37th FEST Belgrade
Alone the fact that over 90,000 admission tickets were sold made the 37th Belgrade International Film Festival FEST (20 February to 1 March 2009) one for the books. Thanks for a roving festival staff headed by Miroljub “Mica” Vukovic, top quality entries were booked from Europe’s leading film festivals (Cannes, Venice, Locarno): Stephen Daldry’s opening film The Reader (USA/Germany), Clint Eastwood’s Changling (USA) Ron Howard’s Frost / Nixon (USA), Gus Van Sant’s Milk (USA), and Darren Arnofsky’s The Wrestler (USA).
The “Horizons” section also included choice European hits: Karen Shakhnazarov’s The Vanished Empire (Russia), Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra (Italy), Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo (Italy), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Lorna’s Silence (Belgium/France/Italy/Germany), Tom Tykwer’s The International (USA/UK/Germany), and Laurent Cantet’s Entre les murs (The Class) (France).
With a lineup like that, no wonder 90,000 avid film fans vied with every means at their disposal to beg or trade a ticket for a top-drawer international screening. Thanks to the spacious capacity of the Sava Center venue, most did not go away disappointed.
Far more interesting for cineastes, however, were the entries in the “Europe Out of Europe” section. Here you could see the cream of Cent/East and East European productions selected from the Moscow International Film Festival, Sochi Open Russian Film Festival, St. Petersburg Festival of Festivals, and Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Some of the productions seen here owed their existence to the benefice of cross European film funding. Particularly impressive was Kazakh film director Rustem Abdrashev’s Podarok Staliu (A Gift for Stalin) (Russia/Kazakhstan/Israel/Poland). Set in the midst of the “dark age” turmoil of the postwar years, when the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear bomb, we experience through the eyes and memories of a child how, in 1949, enormous pain was inflicted upon minority ethnic groups as they were expelled from their homelands by order of the Stalinist government.
In A Gift for Stalin Shaska, a Jewish lad traveling on a train with his ailing grandfather, suddenly finds himself alone in the steppes of Kazakhstan, simply because the body of his deceased grandfather has to be dropped off at a village train stop. He survives only because of the sympathy and understanding of native villagers of different races, themselves outcasts for whichever reason. To his credit, Rustem Abdrashev chronicles both sides of the ethnic turmoil, although most of the blame is directed at callously corrupt officials who rape and plunder their way to their own eventual downfall.
Along the same lines,though in a contemporary context, Georgi Ovashvili’s Gagma Napiri (The Other Bank) (Georgia/Kazakhstan) narrates the poignant story of a 12 year-old boy (Tedo Bekhauri), who journeys alone and penniless across the expanse of Georgia to reach the Abchasian border in a futile search to find his father. He witnesses rape, robbery, poverty, and death as the ongoing ethnic conflict between Georgians and Abchasians surfaces at every turn in the road. With pennies in his pocket but determination in his heart to find his father in the devastated village of his birth, he does reach his destination, only to discover that his father has married again. How the young nonprofessional actor these challenges makes for rewarding viewing. Given a standing ovation at the screening I attended, Tedo Bekhauri was surrounded by fans seeking photos and autographs. It was the emotional highpoint of the festival.
A Gift for Stalin received the Eritrocite award for Best Film and The Other Bank was awarded with a Special Mention. Both well deserved.
Thanks to the foresight of programming director Slobodan Sijan, a roundtable on “SEE Women Film Directors” spotlighted Southeast European Women Directors from the Balkan countries and a bit beyond. The discussion, running over a four hour stretch, covered a wide range of film production (features, documentaries, short films) by women directors from this region. In attendance were filmmakers, lecturers, artists, historians, and festival directors from the republics of former Yugoslavia and neighboring countries Some 60 relevant films of past and present were discussed, some analyzed in great depth. FEST is currently preparing a publication on the event.