Zum Ende des Let´s CEE-Festival baten wir Michal Oleszczyk, Kurator des Spielfilm-Wettbewerbs, zum Interview. Die Fragen stammen von Szymon Pietrzak und Christian Klosz, das Interview führte Szymon Pietrzak.

Wir danken Michal Oleszczyk nochmals ausdrücklich für seine interessanten und sehr ausführlichen Antworten. Das Interview wurde auf Englisch geführt.

Film plus Kritik: What is the most important idea behind the “Let’s Cee Festival” for you?

Michal Oleszczyk: I think the idea, as first conceived by Magdalena Żelasko and Wolfgang P. Schwelle, the festival directors, is simply to bring and present Central/Eastern European films to Viennese audiences, and in a broader sense also to sort of make East and West of Europe meet one another. It’s quite symbolic that the festival is taking place in Vienna, at the former center of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, which still remains a huge and significant cultural hub today. You can tell how diverse the place is simply by looking at the audiences: there are Austrians, immigrants, representatives of different ethnicities. They all come to the screenings, and they all share their thoughts. I think the festival is quite successful in that way.


Which countries were available for the film program, and how do you define “Central and Eastern Europe”?

*laughs* The effort to define Central/Eastern Europe is as old as Central/Eastern Europe itself, so I don’t have one easy definition to give you. There’s even some tension between “Central” and “Eastern” as terms, since some people prefer the former, and others lean to the latter.

First of all, I was a guest programmer, so I was following the general outline, and general palette of choice that was drawn by Magdalena as the Artistic Director. We worked together, in a constant dialogue, and I was trying to follow her general vision, because she is very active and she’s also a festival traveler, she goes to a number of festivals in the region and she watches the most important and interesting features. After each festival she went, she sent me a short report and told me which movies were available for us. Then I watched them at my place in Warsaw, and we discussed them on the phone. That’s international programming of 21st century for you!

As a Pole, and thus a Central/Eastern European myself, I would roughly define the whole region as fundamentally burdened by extremely difficult historical experiences of totalitarianism, imperial politics, genocide, ethnic tensions and also by a troubled sense of self-understanding. I think that in Western Europe the general sense of identity and of reasonably clear self-perception has been much stronger until recently. And the second thing I would point to is that Central/Eastern European states often were in some various ways – culturally, but also politically – colonized by other powers. Which is definitely the case for Poland but also for many other small nations of the region. They are still struggling with a sort of post-colonial heritage, even though it’s not a post-colonialism that is easily recognizable for Westerners, because for them the term usually means strictly the colonial effort of European countries to dominate over what used to be called the “Third World”. This is a very narrow sense of understanding colonialism, though, and I think we can speak about colonialism every time there is violence and some kind of cultural dominance by one state entity over another. And definitely most of those countries, that we are watching the films from at the Lets Cee Festival, experienced such violence and colonialism at some point, and they keep dealing with it in various ways.

Many Central/Eastern European countries are politically caught between “the West” and Russia. Does this affect the cultural scene in general and the film industry in particular, and how?

Yes, I think that the constant tension between the West and the East is fascinating. Part of being a Central/Eastern European lies in the constant, unwitting process of measuring oneself against the West and pondering: “Are we the West yet…?” or: “Can we become the West one day…?”. Or maybe even: “We are the ‘real’ West and the so-called West has lost its way somehow” etc.

In the films that I chose for the main competition you can also see this tendency on the narrative level. For example “Ivan”, the winning Slovenian feature by Janez Burger, which on one hand deals with sort of post-soviet corruption in Slovenia, and on the other hand consciously borrows from American genre cinema (in this case, being a road action movie of sorts). There is always interesting tension and questions about the relationship to the – real or imaginary – West.

Some decades ago it was “West” versus “East”, the world was clearly divided, large political units such as the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia provided (negative or positive) identity. That does not exist anymore today. Is there nevertheless something like a “common Eastern European identity”, which can also be seen in films from the region?

