At East-West Golden Arch 2019, an attempt to recognise Eurasian cinema — and celebrate it
East-West Golden Arch is a recent initiative to identify cinematic ‘Eurasia’ — Western Asia (Iran, Turkey and Israel) and Eastern Europe (the countries of the former Eastern Bloc plus Finland) — as a continuous cultural entity and organise a film festival around it, with Moscow as the epicentre.
A question that arises today in the study of world cinema pertains to the division of film into cultural regions.
South Asia constitutes a separate region as do South-East Asia, Latin America and Western Europe. The US along with Canada constitutes another one while Japan and China may also be clubbed together, since political antagonists within regions are often culturally comparable.
A recent initiative has been to identify cinematic ‘Eurasia’ — Western Asia (Iran, Turkey and Israel) and Eastern Europe (the countries of the former Eastern Bloc plus Finland) — as a continuous cultural entity and organise a film festival around it under the name ‘East-West Golden Arch’, with Moscow as the epicentre. The film festival concluded its second edition in Moscow with an awards ceremony on 14 April 2019. Since the festival is still in its infancy it is largely conducted on-line with an international jury consisting of film scholars, academics and critics conversant with cinema from the region. Before each award ceremony in Moscow, there has also been a ‘round table’ moderated by Russian film critic Andrei Plakhov in which issues pertaining to cinema from the territories have been discussed.
As evident from the listing of countries above, some of the best cinema in the world has come from Eurasia. In the past Abbas Kiarostami, Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrej Wajda, Miklos Jancso and Aki Kaurismaki came from the region while today Asghar Farhadi (Iran), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (from Turkey) and Paweł Pawlikowski (from Poland) have won top film awards like the Cannes Palme d’Or and the Best Foreign Film Oscar. This year’s selection included films by the latter two along with films by young stalwarts like Radu Jude from Romania, who first created a stir internationally with Aferim! (2015) — about the treatment of gypsy slaves in 19th Century Romania. Radu Jude often deals with horrific subject matter but his gaze is cool, and the same is true of his entry this year — I Do not care if we go Down in History as Barbarians.
The winner for both Best Film and Best Director in 2019 was Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War. Pawlikowski first attracted attention when he received the Best Foreign Film Oscar for Ida in 2015. That film about a novice nun who discovers her Jewish roots and her enquiry into the fates of her real parents in the Holocaust was exquisitely shot, but my problem was precisely its visual beauty. There are segments in the film — often in longshot — that look as though the landscapes are overriding what is being said.
Cold War is also filmed (like Ida) in black and white and is impeccable in its composition. The film opens in 1949 with Wictor (Tomasz Kot) touring the countryside collecting folk music to showcase as national culture in the Stalin era – i.e.: as ‘music born in the fields’. In the process, he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a singer herself, and the two have a tempestuous affair. Soon, however, it turns out that what the government wants is not ‘folk’ but ‘socialist’ culture and this leads Wictor away and into defecting to the West (Paris) with Zula, when in East Berlin, although their story is still far from over. At the awards ceremony, Joanna Kulig was named Best Actress for the role of Zula.
The issue of Stalinism is a big one for Polish cinema and keeps recurring time and again — often even eclipsing Nazism and its ravages, another key subject. The other satellites of the former USSR do not seem as preoccupied with their Stalinist past and this often makes their cinema — taken up with current issues — more interesting. Cold War is wonderfully crafted and choreographed but it does not have much to say not already been explored by others. The lead actors are competent but one is not even drawn to their love story, which might have been more interesting than another familiar diatribe against Communism, although it is this later aspect that gives Cold War leverage in the film festival circuit.
A much more interesting film was Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree about a young writer called Sinan Karasu (Dogu Demirkol) desperately looking for an opening in the literary world, becoming increasingly resentful of those who have succeeded by ‘compromising’. Ceylan’s films are always lengthy and The Wild Pear Tree runs to over three hours. Ceylan, having himself been a cinematographer, makes films that are visually stunning but he also adds substance — partly by putting in philosophical discussions between the characters.
These can sometimes become irksome as in Winter Sleep (2014) — which won him the Palme d’Or at Cannes — but the key one in The Wild Pear Tree is just right; here Sinan meets a successful writer and questions him pointedly about his literary career. Also featuring in the film is Sinan’s relationship with his teacher father Idris (Murat Cemcir) who he regards as a wastrel. At the end, when Sinan gets his book published, it turns out that his father is the only one reading it. The performances in The Wild Pear Tree are outstanding in that they do what acting needs to do — flesh out character with precision. Murat Cemcir won the Best Supporting Actor award at the East-West Golden Arch 2019.
