Warsaw 2013: guest critic Tara Karajica reports

Warsaw by night. Source: http://pomadablog.wordpress.com/tag/warsaw/

Polish treasure-hunt yields few gems
Serbian journalist Tara Karajica reports from the 29th Warsaw Film Festival

During the jury press-conference at this year’s Venice Film Festival, president Bernardo Bertolucci shared one of the reasons why he was initially reluctant to serve in such a role: “it’s too much work!” I feel his pain. While participating in the international press jury of the 29th Warsaw Film Festival (WFF) – a jury organised under the auspices of the international critics’ organisation FIPRESCI – is both an exciting challenge and signal honour for every aspiring film journalist, I can’t help but agree with the Italian maestro. Watching – in a fully alert manner, needless to say – eleven films competing for the FIPRESCI Award over the course of four days is a somewhat demanding task, if a pleasurable one.

Moreover, WFF seemed on paper an ideal place to be digging out true cinematic gems. The 29th edition opened on October 11th with just such a film: UK-based director Uberto Pasolini’s second feature Still Life, a prize-winner in Venice’s Orizzonti section, is a particularly touching drama. Starring the superb character-actor Eddie Marsan in a rare lead role, it explores the life of a man employed by a London funeral company, chronicling the duties he undertakes for the benefit of his ‘clients’.

Still Life wasn’t in the running for the FIPRESCI prize, but three notable contenders likewise contained fruitful musings on matters of life and death. None could ever be mistaken for a cinematic masterpiece, but the trio stood out from their rivals due to their originality and liveliness. That said, it’s worth noting that the common denominator of these films, and perhaps of almost the entire WFF lineup this year, was either death or some heavily gloomy social subject-matter – with cumulatively depressing results for the more avid festivalgoers.

Love Building

Iulia Rugină’s first feature film Love Building is the product of a 2010 actors’ workshop involving 31 non-professionals and three well-known Romanian performers. Dragoș Bucur, Dorian Boguță and Alexandru Papadopol play therapists running the seven-day camp which provides the film with its title, an enterprise conceived to mend broken relationships. A heartwarming and enjoyable comedy, Love Building is hampered by an excessive number of characters, resulting in an occasional loss of focus on the part of the director. For the viewer, it’s sometimes difficult to keep up with the myriad subplots and there’s a sense that the relationships on view are only being examined superficially.

In addition, some of the scenes featuring the non-pro actors come across a little stiff, though this isn’t entirely a demerit as a certain documentary-like authenticity intrudes, allowing us to regard the participants as real people rather than fictional constructs. Rugină’s opening sequence is a fine showcase for her budding talent, introducing the couples and their various problems in a cleverly hilarious manner. We awarded Love Building a Special Mention for the FIPRESCI Award, on the basis that Rugină does enough to mark herself out as a talent to watch.

Another debut feature of note was Bojan Vuk Kosovčević’s more ambitious The Whirlpool, providing an unexpected shaft of optimistic light amid the generally gloomy Serbian film-scene (at this point I should confess that I’m not particularly engrossed by the goods currently being produced by my native land’s film-industry). Spanning a 48-hour period, the film traces parallel stories of three childhood friends who grew up together on Belgrade’s tough streets. This triptych is an effectively desperate, convincingly accurate depiction of the war-torn capital during the often-hellish 1990s.

The Whirlpool

Kosovčević’s characters fly past each other in a glancing manner, and the possibility of them really connecting remains forever slim. Indeed, the director never lets his stories significantly intersect, instead using short fragments of previous scenes – shot from different angles – which send subtle repercussions through the concise narrative of this dynamic, well-paced film. The low budget makes itself distractingly noticeable in areas such as the acting (uneven, excessively rehearsed, artificial) and uninspired cinematography. Nevertheless, Kosovčević manages to visually recreate the scarily desolate war-atmosphere of the times and convey this in emotionally powerful terms.

The shadow of the Balkan war hangs a little more lightly over Hungary’s Heavenly Shift, a directorial debut from Márk Bodzsár which world-premiered in Warsaw. The film follows Milán, a young paramedic who escaped the conflict and now works night shifts in a Budapest ambulance. The income of his colleagues (a doctor and a driver) is chiefly obtained from selling cadavers to an entrepreneur, and it isn’t long before Milán drifts into their scam involving illegal euthanasia. Bodzsár’s admiration of both Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers is evident throughout Heavenly Shift, to the point that the director goes too far in terms of attempting to emulate his much more talented and experienced heroes. The degree of effort and enthusiasm involved means that proceedings are, however, never dull. Serious issues such as euthanasia, human trafficking, the milieu of paramedics, and meditations on mortality are handled with a nicely absurd touch – Gábor Keresztes’ energetic score sets the tone.


These three may have been the standouts, but so\me mention should be made of another duo – Tudor Cristian Jurgiu’s quietly moving The Japanese Dog, about a bereaved, elderly Romanian peasant reconnecting with his Japan-based son, and Mahmut Fazil Coskun’s Yozgat Blues. The latter was given the top FIPRESCI honours at the festival “for its moving and full of humor portrait of human relations in a well adapted cinematographic language”.  Indeed, in spite of an uneven script and a direction that seems to lack proper confidence, Yozgat Blues manages to capture a bittersweet mood, captivating the audience – many of whom will not be able to refrain from humming Joe Dassin’s tune “L’Été Indien” while leaving the theatre.

In terms of my personal Warsaw treasure-hunt, I was only truly mesmerised by one film,  which screened out of competition Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet From Stardom has played in dozens of festivals since premiering at Sundance, shining a spotlight on backing-singers who have spent their careers within tantalising reach of musical megastars without ever breaking into the limelight themselves. Absorbing and uplifting, it was an emphatic contrast to the overall bleakness that seems to have become the prevailing WFF theme.

 Tara Karajica
10th November 2013