Maven's Nest

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--- Kosovo's Ambassador to the U.S. Vlora Çitaku proudly introducing Babai on 5/15/2016 at the Museum of the Moving Image

Panorama Europe 2016 Film Festival:
Traveling to Eastern Europe via New York City in May 2016

By Nora Lee Mandel

The second weekend of the 8th Annual Panorama Europe Film Festival featured recent festival hits from corners of Eastern Europe not usually seen on screen in New York City, with two directors adding background insight. From Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI), in Astoria, Queens, with additional screenings on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at the Bohemian National Hall, six features over May 13 - 15, traveled with immersive realism for their New York premieres through Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Kosovo, and back in time to West Germany and from Belgium to Russia,. Native speakers particularly enjoyed seeing their homelands on screen, and helped guide reactions for those in the keen audiences dependent on the English subtitles.

Review of the Second Week of Panorama Europe 2016

Home Care (Domácí péce)

Director Slávesk Horák telling the MoMI audience how he made Home Care, at the Q & A on 5/14/2016
Presented by the Czech Center New York

At MoMI, director Slávesk Horák charmingly described the writing and production process of his mature first feature, after 20 years filming inanimate objects and models for commercials. In a process drawn from life much like how Edward Burns’s debuted The Brothers McMullen in 1995, Horák not only returned to film in his native town in Moravia, in northeast Czech Republic, but to the house he grew up in, using what are still his parents’ garden, workshop and vineyard – and he co-stars, too. Unlike so many first-timers whose autobiographical scripts are nostalgic coming of age/youthful initiation stories, this son actually listened to his mother and her entertaining stories from her career as a visiting nurse. Then he re-created her as his central character.

Vlasta (Alena Mihulová, in this role that revived her long career, when her Best Actress Award at Karlovy Vary Festival first brought this film attention) does not let rain nor car trouble, late buses, endangered frogs, nor barking dogs and locked doors stay her from her appointment rounds with colorful patients. Whether her eccentric regulars are diabetic, senile, obese, or immobile, she literally goes the extra mile or hour to cheerfully help them and their families. When she gets home, her second shift starts for her old-fashioned husband Láda (Boleslav Polívka, a long time comic star in Czech films, including the international 2000 success Divided We Fall, but here he’s telling Horák’s dad’s jokes and wearing his dad’s clothes). Deep in his man-cave, he has no idea how, or inclination, to do domestic chores. Vlasta keeps up the same protectiveness long distance with her daughter in Prague, and pretty much overwhelms her on a rare visit home with her new fiancé (Horák himself).

Vlasta is shook out of her rut, and the film out of just the quaint small town genre, when an accident leads to a health crisis, and she starts exploring changes to her lifestyle. As encouraged by a patient’s daughter Hanácková (Tatiana Vilhelmová), her awkward dance class leads down the road to the alternative medicine of imperious self-help guru Miriam (Zuzana Kronerova). Amidst adoring acolytes, Vlasta hopefully tries every instruction. Veering from humorous to wacky to peaceful, through meditation, positive thoughts, bright colors, and slaps, her search for physical and spiritual healing includes slapstick in a grave and lust over broken slivovitz (plum brandy) bottles. The Czech Republic’s submission to the Academy Awards, Home Care ends with a wedding, but the people stick with you.

The Wednesday Child (A szerdai gyerek)

From left, Kinga Vecsei and Zsolt Antal in The Wednesday Child (A Szerdai Gyerek): Image courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
Presented by the Balassi Institute - Hungarian Cultural Center New York

Hungarian writer/director Lili Horváth slyly toys with Eastern European cinematic conventions from the past by opening with a policeman questioning sullen teenage Maja, and then a bureaucrat asking intrusive questions to fill out forms. But in further developing the life choices of the girl since Horváth’s 2009 short film Sun Stroke there have been some changes in the bleak outskirts of Budapest. By the time the film circles back to that opening interrogation, her answers seem more complex. Poverty is entrenched, but there may be some hope.

Maja is now played by newcomer Kinga Vecsei as realistically as if this is a documentary about her own life. Her impatience (and theft) while cleaning up a community center in a public housing development has a purpose. She’s not just being cynically rude or criminal – she’s on deadline to catch a train by visiting hours so she can spend her 19th birthday with her four-year-old son Kristian at his orphanage. The tough administrator, seeing how he has become mute with her and more responsive to staffers than her, suggests she apply for custody.

Can this Wednesday’s Child full of woe get to be a mother? Back at her bare home, she cheers herself up playing a musical birthday card signed “Mother”. In the morning, while she’s asking the local kids (who all seem to have developmental disabilities) if they’ve seen her baby daddy Krisz, her neighbor suggests she can get money from the community center.

