Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 10 
29 Sept

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Janez Burger's V leru (Idle Running, 1999) SLOVENIA
Terra incognita no more
The "New Films from Slovenia" season in New York

A few years ago, Slovene film was entirely off the map as far as the New York film scene was concerned. Brian J Požun shows how recently this has changed, culminating in a five-day celebration of cinema from the country in Brooklyn earlier this year.

Slovene culture has been attracting more and more attention in New York, the self-proclaimed "Capital of the World" in recent years, and Slovene film is slowly stepping out of the shadows. The trend started when recent Slovene film's breakthrough hit V leru (Idle Running, dir Janez Burger, 1999) played the "New Directors/New Films" festival at Lincoln Center in March 2000. This was followed up in 2001 by the inclusion of the Czech-Slovene co-production Samotáři (Loners, David Ondříček, 2000) in a Czech film festival at BAMcinématek, and the release of the co-production No Man's Land (or Nikogaršnje ozemlje as it is known locally, dir Danis Tanović, 2001), which was shot in Slovenia, in December 2001 into art house theatres. Things picked up speed in 2002, as Zadnja večerja (The Last Supper, dir Vojko Anželjec, 2001) played the Tribeca Film Festival in May and Varuh meje (Guardian of the Frontier, dir Maja Weiss, 2001) played the "New Festival" of gay and lesbian film in June.

This year, however, has seen an unprecedented offering of Slovene cinema to New Yorkers. Not only were Varuh meje and the short film (A)torzija ((A)Torsion, dir Stefan Arsenijević, 2002) both screened at the "New Directors/New Films" festival in April 2003, but from 7 to 11 May, BAMcinématek in Brooklyn hosted the first New York retrospective of Slovene cinema, "New Films From Slovenia."

The program, including eight features and one short film, showcased many of the recent achievements of the national cinema: from the 1999 breakthrough V leru to the 2001 winner of the Venice film festival's Golden Lion of the Future award Kruh in mleko (Bread and Milk, dir Jan Cvitkovič, 2001), to the 2002 winner of the Golden Bear for short film at the Berlin film festival (A)torzija.

The films

"New Films from Slovenia" did not present the selections chronologically, but an order did appear nevertheless over the course of the five days. The first two films concentrated on recent history, one set in Yugoslav Slovenia in the 1970s, the other set in Sarajevo during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia. All of the remaining films were set in independent Slovenia, which broke with Yugoslavia in 1991. These six films all showcased aspects of the Slovene national character or various social ills which have become far more pronounced in recent years, such as drug use, alcoholism and trafficking in human beings.

Sašo Podgoršek's Sladke sanje (Sweet Dreams, 2001)First up was Sladke sanje (Sweet Dreams, Sašo Podgoršek, 2001), set in Slovenia in the 1970s, during the golden age of Yugoslavia. It tells the tale of 13-year-old Egon, growing up in a highly dysfunctional family against the backdrop of the first stirrings of rock and roll in the country. It was paired with the short film (A)Torzija, which is about an amateur choir trying to leave Sarajevo during the siege. Though Bosnia endured a brutal, bloody war from 1992-1995, Slovenia escaped Yugoslavia with a conflict of just ten days, in June 1991. Together, the two films can be seen as a set up for the emergence of Slovenia in 1991 from the collapse of Yugoslavia.

With the next film, Šelestenje, (Rustling Landscapes, dir Janez Lapajne, 2002), viewers were presented with their first glimpse of independent Slovenia. The story begins when Luka's girlfriend Katarina has an abortion because he is not ready to be a father, and he leaves Ljubljana for the Bela Krajina countryside. Katarina follows him, but her questioning of their relationship intensifies when she meets a soldier named Primož. The story becomes even more complicated when Luka meets another girl. The chaos of the characters' lives is juxtaposed effectively against the slow pace of life in the pastoral Bela Krajina region. The film was shot in just two weeks with no script—the director provided the actors with only a scenario, and they improvised the dialogue themselves.

Jan Cvitkovic's Kruh in mleko (Bread and Milk, 2001)With Kruh in mleko, the focus shifts to Slovene social ills. This film, easily the most successful Slovene film internationally, delves into one of the Slovenes' greatest social problems: alcoholism. The story revolves around a man named Ivan, who has just finished rehab. When he runs into an old school friend who claims to have slept with his wife years before, Ivan quickly falls off the wagon. Compounding the story, the man's son is addicted to drugs and his wife, an ethnic Montenegrin, is painfully alienated from small-town society. The film generated little interest domestically when it premiered, primarily because it was shot in black and white, and caps out at just 68 minutes. However, international response has been significant—it won the Golden Lion of the Future at the Venice film festival in 2001, the first Slovene film to play there since Jože Gale's Srečno Kekec! (Good Luck, Kekec!, 1963) in 1965.

