I had the opportunity see both films at the Cottbus Film Festival – a showcase of Eastern European contemporary cinema – on 07 November 2014
Modris 2014. Latvia. Directed by Juris Kursietis
I’m Beso 2014. Georgia. Directed by Lasha Tskvitinidze
A Comparative look at “Modris” and “I am Beso” – A search for intimacy in an unforgiving landscape
The frustrations of adolescence compounded in an unforgiving landscape: Modris, a Latvian teenager on the cusp of adulthood wanders the snowy urban terrain under the grey skies of Riga; Beso, not quite a kid, drifts along the open fields and crumbling structures of his Georgian village. The protagonists of Modris and I’m Beso, respectively, affect a similar tone of frustration. Growing pains are constricted in a setting that leaves one nowhere to go but further into oneself.
Modris (Kristers Piksa) lives with his anxious single mom (Rezija Kalnina) in an apartment in a high-rise complex. The usual brushes with boredom and the trouble that arises from them, an essential component of the teenage years, are given a new dimension when any slip-up threatens to shatter an already fragile parent-child relationship. Modris’s mother, a petite woman with searing blue eyes, has woven a story of her husband’s imprisonment, a fate she hangs over her son’s head at any perceived infraction. Modris doesn’t spend much time at home, preferring the slot machines at the local dive bar. In the company of drunken older men, he asks the young waitress to lend him money so he can keep playing. He enters a coin and wins back a great deal more. We hear him whisper to himself, “my formula worked,” as though pulling the handle of the machine were some calculated gesture. Every win brings with it the illusion that he had the skill to make it happen. Playing the slots seems like the only effort that can guarantee gratification, however fleeting. He asks his girlfriend for money, saying it’s for food. He steals from his mother’s wallet. He tries to pawn his phone. He wants only to keep playing. His solution: to take a heater from the apartment and sell it at the pawnshop. A missing heater in the Latvian winter does not go unnoticed. His mother confronts him, incensed, exasperated. The anger in her eyes reveals her opinion of her son: he is his criminal, absent father. To bring this point home, she calls the police and has him arrested off the sofa in the living room.
He is led by the elbow through various bureaucratic avenues by adults who see no potential in him. The judge is unimpressed with his attitude and threatens him with two-years imprisonment for the stolen heater. He is put instead on probation and expected to show up to a juvenile detention center every Saturday for “lectures.” Through all this he has very little to say. He stands stooped over, sits slouching, and his eyes remain cast downwards past his crooked nose. His infractions, though avoidable, are not done in pursuit of thrill or power. He is neither malicious nor aggressive. Rather he has nothing to and no one to turn to. The rules are unclear and seem easily broken. His efforts to keep moving forward, to find something of meaning, or to simply clear his mind of defeat end in some transgression. He doesn’t give off the impression he is trying to be transgressive; it’s the world around him that won’t make space for him. Merely trying to find a place to exist in the freezing, monochrome cityscape signals trouble. He looks for a place to sleep that isn’t at home with his disgruntled mother who sees in him only the husband who left her.
His absent father is not the criminal his mother has painted him to be. He is simply absent. Modris tries to find him, visiting the lumberyard where he works but to no avail. It might be too late for him to seek out a male role model, but it isn’t too late to learn the truth about his absence. If he’s fulfilled any of his father’s characteristics, is not his criminality but rather his non-existence. Modris, like any one, wants to mean something. He adds color to the bleak landscape with his graffiti stencil, a crime, but also a sign of life. However, these pursuits of fleeting pleasure or of illusory significance signal further deviations from what is right. How did this happen? What would have made the difference?
Similar tensions threaten to engulf Beso (Tsotne Barbakadze), the young protagonist of Tskvitinidze’s I’m Beso. Though younger than Modris and placed in a warmer, rural environment, Beso also seems to drift along, passive to the aggressions that come his way. He whiles away the time with a schoolmate, with whom he roams the fields of the Georgian countryside, catching frogs and exploring abandoned buildings. He is also pursuing an artistic path, not as a street artist, but as a rap musician. He sits on a grassy bank making up obscene rhymes and recording them onto a cassette. His buddy swears that his rhymes will make him millions. What will he do with all that money? Beso will buy a house for himself, one for his mother, one for his father, one for his brother, and a car for his friend. It’s a long road to reach that point, but at least it’s a direction. It is a hopeful gesture in a climate that doesn’t seem to support growth and which suggests, at worst, decay and degradation and stagnation, at best.