It´s problematic. I think its characteristic that Central/Eastern Europe hasn’t become globally “sexy” since 1989. It was extremely “sexy” during the period of the Solidarity Movement and also at the time of the falling of the Berlin Wall. It seemed like liberty and freedom literally oozed out of that region, and characters like Lech Walesa became extremely popular (and over-simplified in the process). I think it was the last moment when our particular region was highly attractive in cultural terms.

Since then, I think the whole region hasn’t regained this kind of powerful cultural momentum. Of course, there are at least three aspects that remain marketable. The first is still provided by what I would call “the misery of history factor”. Even a very successful Polish film like “Ida” basically deals with that, the brutal harshness of history: the pain and the trauma of living through 20th century at that particular place. The second aspect is what I would call “the allure of creative mess”, or the regional ability to employ unorthodox ways of thinking that western people often find fascinating, attractive – and borderline-dangerous. The fact that the state and its institutions were so corrupted for so long, created a sort of a free space for unbridled forms enterprise and art. That freedom; that constant and near-pathological blurring of boundaries, is very Central European. Everyone can become a trickster, an achiever, or an utter loser – there’s no safety net of age-old institutions to break one’s fall.

The third aspect is economical, since the Central/Eastern-Europe region became a quite inexpensive alternative for Western businessmen and artists as a place to live and work. It’s much cheaper to rent a creative space in Warsaw than in Berlin (although that´s changing). I know many artists and entrepreneurs who suddenly looked at Poland and noticed the high level of consumption available to them for much less money than they would have spent at home. In a word, Central Europe hasn’t become gentrified yet, even though it’s slowly happening.

LET'S CEE at the Urania Cinema_Credit Paulina & Thomas Photography_preview

The art and culture scene is generally considered as “liberal”. How is the situation in countries like Poland or Russia? Politically, these countries seem to get more “conservative” in the last years – how does the film / art scene react? With resistance? Or is there something like “system art” in Poland or Russia?

I think that definitely there is a kind of conservative push from the authorities in Poland, for example, but it’s still more of a wish, or rather an unsuccessful attempt to redirect the culture from the leftist stream to one that would be conservative. The attempt has been rather clumsy and futile, because the artists in Poland and in other countries of the region remain very resistant to the idea and show active resistance. There are not many good artists who would contribute valuable work to this conservative trend – and those who would do it purely for monetary gain, would probably become ostracized by their peers. I would like to see good conservative art emerge alongside good liberal, or even subversive and revolutionary art. The fact is, though, that Central European conservatives are usually so indifferent to art in general, their idea of ‘patriotic art’ is quite laughable to start with and consists mostly of patriotic and/or religious schmaltz.

The second thing is, if you look at Russia, on the one hand it seems highly conservative (homophobia even exists in official language of political ads). But on the other hand you can look at Zvagincev’s anti-authoritarian “Loveless”, or at Aleksey German Jr.’s “Dovlatov”, which is very liberal and tells the story of the communist state trying to crush an artist’s soul. And they were filmed in Russia, largely from Russian state money. German says himself that he enjoys creative freedom in Russia that his subject Sergei Dovlatov couldn’t enjoy back in 1970s.

The paradox remains that, most likely, a movie like “Dovlatov”, which is so unconventional and so devoid of a clear story line, would be very difficult to make in United States. In Russia it’s still possible. Wherever you have state-funded art, you find this constant game between the artists and the authorities, and it never ends. So far, I haven’t really seen interesting art coming out of the conservative streak in Poland. Maybe it will happen one day; but so far, I haven’t seen it.

How is the public in Austria reacting to the festival and the movies shown this year?

In my experience, the Austrian public is really great. First of all, I’m really delighted they are asking questions after the screenings. That’s not always the case in Poland, where audiences are more diffident and shy.

