Growing Up, East of Europe

Masha Shpolberg on three festival films from Russia, Turkey, and Romania.

Growing Up, East of Europe

IT’S HARD TO MISS the similarities between Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation (2016) and his breakout film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007). Both films focus on a single protagonist engaged in an all-consuming quest on someone else’s behalf. Each unfolds over a very short time period — one day, in the case of 4 Months; three days, in the case of Graduation. Each film either begins or concludes with a moment of sexual violence against women. And both are defined cinematographically by tight framing and long takes, the sense of urgency and paranoia that have become synonymous with Mungiu’s style. The vision they advance is that of the world as a cruel place where violence simmers under the surface of everyday life. The similarities between the two films — one set in 1987, the other in 2015 — led many reviewers to conclude that Graduation was Mungiu’s attempt to point out how little has changed in Romania in the 25 years since the fall of the Ceaușescu regime. But Graduation is also a meditation on the shifting line between East and West and a first attempt to sketch out the existential situation of the post-1989 generation: those born and raised entirely after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Three Worlds system.

Where 4 Months centered on two friends, Graduation focuses on an intergenerational father-daughter duo. Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a highly respected doctor in Cluj, bent on ensuring that his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Drăguș) is able to emigrate to the West. Having come of age before the fall of communism, Romeo conceptualizes the world in terms of a clear East/West divide. Halfway into Graduation, Romeo finds himself chatting with his old friend, the police inspector (Vlad Ivanov), at the top of a mountain ski resort just outside the city. The two middle-aged men look westward and reminisce about going up the mountain in their youth. “The view this way doesn’t look as good anymore,” the police inspector says. “Yes, the trees have gotten too high, you can’t see past them,” Romeo retorts. His willful interpretation of the inspector’s critique of “the West” in the most literal manner possible is consistent with his idealism: his idea that “over there” things work differently — that state institutions are less corrupt, that individuals are promoted based on their merit and not their family’s connections. Eventually, we learn that Romeo and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar) had emigrated to the West in the 1980s but returned when the Ceaușescu regime fell in the hopes that they could help build a better, more honest Romania. It is no surprise, then, that Romeo’s utopian vision of the West feels antiquated, frozen in time: it belongs to an older political framework.

Eliza’s sense of her place in the geopolitical scheme of things is never fully articulated (presumably, because Mungiu himself is closer in age and sensibility to Romeo). She certainly belongs to the more global Generation Z, a generation defined simultaneously by increasing cultural homogeneity across borders and the revalorization of the local that homogeneity has inspired. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Eliza feels deeply ambivalent about the possibility of emigration. She appears skeptical of her father’s beliefs and reluctant to live out the life he has planned for her. The film concludes with Eliza asserting her right to decide — for herself — whether she stays or goes.

Although the film portrays certain parent-child dynamics that are universal, one wonders to what extent Eliza’s resistance is informed by recent shifts in Europe’s political geography. For a film that explicitly addresses the dream of the West and the problem of the Eastern European brain drain, it is surprising that the European Union is never mentioned. After all, Romania, together with Bulgaria, joined the EU in 2007, when Eliza’s character would have been only 10 years old. The only indication of the EU’s presence in the film, however, is a basic plot point: Eliza needs to take the state-wide exam entitled, like the French one, baccalauréat, to receive her high school diploma because that is the European standard. Shouldn’t other administrative reforms, the greater oversight demanded by the European community, have wrought greater changes in the intervening years? Mungiu speaks through this omission about a fact that is loudly discussed in many Eastern (and not so Eastern) European kitchens: the twilight of the European project.


At first glance, Graduation might not have much in common with Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang (2015) and Kirill Serebrennikov’s The Student (2016), two other films from “the East” that have done remarkably well on the festival circuit. The films come from Romania, Turkey, and Russia — countries with vastly different histories. Yet all three attest to the darkening of the skies over the Western horizon and the resurgence of archaic forces that these countries believed to have left behind in their 20th-century efforts to secularize, modernize, equalize. If in Graduation these forces are nepotism and corruption — along with the sense that Romanian society is a morass impervious to progress — the situation presented in Mustang and The Student is far more dire. Both films portray the revival of religious fundamentalism in their respective countries with all the familiar, dreadful repercussions for women, gay and transgender people, and so-called “freethinkers.”

In all three films, the generation gap is the principal narrative device through which these resurgent forces emerge. Like lab specimens on specially prepared slides, the films’ teenagers are caught between two advancing panes of glass: increasing skepticism toward the Western liberal project on the one hand, and the threat of regression into religious or nationalist dogma on the other. The films struggle to balance a sociological impulse with an accusatory tone as they set about interrogating the failure of their respective states to make good on the promise of that emancipatory moment, back in 1989: “Where are we 25 years later?” they ask. “Why the stagnation across the board? Why the radical turn to the right?”

