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From Russia to Rwanda: six New East films to catch at the 2017 London Film Festival

From Russia to Rwanda: six New East films to catch at the 2017 London Film Festival
Still from The Birds Are Singing in Kigali, dir. Joanna Koz-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze (2017)

The UK’s premier film festival returns to London next week, and the New East is once again out in force. Here’s our guide to the best on show, from a Czech fantasy of the Crusades to a doomed Romanian love story and the return of Russian heavy hitter Andrey Zvyagintsev

28 September 2017

The British Film Institute’s London Film Festival has proven a happy hunting ground for New East talent in recent years. Both Andrey Zvyagintsev (for Leviathan, 2014) and Pawel Pawlikovski (for Ida, 2013) have walked away with the Best Film Award; jurors rewarded Ukrainian newcomer Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy with Best First Feature for The Tribe in 2014; and luminaries such as Russian documentarian Vitaly Mansky and Romanian auteur Radu Jude have premiered several works at the event.

The big news this year is that Zvyagintsev is back with Loveless, another soul-searching foray into the moral morass of contemporary Russia. But that’s far from the only New East treat on offer, with directors tackling subjects as diverse as the Rwandan genocide, EU labour politics and the Crusades. Several of this year’s eastern highlights share a concern for stories that transcend national borders; an acknowledgement of shared histories, perhaps, or an oblique reflection on Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis? At the heart of all these films, though, is an attention to the emotional and psychological nuances of individuals that continues to define the best of the onscreen east.

The Birds Are Singing in Kigali (Poland/Rwanda)
Directors: Joanna Koz-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze

One of the most harrowing films at this year’s festival, but also one of the most humane and meditative, is this tale of the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide from Joanna Koz-Krauze and her late husband Krzysztof, who passed away during production. Anna (Jowita Budnik) is an ornithologist who smuggles a murdered colleague’s daughter, Claudine (Eliane Umuhire) back to Poland with her after being caught up in the slaughter. Both women must deal with their trauma — ultimately returning to Rwanda to do so.

Koz-Krauze says that the Polish experience of dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust informed her work: “For us the topic of genocide was never a distant one.” The merging of Rwandan and Polish narratives draws out the universality of these horrors. “The experience of a mass killing is universal, not determined by culture, intellect or ethnicity,” Koz-Krauze reasons. “When we started visiting Rwanda, we understood that we wanted to do a symbolic film on the trauma of genocide. But it is impossible for us to tell this story from the point of view of the Rwandans. We decided to search for our own language, inspired by greats like Claude Lanzmann or Michael Haneke; a view based on empathy and compassion. We focused on trauma, mourning and a life after tragedy.”

Anchored by stunning performances from Umuhire and Budnik — who shared the Best Actress prize at Karlovy Vary — Birds is reflective but intense, and very much of its time. “It is an attempt at coming to terms with events caused by greed of the colonial Europeans,” Koz-Krauze concludes. “Dialogues written ten years ago have gained unexpected strength in the face of the immigrant crisis. We need to understand that people nomadising in refugee camps do not have to be kind and smiling. They survived something unimaginable. They have every right to be difficult.”

Ana, Mon Amour (Romania)
Director: Călin Peter Netzer

Four years after Child’s Pose won him the Golden Bear in Berlin and exposed the world to yet another directing talent out of Romania, Călin Peter Netzer returns with his fourth feature, Ana, Mon Amour. Loosely adapted from Cezar Paul-Bădescu’s novel Luminiţa, mon amour, Netzer’s latest is a kaleidoscopic but concise depiction of a ten-year relationship’s tribulations and eventual dissolution. Toma (Mircea Postelnicu) and Ana (Diana Cavallioti) fall in love at university; Ana suffers from depression and anxiety, and Toma dedicates his life to helping her through. But their mutual dependency masks fissures in their relationship that cannot stay hidden forever.

Told in a disconcerting, chopped-up flashback style that forces the viewer to draw their own connections between events, the film is nonetheless a coherent and moving piece of work. “I was interested in the why: why people go deeper and deeper into such toxic relationships,” Netzer tells me. “It’s not a film about psychoanalysis, it’s a psychoanalytical dramaturgy.”

Ana, Mon Amour moves Netzer away from the kind of social critique that animated Child’s Pose (and which is a hallmark of the Romanian New Wave more broadly), towards a brutally honest account of personal desires and failures. “I was interested only in the couple. That’s why I filmed a lot of close-ups, in a very documentary style, I wanted it to be suffocating and always close to the characters. It’s a universal story.” The result is bound to have a profound effect on viewers in London and beyond.

Western (Germany/Bulgaria)
Director: Valeska Grisebach

German director Valeska Grisebach finally follows up her 2006 minor festival hit Longing with this EU-era update on the Western genre, set in Europe’s eastern corners. Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is part of a German construction team working on water infrastructure in the Bulgarian mountains. While he gradually attempts to overcome barriers of communication with the locals, his co-workers spark tensions with their hosts, with dangerous implications. These are tough guys, who fashion their fear of the unknown into a weapon used to keep others at bay.

