The Lesson (Urok, Bulgaria-Greece 2014)

Nade in her classroom.

Nade (Margita Gosheva) in her classroom.

The Lesson is another gem of of European Cinema that seems to have slipped by without too much fanfare. Well done New Wave Films for getting the film into UK theatrical distribution. It’s one of the most accomplished first features I’ve seen and notable as a directing job undertaken by a couple, Peter Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva. He is more inclined to editing and she to scriptwriting. They both directed and were together on set  – but so was their 3 year-old daughter, so they needed good communication with their crew. They were fortunate to get funding from Greece and also extra funding to finish the film for an international release from the German TV station ZDF. Even so, the film had to be made over several weeks/months as funding became available. They had a professional actor, Margita Gosheva, in the lead role of Nadezhda, but many parts were played by non-actors (often relatives or colleagues). Margita Gosheva’s husband Ivan Barnev, also an actor, plays Nade’s husband.

The story

The story is ‘torn from the headlines’ – a technique pioneered by Hollywood studios, especially Warner Bros in the 1930s. This headline referred to the desperate and surprising actions of a teacher. In The Lesson, Nade, a high school English teacher and part-time translator is faced with the kind of dilemma (finding money quickly to avoid losing the family home) that might make her consider any kind of action – and she does things that severely question her own code of ethical conduct. At the same time she is faced with a thief in her class and how to deal with the situation. The filmmakers say that the film is the first in a potential trilogy – the next will feature a railway worker who finds a large sum of money on the railway track.

The style and approach

The film is primarily a realist drama but it also includes elements of comedy (the comedy of embarrassment?) and eventually turns into a thriller narrative. The filmmakers believe that by adding these ‘popular genre’ elements they are able to make the film more, rather than less, realistic:

. . . this is very important point to us as directors and the stories that we want to tell. We want to tell dramatic stories, but with a bitter smile. For example, our previous short film, Jump, was more of a comedy with elements of drama and now it’s the opposite. It’s very important to mix these genres because for us this mix of humour and drama makes the story closer to real life.

Some reviewers have compared the style and approach to that of Ken Loach or the Dardenne Brothers. Like these filmmakers, Valchanov and Grozeva have used experience of making documentaries in their approach to making a fiction feature and they discuss using documentary methods in shooting the classroom scenes. This is also evident in the use of long shots and long takes – especially in the sequence when the rushing Nade discovers her car has run out of fuel and she takes a shortcut to catch a bus.

Loach perhaps uses more melodrama in his films – The Lesson eschews one element of melodrama by dispensing with a music soundtrack. Everything depends then on the sound design which is very good. The Dardenne Brothers do change their approach sometimes to suit the nature of the story (e.g. adding comedy or thriller elements). What is common to all three is the creation of strong characters who find themselves at the centre of events they struggle to control. Nade is in many ways like Sandra, the central character played by Marion Cotillard in the Dardenne Brothers film Two Days, One Night (2014).

The film depends on Margita Gosheva’s performance – the camera is always with her and we are forced to experience her distress while trying to get beneath her veneer of control. It’s a remarkable performance, aided, I think by mise en scène and framing. Nade’s mother has died a few years earlier and she was clearly a beautiful woman. A large portrait of her mother on the wall is often in shot, almost as if she is looking over what her daughter is up to. (Nade in turn has a small daughter who also plays a role in the set of ethical dilemmas Nade faces.

The money

It’s probably useful to know that the currency in Bulgaria is the ‘lev’, which is worth around 40p, so a 10 lev note is around £4 and at one point the hero’s whole future seems to depend on a missing 60-70p.

It’s difficult being a filmmaker in Bulgaria where around ten films are made each year and cinema attendance is only 0.7 visits per head of population. The only source of funds is the Ministry of Culture and there is still the suggestion of networks of the ‘privileged’ that existed before 1989. The film comments on both the economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath and the possibility of corruption in a small town where those networks from the past may be re-appearing. The Lesson is a co-production with Greece and this seems a good strategy. Following the excellent Thirst (2015) at the London Film Festival last October, also by a female director, it looks like something worthwhile is happening against the odds in Bulgaria. I notice now that Ivan Barnev is in both films and that he played the lead role in Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England (Czech Republic/Slovakia 2006).

