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Eastern European Cinema: 25 years after the Wall
© Yoana Pavlova
 
 
   
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Interview with San Sebastian IFF΄s Eastern Promises programmer Matthieu Darras by Yoana Pavlova

From the end of the World War II to 1989, European nations on the right side of the Berlin Wall formed not only a political alliance, united by a common ideology, but also one vast narrative canvas, studded with common heroes and their life stories. For practical and economical reasons, this canvas often took the form of a cinema frame, so a partizan film shot in former Yugoslavia, for example, was easy, or better say, recommendable to be shown in neighboring countries. The movie stars of ex-Czechoslovakia were also movie stars in Romania. The film school in Łódź / Poland was a hot spot for emerging talent from all around, within the borders of the Warsaw Pact of course. 

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, each of these nations was left on its own. Yet, funny or not, for years after 1989 their problems were similar. There was the war or the fear of the war, the inflation, the mass privatization, the strikes, the lack of basic products, the rise of organized crime, the rapid devaluation of moral virtues. Nobody was in the mood for partizans anymore, nor even for cinema. Still, films in these countries were made, sometimes just a few per year, even if there were less and less theaters to exhibit local production. When the so called “transitional period” was over, or at least the hardest part of it, these films found their way to international festivals, started picking awards and shaping New Waves. 


Twenty-five years after 1989, the time span of one generation, the San Sebastián film festival looks back at the cinema of Central and Eastern Europe, offering a large retrospective of fifty titles under the name Eastern Promises / Portrait of Eastern Europe in 50 films. Produced from 2000 to 2013, these films can be seen as crucial in the cinematic and cultural development of Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Moldavia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Serbia.
After playing the trailer of the Eastern Promises panorama over and over again, I had the impression of a polyphony with like-minded yet very distinguished voices. At different points of my life I had a chance to watch many of the films featured in the selection and its trailer (some of them – long before I knew that one day I would write on cinema professionally), but so far I have never dared to regard them as part of one and the same configuration. I decided to get in touch with the one person who could provide a key to this complex opus and namely the programmer who composed it – Matthieu Darras.

Let΄s start with the idea to curate the Eastern Promises panorama for the 62th edition of San Sebastián IFF – how did you come up with it?

Actually the idea to curate Eastern Promises is not mine, but the one of the San Sebastián IFF director José Luis Rebordinos. In an interview he gave to Spanish journalists on the occasion of the 2013 edition of the festival, he clearly stated that some of the most interesting cinematic gems were coming from Eastern Europe according to him. I welcomed very much this statement, which proved that the festival went a long way back, since it traditionally was not paying too much attention to this region, with few exceptions - such as the discovery of György Pálfi’s Hukkle, in 2002, or the main award [the Golden Shell] given to Bohdan Sláma΄s Something Like Happiness/Štesti in 2005. I like to think that with my work as delegate for Central & Eastern Europe since 2010, the festival has started to re-discover Eastern European films. We are now starting to see significant results, with five films from Eastern Europe in the New Directors’ Competition this year (including the winning film The Lesson), or a third of the student short films coming from the region. 

The Lesson, by Kristina Grozeva

Why did you decide to focus on post-2000 films, considering the fact that your selection celebrates the 25th anniversary of 1989? 

If the idea of the retrospective came from José Luis Rebordinos, it was important to me not to simply showcase the best films, but to make the portrait of a certain generation of filmmakers – those who started to make their feature films in the 2000s – and that I would label “the children of the transition”. I think the film buffs know already Andrzej Wajda, Emir Kusturica, Miloš Forman, Jan Švankmajer, or Béla Tarr. Yet it is important to recognize the achievements of the directors who have come in the last years. Even though the realities of the many countries of Eastern Europe are very diverse, it seemed that the early 2000s marked a turning point with many new filmmakers appearing. These are the people who grew up as kids under Communist times, got their film education in the 1990s, and started making films in the 2000s. Now in 2014, and whereas filmmakers born after 1989, are starting to make their first films, I believe it was time to provide a tribute, and also to make a sort of evaluation of what filmmakers like Cristi Puiu, Danis Tanović, Sławomir Fabicki, Kornél Mundruczó, or Veiko Õunpuu, have achieved so far. 

What were the most challenging aspects of your work as a programmer and as an editor of the accompanying bilingual book? 

