DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2009: Slovenian Girl and Mall Girls

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

TIFF 2009: Slovenian Girl and Mall Girls

Slovenian Girl – Slovenka (2009) Dir. Damjan Kozole
Starring: Nina Ivanishin


Mall Girls – Galerianki (2009) Dir. Katarzyna Roslaniec
Starring: Anna Karczmarczyk


Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

The most alarming trend in Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism has been the sexual exploitation of women. In spite of the promise of a new life through capitalism and the free market, pretty much all of these countries have suffered a drastic rise in poverty and homelessness. Add to the mix an Old World patriarchy that remains entrenched in Slavic cultures, a veritable explosion of organized crime and an increasing demand for sexual services – life for many young women has become desperate, cheap and dangerous. The combination of basic needs not being met and an ever-multiplying Western-styled consumerism creeping into the consciousness of the people through advertising has meant a rise in women either choosing to be prostitutes, or worse (as so expertly detailed in investigative journalist Victor Malarek’s shocking book “The Natashas”), women are duped and/or kidnapped and subsequently forced into prostitution. One million women per year from Eastern Europe disappear and are sold into sexual slavery.

The 2009 film festival circuit sees the release of two motion pictures that look at various aspects of women in the sex trade – both made in former Communist countries.

“Slovenian Girl (Slovenka)” is a Croatian-German-Slovenian-Serbian co-production directed by Damjan Kozole and is a resolutely grim, haunting, beautifully crafted and powerfully acted story of a young woman from a small Slovenian town who lives in Ljubljana, seeking to finish her education and better herself by working as an independent escort. Aleksandra ( Nina Ivanishin) studies English and is enrolled at university. She has purchased a luxurious apartment with an exquisite view and to all who know her; she is a smart, savvy young woman who is grabbing the dream of a new capitalist world. Alas, she lives a lonely, haunted existence – hiding her source of income from everyone close to her. Working as an independent escort, she hits several major roadblocks – a foreign politician dies in her room from a stroke spurred on by a Viagra overdose, the police are actively seeking her, a group of vicious thugs/pimps are trying to force her into sexual slavery and she’s desperately behind in her mortgage payments since she is trying to juggle an academic life, family responsibilities and her life as a call girl. She is so beleaguered that she finds it impossible to make enough money.

Leading lady Nina Ivanishin is a real treasure. With her long, dark straight tresses and a face that strives to betray little emotion in the realm of adversity (save for the terror she experiences and expresses at the hands of the pimps when her veneer falls apart), Ivanishin delivers a moving and groundbreaking performance. If the Gods are smiling on this actress, she might well become a big international star. She is definitely one of many reasons to see this remarkable film.

Director Kozole creates a stunning mise-en-scene – delivering image after image that seems to have much of the colour drained from it. Whether it is the dull greys of the exteriors or the tungsten and/or fluorescent lights of the interiors, there is rich detail within every shot – creating a world that bristles with reality, but does so without the almost de-rigueur grainy, handheld shaky-cam. He has a classical style that is subtle in its subversion.

This is a heart-breaking movie that creates a world where for people like Aleksandra, the only choice, the only hope for a better life is to sell her sexuality. In spite of this, there are no traditional patriarchal judgements forced on her character, her choices or the story itself. In fact, that Aleksandra actually makes a choice and struggles (no matter how unsuccessfully) is one of the reasons the picture is so moving. She controls her destiny, even though it means she must shut herself down – almost machine-like – when she is either with clients or when she is hiding her secret life from those around her.

“Mall Girls”, a Polish film by director Katarzyna Roslaniec, is a terrific companion piece to “Slovenian Girl”. Focusing upon the lives of several poor 14-year-old girls, it is an exquisitely directed piece of filmmaking. Using a swirling, occasionally jittery camera and settings that offer stunning contrasts between the colour-dappled world of the mall where the girls find true happiness and the dank hallways and scuzzy, cramped apartments in housing projects where the grime and poverty ache with despair, Roslaniec creates a visual palate that reflects the dichotomous lives of the girls – both the dreams (the mall, consumerism and easy money) and the realities (squalid homes where physical abuse and poverty run rampant, cramped classrooms presided over by frustrated teachers and sordid backdrops for all manner of sexual activity). Add to this the extraordinary, fresh performances of all the young actors and one has a film that could have well been perfect.

What betrays this perfection is a screenplay that unfortunately veers into territory that’s too expected, too simple and finally much too convenient. Worse yet, the story rushes to a conclusion that strains the credibility the film garners in its first two-thirds. That said, Roslaniec ends the film with such a daring and evocative final shot, that one could almost forgive the script’s eventual deficiencies in its last act.

Another element that works beautifully however, is how the script, direction and performances exquisitely capture the contrasts in these girls’ lives between their burgeoning sexuality and their willingness to risk it all for emotionless, loveless sex in exchange for money and other favours. Roslaniec and the script also render the public school peer pressure and the various rollercoaster-like emotional rides the movie both reflects and takes us on.

“Slovenian Girl” and “Mall Girls” are touching and tragic portraits of how womanhood in Eastern Europe is being assaulted, perverted and exploited in a society and culture so full of promise, yet bitterly offering only despair and easy ways to make poor and often tragic choices.

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