References

The quotes are taken from interviews and the Pressbook, obtainable via the New Wave Films website: www.newwavefilms.co.uk

Trailer

(Caution: There is a slight spoiler towards the end of the trailer)

Tangerines (Mandariinid, Georgia/Estonia 2013)

Ivo (in the back of the jeep) with the two Chechen mercenaries. Sortly after, one will be killed and the other wounded.

Ivo (in the back of the jeep) with two Chechen mercenaries. Shortly after, one will be killed and the other wounded.

Tangerines is a humanist drama with an anti-war discourse. The sizeable audience I watched it with at Square Chapel in Halifax certainly seemed to enjoy it and many were visibly moved by its story. A co-production between Georgia and Estonia it was written and directed by Zaza Urushadze from Georgia and stars the very experienced Estonian actor Lembit Ulfsak. Set during the period of nationalist and ethnic conflicts in the early 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the story is set in the Caucasus region where two Estonians, Ivo and Margus, are all that remains of a larger community who have returned to their homeland. (The titles at the beginning of the film suggest that an Estonian community has been in the Caucasus for 100 years – I haven’t been able to verify this.) The two men have stayed on to harvest a valuable crop of tangerines. But the conflicts have enveloped their little community and after one engagement the Estonians find themselves with three dead soldiers to bury and two wounded soldiers who need to recover in Ivo’s house. The problem is that one is a Georgian and the other a Chechen mercenary allied to the local Abkhazians (who are fighting for a breakaway state from Georgia). When they recover, both men seem determined to kill the other. Ivo, whose house becomes the convalescent home, is getting on in years but he has strong convictions. Can he keep them apart and alive?

The location may be exotic for western audiences, but this is a familiar scenario from narratives about war. In fact Tangerines is a conventional film in many ways. It isn’t difficult to imagine it as a TV play from the 1960s – there is a small group of actors and only two main locations – Ivo’s house and the grove of tangerines and their limited surroundings. Only at the end of the film does the camera give us a sense of the terrain across the whole area. Just when I thought the narrative drive had slowed too much, something dramatic would happen and the narrative then built to the inevitable climax which provided a clear resolution. This was ‘satisfying’ in one sense but also seemed as if it was imported from a more generic action film – the rest of the narrative being much more of a personal drama. I enjoyed the film and I was moved by it. But thinking about it later I came up with the more distanced appraisal outlined above. I think mostly I was affected by the performances and the tight direction. Ivo is the kind of man we all hope we would be in a crisis – calm, resolute, able to see the best course of action (and able to produce fresh bread and cheese to feed his new house guests seemingly out of thin air). These performances and the overall direction help to produce an audience-pleasing film which has had a good festival tour, an Oscar nomination and now a release in the US and the UK (albeit in only a few cinemas – this is a film to pick up on DVD). However, in one of those ‘coincidences’ that seem to crop up regularly in film production/distribution, there is another film, another Georgian co-production, made around the same time with many similar narrative ideas.

I saw Corn Island (2014) at last year’s Leeds Film Festival and thought it very good indeed. Set in the same location at the same time, ‘Corn Island’ refers to temporary islands formed after Summer rains wash silt downstream. Another grandfather and his grand-daughter attempt to grow a crop of maize on one of these temporary islands before it is washed away by the next year’s rains. As well as the elements, the old man has to deal with patrols of soldiers from both sides of the conflict – and at one point a wounded soldier who shelters on the island and gets rather too friendly with the teenage girl. Tangerines was the Estonian nomination for the 2015 Oscars and Corn Island was the Georgian nomination. I think my preference is for the latter but it is revealing that whereas Tangerines received distribution in the UK, Corn Island didn’t, despite being a bigger budget film with a more cinematic feel. This perhaps says more about distributors’ views on UK audiences than on the films themselves. Tangerines did make the final Oscar shortlist of five, so perhaps we could argue that either distributors know how Academy members vote – or they are influenced by the votes. I stick by my preference but I’d still urge you to watch Tangerines as well as looking out for Corn Island. Both films were made by Georgians and I have seen one negative comment on Tangerines claiming it as ‘Georgian propaganda’. I can’t really comment on the political realities of the conflict, but I would see Tangerines as within a broad perspective of humanist/anti-war cinema.

BIFF 2013 #18: Faith, Love and Whiskey (Bulgaria/US 2012)

Eli and Val – lovers re-united?

Eli and Val – lovers re-united?