The retrospective also had the purpose to catch up with what had happened in Eastern European cinema, so it was not that focused. We, for example, did not do a retrospective on “Hungarian cinema” or on “Minimalism in Eastern European cinema”. As the scope was broad, it was difficult to pick up which films to choose (even though I am not aware of such a large retrospective, with 50 films, in any other festival). Also having all the countries represented was challenging, and not for diplomatic reasons, but artistic ones. Interestingly, for some countries, choices were rather obvious, like for Hungary or Romania. On the contrary, for Poland, I think, an alternative curating could have made as much sense as the one we went for. As an editor of the book, it was important for me to give the word to the filmmakers, as their ways of expressing themselves show better than anything else the richness and diversity of Eastern European cinematographies. I also wanted the book to be written by critics coming from the different countries, in order to avoid the phenomenon of “external gaze” at a topic. The most challenging was trying not to reduce the retrospective to a collection of national cinemas. I have to say this is not easy to think the tension between individual voices and cinemas that are mainly structured on a national level.

It is admirable that the programme you proposed is democratic enough to offer equal opportunities for almost all countries in the region, as by 1989 the cinema of Poland, Hungary, ex-Yugoslavia, ex-Czechoslovakia, ex-USSR was praised on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Your selection provides a chance to track how certain "small" cinematographies, such as Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria (not to mention the now-ubiquitous festival favorites Romania or Bosnia and Herzegovina), have gained fantastic speed within less than two decades. How would your explain this progress, juxtaposed to more or less the same economical, social, and political problems prevailing in these countries ever since 1989? 

Many of the countries you mention did not even exist back in 1989. So the filmmakers from these parts of Europe were previously belonging to larger entities, for example the Yugoslav one for Slovenian filmmakers. After these countries became independent, it became clear for the newly born States that they should sustain cinematographic activities. Even though appreciation of culture is not necessarily very high amongst politicians in all the countries, it is a commonly recognized fact that cinema is an important mean in the process of building national identity and sense of belonging. So, even if the rhythm of creating sustainable structures has been very diverse in the different countries, and in many cases suffered from the “privatization” and embezzlements that occurred in the 1990s, the situation now is that each and every country has a rather consistent film law and/or film national agency or fund. Of course, cases of misuse/mismanagement of public funding are still too many, and so is the corruption. Yet, if I were politically incorrect, I would even say that even though the allocated funds are in many cases very limited and suffer from coming of one source only (the national fund), possibly the competition for having a film project funded is less fierce amongst filmmakers from Eastern Europe than for their counterparts from the West. In France, by comparison, there are really many, many people who want to make films! The other aspect, which has not to do with the macro-structure, is the fact that this generation, on which the retrospective is focusing, is possibly the first one that has traveled so much, and got its inspiration from many sources. It is a very much resilient, open-minded and flexible generation, so the people learnt to make films differently, in an alternative way, and this also explains why talents are now coming from all corners of Europe. As a matter of fact, this is not true only for Europe, but for all filmmakers in the world nowadays.

The majority of the Eastern Promises titles were conceived, produced, and distributed with the help of digital technologies, which, I assume, made their authors more audience-conscious, and the final result - more communicative, as compared to the clichés of pre-1989 auteur cinema and 1990s Balkan extravaganza. Do you think it was the digital context that reinforced the "substance-over-style" motto and led to the overall success of these films? 

What you say is possibly true for many films showcased as part of the retrospective, but the overall picture is much more grey to me. What I mean is that I do not think there has been such a big shift everywhere. In many countries, notably in Slovakia where I live, film students are still mainly educated with the idea of prevalence of style over a communication with the audience. This is also true for most of the Hungarian films made in the 2000s: no matter how brilliant they could be, and their successes in festivals, they have been very much lacking of a desire to connect with an audience – even a limited one. Oppositions between pure/saint authors on one side vs. commercial/disgusting films on the other side still very much exist. This can be explained: due to the rather small sizes of the countries (and thus also the market), few films can be produced in each country every year, which leads to this kind of Manichean vision. Cinema as an expensive form of expression is possibly not the most suited for small countries. Whereas we have more or less come to terms for a long time already with the romantic auteur theory in France, even though we invented the concept, I have the feeling it is not the case in many parts of Eastern Europe. Possibly the countries, where there has been a breach in term of film education and a gap between generations (I notably think about Romania, Bulgaria, and ex-Yugoslavia), are also the countries where there have been the best practices in the use of digital technologies. The best example is obviously the Romanian New Wave, even though their connection with local audience is far from being demonstrated.

Esma΄s Secret, by Jasmila Zbanic

Looking at the list of directors in the Eastern Promises panorama, what strikes is the large number of women filmmakers, not simply because it is usually the opposite in Western cinema but also due to the fact that Eastern Europe is largely still very machist. What is your interpretation of this phenomenon? 

