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Films of 2018: the New East cinema you need to see this year

Films of 2018: the New East cinema you need to see this year
Still from Dovlatov, dir. Alexey German Jr. Image courtesy of Alpha Violet

New East cinema continues to go from strength to strength, with 2018 set to be no exception. Carmen Gray takes us through five films set to screen at festivals this year: from first-time features to established auteurs, historical biopics to surreal animation

30 January 2018

2017 was a great year for cinema from the New East, evidenced by a string of high-profile awards. While Hungarian auteur Ildikó Enyedi bagged the Berlinale’s Golden Bear for her offbeat tale of love in a slaughterhouse On Body and Soul, Andrey Zvyagintsev came away with the Jury Prize at Cannes for his biting social critique of modern Russia, Loveless. Poland also won big at the European Film Awards, with Anna Zamecka’s Communion named best documentary and the hand-painted Loving Vincent by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman named Best Animated Feature. So what next for 2018? Time to get excited for what’s in store.

Mug (Poland)
Director: Małgorzata Szumowska

The human body is a recurrent concern in the films of Polish auteur Małgorzata Szumowska. Whether it’s the woman adjusting to an unplanned pregnancy in Stranger (2001), the closeted priest consumed by physical desire in In the Name Of… (2013) or the bereaved teenager with an eating disorder and a coroner for a father in Body (2015), her outsider characters struggle to reconcile the corporeal world of flesh and bone with notions of spiritual life. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given they play out in a turbulently changing Poland infused with traditional Catholicism. Her latest feature Mug is set to offer another idiosyncratic, blackly comical take on this thematic terrain. Heavy metal enthusiast and church-goer Jacek (played by the director’s husband, Mateusz Kościukiewicz) is working on a small-town construction site, on what is to be the world’s tallest statue of Jesus. After being disfigured in an accident, he undergoes the first face transplant in his country and is plunged into a crisis of identity. The film will have its world premiere in February at the Berlinale, where Szumowska won the Silver Bear for Best Director two years ago.

Portugal (Estonia)
Director: Lauri Lagle

In Portuguese the untranslatable word saudade refers to a kind of incompleteness or melancholic yearning for something we may have never even had. A fascination with this term inspired Portugal, the debut feature from renowned Tallinn playwright, stage producer and actor Lauri Lagle. It’s set to premiere this Spring, and is highly anticipated after picking up the First Look prize for a work-in-progress at Locarno, where it was praised for its “originality” and take on “contemporary life in Estonia”. The film stars established arthouse acting talent Mirtel Pohla as a woman whose marriage and internal compass are thrown off course by the spectre of infidelity. Lagle’s name has been increasingly linked to cinema following noteworthy acting stints in the films of Veiko Õunpuu — including the lead role of existential drifter Fred in 2013’s Free Range: Ballad on Approving of the World. Lagle told us of this career shift: “Moving from theatre to cinema came as a natural process, because in a way cinema has always been in the back of my mind.” He describes the new challenge of feature film directing as “physically stepping out from an empty room into the unknown”, and says “it is very enriching to be in direct contact with real life, using it as a basis for creating my own atmosphere”.

Dovlatov (Russia)
Director: Alexey German Jr.

Russian writer Sergey Dovlatov was only able to circulate his work clandestinely through the dissident underground during the Brezhnev 70s, and was not well known in his home nation until after his death — since when he has become one of the most beloved authors in the country. He is the focus of a new film by director Alexey German Jr., which will have its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. It depicts six days in Dovlatov’s life in wintry Leningrad in the early 1970s, before he and his poet friend Joseph Brodsky left the Soviet Union and the threat of repression behind to seek greater creative freedom in New York. Hopes are high that the film will serve up impressive visual boldness; the director’s previous film Under Electric Clouds won the Silver Bear for Cinematography at 2015’s Berlinale, and the talented Łukasz Żal (who was behind the striking look of Paweł Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winner Ida) is attached as cinematographer. Relatively unknown Serbian actor Milan Marić will play the writer, who was of Armenian and Jewish origin. Dovlatov can be regarded as a tribute to the generation of intelligentsia that included German Jr’s father, the maverick director Alexey German, whose limited output was relentlessly opposed by the authorities but consisted of masterpieces including his final Hard to Be a God (2013).

Insect (Czech Republic)
Director: Jan Švankmajer

Jan Švankmajer has gained a reputation as one of the world’s most imaginative, distinctive animators for the nightmarishly surreal yet absurdly humorous worlds he has created over the last half-century: from his dark take on the fiction of Lewis Carroll, Alice (1988) to bizarre Czech fairytale Little Otik (2000) and adaptations of a number of Edgar Allan Poe stories. The Prague local, who mixes live action with stop-motion and claymation, has now come up with a black comedy based on the 1921 satirical play Pictures from the Life of Insects by Karel and Josef Čapek. Amateur actors meet to rehearse the play in a pub, but as they draw on their own personal experiences to become one with their characters, frightening transformations occur. Švankmajer has labelled the original play “misanthropic” and says that his film “only extends this misanthropy, as man is more like an insect and this civilisation is more like an anthill”. He also had in mind Kafka’s Metamorphosis, in which a travelling salesman awakes transformed into a giant beetle. The film will have its world premiere this month at the Rotterdam International Film Festival — and the 83-year-old says it will be his last film.

Scary Mother (Georgia)
Director: Ana Urushadze

The current buzz around Georgia’s national cinema is set to continue in 2018, with director Ana Urushadze’s wildly imaginative and surrealistic debut feature Scary Mother among the delights to watch for. The film premiered towards the end of last year and has already been scooping awards at festivals (including Locarno’s prestigious Golden Leopard for Best First Feature, the top prize in Sarajevo and Best Director at Gijón in Spain), and now it’s set to screen more widely. It challenges traditional gender roles with much dark, playful humour, focusing on writer Manana (Nato Murvanidze), who has penned an erotic vampire novel and is determined to get it published — despite opposition from her husband, who regards her imaginings as a personal affront. When we met with the 27-year-old director in her home town of Tbilisi, she said she is already working on a new script and can’t wait to get back into directing: “Just being in the moment and giving 100 per cent attention to each scene is the only rule for me when filming. The best days of my life were when I was shooting.”

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