Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Eastern Europe, part II

6 new films with 3 being co-productions. Here are the films in no particular order:

One of the major themes of part I of Eastern European cinema was the break down or collapse of a nation. Part II picks up from that theme and looks at issues of population displacement which result from a nation's economic breakdown.


Officially when a nation is at war, only a select few are fighting for the cause; most ordinary citizens are caught in the cross-fire. And when everyday life becomes unbearable, some citizens are forced to make the difficult choice of leaving their homeland. If the thought of leaving is a tough decision, then the act is even harder. That's because there are only limited means by which a person can leave their country - illegal border crossing, a legal immigration, a temporary visa or a refugee status.

a) Illegal Border crossings:

The engaging film Spare Parts shows the perils of illegal border crossings. The film is shown from the perspective of two men who earn a living out of driving people across the Slovenian border. Slovenia shares a border with Italy and Croatia and as a result, acts as a perfect medium for such transfers. The border crossers are leaving their homes in Bosnia, Macedonia, Albania, Iran, Africa in the hopes of a better life in Italy or "Europe" as they refer to the promise land.

Whether it is a border crossing in Europe, Africa or North America, the means are the same. A network of contacts is setup, there is a transporter who delivers the people, a pick-up man on the the other side with lots of money changing hands. The movie tries to give a human face to the transporters and the people paying a fortune just to get to the other side. We see how a young driver is initiated into the business, how he is trained and eventually matures into being his own boss. But before the young driver is fully qualified, he is disgusted at the idea and even tries to quit. We see how ordinary humans are humiliated and forced to sell themselves just to get some food while in transit. And we even learn how some of these poor souls might end up being "spare parts" when they reach the Italian border -- the human beings transported are only needed for kidney or other body parts and have no value themselves.

What is more cruel? The horrors these people have to face just to cross the border or the circumstances that force normal educated humans to take such risks?

b) Legal Border crossings:

Once upon a time, Eastern European soccer players were not allowed to leave their country for Western European soccer teams. In some cases, age restrictions were placed. For example, in Bulgaria prior to 1990, soccer players could only leave after the age of 28. By then, most players would have lost the chance to play abroad. But all that changed after the collapse of the Berlin wall and break-up of the Eastern bloc of nations. The new political changes ensured that soccer players could leave freely. If soccer players could leave for better opportunities, then why not the regular office workers, doctors, engineers or other professionals?

The Bosnian co-production Armin shows how a father takes his teenage son across the border to Croatia for a movie audition. The father is quite proud of his son's acting and musical abilities and he is sure that his son will get the film part. The duo are from a small Bosnian village and are initially awed (the son more than the father) at the standard of life in Zagreb. But eventually, the two not only understand each other better but maintain their integrity before returning back home. Armin is a tender film that beautifully looks at the relationship between father and son while also highlighting the pride people have in their roots. In one scene, the father finds himself in the hotel lobby with a Turkish man who is watching a German soccer game on tv. The man is watching VFB Stuttgart play. The father points that everyone in his town only likes Bayern Munich. Why? Because of Hasan Salihamidzic, ofcourse! Hasan is probably the most famous Bosnian soccer player plying in his trade in one of the biggest clubs in Europe. Interestingly enough, Hasan was on the last flight that left Sarajevo (1992) the night before the newly formed nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina was forced into war. Hasan did return back to Bosnia via illegal border crossings before finally making a move to Germany. Even in Exile, he represents a symbol of joy and hope for his people back home.

Although Béla Tarr's The Prefab People is about a couple's relationship problems, it too features the concept of leaving one's home to earn a living abroad. In the movie, the husband wants to work on a two year contract in Romania because he will earn more money. The wife does not want him to leave because she needs him to help with their two children. But the husband points out that if he does not leave, then they won't be able to afford the basic luxuries of life (car, washing machine). The husband assures the wife that he will only go for two years but will return back. But in many other cases, people leave their home, wanting to return but decades go by and they are caught up in their everyday life. Yet, they can't ground themselves in their new adopted home because mentally they are rooted elsewhere. The German co-production Das Fräulein shows three women in different stages of Exile in Germany -- Ana is a young Bosnian girl who is convinced she is only in Germany for a temporary time; Mila is a Croatian woman who has been living for decades in Germany but is still reluctant to call it home and Ruza is a Serbian woman who has tried very hard to erase all memories of her past life and emotionless goes about running her restaurant. The three women's interactions with each other change each person and help them to get a better appreciation of life. Coolly shot in blue and green visuals, Das Fräulein is a simple movie about what happens to people when their lives are unexpectedly halted and they are forced to start afresh in an alien land.

The Return:

Naturally, sometimes after a period of exile, a person does make a return.

In La Traductrice Marina lives happily with her daughter Ira in Geneva. But things were not always good for Marina. More than a decade ago, she fled Moscow with her then 7 year old Ira because life in Russia was too dangerous. The romantic exile period is over when Ira becomes a translator for a Russian mafia boss arrested in Geneva. Ira got the job thanks to a family friend, who has his own reasons for hiring her. During the course of the trial, Ira learns some truths about her past and eventually travels to Moscow to unravel the mystery. In the end, Ira is smart enough to handle the truth her mother was protecting her from and mature enough to make the right decisions.

Home is where the heart is...

War and jobs are not the only reasons people leave their homes. Sometimes, people leave their home just to escape from a relationship or their family.

The Prefab people begins with the husband walking out on his wife and kid. She is upset at him wanting to leave her just like and take off. As it is, he does no work around the house and does not help his wife in any chores. He just wants to spend time with his friends, read the paper, watch tv and drink. Eventually, the two of them patch up and go on. And then a job opportunity in Romania comes up. That coupled with his unhappiness is enough reason for the husband to leave again.

The Bulgarian film Christmas Tree Upside Down is a collection of 6 different shorts forcibly held together by a loose common thread. The first short titled The Calf begins with a Bulgarian woman returning after life in New York. Even though she come back home, she can't help recall about the good life abroad. So if it was so good there, then why did she leave? Simple answer -- she needed to get away from her husband.

In the second short, Wooden Angel, a young girl runs away from her home because she is unmarried & 5 months pregnant. The family wants nothing to do with the baby so she arrives in the city hoping for a change. In another of the shorts, we are introduced to a family of gypsies. These people have no fixed home and move from one locale to another. They speak in a language that none of the locals understand and even the audience is left in the dark to their words (there are no subtitles for their dialogues). Yet, they find comfort in each other as they drift from village to city. Singing and dancing....

And the music plays on....

Once again, the gypsy music is in the air. Both The Prefab people & Christmas Tree Upside Down start with infectious gypsy band music. The Bulgarian film starts with a Christmas tree being chopped down. The tree is to be transported across the country to the capital Sofia. Along the way, we are shown 6 shorts -- The Calf, Wooden Angel, Socrates, The Sailboat, The Boar & the Drum. The title of each short represents an ornament that will be put on the tree in the end. The interlude between each short is connected by vibrant gypsy music which informs us when the next segment is about to start. In the end, the tree is set-up with fireworks lighting up the sky.

Fade to black. Cue gypsy music........

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