At New East Cinema, we love our docs. From Bulgaria’s Roman baths, to Bosnia’s attempts to attract tourism, to a young’s woman’s surreal escapist methods, this year’s Berlinale is full of documentaries worth your time. Here are a few works of non-fiction, from and about the New East, worth your consideration.
Kameni Govornici (The Stone Speakers)
dir. Igor Drljača
Canada/Bosnia and Herzegovina
After the end of the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, the economic system switched to capitalism. Yet to this day, the economy has never really taken off. Resourceful communities have thus rebranded themselves as unique tourist destinations to generate economic growth. The town of Medjugorje, where children reported having visions of the Virgin Mary, has become an international pilgrimage site. Visegrád pays homage to the writer Ivo Andrić with a newly built neighbourhood of monumental stone buildings. When the depleted salt mines of Tuzla stopped yielding revenue, the authorities transformed the basins into lakes. In Visoko, a hill reportedly conceals pyramids said to generate cosmic energy fields. Igor Drljača shows these places with an observational camera, editing together the images with statements made by locals. With apt understatement, he succeeds in taking stock of a society still overshadowed by its past. Kameni govornici reveals the multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina as a country still riven and in the midst of a profound identity crisis – whose inhabitants are trying to gain a foothold not via facts, but via an amalgam of religion, folklore and esotericism.
Kameni Govornici will screen as part of Berlinale’s Forum section between 12 and 17 February.
dir. Bernd Schoch
A rampant mycelium. A starry sky above Romania’s Carpathian mountains. These first two images define the dimensions of Olanda: Details and fine structures on the one hand, constellations and the vast whole on the other. The film revolves around a seasonal product of the local area – the mushroom – and mainly stays with those who collect it, with the humans to whom it comes closest, on the forest paths, in tents, on car journeys and in conversation. From here, it keeps on branching out like so many rhizomes, following each new pathway, all of which relate to money: to local and international traders, to an improvised shoe market in a clearing, to gambling among colleagues. The film narrates these industrial cycles by taking on a mushroom-like structure itself, without ever losing its theoretical centre along the way. This is not only an analysis of economic structures, but the sensual document of the rhythm of daily life in the forest as experienced by the mushroom collectors, the first link in the supply chain. In the cinema, it becomes an audiovisual mushroom trip into the magical world of the Carpathians.
Olanda will screen as part of Berlinale’s Forum section between 8 and 16 February.
(Still from Kameni Govornici, dir. Igor Drljača)
The Magic Life of V
dir. Tonislav Hristov
‘I was really out of myself. It felt really weird and good. And I let some of these feelings out.’
Since she started live action role-playing at the age of eleven, Veera has taken part in about 30 games. Each new game means a new identity: something that gives her strength and allows her to slip out of her own skin; to escape herself. The reason for her desire towards repeated transformation is uncovered in small, intimate steps. Tonislav Hristov gradually reveals a young woman whose past still casts long shadows into the present. Home-movie fragments woven through the film like tattered, washed-out relics reveal a father who drinks, and from whom Veera is still trying to protect herself as well as her brother Ville, who has mental disabilities. At long last, Veera finds the strength for a confrontation.
After coming from Sundance, The Magic Life of V will screen at Berlinale between 13 and 16 February.
dir. Hristiana Raykova
In Roman times, thermal baths were vibrant places of public life. These bathing establishments, which were accessible free of charge, were a pivotal point of social interaction. At Bulgaria’s Golden Beach resort, this tradition has survived to the present day in a spa called ‘the pit’. Even in wintry temperatures of five degrees above zero, the water is steaming and people sit together in the hot pool, relaxing in the here and now before a backdrop of the endless expanse of the sea.
What at first sight seems to be a rose-tinted view of paradise is in reality an insightful portrait of today’s Bulgaria. This film is a touching study of a microcosm which represents an entire society; a human mosaic of personal and political stories in which smouldering conflicts and heated discussions come together to form a multifaceted whole. For here in the pit on Golden Beach is where opposing worldviews and overarching trends collide, and, floating above it all even in the most beautiful weather, is the dark cloud of monetisation that has infiltrated every last corner of our lives.
The Pit will screen at Berlinale between on 13 and 14 February.
(Still from Olanda, dir. Bernd Schoch)
dir. Sibylle Schönemann
In 1990, workers tore down the border post between East and West Germany at Wartha, built not too long before. It was here in 1985 that director Sibylle Schönemann crossed to the West under a system known as “amnesty”, by which the West bought the freedom of convicted East German criminals. One year previously, Schönemann had applied for an exit visa, which led to a prison sentence for “interfering with state activities”. In this documentary, she returns to the prisons where she was held, and documents her attempts to talk to the people involved in her case, including judges, jury members, prison officers, members of the Stasi secret police, her former boss, Hans Dieter Mäde of the state-run movie studio DEFA, and Wolfgang Vogel, the lawyer who arranged her release to West Germany. Not all of them are willing to talk … Schönemann takes an unequivocally subjective approach in laying bare the effects of the system; in dialogue with a fellow prisoner, she talks about the psychological pressure and trauma it produced. In disquieting encounters, her subjects accept no responsibility for the injustices they imposed, and the director is faced with the painful processing of the past.
Verriegelte Zeit will screen at Berlinale’s Retrospective section on 10 and 14 February.