Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 19 
2 Dec

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Juraj Jakubisko, photographed at the 2001 Bratislava Film FestivalConserving the Rusyn flower in the bouquet of Europe
Juraj Jakubisko's Farebné kamienky (Painted Pebbles, 2002)

Jakubisko for the first time explores his Carpatho-Rusyn identity in this EU-sponsored documentary promoting tolerance. However, the film avoids examining the material circumstances and aspirations of the Rusyns, as Brian J Požun reports.

Director Juraj Jakubisko's latest work, a twenty-minute documentary called Farebné kamienky (Painted Pebbles), premiered on Slovak television on 12 August 2002. Last year, a poll declared Jakubisko the most popular Slovak director of all time. However, Jakubisko, a Greek Catholic born in the village of Kojšov, is also a Carpatho-Rusyn.

In numerous interviews surrounding this film, Jakubisko said again and again that Farebné kamienky is an attempt to connect with his roots and at the same time to raise awareness of minority issues and to promote tolerance within Slovakia.

An acclaimed career

Juraj Jakubisko began his career in 1960 at the renowned the Prague Film and Television Academy of the Performing Arts (FAMU). His first film, Kristove roky (Crucial Years, 1967), was about a Slovak surviving in Prague. It took home an award at the Mannheim Festival, but it was banned in then-Communist Czechoslovakia for four years.

His next features, Zbehovia a pútnici (The Deserter and the Nomads, 1968) and Vtačkovia, siroty a blazni (Little Birds, Orphans, Fools, 1969) , were also banned, and after Dovidenia v pekle priatelia (See You in Hell, Friends, 1970) the authorities evidently tired of banning Jakubisko films on an individual basis and instead totally prevented the director from working in features for nearly ten years, until 1979, when he was able to start on Postav dom, zasad strom (Build a House, Plant a Tree, 1980) . In the intervening period, he concentrated on short films and commercials.

His most recent films are Nejasná zpráva o konci sveta (An Ambiguous Report about the End of the World, 1997), which he directed, and Kytice (Wild Flowers, 2000), which he produced but did not direct. Perhaps, his most important film is the internationally successful Tisícrocná vcela (A Thousand-year-old Bee, 1983), which was voted the favorite Slovak film of all time, according to a survey conducted this year by the Slovak Film Fund, the Foundation for High Culture and Public Opinion and the Institute of Public Issues.

Slovakia's Rusyns

Juraj Jakubisko's Farebne kamienky (Painted Pebbles, 2002)Farebné kamienky looks at the Carpatho-Rusyns, who have lived on the slopes of the Carpathian mountains since the Slavic migrations of the sixth century AD. Their territory fell within Hungary until the First World War, when much of it was joined to Czechoslovakia as the ostensibly autonomous province of Podkarpatska Rus, or Ruthenia. Not all of the Rusyns ended up within the borders of Ruthenia, which was annexed to Soviet Ukraine in 1945, and so today there are Rusyn minorities in many central European countries, including Slovakia.

Beginning in the 1950s, Rusyns were officially considered to be either Ukrainians or a branch of the Ukrainian nation. The politically-motivated move virtually extinguished the Rusyn identity throughout Soviet-dominated central Europe (only in non-aligned Yugoslavia did the Rusyn identity flourish) until 1989 and the fall of Communism. In Slovakia today, the Rusyns are generally considered a fully separate nation from the Ukrainians, though nearly fifty years of Ukrainization has left much confusion.

In 1991, the Slovak government allowed people to declare themselves Rusyns on the census for the first time in decades, and almost 17,000 did so. The 2001 census saw the number of Rusyns spike to 24,201. Nearly 55,000 people recorded Rusyn as their mother tongue in both 1991 and 2001.

In 1995, the Rusyns of Slovakia codified their language and it is currently taught in schools and used in the media. They live primarily in the eastern part of the country, centered on Slovakia's third-largest city, Prešov (in Rusyn, Prjašiv).

Exploring a personal connection

Few have taken the time to acquaint themselves with the Carpatho-Rusyns in general, and fewer still have attempted to understand them. Only a handful of documentary filmmakers have tried to tell parts of the Rusyns' story, including Peter Kerekes in his Ladomirske Morytaty a Legendy (Stories and Legends of Ladomirova, Slovakia, 1998) and Zdenko Flider in his Pisni Polonyny (Songs of the Mountain Pasture, Czech Republic, 2001). Polish director Krzystof Krzyzanowski has also made several documentaries about the Rusyns of Poland, locally called Lemkos.

