Impressions from the 27th Eastern European Film Festival, Cottbus

Returning to Berlin from this year’s Cottbus Film Festival I felt weighed down with images. The feeling was accompanied by a curious sense of disorientation: You come out of a screening that takes you, say, to Minsk, or to Slovakia or Sofia, and you are unsure where you are. You realize: This small German city is, after all, a part of Eastern Europe. The apartment blocks, the wide swath of wide road cut into the fabric of the historical city centre, street signs in both German and Lower Sorbian, the almost extinct Slavonic language of the area. A realization that you are already in eastern Europe – an imaginary territory, a vast space continuing east from here to Estonia in the north, Croatia and Montenegro in the south, and across the Carpathians and Bulgaria into an undefined distance, perhaps as far east as Azerbaijan, or even further east, to Vladivostok.

But what is European about it, and what delineates or defines it? (Many writers have come up with different answers, Andrzej Stasiuk comes to mind.) One common denominator would be that those countries all share the heritage of an experiment variously called ‘Socialism’ or ‘Communism’, along with Soviet rule. I love the sound of the Slavonic languages spoken in the films and, with my rudimentary Russian and with a lot of help from the subtitles, I can sometimes make out individual words. It is all quite ironic, really: Because when Eastern Europe seemed to suddenly open up, in 1990, I did not care. And for a long time I continued not to care about its languages, countries or their histories: too complicated, too alien, too far removed from the life of a West German cold-war kid.

That has changed, for several reasons, one being that I realized those countries cut off by the Iron Curtain are European. (I am ashamed to admit it took such a long time for that to sink in.) I was fascinated by the films’ various protagonists: a lot of them are struggling to survive, or to find a place in life, and there is almost everything against them. I was especially curious about the fate and the feelings of the male protagonists, as I watched a lot of women protagonists, vulnerable and apparently exploited, at the same time resilient and courageous. I suppose, the harsh transition in these countries was hitting the men hardest, making a lot of traditional male jobs, tasks and roles almost disappear. As it often falls to the women of the families, wives, daughters, grandmothers, to help the family survive, I feel it is fitting to focus on them. To show them as the heroines that they often are, though imperfect and very human. (Coincidentally, a film with such a protagonist, Wild Roses, by Polish director Anna Jadowska won the grand prize of the jury, the Lubina, this year.) But it made me wonder to what extent the Eastern European world is really still a man’s world.

The male protagonist of the gripping Bulgarian film Omnipresent, who installs cameras everywhere to spy on colleagues, friends and family, was certainly a man as ‘manly’ as they come. The boss of a hip advertising agency, but with ambitions as a writer, Adam certainly enjoys his drink and his women. And what starts out as a little private experiment becomes a dangerous obssession and ends – the audience has seen it coming – with Adam’s downfall.

The father figure in the Czech and Slovak co-production Nina, about the twelve or thirteen year old daughter of a couple who has just broken up, is a broken working-class hero: a worker in the harbor, he operates a giant crane to load ships on the banks of the Danube. His daughter, a keen swimmer, daydreams about the cranes, their arms and scoops performing a dance in the sky. Her dad’s crane is a safe haven, a place where the two of them seem to fly. But her parents have broken up, there is nagging and fighting. The camera is in love with the mother: a former dancer, she seems too weighed down by the pressure of having to construct a new life for herself and her daughter. When Nina asks her to give a presentation and performance as a dancer in front of her class, she refuses. Her dad, however, shows up to talk about his blue-collar job – if only to win Nina back, who is becoming alienated from him. With an underdog’s defiance, he stands in front of the class, bravely fielding all questions from his young audience (‘What do you do when you have to pee?’ – ‘We have a special bucket for that’). And when asked what he does when he is bored, he starts belting out the Kinks’ “You really got me”. All are laughing, having fun with him, while Nina reluctantly smiles: she is proud. But Nina’s dad (wonderfully played by Robert Roth), with his earring and leather jacket, seems almost like a member of a dying species.

More traditional maleness is shown in the entertaining feature film, The Line, about smugglers on the Slovak-Ukrainian border: the protagonist, Taras, is a muscle-bound macho, threatening first to kill his daughter’s suitor when learning she is pregnant, but eventually accepts him into the family ‘business’. As the story unfolds, against the backdrop of the run-up to Slovakia’s accession to the Schengen zone, one gets the feeling of a world in rapid transition: the border is about to become the tightly-controlled eastern border of the EU. Smuggling, a traditional way of life in the Carpathians, will continue, but the stakes have been raised. Instead of cigarettes, synthetic drugs and illegal migrants are now most lucrative. Taras refuses to get involved, but he is fighting a losing battle. With most of his smugglers dead, and with his wife having left him, Taras is a man on the run: he has kept his integrity, but lost everything else.

It is the women who – in their little ways – follow their dreams  in most of the films I watched: Nina, a talented swimmer in her early teens, runs away from home when her mother, anxious to protect the child, prevents her from attending swimming classes and competitions. In “Yellow Mud”, a wonderful Latvian coming-of-age film, the teen-age heroine, Raya, almost eighteen and about to finish school, is left to fend for herself and her little brother after their hated grandmother, Olga, suddenly dies. Vainly trying to get in touch with their mother, who has left them to work in Britain, Raya tries to keep up appearances, so the siblings won’t be sent to an orphanage: Olga’s dead body is discreetly disposed of in the forest and Raya turns into a model pupil. She even signs up for an English language competition – winning the first prize will mean a trip to London, and possible an opportunity to re-connect with their mother.

