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.”