South East European Film Festival highlights audacity in cinema: ‘Moon Hotel Kabul’

LOS ANGELES—Most film festivals are categorically determined: By the type of production (Toronto’s Hot Docs only showcases nonfiction films); genre (TCM Classic Film Festival screens vintage pictures); time (LA Shorts International Film Festival won’t show feature-length movies); and perhaps most importantly, by subject matter (the Pan African Film Festival highlights Black-themed works). The South East European Film Festival mainly focuses on those countries that were formerly part of the so-called “Iron Curtain,” as well as former Yugoslavia.

The 14th annual SEEfest was, appropriately, kicked off on May Day with an opening night gala at the prestigious Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, where the Romanian feature Moon Hotel Kabul was screened for a nearly sold out audience. The movie was preceded by the presentation of SEEfest’s Legacy Award by the festival’s founder and director Vera Mijojlic to Gregory Laemmle, whose family provides an essential cinematic service to Angelenos by showing indie, international, cult and classic films at its nine-theater L.A. chain. This entertainment industry dynasty is descended from early mogul Carl Laemmle of Universal, which produced many horror masterpieces (presumably why Pasadena’s Laemmle Playhouse displays images of Dracula, etc., in its bathroom) and who, by the way, speaking of horror, personally rescued many Jews from the Holocaust.

The great thing about the yearly SEEfest is that L.A. moviegoers get an opportunity to experience films they’d likely never get a chance to see—at least on the big screen—otherwise. This year’s theme is “Audacity in Cinema” (in stark contrast to the Democratic Party leadership’s motto: “the audacity of compromise”). I’ve attended a number of SEEfests over the years and find that most of the filmic offerings from this part of the world have a different cinematic sensibility from that of the usual Hollywood franchise and beyond. Moon Hotel Kabul is a case in point, especially as it was helmed, co-written and produced by a woman, Anca Damian, a veteran filmmaker who scored the Warsaw Film Festival’s “Best Director” accolade for Moon.

Compared to a typical Tinseltown blockbuster, Moon is slow moving and elliptical in a way that recalls Alain Resnais’s French New Wave films. (Incidental intelligence: To its credit, the Laemmle theaters are reviving Resnais’s 1961 avant-garde classic Last Year at Marienbad on July 12.) And certainly, Florin Piersic Jr. as the protagonist Ivan Semciuc is no Thor, Iron Curtain Iron Man, or even a Captain Romania. Rather, Ivan is a journalist who, while on assignment in war-torn Afghanistan, has a fateful one-night stand with Ioana Preda (Ofelia Popii). After the translator somehow winds up dead, Moon becomes a kind of film noirish whodunit—and how was she “dun” in?

As the action shifts back to Ivan and Ioana’s native Romania, it is assumed that the translator has committed suicide. But did she? Ivan uses his journalistic skills to investigate what really happened to her. And in so doing Moon raises a number of disturbing questions about contemporary Romania.

First of all, what the hell are Romanian troops doing fighting in Afghanistan? The former Warsaw Pact nation appears to have jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire, by stupidly joining the imperialists’ militaristic alliance in 2004 and fighting Washington’s idiotic, endless wars. The expansion of NATO up to the borders of the former Soviet Union betrayed the agreements between Bush Sr. and the former USSR (see Werner Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev, which opens May 3). Such expansion serves as provocation for the Russian Federation and Vladimir Putin. (After the collapse of Romania’s brand of socialism, neutrality would have been an honorable option. But belonging to NATO?!)

Ioana’s fate is reminiscent of the brouhaha surrounding those private talks between Trump and Putin where at least the U.S. side kept no written records. Remember, Trump demanded that the American translator(s) turn over any notes kept of these highly confidential tête-à-têtes. Did Ioana’s interpreting lead to her becoming a victim of foul play? Inquiring minds—including our man Ivan’s—want to know.

Moon also raises the delicate question of freedom of the press, as Ivan has to contend with an editor who seems determined to contain the journalist’s reportage regarding Ioana. Is this a reference to post-Stalinist apparatchiks who still chill free expression in a supposedly democratic Romania, which since 2007 has belonged to the European Union and supposedly guarantees these rights?

Although a discerning eye can easily determine this, according to IMDB.com, none of Moon was actually shot on location in Kabul or anywhere else remotely near Afghanistan. The feature was entirely made in Romania, largely in Bucharest. Truth be told, the Romanian capital looks pretty bleak and unattractive and as such is a fitting background for this sort of murder mystery. Ivan’s excursion into Romania’s countryside to bring Ioana’s corpse to her family reminded me of Marx’s phrase “the idiocy of rural life.” Particularly as Ioana’s brother Mitu (Alexandru Nagy) is, by his own admission, “retarded.”

There is an inexplicable Buñuelian surreal scene I won’t ruin for you, but keep an eye out for a supernatural touch in what is largely a naturalistic—and pretty noisy—movie; methinks Romanian cars don’t have mufflers. Over all, Damian’s dark look at post-“revolutionary” Romania paints a gloomy picture of a country that looks like it’s better visited onscreen than in person. The citizens of today still seem to be paying for the authoritarian sins of the past.

For more info about the South East European Film Festival, which runs through May 8, see its website here.

The trailer for Moon Hotel Kabul can be seen here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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