But it was the attitude of the young protagonists – both male and female – of “Test-730” that impressed me most. The Belarussian documentary follows three graduates during their obligatory two-year-term working for the state, in exchange for having studied free of charge at a Belorussian university. A young doctor, a dancer and a geologist have been sent to live and work in remote villages, leaving their friends behind in the city. Initially finding it very difficult to adapt, they all manage to stay focused, and to make the most of it – taking up new hobbies, learning a foreign language, even enjoying the rural landscape. Oksana the geologist, reflects at the end of the film: “Life does not go according to plan… but I learned the main thing, I guess: to go after my goals and to move on. It made me stronger.”

Essay Bad Belzig – Cottbus

Standing in front of a shop window in the small town of Bad Belzig, on an overcast November day four or five years ago, I realized for the first time my home country is much more connected with the East than I ever imagined. I had come not for the first time from Berlin to the small town in Brandenburg’s Fläming region to visit my friends. But for the first time I was bringing my girlfriend with me, who is from in Kiev in Ukraine. Coming from the train station, we had soon reached the old centre’s paved streets, empty of cars and peopled only by a few Sunday afternoon strollers taking in the renovated facades of the eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings. We stopped in front of a building with a beautiful arch above its door, a former shop on the corner of Straße der Einheit and Sandberger Straße. One of its two windows had been temporarily taken over by the local photographic society for an exhibition. In the other, there were a few photos, but also, inexplicably, sweets in bright wrappers. Most pictures were from present-day Russia, showing factory buildings, others were sepia-toned portraits of Belzig’s famous son: Theodor Ferdinand von Einem. A brief text told his story.

A confectioner and businessman, born in Belzig in 1826, Einem had moved to Russia in 1850 and, the following year, opened a confectionery shop on Arbat street, which was then becoming one of Moscow’s fashionable streets. The business “Einem” (Эйнемъ) thrived, and in 1867 became a chocolate and confectionery factory on the banks of the Moskwa, producing prize-winning confectionery, along with cocoa beverages, cookies, biscuits, gingerbread, glazed fruit and marmalade. After its founder died, in 1876, the company continued to trade under Einem’s name. In 1917, the Bolsheviks nationalized it and, in 1922, re-named it “Red October” (Krasnij Oktyabr, Красный Октябрь), after the revolutionary month. Its products were and still are sold across the countries of the former USSR. In the 2000s, the company was incorporated into a Russian confectionery trust, but its sweets continue to be branded with the “Krasnij Oktyabr” logo.

Alyonka chocolate And we realized, standing in front of that window in the late autumn gloom, that we had in fact some of the sweets displayed in the window in our pockets: “Alyonka” (Алёнка) chocolate bars, with their lozenge-shaped wrappers, showing the picture of a chubby-faced blue-eyed girl in a head-scarf. Bought as small gifts for our hosts from a Russian supermarket in Berlin, they are easily the company’s most famous product. Karina handed one to a little boy, who, with his mum in tow, had sidled up to the window and was wondering aloud about the unusual shape of those sweets, explaining casually to the mother she was “from that part of the world”. The incident stayed with me for a long time, giving me a striking example about the long and deep historical connection my native Germany has with that “part of the world” – Eastern Europe and Russia.

Recently, on another overcast autumn day in Cottbus, I felt something similar. We had come for the annual Film Festival and just watched two short films from Belarus in Kammerspiele, Cottbus’ studio theatre. We were walking along Berliner Straße toward the city centre to see a Bulgarian film in the Stadthalle when Karina suddenly said: “I half expect people in the street to speak in Russian, or some other language. I feel like I’m there – in Minsk or one of those films’ locations.” I immediately knew what she meant. We had been immersed in the lives of young people in Belarus, learning about their struggles, taken part in their drama, listened to their dreams and ambitions, and now we were on the windy streets of this unfamiliar East German town. Even though I knew where we were, I was unsure which country we were in – a sense of disorientation had set in. What should have been familiar, at least to me, a native of this country, suddenly revealed itself to be part of that “Eastern Europe” I was hoping to get to know through the films.

The urban landscape held enough cues – the wide swath of road we were walking beside had been cut into the urban fabric by socialist city planners. There were apartment blocks in the distance (we were staying in one near the city’s university). And Cottbus’s other name is Chośebuz in Upper Sorbian, the almost extinct Slavonic language of the area, and we were really on Barlinska droga: all the street signs are bilingual, an added exotic touch.

Incidents like this, and the one earlier, made me realize: I am in Eastern Europe. An area with unclear boundaries, a vast space continuing east – from where I am to Estonia in the north, Croatia and Montenegro in the south, and across the Carpathians and Bulgaria into an undefined distance, perhaps as far east as Azerbaijan, or even further east, to Vladivostok. I had begun to understand it was a complicated place, with many histories and languages, but sharing the common heritage of Socialism and a history of Soviet domination. What I was unprepared for was the realization that, if you are living in Berlin, the Post-Socialist world starts more or less at your doorstep. Somehow I tended to look for it in locales more obviously foreign to me, like Poland, Belarus, Ukraine.

But there was more than that – a deeper realization that imaginary spaces, like ‘the East’, as in Eastern Europe, have no clear boundaries. If you speak about them, they are relative terms. Especially in the case of the large landmass that is Eurasia. When the journalist and author Wolfgang Büscher walked from Berlin to Moscow, people in Poland told him he was leaving Europe, that ‘the East’ started on the other side of the Belarussian border. But the Belarussians made it clear to him they saw themselves as part of the West, too, and that of course it was Russia that was the ‘real’ East. If, in your mind, the East is the home of all that is alien, barbaric or ‘Other’, it necessarily begins further away, across that river, in the next country. But if you are ready to see the connections, if you are ready to connect with it, the mythical elusive East – more a direction than a place – starts anywhere you are, becomes your point of departure.