Introducing the 10 most anticipated New East films you need to watch in 2020

With six Eastern European films among the 10 international pictures shortlisted for the Oscars this year, 2020 is already set to be a golden year in New East cinema. Luckily, The Calvert Journal has picked the top 10 films for your must-see movie watchlist over the next 12 months.

27 January 2020
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1. Petrov’s Flu (Russia)

Director: Kirill Serebrennikov

Dissident Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov, best known for his critically-acclaimed The Student (2016) and Summer (2018), will be hitting cinemas again in 2020 with his latest film, Petrov’s Flu. An adaptation of Alexey Salnikov’s prize-winning novel, the production is set to star actor Chulpan Khamatova, theatre director Semyon Serzin, and Ukrainian singer Ivan Dorn.

Somewhere between comedy and psychological thriller, the novel tells the story of the Petrovs: a seemingly ordinary Yekaterinburg family who fall victim to the flu just a few days before New Year’s Eve. In Salnikov’s prose, humorous, and subtle observations of everyday life are intertwined with mystery and fantasy – but Cannes’ favourite Serebrennikov, who wrote the screenplay while under house arrest, is more than capable of bringing the novel to the screen.

Serebrennikov’s theatre adaptation of Petrov’s Flu (with a different cast) is currently on at Gogol Centre in Moscow.

A still from Agnieszka Holland's Charlatan (2020).

2. Charlatan (Czech Republic)

Director: Agnieszka Holland

Agnieszka Holland, whose directing credits range from The Wire and House of Cards to the Oscar-nominated Holocaust drama Europa, Europa (1990), seems to be working at a Woody Allen-esque pace at the age 71. Holland’s previous film, Mr Jones, was only released in February 2019, but you can already start looking forward to Charlatan later this year.

Charlatan is based on the true story of Czech healer Jan Mikolášek, who gained fame and notoriety in the mid-20th century after coming to the aid of both celebrities and common people. Even the President of Czechoslovakia, Antonín Zápotocký, turned to Mikolášek for help, eventually getting the healer into hot water with Zápotocký’s successors.

Despite being primarily known as the matriarch of Polish cinema, Holland has a close connection to Czech history and culture: during her studies at the FAMU film school in Prague, she witnessed the Prague Spring, later translating The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera’s novel about the events of 1968, into Polish. In 2013, she also directed a mini-series Burning Bush about student Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

Charlatan will premiere on 20 February at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Read more A daring new youth drama is set to put Slovenian cinema on the map

3. The Story of My Wife (Hungary)

Director: Ildikó Enyedi

Naval captain Jakob bets a friend that he’ll marry the first woman who walks through the door of the cafe where they’re sitting. The lucky customer turns out to be a young Frenchwoman called Lizzy, and Jakob happily keeps his word.

Based on Milán Füst’s Nobel prize-nominated novel, Ildiko Enyedi’s new project, boasts a stellar international cast. Gijs Naber plays Jakob, whose love for his wife (played by Léa Seydoux) is soon clouded with jealousy when he starts to suspect her of having an affair with Louis Garrel’s Dedin.

Füst’s book was first published in 1946 and has since been translated into more than 20 languages. Although the novel was written in Hungarian, the worldy, global cast of characters means that the director’s decision to shoot the adaption largely in English is not untrue to the story.

Enyedi’s previous film, On Body and Soul (2017), now available on Netflix, won the Berlinale’s Golden Bear and was nominated for an Oscar.

The Story of My Wife will be released in Hungarian cinemas on 20 September.

4. Wonder Zenia (Poland)

Director: Małgorzata Szumowska

Malgorzata Szumowska, the proud owner of two Berlin Film Festival Silver Bears for Body (2015) and Mug (2018), continues to explore the connections and borders between the spiritual and the corporeal. Zenia, the title character of Szumowska’s latest film, is a Ukrainian immigrant living in Poland. His extraordinary skills as a masseur quickly gain the trust of his clients, and he soon becomes a close confidant and even a spiritual guru for many of them.

Alec Utgoff, star of Stranger Things and Dracula, will be taking on the starring role, alongside Agata Kulesza — best known for Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida and Cold War and Maja Ostaszewska, famous for her role in Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń.

The Polish premier of Wonder Zenia is planned for 16 October.

A still from My Thoughts are Silent (2019).

5. My Thoughts Are Silent (Ukraine)

Director: Antonio Lukich

When a Canadian game developer asks Vadim to record the noises of different animals in Ukraine, paying him 25 Canadian dollars for each submission and even promising a job in Canada for a recording of one particularly rare bird, he accepts the offer without hesitation. Vadim is determined to deliver his best work, but his plans go awry as his adventurous and energetic mother decides to join him.