Mustang, now available on Netflix, focuses on five orphaned sisters who go to live with their traditional grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) and uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) in a village in Eastern Turkey. The girls are spotted playing on the beach with some boys, and rumors begin to circulate. From that day on, the girls are no longer allowed to return to school and find themselves increasingly imprisoned inside the house. They must shed their jeans and tennis shoes for long, modest dresses, and spend their days learning the finer domestic arts. After the girls run away to attend a soccer match, their grandmother begins to marry them off one by one. With the oldest two sisters out of the house, it becomes apparent that the uncle is sexually abusing the middle sister, Ece (Elit İşcan), at night, and has, perhaps, abused the others. In the end, only the younger two sisters manage to escape — westward — to Istanbul.

The Russian film, The Student, serves as a rejoinder to Mustang, highlighting the power men stand to gain at the expense of subalterns. Given that the screenplay is based on a German play (Marius von Mayenburg’s Märtyrer), the film is appropriately set in Kaliningrad, formerly a German city known as Königsberg. That the city was also home to Immanuel Kant makes it the perfect stage for a battle between religious fundamentalism, incarnated by teenager Veniamin Yuzhin (Pyotr Skvortsov) and Enlightenment reason, performed by his Jewish-born, atheist biology teacher, Elena Krasnova (Viktoriya Isakova). Having read and seemingly memorized the entirety of the New Testament, Venya, as he is more commonly called, sets out on a crusade against what he sees as the moral decadence of his school. He exasperates his female classmates with his admonitions that they dress and behave more modestly, and his teachers with lengthy quotations from the Bible that contradict their curricula, from the theory of evolution to the Industrial Revolution. He does not even spare institutionalized religion, informing the school’s priest, Father Vsevolod (Nikolay Roshchin), that he is nothing but a venal phony, more interested in gold than in God. It is not long before he has the largely female school administration giving in to his demands. Venya’s most admirable foe and the only adult in the film who refuses to bend to his will, proves to be the biology teacher; his only supporter is a gay classmate named Grisha (Aleksandr Gorchilin), who is madly in love with him. The film concludes with a homicidal explosion of anti-Semitism and homophobia the likes of which have never before been seen in a Russian film.

In addition to directing films, Serebrennikov is also a prominent theater director in Russia. The Gogol Center, his Moscow theater, is known as a bastion of artistic freedom and liberal values. At the end of August 2017, just over a year after The Student premiered at Cannes, Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest in what was widely perceived to be government payback for his theater’s progressive agenda. (He was charged with embezzlement of government funds.) Serebrennikov’s biography leaves no doubt about his own ethical and political commitments, and reviews of the film over the past year — overwhelmingly positive — did not fail to connect the story to Putin’s reintroduction of compulsory religious education into Russian public schools three years prior. Still, viewers might wonder why the director decided to give so much screen time to a reactionary and hateful position. Doubtless, Serebrennikov wanted to show how seductive religious fundamentalism can be, as well as how weak liberal institutions are against its onslaught. But he has succeeded all too well. Despite the horrific acts he commits, Venya’s energy, focus, and — dare I say, chutzpah — make him a far more compelling character than his materialistic and sex-crazed classmates, the conciliatory administrators, or the increasingly (and I wince as I write this) hysterical biology teacher. Like all coming-of-age stories since time immemorial, from Fanny Burney’s Evelina through J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist’s initiation into adulthood becomes an occasion for social critique; his or her (real or self-proclaimed) innocence becomes a device for revealing society’s hypocrisy. 

Graduation and Mustang, though far more straightforward, work in a similar way. Their young, female characters are the victims of violence rather than its perpetrators; their confrontation with adult society might be something that happens to them rather than something that they actively provoke, the way Venya does. But the confrontation still takes place, and it is inevitably violent. All of the films’ teenagers live with the constant threat of rape. Eliza is nearly raped, but manages to fight off her aggressor in the episode that sets off the chain of events in Graduation. In Mustang, the sisters must either submit to sex with a complete stranger when they are married off, or else suffer their uncle’s nighttime intrusions. [1] Finally, in The Student, we find not one but three instances of sexual violence. First, Venya himself is sexually aggressed by one of the girls he’s been taunting in school. Then, he falsely accuses the biology teacher of having touched him inappropriately in order to have her fired. In the end, Venya eventually catches on to the fact that his only “disciple” is sexually attracted to him, and flies into a violent rage. (“The student” is a poor translation of the Russian title, which is a pun on the words “disciple” and “martyr.”)

In this climate, where sex is brutal and virginity sacred, adults prove absent or ineffectual guides for the films’ pubescent figures. The idea of “bad parenting” then presents itself as a kind of accusatory metaphor for the failure of one generation — the one that lived through 1989 as adults — to construct a safer, gentler, and more stable world for their children. It is hard to determine, however, just how big of a claim each of these films wants to make about the society it is portraying. All three seem to be equally invested in conveying the texture of everyday life while reviving some of the least modern genres, those least amenable to realism: Graduation is a morality tale; Mustang, with its five princesses who must escape an evil ogre, a fairy tale; and The Student — that most Biblical of all genres, a parable. This formal choice might appear strange at first. Why choose genres defined by their very universality to tell stories that trade in historic and cultural particularity? Morality tales, fairy tales, and parables are, of course, known as instructional genres. More than that, however, all three are involved in the process of transmission, in the passing down of wisdom from one generation to the next. What better choice, then, to comment ironically on the intergenerational breakdown at the heart of all three films?


