as the summer wears on.

Tsotsorkova describes the setting as being inspired by her own grandmother’s house, but with “the softness of my childhood memories sharpened by the distance of time”. The film exists within an often overlooked national tradition. “The theme — the life of ordinary people — was present in Bulgarian cinema from the 1960s and developed further in the 70s,” Tsotsorkova notes, citing directors such as Eduard Zahariev and Rangel Valchanov. Her work is a sign that Bulgarian cinema is reasserting itself after collapsing in the 90s. “We had a few years when no films were made because there was no money,” she says. “I hope that everyone in Bulgaria realises how important for filmmaking it is not to go there ever again.”

Other films to look out for

Polish auteur Małgorzata Szumowska won the Silver Bear for Best Director at this year’s Berlin Film Festival with Body, a droll and idiosyncratic drama about three people struggling to deal with grief who are offered the chance to commune with the dead. Radu Muntean’s One Floor Below provides yet another example of taut and psychologically astute Romanian realism: it portrays the ethical dilemma of a simple man, Sandru (Teodor Corban), who suspects his neighbour of murder. Czech absurdist Petr Zelenka (The Karamazovs) returns with Lost in Munich, the suitably bizarre story of former French premier Edouard Daladier’s parrot, a diplomatic incident, and a desperate journalist on the run. Zelenka’s bewildering film-within-in-a-film narrative never lets the audience settle. The German-Kosovar co-production Babai is a wrenching account of a young Kosovar boy travelling to Germany to seek out his émigré father. Director Visar Morina captures the everyday, human tragedy of migration and European identity crises in this timely drama.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 — 18 October. Information on screenings can be found on their website.

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