Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 2 
21 Jan
2002

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Bratislava film festival logoSLOVAKIA
Taking off and not taking off
The third Bratislava
International Film Festival

The Bratislava International Film Festival is fast growing in self-confidence and significance. However, Slovak film production, as Peter Hames explains, has not had the same degree of success.


Christmas came early to Bratislava. The castle's snow-covered towers gave it all a fairy-tale look; there was ice skating close to the Danube and plenty of warming drinks to be had at the Christmas market. The photogenic setting provided an appropriate background for the city's third International Film Festival which saw attendances estimated at 44,000 spread over 40 screenings a day. With increasing numbers of filmmakers in attendance, it was heralded in the post-festival press release as Slovakia's most significant cultural event.

Based entirely in the Ster Century cinemas in the Polus City Center, the setting involves contradictions familiar from other festivals. The ethos of the shopping centre dominates—though not excessively—but it also provides the best and most convenient projection facilities. This allowed an increase in the range and variety of the programming and takes the "small" film to a larger audience.

As I suggested in last year's report,[1] there is an obvious desire to kick-start a new development in Slovak cinema, but the first requirement has been to revive an interest in cinema itself. Slovakia has one of the lowest attendance rates in Europe, even for American films, and, while this is partly economic, it is also a cultural phenomenon. It is a commonplace in the UK to suggest that younger audiences have been increasingly defined by horizons set by Hollywood. But Bratislava offers evidence of both an active film society movement and a predominantly young audience for international cinema.

Truth or dare?
Eva Borusovicova's Vadi nevadi (Truth or Dare, 2001)
Vadí nevadí : Does it matter or not?

While there is still much talk of Slovak cinema, there is little yet in evidence. There was only one Slovak feature in the festival—Eva Borušovičová's Vadí nevadí (Truth or Dare, 2001). Borušovičová, a post-1989 graduate, made her debut with the promising Modré z neba (Blue Heaven, 1997), a sensitive portrait of the lives of three women, which was noted at a number of international festivals and gained favourable international reviews. By contrast, Vadí nevadí is an unashamedly commercial movie aimed squarely at the youth market. A comedy involving drugs, the mafia and a stolen Mercedes, its photography provides an expensive looking sheen and there are some quirky performances. It seems to be seeking the kind of crossover success achieved by David Ondříček's Samotáři (Loners) but without the precision of a Petr Zelenka script on which to base it. While there have been suggestions of compromises made during production, one suspects that they may not have changed the essence of the project. As the only new Slovak feature to appear this year, it has almost certainly had to endure too great a weight of expectation.

Borušovičová's next project, collaborating with Agnieszka Holland on a new version of Jánošík, sounds intriguing to say the least. For the unitiated, Jánošík (1688-1713) was an outlaw and folk hero, the Slovak "Robin Hood," and his story has been much filmed: by Jaroslav Siakel in 1921, the first Slovak feature; by Martin Frič in 1935, featuring Paľo Bielik; and by Bielik himself in 1962-63. Frič's version enjoyed some international success and the story was revisited in Viktor Kubal's animated feature Zbojník Jurko (Jurko the Outlaw, 1976).

Other Slovak films in the pipeline include Dážď páda na naše duše (Rain Falls on Our Souls) from Vlado Balco (best known for his Rivers of Babylon), which is due to premiere in April, and Miloslav Luther's Útěk do Budina (Flight into Budin), adapted from Vladislav Vančura's novel, which was first announced as a project for Ivan Balada in the early 1990s.

Juraj Jakubisko and Martin Sulik at Bratislava
Juraj Jakubisko and Martin Šulík

A number of Slovak documentaries were screened including Martin Šulík's film about the Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko, maker of Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni (Birds, Orphans and Fools ,1969) and Nejasná zpráva o konci světa (An Ambiguous Report on the End of the World, 1997). Nenakrútené filmy Juraja J (Unshot Films of Juraj J) provided an extended interview with much fascinating material, including artwork, on uncompleted and aborted projects. Marko Škop's Rómsky dom (The Roma House), set in three different locations, reflected on the everyday life of the Roma. The ever-prolific Pavol Barabaš—who was last year represented by Tajomne Memberamo (Mysterious Memberamo), about the first expedition into the inland territories of New Guinea—showed two films this year, Expedicia Sibir (Expedition Siberia), about a rafting expedition to the Altai, and Mustang, a journey to the secret kingdom in Nepal.

