Built around the innocently luminous face of Maria Varga, Csaba Bollok's drama Iska's Journey often has the weight of a painful, heartbreaking documentary. While some of the last act scripting tends to mar the earlier authenticity, it is still powerful enough to justify its Berlin selection in the new Generations section.
Shot in Romania's lower Carpats, a mining region, the story follows Iska (Varga), a young girl in her early teens who endures brutalities, from being beaten in the first sequence by her mother and ending, in the last, on a ship taking her to be sold abroad as a prostitute. As such it could easily serve as the prelude to any modern slavery saga, be it Moodysson's Lilya4Ever or Amos Gitai's Promised Land.
Not easy to watch, it is bound to be in high demand from festivals, especially human rights events, and will naturally fill similar slots on TV around the world. It won the prize for best 'art' film at Hungarian Film Week, as well as that for best editing, before reaching Berlin.
The film has no real plot, opening with children salvaging scrap for money, then being chased away with mere pennies. In this soot-covered corner of the world, in which the air is as foul as the water and tuberculosis is an almost natural condition of life, Iska lives with her alcoholic mother, her sickly younger sister, Rozsika (Varga's sister in real life), and her drunken temporary father.
At a certain point, she and her sister are taken into a youth shelter where she is treated as a human, although it is obvious that kids there will eventually be offered for adoption to foreigners. Iska's mother, however, demands to have her daughter back - she needs her to provide for the family - leaving Rozsika behind.
Soon Iska hits the road again with a boy she met in the shelter, but before she leaves, has to go back and say goodbye to her sister. Eventually she is ultimately picked up, despite her boy-like appearance, by pimps and shipped abroad to be sold to the highest bidder.
Using documentary techniques, amateur cast and handheld cameras, Bollok never pinpoints the location of his story or his characters' identity. This is an existential portrait of a wrenching human condition, with universal application.
With the camera nosing its way into every corner and disjointed montage unworried about details like continuity and narrative smoothness, Bollok's picture has a strong sense of unruly realism.
Varga, on camera practically all of the time, has an unconcerned spontaneous conduct essential to keeping the film together, despite everything inflicted on her.