My own favourite at the festival — not least for the sharpness of its intelligence — was Radu Jude’s I do not care if we go down in History as Barbarians. The title of the film is taken from the words of Romanian leader Ion Antonescu in 1941 after Romania had joined the Axis and it signalled the go ahead for a pogrom in which over a hundred thousand Romanian Jews were killed. The campaign against the Jewish people in Romania continued after Antonescu joined the Axis, but this specific action demonstrated how quickly a nation could turn to anti-Semitism with no special persuasion from Hitler.
In Radu Jude’s film Mariana wants to stage an enactment of the Romanian pogrom on the streets of Bucharest and she recruits locals to play the roles. Her piece features a Nazi guard, a Romanian military force, Soviet soldiers as well as Jewish victims and members of the public are recruited as actors. As she starts to put it together, she gets complaints from participants about the gypsies brought on to play roles. A culture minister does not want Jews being shown burned and hanged because it will not go down well with politicians.
When the performance actually takes place, the watching crowds cheer the appearance of ‘Nazis’ and boo the ‘Soviet soldiers’. The few ‘Jews’ who try to escape are swiftly captured and pushed back by the crowd. Radu Jude, with this strategy of a play within the film, makes a telling point that Fascism and racial hatred are alive and well today. Antonescu was executed in 1946 but his legacy lives on! The film won the Best Screenplay Award though it shared it with The Man Who Surprised Everyone, a co-production from Russia, Estonia and France.
The Man Who Surprised Everyone by Aleksey Chupov and Natalya Merkulova is an unusual film about a forest guard with terminal cancer who hears a fable that prompts him to try and ‘cheat death’ by dressing up as a woman — and the social consequences of his conduct to him and his family.
But the LGBT film I thought more fascinating and much less predictable received no awards or nominations.
In The Marriage, made by Albanian filmmaker Blerta Zeqiri, Bekim (Alban Ukaj) and Anita (Adriana Matoshi) are preparing to marry when Bekim’s former boyfriend Nol (Genc Salihu) returns from Paris and they resume their earlier relationship. The film is brilliantly acted and I cannot recall another film that treats homosexuality so sensitively, especially its eroticism. The reason the film did not attract the notice it should have is perhaps that it does not plead for the sexually marginalised. Very often, in contemporary cinema, a film with a subject that screams out for political treatment suffers when it refuses to take this safer option and chooses a more atypical one.
Perhaps as interesting as the films in the East-West Golden Arch 2019 was the round table organised around it the morning of the awards ceremony. The subject of the discussion was ‘The Cold war in Cinema — Past, Present and Future’. The Cold War had its repercussions upon cinema both in the East and the West, both sides undertaking propagandist exercises. Still, this seemed confined to generic cinema meant for a large public. One of the speakers cited Grigori Alexandrov’s Circus (1936) an anti-American musical and its Hollywood counterpart Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939) as examples.
Soviet cinema of the 1930s and 1940s is not well known here but many horror films from the US — including Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) — can be seen as allegories of the feared spread of Communism. What is equally interesting is that art-house auteur cinema from both East and West shunned propaganda. Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) and Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) actually satirise Cold war paranoia. Most European auteurs were preoccupied with issues other than politics. Even the political ones like Jean-Luc Godard who were left-oriented (La Chinoise, 1967) hardly regarded the USSR as the model but, rather, looked further left of it. In the East, film-makers like Miklos Jancso (Hungary) were, ideologically, Marxist but they had little to say about the West of their day.
There is another ‘Cold War’ today largely because of the standoff between the US and Russia but there has also been realignment among the nations. Film festivals around the world seem to reward films that invoke the horrors of Stalinism/Communism, film critics also taking sides. Western art-house cinema does not often commit itself politically but countries like Poland and Ukraine formerly of the Eastern Bloc are now in the vanguard of anti-Communist cinema. The success of a film like Cold War is due partly to it having something to say on the subject of Stalinism when Stalin is also being revived as an icon under Putin.
Another factor is the cinema from Russia critical of the country that gets international recognition.
There was a great body of cinema by directors like Alexei Balabanov (Cargo 200, 2007) which can be termed ‘insider criticism’, but this cinema did not get the international acclaim it deserved. Instead, it is the cinema of Andrey Zvyagintsev that finds widespread acceptance. Zvyagintsev got both the Best Film and the Best Director awards at East-West Golden Arch 2018 for his film Loveless. Zvyagintsev is a brilliant craftsman but he is essentially a ‘native informant’ – someone who reports on his own milieu to a public outside; his films confirm their worst beliefs about Russia.
With even Russia’s former associates like Georgia and Ukraine having strained relationships with Putin’s Russia, there is a possibility that Russia will be culturally isolated and this could give rise to nationalism in Russian cinema — perhaps the worst thing that can happen to it in the future. Russian cinema has been a great cinema but one already senses a decline in the past few years, and one wonders how it will shape up as the present regime tightens its grip culturally.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.
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