“Peter Greenaway’s theses on the death of cinema perhaps inspired the greatest discussion at the Odessa festival: his insistent repetition that cinema was dead but that the screen is very much alive was received as an interesting provocation but didn’t convince many.”
The Moscow and Odessa International Film Festivals represent respectively the oldest and the newest international film festivals of the former Soviet space, and yet in many ways they have more in common than do many other film festivals in this part of the world. While the Moscow Film Festival is the larger and more eclectic, Odessa has attempted to mirror it in terms of its selection of competition films from the so-called art mainstream. Both festivals are also heavily financed by the authorities and have strong ties to national power elites (Moscow via the conduit of Putin-cheerleader Nikita Mikhalkov, whereas Odessa is presided over by the wife of Ukraine’s vice president). This makes both festivals try to assert themselves as prestige social events, and both have an unhealthy obsession with red carpet “glamour” attempting to attract Hollywood stars instead of concentrating on giving the festival a definite role in developing a new path for Russian or Ukrainian film. Odessa in many ways is the more democratic festival — its cheaper ticket prices and free events on the Potemkin Steps and elsewhere in the city at least give it some relation to city inhabitants that the Moscow Festival in many ways lacks. The Potemkin Steps showing of silent films with live orchestra and up to 20,000 viewers is in many ways a spectacle in itself, offering this year an iconic image of a woman with a baby carriage desperately searching for a seat to watch Chaplin’s City Lights (previous years films had included Lang’s Metropolis, while the First Odessa Festival showed Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin on the steps, proving that, at least in this respect, Odessa had a unique opportunity that did not go to waste). Nonetheless, Odessa’s comparatively large budget, especially compared to Kiev’s Molodist Film Festival, hasn’t necessarily meant that it has managed to overtake this more established festival in terms of cinematic significance. Its stated claim that it will become the East European Cannes is still a long way off in terms of being able to draw to its orbit a genuinely world-class competition program. Both in Ukraine and Russia, many culturally influential figures engage in excessively overfunding trash while trashing genuinely original works. These factors are played out in Russia through a state championing of a small number of producers designed to squeeze out any truly independent voices of the film industry as well as hysterical reactions to films that are said to “besmirch” Russia. In addition, the closure of great institutions like Moscow’s Museum of Cinema in 2005 — which, under the direction of Naum Kleiman, had a Langloisian significance for Russian cinephiles — and a takeover by conservative and religious forces of formerly open-minded cultural broadsheets as well as a recent conservative show coup in the Russian Union of Filmmakers have made Russia a much less welcoming place to experiment with film. The situation in Ukraine seems to be slightly different, but judging by the quality of some of the films in the Ukrainian national competition at the Odessa Festival, it has a long way to go before Ukrainian films can attract the worldwide attention they did in the 1960s.
Many of the most prestigious awards (including that of FIPRESCI) went to Stefano Sollimi’s A.C.A.B. It played alongside Daniel Vicari’s Diaz—Don’t Clean up This Blood in an out-of-competition program (Good, Bad, Evil). Diaz was based on the documentary facts of the massacre of G8 demonstrators in a school named Armando Diaz: a deliberately excessive film of an excessive event, its political intentions were not hidden by the filmmakers, and its immediate impact on the audience couldn’t fail to be extreme. While some may accuse the film of being propaganda, it did not actually overstate the level of police violence that night — the night that torture returned to Western Europe. Sollima in A.C.A.B., while dealing with the same division of police (the Italian riot police or celere), shoots his film from the inside and offers a tighter and more sober perspective but gives a no less terrifying portrait of quotidian fascism. Sollima’s work as a war cameraman has doubtless informed his work. A film on the clannish nature of contemporary Italian society and how hatred unites its characters, it neither demonizes nor exonerates anyone. Representing a return to the civil cinema of Elio Petri and thematically close to French films such as La Haine and 36, quai des Orfèvres, Sollima has produced a powerful film dissecting a whole society just as Daniele Vicari in Diaz tried to depict the cruel epiphanic moment when the dark heart of this society became manifest.