Although it may sound like but another twist on the road movie cliché, My Thoughts Are Silent is, in fact, based on a true story from one of the director’s friends, who found himself on a similar quest with his father. Lukich, however, decided to let the protagonist’s mother accompany him instead, in honor of Ukraine’s many 90s kids raised by single mothers.

The working title of the film was The Sound of One Hand Clapping, after a famous Japanese Zen kōan – and, in a very similar way, Vadim’s search for the rare Transcarpathian bird also turns out to be a rather philosophical tale in the end.

My Thoughts Are Silent is in Ukrainian theatres starting 16 January.

North Macedonian documentary Honeyland shows us just how fragile our link with nature is
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6. The Hill Where Lionesses Roar (Kosovo)

Director: Luàna Bajrami

Luàna Bajrami, an 18-year-old French-Kosovar actor, will be using 2020 as a springboard into the world of directing. Not unlike Céline Sciamma’s critically-acclaimed The Portrait of the Lady on Fire (2019), in which Bajrami plays a supporting role, The Hill Where Lionesses Roar is a decidedly female-driven film, centring on three young women who, tired of the daily routine, form a gang to target local traders.

Although Bajrami left her homeland for France at the age of seven, The Hill Where Lionesses Roar is set in Kosovo and is a French-Kosovar co-production. Bajrami’s feature debut, meanwhile, has already won the Alphapanda Audience Engagement Award at the Work in Progress sessions of Les Arcs Film Festival in 2019.

7. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Russia)

Director: Gleb Panfilov

As a director, Gleb Panfilov many be best known for Soviet classics such as No Path Through Fire (1967) and The Theme (1979). In 2020, however, he’s working on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Nobel Prize-winning writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Just as the title suggests, the plot follows one day in the life of gulag prisoner Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, or Sh-854, as he is known to the labour camp authorities. Published in 1962, the book was a revelation, and the first printed literary work to deal with the Soviet Union’s notorious gulag system.

This is not the first time that Panfilov has turned to Solzhenitsyn’s work: in 2006, he adapted The First Circle for TV, working with the director on the screenplay and narrating the miniseries himself. Solzhenitsyn passed away in 2008, before the work on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had started, but is said to have given Panfilov his blessing to adapt this novel too.

A still from Srđan Dragojević's Heavens Above (2020).

8. Heavens Above (Serbia)

Director: Srđan Dragojević

Heavens Above is based on the magic-infused works of French writer Marcel Aymé. This new film by Srđan Dragojević tells the story of three miracles happening in a society where, after the fall of the communist regime, people are rediscovering religion.

The film is split into three parts, each happening in 1993, 2001, and 2018; following the same characters, we can see the change (or lack thereof) in people’s beliefs and philosophy in post-communist states. Dragojević is fascinated by the extravagant blend of old ideology with freshly-learned religious doctrines and traditional superstitions, something which can be seen as a natural reaction to a long period of the state control in its citizens’ spiritual life. An international production, the film is shot in several countries and features actors from Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

Read more What can Agnieszka Holland’s film on exposing Stalin’s crimes teach us about the truth today?

9. Air (Russia)

Director: Alexey German Jr.

The role played by heroic Soviet women in the Second World War is widely acknowledged in popular culture. Female characters are at the centre of many Russian war films, from 1945 comedy musical Heavenly Slug, to the iconic adaptation of The Dawns Here Are Quiet (1972) and the 2004 miniseries On the Nameless Height.

Alexey German Jr., whose previous works include Under Electric Clouds (2015), a drama about time, history, and generations in Russia, and Dovlatov (2018), a film about the Russian dissident writer, contributes to this tradition with his new film, Air, which tells the stories of several female pilots serving in the Second World War. There were several all-female regiments in the Soviet air force during the war, the most famous of which was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, nicknamed “The Night Witches.” Elena Kiseleva, who is best known for her recent collaborations with Andrei Konchalovsky, is working on the screenplay for the film.


10. We Are… We Are Close (Ukraine)

Director: Roman Balayan

Director Roman Balayan is finally making a comeback to the film industry after a 10-year break in his career. Set in Kyiv, We Are… We Are Close, follows a surgeon who commits a fatal error when diagnosing his own seven-year-old godson. After writing his resignation letter in a state of shock, he meets a mysterious woman who changes his life completely.

Balayan first came up with the idea for the film in 1990, but rewrote the screenplay after seeing Luc Besson’s Angel-A (2005). It’s interesting to look out for parallels between the two films, such as Balayan’s decision to shoot in black and white.

For a while, the director considered his close friend and leader of Ukrainian rock-band Okean Elzy, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, for the leading role, but decided to give it to actor, screenwriter, and director Akhtem Seitablayev instead. Yekaterina Molchanova, meanwhile, plays the female lead.

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