by Andrew James Horton

One of the problems of international film festivals is they are, by their nature, a form of filter. Usually aiming to present the "best" in world cinema, they often fail to be representative of what is happening in national film markets and the result can be that significant trends and individual features in a national film cultures can get overlooked. Popular film genres fair particularly badly from the festival circuit, at the expense of the work of auteurs.
Mediating between the stark choices of these unrepresentative international events and an endless trek around a large number of small, national film festivals are festivals with a regional interest. Serving central, southeast and east European film, there are several regional festivals in Europe. Among these, FilmFestival Cottbus (billed as a Festival des Osteuropäischen Films) is particularly interesting in the prominence it gives to young directors (the competition is only open to directors who have made three features or fewer) and national hits. As such, the festival is a lively corrective to a view of central, southeast and east European cinema that tends to focus on the Grand Old Men of the so-called miserablist trend of slow takes and minimal dialogue, such as Aleksandr Sokurov and Béla Tarr.
Particularly notable among the programme is the "Focus" section, which provides an overview of a national cinema each year. Having started with the "obvious" countries for such miniature retrospectives, the festival recently has delved into some of the most obscure national cinemas in its remit, including a round of the central Asian republics. However, this year, the festival returned closer to home and concentrated on Polish cinema, perhaps a highly appropriate country for the festival given that Poland lies just a handful of kilometres away from this east German border town.

In Competition

The most prominent Polish films on show, though, were those in the competition section: Mariusz Front's Portret podwójny (Double Portrait, 2001) and Darek Gajewski's Alarm (2002). Both are ambitious experimental works. Portret podwójny, to my mind the more convincing of the two, is a partly autobiographical tale of the director and his twin endeavours to form a relationship and make his first film. In the first instance, this is a cue for lots of irritating "film within a film" references and hand-held digital camerawork (shown in parallel to views of the same scenes shot on 35mm). However, in terms of human observation and capturing the present-day reality of an independent but emotionally insecure generation, Front is far more successful than many others in his same generation and the film rewards the patient viewer who is prepared to sit through its more gimmicky sequences. Alarm is also a portrait of a fragile generation, but the narrative is far more burlesque and stylised, centring on a man who, for a joke, pretends to be a chainsaw-wielding psychopath holding his girlfriend hostage.
Working in a similar vein was the Hungarian director Sandor Cs. Nagy with his Aranyváros (Golden City, 2001). Here the destabilised characters trying to cling on desperately to real life are a prostitute and a man who believes he is an alien and pretends to be a policeman while he tries to make contact with his home planet. Played with earnest realism and artfully shot in black and white, the film has a freshness to its art house appeal. As in David Ondøíèek's film Samotáøi (Loners, 2000, not shown at this year's festival), the search for extraterrestrial life is used as a potent metaphor for a personal odyssey to find a place in society. Yet, despite its rather wacky premise, Aranyváros suffers from a lack of originality, partly in focussing on a prostitute - an old cliché if ever there was one - and partly in the formulaic despair of the ending. Despair also afflicted the unremittingly bleak Slepa pega (Blind Spot, 2002), directed by the Slovenian Hana A. W. Slak. Full marks for social realism here, with Slak depicting the horrors of heroin addiction and AIDS, but Slepa pega is an unremarkable member of a growing group of Slovene films that depict alcohol- or drug-fuelled meltdown (there have been a number of Austrian films in this genre recently, too).