I like the fact that even demanding work like “Pororoca”, a Romanian film which is extremely heavy thematically and violent, still finds its viewers here. They stay till the end, even if it’s not easy for them to watch the movie, and they ask questions afterwards. I am very happy to see viewers who are ready for an adventure and that’s the best that every festival can hope for.

short reviews: „Men Don´t Cry“ / „Directions“

all winners / alle Gewinner des Festivals: LET’S CEE-Festival: Die Gewinner

As a curator of this festival and also a film critic, do you have any special messages to filmmakers from Central and Eastern Europe? Do you see any special challenges for them?

I think the biggest challenge is funding. I don’t think that politics is the most important factor. I think that film and TV have become such a natural way for people to communicate and for viewers to observe, that more and more young people want to become film artists. They finish film schools, sometimes they simply teach themselves, they follow online tutorials etc. There will be more and more young talents for whom finding employment in the industry will become a problem. And that’s the biggest challenge I can think of – a sort of overproduction of film specialists, film directors etc. versus limited funds.

My only advice for young filmmakers is this: don’t follow any political creed; just be yourself and speak with your own voice. Watch other films, watch what other people are saying, and try to become a part of the conversation – not by imitating anyone, or ignoring everyone else. Just find your place at the table. Because it’s a global table and it’s always open for people with their own voice and their own sensibility. It also remains largely closed for those who want to sit at it too much and for the wrong reasons. I still see a hope and I know the industry will be developing. TV, especially, it’s booming, but for a filmmaker right now, just as always, the biggest challenge is to remain true to oneself, and not try to fit in the political side of the left or right. Cinema that’s perfunctory in its leftism is as boring as a bombastic, right-wing epic. Speak from your heart and describe the world as you see it.

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You have also published on American film sites like Roger Ebert.com, and others. What do you think about the influence of “rating platforms” like “Rotten Tomatoes”? What can and should be the role of a serious film critic in the (digital) future?

That’s a topic that we have all been trying to understand for the past ten years, ever since the revolution of the internet happened. Well, there is always good weather for film journalism: for interviews, for press junkets, for covering premieres, talking to filmmakers, etc. There is always demand for that, even though it is very competitive. Unfortunately, really the smallest demand is for serious criticism; for good, long essays that would really go deeply into the subject.

I love film criticism, and I love film critics because I am one of them. But it’s impossible right now to make your living doing that, basically, I mean apart from a very, very limited group of people, who write for highly prestigious periodicals. YouTube is only a part of the answer, I think people who open their own channels are thriving, but again, the demand is not so huge and there can only be so many of those channels. I think it’s an interesting situation, because definitely in my lifetime I went from seeing local film criticism only, back when Internet wasn’t even around, all the way to seeing truly global forms of criticism. I can well start my day reading a review written by my American colleague and ending my day reading a review written by my South-American colleague, and on the same day they published it, about the movie that I probably saw, because the access to it is quite easy. It’s a completely different world and it takes a lot of passion to keep doing the work.

What do you think of newly emerging film-websites, online-magazines, blogs etc. – do you read them, or do you keep reading newspapers or bigger magazines?

I read Facebook. Meaning, Facebook is my provider of content. I see someone whom I respect linking to something on Facebook and saying that it´s a really good piece – then I click and read it. I follow some critics regularly – not many, because it’s impossible to follow everyone. I think that the influence of the critics right now is very local, but not geographically. Rather, it’s local in terms of a particular social network that we are a part of. Critics writing for huge and prestigious outlets are not necessarily better than the ones writings for their blogs only – they were just luckier. There’s ton of brilliant film writing online, much of it written on private, unpaid blogs. And even though a festival like Cannes tries to actively humiliate representatives of small outlets by relegating them to ownership of “yellow” badges at the festival, internet democracy will ultimately prevail.

19.4.2018 / Vienna

Michał Oleszczyk is a film critic and script consultant living in Warsaw. He teaches at Artes Liberales Department of University of Warsaw and writes for “RogerEbert.com”, “Cineaste” and “Filmweb”.

Fotos 1 & 2: Marcin Gregorczyk, Luxurity.org

Foto 3: Let´s CEE-Festival; Foto 4: Daniel Auer / Let´s CEE-Festival