For me, the first part of the year has been full of challenges… and this time I’m not talking about my baking. I participated in my first ever short story writing challenge and my second ever European Film Challenge. And I think it’s finally time to give spotlight to 10 wonderful films I watched for my second season of #EuropeanFilmChallenge from January till April 2017.
But before I start reviewing the films, I wanted to say a few words about the competition (and yes, it is a competition!). It takes place in all three Baltic States – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Each participant has to watch 10 European films in about 3 months, take a picture that proves you have watched the film legally and upload it on the web page of the challenge. Each film gives you points, and the person who gets the most points at the end of the challenge from each country gets to go to a film festival. This time the grand prize was attendance of Cannes Film Festival! Needless to say, the competition was fierce!
All these things aside, I think this challenge is simply ingenious. I have watched amazing films from different countries, discovered new film platforms and generally enjoyed myself. Because I took the challenge a bit more seriously this time, I felt a little bit like a movie detective trying to find best European films that fit the criteria (it’s not so easy when you decide not to watch anything from France, Germany, UK, Spain and Italy). I also tried to have some diversity in terms of genre (not something that counts towards the competition score but I figured 10 dramas would be way too much). Enough about me, so to say, let’s talk about the movies!
Movie No. 1: Banana Pancakes and the Children of Sticky Rice (Netherlands, 2015)
Director: Daan Veldhuizen
Genre: Documentary, Adventure, Drama
A documentary set in a small village in northern Laos that follows two best friends: one who has lived and worked in the village all his life and the other who has gone to school in the big city and has now returned to try to figure out what he wants to do with his life. But then first tourists from the Western world arrive in search of authenticity, quiet and the traditional way of life. Locals, including both friends, see it as a business opportunity, and it eventually leads to changes in the village that are destroying the main attraction of the place.
I have to say that for me the main fascination was the depiction of rapid changes in generally traditional and untouched community. The two friends and their different approaches to life help to emphasize it even more. And the scenery is just beautiful!
Movie No. 2: Préjudice (Belgium, 2015)
Director: Antoine Cuypers
This was quite intense family drama taking place during a family gathering. Cedric, one of three siblings, becomes agitated upon finding out that his sister is pregnant. Slowly, the situation unravels and escalates forcing Cedric to speak his mind and demand answers to a pressing question: why is he the only one in the family not allowed to follow his dream and go on a trip to Austria?
Essentially, this is a movie about abuse in a seemingly normal family. It makes you think that we don’t really know what is happening behind the closed doors and why some people are the way they are. The central role of this movie is given to dialogue and, of course, acting which, in my opinion, was great. Also, I have to mention that I watched this movie on Mubi.com which is an interesting online movie platform with great collection of films and slightly different concept than all the others (but unfortunately it’s not free).
Movie No. 3: Likteņzeme (Latvia, 2016)
Director: Jānis Ozoliņš-Ozols
This is a Latvian documentary following a search of family roots across the world. During and after the World War II, many families in Latvian territory followed a similar fate – some members escaped to the West, others were deported to Siberia, but some managed to remain in Latvia. In this documentary, we get to follow a journey of American Latgalians Peter and Helena that travel from U.S. to Latvia and then to Siberia in order to find their relatives. We get to see stark contrasts of the lives led in these three different countries, a lot of tears and some harsh truths about the war and deportation. The movie is still relevant today not because of its historical value, but because of refugee migration from military conflict zones leading to quite similar situation. Quite emotional, but enlightening.
Movie No. 4: Diringas (Lithuania, 2006)
Director: Ignas Miskinis
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama
This was intended as a black comedy with the elements of absurd focusing on the world of public relations and advertising. It showed a battle of two advertising agencies over a fake brand/image and its sole embodiment – a young man who is everything anyone wants to be. The topic of the movie is important because of escalated importance of image in today’s society, but the execution could have been better. I have to say that the comedy part escaped me (yes, I guess some things were meant as jokes, but…), but the elements of absurdity were surely present. This is probably not something I would recommend as a must-see film.
Movie No. 5: The Young Offenders (Ireland, 2016)
Director: Peter Foott
If you are a teenager and happen to hear about a load of cocaine being washed out on the coast, what do you do? Of course, you grab your best friend, a couple of stolen bikes and hit the road. As a person who generally doesn’t enjoy American moronic comedies (please, don’t take it personally, it’s a matter of taste!), I relish the times I come across one of European gems. And Irish comedies are something simply because they are laugh-out-loud funny. You might need to get used to the spoken English, but besides that, sit back and enjoy!
