Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

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 Issue 4 
15 Oct

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Audrius Stonys's Viena (Alone, 2001)SPLIT FILM FESTIVAL
Croatia's Bronx goes avant garde
4th Festival of New Film

Despite a history of heroin abuse, football violence and right-wing extremism on the one hand and classical culture on the other, Split hosts an important festival of new and experimental film and video, as Jurica Pavičić reports.

Split is the second biggest Croatian city, a tourist and industrial center with 200,000 inhabitants situated in the central area of the eastern Adriatic coast, in the region of Dalmatia, known as the (probably inauthentic) homeland of Disney's spotted dogs.

Split is also a city of significant controversies. It is one of the most beautiful Mediterranean historic centers. At the same time, it is a city notorious for it's urban socio-pathology, which unites typical east-European maladies with those typically Mediterranean. Within Croatian culture, Split's role is similar to that of Naples in an Italian context: a city with specific local mythology, subculture and flavor, but also a city of poverty and dysfunction, sometimes called the "south Bronx of south Croatia."

It has the biggest unemployment rate in Croatia, it is severely damaged by the tajkunizacija (the collapse of private holdings amassed by Tuđman's favorite entrepreneurs), it has a long and difficult history of drug abuse and it was the scene of several serious war crimes in 1991. For a long time a center of heroin and football violence, it has recently become a center of right-wing extremism, although rigid nationalist parties lost all elections in Split since 1992.

Culturally, Split is a traditional center of arts and literature that had its peak during the late gothic period and the Renaissance, when it used to be an important center of humanist writing in Croatian and Latin. With its abundant art heritage, which includes Roman, medieval and baroque monuments, the entire local culture was inevitably very heritage-oriented, museum-centered and traditionalist.

Economically, Split is a typical east European town, packed with low-tech and ecologically doubtful industries, such as cement-making, polyvinyl-chloride production, and—the jewel in its crown—shipyards: its shipyards in perpetual crisis gave Split a typical "working class on the verge of extinction" flavor similar to that of northern England.

An avant-garde history

It's quite bizarre, in such a context, that a festival like the Festival novog filma Split (Split Festival of New Film) could appear practically ab nihilo. Yet the FNF, founded in 1996 by two members of the local Kino Klub (Cinema Club), Boris Poljak and Branko Karabatić, as the Festival of New Film and Video, was the first independent film festival in Croatian history, preceding today's much more popular Motovun Film Festival. Inspired by the OSTranenie media festival in Dessau, Germany, the FNF has been from the very beginning a kind of high-tech asylum in a low-tech environment, placing emphasis on multimedia, CD-ROMs, electronic media and internet projects, artistic branches which grew together with the festival.

At the beginning, it had two main competition programs: film and video. The film program was mainly based on shorts, usually experimental, abstract, sometimes animated or non-mainstream documentaries. The video competition was focused on straight video (to the exclusion of installations, video sculpture, etc) and it was the weaker spot of the festival. The so-called "New Media" section (internet, CD-ROMs, video installations) started off as a side show. As the festival matured, it became a third competition, one that today attracts most of the journalists and critics, partly because Split is the only festival to feature this kind of art in Croatia.

Although New Media has successfully colonized Split, the FNF is still basically a film festival. Although it sometimes features mainstream arthouse films such as Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland (1999), David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999), or Tom Tykwer's Lola rennt (Run Lola Run, 1999), the FNF remains generally oriented toward experimental film.

Such a direction is not accidental. Lacking any continuity in professional feature filmmaking, Split had been a strong center of the "second avant-garde" in 1960s and 1970s cinema. A group of filmmakers had gathered around the same Kino Klub which later founded the festival and established the so-called Split School of experimental documentary—probably the most significant phenomenon in Yugoslav alternative film in the 1960s. The most important of these filmmakers was Ivan Martinac, a man described as "the Kubrick of short film" by Italian critic Sergio Germani. Another important member of Split group was Lordan Zafranović, an interesting and gifted experimentalist who later became an overpraised mainstream filmmaker and protégé of the Croatian communist regime.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Split was the host of the so-called Sabor alternativnog filma (Summit of Alternative Film), an annual experimentalist convention showcasing Zagreb avant-gardists such as Tomislav Gotovac and their Belgrade counterparts such as Dušan Makavejev and Želimir Žilnik. With such a tradition and a core audience prepared for the shock of experimental filmmaking, the FNF Split became a fortress of pure film radicalism.