The new project there is why the middle-aged social worker János (Szabolcs Thuróczy) was interviewing potential participants. Under strict qualification rules, he is initiating an experiment in entrepreneurship through a micro-loan cooperative. Dealing with his own reclamation, he sees potential in Maja, and though she presumes that can only involve sex (which does get messy), she glimpses a different future – if she could set up a laundry service. Surprisingly, she reveals experience running the laundry at the same orphanage where her son is now. Taking on this responsibility makes her positively grow and glow.

But this past hangs over her in the large, violent person of Krisz (charismatic Zsolt Antal) as she goes through the application process and endeavors to follow the requirements. More than just a stereotyped abuser, Krisz is still trapped in the aggression and corruption that protected Maja since their shared time in the orphanage. (And tempts her back to buy Kristian’s birthday presents.) Shades of a political allegory, suspense builds if the volatile Krisz can adapt, or if Maja can be strong enough to stick to the progressive community direction inspired by János and her son. I’m surprised many of the international festivals, including where the film won awards, describe this as a portrait of a couple. Horváth, in her debut feature, brilliantly keeps Maja as her fulcrum, and Vecsei’s performance rises to the heart breaking challenge.

The Spirits Diary (Rakijaški dnevnik)

Stills from The Spirits Diary (Rakijaski Dnevnik): Images courtesy of Croatian Film Association
Presented by the Consulate General of the Republic of Croatia and the Croatian Audiovisual Centre

Hipster artisanal brewers have nothing on Eric Maria Strom who blends spirits that are both potent liquids and soulful time travel. In director Damir Čučić’s 40th film, his third of feature-length, he used ten different filming techniques to recreate the atmosphere of Strom’s villa in northern Croatia where the so-called “alchemist” brewed and recorded all the sounds around him.

Through Strom’s audio diary narration, dated on screen in the 2000’s, the barely glimpsed sound engineer (portrayed/reenacted by Mario Haber with a gray-haired ponytail) retells family lore. Franciscan friars visited his grandfather and taught him how to make brandy, and for the next forty years, the family faithfully followed their process to distill fruit liqueur in the basement (notoriously illegal). The camera follows as he carefully goes through the procedures and operates the antique alcohol distiller. Silhouetted against the window views of the changing seasons, he talks serial harvests of different crops, and which berries he prefers at what temperatures.

Classical music fills the room when he’s alone, and he switches to jazzy tunes when the doorbell rings, bringing in convivial company to sample his brandies. Other sounds that go on in his house are what he calls the “choir” of alcohol fermentation. But as the steam fills the room, and the bubbles of fermentation fill the screen, the smells and tastes seem to bring on the past in Proustian flashes. A dazzling selection of images is quickly projected on surfaces as layers of old photographs and home movies, sometimes prompting identifications and memories, but mostly as a ghostly mise en scène of the generations of people who have lived in that house before.

While this creative, experimental “documentary” brought to Panorama Europe a touch of MoMI’s annual First Look Festival partnership with FIDMarseille (Festival du Internationale Documentaire), where this film was shown, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is all an elaborate fiction. It is curious that the only information on the internet about this character is from the film’s own publicity– not a single obituary appeared after what is said to be his tragic death in Summer 2014. Whether hoax or fact about the alternative identity of the director’s long time collaborator, this is a uniquely-aged blend of audio and visual through time.

Babai

Director Visar Morina on the MoMI screen, 5/15/2016
Presented by the Albanian Institute New York

Kosovo's Ambassador to the U.S. Vlora Çitaku gave a rousing patriotic welcome to this second film from Kosovo to participate in Panorama Europe, the country’s biggest production, award winner at Karlovy Vary and other international festivals, and its entry to the Academy Awards. Kosovo-born director Visar Morina was prevailed upon to tape an introduction to this New York premiere of his first feature from his home in Germany, where he went to film school and is working on his next script, that he hopes will take less than the eight years for Babai (Father). Morina wanted the audience to know the film is set in “a very special place” of the early 1990’s, before war with Serbia erupted at the end of the decade. But certainly the non-Kosovars in the audience were drawn into the tensely involving story as seeming very current about economic difficulties pushing families into risky migration to Germany, as Morina’s family did more easily when he was 15.

