Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 9 
13 May

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Small town on the edge
Saša Đukić's Na svoji Vesni (On My Darling Vesna, 2002) and the Novo Mesto scene

Despite increasing international recognition, Slovene cinema has yet to have domestic box office success. Brian J Požun looks at a small town and a new film that could change all that.

With little more than 22,000 inhabitants, Novo Mesto exists at the edge of Slovenia. Almost half of Novo Mesto's residents are young people, with just seven percent over the age of 64. The town is the center of the Dolenjska region, which has proven to be an economic success story, despite local leaders' accusations that the government in the capital, Ljubljana, treats it like a stepchild.

Rail and road connections to Ljubljana are poor and for the most part, the region has been forgotten by the government. Nevertheless, Dolenjska is home to major businesses like Revoz, an auto maker associated with Renault, and Krka, a major player in the central European pharmaceutical industry.

Novo mesto
Novo mesto: A cultural centre on the periphery
While other regions bemoan the fact that political, economic and cultural capital in Slovenia is highly centralized in Ljubljana, Dolenjska has embarked on its own path. Just as the region has impressively developed its economy without Ljubljana's help, it has also quite unexpectedly developed its own vibrant cultural scene—not just in Novo Mesto, but also into smaller towns like Otočec and Konstanjevica na Krki.

Kinoeye spoke to Franci Kek, the head of the events-planning organization Festival Novo Mesto and organizer of the annual Rock Otočec music festival, who also co-produced, co-wrote and co-starred in Na svoji Vesni (On My Darling Vesna, 2002), a new film directed by Saša Đukić which recently played the Festival of Slovene Film in Portorož.

According to Kek, the success of the Novo Mesto scene is the result of a critical mass, which the city has not had in almost a century:

Throughout history, there are particular periods when certain towns have strong cultural activities. For Novo Mesto, the so-called Novo Mesto Spring in the 20s of the last century was significant. It is essential that certain people appear, who have in a particular period at least the minimal conditions to develop their ideas.
In the beginning... was Rock Otočec

Kek is credited with organizing the granddaddy of the Novo Mesto cultural scene: the annual Rock Otočec rock music festival. The festival was born in 1997—rather reborn, since there were Rock Otočec festivals in 1976 and 1983.

The site was Otočec, a small town of about 2000 people in the Dolenjska region which is famous for having the country's only castle on an island in a river. That first year, attendance at the festival nearly doubled the town's population.

Subsequent years have seen attendance skyrocket, and Rock Otočec keeps getting bigger and bigger. Although it maintains the name, the festival quickly outgrew its small town host. Today, it is Slovenia's biggest summer music festival, and is held on the grounds of the Novo Mesto airport. Last year's festival drew more than 10,000 people, many from abroad.

Though every year it features popular headliners like the American Henry Rollins Band and Slovene rock stars Siddharta, Rock Otočec is at heart a showcase for new bands. Each year, more than 100 bands compete in local contests all around the country—as well as in Croatia, Bosnia, Italy and Austria—and the best win a chance to play the festival.

The Novo Mesto scene

In 1998, just one year after the first Rock Otočec, the local Society of Students (DNŠ) revitalized the Novo Mesto scene in a more permanent, all-encompassing way. While most student societies around the country blow their budgets on one or two big annual events, the Novo Mesto DNŠ decided instead to launch three enterprises: a student services office, a coffee shop/bar called LokalPatriot and a bookstore/publishing house called Goga.

The innovative scheme has been nothing less than successful. All profits go back into the organization's activities, which have created a vibrant, year-round youth culture in Novo Mesto which could rival that of Ljubljana.

LokalPatriot offers a full schedule of performances, from readings to film screenings to DJ workshops to concerts of all sorts. The club encourages the local scene by giving locals pride of place, but not to the point that it closes itself off from the rest of the world; projects with artists from abroad ensure that new ideas are constantly arriving.

The club also runs three major projects: a small gallery called Simulaker, and two summer workshops, Jazzinty and Fotopub.

Goga, the publishing arm of the operation, primarily prints works by local writers, though it also does translations of international works and even releases recordings. Goga also publishes a monthly Novo Mesto-oriented magazine called Park which has around 1500 subscribers.

Much of the credit for the success of the cultural scene in Novo Mesto must go to the DNŠ. The group is at the center of everything, managing its own programs and, according to Kek, even helping out with Rock Otočec and film projects.

Cult film Mecca

Novo Mesto has a rich cinematic history, as Kek points out:

The history of cinema in Novo Mesto is quite long. Among filmmakers, the best known are Božidar Jakac before World War II, after the war Dušan Povh, and later Filip Robar-Dorin. Saša Đukić and I began making low budget films in 1995, which have become progressively bigger but remain low budget.

Saša Đukić's and Franci Kek's films are not only part of Novo Mesto's long cinematic tradition, but also part of the current cultural scene. Đukić and Kek first worked together on the 1995 short film Klinika (The Clinic), which was later broadcast on the local Vaš Kanal station in three-minute segments. The two also collaborated on the 1996 Spomini Mame Manke (Mama Manka's Memoirs) and the 1999 Milice (The Police). All three were shot in Novo Mesto and have attracted a strong cult following.

