Eastern European Cinema At the 18th Annual European Union Film Festival
There’s more than European cinema than French and Italian!
This month marks the beginning of the 18th annual European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center which began its run March 6th and runs through April 2nd.
The festival gives movie lovers the opportunity to experience international films from countries they normally wouldn’t look to, namely cinema from Eastern Europe.
Though Mexican cinema and filmmakers have recently caught the eye of American moviegoers thanks to the work of Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, who won an Academy Award for best director at this year’s award ceremony for his film “Birdman” (2014) and Alfonso Cuaron, who won the best director Academy Award at last year’s show for his film “Gravity” (2013), Eastern European cinema has largely been ignored.
This is unfortunate and wasn’t always the case. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s Eastern European films were making headlines in America. Moviegoers were being treated to films from Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Germany thanks to various “new wave” movements which saw the emergence of filmmakers such as Milos Forman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog,Miklos Jansco and Andrzej Wajda at a time when these countries were under the censorship of communist regimes. Their movies were sharp social criticisms of the political powers which ruled their countries.
In more recent times Eastern European cinema has still managed to experiment with the conventions of cinema. In the Czech Republic there is the work of Jan Svankmajer, a surrealist animator, in Hungary there was filmmaker Bela Tarr, who experimented with linear storytelling and in Romania a string of socially and politically charged dramas such as the 2007 Palme d’Or Cannes Film Festival winner, “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days” and the black comedy “12:08 East of Bucharest” (2007).
One of the obstacles Eastern European cinema faces though is it must overcome the world-wide perception it has obtained through the years as being depressing, cynical and sarcastic. These perceived negative traits often keep moviegoers away. Two movies of note at this year’s festival are the Slovak movie “The Candidate”, a political comedy, and the Hungarian movie “For Some Inexplicable Reason”, a look into the lives of the disenfranchised 30-something youths in Budapest. Both of these movies will try to change the world’s perception of their country and its movies.
Jonas Karasek, the first-time director of “The Candidate”, tried to differentiate his movie from other Slovak movies. “Our typical film”, the director said “is usually a depressive insight into the life of an individual on the edge of society. We tried to be more funny, although in the background we show the sad reality of how sick our world is.”
The “we” Karasek was referring to included his friend and the screenwriter of “The Candidate” Maros Hecko, who felt “our film might be something different. Slovak films have for years been producing mainly films that are in the genre of social drama. We are an exemption. We created a multi-genre film. A thriller mixed with elements of comedy and detective story.”
The movie, which follows a factious presidential’s candidate, with links to a historical 19th century Slovak leader, and his campaign raises issues Hecko feels American audiences should be able to relate to. “I can very well imagine this story adapted for American audiences, it could even be a potentially very successful remake.”
Gabor Reisz, who is also making his feature-length directorial debut, would like audiences coming out of “For Some Inexplicable Reason” viewing Hungary as a “country full of contradictions, a very colorful place that’s a happy and depressive place at the same time.” Reisz added “I think Budapest is an exceptionally beautiful capital and it’s important to me that people abroad feel the same way about it.”
Reisz’s comedy follows a group of amateur acting friends in their 20s and 30s and one in particular who still lives at home with his parents. After being dumped by his girlfriend he finds himself on a trip to Portugal.
The director got the idea for the movie after he came to the “realization that I haven’t seen a Hungarian film since a very long time where the characters were even a little believable to be real people from Budapest.”
And that is the great things about movies, their ability to show us other countries, other cultures. To discover people all over the world experience the same things, whether it is a corrupt political system or the personal journey we go through to discover ourselves. This is what audiences will recognize as they watch Eastern European films.
It is also worth noting the opposite effects of cinema, especially the global influence American cinema has on other cultures. When asked to name favorite filmmakers of their own, both directors named Americans. Karasek said “I am quite Hollywood oriented” listing Christopher Nolan and David Fincher as favorites whereas Reisz cited Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers as influences.
Alex Udvary is a Chicago based freelance movie critic and commentator. He has contributed movie reviews for various newspapers and websites including the newspaper Chicago News, the Toledo Free Press, the Milwaukee Shepherd Express, the on-line film magazine The Big Picture and the website Third Coast Review as well as international publications such as The Budapest Times. He was an intern at Facets multimedia, the largest DVD distributor in the Mid-West, where he would do research and write plot descriptions for their catalog.