Filmed all through from the perspective of ten-year-old Nori (Val Maloku), alternating with tight close-ups on him, the wider economic and social issues all come down to him staying with his father Gezim (Astrit Kabashi), since his mother left. They are eking out some income by selling cigarettes (what Americans would call “loosies”). But the money has to go to the traditionally domineering uncle in exchange for squeezing them in with his own family, who have been scraping together money for his reluctant son’s arranged marriage. (Kosovars in the audience chuckled at the verisimilitude of repetitive social rituals performed regardless of personal tensions.)

Gezim wants to use the wedding distraction as cover for his get-away to accompany a friend to Germany. Nori is desperate to not be separated and will do anything to follow him – throwing himself in front of a bus, theft, and blackmail are just his audacious local tricks to set off on a very challenging odyssey. His negotiating acumen (let alone his penchant for vengeance) is cleverly awesome with Gezim’s friend’s blonde sexy wife Valentina (Adriana Matoshi) to convince her to pose as his mother to smugglers. Their mutual need creates an uneasy alliance through different transports and a confusingly frightening maritime flight.

Unlike any heartwarming Hollywood movie where characters miraculously transform, the calculating Valentina dumps the boy as soon as she’s reunited with her equally conniving partner, who repeats the ritualized expressions of welcome but rejects ethnic loyalty. Nori’s dreams of a fond reunion are foiled by Gezim’s desperation to hang onto his place in a crowded, tightly regulated refugee hostel. Cinematographer Matteo Cocco’s hand-held camera (in a very different style from the previous week’s Anna (Per amor vostro)) picks up the contrast of casual normal play of citizens’ fathers and sons in the background to add poignancy.

Even in a strange country Nori has more wits than his father, who is nearing emotional defeat and is ready to drown his sorrows in booze. In an astounding role reversal for a father and son made terrifically credible by young Maloku’s towering debut performance, Nori is sure he has the strength to carry them both-- as long as they stay together. Big-time producers noticed Maloku, too – he just finished doing Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife with Jessica Chastain and Daniel Brühl, which Focus will release at the end of this year.

Two films in the festival looked further back to the bad old days in the 20th century of European disunity.

Cafard

A still from Cafard: Image courtesy of UDI
Presented by the General Representation of the Government of Flanders to the U.S.A.

Belgian director Jan Bultheel has been successfully using animation in commercials and children’s television series for 20 years and was looking for an artistic challenge to be his first feature, in both technology and a complex story for grown-ups, as he had seen Ari Folman do with his memories of war in Waltz With Bashir. With the latest in motion capture (mo-cap) developed for video games, he could keep the focus on the voices of expressive international actors who re-animate “The Forgotten of the Great War”, certainly forgotten to those outside Belgium. The Autos-Canons-Mitrailleuses (ACM) was the first, elite armored car division established by King Albert in 1914, who sent its 400 soldiers from the muddy trenches of the Western Front, across the Bering Sea to the Czar’s service on the Eastern Front, through the Russian Revolution (earning them the titular sobriquet for cockroach, an idiom for feeling depressed), across the continent to China, Japan, on to the U.S. for propaganda parades, and back to Belgium in time for the armistice, the flu epidemic of 1918, and facing a traumatized Europe.

While archival photographs during the final credits show Bultheel’s historical inspirations (August Thiry & Dirk Van Cleemput’s King Albert's Heroes: How 400 Young Belgians Fought in Russia and Conquered the USA is not yet available in English), he drew out the most distinctive characters with fictional depth, romance, political commentary, and humor in writing the script, designing the line-drawn graphic style, directing the voice actors, editing and staging the scenes, guiding the animation team, and texturing all the models and sets.

Central is the powerful figure of Jean Mordant (voiced by Wim Willaert, based on the real Constant Le Marin) who is crowned World Wrestling Champion in Buenos Aires in 1914, only to learn of the German invasion and soldiers’ gang rape of his beloved teen daughter Mimi back home in Flanders. Hell bent for vengeance, spurred on even more when he learns she’s pregnant, he sails home and enlists his erudite coach Victor (Sebastien Dewaele), his young radicalized nephew Guido (voiced by Maarten Thomas Ketels, based on the real Communist Julien Lahaut), and a stranded compatriot Edouard Coppenolle (Benoît Gob).

Like a character in a James Hilton period adventure, Jean narrates his experiences in letters to his daughter that he crumples in frustration. (For the audience, the animated maps help too.) The grueling stalemate in France is familiar and quickly dispatched for an eyewitness look at Russian battles and Bolshevik violence that is thrilling and full of horrifying revenge, while the ebullient Guido is excited by workers’ solidarity (and discovering brothels). When the Russian nurse Jelena Dimitrieva Doctorow (Dinara Drukarova) first patches them up (when possible), translates, then joins them in fleeing the chaos on a bartered train across the continent, romance blooms. (Warning: brief frontal cartoon nudity.)