Beso’s role models are not promising. His schoolteacher/karate instructor pleads with the students to stay behind and to support their village rather than abandon it, like so many seem to have done, for the city or points abroad. But what figures have remained behind? Waiting for Beso at home is his injured and furious father. He had been stationed in Chernobyl during the disaster and now sits at home on the couch in front of the television waiting to erupt at even the slightest provocation. He shouts at Beso to be useful, to make something of himself, to work out, to be strong. Beso, another silent and slouching type, mumbles his replies or disappears again. His mother must now be the sole bread-winner and bear the brunt of his father’s frustration and Beso is witness to their shouting matches on more than one occasion. She otherwise does not figure prominently in this snapshot of Beso’s life, only coming into his room to nag him to get to school or to express her own dissatisfaction. This leaves Beso’s brother, who is much older and living his life behind closed doors. Beso’s few interactions with him involve observing him from a distance, as he gives private dance lessons in his bedroom, or meets with his boyfriend in secret. Beso and his mate follow his brother and his boyfriend around. His friend urges them to get closer and closer, wanting to spy more on these deviant figures carrying on a homosexual relationship in the margins of their small Georgian village.
Both Modris and Beso seldom make eye contact. Glimpses of their faces are few and far between. These are the protagonists, but they are not playing for an audience. The effect is that they seem to be hiding, even when they are the focal point on the screen. Their trouble connecting with the figures in their lives is mirrored in an inability to make a direct connection with the audience. They do not keep us from feeling empathy, but this does not come without frustration on the part of the audience who sees no other options for these characters but to continue on their path, to get stuck and to keep making the same mistakes. We are not given a satisfying conclusion, no glimpse of some alternative future. Beso’s brother is seen leaving for Armenia, but we are left with no clues about what will become of Beso when he’s gone. We leave Modris sitting in jail, the place we half-expected him to end up. Will this be an opportunity for real change, or are the bleak prison settings merely a microcosm of the bleak landscape of dead ends and indifference on the outside?
These films are not simply visual essays on directionless adolescence in transition societies. We are left to question what these protagonists are missing. Can this behavior be reduced to absent or injured father figures? Perhaps, but it goes beyond the importance of simply growing up with a stable male role model. It is seems to be a much more general cry for intimacy. Both young men fill their hours away from home and school wandering empty landscapes that might seem less unforgiving, particularly in the case of the Latvian winterscape, if there was someone to reach across these spaces and offer an embrace. They are not totally without love, but it is clear their difficult fathers have also affected the possibilities of maternal intimacy.
Both directors (Kursietis, Tskvitinidze) drew their inspiration for their protagonists from real-life boys. For Kursietis, it was the story of a wayward kid a lawyer friend was unable to help.  And for Tskvitinidze, it was a rap song uploaded by an amateur rapper to YouTube. These are the representations of real kids who find themselves trapped in these very real landscapes. For Modris, whose mother is bitter about being left behind as the sole caretaker of her child, there are too few models of success, thus his desire to seek out immediate but fleeting sources of pleasure. Beso is trapped in an unsustainable community that has been abandoned by the government and its residents and so left to decay around him. These are two cases of emotional stagnancy that ache for someone or something positive to intervene. We see in Modris the very real desire to connect with the father he never knew, a connection his mother seemed to underestimate because of her own pain. The causes of this sort of familial degradation are left to speculation: are these the results of post-Communist frustrations that forced one father to try his luck outside the home and another to return, crippled and angry? Whatever the exact cause, it has left its mark on the spaces and lives of those before us on the screen. These young men are single figures in a much broader arrangement of frustration and defeat. Perhaps it is naïve to assume that greater intimacy at home could solve this problem. However, we can see, however subtly, in the figures in these films a need to connect, to take action in the name of love: Modris’s search for his father is an authentic gesture of longing that suggests he is not as passive or lost as we might initially think. Beso, who is tired of getting pushed around by school bullies, enlists an older cousin to handle the situation. Instead of beating them as Beso had expected, his cousin gives the boys a lecture on the importance of friendship. Indeed, Beso’s relationship with his mate reflects a deep, platonic love that neither can openly admit to. Amidst the bleakness and the suggestion of hopelessness as reflected in the spaces and figures around them, there are these quiet moments of dormant intimacy, which, if given room to grow and find expression, could change the tenor of these stories. Even the unfriendly high-rise apartment block, a prominent feature in both Latvian and Georgian settings, could be a space for growth, love, and self-discovery.
Image from Modris taken from http://modrisfilm.com/
Image from taken from http://cineuropa.org/nw.aspx?t=newsdetail&l=en&did=261986