For those unfamiliar with art from the Eastern European countries known as “the Visegrad,” it will be difficult to communicate the subtlety, depth and intensity of the Czech, Hungarian, Polish and Slovakian films screened this week under the auspices of the Visegrad Film Festival in Cairo.
For those who are, this was a great opportunity to be re-inspired by their spectacular imagination. Presented in downtown’s Rawabet Theater and the Czech embassy, with the cooperation of the Visegrad embassies, the festival presented animation, shorts and feature length films from May 29-31.
Many of the screened films referred either directly or abstractly to the repressive regimes that ruled the Soviet countries until the revolutions of 1989 overthrew their imposed governments. So it is not surprising that in recent festival screenings, including in the closing ceremony of the Goethe Institute’s highly commendable Egyptian Short Film Festival last week, Cairo audiences would be privy to a host of ambassadors and cultural diplomats giving speeches that linked the various 1989 revolutions of Eastern Europe to Egypt’s own January 25 Revolution.
While it has not always been easy to sit through these somewhat condescending and verbose “we did it and hopefully one day you will too” monologues, the gesture is understandable and over the course of watching the films, the conviction behind their talks became evident.
The festival’s feature length films each spoke of political intrigue, secret police, blacklisting and disappearance that took place among citizens and party leaders in the years leading up to 1989. Set in the 70s, Marta Meszaros’ “The Last Report on Anna” centers on a young Hungarian professor who is granted a visa to France for a literary conference only to undertake a covert mission for the government. Poetic, melancholic and beautifully filmed, “The Last Report” lingers in your mind long after its end.
“Kawasaki’s Rose”, directed by Jan Hrebejk of the Czech Republic, tells a similar story from a different vantage point about an esteemed psychiatrist and former dissident who is due to receive a state honor for bravery. The film reveals that this seemingly gentle man also worked for Czech intelligence and in fact served as an informant on a few of his closest friends. The film treats the complexities of living in extreme political conditions with compassion.
Jacek Borcuch’s “All that I Love” chronicles the beginning of martial law in Poland in 1981. Brilliant performances mark this tender and sincere coming of age tale in a political state through the eyes of the lead singer of a teenage punk band. The boy’s father is an officer in the Communist government, his girlfriend the daughter of a member of the Solidarity movement. I could not help but remember Tahrir Square as the hands of these youth were raised into the air, chanting as though their lives depended on it. Indeed, in many cases, it did.
The festival was skillfully organized in a way that allows audiences to catch the entire rich selection of films. Beginning with animation and shorts in Rawabet Theater, the festival’s opening night alone offered four hours of superb shorts from the two countries formerly known as Czechoslovakia. All in all, over 40 films were screened by the festival’s Slovakian curators Martina Kotzarikova and Danusa Cizmikova.
As outlined in the festival booklet, these shorts were created as “a result of something to fight against.” Hence they conjured beauty in some of its most sorrowful incarnations. A good deal of the cartoons like the anti-war drama “Dita at the Front” and the anti-capitalist, anti-urbanization “Earth” by Slovakian artist Viktor Kubal, were testaments to humanity. The short films were all remarkable, from the simplest stop-motion animation to the complicated and virtuosic puppetry of films like “Ichthis” by Marek Skrobecki of Poland or “The Stones” by Katarina Kerekesova of Slovakia.
The human factor of the short film selection revealed most directly the region’s affinity for magical realism. “Stephan,” by Peter Bebjak of Slovakia is based on a novella by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in which three women fall in love with the miraculous body of a drowned man. It is this magical sentiment, one mixed with an earthly knowing of things revolting, unjust and inhumane, that distinguishes the art of the Visegrad Film Festival, making their contribution to Cairo this week all the more real and important.
Jacek Borcuch’s “All that I Love.”