Grisebach has spoken of her desire to “get closer to the solitary, inflated, often melancholic male characters of the Western. All of this corresponded with the subject of latent xenophobia. I was interested in this idea of ‘German-ness’, which sometimes manifests as an indistinct feeling of superiority.” Meinhard is a latter-day, working-class cowboy, a man of few words who is simultaneously consumed by a sense of adventure and fear. Western also borrows from its genre namesake the idea of the duel: the face-off between two men unable to resolve their differences without violence; what Grisebach has referred to as “the inversion of ‘love at first sight’.”

The film is shot in Grisebach’s trademark naturalistic style — all the actors are non-professionals, with the Germans played by real-life construction workers — utilising a treatment rather than a full script in order to capture something organic, approaching documentary. The romance of the Wild West may seem old hat, but by transposing the idea of the Western’s frontier onto a European Union where centre and periphery are drifting ever farther apart, Grisebach has created something troublingly new.

Loveless (Russia)
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev

After his Leviathan swallowed the competition whole, Zvyagintsev is back in London with his fifth feature. The eagerly awaited Loveless unfolds in suburban, middle-class Moscow, a world of expensive but soulless décor, office drudgery and corrupted morals. It’s the story of 12-year-old Alyosha (Matvei Novikov), who disappears, leaving his parents, Boris (Alexey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), and an army of local volunteers to take up the search. But Boris and Zhenya are in the middle of a rancorous divorce, full of mutual loathing and seemingly incapable of letting their resentments go in order to save their son.

After the grand spiritual torment of Leviathan, Zvyagintsev has moulded a more domestic chamber drama here — with more than a passing resemblance to his own Elena (2011) — but there’s still plenty of soul-searching to be had. The director has compared Loveless to Ingmar Bergman’s classic study of divorce, Scenes from a Marriage (1973), but this is a much more unforgiving portrayal of the disconnected bourgeoisie. Alyosha is a stranger to his self-absorbed parents, with only the search and rescue volunteers demonstrating any sort of moral clarity. The measured camerawork of Zvyagintsev veteran Mikhail Krichman only adds to the sense of an unforgiving judgement.

Made without state funding after the myriad controversies around Leviathan, Loveless is a work firmly in a minor key, attacking what Zvyagintsev clearly sees as a deep-set cynicism in modern life without offering much in the way of salvation. “I’m a monster, aren’t I?” Zhenya asks her new lover at one point. The truly unsettling thing about this film is that the answer may well be yes.

Little Crusader (Czech Republic/Slovakia)
Director: Václav Kadrnka

Adapted from the epic Czech poem “Svojanovský křižáček” by Jaroslav Vrchlický, Václav Kadrnka’s sophomore feature was the surprising recipient of the Crystal Globe for best film at this year’s Karlovy Vary film festival — the first Czech film to win big at the country’s premier festival for 15 years. It’s a meditative, almost silent work that relies heavily on Kadrnka’s and cinematographer Jan Baset Střítežský’s blend of naturalism and surrealistic symbolism in telling the story of Jenik (Matouš John), a young boy who runs away from home in an attempt to replicate the heroics of his Crusader father Bořek (Karel Roden). Across a series of tableaux, Bořek struggles both to catch up with his son and to make sense of the world around him.

Filming in boxy 4:3 ratio, Kadrnka creates a world that is claustrophobically focused on Bořek’s confusion and desperation, while still taking in the languid empty space of the medieval countryside. In promotional material, he has described the appeal of the poetic source material as being its attention to absence: “The absence of a loved one, the motives of fleetingness and searching, of fatherly love… The book is a romantic ballad written for children, but the main character is not Jeník but the father, Bořek, who is looking for him. This is a denial of the children’s genre. It works with the absence of the boy.”

All this allows Kadrnka to draw out the metaphorical aspect of Bořek’s hapless journey — how he comes to be defined by the quest, even as he grows ever more disorientated. Little Crusader is a puzzling but earnest film that — like the would-be warrior Jeník as he wanders off into the world — certainly has the courage of its convictions.

Strangled (Hungary)
Director: Árpád Sopsits

Martfű, a small town in central Hungary, was the site of one of the country’s most notorious criminal sprees. Between 1957 and 1967, six young women were sexually assaulted and murdered; an innocent local worker, Réti (Gabor Jaszberenyi), served seven years in prison while the real killer continued to strike. In his third feature, Árpád Sopsits delves into this gruesome episode in his nation’s recent history, juxtaposing sexual violence and the neuroses of a regime responding to the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

The result is a tangled web of conflicted motivations and flawed characters. The police are shown to be more concerned with maintaining order, drinking and pursuing their own sexual urges than correcting miscarriages of justice. The arrival of a driven young investigator (Peter Barnai) following the return of the killer after a seven-year interval has the residents of Martfű at each others’ throats, covering their tracks.

Sopsits doesn’t shy away from the subject matter, and the result can be hard to stomach; there is a melodramatic tinge to the action that some might find distasteful. But this is forceful, grounded filmmaking about a community’s inability to deal with deviance in all its forms. Even as their comrades are being murdered, one official reminds his colleagues: “There are no serial killers in this country! Is that clear?” No one is off the hook in Sopsits’s film.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 4-15 October. Information on screenings can be found on the festival’s website.

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