Jakubisko's Farebné kamienky is special for the simple fact that it takes on such an obscure subject, but it is actually of immense significance to Rusyn culture: it is the first film to deal with the Rusyns which was also directed by a Rusyn. In fact, Jakubisko could well be the only Rusyn filmmaker working today.

Juraj Jakubisko's Farebne kamienky (Painted Pebbles, 2002)Kamienky is a film close to Jakubisko's heart. In June, he told Slovakia's Rusyn-language newspaper Narodny Novynky, "I suddenly came upon the fact that this is about seeking out my own roots, because I am a Greek Catholic. I was born in Kojšov." Later, he told the daily Narodna Obroda, "I went in the footsteps of the most famous Rusyn, Andy Warhol, but I wanted to look for myself and my own roots."

Incidentally, Andy Warhol is the only other significant Rusyn filmmaker. His tremendous impact on the Rusyns has been documented in numerous films, including Joe Keselica's 15 Minút slávy Andy Warhola (Andy Warhol's 15 Minutes of Fame, Slovakia, 1994), Tom Trier's The Warhol Nation (Denmark, 1999), Stanislaw Mucha's Absolut Warhola (Germany, 2001) and most recently Georg Misch's I am from Nowhere (UK/Slovakia, 2002).

The fact that Kamienky is part of a series on tolerance also ties in to Jakubisko's Rusyn origins: one of the cornerstones of the Rusyn national identity is the idea of peaceful coexistence, and indeed one of the first books published after 1989 in the Rusyn language was entitled Mirna Nasha Rusyn'ska Put' (Our Peaceful Rusyn Way, 1992) by Voldymyr Fedynyshynec'.

An idyllic representation

Farebné kamienky is an exploration of Rusyn national identity, the things that set them apart from their neighbors. The film was shot on location in Rusyn centers such as Prešov, but also in some of the eastern-most villages in Slovakia, such as Rus'kyj Potik, Ulyc, Ulyc-Kryve, Zboj and Novoselicja.

Kamienky presents Rusyn traditions, such as songs and superstitions, and concentrates on the Rusyns' connection to religion. While many Rusyns are Eastern Orthodox, most Rusyns in Slovakia are Greek Catholic.

The spirituality of the Rusyns goes beyond their religion, however. Jakubisko told the Slovak daily Narodna Obroda that the Rusyns "are people who are joined to nature by cycles of life and death, by ancient mores."

While most of the Rusyns Jakubisko met were earthy, church-going folk, he also saw the more modern face of the nation: "Rusyns today have a regional radio broadcast, a university department, an original theatre..." Kamienky presents glimpses of modern Rusyn culture in the form of the Alexander Duchnovyc Theatre of Prešov and the Andy Warhol Museum in Medzilaborce (Medžilabirci).

As the Slovak daily Sme points out, "Young Rusyns and their views on the future in the framework of Slovakia and of Europe, however, are virtually absent from Jakubisko's documentary." Add to that the fact that many of the most pressing problems facing Rusyns in Slovakia—high unemployment, few opportunities, ongoing rivalries with the local Ukrainians—are also absent from Farebné kamienky, and it becomes clear that the image presented in the film is highly idealized.

The Rusyns' path to Europe

Farebné kamienky was one of ten short documentary films commissioned by the European Union for a series called "Tolerancia—Cudzie Slovo?" (Tolerance—A Foreign Word?). Six of the films dealt with minority issues within Slovakia; the remaining four presented minority and tolerance issues in parts of the European Union including Spain, Belgium and Italy. There are plans to broadcast the films in EU countries in the near future. The project was financed through the Phare program, and produced by Peter Hledík and Barok Film with the support of the Slovak government.

Speaking to Dnenik Bohemia, General Director of the human rights and minorities section of the government of Slovakia Jana Kviecinská said, "The goal of the project is to disseminate to the public information about national minorities with the language of documentary form and to create public discussion on that theme."

She added that mutual communication is the only way to "deal with prejudices and discrimination, to reverse stereotypes, to lower the threshold of intolerance and to support mutual tolerance."

Jakubisko put his own spin on the project. He told the Slovak daily Narodna Obroda, "It is about conserving flowers in the bouquet of Europe, because Europe without national minorities would not be Europe. It must be recognized that when we enter Europe, everything will be different. Even Slovaks will be a national minority there. Even Hungarians."

Brian J Požun

Also of interest
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.

Also by the author

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