A Cinema That Was Not?

The period after 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe seemed particularly attractive for socially engaged cinema. Themes were there to be picked up.

Under socially engaged cinema I understand realistic, non-genre films presenting “ordinary people” confronted with economic and social transformations and with (usually inadequate) workings of institutions. The themes were really there to be picked up: the economic crisis which affected most countries of the region in the early 1990s; deindustrialization and the resultant decline of the industrial working class and its characteristic forms of collective life, culture, attitudes and values; expansion of the market and the social classes thriving on it; changes in the traditional “contract of the sexes” enforced by all these developments, in patterns governing intimate and married relations (producing an anti-feminist, often religiously motivated reaction); return of politically mobilized religion to the public sphere; and finally migrations of inhabitants of the region, not always economically motivated and made possible by opening of the borders.

In Western Europe cinema was tackling analogous issues in many different ways. The twilight of industry and the accompanying working class culture was portrayed, for example, by the new labor cinema in the 1990s; gender themes found expression in several films by female directors; in French cinema we could find many pictures on the situation of immigrants from the former colonies, trying to arrange a new life in their new homeland.

In contrast to that, in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia social cinema seems muted, incidental and avoiding many issues. The reasons lie both in the changing production models in the cinemas of the region and in the cultural or even ideological changes in perceiving the role of the cinematic medium, produced by the retreat from the “socialist realism.”

Abusing Conventions

The idea of certain social commitments of cinematic art and its political engagement was largely rejected after 1989 as characteristic for the old system. This process has been the most visible in Poland, where cinema has on the one hand been turning towards historical themes, previously unable to cross the barrier of censorship (the best example is The Crowned-Eagle Ring by Andrzej Wajda, an argument with his own Ashes and Diamonds), and on the other hand towards co-productions undertaking universal, “metaphysical” themes, capitalizing on the legacy of cinematic modernism (The Silent Touch by Krzysztof Zanussi, The Double Life of Véronique by Krzysztof Kieślowski), as well as towards genre cinema.

None of these currents in the Polish cinema took upon itself the presentation of changes resulting from the political transition. Such issues sometimes found their way to genre cinema, usually inserted in the plot of action movies (early works of Władysław Pasikowski). But socially engaged cinema in the strict sense of the term remained of marginal importance. An additional reason for that was that the film community, largely sympathizing with the democratic opposition from the late communist period, strongly identified with the new order built after 1989 in Poland by the former “Solidarity” elites, including the freemarket reforms. This is why filmmakers refused to look at the effects of these reforms. And when they did look, when they did—occasionally—reach for the convention of socially engaged cinema, they often abused it, to use Jarosław Pietrzak’s term.

One example could be Hi, Tereska (2001) by Robert Gliński. The film takes up a theme typical for social cinema—it presents the life of the eponymous heroine, a girl from an urban block of flats. Her father is drinking but the family is not dysfunctional: Tereska and her sister sing in a church choir, Tereska dreams about art school, although she finally ends up in a textile vocational school. The film was made on a black-and-white tape, in a raw, naturalist, anti-spectacular mode.

But in contrast to European socially engaged cinema Gliński does not target his polemical edge at social inequalities or governmental and non-governmental institutions unable to address them. The problem of deprivation of the protagonist and the people around her (their exclusion, relative poverty, lack of access to social and cultural capital) is not taken up at all by the director. The institutions surrounding Tereska—school, Church, family—often reach out to her, they want the best for her. But she behaves irrationally, makes the worst possible choices, rejects the chances offered to her by fate. Which ends in a tragedy— she murders a friend, a revolting, older, disabled alcoholic caretaker. So instead of a social critique we get a spectacle of symbolic violence directed at the plebeian protagonist, conforming to the class prejudices of the intellectual audience, to which this film is addressed.

A similar example of “abusing” the aesthetics and subject matter of socially engaged cinema is provided by the work Dorota Kędzierzawska. In Nothing (1998) a powerful theme straight out of social cinema (a female victim of domestic violence is seeking money for an illegal abortion) is drowned in an overly cute, almost tacky form. The director presents the protagonist as haunted by reality but she is unable to turn the film into a critique of the Polish reality here and now. In Time to Die the story of an old woman living in an old, wooden house near Warsaw, abandoned by her family and doomed to solitude, turns into a naive apology of the pre-war elites, juxtaposed both with the people owing their advancement to the communist system and to the equally vulgar new rich. The former are represented by plebeian lodgers dumped on the owners of the house by the communist authorities (early on the old lady gets rid of the last of them with a sigh of relief); the latter are represented by a neighbor trying to buy the house and the vulgar daughter-in-law and granddaughter of the main protagonist.

