Slavic Undercurrents in the 2014 London Film Festival


One common element to many of the most interesting films at this year’s BFI London Film Festival (LFF) is a direct or indirect connection to Eastern Europe. Cult films like Latvia’s atmospheric The Man in the Orange Jacket and Hungary’s gang-of-dogs revenge film White God emerged as the standouts on the U.K. and U.S.-heavy slate. Other highlights included the Russian sci-fi odyssey Hard to Be a God, with its constantly moving-as-if-floating camera, and Ukrainian documentary Maidan, composed solely of static tripod shots. One film from the U.S. takes on a centuries-old Slavic folk legend, another uses a Balkan music festival as its setting. One might wonder if perhaps the influence of London-based Second Run DVD, with their catalog of films by underseen but exciting filmmakers like František Vláčil, Miklós Jancsó, and Juraj Herz, has rubbed off on the LFF programmers.

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga takes a look at an interesting slice of Slavic culture: the folk myth of the supernatural Baba Yaga, a grotesque witch said to be found deep in the forest in a cabin which is perched on top of chicken legs. Director Jessica Oreck stretches this fable over the course of her documentary, which seems to have opened up its focus as she shot with cinematographer Sean Price Williams in Romania, Ukraine, and Russia. Experimental synth music combines with crystalline Super 16mm visuals to produce the sense of wonder and excitement that the crew must have felt as further strands of the film revealed themselves. A group of loggers, a wedding party, and mushroom hunters all become part of Oreck’s sphere, underpinned by the animated sequence of two children’s encounter with the fabled witch. The Vanquishing is the filmmaker’s most accomplished work thus far, mixing quotation (poetry, music, and myth) with an outsider’s perspective to capture the enigmatic, subliminal traits of a culture more successfully and elegantly than her previous efforts.

Hard to be a God

Aleksei Guerman’s Hard to Be a God was a project in the works since 2000. An adaptation of a 1964 dystopian science-fiction novel of the same name by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the film would only be released posthumously following Guerman’s death in 2013. It’s no understatement to say that the 170-minute film that was finally released is brutal, massively disgusting, and utterly singular. The shadow of a narrative concerns a group of scientists sent from our planet to another where the society has not advanced past the Middle Ages. These men compete with each other in their feudal subjugation of the local population. But more significant than the story is the film’s atmosphere. It’s all rain, mud, chainmail, lots of blood dripping down from protagonist Don Rumata’s nose, abrupt, and gruesome killings. The camera is an active participant, frequently in motion, and at times inches away from an actor’s face or the side of a traveling horse. Very rare moments of quiet are interrupted by someone spitting or wretching. Approaching the end of the film, the body horror becomes almost banal. But it serves as an appropriate metaphor for the overarching themes of resistance to intellectualism and blind faith in religion and the state, concerns as relevant in Putin’s Russia as they were when the Strugatskys wrote their novel 50 years ago.

A film of similar subject matter but with a completely opposite form, Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan examines the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine that began in November 2013. Instead of reconstructing a narrative, the documentary employs static camera shots, sometimes up to 10 minutes long, that bear witness to the revolutionary movement. From meeting spaces to kitchens to the large protest stage, the cameramen (Serhiy Stetsenko, Mykhailo Yelchev, and Loznitsa) simply shoot the events as they unfold. At one point, a man with an acoustic guitar asks the cameraman if he can sing the national anthem. He then turns and carefully positions himself in front of the still camera, framing himself in view of the lens. This calls attention to the framing, something that becomes even more meaningful an hour into the film when the clashes between protesters and riot police begin. What is happening outside the frame and how the participants frame themselves becomes a central preoccupation. At one point, the police throw a gas grenade in the pit of journalists and the camera is hurriedly picked up and moved, all the while still shooting. The act of witness becomes critically significant when we see humans on both sides being picked off and killed by gunmen. This on-the-ground perspective ignores the substantial information war fought between Russia and Ukraine, as well as the political and social ramifications that would play out in the weeks and months following Maidan’s final footage from February when protesters finally forced Yanukovich’s flight—and symbolic abdication—to Russia. The weeks and months following would see events that concretely illustrated the brutality metaphorized by Hard to Be a God: the Crimean annexation, new presidential elections, the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 disaster, and the subsequent decimation of southeastern Ukraine by Russian-
backed militants.

Butter on the Latch

Following 2012’s giallo-inspired Berberian Sound Studio, British director Peter Strickland returns with The Duke of Burgundy, a suitably stylish and unexpectedly humorous study of an atypical relationship. Fresh-faced housemaid Evelyn arrives at a lavish estate where entomologist Cynthia greets her sternly and coldly with: “You’re late.” A cruel mistress, Cynthia dishes out embarrassing punishments for subpar work. Soon we come to realize this performance underscores a passionate relationship between two lovers, one in which their dominant and submissive roles are not always clearly delineated. Cuddling in the twilight, normally-sheepish Evelyn criticizes Cynthia’s earlier performance, “You have to have more conviction in your voice next time.” The lush psychedelic score from British band Cat’s Eyes serves well to complement scenes of Evelyn hand-washing Cynthia’s pastel-colored panties or pans around Cynthia’s study, filled with glass-encased specimens of butterflies and beetles. The Eastern European tinge to the design, costumes, and vague setting of the film recalls Czech and Hungarian classics like Morgiana, Szindbad, and Daisies. But the rare humor and the scopophilic imagery (windows, kaleidoscopes, peepholes) serve to illuminate and elucidate the subject at the film’s core: the two lovers’ delicate, demanding, and potentially tragic relationship.

Two recent films by Brooklyn-based Josephine Decker, unconnected with Eastern European tropes,were nonetheless highlights of this year’s LFF. Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely cover a lot of ground in terms of genre (careening from romance to experimental to horror) but are marked by the expressive, often oneiric cinematography of Ashley Connor and a fuzzy line between magical fantasy and painful reality. They herald one of the most exciting new talents in American independent film in many years.

The Duke of Burgundy

In Butter on the Latch two old friends reunite at a Balkan music festival in California, only to soon drift apart again. Their tenuous reconnection abruptly turns hostile as the film crescendos into a beautiful and terrifying act. Improvised dialogue reflects the film’s confident imprecision, in which impressionistic scenes stretch out and morph. Loosely inspired by Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely portrays shifting perspectives: from farmer’s daughter Sarah to hired hand Akin, and even to a scene-stealing brown cow named Flowers. The romance that unfurls between Sarah and Akin is short-lived, as details from his past are revealed. Desire and claustrophobia lead to an erotic and shockingly terrifying turn. Decker leads the viewer down dead ends and misdirections so the actualization of the conclusion feels unexpected and devastating. The two films puts visual, artistic, even avant-garde passages on equal footing with the narrative components, creating an unusual and bold mix that works to the films’ advantage.

An upcoming article will focus exclusively on the Experimenta program which focuses on artist film and video and will showcase over 70 mostly new works, including films by Kevin Jerome Everson, Robert Beavers, Laida Lertxundi, and Laure Prouvost, as well as a tribute to the recently-passed Harun Farocki.

Contributor

Herb Shellenberger

Herb Shellenberger is a film programmer who recently moved to London to study in the MRes Art: Moving Image program run by Central Saint Martins and Lux. He has curated programs at International House Philadelphia, Light Industry, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

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