Why do I prefer this to any American version? Well, the lead actors are not unbelievably good-looking or plain stupid (they look like any other dude at that age and, despite being generally stupid, there are some spark of intelligence), they don’t come from big mansions with rich parents (they have fucked-up lives as we all do) and they get into fairly believable trouble (like boys of that age should do). And on some level, it gives an impression of sincere and honest story that just maybe could happen to somebody.
Movie No. 6: Keep Smiling (Latvia, 2003)
Director: Askolds Saulītis
This was another Latvian documentary linked to the World War II theme, but in a different way. It follows a story of 4 grown men in their thirties that spend their week-ends and free time searching for lost soldiers in Latvian territory during WWII. We learn about their friendship, their motivation to do what they do and those moments that make all their work worthwhile. Once more, it’s an emotional and educational story that reveals some ugly truths about the history that are relevant also today. The movie is based on a book “Diggers” by Viktors Duks (see picture).
Movie No. 7: One Ticket Please (Latvia/USA, 2017)
Director: Matīss Kaža
The last documentary I watched for this challenge was by a young Latvian director studying in New York. One day he met Nicki Cochrane, a 78-year-old Indian lady that goes to theater every day, and decided to make a movie about her. The description of the movie says that it’s about the world’s most passionate theater-goer which sounds quite glamorous. But the story is anything but glamorous. I wouldn’t call it passion or even addiction, it comes across more as an obsession, an excuse not to deal with the real world. The movie reveals her daily life, her living conditions and her relationships with her children. I don’t think it will leave anyone indifferent, and everyone will have their own opinion whether Nicki’s choices in life are justified or not.
Movie No. 8: What Nobody Can See (Latvia, 2017)
Director: Staņislavs Tokalovs
Genre: Drama, Sci-fi, Mystery
Another movie by a young Latvian director that I also helped to crowdfund. As a result, I got to watch it in a special session with introduction by the director himself. The movie is first of its kind in Latvia – a psychological drama with elements of science fiction. There are three main characters at play: young nurse Elsa, her patient and some sort of rich genius Nicola, and Nicola’s invention – AI Anna. The central focus is on Elsa’s emerging relationship with Nicola, but then all kind of secrets start to unravel and we don’t really know whom to believe anymore.
I have to say that the storyline was interesting, the acting was convincing, but some things were missing to make it a real success (at least for me). I didn’t see a real role in the movie for the AI Anna besides it being a manifestation of Nicola’s psychosis. In the end, I also couldn’t get how it all ties together (maybe I just need to watch it again?). The ending in general was a bit confusing. I’m not saying you can’t finish a movie without giving any answers to the main questions, but then you need to finish stronger (with a clear message that it’s intended that way). Anyhow, the movie left me with a feeling that I have seen another story about obsession and escape from reality. On the other hand, it’s something new and, most importantly, something different in Latvian filmography.
Movie No. 9: King of Devil’s Island (Norway, 2010)
Director: Marius Holst
Genre: Action, Drama
No European Film Challenge can be concluded without at least one Scandinavian movie. This time I chose a historic drama that is based on true events that took place on the island of Bastoy in the early 20th century. It focuses on a group of delinquent, young boys sent to live there under supervision of abusive and sadistic adults. It’s not long till the events start to escalate, and I was kept on the edge of my seat more than once during this movie. It’s definitely a must-see, but don’t expect a happy ending. And if I had to choose one movie from all 10 that I liked the best, this one would have been my highlight.
Movie No. 10: Sadece Sen (Turkey, 2014)
Director: Hakan Yonat
Genre: Drama, Romance
Well, there isn’t probably a better way to finish a film challenge than with a dramatic love story. I knew that with a Turkish film I might be going in the direction of Bollywood-style story, and I wasn’t wrong. In brief, an ex-boxer with a shady past falls in love with a blind girl. Things are good till they start finding out more about each other and some secrets (and impossible coincidences) come to light. Our hero decides to go on a suicide mission to set things right, but, of course, it all goes wrong. The ending is as unbelievable as the rest of the movie, a total fairy tale. I don’t know how many times I thought: “No way this is possible!” But I have to say that the director or the writer has figured out how to make these romance dramas attractive to men – just throw in a bloody, no-rules fight! Anyhow, you can catch this one on Netflix or Youtube (I think).
Despite all my efforts, I didn’t win the trip to Cannes Film Festival (and it’s ok). But it was not ok that among all the movies I chose to watch fairly randomly there wasn’t even one with a female director (a criterion that was revealed after the film watching was over). I have to say that I didn’t realize how big is the male dominance in film industry (yes, I knew about it, I had read about it, but I wasn’t truly aware of it). It’s the one sad revelation of an otherwise amazing film journey, and I hope to do better in future!