More original responses to grim social circumstances came from the Czech film Divoké vèely (Wild Bees, 2001) by Bohdan Sláma and the Romanian feature Occident (2002) Cristian Mungiu. The former is set in a north Moravian rural village which is in the quietly slipping into economic oblivion, while the latter explores the issue of emigration through a kaleidoscope of comic inter-locking stories, perhaps inspired by Ondøíèek's Knoflíkáøi (Buttoners, 1997) or E pericoloso sporgersi (Don't Lean out of the Window, 1994) by Mungiu's compatriot Nae Caranfil.Divoké vèely and Occident, both debuts, are justly well-known on the festival circuit: Divoké vèely had its international premiere at Rotterdam in 2002, where it shared the Golden Tiger award, and Occident first showed at the Quinzaine des réalisateurs in Cannes. Both films dissipate the dogmatism that can dangerously grow in directly tackling social themes by means of refusing to focus on one character or story-line. Sláma relies on an elliptical (but not always poetic) narrative, and Mungiu re-visits the same events from different perspectives. While this approach largely marks out the success and interest in these films, it also limits them as effective pieces of story-telling, suggesting that the directors haven't quite got the balance right. Still, these are debuts that are more than promising. Another creative exploration or the darker aspects of society is Smei (The Kite, 2002) by Aleksei Muradov. The film, digitally manipulated to create the effect of old film stock, depicts a day in the life of a small-town prison guard, the marital bickering, the drunken neighbour, the trauma's of his disabled son and - slipped in effortlessly to the narrative amongst it all - the task of executing a prisoner at work.
The competition, though, was not all just big issues and soul-searching questions, and three films represented the lighter side of film from the region (in addition to Occident, which, despite the seriousness of the themes it tackles, genuinely is a comedy). Rok ïábla (Year of the Devil, 2002) from cult Czech director Petr Zelenka does for the Czech folk scene, which has cult appeal in the republic, for what Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap (1984) did for British heavy metal, with the added edge that many of the figures in the film are real-life people playing themselves. Critics are slightly divided on the film's merits: some rave about it; others see it as a rather over-run in-joke among "Petr Zelenka and his friends" (as the film bills its creators). However, audiences - at least Czech ones - are united, and the film has been highly successful in its home territory, pulling in the most money of any Czech film in 2002 (although it got narrowly beaten on admissions). Györg Pálfi's Hukkle (2002) is a slower, quieter joke, but perhaps a funnier one for it. Part paean to nature and Hungarian rural life, part purposefully anti-climactic crime story, part technological tour de force of photography and editing for the Run, Lola, Run generation, this dialogue-less film charms the viewer by not quite fitting into any of the usual categories. Lastly, 'Ekhali dva shofera (Two Drivers, 2001), the feature film debut of Russian director Aleksandr Kott, is an idyllic romance set in the optimistic post-World War II years. The hardship and repression of the late Stalinist years are left off-screen and the period portrayed in ironic tension between a male and female character, something that has won the praises of Russian critics (and director Aleksandr Sokurov). Internationally, the film has been less successful, again underlining the difficulty of promoting popular genres at film festivals but also, perhaps, a demonstration of the difficulty international audiences have in accepting films about the Stalinist years that are not a searing indictment of the Communist regime.