Thanks to the films, Mama Manka, an over-the-top absentminded hillbilly housewife has become a cult figure in Novo Mesto, along with the bumbling crime fighting duo of Officers Franci and Janez.

Lost in translation

Manka, Franci and Janez are among the main characters in Kek's and Đukić's latest film, Na svoji Vesni, which premiered at the Festival of Slovene Film on 5 April, and hit theaters throughout Slovenia on 25 April.

Kek told Kinoeye that the film's title does not lend itself easily to translation into English:

Vesna is a woman's name in Slovenia. Na svoji Vesni literally means to be on your woman. The title is also a combination of two famous Slovene films—Na svoji zemlji (On Our Land, 1948) and Vesna (1953). We also came upon it when we were not going to participate in the festival at Portorož, where they give out awards called Vesnas, and we said that we are on our very own Vesna award.

The English-language title On My Darling Vesna is a take off of the title of the old American song "Oh My Darling Clementine."

Organizers of the Festival of Slovene Film slotted Vesni at 9:00 am, and in protest, Đukić and Kek pulled the film from the festival. In the end, they agreed to let the film be shown, even though the time slot meant attendance would be low.

An unlikely hero

Vesni starts in the 16th century, with a shot of a billboard announcing "Rock Otočec—Just 420 More Years (153,405 days)." Wealthy Marjeta Turnograjska, on her deathbed, dictates her will to her scullery maid, Magdalena Žnidaršič. Marjeta leaves all of her earthly possessions to one person, but dies before she can tell Magdalena to whom. The scullery maid writes in her own name, and becomes the lady of the manor.

As the days to Rock Otočec count down, the story begins in the present day. Manka Žnidaršič is notified by the state that her ancestor Magdalena's castle and a map to a hidden treasure are being returned to her as part of denationalization.

Mama Manka spends the first half of the film trying to fetch her daughter Mankica from nursery school, where she has been for at least a decade, since Manka keeps forgetting to pick her up. At the end of the film Manka gives birth to a fifteen-year old boy when it finally occurs to her to go into labor.

Criminal mastermind Mehmed Džidžo Superman learns about Manka's map, but it turns out to be difficult to get it away from her. As he tries to steal Manka's treasure, Officers Franci and Janez are hot on his trail, accompanied by a rather small police dog named Reksi, who only answers to commands in German.

Realistically, this is not the film that will build on the recent international successes of such Slovene films as Kruh in mleko (Bread and Milk, Jan Cvitkovič, 2001), which won the Golden Lion of the Future at last year's Venice film festival, or the Slovene co-produced No Man's Land (Danis Tanović, 2001), which took home the Oscar for best foreign-language film earlier this year.

Just as realistically, however, this film could go a long way to improve the overall state of film in Slovenia.

No interest in local films

On 2 January 2002, the Ljubljana multiplex Kolosej sold its 1,000,000th ticket since its opening in May of 2001. Only one Slovene film made Kolosej's 2001 top ten list—No Man's Land, which is properly a Bosnian film, albeit with a significant Slovene contribution. Just under 30,000 saw the film by year's end, of the more than 650,000 who visited Kolosej in 2001.

Seven films either made in Slovenia or had Slovene co-producers were in local theatres in 2001. By the end of the year, total attendance for these films was little more than 80,000 in Ljubljana, and about 165,000 throughout the country.

If No Man's Land is removed from the count, the figures drop to about 53,000 in Ljubljana and 126,000 throughout the country. For the sake of comparison, more than 30,000 people saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone just in its opening weekend.

Only Zadnja večerja (Last Supper) was more successful than No Man's Land, with attendance in Ljubljana at just about 18,000, but with a national attendance of almost 63,000. Slovene film's prize pony of 2001, Kruh in mleko, managed to draw little more than 18,000 around the country, and just 9,000 in the capital.

The results of a poll the daily newspaper Delo published in early April clearly show how detached Slovenes are from their national cinema. Out of nearly 500 people, almost 400 said they had not seen a single domestic film all last year.

Almost one third of the respondents in that survey could not name a single Slovene film. For most people, the classics came to mind quickest: Jože Gale's Kekec was named by 29 percent, while the first Slovene film ever, France Štiglič's Na Svoji Zemlji, was named by 14 percent.

Among important recent films, Kruh in mleko was named by just 8.4 percent despite its significant international successes, and Janez Burger's V leru, Slovene cinema's first major success of the 1990s, was named by a mere 3.2 percent.

Writing in Mladina, film critic Marcel Štefančič Jr drew a short history of the local cinema's reception by the Slovene public. According to him, "the 1980s were a catastrophe for Slovene film." Films drew only a few thousand, sometimes even less. Things started to turn around in the 1990s, and when more 80,000 people went to see Andrej Košak's Outsider in 1997, things seemed to be looking up.