Worthy winners

This year's festival, which ran from 22 to 29 September, followed the disastrously organized 2000 edition. Its strongly criticized management, with director Karabatić in charge, succeeded in improving the festival—partly due to a much better relation with the new government. Even with bigger state subsidies, however, due to a depressed economy and poor local government, the budget of the event is less than GBP 100,000, grotesquely little for a high-tech event.

Michael Haneke's Code inconnu (Code Unknown, 2000)
Juliette Binoche finds herself in deep water
The film competition included 37 films: 34 shorts, one long documentary and two feature films. The most famous films in the competition were two features: Code inconnu (Code Unknown, 2000) by Austrian Michael Haneke, and Eloge de l'amour (In Praise of Love , 2001) by Jean-Luc Godard, which won the Special Jury Prize. Another Jury Prize was won by 10-minute surrealist short Hotel Central (2000) by British director Matt Hulse.

The main prize, the Grand Prix of the festival (the famous sculpture of the fishtail), went to Lithuania. It was won by the short film Viena (Alone, 2001) by Audrius Stonys. The International Jury chose well: Viena is an exceptional film, a mute, atmospheric miniature about a schoolgirl traveling by car to visit her mother in prison. This tacit, sensible film about nature and loneliness reminds very much of Sharunas Bartas and Andrei Tarkovsky. 34-year-old Stonys deserves attention.

Quay Brothers In Absentia (2000)
Surrealism and Stockhausen
Beside these prize-winning films, the film competition included several other interesting entries. One of them is In Absentia (2000), a new project by British filmmakers the Quay Brothers, inspired by a composition by Karlheinz Stockhausen. In Absentia is a visually stunning surrealist poem with a recursive motive of dirty fingernails writing an absurd text with a graphite pencil. Dan pod suncem (A Day Under the Sun, 2000) by Vlado Zrnić was the most ambitious Croatian film in competition, a 75-minute pantheist, atmospheric documentary shot on the outskirts of the Dalmatian old capital of Zadar. Praised recently at a documentary festival in Amsterdam, Zrnić's first long film continues his exploration of nature, of its mysticism, rhythms and shapes.

The video competition included 41 entries from 34 countries. Because of overlapping schedules (inevitable in any festival) I was unable to see much of this section. The Grand Prix—whose trophy is also in the shape of a fish tail—was won by Instrumental (2001), a video by 36-years old British filmmaker James Leech. Special Jury Awards went to Body Drop Asphalt (2000) by Japanese artist Junko Wada, born in 1973. Another Jury Prize went to Quarto (2001) by Italian video artists Fabio Fiandrini and Ennio Ruffolo, members of the Bologna group AlbertStanley.

Page from
Bresson-inspired humor, probably not from a 13-year-old
In the New Media competition, 24 works were displayed. This year, internet projects prevailed, as opposed to the usual domination of video installations and ambients. The prize went to Mouchette, a project inspired by Robert Bresson's work. The author of this work is a certain Mouchette, presenting herself as a 13-year-old Amsterdam girl, although this undoubtedly a fake internet identity.

The Split FNF has traditionally had a strong retrospective segment, featuring the classics of experimental filmmaking, such as Bruce Baillie or Ivan Martinac, and showcasing interesting national programs like those on Eskimo films, Croatian war documentaries, German women's video and so on. This year, three retrospectives of three important filmmakers attracted most the of media coverage and the audience, overshadowing the competition program completely.

A trio of retrospectives

The first and smallest of them was a retrospective of the work of Chris Marker, political documentary classic who won the Split Award for Life Achievement. (Marker, who is 81, could not travel to Split.) His retrospective
Chris Marker's La Jetee (The Jetty, 1967)
One of Marker's better pieces of experimentation
was an one-evening event including a classic film, La Jetée (The Jetty, 1967), and new political video documentaries such as A Mayor in Kosovo / Un maire au Kosovo (2001) and Le 20 heures dans les camps (Prime Time in the Camps, 1993) regarding the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Yugoslav crisis and so on. This program was the biggest disappointment of the festival, as the new films of the director of such classics as Sunday in Peking / Dimanche a Pekin (1956) and Cuba si! (1961) look more like uninspired TV reportages.