Amidst the colorful exotica of Chinese rickshaws, Mongolian yerts, and the panoply of stars over the Pacific, thoughtful political discussions continue. Jelena is rejuvenated by American optimism and opportunity for immigrants, where even in Spring 1918 the war is still all about flag-waving. Jean, however, gets more and more cynical and can only hope his return home to his family can reconcile all he, his generation, and Europe as a whole have been through. At this time history, that’s a happy ending.

The People vs. Fritz Bauer (Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer)

Burghart Klaussner in The People Vs. Fritz Bauer © zero one film/Martin Valentin Menke
Presented by the Goethe-Institut New York

Lars Kraume's film is the third fictionalized version in three years of how a heroic German prosecutor fought the East and West German judicial bureaucracies full to get Nazi war criminals into court in the 1960’s – especially in daring to go around them to facilitate Israel’s capture (Argentina background in the documentary Eichmann’s End: Love, Betrayal, Death (Eichmanns Ende)) and trial of Adolf Eichmann, and then, in Frankfurt, to try those who ran the Auschwitz extermination camp. (Remembered in the 1993 German TV documentary Verdict On Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965.) This version just won more German Film (Lola) Awards (six) than Giulio Ricciarell’s nominated Labyrinth Of Lies (Im Labyrinth Des Schweigens) did last year. The New York premiere at MoMI previewed the Cohen Media Group release in the U.S. beginning August 19, for formal review.

The 2015 internationally distributed film quite oddly and inaccurately reduced Fritz Bauer’s role in these legal adventures to a distant office in order to focus instead on a fictional young attorney’s consciousness-raising about German culpability in crimes against humanity and the following twenty-year silence since the Allies’ Nuremberg Trials. Though Kraume's film mostly follows the charismatic and fervent believer in the dignity of man, it, too, gets sidelined by another young fictional attorney’s consciousness-raising. Here it’s his sexual orientation (and the gay underground) in order to stress that Nazi laws were still on the books and were being adjudicated by former Nazis, particularly “Paragraph 175” that criminalized homosexual acts -- which stayed in the German legal code until 1994. The link to Bauer is his homosexuality (and the degree to which a police report of a bathroom incident is accepted as evidence), as if being a Jewish, Socialist, ex-political prisoner returned from exile abroad wasn’t enough to have him out of sync with those who never really left power. (Countries like the U.S. and England had and enforced equally homophobic laws at this time as well.)

Stephan Wagner’s The General (Die Akte General) --as in Attorney General-- broadcast on German public television this past February, included Bauer’s homosexuality in passing, but emphasized the wider political restrictions that limited his prosecutions in Germany, particularly the ex-Nazis in high positions of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s government . This third version was shown in New York at the Goethe Institut’s accompanying, and very usefully insightful, series “Enemy Territory – Fritz Bauer and Postwar Germany”, inspired by Bauer’s famous quote “When I leave my office, I'm entering enemy territory”.

The series also featured other films that included Bauer himself on screen, among the few German films that touched on the self-examination he insisted on for German society: Murderers Among Us (Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns), directed by Wolfgang Staudte (1946); Yesterday Girl (Abschied Von Gestern – Anita G.), by “New Wave” director Alexander Kluge (1966) in a youthful perspective; and the documentary Fritz Bauer - Death By Installments (Tod Auf Raten), directed by Ilona Ziok (2010), comprised of extensive interviews with his friends and colleagues, including Thomas Harlan, the Nazi-hunting (as seen in in Our Nazi) son of Harlan: In The Shadow Of Jew Süss (Harlan - Im Schatten Von Jud Süss). Compared to the series’ other films, the documentary also included the longest excerpts from a famous 1964 TV program where Bauer was questioned by young Germans about their democratic future, and became an inspiration for the 1968 protests against the old establishment that he just lived long enough to see, before dying under mysterious circumstances. (And some say the disillusion that followed helped lead to the nihilistic rebellion against the older generation of The Baader Meinhof Complex (Der Baader Meinhof Komplex).)

It took almost until the next century for the state and federal governments to recognize and honor Bauer’s unique leadership by funding an academic institute in Frankfurt that studies and educates on the history and impact of the Holocaust and other National Socialist mass crimes. So many of the films in the festival this year have shown the importance of not taking democracy for granted!

6/4/2016

A version of this review is at Film Festival Traveler

My review of Panorama Europe 2016 1st Week.

My review of Panorama Europe 2016 3rd Week.



Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:


Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward and, since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.



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