Eastern European cinema isn’t one that is often mentioned in blogs and mainstream circles. Sure, we know about Andrei Tarkovsky, the masters behind the Czech New Wave, Béla Tarr, Alexander Sukorov, and Sergei Parajanov. But there’s a new type of cinema that I’m still discovering and I’m not sure if it’s still unfolding itself or if it’s still not very well known. I’m talking about a type of cinema that focuses on the lives of people who face difficulties in modern eastern Europe, where old and abandoned buildings are part of the snowy setting, and themes like immigration and alienation take a major part in the script. While I’m still trying to discover more about these films, I’ve decided to share some of the titles that I think fit the description of this new kind of cinema that is forming around Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, and Romania.
“Atlantis (2019)” by Valentyn Vasyanovych
Selected as the Ukrainian entry for Best International Feature Film at the 2021 Academy Awards, Atlantis is a movie set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic world in Ukraine where a soldier is trying to make sense of his life after a major war has destroyed his entire country. Being set in various abandoned buildings and deserted places, Valentyn Vasyanovych’s feature is a contemplative experience that focuses on the search for one’s self in a world that has been destroyed and taken for us.
“Donbass (2018)” by Sergei Loznitsa
Despite the cinema of Sergei Loznitsa being a very interesting one, I have to admit I usually don’t fully understand what his films are actually about. This must happen because I’m from literally the other side of the world and Loznitsa’s cinema is filled with current social and political criticism of Russia. Donbass, however, feels pretty much like a Russian version of Wild Tales, where Loznitsa plays with the absurdity of the Ukrainian war-zone through several episodes in a way that is both satirical and provoking, making this a very interesting and different film from the director.
“Ayka (2018)” by Sergei Dvortsevoy
Winner of the Best Actress Award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Ayka is an incredible tour de force with a fist of cinema verité for telling the story of a young Asian immigrant worker trying to make ends meet in Moscow after she gets pregnant and abandons her baby. What could have been an extremely melodramatic film, Sergei Dvortsevoy gives us a closer and realistic look at the current immigrant situation in Eastern Europe and the experiences these people go through. The result is an impressive and shocking film.
“Oleg (2018)” by Juris Kursietis
And speaking of immigrant workers, Oleg follows the incredible journey of a Latvian man who decides to move to Brussels to find a better way of life. There, he ends up being abused and bullied by a Polish immigrant who explores other immigrants through the Mafia, resulting in an interesting and well-crafted movie about post-modernity in Europe, with an outstanding work of cinematography.
“The Whaler Boy (2020)” by Philipp Yuryev
Being probably one of my favorite movies of 2020 and having one of the most outstanding works of cinematography from last year, The Whaler Boy is a more cheerful film comparing to the others for telling the coming of age story of a boy who lives in such remote part of Russia that is literally possible to get to America by boat. Once the internet finally arrives in his village, he ends up falling in love with a cam girl and decides to cross the ocean to meet her. The result is a beautiful study of loneliness and how we are shaped by the places we grow up in.
“Import/Export (2007)” by Ulrich Seidl
From the same director of the Paradise trilogy, Import/Export is an amazing study of post-modern life in Eastern Europe by following two distinct characters who decide to immigrate to find a better way of life in other countries. With that, Ulrich Seidl gives us the perspective of a man and a woman and their experiences in different situations, from working as a security guard to a webcam girl, resulting in a beautiful and broken portrait of eastern European society.
“Leviathan (2014)” by Andrey Zvyagintsev
It’s been a while since I’ve first watched Leviathan but I remember when I finished the movie I was in such a state of awe that I couldn’t help but think of this as one of the best films of 2014. The film follows the story of a mayor who wishes to buy a man’s farm in a remote part of Russia and everything he does to accomplish that, including blackmail and other illegal procedures. The result is not only an outstanding film but a closer portrait of what men in power can achieve using their political and religious influence on a small community.