Genuine social cinema started to emerge in Poland only recently. Of all Polish artistic disciplines, long after literature, theatre or visual arts, Polish cinema finally rediscovered the society and its duties towards it. In feature movies an example of such a rediscovery could be Women’s Day (2012) by Maria Sadowska. The film is a fictionalized version of events which took place in a discount grocery store. A female cashier is made the manager of the store. The advancement (or rather its promise) to the middle class is to be paid for through the necessity to tamper with the working time records, to exploit her former friends. But when the heroine herself loses her job, she enters into a fight against a large corporation, in which she is seemingly doomed to fail.

The film raises many reservations, some motifs are naive, some sequences play a purely illustrative role. But as Jacek Dobrowolski aptly writes, “the accusatory message of the film may be reduced to the clearly formulated charge against the economic and social system which we have built in Poland in the last quarter of the century. Its nature is such that the price of advancement from the working class to the middle class is—or at least often can be—debasement. (…) This critical mode of Sadowska’s film makes it far removed from the intellectually facile way in which individual career is usually spoken about in our country, where class conflicts and mechanisms of exploitation are by and large framed as matters of relations between particular persons. These relations are presented as matters of “conscience” or, even worse, the human world is pictured as consisting of the “good” and the “bad”, and the latter can only be redeemed if they return to “true moral values.” In Sadowska’s film there are no “good” and “bad” people. And everyone is more or less “back to the wall.”

But one film does not constitute a strong current of socially engaged cinema in Poland. It has a constant problem with social issues, it ignores them, it does not respond to events demanding to be described. This stems both from the attitude of the artists and the institutional realities of production—the time span between the idea and its implementation lasts several years in Poland, films belatedly react to events, they take up social issues long after they cease to be relevant (the best example is Made in Poland by Przemysław Wojcieszek).

The City of the Sun and Czech Grotesques

If we were to look for a model example of socially engaged cinema in our region, it would be The City of the Sun (Slunečni stát, 2005) by Martin Šulik. The film brings into focus all problems bred by the transition: deindustrialization, the decline of the working class and its lifestyle, with the resultant change of the “contract of the sexes.” Šulik—in the 1990s in Slovakia a maker of visionary, poetic, creative films (Orbis pictus, A Garden)—seemed an unlikely candidate for such a role. But he succeeded. The City of the Sun is clearly inspired by the British “new labor cinema” from the 1990s, depicting the social landscape after Thatcher’s reforms. Just as in The Full Monty (1997) by Peter Cattane, in The City of the Sun we observe a group of workers from a former industrial preserve (the bankrupt centre of heavy industry in Ostrava) trying to reinvent their life in the conditions of deindustrialization and structural unemployment.

Like the director himself, the protagonists are Slovaks living in the Czech Republic. When the factory fires them under a redundancy program, they try different things, which would save them from unemployment and social exclusion. They buy an old lorry and attempt to found a transport company. But first, one of them is unable to realize his commission, namely to expel a family which has nowhere else to live, and then the lorry is stolen by a dishonest client.

The men also have family problems, they cease to be the main providers in their families, their qualifications are not highly appraised by the labor market and their spouses, formerly working mostly at home, have to replace them, which radically alters the balance of power in their marriages, forces them to renegotiate the relationship model. Šulik looks at all these processes with empathy, humor, an understanding of his protagonists. He does not paint a black picture of ruin and collapse, he shows people who, confronted with the decline of the world in which they grew up and functioned for most of their adult life, try to find a new place for themselves.

But such a cinema, despite the tradition of the Czech “small realism” from the 1960s, did not enjoy a particularly strong position in the Czech and Slovak cinema after 1989. It was dominated by the surrealist comedies by Petr Zelenka (Buttoners, Year of the Devil), light social drama epitomized by Jan Svěrák (Kolya, The Elementary School) or films analyzing various moments of Czech history (Pelíšky by Jan Hřebejk about the Prague Spring or his Divided We Fall about the end of World War II). In all these films we occasionally see glimpses of social issues. In The Ride (Jízda, 1994) by Svěrák, a Czech road movie, the changing Czech Republic from the early stages of the transition serves as the backdrop for the principal plot. In the comedy Up and Down (Horem pádem, 2004) by Jan Hřebejk—a story of two smugglers finding a Hindu boy in a car and selling him to a childless Czech couple—social issues also turn up, headed by migrations and the new economy of the border.

