Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 1
 Issue 5 
29 Oct

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Early 20th-century synagogue in Bitola (photo: Slavko Mangov)MACEDONIA
The buzz
of seeing

The 22nd Manaki Brothers International Film Camera Festival

There have been few real visual innovations in film recently. Despite this, the world's oldest cinematography festival had a renewed energy this year. Igor Pop Trajkov was there.

The oldest festival of cinematography in the world, the Manaki Brothers International Film Camera Festival in Bitola, reached its 22nd edition this year. Its long tradition started in the time of former Yugoslavia, when it operated as a festival of Yugoslav cinematography. Following Macedonia's declaration of independencein 1991, the event was transformed into an international festival organized by the Macedonian Film Professionals Association and sponsored by the government of the Republic of Macedonia.

It was established in honour of the first cameramen in the Balkans, the brothers Milton and Janaki Manaki, who shot the first documentary in 1905 with their famous Camera 300. The Manaki Brothers themselves represent quite a phenomenon, since a decade after the first film screening in Paris in 1895, they brought the new technique to the Balkans, and were able to shoot a number of historic events.

It all began in 1905 in Bitola, when they opened the hugely popular Studio of Art Photography. In 1906, they took part in the Big World Exibition in Sinaia, Romania, where they won a gold medal for their photographic collection and later received the title of court photographers to Carol I of Romania. The older brother, Janaki, was also paid to visit several European capitals and record his journey; this lead to him visiting London and seeing a film camera for the first time.

He later returned to London and bought a Bioscope camera from the Charles Urban Trading Co—the 300th camera in its series. With that camera, the Manaki brothers shot some significant film documents of their time, such as The Visit of Sultan Mehmed the 5th Rashid to Salonika and Bitola, The Celebration of the Religious Festival Epiphany and The Visit of Prince Aleksander to Bitola, to name but a few.

The political view

Such film documents show that, at the turn of the century, Bitola was an important centre in the economic, political, social and cultural life of the Balkans with a rich multi-cultural heritage.

This rich past activity, and its contrast to the present, poses the question of where Macedonia, Bitola and the festival are on the map of Europe today. Perhaps hoping for an answer to this question, many people turned up to hear one a "pan-European meeting" with Walter Lerouge, a representative of the Belgian government, of the European Commission-sponsored international co-production fund Eurimages, and also of Eureka-Audiovisual, the European know-how fund for accessing audio-visual markets. The pan-European label should not be so surprising, given that the festival had adopted a quote by Jean Cocteau on the general issues of festivals: "The festival is an apolitical no-man's land, a microcosm of what the world would be like if people could contact each other directly and speak the same language."

This apolitical approach, however, is something Lerouge chose to ignore during his workshops, and the first thing he did in his course of master classes was to switch his discourse to issues of a political nature, producing some maps that showed states hued in different colours. As he was using the language of diplomacy, he delivered his speech in a very convoluted and indirect manner. No one was really certain as to what he actually wanted to say.

However, it was apparent that he considers himself to be a politician at a European level, and, as such, the unification of Europe is his primary objective. As someone who is heavily involved in deciding which co-productions get European-level funding, one had to wonder whether there might not be a danger of the position being used politically. Many were asking if Lerouge had a vested interest in promoting films that support the pan-European idea.

Lerouge also said that a number of schools are to be set up in eastern Europe to train people to write film screenplays—which offended nearly everybody in the audience, as some of the best film screenplay schools in Europe are actually located in the former Communist bloc. Still, maybe we cannot blame Lerouge, who operates in the world of Brussels politics rather than in creative film work, for not knowing that. But it is also easy to see why some film-makers feel intimidated by the political nature of centralised European film funding bodies, which they feel favors larger countries, such as France and Germany.

Few visual visionaries

Bearing in mind the annual production of European and non-European films is currently in a state of lethargy, curator Blagoja Kunovski had a difficult task to perform in selecting films which would match the occasion—films with sound cinematic value. Since, apart from the new digital possibilities, there is nothing truly novel happening in the cinematographic sphere, most of the selected films relied on predominantly traditional professional values, whereas the films which were inspired by the Dogme manifesto had nothing new to offer from a visual point of view.