BIFF19logoIt’s the second year of the New European Features competition at Bradford and just like last year there is a Bulgarian entry. The two films are remarkably similar in institutional terms if not in plot and narrative. Avé last year had a director with some US background/training, a young woman with some international experience and a story concerning a journey and decisions about where she wanted to be in the future. All those three elements are also present in Faith, Love and Whiskey. The director is Kristina Nikolova and this is her first feature – although she has been working as a cinematographer for ten years. Her co-writer and editor is Paul Dalio. They met on a course at New York University Film School (there are several stellar names on the film’s “thanks to” list).

In the interview below, posted on YouTube, Kristina Nikolova tells us that the film is partly autobiographical and its title refers to a Bulgarian saying in which ‘Faith, Love and Hope’ is altered to replace ‘Hope’ with ‘Whiskey’. The film marries two strong ideas. One is universal – a romance about a young woman who must choose between security and passion. The director tells us that she thinks the film is more ‘mainstream’ than it is a ‘festival film’. I think that she is right but the specific Bulgarian flavour makes it special. She tells us that many young people leave Bulgaria looking for a better future but that they return each summer to spend a few weeks drinking like crazy and enjoying meeting old friends. I’ve forgotten the reference but I also read a review of the film that quoted an Economist article claiming that Bulgaria was the ‘unhappiest country’ in the world when income levels and happiness indices were correlated. I also found this entertaining article which suggests that the Bulgarian problem is a combination of poverty (comparing income to other EU countries) and a native ‘superstition and fatalism’. It’s easier to be miserable and to avoid problems by going out and getting smashed. Looked at this way, the film’s narrative makes a lot of sense.

Eli (Ana Stojanovska) is a vivacious and attractive young woman who has a relationship in New York, but who has come back to Sofia to see old friends. She meets them in a bar and goes clubbing and soon finds herself back with the wild and romantic Val with whom she takes a trip into the beautiful countryside. Back in Sofia, however, her American fiancée has arrived and is looking for her. On a basic plot level it’s all very straightforward. The romance is well presented. It’s sunny and hot, there are cool streams for bathing and the booze flows freely. The film was shot on Super 16 with saturated colours and it looks great. I also liked the music, much of it guitar music reminiscent of deranged surf guitar or the work of Link Wray. Val (Yavor Baharov) is a charismatic romantic lead on the edge of oblivion and John Keabler is the stuffy but wealthy American. The local culture is represented in several ways that recall Avé. Eli has lost her parents (there is an interesting reference to her mother) and the one person she really cares about is her grandmother who brought her up. Bulgaria seems to be a society of the aged waiting for the return of the young – there doesn’t seem to be a generation between.

One of the best scenes in the film, which seems to sum up the whole narrative, doesn’t involve Eli. She has gone out and left both John and Val with her grandmother. Val is forced to translate for the old woman and the American. We feel for Val who must tell John, in English, how delighted the grandmother is that Eli has found her rich American. The subtitles tell us that Val is translating correctly, avoiding the opportunity to damage his rival. Then at one point he forgets which language he is using and has to stop to correct himself. It’s a brilliant piece of cinema with so many issues about identity compressed into facial expressions and a slip of the tongue.

This is another shortish feature running just 75 minutes and therefore difficult to place into distribution. I think I read that the film was likely to get distribution in Bulgaria but I think it is unlikely in the UK. I decided on reflection (and thinking about the migration issues) that I liked the film a lot. The plot is simple, the theme is important and the execution is very good.

Interview with the filmmakers at Slamdance, February 2012:

BIFF 2013 #10: Vegetarian Cannibal (Ljudozder vegetarijanac, Croatia 2012)

Rene Bitorajac (left) as the gynaecologist with one of his drug-dealing police friends

Rene Bitorajac (left) as the gynaecologist with one of his drug-dealing police friends

BIFF19logoIt’s difficult to write about a film that I had to watch through my fingers on several occasions. I have a phobia about scenes featuring surgical operations and there are plenty of those in this film set in a leading clinic in Zagreb. Those green gowns and spurting blood are too much and if this film hadn’t been in the European Features competition, I would have given it a miss. None of this is meant to imply a criticism of  the film. In fact, I thought it was rather good. The title refers to the central character who is indeed a vegetarian and is mocked because of it by his friends in the police force. But he’s not the stereotype veggie – indeed his appetites are voracious. He seeks sex, drugs, bling and fast cars. He relaxes by drumming on his professional kit and working hard in the gym. No doubt he is actually a highly competent gynaecologist and a cultured man but unfortunately he is so wrapped up in corruption that he can’t extricate himself.

