Docu-friendly fests should extend a welcoming hand.

At the end of WWII, an ethnically Hungarian village in eastern Slovakia was randomly split in two, dividing families and property. Jaroslav Vojtek’s moving docu “The Border” reveals the pain caused by this illogical rupture, demonstrating how today’s political expediency is hardly superior to yesterday’s Cold War gerrymandering. Though the film tends to cover the same ground more than once, especially in its weaker midsection, it makes clear the wrenching emotional toll. Docu-friendly fests should extend a welcoming hand.

When the Soviets barreled across Central Europe, they cut the village of Slemence in two: Velka Slemence became part of Czechoslovakia, while Male Slemence was claimed by the Soviet Union (now Ukraine). Overnight, villagers discovered they could no longer go to their church, see their grandparents or tend to their fields.

For decades, residents shouted news across the border or disguised messages in lyrics sung over the barbed wire. Those with means in Velka Slemence could drive 95 miles to apply for a visa, cross over and then drive back another 95 miles along the border to Male Slemence. But this was a rare occurrence.

Vojtek began filming the situation in 2001, on the 55th anniversary of division, when teary townspeople from both sides marked the date by congregating along no-man’s-land to shout greetings and family news. When Slovakia became part of the EU, the populace hoped the unnatural border would become permeable. But Ukrainians still need visas, and Slovakians from other regions flood across Slemence’s tiny crossing to purchase cheap vodka and cigarettes. The hoped-for reunification remains a pipe dream.

When Vojtek became interested in the town, he brought onboard a co-scripter, Marek Lescak (“Blind Loves”), and the two chose which people to follow over the long seven-year shoot. Tighter editing could have developed themes rather than simply relying on chronology to do the trick, but the situation is powerful enough to sweep viewers up into the tragedy.

One underdeveloped angle is the ethnic one: Slemence was a Hungarian enclave trapped between two distinct linguistic identities, and the tensions that have arisen deserve some discussion. Tech credits are strong.

The Border

Slovakia

Production

A Leon Prods. production. Produced by Mario Homolka, David Corba. Directed by Jaroslav Vojtek. Written by Vojtek, Marek Lescak.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Tomas Stanek, Vojtek; editors, Maros Slapeta, Zuzana Cseplo; music, Peter Groll; sound (Dolby Stereo), Vojtek, Tobias Potocny, Marek Lacena. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (Spectrum), Feb. 1, 2010. Running time: 75 MIN. (Hungarian, Slovak dialogue)
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