25 Years of the Cottbus Film Festival “Eastern Europe Is Still Interesting”

“Back Home” by Inna Denisova
“Back Home” by Inna Denisova | © Filmfestival Cottbus

The Cottbus Film Festival has been focusing on the Eastern European film since 1991. In this interview festival manager, Bernd Buder, explains why the festival was first brought into being and what its mission is today.

Mr Buder, the program at this year’s anniversary of the Cottbus Film Festival contained around 200 shorts and feature films from Eastern Europe. It was not always so many. What did the festival look like when it was first held in 1991?

Recently I managed to get hold of a catalogue from back then – there were only eight films being shown. The number, however, increased rapidly within a relatively short space of time. Further sections were then added to accompany the actual competition. It soon became evident that there was a strong will to showcase Eastern Europe comprehensively on the screen.

Eastern Europe can be defined in different ways – both geographically and politically.

We still define it the same way we did at the first festivals – for us Eastern Europe is still the former socialist states. This is why, for example, we still do not show any films from Greece, but more from the successor states of the former Soviet Union in Central Asia.

Reflecting and commentating on the changes

Bernd Buder Bernd Buder | Photo (detail): © Filmfestival Cottbus The Cottbus Film Festival was called into being the second year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What was the idea behind it?

There were actually two ideas behind it: on the one hand, people were afraid that the Eastern European film would not make it onto any screens anymore. The festival was to, at least, prevent this happening. On the other hand, we wanted to show how filmmakers in Eastern Europe were reflecting and commentating on the changes that their societies were going through. And this is the same mission to which it aspires today.

At the time of the first festival in 1991 the wars in former Yugoslavia had just begun. How did the Cottbus Film festival follow and document the conflicts in the years that followed?

We were always able to provide a platform for filmmakers from countries who were involved in hostilities – sometimes even hostile to each other. I believe that a neutral location like our festival is an excellent place to meet without having to adopt any clear political position. At any rate, we are very proud of the fact that we are able to provide a forum of this kind. One of our most important aims is to get people talking and even to force some kind of dialogue.

After the collapse of Yugoslavia what path did film production take in the newly formed individual countries?

In the beginning there was a definite trend in the countries of former Yugoslavia towards nationalist thinking. The sponsoring of films was also similarly politically controlled. The countries made great efforts to distance themselves from each other. The talk was of the Croatian film, the Serbian film and of the Macedonian film. For more than ten years, however, the trend has been towards working together. There is an incredible number of co-productions - and, when all is said and done, the films address a common market. Producing a film, even a commercial film, for Croatian audiences alone just would not be worth it - the country only has four million inhabitants. So, as you see, there is also a quite definite economic motivation to cooperate. Nevertheless, there are still some differences – the Serbian film tends to focus more on black comedy, the Croatian film on literary tradition – but that is the way it has always been.

We take a stand when we select the films

Over the past few years wars and conflict have not just been endemic to the east-european countries, but also, for example, to Georgia and the Crimea. Just how difficult is it in such situations to produce any films at all?

It is incredibly difficult. In Ukraine, for example, the will to make films is there, in order to reflect on what is happening there in real time, there is, however, hardly any money available for such productions. The filmmakers have to go looking for co-producers in other countries. That, in turn, is also difficult, because nobody knows what is going to happen in the country. In the Ukraine, for example, directors have been drafted into the army when they were right in the middle of shooting.

Does the festival take a stand on the political conflicts in Eastern Europe or does it deliberately remain neutral?

We take a stand when we select the films which are to be part of the program. This year, for example, we showed the film Back Home. The film was directed by the female filmmaker Inna Denisova who was born in Simferopol, but now lives in Moscow, and it provides critical insight into the annexation of the Crimea. She shows how everyday life, the political culture and the whole atmosphere have deteriorated since the annexation – especially for people who have a somewhat more liberal way of thinking. The very fact that we are showing this film at all is a statement in itself.

How is the festival to develop over the next few years, do you have a vision?

In 2016 our “Fokus” section is going to examine whether socialism has left its mark outside Europe. Eastern European film schools have established contact with Cuba, Angola, Mozambique and Vietnam. Filmmakers from those countries also studied in Moscow or with Konrad Wolf in Potsdam-Babelsberg. The project is to get off the ground in 2016 with Cuba – political change is in the air there and that in all probability will change Cuban society. But, of course, we don’t want to lose track of what is going on in our own backyard - in Eastern Europe. The societies of Eastern Europe are still in flux – even though the backdrop of their socialist history is still with them.