It is a complex issue that I am quite interested in, thus it is quite difficult to give one clear and simple answer. Firstly, maybe there are more women filmmakers showcased in our retrospective than there are female directors active in Eastern European cinema – also because it was a conscious choice from our side. Besides, the few female directors, who manage to have access to the means of production, generally succeed much better in term of festivals, proportionally to their male counterparts. The retrospective focuses as well mostly on first- and second-time directors, and relatively “small” films, where the gender ratio is more balanced. If you looked at bigger films from more experienced directors, then the picture would be much more desolate. There is just one Agnieszka Holland in Eastern Europe, and Jane Campion is called in all juries of festivals in the world, simply because she is the one female filmmaker of this stature. On the other hand, each year the Cannes film festival competition is predominantly composed of films made by male directors in their 60΄s. This year in Sochi, at the film festival of Russian cinema, women directed half of the films in competition. Possibly there are reasons to be optimistic about that, but it could also mean – as one programmer noted – that is because filmmaking is losing of its social prestige in Russia. One another explanation is the fact that opportunities of actually making money are less and less in cinema, so the men – artists included – are leaving the field. That is a phenomenon which is quite similar to what happened with journalism for the last 30 years. The profession witnessed a huge feminization not because of a supposedly social progress, but rather since being journalist is not as highly valued as it used to be. 

As many films in your selection could be easily described as "difficult", I am curious about the viewers΄ reactions in San Sebastian during and after Eastern Promises screenings – were there any repeated questions, emotional outbursts, symptoms of denial?

I could not really answer this question, as I have not attended any Eastern Promises screenings from beginning to the end. However, I attended four films of the New Directors’ Competition (Latvian film Modris, Bulgarian film The Lesson, Romanian documentary Toto and his Sisters, Hungarian documentary Cain΄s Children / Kain Gyermekei), and I was very happy and amazed how audience felt close and could relate to those films. Actually, the economic crisis that Spain has been suffering from for many years now, makes the Spanish people feeling closer to the realities of Eastern Europe. There used to be a sort of divide and an exotic/superior look at Eastern European films. This is not the case anymore. Something similar has happened with Greece, which refused to label itself as a Balkan country for ages. And now the Greek filmmakers claim this identity. Toto and his Sisters was, for example, the film rated the highest by the Spanish youth jury (made of about 200 youngsters) in the New Directors’ Competition. I think Eastern European directors are facing less and less these kinds of questions, as if they were coming from another planet. 

Seeing Eastern Promises in retrospect to your own career as head of the European network NISI MASA and as programmer of Eastern European cinema for different festivals, how do you perceive this (re)collection? 

I have always been an advocate of a cultural Europe, even if the project is in dire straits, which makes me extremely sad. There are far less reasons to be optimistic than just 10 years ago. On the other hand, I feel that the so-called crisis, if it does not make Europe completely explode at some point, is bringing people closer to each other – and cinema is still a perfect medium for people to raise their awareness of what they have in common. 

What do you think Eastern European cinema can promise in general? Especially given that this year the New Directors Award was bestowed upon the Bulgarian The Lesson, a film that could most probably fit in your selection, had it been shot a few years earlier? 

As I said, I believe that talents can be coming from anywhere, so there is not a single place to overlook. However, I see the film environment as extremely favorable nowadays in Poland, and I am sure we will be witnessing an increase of Polish films that travel in the near future. I have also identified several “creative cells” of very young people (who are 25 years old or younger) here and there, and I know the good films will mostly be coming from these places, where groups of people intensively collaborate together. I am especially looking forward to discovering the films of the people born after 1989; I believe what they have to say, and how they will say it, is slightly different from what I am used to watch at the moment, so I am very curious. When it comes to The Lesson, it definitely could have been part of the retrospective. It is minimalistic cinema at its best, and it manages to be simple and universal – two qualities that are difficult to combine.

 
 
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  The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
  Beyond the Hills
  No Man`s Land
  Letter to America
  Modris
  Bread and Milk
  The Lesson
  Toto and His Sisters
 
  Emir Kusturica
  Cristian Mungiu
  Cristi Puiu
  Danis Tanovic
  Jasmila Zbanic
  Matthieu Darras
  Yoana Pavlova
  Kristina Grozeva
  Alexander Nanau
 
  62nd San Sebastian Inernational Film Festival
 
 
 
 
 
  Kinoeye on Hukkle
 
 
 
 
 
 
       
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