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From folk to fantasy: five new east films to look out for in 2016

From folk to fantasy: five new east films to look out for in 2016

Plagues, pagan spirits, and post-apocalyptic worlds — the feature films coming out of the new east this year touch on the mystical and macabre. Carmen Gray selects five not to miss

3 February 2016

Last year was a barnstorming one for Ukraine, with the momentum around Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s forceful arthouse provocation The Tribe suggesting fresh creative fire is alive in the nation. In other highlights, the old guard were on form as Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov took a drift through centuries of history in Francofonia. His take on how Europe has been imagined — and his motherland sidelined or looked askance at — on the political stage was a timely reminder of the peril of border-making and slippery nature of definitions. It was a film that was imaginatively lyrical but steeped in old school thinking, unlike Alante Kavaite’s Sundance-awarded The Summer of Sangaile, a sensitively realised romance between two young women which aligned Lithuania with open, progressive affirmation of sexual identity. And 2016? Here’s just a taste of what there is to look forward to in cinema from the new east.

The Plague at the Karatas Village (Kazakhstan)
Director: Adilkhan Yerzhanov

Adilkhan Yerzhanov is one of Kazakhstani cinema’s boldest voices. The micro-budget approach taken by the director and his self-proclaimed “Partisan” collective has allowed him relative artistic freedom in the country’s climate of heavy state censorship, enabling him to make work with a daring edge of social criticism, such as his stark take-down of crooked bureaucracy Constructors. In The Plague at the Karatas Village, world premiering at the Rotterdam International Film Festival this month, a new mayor arrives in a remote village gripped by a plague that obstructive officials insist is merely influenza.

The unsettling, theatrical parable takes place in a timeless night-time of strange shadows, its dark and surreal atmosphere peopled by masked figures. The film’s modern-day resonance is clear. Speaking to The Calvert Journal, Yerzhanov said his intention is to “reveal the absurdity” of current society. “Things like corruption and theft are obvious at all levels, but officially it’s decided to keep silent about it.” He reiterated his opposition to what he regards as a prevalent culture of escapist movies in Kazakhstan, which avoid acknowledging or addressing contemporary social ills: “There is either a try to return to the heroic past, or to imitate Hollywood romantic comedies.” Yerzhanov says of his film’s distinctive style: “The problem is that the real world is so distorted today that expressionism with all its exaggeration is the most honest thing that you can offer.”

Luxembourg (Ukraine)
Director: Miroslav Slaboshpitsky

Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s radical and audacious feature debut The Tribe, filmed entirely in unsubtitled sign language, saw the Ukrainian director hailed last year as one of cinema’s boldest new talents. Set in a boarding school for the deaf doubling as an organised crime racket, it showed how brutal hierarchies and corruption thrive within institutional neglect. Expectations are high for his next feature Luxembourg, which is now being filmed in Chernobyl’s Nuclear Exclusion Zone, the ghostly region surrounding the site of the notorious reactor meltdown. The title is a wry nod to the size of the zone’s territory, which is the same as that of the small European state.

Slaboshpitsky told The Calvert Journal: “I’m trying to show the zone in a way it was never seen before.” He said that the film, which will be about a band of post-apocalyptic survivors struggling to resurrect society amid a nuclear winter, can best be termed “neo-noir”. There will also be a strong element of realism, in that most of the cast will be nonprofessional actors who work in the Zone today and will play themselves. The film draws not only on their experience but that of the director himself, who worked there as a reporter for the Ministry of Emergency Affairs in the 1990s. “I’ve spent a lot of time in the Zone, and got really fascinated by it,” he told us. He also shot his 2012 Locarno-awarded short, Nuclear Waste, there.

Elixir (Russia)
Director: Daniil Zinchenko

As a video artist, often working as one half of duo Vverkh! (Upwards!), Daniil Zinchenko has already gained recognition for work imbued with the legacy of Soviet-era Russian cosmism. This esoteric, futurist philosophy lauded the harnessing of machines and transcending the limitations of the human form to conquer the planets and stars. Zinchenko brings that fascination to his captivatingly strange debut feature Elixir, which screens at the Berlin International Film Festival this month. Zinchenko told The Calvert Journal: “In this film, the broad expanse of the Earth and the infinity of the Cosmos fuse together… Russia is where they become one.”

A scientist in a candle-lit grotto sends an assistant out into the forest to collect the DNA samples of partisan guerillas and cosmonauts he needs to complete his elixir. These stragglers from squadrons and off-course space explorers roam the swamps in a hotspot of the space-time continuum, toasting to their ideals of brotherhood and the galaxy around campfires in their lost search for infinity, while elsewhere torchlit rituals call into question the solidity of the human form. The hope of resurrection for the Russian soul drives Elixir, a film of wry humour, arresting images and an impassioned ode to grandiose idealism.

November (Estonia)
Director: Rainer Sarnet

Rainer Sarnet’s Dostoevsky adaptation The Idiot was a film of bold atmospheric flair, which brought a punkish edge to its energetic theatricality and cathedral-gloom setting. Five years on, the Estonian director is preparing another take on a literary classic, reconstructing Estonian fairytales through black comedy in November, a film based on Andrus Kivirähk’s novel Rehepapp in which werewolves, the plague and spirits move through a pagan village. In order to make it through the harsh winter, stealing has become a way of life for the residents, but the greedy pragmatism of this has lodged a numbness deep inside them.

“Far from being just a satire about stealing, the story touches something much more primordial,” Sarnet told The Calvert Journal, adding that he was attracted by the book’s animism; its “belief that all things have a soul”. He said: “November is no museum folklore, but a description of black conscience, and the love story in it is more about a soul yearning to escape from that kind of material world.”

Also on board is gifted cinematographer Mart Taniel. Black-and-white gloom streaked with light is the vision for the muddy farmyards, ramshackle buildings and winter-bare woods of the film, influenced by photographer Johannes Pääsuke’s early 20th-century photography. It’s set to be ready for November — so could premiere at Tallinn’s Black Nights Film Festival.

Zoology (Russia)
Director: Ivan Tverdovsky

Ivan Tverdovsky was awarded at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival for his feature debut Corrections Class, a daringly confrontational portrayal of alienation and institutionalised neglect in which a disabled girl’s efforts to integrate into Russian society meet with brutal obstacles. The film, which blended a documentary style with a flash of the magical, flagged up the director as a talent to watch. The 27-year-old is now working on new feature Zoology, which he aims to complete by the end of February and which is set to be in a similarly melded style.

Tverdovsky told The Calvert Journal that the film is about a “not-so-young woman” who “finds a long tail on her body one day, and her life goes to hell”. The unexpected discovery plunges the woman, an administrator at a local zoo, into an identity crisis that also brings her up against the wounds of modern society. “It’s funny and appears to be a joke, but after the first few minutes of the film you can dip into a real drama,” the director promises. “It will be realism with a little element of fantasy.” Russia has a fine tradition of such absurdist satire, with Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog about an animal-human hybrid one of the last century’s great classics. If Zoology is even a fraction as sharp, we’re in for a treat.

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