If the dissonances of Proshkin’s film between style and subject seem too prominent, Evgenii Pashkevich’s three-part Latvian-Russian co-production Gulfstream under an Iceberg inspired by the myth of Lilith initially perplexes and then intrigues. Pashkevich spent 11 years making this film based on Anatole France’s collection Balthasar, stopping and starting according to the availability of finances. Each part of the film is devoted to a different historical period and is given a different aesthetic style — Part One, set in 1664, evokes the tradition of Dutch painting, although there is a contrast between the golden, silvery, and ochre colors of the setting with the cold, monochrome colors evoked by the hallucinations of the central character. The next story, from 1883, emphasizes a Baroque and grotesque style, while the third story set in 1990 with the subtitle “Cine Verite” is an eclectic assemblage of fragments from contemporary reality. Nature, too, appears throughout the film as character, whether in the guise of the Wasp that flies through its structure or the father transformed into a chicken in the 1883 story. On a first viewing of the film, this complex fabric resists any clear ideological or semantic readings, but the patience and determination of the director inspire a certain awe, luring the viewer to further viewings.
Tractor Drivers 2, mentioned above, was part of one of the festival’s many retrospectives: that of the films of Igor Aleinnikov, an innovator of late Soviet and post-Soviet underground cinema. This retrospective was itself part of a three-part program by Cine Fantom at the festival. Pioneering avant-garde, alternative, and underground film in Russia for two decades now, their special program was of undoubted interest to those weary of the Russian and global mainstream that dominated many of the other programs. The room was packed for the showing of Oleg Khaibullin’s A Dream of an Oligarch, which starred a number of artists belonging to Moscow’s underground scene as well as writer and philosopher Yuri Mamleev (it was in fact based on one of his novels Wandering Time). Rather than a film, this was a performance on film that only revealed itself fully toward the end.
Smaller programs of Estonian animation, shorts, and 3D classics reaching back to the Soviet era were accompanied by some larger and more significant programs and retrospectives. The Golden Collection of Universal Pictures offered up a very rare surprise in the form of Karel Reisz’s biopic Isadora (1968), an ill-fated film that deserves more attention than it has hitherto received even though the Esenin part of the movie brought fits of laughter from some of the Russian audience for its over-the-top portrayal of one of their best-loved national poets. Yonfan and Hector Babenco (the jury chairman) were given their own retrospectives, and 11 Lubitsch films were screened alongside the documentary Lubitsch in Berlin. Rosita (1923), the tale of a rebellious female singer cruelly treated by a sadistic king seemed fresh and contemporary in light of the Pussy Riot affair (the courageous actress and director Olga Darfi was slated to appear at the opening ceremony dressed in what she said was a summer Pussy Riot costume, becoming the lone protesting voice at this festival).
In the documentary competition, Andrei Gryazev’s film on the Voina art collective was shown. Tomorrow, a documentary portrait costing little more than $2,000 and premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, was the fruit of a long-term collaboration with the group that gave the director carte blanche to film what he liked. While the art group has since damned the film, it is certainly not a negative portrait. Concentrating more on the child Kasper as well as on the dynamics of the group, the film leaves one perplexed as to the raison d’etre behind many of Voina’s actions. While it generates a certain respect for Voina members who insist on bringing up their child as a free agent, the film as a document of Voina as actionist art phenomenon is rather unreliable. Another highly praised film in the documentary competition, Searching for Sugarman by Malik Bendjelloul, tells the story of a neglected U.S. singer who made it big in apartheid South Africa. Jakub Hejna’s portrait of his grandfather, the great Czech scenographer Josef Svoboda, in Theatre Svoboda was a genuinely fascinating and honest portrait of the artist under an authoritarian regime. The film spared none of the complexity of this issue in spite of the close ties between filmmaker and subject.
