ARTMargins Online Blog

Writing About Contemporary Films from Eastern Europe

A list of Top 100 Eastern European films (http://www.imdb.com/list/kHfkTry4T68/) posted on imdb.com suggests one way to understand the film history of Eastern Europe. The 100 films are grouped in the following categories: 37 Polish films, 20 Czech titles, 18 Hungarian ones, 12 Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian, 7 Romanian, 3 Bulgarian/Macedonian, 2 Slovak and 1 Armenian film. Taking for granted the possible bias of the imdb.com user minalex, what I found interesting about this list is that it is arranged chronologically beginning with The Kreutzer Sonata (Machaty, 1927) from Czechoslovakia and ending with The Mill and the Cross (Majewski, 2011) from Poland. The history of Eastern European Cinemas seemingly flows into the present. Through this arrangement minalex's list poses the further question of how this history is conceived in light of contemporary films from this region.  

Feature films from Eastern Europe are today mainly marketed for the leading international film festivals in Europe. Almost every year Festival de Cannes, La Bienale di Venezia, and Berlinale offer a smattering of auteur productions, which are taken to represent the pulse of Eastern European national cinemas. A more in depth approach to these cinemas is offered at festivals specifically focused on films from Central, South East, and Eastern Europe, such as the GoEast Film Festival in Wiesbaden, Germany, the Trieste Film Festival in Trieste, Italy, and the CineEast Film Festival in Luxemborg. Even with the rise of the regionally focused programs most Eastern European filmmakers aspire to have their films screened in Cannes, Venice, or Berlin since awards and favorable receptions at these venues hold the promise of international distribution and financing for future projects.

These conditions of film exhibition and distribution have been largely shaped by the transition from Communism to Capitalism in Eastern Europe and the effect this transition inflicted on the production of feature length films. Prior to the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, film production was a cultural endeavor funded by the state. When this source of funding disappeared in the early 1990s, East European filmmakers had to come up with new ways of securing funds for their projects. New production companies emerged from the wreckage of the Communist system but none were able to function as the massive state studios of old. Instead, films began to be coproduced by multiple companies from the region.  In addition to effecting exhibition and distribution, the new model of filmmaking destabilized the conception of national cinemas, as films ascribed to one country often involve the collaboration of production houses from several other countries.

Film scholars specializing in the study of the cinemas of Eastern Europe have valiantly dealt with the influence and reflection of geopolitics and transitional historiography in films from this region. Scholars like Dina Iordanova and Aniko Imre have done valuable work in unpacking and framing the tangled, postsocialist webs of contemporary Eastern Europe cinemas. Along with a growing number of others, Imre and Iordanova have led the effort to contextualize Eastern European cinemas within frameworks of film theory and cultural studies. The anthologies East European Cinemas (2005) and The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Eastern European Cinemas (2012) have begun the work of showing how historical, economic and political transitions have been have affected film production in Eastern Europe.

These transitions have brought about varying approaches to history and the present. Through the local history of a small Romanian town, Corneliu Porumboiu's renowned film 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) deals with the memory of the Romanian Revolution and the construction of history. In the Vanishing Empire (2008), Karen Shakhnazarov used the narrative of a teenage love triangle to represent the everyday environment of 1973 Moscow. Since the Wars of Yugoslav Succession, a large number of films form the former republics of Yugoslavia have dealt with the causes and repercussions of those conflicts. Emir Kustruica's Underground (1995), Srđan Dragojević Pretty Villages, Pretty Flames (1996), and Goran Paskljević's Balkan Cabaret (1998) are benchmark films of the chaotic Post-Yugoslav aesthetic. 

In addition to their social concern, artistic aspirations of East European filmmakers and their films have also produced new aesthetic trends and continued some old traditions. The Romanian New Wave has addressed viewers with a satiric and dark minimalist style, which mobilizes long takes, natural acting, and real settings. A number of Russian art-house and auteur directors have utilized an observational aesthetic that investigates the nature of the film medium. After the carnivalesque aesthetic violence of the Post-Yugoslav films of the 1990s, filmmakers from the former republics of Yugoslavia have turned to their own, idiosyncratic versions of minimalist filmmaking. These stylistic feature beg the question of what patterns of continuity and change could be identified in the intersection of contemporary films and the history of East European cinemas.

Although one usually produces something different from what one sits down to write, in my subsequent entries I plan to consider what films across Eastern Europe look and sound like through the intersection of industry and aesthetics. This blog will discuss what contemporary films from Eastern Europe and Russia suggest regarding the question of what cinema style is all about. Entries will focus on how these films were made, under what conditions and through what kind of collaborations. I will discuss visual strategies through the work of film directors, cinematographers, set designers, and production artists from these countires, as well as the film technology they utilize such as cameras and lighting rigs. In regards to audiences I will discuss on how these films address viewer through their deployment of medium techniques, including mise en scène (staging, lighting, performance, and setting), cinematography (framing, focus, control of color values, etc.), editing, and the use of sound. 

Zdenko Mandušić
Author: Zdenko MandušićCountry: US
Zdenko Mandušić is pursuing a joint Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. His areas of study are Russian/Soviet and Yugoslav cinema, film theory, and Russian and Southeast European Literature. He plans to write a dissertation based around the question of how the desire for innovation has inspired technological developments.

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