But it is impossible to disagree with Peter Hames, who observes in his monograph on Czech and Slovak cinema that Czech and Slovak cinema in the first two decades after the watershed of 1989 tended to refrain from criticizing the post- communist reality. Hames quotes two films as exceptions by the classic director of the Czech New Wave, Věra Chytilova—The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodbye (Dědictvi aneb Kurvahošigutntag, 1992) and Trap (Pasti, pasti, pastički, 1998). In the former, we see a boy from Moravia, who receives a huge inheritance and turns into a rabid capitalist, threatening (promising) the audience in the last sequence: “I will buy you all out!”The other film is a story about a woman raped by representatives of the new reality, who takes revenge by castrating them. Although critical of the new Czech reality, these pictures are kept in the aesthetics of the grotesque rather than social realism.

The Romanian Wave

Until the middle of the last decade, hardly anyone had heard about Romanian cinema. Since the premiere of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moarteadomnului Lăzărescu, 2005) by Criti Puiu the Romanian wave flooded European festivals and garnered numerous prizes. The Romanians started to create films characterized by a certain aesthetic coherence: naturalism, realism in presenting the life of “ordinary people” (from the working class and the unfledged, economically uncertain, emergent middle class), rejection of drama and spectacular effects, long, often static takes, combining social and existential themes, combining cinematic social realism and modernism.

This combination is already working in the film by Puiu quoted above. His eponymous hero is an old man leading a solitary life in a block of flats with three cats. One day he is feeling faint, his neighbors call an ambulance but the hospital does not want to take him in (for “he looks like an alcoholic”) and neither does the next one. The ailing old man is driven from hospital to hospital. On the one hand, we have a subtle grotesque, a cinematic theatre of the absurd, invoking the absurdity of the human condition as such. On the other hand, we get an excellent picture of an individual helpless against dysfunctional institutions, old age, poverty and exclusion in the heart of the 21st-century society.

A fascinating image of a struggle of an individual with a dysfunctional institution is also brought by Police, Adjectiv (Politist, adjectiv, 2009) by Cornel Porumboiu. The film presents a few days from the life of a policeman named Cristi, serving in the Romanian countryside, resisting the order to arrest a young schoolboy accused of possessing marihuana. Cristi does not want to ruin the boy’s life in the name of a law, which will probably be changed in a few years. But his superiors put pressure on him, the conflict with them forming the dramatic axis of the film, showing in the background (in the micro scale of a small town) the conflicts of power and social inequalities in Romania during the building of liberal democracy and free-market economy.

The final confrontation between Cristi and his boss takes place in the pre-ultimate scene, ascetic, crude, filmed in one take with a static camera. The boss makes Cristi sit down in his office, hands him a dictionary of the Romanian language and asks him to read aloud the definitions of such terms as “law”, “moral law”, “conscience”, “policeman.” Through sheer “terminological violence” he forces him to acknowledge that his moral doubts are absurd.

The likely fate of the boy arrested by Cristi is shown in Florin Serban’s If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (Eu cândvreausăfluier, fluier, 2010). The main protagonist, Silviu, is an inmate of a centre for juvenile criminals. We do not know what crime he has committed, he is to be released in a few weeks. But his awaiting of this moment is disturbed by the visit of his mother, who wants to take his younger brother with her to Italy. Silviu is ready to do anything (including the risk of a long term in prison) to prevent that—the mother abandoned the family long ago, took the boy with her to Italy but sent him back to Romania once his presence started to interfere with her immigrant life.

Serban not only shows the reality of migrations breaking up Romanian families but also the two-fold oppressiveness of the institution of prison. For the official structures of repression are accompanied by unofficial ones, built by the inmates themselves—in the last weeks of his term the latter are more dangerous for Silviu, who stops fighting for “what is rightfully his” (with dramatic consequences for his position in the prison hierarchy) so that his punishment would not be prolonged. Silviu, brilliantly played by George Piştereanu, belongs to the most powerful cinematic images of a young man confronting institutions, worthy of being placed side by side with Antoin Doinel from The 400 Blows by François Truffaut.

The most famous festival success of the Romanian new wave is the film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 săptămânişi, 2 zile, 2007) by Cristian Mungiu, awarded the Golden Palm in Cannes. On the one hand, the director takes into account the communist period in Romania, as do other new Romanian filmmakers. Among other prominent representatives of this historical, account-settling trend one could name The West (Occident, 2002) also by Mungiu or 12:08 East of Bucharest (A Fostsau n-a fost?, 2006) by Poromboiu. But 4 Months… is not a historical film only a deeply moving social drama, a powerful voice in the debate on the reproductive rights of women going on all over Europe particularly intense in Poland. In a dispassionate manner, without resorting to moral blackmail, Mungiu presents a system nationalizing female bodies and reproductive forces, a system where abortion brings a series of humiliations on two young girls, including the necessity of succumbing to sexual violence on the part of the physician conducting the operation.