The festival continued with Oda Prešerenu (Ode to the Poet, dir Martin Srebotnjak, 2001), which delves into the myths and realities of the Slovenes' greatest cultural hero, the Romantic poet France Prešeren. The iconoclastic story starts when a young poet who makes his living writing jingles for commercials is commissioned to compose an ode to Prešeren for his 200th anniversary celebrations. Convinced he cannot do it, the poet struggles with hallucinations of the poet in his head and the country's Prešeren mania all around him. He ultimately succeeds despite himself, and even manages to get the girl in the end.

From the national poet, the focus shifts back to Slovenia's social ills. In Slepa pega (Blind Spot, dir Hanna AW Slak, 2002), a girl tries to wean her brother off of heroin. The Herculean task is complicated by a concerned social worker, a landlord demanding back rent, a dealer after his cash and their oblivious mother. Though her efforts are valiant, her brother reveals a secret which ultimately seals his fate.

Igor Sterk's Ljubljana (2002)Ljubljana (dir Igor Šterk, 2002) begins in a very Slovene way—with a suicide. The country has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and in fact suicide is deeply rooted in the national character. The film can be seen as a critique of life in the Slovene capital and the difficulties faced by post-Socialist young people. It is the first Slovene film to delve into the world of ecstasy and raves. The story shows the intertwining lives of five people in their twenties who are trying to figure out just what they want in life. A key scene was shot in Berlin at the Love Parade, and this image of Western Europe in the heart of the film could be an allegory of Slovenia's attempts to find a place in the Europe. This was the first Slovene film to compete at the Rotterdam film festival, in 2002.

The second-to-last film in the festival was chronologically the first. V leru was certainly included here because it was the first Slovene film to enjoy wide interest by the international public. It also features social issues, but its focus is more limited to student life at the University of Ljubljana. As in Ljubljana, the general sense of lack of opportunity and direction common to many students (and not just in Slovenia) is vividly portrayed.

Zelimir Zilnik's Trdnjava Evropa (Fortress Europe, 2001)Closing the festival was Trdnjava Evropa (Fortress Europe, 2001), made by the veteran Serbian film provocateur Želimir Želnik, who won the Golden Bear in Berlin for his experimental feature Rani radovi (Early Works, 1969), a subversive adaptation of the writings of Marx and a key film of the Yugoslav "Black Wave." Mixing feature film and documentary, Trdnjava Evropa follows the fictionalized story of Artjom and his daughter Katja, Russians trying to get to Italy illegally. Artjom and Katja are played by actors, but they are put into actual situations with real illegal immigrants in Slovenia, Italy and Hungary. Trafficking in human beings is quickly becoming a major problem in Slovenia. Though it is generally a transit country, Slovenia has become more and more attractive as a destination country for illegal immigration. In 1997, just over 7000 people were arrested for illegally crossing Slovene borders; one year later, the number almost doubled and has increased steadily since.

Second guesses

While the selections for the festival were mostly dead on, taken together they were a bitter pill to swallow. Nearly all were dark and moody, with Oda Prešerenu the only comedy of the bunch. Several other recent films could have lightened up the festival to a considerable degree.

One smart choice would have been Jebiga (dir Miha Hočevar, 2000), a slow-paced comedy set in the hottest days of summer in Ljubljana. The plot is thin, and essentially consists of a bunch of kids sitting around smoking pot, stealing booze and starting a feud with a farmer just outside of town. However, the film is significant to recent Slovene cinema in that it was the first Slovene film to attract a large domestic audience. In just its first four days of release, the film was seen by more than 8500 people—a record-breaking figure for a tiny country of just under two million.

Na svoji Vesni (On My Darling Clementine, dir Saša Đukić, 2001), a raucous spoof along the lines of the American Police Academy films, would also have been a fine choice. Denationalization sees a simple farm woman, Manka, getting ownership of a castle and a hidden treasure. But Mehmed Džidžo Superman, head of a criminal gang, wants it for himself. This is perhaps not the most polished film ever, but its importance, like that of Jebiga, lies in its attractiveness to local filmgoers. At its premier in the small town of Novo Mesto in April 2002, a second showing had to be added to accommodate the nearly 4000 people who showed up.