The main competition program was, with the exception of Phil Volken’s lackluster Garbage, an entirely European affair (unlike Moscow’s much more global selection). There was little doubt, with the established Russian film critic Andrei Plakhov at the helm of the jury, that Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog was going to win the main jury award, given that Loznitsa has established himself as deserving comparison with the greats of late Soviet cinema such as Alexei German and whose second feature film has finally meant that in the former Soviet republics a film set during World War II has been produced that bears comparison with those produced by Larisa Shepitko (Ascension, 1977), German (Trial on the Road 1971 released 1985), and even Elem Klimov (Come and See, 1984). In fact, Loznitsa has managed to enter into a dialogue with these classics on an equal footing, no mean feat nowadays. German, Shepitko, and Loznitsa’s triptych on betrayal are three responses from differing perspectives. Shepitko’s film was very much a polemical response to German’s idea of the potential for atonement and redemption; her maximalism has now been overturned by Loznitsa’s portrait of total mistrust as the context in which the hero is taken as traitor (in a mirror opposite to Bertolucci’s 1970 The Spider’s Strategem, in which the traitor is treated as hero). Like both Shepitko’s and German’s film, Loznitsa’s In the Fog concentrates on the internal dynamics of the Partisans, with even the dates and places coinciding (Belorussia, 1942). Shepitko’s and Loznitsa’s films are also adapted tales from the same writer, Vasily Bykov. The character of Sushenya in In the Fog is alienated not only from others but from himself as the final scene of the film demonstrates. Loznitsa’s film, which he had been intending to shoot for a decade, is notable also for its long takes (there were only 72 cuts in the film as a whole) and its desaturated colors (representing film at the time of the action). At moments one is reminded of Nikolai Ge’s portrait of Judas, and other scenes seemed to recall the landscape art of Kuindzha. The reception of the film was, however, extremely divided with the male portion of the audience denouncing its slowness and one viewer even absurdly accused Loznitsa of stealing the tale from Mel Gibson, while the female viewers were generally more positive (Loznitsa at the press conference was dogged with questions about the film’s nationality). Notable is the extraordinary music-less soundtrack: the director’s collaboration with sound designer Vladimir Golovnitsky has continued for a decade and his work with cameraman Oleg Mutu (who worked with Cristian Mungiu on 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days 2007) also seems to have become a lasting partnership. In his master class, Loznitsa gave a detailed description of rhythm in film and the links between music and film that had something of Eisenstein’s scientific precision. In some ways, Loznitsa seems to have returned to make a film within the great tradition of late Soviet cinema (of Sheptiko, Klimov, German, and Tarkovsky), carrying it forward thematically while, unlike most post-Soviet directors, maintaining the gravitas of his predecessors,.
Few films quite hit home after the Sigarev viewing: Garrone’s opening entry Reality and Ken Loach’s closing The Angels’ Share both genuinely impressed — Garrone’s black comedy also offered little catharsis or hope, but its bleakness seemed pale in comparison to Sigarev’s, whereas Loach offered a little more hope using whisky production a little like Ioseliani in Falling Leaves (1966) used wine production to lay bare unsustainable social realities. Alex de la Iglesia’s As Luck Would Have It (or, more accurately, The Spark of Life) offered an esperanto black comedy on the exploitation of one’s death for monetary reward with a style that recalls the late Berlanga with films like his Todos a la carcel (1993), where the director unleashes a battery of bad taste and a flurry of grotesque gags. The interest of the Serbian film Parade by Serdjan Dragojevich was subject-driven: a mainstream comedy of war veterans providing security for a gay pride march in Belgrade, it became an audience favorite at the festival even though one journalist at the press conference had apparently suggested that the director should be shot for making such a film. Its explicit anti-homophobic message was wrapped up in a lightweight comedy that didn’t differ too much from the style of Dragojevich’s earlier Pretty Village Pretty Flame (1996) — fellow Serb Maja Milosh’s Clip was the rawer film — a dramatic account of teenage turmoil and probably a festival-only film given the seemingly inevitable censorship issues it would run into at any attempt of general release owing to its explicit sex scenes. More extraordinary in its evocative power was Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (shown in the Festival of Festivals program). The film has been winning accolades from festival to festival and has even been compared to Vigo’s Atalante (1934) owing to its lyrically pure aquatic utopianism.
Odessa may have offered a relatively small selection of films, but it certainly held some interesting discussions and master classes. Peter Greenaway’s theses on the death of cinema perhaps inspired the greatest discussion at the festival: his insistent repetition that cinema was dead but that the screen is very much alive was received as an interesting provocation but didn’t convince many. He stated that 117 years of cinema had offered humankind only illustrated texts and that through the principles of multimedia and interactivity a new art form needs to arise in order to supersede cinema — an art form that is more purely visual than cinema and which can free itself from text. This viewpoint nonetheless generated much discussion and dissension. The work of the film critic and the role of the film festival were discussed by other festival guests with several international film critics and scholars in attendance. Many of the critics spoke about recent developments in the professional sphere of film criticism and the huge impact that blogging has had on film criticism. Some questioned the relevance of many of the over 5,000 film festivals in contemporary Europe and the need for festivals to develop a specific identity. It appears that both Moscow and Odessa have certain choices to make in order for these festivals to stay relevant. Odessa has made some fine choices in its first free years yet needs to develop its cinematic side more rather than believing that a large amount of funds and stars will automatically make it the Cannes of Eastern Europe. Moscow’s established reputation and its ability to offer global cinema from more than just one continent means that it has a certain advantage over Odessa, but the danger of it losing any specific role in the festival circuit is very strong. Its heterogeneity is fine, but frankly, many of its competition films do not seem to justify the idea that Moscow is really a Class A festival.