This was the Croatian entry for the 2013 Academy Awards – which says something about the Croatian sense of identity. I’ve seen American reviews of the film which go with the character’s greed for money (and frequently compare him to the protagonist of American Psycho), but in the UK that isn’t really the issue – I think we home in on the questions about professionalism and what the subtitles refer to as ‘collegiality’. But of course neither Anglo or American perspectives can really explain the Balkan cultural issues. I’m guessing that somewhere in here is a metaphor/allegory for Croatia’s debate about joining the EU (which happens this Summer). There is still a great deal of baggage from the Yugoslavian past to work through before Croatia can be properly accepted. The issues highlighted in the film include blatant racism in the treatment of a Jordanian doctor in the clinic, the ex-military commanders trafficking young women from Ukraine etc. and the corruption and brutality that seems to permeate everything including a sporting culture that includes illegal dog fights.

The cinematography is mainly hand-held and though I find this difficult to watch, I can see that the approach is appropriate here. The film moves at a breathless pace and I find it hard to believe that it was only 85 minutes – I felt like I got more than 85 minutes of action. Rene Bitorajac as the central character, Danko Babic, is excellent. I kept finding him likeable even though I despised everything he was doing. That’s charisma. This is a strong contender for a prize – just like the other two films in competition that I’ve seen.

BIFF 2013 #6: A Night Too Young (Prílis mladá noc, Czech Rep 2012)

The two boys, unaware of the events to follow

The two boys, unaware of the events to follow

BIFF19logoOne of the six entries in the European Features competition at BIFF, A Night Too Young is certainly distinctive but it will face problems because of its short length and possibly its subject matter. 65 minutes used to be the generally accepted point at which a film became a ‘feature’ rather than a ‘short’ – at least in France. At that length it presents a commercial distributor and exhibitor with the task of building a programme around it. In a festival like this it can be boosted with a longer ‘short’ alongside (as it was here).

The subject matter brings together adult partygoers and two 12 year-old boys. The boys are on the cusp of puberty as their discussion of sex in the opening scenes reveals. It’s the afternoon of December 31st in a small Czech town and they are playing on their sleds in the snow when they meet two men and a young woman. She asks the boys to buy some vodka for her from the store and to bring it to her apartment. They innocently do so and find themselves in a party situation with booze and dope and some serious tension in the air.

The director Olmo Omerzu is a Slovenian who has recently graduated from FAMU, the film school in Prague. It’s unusual that a graduation film gets to this length and even more that it gets into a big festival like Berlin and that’s down to some extra funding. Omerzu says that his influences include the Czech New Wave and that he cast the two boys partly because of the way that they seemed at times to resemble the two older men. The boy who plays Baluška (Vojtěch Machuta) has the most extraordinary face, sometimes impassive but at other times seemingly that of a much older man. The script is quite sparse in terms of dialogue and the whole narrative has the feel of a Pinter play. Our attention is drawn to the boys and we wonder what they are making of the events surrounding them. Omerzu has a background in “drawing comics for a Slovenian magazine” and there is something fantastical about how he visualises the mundane setting as the night draws in. New Year’s  Eve is when we might expect a stranger knocking at the door and being invited in to join the party. It isn’t always clear what is actually happening and what is being imagined – and who by. The narrative isn’t quite linear – though I have difficulty remembering what happened and in what order.

I think I drew two main conclusions from watching A Night Too Young. First, this is what the industry often terms a ‘calling card’. In its present form it is unlikely to escape the festival circuit, but its strange attractions are likely to help Olmo Omerzu get funding for his next projects and I think we will see more of him in the future. (In another interview he suggests that this film has achieved distribution in Germany, Slovenia and the Czech Republic). Secondly, I was reminded of what a rich film culture there is in Central Europe and how we don’t see enough of it in the UK.

LFF 2012 #8: Children of Sarajevo (Djeca, Bosnia-Herzogovina 2012)

Marija Pikic as Rahima

My final film during my festival visit was programmed in the ‘Debate’ strand, though again, I fail to see what the debate might be – except that we might want to argue that most of us who live comfortable lives ought to appreciate much more how difficult other lives can be. But that can’t really be contested, can it? Children of Sarajevo is a dark film but the strong performances, especially by Marija Pikic as the central character Rahima, make up for that and give us a sense of hope.

