While the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works of many cultural events, a lot of international film festivals are soldiering on — some only online, some with limited in-person screenings. And just like every year before, 2020 has brought with it plenty of interesting new feature films and documentaries from the emerging Europe region.
Here is just a small selection of what the region’s directors have been showing at this year’s various international film festivals. While not all of them have won awards, they do show that emerging Europe has a vibrant and creative film industry.
Directed by Prishtina-born Visar Morina, whose previous work Babai won the jury prize at Karlovy Vary in 2015, Exil (also known internationally as Exile) is a slow-burn thriller focusing on themes of identity and belonging.
Starring Mišel Matičević (known for Babylon Berlin) as Xhafer, a Kosovar immigrant with a German wife, the film’s themes feel timely and fresh given the current migrant and refugee crisis which has rocked the European Union and exposed just how much xenophobia and racism are still present in European society.
That is not to say that Morina’s film is unsubtle or preachy. Quite the opposite, through the use of humour and an idiosyncratic plot, an interesting thriller is woven where nothing is quite as it seems.
It all begins with a dead rat strung on a garden gate, fuelling the protagonists’s paranoia that his coworkers and acquaintances hate him for being an immigrant. But is racism the issue, or just personality? And can people who have been transplanted from one place to another ever separate the two?
In Exil, Visar Morina uses the conventions of a thriller to shed light on social and personal issues surrounding immigration and life in another country. Exil won the German Screenplay Award in 2018, and was declared Best Film at the Sarajevo Film Festival. It also won the critics award at the Taipei Film Festival and was a nominee at the Zurich Film Festival.
With so many awards and nominations, here’s hoping this sophomore effort by a Kosovo-born director will get a wide release soon.
Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (Hungary)
Aside from being quite a mouthful, the new film by Hungarian director Lili Horvát is an exploration of what love really is, achieved through what critics have called “virtuosic imagery.”
Natasa Stork plays Márta, a Hungarian neurosurgeon with a brilliant career in the United States. But, on the cusp of her fortieth birthday she decides to leave it all behind and comes back to Hungary to be with a man (János, played by Viktor Bodó) she had briefly met previously.
The catch? János claims not to remember her at all. Is this really true? Is he lying or is Márta going a bit crazy? There are no easy answers in this film, which sidesteps common erotic thriller tropes (think Fatal Attraction) to deliver a subtler look into a topic often overlooked by film — women ageing and the challenges and changes that come with.
Preparations to Be Together was nominated in the Best Film category at the Zurich International Film Festival.
Acasă, My Home (Romania)
From Romanian investigative journalist Radu Ciorniciuc comes a documentary film directorial debut following a large family (the Enaches: two parents and nine children) living off the grid for 20 years near an abandoned water reservoir just outside of Bucharest.
The documentary follows the family as they must uproot themselves their ramshackle barrack to the city, following the government’s proclamation of the area as a nature reserve.
For the family, moving to the city is an alien and hard experience. Ciorniciuc embedded himself with the family members for four years and the film does not feature any narration or interviews. Without ever directly engaging with the family, the audience gets a fly-on-the wall perspective as the events unfold.
Far from being an ode to simple living, Acasă chronicles the difficulties of people who fall through the cracks and live on the margins of society. Ciorniciuc’s journalistic background is a strength as it lets him avoid any trappings of sentimentality. Acasă is not an uplifting human interest story with a happy end. But neither is it poverty porn.
Instead, the film is an unflinching look into an unusual family in an unusual situation, and the broader issues of poverty and isolation. In that regard, Acasă is similar to last year’s sleeper documentary hit Honeyland.
Just like Honeyland, Acasă has swept the festival circuit. It won the Best Feature-length Documentary in Krakow, the Viktor Award at the Munich International Documentary Festival, the Human Rights Award in Sarajevo, and it snatched a Cinematography Award at Sundance.
With such honours, Acasă seems set to become a cult favourite among more discerning documentary audiences.
Welcome to the USA (Kazakhstan)
Being queer in Kazakhstan is not easy. Welcome to the USA is a debut feature by Kazakh director Assel Aushakimova, that charts the perilous lives of lesbians in the former Soviet country.
Shot in an intimate, cinéma vérité style, the film (also written by Aushakimova) begins with the protagonist Aliya (played by Saltanat Nauruz) winning the vaunted Green Card lottery.
Over the next few days, the film follows its central character as she evaluates the different aspects of her life: her sick mother, her unhappy sister trapped in a strict Muslim marriage, her lover, and all the secretiveness it takes to be a lesbian in Kazakhstan. Knowing, now that she can move to the United States, that she can leave it all behind.
Welcome to the USA was part of the international film selection at the Outfest Film Festival, a queer film festival based in Los Angeles, and at the InsideOut Film Festival in Canada.
The Earth is as Blue as an Orange (Ukraine)
Written and directed by Iryna Tsylik, this documentary follows single mother Anna who lives with her two daughters and two sons in Donbas, where a war between Ukraine and separatist forces is still ongoing despite many attempts to initiate a ceasefire.
But the family that’s at the centre of this feature is united in their love of cinema, and their attempt to make a film about their experiences in their war-torn town. They turn their home into a studio, and begin going outside to interview soldiers. Filmmaker Iryna Tsylik follows the family as they do this, lending the offering a meta-narrative structure that has been praised by critics.
“It’s an apt inversion for a documentary in which the roles of filmmaker, viewer and subject are as inextricably fused as life and art,” reads a review by Variety.
The result is a film that captures moments of despair as well as moments of joy, as serves a record of the human experience of war reflected through the medium of cinema.
The Earth is as Blue as an Orange won the Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary at Sundance this year and continued to sweep the festivals with a special mention at the Zurich Film Festival, and the Best Debut Film at the Biografilm Festival, among others.
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