In Focus

Foremost among the Polish films was veteran director Roman Polanski's Cannes success The Pianist (2002), the first film in four decades that Polanski has shot in Poland (although the film itself is an international co-production). In a bizarre twist, the German distributors of the film insisted that a version of the film dubbed into German be shown, and the festival organised a special screening on the other side of the Polish border, which enabled the film to be shown at the festival in its original version. Meanwhile, the other end of Polanski's Polish film-making career was also on show, with a selection of his student shorts, including the allegorical classic Dwaj ludzie z szaf¹ (Two Men and a Wardrobe, 1958).
Polish cinema is, obviously, very broad and vibrant, and rather than go over already well-known territory in the country's film history the "Focus Poland" section (which technically did not include the Polanski films) chose less mainstream approaches in the six threads it followed, which were entitled "TV Debuts", "Off-Scene", "Film Schools", "Video Art", "Music Clips" and "Mirror Images". Given that one of the masterpieces of Polish film history, Krzysztof Kieœlowski's Dekalog (The Decalogue,1989) was made for Polska Telewizja, major directors such as Krzysztof Zanussi continue to make works specifically for the state-owned station and one of the countries leading scriptwriters and dramaturgs Maciej Karpiñski works there, the TV Debuts section should have held great promise. In fact, only three works were shown of which only one lived up to the high expectations the title evoked. Cud Purymowy (The Purim-Spiel, 2000) directed by Izabella Cywiñska and with a script by Karpiñski. The story is a wry tale of an vehemently anti-Semitic family who discover they are Jewish and they will inherit a vast fortune if they can prove they have concerted to Orthodox Judaism.
Off-Scene was devoted to independent film-makers working totally outside of the usual system of funding from the state, television or big-name producers and theatrical distribution. Notable amongst these is the Sky Piastowskie group, working from a housing estate in the eastern Polish city of Zielona Góra since 1990. The most famous of the group is Grzegorz Lipiec, whose feature ¯e ¿ycie ma sens (That Life Has Meaning, 2001), a gritty tale of drug abuse shot on VHS for an estimated USD 1000, was picked up for theatrical distribution and showed at Karlovy Vary in 2001. However, Cottbus instead gave viewers a chance to catch up on earlier films, such as Lipiec's equally socially aware short 0.5l (1995).
I failed to see any of the screenings from the Film Schools section; however, Marcin Wrona's Cz³owiek Magnes (Magnet Man, 2001), based on the director's own experiences with his eccentric father, I'd already seen elsewhere (at Trieste, another festival with a regional focus on CSEEE film). Wrona, clearly a talented young man, has already won prizes in Poland and at Robert de Niro's Tribeca Film Festival in New York. It's one of those student shorts that leaves you feeling somewhat more optimistic about the future of Polish film.
Mirror Images was dedicated to "the (often prejudiced) portrayal of Poles and Germans in the films made in either country." A range of six productions were shown, but to me the most interesting was the earliest, a rare screening of one of curiously few co-productions between the GDR and "brotherly" Poland, Milcz¹ca gwiazda (The Silent Star, 1959), directed by Kurt Maetzig. The real interest of the film, though, is that is the first film adaptation of a story by the Polish author Stanis³aw Lem, his novel The Astronauts. The action takes place far into the future - in 1970. Eight international scientists are sent to Venus to uncover the mystery of a message, identified as a declaration of war, sent to Earth in a magnetic meteorite. The barren planet, populated only by strange amorphous glass shapes and robotic spiders, leads the intrepid space travellers to discover that the belligerent Venusians were destroyed by the nuclear power they intended to unleash on the planet they wished to conquer. It's hard to watch the film without comparing it to the most famous film adaptation of a Lem story, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1971).
In some respects, the two films are worlds apart: Tarkovsky's film is a philosophical meditation and Maetzig's is a rather dated exercise in popularism. Milczaca gwiazda is filled with lines praising Communism and denouncing the evil West and the Nazis, not to mention dialogue such as "it's your path in life to have a child and give birth" directed at one of the female astronauts. Moreover, some of the special effects are appalling (such as visible strings on flying objects). But others are not, and a mist-shrouded swamp of primordial mud that has a life of its own is a curious pre-echo of the landscape of the planet Solaris as depicted by Tarkovsky. Special mention particularly should go to Andrzej Markowski, whose electronic effects are clearly well ahead of its time. Indeed, the orchestral score (also by Markowski) and audio special effects would serve many a contemporary science fiction film well. Despite the constant glorification of Communism, the film's concerns about the folly of unchecked technological advance and its adverse affects on civilisation places the film firmly within a much broader trend of science fiction that encompasses such works as Star Trek. And the film was received with the same popularity in the GDR as the later American TV serial. Personally, I wish that hidden popular "classics" of this kind were screened much more frequently, both at Cottbus and other festivals.
Polish films were also hidden in other nooks and crannies of the programme. For example, in the Spektrum section, there was Cisza (Silence, 2001), Micha³ Rosa's dull and insensitive portrayal of a woman who falls in love with an obsessive stalker, and the partially Polish themed Norweigan production Nar nettene blir lange (Cabin Fever, 2000), which depicts a disastrous Christmas spent with the Polish in-laws (with performances by Jan Nowicki and Zbigniew Zamachowski). Non-Polish films in the same section included: Aleksei Balabanov's Voina (War, 2002), the last film role of Sergei Bodrov Jr. before he was death in an avalanche while shooting his own feature; Kukushka (Cuckoo, 2002), a typically wry observation of culture clashes by Aleksandr Rogozhkin; and Vlado Balco's Dážd padá na naše duše (The Rain Falls on Our Souls, 2002), one of the few films to have come out of Slovakia's stunted film industry in recent years (and, sadly, it is a sweet but rather unremarkable attempt).
Meanwhile, in the National Hits section of the programme, Marek Brodzki's WiedŸmin (The Hexer, 2001), a Polish anticipation of the interest in Lord of the Rings that also draws on the country's mania for historical literary adaptations , attracted a packed audience (largely, it would seem from a local technical college) who responded positively to the displays of female nudity and action scenes. De facto, the only other film in this section was the Hungarian comedy Valami Amerika (Some Kind of America, 2002), a "popcorn movie" by Gábor Herendi. Much to the disappointment of many at the festival, the print for the scheduled third feature of the section, Egor Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky's high-budget action / crime film Antikiller (2002), failed to arrive. The film would have made an interesting comparison with Herendi's, as both are the debut works of directors who have built up their experience in shooting commercials.

