‘My whole life comes down to this: home, work, home, work… And to make things worse, I have no home and I have no work.’ That might read as the epitaph of many dedicated doc-makers working in East Europe, but more significantly, it’s the tagline for Serbian director Boris Mitic’s latest documentary about Serbian aphorisms – a twisted variety of satirical humor – in the sharp, linguistically titled, Aphocalyse Now. The film was one of nine East European projects to be presented this past July at the 43rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the scenic, rolling hills of Karlovy Vary, a spa city situated in Bohemia, Czech Republic.
The nine feature docs were part of Docu Talents from the East, an annual works-in-progress series organized by The Institute of Documentary Film (IDF) in Prague, Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival and the Karlovy Vary IFF, which highlights a selection of creative Central and East European docs in development and aimed for theatrical release. The event was designed to cast its net around influential film professionals, including festival programmers, distributors, buyers and journalists attending the only A-category festival in the region. This year marked the fourth edition of Docu Talents, which allows both director and producer seven minutes in which to introduce their doc and screen a trailer.
Docu Talents has been the launching pad for a number of docs officially selected for not only Karlovy Vary, but also other international film festivals, including Hot Docs and Cannes. Among these films are Other Worlds by Marko …kop, Lost Holiday by Lucie Králová, The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories by Andrey Paounov and Blind Loves by Juraj Lehotský, an official selection at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Regional folklore versus collective culture
In a region that shivered together through a political climate change, do trends still resonate across the Eastern airs? If this year’s Docu Talents is an indication, it appears an articulate balance sways between local stories, private memories and a collective history that together can attract international appeal. This equilibrium is crucial at a time when commissioning editors seek domestic dramaturgy while international fests are on the prowl for topical auteur films. To put it bluntly, the biggest challenge the region faces, according to Slovakian filmmaker Marko Skop (who also presented his film, Osadné, Brussels, Osadné at Docu Talents in July), is to ‘talk locally and globally at the same time.’
East Europe is bound through a common political past, and therefore tends to produce stories woven with the obligatory red thread of communism when tackling culture, community, politics and attitudes, on both esoteric and public levels. But the communistic experience itself has only been surfacing among the reality-recorders of East Europe in recent years. For about 10 years after the revolution, many films were content to break free from the past and move into a freer future, politically and artfully, and were not so eager to relish in verisimilitude, to proclaim their cinematic voice in personal recollection, as such individualism had to be eased into after decades of the collective.
Out of the nine projects presented as part of Docu Talents, five dealt with communism, as either a reflection or an integration of their current culture. Take, for example, Czech filmmaker Linda Jablonska’s film A Journey into the Unknown, which follows a group of Czech tourists on a sight-seeing tour through North Korea. The film questions why Czechs would choose to return to communism for a holiday. Estonian filmmaker Jaak Kilmi turns the camera upon himself in his new film, Black and White Window, as he weaves into a grander context his own experience of growing up with the TV show Dallas, courtesy of Finnish television, before Soviet Estonian authorities shut the colorful window of idealism from tainting the reining grays of totalitarianism and thus brainwashing the impressionable Estonian youth in the 1970s and 80s. From Polish filmmakers Bartek Konopka and Piotr Rosolowski comes a story of the influx of unleashed rabbits in the self-evidently titled Rabbit a la Berlin. After the wall fell in 1989, the rabbits that dwelt within the Death Zone, the space between the wall, were knocked from their comfortable system, cast into freedom and unsure of a new land – a glaring metaphor for East Berliners.
So with the communistic experience as a stencil for the docs of the East, it’s the styles and approaches which give them form. Each country contributes a cinematic design to the region and paints its authentic brand into the documentary landscape. The Czechs, for example, give us conceptual stories shadowed with black humor, while the Latvians show us a poetic perspective.
Apart from socialism, the region also shares a void of tradition for feature-length authorial docs – due to the lack of industry leverage, not a shortage of incentive or ingenuity. Until recently (in some countries it’s still the case) docs were perceived as reportage-style TV fare, largely predetermined by the network’s preferences, leaving little or no room for the director’s creativity. The short propaganda newsreel docs of the 1980s, however, were a positive trend as they brought a unique cinematic style that is distinct to the Eastern European and, in particular, the Balkan school of documentary filmmaking.
As Eastern European cinema strives for and, as of late, has landed success with international festivals, broadcasters and theatrical distribution, the question remains: do the stories have to be adjusted to fit the broader European bill? According to Hanka Rezkova of the Institute of Documentary Film in Prague, ‘The films that managed to break through were not a result of some kind of a global European compromise. They were often strong films with very specific stories told in an innovative cinematic way, but also produced by those who were familiar with the international market, those who gained their personal contacts and were ready to travel with prepared promotional materials.’