Attendance was high for later films, such as Janez Burger's V leru (Idle Running, 1999), Miha Hočevar's Jebiga (Fuck It, 2000) and Vojko Anželjec's Zadnja večerja (The Last Supper, 2001), but lately things have tapered off, and attendance at Slovene films never match that of blockbuster Hollywood spectacles.

Vesni: the savior of Slovene film?

Last year's attendance figures show that Slovenes are going to the movies, just not to Slovene ones. A glance at Kolosej's top five films of 2001 (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Bridget Jones's Diary, Pearl Harbor, American Pie 2, What Women Want) shows that—with the exception of Bridget Jones—big-budget Hollywood fare is in.

But even though the total budget of Na svoji Vesni was only about USD 35,000, the film is building on an already-established fan base and has pulled out all the stops to ensure it has something for everyone.

According to Kek,

Slovenes are primarily interested in good films. Certain Slovene films were seen by only about 1000 people (eg Hercog, Patriot). But the film Outsider was seen by 80,000.

So there is room for Slovene films to be successful, but unfortunately few know how to make that happen. Kek told Kinoeye that Vesni "is a populist film, made for a wide audience," which seems likely to draw local viewers in droves.

Aside from the film's ready-made cult following, Vesni is flooded with local references like a celluloid scrapbook of Novo Mesto and the wider Dolenjska region which will certainly appeal to the local Dolenjska audience.

The film is also packed with references which should draw interest from wider circles throughout the country. Both Miss Slovenia 2001 Rebeka Dremelj and former James Bond star Roger Moore appear, along with several Slovene celebrities and known personalities. Word of mouth already seems strong, and with the right marketing and publicity, this very well could be the film that reconnects Slovenes to their cinema.

Developing the local film scene

While Vesni is shaping up to be the most successful Novo Mesto film to date, locals are not resting on their laurels. From 18 to 22 August 2002, the city will host SNIFF, a new festival under the aegis of the DNŠ, which will feature short films from all over Europe, particularly student films.

Organizers are planning a full schedule of educational programs to accompany the films, including lectures and debates, and a three-day film making workshop called Fabrika (The Factory). The festival will be fully integrated into the schedules of the Jazzinty and Fotopub workshops as well as Goga's Summer Garden programs, which focus on art and literature.

Since SNIFF is focusing on short films, Vesni will not be shown. However, its presence will certainly be felt. The film and this new festival could well form the basis of a more varied and outward-looking independent film scene centered on Novo Mesto.

Learning from Novo Mesto

But for now, Na svoji Vesni is the center of attention in Novo Mesto. The film premiered there on 10 April, and will hit theatres around the country on 25 April. Kek described the premier:

In Novo Mesto, the premier was at a sports complex. Even that was too small. We had to show the film again at 22:45, so that those who were left without tickets for the 22:00 showing could see it. That night, the film was seen by 3500 people. Of those, I particularly saw a majority of students from Novo Mesto's elementary and high schools.

Miss Slovenia 2001 Rebeka Dremelj attended the premier, as did the mayor of Novo Mesto. According to Janja Prešeren of Mladina, "if the figures are correct, this was the most attended premier of a Slovene film of all time."

Even though it was only playing in Novo Mesto, more than 8000 people saw Vesni in its first week. With such a strong showing so far, perhaps the film also may have a bright future on the festival circuit, but Kek is indifferent:

For now, we are not thinking about festivals abroad. We just want to get as many people as possible into Slovene theatres.

Asked to comment on the role Kek sees for Vesni in Slovene cinema, he said that it will have "a positive one. Creative young people will see that it is also possible to make a film with little money, without the help of the national Film Fund."

Ljubljana and Maribor are home to Slovenia's two universities; plans are pushing forward for a third on the coast, either in Koper or in Nova Gorica. Locals would like to see a fourth university in Dolenjska, though with just under two million people in the entire country, there just does not seem to be a need. On the other hand, clearly the people of Dolenjska have something to teach the rest of Slovenia.

Kek is proud of his town's achievements:

Novo Mesto has the largest Slovene rock festival, Rock Otočec, which is also the largest in the former Yugoslav region. Ljubljana is the emphasis of regional development and clubbing as well—it is difficult for those who are not from Ljubljana to get governmental financial resources. We made our film without the support of the [governmental] Film Fund of the Republic of Slovenia, with only our own capital and the capital of sponsors. Besides us (Festival Novo Mesto—the organizer of Rock Otočec, the producer of the films) a very important factor was the DNŠ which has a financial base (thanks to its student services, the bar LokalPatriot and Goga) which allows it to carry out quality projects (such as Jazzinty, Fotopub, and now SNIFF).

By breaking away from the usual ways things are done in Ljubljana, Novo Mesto has managed to create its own, second, Novo Mesto Spring. Towns across the country—and even abroad—would do well to study Novo Mesto's example.

Brian J Požun

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About the author

Brian J Požun writes for Ljubljana Life. He is the author of "Slovenia" in the 2001 and forthcoming 2002 editions of Freedom House's Nations in Transit annual report and Shedding the Balkan Skin: Slovenia's quiet emergence in the new Europe.

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