Opening the Western world up to the perspective of Central and Eastern European cinema, the Cottbus Film Festival — usually situated on the German-Polish border, but pivoting to digital this year in the wake of Germany’s coronavirus lockdown policies — provided an assortment of stories highlighting the diversity, humour, and liveliness of the region.
The competition strong was particularly pronounced, with films spanning from Greece to Poland to Turkey to Serbia. From the haunting exploration of terrorist trauma in the Russian Conference to the great resilience found in familial Polish-Irish drama I Never Cry to the playful state-of-the-nation-address of Hungarian Treasure City, the wide 13-film selection, accompanied by post-film digital Q&A’s, Cottbus gave the audience great insight into the challenges and excitement of Eastern European life.
Here are five of our favourites:
I Never Cry by Piotr Domalewski
The standout film of the festival, I Never Cry looks at the double-edged legacy of Poland’s ascension to the EU. On the one hand, it has allowed Polish workers to make money abroad in countries such as UK, Germany and Ireland. On the other, it has bred a generation who barely know their absent working fathers.
For the 17-year-old Ola, she learns about her father the hard way when she learns he has been accidentally killed in an Irish construction site. Tasked with going to the country and getting her father’s body sent back to Poland, I Never Cry is a deeply-felt examination of family and identity which thrives thanks to its neatly-casted group of supporting actors.
Treasure City by Szabolcs Hajdu
An episodic, panoramic examination of contemporary Budapest society, Treasure City is a harsh and piercing look at the state of the nation. Containing references to the government’s slow disintegration of democracy, it seems that nearly everyone in this film —from actors to florists to young kids — is on edge.
With a great eye for staging and creating awkward situations — including a meltdown at a florist that starts off absurd before descending into flat-out racism — Hajdu has created a dark yet somewhat entertaining exploration of society cracking apart at the seams.
Conference by Ivan I. Tverdovsky
Ivan I. Tverdovsky follows up the more accessible satire Jumpman with the sombre yet quietly chilling drama of Conference. It’s set many years after the shocking Dubrovka hostage situation in Moscow, where Chechyan terrorists took over a theatre for four days before the government pumped an unknown chemical agent into the stalls, killing up to 170 people.
He focuses on the devout Natasha, a victim of the tragedy turned to a life of nunnery, quietly attempting to put on a memorial evening in the same space. But can she really exhume and expel the past, or is Russia tragically doomed to repeat its mistakes once again? Tverdovsky is one of the more exciting Russian talents to come out in recent years, with this Cottbus competition-winning film showing a great confidence in filmmaking form.
The Living Man by Oleg Novković
Đela is a shameless flirt. Despite being married, he sees no problem in constantly propositioning his son’s girlfriend. Played with great physicality and charm by Nikola Duričko, he is a past-his-prime rocker, constantly arguing with his wife and kids. But when his daughter gets pregnant, this sends him on a spiral, examining his own relationship to women and kindling a desire to recover the best of his glory days.
A sexy, un-politically correct, and darkly humorous romp into toxic masculinity at its most acute, The Living Man redeems itself through the sharply drawn humanity of its protagonist. It might also make you nostalgic for clubs, bars, and the buzz of city life!
Rotten Ears by Piotr Dylewski
Running just over an hour, Rotten Ears shows off the power of brevity to tell a whipsmart narrative. Concerning a young couple who go to a remote retreat in order to work through their marital issues. But the method of therapy in the film subtly plays against expectations, making one wonder if what we are witnessing is actually therapy or if we are slowly going into Ben Wheatley-territory.
Anchored by fine naturalist performances, hand-held camerawork and a spare approach to characterisation and storytelling, Rotten Ears is a playful and play-like work that may make you re-evaluate both your current and past relationships.
The Cottbus Film Festival is available online until the 31st December. You can see the program here!