Produced with support from production companies and funding agencies in France, Germany and Turkey, Children of Sarajevo still ranks as a relatively low budget film and most of the action takes place indoors or on local streets at night. Rahima is introduced as a young woman wearing a headscarf and from the inserts of video footage of the war in Sarajevo in the 1990s, we deduce that she survived the war (but lost her parents) and has turned to her faith in an attempt to make sense of her life.

Rahima has problems. She is the only breadwinner in her household and works hard as a chef in a large restaurant. She returns home to housework and the latest calamity to befall her young brother Nedim, still at school. The neo-realist narrative driver in this film is a broken iPhone – belonging to the son of a local wealthy politician, but broken, allegedly, by Nedim in an attack on the boy. We don’t know exactly what is in Rahima’s background, but she is treated badly by the school headteacher and by the corrupt politician, both of whom expect her to pay for a new iPhone. Nedim doesn’t appear to be a ‘bad lad’, just not very aware of everything his sister has to do for him and he starts to make the wrong decisions about getting involved in local criminality.

On the other hand, Rahima is very much part of a community, with a potential suitor and close supporters in her housing block. I’m not really sure that I appreciated the significance of the hajib she wears. (I live in an area where muslim women wear all kinds of combinations of veils and scarves.) Rahima is the only one of the women in the film to do this and she clearly has female muslim friends. I found a review of the film written after its successful Cannes screening (the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard competition) that discusses this issue and quotes the film’s writer-director, Aida Begic (who is also photographed wearing a headscarf). The East European Film Bulletin review by Collete de Castro suggests that: “In wearing the veil, Rahima is at once closer to God and further away. Hiding from the world, she is at once protected and exposed.” The director is quoted as saying that the idea for the film came to her when she realised that “we don’t believe in the reconstruction of our society any more, we’ve replaced dreams with memories”. That makes sense. The world she depicts in the film is no longer at war as such, but it certainly isn’t a world that is at peace with itself and there appear to be great inequalities.

This is an intense film that requires attention to detail. I hope it gets a wider exposure. Here’s a trailer:

BIFF 2012 #12 Bread and Circuses (Kruha in iger, Slovenia 2011)

The quizmaster and Mrs Novak tête-à-tête

This was the last of the six entries in Bradford’s ‘New European Features’ competition. I don’t expect it to figure highly in the judge’s considerations, but that does not mean that the film isn’t of interest. It’s a mainstream popular film – a form of broad social comedy with many familiar and universal elements. As such it’s exactly the kind of film I want to see.

I’m not sure if this is a significant trend but, like Adalbert’s Dream, the film focuses on the period just before the end of communist rule in the region. It’s 1987, the year before Slovenia began its move towards complete autonomy and away from the Yugoslavian federation. The Novak family, who live in the small town of Velenje, discover that they have been selected to appear on a TV quiz show in the capital Ljubljana. Mother and teenage daughter are keen but father and older student son are not. Nevertheless, the family travel to the capital, getting involved in a silly incident with two policemen (because they are in fancy dress for a carnival edition of the quiz) and then with the TV celebrity who comperes the programme. In some ways the conventional quiz show is transformed into a version of a daytime ‘talkshow’ as the contestants squabble amongst themselves.

Communist Yugoslavia was part of the non-aligned movement in the 1970s and Slovenia was possibly the most market-orientated part of the federation, so there is little mention of the socialist system directly in the film. More important is the perceived metropolitan bias of the TV professionals in the capital towards the working-class contestants from the sticks. There is also a clear generational conflict between the father who has celebrated 30 years working in a factory making TV sets and a son who wants to break away from what he sees as his father’s self-imposed sense of inferiority.

I enjoyed the film for what it was. The ‘official website‘ suggests that the film is “a comedy with a scent of nostalgia about socialistic Yugoslavia’s last breaths looking forward into brighter future days than they appear to be at the moment”.There is nothing surprising about the film and in a way it looks like a film that might have been made anywhere in Central Europe at the time when it is set – i.e. in the late 1980s.

Slovenia has a small population (2.0 million) so producing a perfectly acceptable mainstream film is an achievement in itself. Director Klemen Dvornik has considerable experience in TV but this was his first cinematic feature. The only other Slovenian film that I’ve seen was much more ambitious but arguably less successful. Having said that I’m not sure that Bread and Circuses would find an audience in the U.