Last weekend Floating Cinema presented a series of films at their Open Air Weekender West event, in association with the Czech Centre and the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival. I was lucky enough to climb aboard the cinema barge and watch Cooking History (2008) and Across the Border (2004), two films dealing with themes of war, memory and nationhood from unusual angles.
Forget the dreary title: Cooking History is an intriguing piece of documentary filmmaking, offering a refreshing take on the conflicts of the last century through a series of encounters with ex-army chefs. Peter Kerekes, a Slovakian filmmaker who is himself a modest and likeable presence in the film, has assembled a compelling cast of cooks who once served with armies in Europe. These are figures who normally escape the gaze of history, and the stories they tell are captivating in part because they are the stories we never hear. As chef after chef points out to Kerekes, the simple fact is that soldiers have to eat – and yet it is endlessly astonishing to consider the sheer amount of food that a military force may consume on a daily basis. Kerekes exploits this effect by providing on-screen recipes adjusted for the size of entire armies, with the absurd quantities conveying the enormous scale of war in a novel way.
This is no ordinary talking heads documentary: the chefs are invited to cook recipes that are of special significance to them, often in unusual settings, while they converse with Kerekes. It makes for surprisingly engrossing viewing: each gesture, each carefully cracked egg or expertly glazed loaf, is imbued with intense meaning. Indeed, the more mundane the action, the more it seems to signify, especially when you realise that, from the point of view of the cooks at least, it is through such microscopic details that battles are won. One Russian chef even claims, only half-jokingly, that her blinis helped the Soviets win the war.
Kerekes takes care to avoid the rose-tinted view of the past, and of these conflicts, that the pleasant subject of food might have encouraged. But, rather than simply depicting the horrors of war directly, he instead shocks us with three animal slaughter scenes – brutal moments amid the storytelling and nostalgia of the rest of the film. And while the chefs cook or re-enact other scenes from the past, Kerekes tackles sensitive topics in conversation. By feeding the armies that tore Europe to shreds, were these chefs not just as complicit as some of the frontline troops? A somewhat laboured metaphor helps to elicit a reaction from one German chef: asked whether a recipe might not just be the same thing as a military order, he becomes angry. No, recipes and orders are not the same, he tells us: ‘You don’t need a recipe to make good food, but without orders the world would be chaos’.
Above all, it is the decision to stage certain scenes in unusual settings that raises this documentary above the merely educational. In one of the closing scenes, we watch the sole survivor of a submarine accident cooking schnitzel for his drowned friends; Kerekes has the chef preparing the food on a beach with the tide rising, so that eventually his equipment and food float meaninglessly off into the ocean while he calmly continues recounting his ordeal. Elsewhere, a Croatian chef vows that he’ll never cook for a Serbian, while a minesweeping team in the background deals with the present-day consequences of his hatred, and a Czech cook goes mushroom hunting in the forest and reenacts a tense brush with Russian troops. As with the recent groundbreaking documentary The Act of Killing, the artifice of reenactment is paradoxically key to eliciting a more authentic version of the truth. Cooking History provides an alternate and compellingly human view of the conflicts of the last century.
Across the Border, meanwhile, presents five short films based on the loose theme implied by the title. It is again Kerekes who, along with the similarly minded Jan Gogola, steals the show. Gogola, whose Mythmaking was also shown at the weekend, presents a playful examination of the Czech Republic’s accession to the EU in the year the film was made. The director meets the various inhabitants of a border town, ranging from the mayor to a pole dancer, and impishly throws surprise questions at his subjects in order to elicit a more genuine reaction. Interviewing a maker of ‘European-style’ doors, for example, he asks for a demonstration of the ‘European style’ of door opening – wryly implying that the distinction between ‘European’ and ‘non-European’ is largely a mental construct. Elsewhere, Gogola plays a cross-border game of football, conducts an interview while ballroom dancing, and encourages his interlocutors to stand awkwardly on one of the hefty border markers while they converse. More than simply providing comedy, the director’s constant disruption of the typical roles of interviewer and interviewee forces these characters to drop their masks; the result is a refreshingly irreverent look at the grand themes of nation and identity.
Kerekes, meanwhile, focuses on the historical role of the Slovakian ‘helpers’, a euphemistic term for those who assisted the border guards by informing on anyone sneaking across the Iron Curtain. As in Cooking History, Kerekes takes the interesting step of encouraging his interviewees to reenact certain scenes from their past. They hardly need persuading, happily donning their old official armbands and engaging in nostalgic make-believe. Devastatingly, several of those he interviews show no remorse for their actions, instead even boasting about how they helped keep the border ‘safe’. Again, the process of reenactment is crucial in getting his interviewees to show their real personalities, and gives the film a surprising emotional edge.
The other shorts in Across the Border are more of a mixed bunch. Paweł Łoziński’s film depicts a Polish village close to the German border whose elderly inhabitants were, like many thousands of others, forcibly displaced from former eastern Poland after the Second World War. There are some extraordinary moments of dialogue, with the elderly residents talking candidly about the absurdity of their lives, but the film suffers from an absence of actual events.
Róbert Lakatos follows two Hungarians across the border into Austria on an ill-conceived business venture, and while his clownish protagonists provide plenty of cheap laughs, there is no real sense of any deeper issues at stake. BiljanaČakić-Veselićpresents a fascinating subject – a Slovenian fisherman forced to trawl an absurdly narrow stretch of sea because of inflexible EU legislation – but the segment feels far too long. As a project, then, Across the Border feels over-ambitious and under-defined – which is a shame, because if the directors had been given clearer instructions and a more unifying objective, the results could have been outstanding. Regardless, Kerekes and Gogola emerge from the weekend’s screenings as intriguing and innovative filmmakers to watch.
Cooking History and Across the Border were part of the Jihlava Film Festival, organised by the London Czech Centre (london.czechcentres.cz)