Festival Daily

By Chris Colohan

A nameless young Russian immigrant watches from the sidelines as her mother and sister slide into exploitation in order to survive life in Amsterdam. A group of widows in post-war Bosnia cling to routine in the absence of society, waiting for purpose to return to life. Three siblings are forced back to the Turkish countryside from Istanbul when their mother goes missing. An elderly witch doctor armed with traditional magic tries to defend her Kazakh home from encroaching gangsters. An Albanian landed in Belgium is trapped between a legal and a moral conundrum in a precarious immigration scam.

These are among the rich scenarios given centre stage this year in a number of international features that address the harsh realities facing the poor and dispossessed inhabitants of an “Old Europe” and Middle East in the grips of modernization – as they are forced Westward, or “the West” is forced upon them. Defenseless, anonymous and unaccounted for, these characters are left to their own devices with whatever semblance of purpose and order they can grasp on to. 

Katia’s Sister is the latest film by Dutch director Mijke de Jong, dealing with the trials of a Russian family living in Amsterdam. The titular character, nameless until the film’s final moments, is an adolescent girl struggling to hang on to her childlike optimism in spite of her grim surroundings. Her mother works as a prostitute to feed them and their abusive, senile grandmother, who, we are reminded, was once their provider. While her teenaged sister Katia slips into the sex trade and becomes lost in drugs, the younger girl is left to wander a landscape where submitting to exploitation seems the only option for survival. 

De Jong’s powerful juxtaposition of the high hopes of migrants and the debasing realities that await them is unforgettable. Her aim, she says, is to give people more than “tourist information” about the dark side of life in the Amsterdam suburbs. “It’s a film about women, wounded but strong, who try to do the best they can to raise their children, to live a happy life or find a good husband – a universal theme.”

The question the audience must face is this: are these women better off poor and isolated in their homeland than they are anonymous and exploited in the West?

Snow, the first feature from Sarajevo-born director Aida Begic depicts a group of people stranded in a familiar environment. Having survived the harrowing reality of the Serbian-Bosnian conflict, which has carried away their husbands and most of their children, three generations of women are left to barter with survival in the absence of a greater social order. Isolated and with no closure as to the fates of their missing husbands and children, the women cling to routine, canning preserves that they try to sell on the nearest highway, to no avail.

Begic herself was 15-years-old when the war started, spending all four years of it under siege in Sarajevo. She created Snow around a real event. “In July 1995, around the city of Srebrenica, about 10,000 men were killed in one day,” she says. “Thousands of people – mostly women – stayed far from their homes with broken hearts and no help. When I met them, I could not find hatred in them, [nor] the need for revenge. For me, that fact shows that [the] good side in human beings can fight the bad one.”

Moving gracefully around the challenge of the husbands’ looming absence, Begic finds a way “to show the presence of those who are not actually there.” The missing, she says, “are sometimes even more present than those who stayed alive. It is not only memory; it is also a hope and belief that they will come back.”

Rife with sophisticated metaphors – a forest full of land mines, an impending winter, and rain that leaves everyone helpless – Snow shows us a world rendered inaccessible to its own inhabitants. 

Pandora’s Box, by award-winning Turkish director Yesim Ustaoglu, finds three siblings dragged from the comfortable nihilism of Istanbul back to their rural home with the news of their mother’s disappearance. The resulting search forces them to confront their estrangement from their roots and alienation from their cultural identity – pitting the “Pandora’s Box” of urban modernity against the irreplaceable value of history and tradition. 

Kazakhstan’s Guka Omarova (whose Schizo screened at the Festival in 2004) gives us her latest, Native Dancer. Old customs square off against an encroaching underworld when an elderly witch doctor finds her only home threatened. As with Snow, we see the forces of modern global capitalism displacing not only the people but also the traditions of the land.

Finally, in the much anticipated Le Silence de Lorna, Belgium’s Dardenne brothers adeptly navigate the same emotionally complex and morally treacherous ground that won them the Palme d’Or for both Rosetta and L’Enfant. This time, their trademark ethical quandary lands squarely in the path of Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), a desperate Albanian immigrant to Belgium. Having successfully pulled off a marriage of convenience in order to obtain Belgian citizenship, she is immediately propositioned by the broker Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione) to marry a Russian mafioso seeking legal status. The plan would pay her handsomely but require the disposal of her drug-addicted husband Claudy (Jérémie Renier of La Promesse and L’Enfant), who is trying just as desperately to redeem himself in Lorna’s eyes.

Lorna is torn between her feelings of indebtedness toward Fabio and her hope of sparing the miserable life of the wretched Claudy. Her Faustian dilemma is played out in classic Dardenne style – with naturally lit grey public spaces and minimal music to offer comfort or diversion from the reality at hand. 

This fearless new batch of films portrays the challenges to the human spirit when the utopian promises of West-leaning modernity come up tragically short of the human needs of those who have invested everything in it.

Sept. 8, 3:45pm, AMC 4      
 Sept. 11, 4:45pm, Isabel Bader Theatre

Sept. 8, 2:15pm, AMC 5      
Sept. 12, 11:30am, Varsity 1

Sept. 9, 3:00pm, Scotiabank Theatre 4      
Sept. 12, 3:15pm, Varsity 3

Sept. 7, 6:00pm, Scotiabank Theatre 1
Sept. 10, 9:45am, Scotiabank Theatre 1

Sept. 9, 9:45pm, Isabel Bader Theatre
Sept. 12, 9:30am, Scotiabank Theatre 3