The idea of Eastern Europe was, as academics have argued, a term invented by the west – an essentially imaginary association of lands drawing on both fact and fiction. The former Soviet Union embraced large areas of the Caucasus and Central Asia and, if these are included, the numbers of countries and cultural traditions now number around 30. This year’s festival includes eight films from what has also been called ‘the Other Europe’, all of them striking achievements.

Babi Yar. Context (2021)

Four of them deal with semi-forgotten or traumatic historical events. Sergei Loznitsa’s Babi Yar: Context, which features as part of the Documentary Competition, is a newsreel-based reconstruction of the Nazi massacre of the Jewish population of Kiev in the ravine of Babi-Yar in Ukraine in 1941. Documentary material from archives in Germany and Ukraine is combined with creative sound, much in the style of his Blockade (2006), which documented the siege of Leningrad. It’s part of his research for a long-planned feature film on the same subject. 

The Hungarian feature Natural Light reconstructs the story of a Hungarian occupation force hunting partisans during the German-Hungarian invasion of the Soviet Union. First-time feature director Dénes Nagy notes that his cast of non-professional actors, mainly farmers, was drawn from the same class that would have been conscripted at the time. While revisiting a ‘forgotten’ period of Hungarian history, its powerful aesthetic recalls the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, especially Stalker (1979). 

Landscapes of Resistance, showing in the Create strand, tells the documented story of Auschwitz survivor and Serbian partisan, Sonja Vujanović. Meanwhile, Jan P. Matuszyński’s Leave No Traces – screening in Debate – deals with the aftermath of the killing of a student by security police in 1983. Set after the ‘relaxing’ of martial law in Poland, the film meticulously describes how an exercise in unmotivated sadism becomes a political issue when reported on the BBC. The result is the corruption of legal procedures and the falsification of evidence. While all four films emphasise the ‘lessons’ of history, their contemporary parallels are all too apparent.

Moving to the present, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Petrov’s Flu, adapted from the bestselling novel by Alexey Salnikov, tells the story of a comic book artist who contracts ‘flu, and embarks on a hallucinatory journey through Russian society. Filmed under ‘difficult’ and Kafkaesque conditions following the director’s house arrest, it’s not far from the worlds of Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Bulgakov. Described by critics as “bewildering” and “breathless”, it’s a groundbreaking and essential work. 

Petrov’s Flu (2021)

Romanian director Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, which won the main award at this year’s Berlinale, is quite different from his earlier work – and included in the festival’s Laugh strand. Billed as a “sketch for a popular film”, it’s more of an exercise in Godardian agitprop. Continuing his attack on contemporary hypocrisies, he sets the scandal of an explicit sex tape uploaded to an adult site against the absurdity and prejudice of society’s ‘acceptable’ face.

But all is not quite so grim. The Georgian film What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is a totally original and charming fantasy about Lisa and Georgi, a couple who fall in love but change appearance overnight. Emphasising the magic of the everyday, its gentle rhythm is enhanced by a sensitive use of music. 

Finally, the Czechs, who have maintained their admirable tradition of making films for young audiences, present Martin and the Magical Forest, a charming children’s film with an ecological theme. Martin and his friend explore the magic of the forest during summer camp, encountering small animated creatures in the process.

BFI Membership

Become a BFI Member from £37 to enjoy priority London Film Festival booking as well as other great benefits all year round.

Join today