Andrei Nekrasov, Liubov i drugiie koshmary (Liubov and Other Nightmares, 2001)
Skillfully mixed photography
It seems that the most visually inventive films were: Lovely Rita (2001) directed by Jessica Hausner, with Martin Gschlacht as director of photography; Philip Gröning's L'amour, l'argent, l'amour (2000) with cinematography by Sophie Maintingnieux, Max Jonathan Silberstein and André Bonzel; and Liubov i drugiie koshmary (Liubov and Other Nightmares, 2001) directed by Andrei Nekrasov and with Anatoli Lapsov, Michael Gobel and Victor Zubarev behind the camera.

Lovely Rita featured striking and innovative photography with genuine use of zoom as a means of emphasising elements of the plot, a claustrophobic story of an adolescent who deviates from the true path. Lighting was expressively used to flesh out the psychology of the characters, most notably during the close-ups of the main protagonist in the scene in which she shoots her father. The length of shots was used in an original way to induce a feeling of irony, so the young segment of the audience at Bitola reacted very energetically to the author's approach.

Traditionally, the Manaki Brothers festival focuses on cinema productions with considerable creative potential prior to their popular success. This is also the case whith. L'amour, l'argent, l'amour, awarded the Silver Camera 300, in which the photography directors managed to achieve an excellent use of mobile camera with luxurious deployment of hues, giving the film, which is an extraordinary version of Bonnie and Clyde, a young and fresh feel. In Liubov i drugie koshmari, which won a special jury award, the photography directors skillfully intertwined the traditional film photography of the Russian school (the exemplar of which is the approach of Tarkovsky) with modernist techniques and a voyeuristic screenplay.

The Golden Camera 300 went to Last Resort (2001)—directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, with Ryszard Lenczewski as the director of photography—which was shot in the best style of the Polish school, where the composition and the light speak louder than the color and where precision and sublimated visual expression are the greatest virtues. Several shots, done in a traditional manner with a shaking camera, were aimed at pinpointing the lack of confidence on the part of the main female character and her condition as a fugitive.

Walter Vanden Ende, director of photography for Dennis Tanović's Bronze Camera 300-winning film No Man's Land (2001), showed that he is a great master of photography who can adapt his style to the needs of the director and the requirements of the film. Pierre Salvadori's Les Merchands de Sable ( The Sandmen / Sand Merchants, 2000), which employed Gilles Henry as director of photography, showed that the current trend in French film continues to be shooting in a retro style and predominantly in "baby blue."

A high-energy event

Miroslav Ondricek (photo: Slavko Mangov)
Miroslav Ondříček in Bitola
The main thing that made the film festival impressive was its positive energy; the fact that there were no unscrupulous pursuits of better ratings and awards typical of such festivals and no confrontational film-makers. Even so, this year's festival was generally thought to be much better than previous years'. The atmosphere was helped by a young and outgoing audience and an original and upbeat opening ceremony, while, from the technical angle, one of the most noticeable improvements has been in the quality of the cinema hall itself, which for this year was re-equiped with better lighting and sound.

Also helping the festival buzz were the guests. There were two very good workshops given by Garry Gravery (on Orson Wells) and Charlie Van Dam (on the significance of light effects in film photography). Meanwhile, the presence of Miroslav Ondříček (famous for his work with Miloš Forman and Lindsay Anderson) to pick up a life achievement award (given jointly to Henri Alekan, who received it posthumously) and the unexpected arrival of Thierry Arbogast (director of photography for Nikita, Leon and The Fifth Element) gave the entire event a glamorous image.

Although there were a few organizational flaws, as in any festival, this year's Manaki Brothers festival offered nothing less than many larger festivals with far more sizeable budgets. The general opinion among festival-goers was that the new directors—Gorjan Tozija and his younger colleagues Vladimir Anastasov and Tony Salkovski—should take the credit for the renewed energy of this unique festival.

Igor Pop Trajkov

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Photo credits: Slavko Mangov

About the author

Igor Pop Trajkov is a critic and film director based in Skopje. His articles have appeared in Macedonian publications such as Puls, Ekran and Dnevnik, the latter of which he now writes a weekly film column for, and his films include shorts, documentary work and advertising.

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