Eastern Promises

This week the Dafilms portal presents a considerable portion of European “exoticism”. Take a trip through the unique landscape of the Balkans with three remarkable documentaries. Although the protagonists of The Shutka Book of Records, The Mosquito Problem and Bahtalo! are rather poor, do not expect a heavy social drama. One can only live merrily without money! From May 14, you can watch the three films for free for a whole week.

“You will not find Shutka on the map. Shutka is a state of mind.”

If Borat Sagdiyev really existed, he would most probably come from Shutka. The largest Roman settlement in the Balkans, and perhaps in the whole world, it tells diverse stories of the people living on its few dusty square kilometres. People, phantoms and genies live together on one spot while the borders between their worlds fade away randomly.
Serbian director Alexandar Manić conceived his cinematographic trip to Shutka as an “anthropological documentary comedy”. A whole range of champions in the weirdest disciplines of human creativity are parading in front of his camera. The world championship in collecting tapes with Turkish popular music is as much esteemed as goose fighting or the exorcism of evil genies. Doctor Koljo, Uncle Alfonso, Uncle Jashar, Dublik the Boxer or the local queer Fazli shake off the troubles and shadows of their existence, turning into champions and record breakers in front of the camera. Everybody only has “fifteen minutes” of fame; so why not enjoy them.

“The mosquitos are a problem for everyone in town but I don’t fight them because I can’t prevail.”

In comparison with Shutka, life in the Bulgarian town of Belene has a remarkably slower rhythm set by the monotonous flow of the waters of the Danube at the banks of which the town lies. Excursion boats with Austrian and German seniors sailing along the banks signalize that here the vivacity of the Balkans blends with the “sobriety” of Europe. However, that does not mean that Belene has no rituals, ceremonies, record breakers and genies of its own. This time, the latter have taken on the form of importunate mosquitos whose presence is considered the only malady suffered by the rather sleepy regional centre.
Bulgarian documentarist Andrey Paounov made his collective portrait of Belene’s inhabitants nearly in the spirit of Altman. Like the American master of social satire, Paounov starts by revealing disparate stories from the daily life of a whole range of film characters. However, soon he manages to get under the surface of everydayness and wade through much darker and wilder currents. The mosaic of the film composition is pervaded by the life and death of Julia Ruzgheva, a former warden of the infamous communist concentration camp which operated in Belene in the 1950s. While the director takes the spectators deeper to the past of Belene, the mosquitoes start losing the concrete meaning of troublesome insects and start taking on the form of a kind of Sartrean flies; the pangs of conscience.

“You took me to that bar and I blew all my money there!”

The documentary probe into the character of the Balkans is concluded by Róbert Lakatos and his Bahtalo! Born in Romania, the Hungarian director studied camera in Lodz, Poland. In his documentary feature debut, he cast a quirky duo which symbolizes the situation of the Balkans in the 21st century. Lali is a Romanian gypsy and Lori is a Hungarian. Lali is small and round and has a big moustache; Lori is tall and bald. Two best friends constantly getting on each other’s nerves; in short, perfect protagonists of a film comedy. The two garrulous buddies have a hole in their pocket and never miss a chance to “hit the jackpot”. To an enterprising man, nothing is an obstacle and everything is an opportunity. The “unerring sense of money” takes the disparate duo from one adventure to another; for a treasure can lie at the flea market in Vienna as well as at the pyramids of Egypt. Robert Lakatos made a charming documentary road movie the nature of which reminds of feature situation comedies. Lori and Lali are the Laurel and Hardy of the Balkans; in the best tradition of a “family comedy”, during their treasure hunt, they discover that the greatest treasure lies in their having each other.


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