Made in Ash (Az do mesta As): London Film Festival Review

Gritty docu-drama from Central Europe

The potential Oscar contender paints a bleak picture of economic migration and sexual exploitation.

Slovakia’s official Oscar entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category is a raw docu-drama about the impact of recession economics on the sex trade between Eastern and Western Europe. The young writer-director Iveta Grofova’s arresting debut feature is not the first film on this topic, and unlikely to be the last, but it makes impressive use of its tight budget and limited resources.

Screened at the London Film Festival, Made In Ash is very much a festival film, austere in style and bracingly downbeat in subject. Its appeal to mainstream audiences will be limited, but the Academy Awards connection may stir curiosity among fans of old-school social-realist Euro-gloom. Further festival slots seem likely, with specialist theatrical exposure possible.

The film was shot in the town of As (aka Asch) in the north-western corner of the Czech Republic, close to Germany. The sharp economic disparities between the two countries are starkly illustrated by hordes of older male German tourists crossing the border in search of cheap young female sex workers from Central and Eastern Europe.

Leading a cast of non-professional actors, most of them essentially playing themselves, Dorotka Billa stars as Dorotka, an 18-year-old Roma girl who travels westward from impoverished Slovakia in search of well-paid work. Her destination is a textile factory in Asch. But times are tough, work scarce and job security fragile. To make matters worse, her long-distance telephone relationship with her boyfriend back home is falling apart.

Before long, sensitive Dorotka and her more extrovert room-mate Silvia (Silvia Halusicova) are penniless, unemployed and homeless. With Silvia acting as her pimp, Dorotka reluctantly begins to dabble in prostitution, pole-dancing and liaisons with sleazy older men from across the border. Some, like Johann (Robin Schmidt), are even looking for brides to take home with them to Germany. To Grofova’s credit, Johann is not portrayed as a monstrous sexual predator, merely as one of the narrow range of financial escape routes open to girls like Dorotka.

Drawing partly on her own adolescent experience working in the same textile factory that features in the film, Grofova tells a familiar story in no-frills style, but still manages to imbue it with gritty authenticity and flashes of visual poetry. Several sequences incorporate shaky bursts of smartphone footage, while Grofova conveys something of the introverted Dorotka’s inner life via clever animated interludes that bring her amateurish teenage doodles to life.

Light on incident, a little incoherent in places, and not exactly original in style or substance, Made in Ash certainly feels like a first film. But Grofova is clearly a serious new talent, whether or not she brings home an Oscar in February.

Venue: London Film Festival screening, October 21

Production companies: Protos Productions, Endorfilm, Punkchart Films, Ceska Televise, RTVS, Atelier.doc, Partizanfilm, Hulapa Film

Producers: Barbara Kipsova, Kiri Konecny, Ivan Ostrochovsky

Cast: Dorota Billa, Silvia Halusicova, Robin Schmidt, Jarka Bucincova

Director: Iveta Grofova

Writers: Iveta Grofova, Marek Lescak

Cinematographer: Viera Backikova

Editor: Maros Slapeta

Music: Matej Hlavac

Rating TBC, 84 minutes

Sales Agent: Endorfilm,