- The first feature film by Swiss director Christian Johannes Koch reveals the hidden underbelly of a seemingly perfect society
The 68th San Sebastian Film Festival – specifically the New Directors section - has seen young director Christian Johannes Koch present his first feature film Spagat [+see also:
interview: Christian Johannes Koch
film profile], which tackles the theme of illegal immigration from a rather original viewpoint. It’s a topic that has been explored by a number of Swiss directors (documentary-makers in particular) in recent times, but Koch’s film manages to reach beyond pure fact to blend fiction and social reality together in coherent and captivating fashion.
In the first instance, Spagat homes in on the seemingly quiet life of Marina, the film’s female protagonist (Rachel Braunschweig), only later exploring that of its male figure (Alexey Serebryakov) Artem, switching focus to the complexities of the latter’s daily existence. Without immediately revealing the underside of this illegal relationship and its unwholesome, everyday implications, Spagat gradually maps out the relationships between the various protagonists before finally offering up an overall picture of a situation that’s anything but ordinary.
The film could be summed up by one of the first phrases Artem utters to Marina: “have you told anybody about me?”. It’s a rhetorical question which can only elicit a negative response in the form of the “poetic” words: “I’ve told everyone that you’re my little secret”. Between them stands a wall which nothing and nobody can or should break down: on the one side, there’s freedom (Marina’s job, her husband and her teenage daughter) and on the other, there’s illegality (precarious employment, Artem’s gymnast daughter Ulyana and the former’s many secrets); two faces of the same coin which feed into one another but which never meet, because this is how things must be.
Until, that is, the day when the mask slips and the unhealthy side of Marina and Artem’s relationship is unveiled in all its grotesque glory. The trigger for this change in circumstances is Ulyana, who’s caught stealing from a shop in an attempt to prevent her father from stopping her from going to gym classes over suspicions that she has stolen (as suggested to him by Marina) her classmate’s pair of headphones. Her father tries to help her, but when the shop manager asks for their papers (which neither of them possess given their status as illegal Ukrainian immigrants) the situation spirals. Now on the run, without a job (Artem has seriously injured his shoulder) or a home, father and daughter are cast out from society. Discovering their predicament, Marina finds herself at a crossroads: should she help Artem and Ulyana and risk being discovered, or retreat within the confines of her comfortable life and try not to let her conscience get the better of her? The passion which has tied her to Artem up to that point starts to take on a somewhat guilty hue, turning their relationship into something entirely different: more complex, and frank. The constant play on the antithetical perspectives of the two protagonists lends the film a particularly interesting edge: on the one hand, viewers are encouraged to identify with Artem’s difficulties, but on the other, they’re perversely seduced by the reassuring alternative represented by Marina. What would we have done in her place? Between indignation and opportunism, Spagat forces us to put ourselves in the shoes of both, allowing us the freedom to make up our own minds. With its numerous long shots, the camera further underscores the impossibility for Artem to take possession of the space around him. But, as this film expertly demonstrates, even the shadows conceal rich and complex experiences which each of us must come to terms with sooner or later.
Spagat is produced and sold worldwide by CognitoFilms.
(Translated from Italian)
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