The filmmakers show a region at a crossroads, divided between old loyalties to authoritarian Russia and forces trying to avert a drift away from the European Union and the West.
“They’re isolated, don’t want to share anything with other countries, they reject liberal values — this is the vision which is gaining strength in former communist countries,” said Czech director Jan Gebert, who presented “When the War Comes”, a chilling documentary about a Slovak paramilitary group.
For three years, from 2015 to 2018, the 37-year-old filmed the rise of “Slovak Recruits” (Slovenski Branci), one of the country’s leading far-right organisations.
The militia was founded in 2012 by Peter Svrcek, a then 20-year-old archaeology student, who drew up to 200 young middle-class men to join him in the woods and undergo weapons training on the sidelines of their “civilian” lives.
The guns they use have been disabled but feel real in the clenched fists of the weekend warriors.
– ‘Slavic blood’ –
Their ideology glorifies “Slavic blood”, ultranationalism, hatred of refugees and foreigners, rejection of Europe and its values and a desire for a strong state on the model of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Their goal? To halt the “invasion” of migrants, fight against “evil” and cure a “sick Slovak society”, Gebert said.
“It looks like Europe has to take moral lessons again,” said Arpad Bogdan, a 37-year-old Hungarian director of Roma origin, who premiered his second feature film “Genesis”.
The poignant movie focuses on a series of vicious racist attacks against Roma people in 2008-09 in Hungary in which six people including a child were killed.
“Genesis” examines how a tragedy targeting a minority contributes to a rot that is penetrating the entire society.
The film is inspired by events in Hungary but “it is not a Hungarian film”, Bogdan told AFP, because the violence and “evil” shown in “Genesis” have infected many parts of Europe.
This includes countries in the west of the continent, he said, such as Germany, where attacks against asylum seekers spiked at the height of the refugee influx in 2015-16.
“A lot of disturbing things are happening in Europe,” the Hungarian director sighed, lamenting the populist, anti-migrant course charted by Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary since 2010.
– ‘Tip of the iceberg’ –
Gebert said much of eastern Europe was gripped by an “atmosphere of fear”, with deep anxiety about “terrorism, migration, Brexit, crisis in the EU, war in Ukraine” all feeding the rise of openly xenophobic political movements.
“They feel that history is on their side, and feel encouraged by the victory of Donald Trump and the victories of populists” in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, he said.
“They feel that they are not extremist anymore when all these politicians say the same things as they do.”
He said groups such as “Slovak Recruits” were only “the most visible thing of what is going on in eastern Europe, like the tip of the iceberg” of a movement to ensure that “former communist countries (keep) drifting away from the EU”.
Bogdan said he had placed his faith in cinema as a force to shore up a more inclusive version of society.
“I would say I’m an optimist as an artist but not as a Hungarian person,” he said.
“I believe that films can transform society because I think that films are supposed to teach hope, a fresh start. This is something that ‘Genesis’ is meant to do.”