Much bigger, and much better covered by the media, were the retrospectives of two filmmakers who are probably the last geniuses of European film: Lars von Trier and Bela Tarr. Lars von Trier was represented by Forbrydelsens element (The Element of Crime, 1984), Medea (1987), Epidemic (1988), Europa (1991), the TV series Riget (The Kingdom, 1994) and by Idioterne (The Idiots, 1998). At the end of the retrospective, von Trier held a rather amusing and highly interesting two-hour video conference with the public and critics, answering questions from his Copenhagen home. Exclusively for the Split audience, he showed a model of the set for his next project, Dogville, to be released in 2003.

Von Trier is famous in Croatia for his recent big successes, and Split was the first opportunity for local audiences to see early, controversial work by this prothaeic, nomadic filmmaker, who always challenges audience expectations, rules and firm esthetics. Since Dogma 95 attracted much attention among young film students and critics in Croatia, the discussion with the filmmaker was sometimes electrifying passionate.

An epic experimentalist

Even more interesting was the retrospective of Hungarian Béla Tarr, a bleak and fascinating filmmaker who has become a cult director in Split due to a previous screening each of Sátántangó (Satan's Tango, 1994) and Werckmeister harmóniák (Werkmeister Harmonies, 2000) in the 1998 and 2000 Split festivals respectively. The retrospective included all Tarr's films except his most recent, Werckmeister harmóniák . The audience could see Családi tűzfészek (Family Nest, 1977), Szabadgyalog (The Outsider, 1981), Prefab People (Panelkapcsolat, 1982), Öszi almanach (Almanach of Fall, 1984), and Kárhozat (Damnation, 1987), as well as having another opportunity to see Sátántangó, Tarr's 7-hour long film, declared by Susan Sontag to be one of her favorite films. Those who survived the marathon film experience of Sátántangó could attend the discussion with the director, who came to Split for the second consecutive year.

Bela Tarr's Satantango (Satan's Tango, 1994)
The muddy esthetics of Sátántangó
Béla Tarr is not as famous as von Trier, although he is probably a greater filmmaker and may be the greatest filmmaker in contemporary eastern Europe. Tarr nowadays makes very stylish, bleak, black and white pessimistic works, characterized by a slow pace, editing within the frame and programmed camera movement, all of which produce suspense and drama within every shot. His films, very nihilistic and desperate, tell stories about the impossibility of escape, suffocating provincial mud and conditions of human collectivity which debase man to a state of sin.

Tarr arrived at his recent style in the late 1980s, starting with Kárhozat. Before these new films, very artificially stylish and abstract in terms of time and space, Tarr was a quasi-documentarist social filmmaker, a kind of "Dogma-before-Dogma" author who preferred handheld camera, poor lighting and real-life facts. In films like Szabadgyalog or Családi tűzfészek, he deals with destinies of young characters within communist Hungary, emphasizing, within social criticism, his standard motives: the evil of the crowd, fatal ambitions and unmotivated sadism.

The irony of this year's Split festival is that the two directors in focus definitely dislike each other: Tarr overtly said that von Trier is a bluffer, like most of religious filmmakers.

Although the first independent festival in Croatia and definitely the most original, Split has not achieved the cult status enjoyed by the Motovun Festival, which has become an annual good-spirited Woodstock for Croatian and Slovenian cinema-goers. However, based on state money, but with a local audience, interests and knowledge, Festival novog filma Split definitely has its own particular identity and shows films you are unlikely to be able to see anywhere else.

Jurica Pavičić

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About the author

Jurica Pavičić is film critic for the Croatian daily Jutarnji list. Selected essays on Croatian society from his "Tales from Lilliput" column were recently published as a book, and he is also the author of two novels, Ovce od gipsa (1997) and Nedjeljni prijatelj (1999).

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