Intimacy and Expansion

Not only does Cottbus screen films that rarely make it to other festivals, it has, traditionally, provided a congenial atmosphere in which to meet professionals from the region and those from outside with an interest in it. Having none of the inevitable "cliqueiness" of a national festival or the vastness of large international events, such regional festivals can provide a snug, welcoming atmosphere where a even chance conversation struck up in the bar over a beer can turn out to be with a leading director. The high attendance of regional talent is bolstered by "Connecting Cottbus", a parallel "pitching" event that brings impoverished producers and scriptwriters from the old East, so that they can throw ideas at co-producers money from the West.
If Cottbus has a problem, though, it is that it is a victim of its own success. Started in 1990 by director Roland Rust and manager Peter Fischer, the festival grew in stature over the next ten years and increased in size, to the point that the cosy former team were no longer able to cope, funding was insufficient for expansion and the whole "cosy" ethos of the festival, which also resulted in a kind of exhilaratingly chaotic amateurism, was challenged. This is not the place for a "oh, it was so much better in the old days"-style rant (not least as my first visit to the festival was in 1999, and I have no claim to be a old hand), but Cottbus is an interesting case study of the problems that small festivals meet when they expand. Friction grew within the team as how to handle the success: Rust, pragmatically, sees the future in expanding and developing the festival by bringing in more money, while Fischer, more of an idealist, wished to preserve the small, intimate atmosphere of the event without compromising to the requirements of funders. The split lead to Fischer not renewing his contract after the 2001 edition, although he was a guest of the festival and exhibited a certain degree of schadenfreude in noting that everyone he met seemed to prefer the way things were organised before. Indeed, 2002's festival did suffer a number of flaws, the most serious of which was the splitting of the festival between a "guest centre" and a "press centre" some ten minutes' walk away - a serious blow for the cosy atmosphere of previous years (where the two functions where squeezed into one overcrowded building). Other problems included the main ticket office (the town information centre) being closed for a bank holiday in the middle of the festival, one event started over half and hour late as the jury hadn't been given the correct starting time and journalists had two mail boxes (one in the press centre, one in the guest centre) which meant invitations for side events sometimes weren't received until after they had happened. This was on top of older problems - such as the remarkable fact that Cottbus has no permanent cinema in the town centre (a multiplex has been built outside the town and one in the centre is scheduled to open in 2004). On the positive side, the festival staff I spoke to all seemed acutely aware of the teething problems and one hopes that next year's event will see attempts to address these problems. In addition, advocates of the new organisation, which involves much of the work being contracted out to a professional management agency, claim that many things behind the scene (such as print co-ordination) ran smoother this year. What hardened Fischerites will be asking if these improved organisational details can lead to successful expansion of the festival without compromising the intimacy. Certainly, Rust still has some way to go to prove that he can do it.

Politics and Money

In 2003, the festival will focus on "New Russian Cinema" and, unlike 2002's edition, the emphasis will be on full-length features rather than on shorts and television works, which, by some accounts, was a nightmare to programme with the myriad of prints to order and keep track of. Audiences are likely to breath a sigh of relief, too, as the shorts program were not nearly as popular as features have been in previous retrospectives on far more obscure countries. This may be slightly unfair. I for one certainly did not attend any of the shorts, mainly as since it is impossible to see everything at such events and having no knowledge of what is worth seeing eliminating short films en masse is a quick and easy way of reducing the programme down to a manageable size.
Of course, the reason for the Russian focus that 2003 is the "Year of Russian Culture" in Germany, to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg. Perhaps, though, there is another reason, too. With increased needs for funds to manage the festival professionally, Cottbus needs to do more to convince funders to dig deep into their pockets. Since the finance comes from the local and regional government and German companies, the festival clearly can benefit by seeming to fit in with larger issues of politics and commerce. As such, it may not be surprising that the first two years of the new organisation structure have seen the festival focus heavily on two hefty trading partners for Germany on its eastern side. (This, it should be stressed, does not make Cottbus unique, and directors of other festivals have confirmed to me that they may receive funding for what their festival achieves politically as much as or more than for what it achieves aesthetically and culturally.)
With direct competition from the newer goEast in Wiesbaden (which also focusses on Russian film in 2003), indirect competition from Berlin and Mannheim (which screen Osteuropäischen Films as part of a broader programme) and financial, organisational and, perhaps, political factors to juggle, Cottbus may not appear to have an easy ride ahead of it. However, the festival has a strong body of interest in it and loyalty towards it. If it can take the faithful through the current transition, it's certainly an event that will grow more.

Further coverage of the 12th FilmFestival Cottbus by Andrew James Horton can be found online at <>.