If the generation that lived through 1989 as adults failed their biological children, so, too, Graduation implies, did the European Union fail its adoptive children — the most recent, Eastern European members. In this latter case, however, it was not a failure to provide something (more stable institutions, a stronger economy), so much as a failure to hold these countries accountable, to set up rules and boundaries that would help them overcome their “bad habits.” Consequently, the films demonstrate that the East/West divide persists both within the European Union, and beyond its borders.

Even if “Europe” has lost much of its luster, the “West” as a whole still remains an internal reference point, an organizing principle. These films address a Western audience, as any film hoping to attract critical attention on the festival circuit does. Tellingly, too, the characters all still speak from a position clearly identified as lying outside of the West. In Graduation, Romeo’s home, though situated in a communist building block, is filled with antiques that recall the time when Romania was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and thus more a part of Europe). The soundtrack — all exclusively diegetic, coming from Romeo’s CDs or the radio — prominently features Handel. The “West” remains aspirational, something that has to do with a sense of harmony and peace, something that may be approached through art but that is still an “elsewhere.” Mustang and The Student, in turn, emphasize their position at the border of Europe. The seaside locations (the first takes place by the Black Sea, the latter by the Baltic Sea) already suggest a kind of liminality, which the dual identity of Istanbul/Constantinople and Kaliningrad/Königsburg further reinforces. [2] In The Student, the West is associated with the “cosmopolitan” (the old Stalinist code word for “Jewish”) teacher and her values: the power of reason, the equality of men and women, the importance of the division between church and state. In Mustang, the viewer finally lets out a sigh of relief, knowing the girls “have made it” only when we see them cross the Bosphorus, from the Asian to the European part of Istanbul.

The inevitable question the protagonists face is not, however, “Should I stay or should I go?” as it once was, but “Can I even get out?” The mobile camerawork reinforces the characters’ sense of frustration as they rove around highly contained spaces, be they a city (Graduation), a single home (Mustang), or a school (The Student). The sense of claustrophobia that emerges makes the viewers yearn for an Outside, but its existence is increasingly under question. The difficulty for these teens, we come to understand, lies both in disentangling themselves from the forces holding them back and a lack of faith in the destination.

Despite their structural and stylistic similarities, each of these films responds to the challenge differently. Mustang, perhaps because it was made by a director who herself grew up “outside,” in France, is (literally) the sunniest: not only do the two younger sisters make it to Istanbul, but we also do not worry about the fate that awaits them in the city. The girls are miraculously able to locate a “good fairy,” their former teacher, who welcomes them in with open arms. The Student, with its reappropriation of a German play, strongly implies that there is no Outside, that the forces of nationalism and religious fundamentalism that it depicts are latent in every society and may emerge at any moment. In Russia, perhaps, it has simply happened sooner or more easily. The film beseeches its viewers not to give up, to follow the biology teacher’s example as, in the final scene, she nails her shoes to the floor, proclaiming her right to stay in the school and, by extension, in present-day Russia. The attitude of Graduation is, perhaps, the most ambivalent. We understand perfectly why Romeo goes to such lengths to get his daughter to the United Kingdom, and we also admire her desire to stay. Graduation suggests that some dreams — even outdated ones — are simply too hard to give up on.


I would like to thank Marijeta Božović for suggesting “bad parenting” as a playful term for the intergenerational dynamic here, and Victoria Baena for helping me think through the role of genre in these films.


Masha Shpolberg is a PhD Candidate in the joint Comparative Literature and Film & Media Studies Program at Yale University. Her work focuses on Eastern European cinema and the evolution of documentary film form.


[1] It should be noted that the film does offer two alternatives: one of the sisters manages to convince the family to marry her off to the boyfriend she loves, and Ece, before committing suicide, finds a (questionable) way to rebel and take charge of her body by inviting an unknown young man to have sex with her in the car while her uncle runs some errands.

[2] Recent Russian cinema in general seems to be quite interested in the question of provincial youth. Two other recent, successful films addressing this topic have taken place far away from Moscow: Nigina Saifullaeva’s Name Me in the Crimea (the film came out just before Russia annexed the peninsula), and Natalia Meshchaninova’s The Hope Factory in the industrial city of Norilsk, located in the Far North, above the Arctic circle. Both scripts were written by Liubov’ Mul’menko. The films came out in 2014.

LARB Contributor

Masha Shpolberg is a PhD Candidate in the joint Comparative Literature and Film & Media Studies Program at Yale University. Her work focuses on Eastern European cinema and the evolution of documentary film form.


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