Zadnja večerja, shown in New York at last year's Tribeca film festival, would have been another excellent comedy to include. The film starts when two people break out of an insane asylum with a stolen video camera and try to shoot their own movie. The film is raucously funny, and has been featured at numerous festivals around the world, including last year's Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

Though not a comedy, Zvenenje v glavi (Ringing in the Head / Headnoise, dir Andrej Košak, 2002) would have been a smart choice as well, as it is a rare film adaptation of a Slovene novel. This film is based on the novel by the same name by one of the most important living Slovene writers, Drago Jančar. The story deals with a prison uprising in 1970 during the basketball world championship match between Yugoslavia and the United States that took place in Ljubljana. The film was also Slovenia's official entry for the 2003 Academy Award for best foreign-language film.

Damjan Kozole's Reservni deli (Spare Parts, 2003)Trdnjava Evropa was perhaps the most lackluster film in the festival, and the most recent Slovene film, Rezervni deli (Spare Parts, dir Damjan Kožole, 2003), might have been a better choice, although it is more than possible that demand is tight for subtitled prints of this film on the competing festival circuit as it generated a lot of interest when it premiered in competition at this year's Berlinale. This film also deals with illegal immigration, but Rezervni deli is a proper feature film, not a quasi-documentary.

The most significant film absent from the New York festival was certainly Maja Weiss's Varuh meje. Not only has this film won numerous awards at festivals around the world, but it is also the first feature directed by a Slovene woman, and the first to feature a lesbian kiss. Through the story of three young girls' canoe trip down the Kolpa river along the border with Croatia, the film also dives headfirst into issues like intolerance and nationalism. However, the film's omission could be explained by its earlier New York screening at the New Directors/New Films festival in April.

Well organized, poorly promoted

The festival was organized by BAMcinématek and the Slovene Film Fund, with additional support from the Slovene Consul General of New York. The Film Fund was established in 1994 to manage the production and funding of the national film program. Between 1995 and 2000, it has contributed to the completion of 40 features, 26 shorts, 6 documentaries, 12 animated films and 9 video projects. New Films from Slovenia is part of a larger string of Slovene film festivals which the Film Fund has been organizing around the world in recent years. This year, festivals were or will be organized in Berlin, Graz, Barcelona, Rome and Stockholm; in 2002, in Budapest, Madrid and Vienna; and in 2001, in Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Ottawa, Vancouver and Prague.

This extensive retrospective was quite a treat for New York audiences, and BAMcinématek was an excellent venue. The film center regularly features central and eastern European film, from heavy-hitters like the Czechs and Russians to lesser known national cinemas, like those of the Georgians or Ukrainians.

Hana AW Slak's Slepa pega (Blind Spot, 2002)For this festival, the Slovene Film Fund prepared a heavily-illustrated 96 page book, "New Films from Slovenia," which was distributed free of charge at the screenings. The book features two essays, "A Short Presentation of Slovenian Cinematography" and New Films from Slovenia, each in both Slovene and English. Another bonus was the fact that directors Sašo Podgoršek, Hanna AW Slak and Martin Srebotnjak were on hand at screenings of their films to answer questions from the audience.

The biggest problem with the festival, unfortunately, was a lack of promotion. Apart from small blurbs in local newspapers and magazines, only the Village Voice seemed to offer an expanded review. The short article—less than 300 words—gave a hasty run down of the festival line up and little else. No other advertising seems to have been undertaken.

Though BAMcinématek should have a ready-made audience for central European film, attendance at the festival was varied. Each film was screened twice, and, predictably, evening screenings attracted larger audiences than afternoon ones. The theatre in which the films were screened could hold less than 200 people, and the first screening nearly filled the house. However, most of the other screenings drew only about a dozen or two people. In contrast, BAMcinématek's Czech film festival last year packed the same theatre at almost every screening.

New Films from Slovenia was an excellent attempt to bring Slovene cinema to the attention of New Yorkers. The program was made up of strong films, most of which have won awards and acclaim elsewhere around the world, even though they are essentially unknown to audiences in the United States. But the dearth of promotion was a huge mistake, which left the festival to be enjoyed almost exclusively by insiders. The festival was a success in terms of its organization, but in terms of promoting Slovene film it sadly fell short.

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 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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