A Digression: Creative Strategies

Of all cinemas in the region, the Romanian cinema has been tackling social issues in the most comprehensive way, combining it with an innovative form. But the subject matter proper for socially engaged cinema also existed within creative cinema, far removed from realism. One example is provided by the works of the Hungarian director Béla Tarr, especially his short feature from the compilation movie The Visions of Europe (2004) produced by Zoentropa and made to commemorate the expansion of the European Union in 2004. The short film by Tarr presents a kitchen soup (for the homeless?) where poor people, most of them old, are crowding. They are queuing for a sticky brew served on tin bowls. There are no dialogues, the music is jangling, spooky, and the feature is filmed on a black-and-white tape. It is not the poetics of social realism, we do not know the social context of this scene, it has a rather surrealist, grotesque character. But is it not an excellent allegory for the situation of our region in the “unified Europe?” For the fantasy of our inferiority and the EU “land of luxuries,” which we all cultivated before the accession?

An equally creative, unrealistic filming technique is adopted by another film-maker from Hungary, György Pálfi, in his movie Taxidermia (2006). The break-up of the communist world is observed here through a peculiar metaphor, a story of a family comprising athletes competing in a fictitious Olympic discipline, namely speed eating. The times of the communist proletarian ideology (and the accompanying industrialism as a form of socializing) are invoked through images of absurd “Spartacus Games,” where representatives of particular countries of the “Eastern Block” compete in eating dozens of kilograms of red caviar arranged in a shape of a five-armed star. And the decline of industrialism and the Hungarian proletariat is depicted through images of a monstrously fat former competitor, immobilized in front of the TV set by his weight, watching with resentment an American competition in speed eating of hot-dogs and hamburgers.

Post Social Cinema?

As can be seen from the above essay, unavoidably brief, socially engaged cinema has not become the principal mirror for changes in the region after 1989. Perhaps one more reason for that is that it was not an adequate instrument? For socially engaged cinema presupposes the existence of a certain norm, which we can contrast with the inefficiencies of the system. Is it not true that in Eastern Europe, such norms collapsed?

This is how Boris Buden describes the situation in the region in his book Zone of Transition. The Croatian-German philosopher claims that the 1989 watershed was one of the episodes of the “twilight of society.” the break-up of the form of socializing formed around the industrial civilization and the accompanying political and social structures of the welfare state in the West and its authoritarian counterparts in the countries of the “people’s democracy.”This break-up puts us in a void, it brings us back to the “state of nature” (to the expansion of the principle of unconstrained competition, the techniques of power reinforcing the advantages of the socially strongest players, etc.), forces us to reinvent society. These processes are occurring in both the West and the East of Europe but in our region they are more intense and dramatic.

Perhaps in the light of this situation our “good old” socially engaged cinema is not sufficient? Perhaps to fulfill the role of socially engaged cinema and to show the post-communist break-up of society we need a different aesthetics?

Intimations of this break-up appear in the Romanian cinema, of which I spoke most extensively. They are most prominent in the terrifying film by Cătălin Mitulescu Loverboy (2011). We see there a stagnant Romanian countryside, where the only organization capable of generating any social capital is a small local mafia involved in human traffic. We observe its operations on the example of two young people, a boy and a girl. What looks like a love affair between them in fact is an intrigue, an attempt to make the girl fall in love with the boy and accept the job of a prostitute in Italy—allegedly to pay off her lover’s debt and save him from the mafia’s death sentence.

Similar intimations of break-up are expressed by the Lithuanian filmmaker Šarunas Bartas. In his Native of Eurasia (Indigene d’Eurasie, 2010) he presents a story—in the film noir convention—of a drug dealer from the former Soviet Union, living in the south of France and falling in trouble with the Russian mafia. In Bartas’s film the collapse of the Berlin Wall does not create a space of peace and stability but turns entire Europe into a post-social wasteland, a Eurasian social steppe, inhabited not by citizens of the free world but by natives forced to struggle for survival in a new state of nature.

Perhaps this is a truth, which the cinema in the region should take up beyond the conventions of the domesticated social cinema?

Jakub Majmurek

is a political pundit, film and art critic, based in Warsaw. He cooperates on a regular basis with media such as the largest Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Aspen Review and Kino. He is part of the editorial team of Krytyka Polityczna – a leftist think tank, publishing house and internet daily. Apart from commenting on contemporary Polish politics Mr. Majmurek writes about new social movements in Europe and the US, politics of popular culture, political dimensions of contemporary cinema and art.

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