The Gypsies of Svinia

However, the most compelling film on a Slovak theme was the feature documentary, The Gypsies of Svinia (1998), made by Canadian director John Paskievich for the National Film Board of Canada, which received its Slovak premiere. It is set in a Roma community in the village of Svinia in eastern Slovakia in 1998. Two communities co-exist, "white Svinia" with its well-kept gardens and "black Svinia" (the Roma community), described by one contributor to the film as enduring some of the worst conditions he had seen anywhere. The film centres on the work of the Canadian anthropologist David Scheffel and an international project to promote organisation and self-help.

John Paskievich's The Gypsies of Svinia (1998)While the subject is compelling enough, what distinguishes the film is its capacity for analysis. The Roma live under appalling conditions in a rat-infested village, drinking contaminated water, using the fields as toilets, with 100 percent unemployment. In education, they are subjected to a semi-official apartheid. Among the causes attributed to the Communists are failed attempts at integration (ie "reform" from above without community involvement) and the faulty construction of drains and sanitation. Among the causes attributed to privatisation is the right of employers not to employ Roma (thus forcing them on to benefits) and the reclamation of forest land for private use. One member of the community was arrested for building a wooden house. In conditions that breed disease, crime, alcoholism and dependence on social security, the question is how to reverse a situation that has become endemic.

It is also not surprising that members of the white community react adversely. One sympathises with Hitler while another contemplates his own emigration. The Roma, they allege, have children in order to get security benefits and then spend the money almost instantaneously, especially on alcohol. The Roma view, apart from the traditional commitment to children, is that they also provide "a reason for getting up in the morning." Alcohol is also used as a necessary disinfectant. It's almost a "Catch 22" situation in which problems rooted in history, tradition, apathy and prejudice seem almost incapable of change. Successful Roma professionals are also shown to prefer rising "above" their background rather than feeding their skills back into the community. But, as Paskievich makes clear, this is not a purely Slovak problem. It is the condition of many countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

John Paskievich (right)
John Paskievich (right) introduces a "star"
from his film at Bratislava

Of course, Slovak policies have changed since the 1998 election and the government has addressed the problem in more constructive ways. Hence, there is a recognition of the need for participation rather than paternalism and of the need to change the attitudes of the majority population .[2] At the press conference for the film, in which members of the Roma community participated, it was pointed out that Svinia had been one of the worst villages. There had been improvements in the provision of drinking water and waste disposal and the problems of education and employment were being addressed. The aims of the international project had been "partly achieved."

But while Paskievich's film addresses a particular subject, its approach reaches beyond the situation of Svinia and the Roma as such to confront us with the sources of prejudice and the roots of racism in its broader sense. It refuses to demonise and places all of its observations within a context. It's certainly one of the best films I've seen on the subject, and it would be a pity if its specific time and place were to confine it to a sociological ghetto.

International awards
Jan Cvitkovic's Kruh in mleko (Bread and Milk, 2001)
Black humour and close observation

Amongst the "central European" films to win awards in the main competition were the Slovenian film Kruh in mleko (Bread and Milk) by Jan Cvitkovič,[3] and Petr Václav's Paralelní světy (Parallel Worlds), a prizewinner at Plzeň earlier this year.[4] Kruh in mleko received the FIPRESCI special prize and also the Best Actor award (for Peter Musevski) from the International Jury. Filmed in black and white, its tragic story of the failed rehabilitation of an alcoholic mixes black humour with a meticulous sense of observation. Jan Cvitkovič makes his debut as writer-director, although he was also the writer and lead actor in Janez Burger's V leru (Idle Running, 1999). Paralení světy (together with the non-competition The Gypsies of Svinia) won a special mention from the ecumenical jury. While it is rightly argued that this is a film drawing from traditions associated with Antonioni and Bergman, it also extends them. It's portrait of male-female relations provides a careful perception of the everyday life from which existential problems simply emerge.

For "Western" critics, festivals like Karlovy Vary and Bratislava offer rare opportunities to see films from central and eastern Europe. But it should also be recognised that they are as much international in flavour as festivals in Western Europe and North America. Bratislava also saw the Slovak premieres of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Intimacy, Memento, The Pianist and the Hughes brothers' Jack the Ripper epic, From Hell. This year, there were ten different strands, including a special focus on Argentinian and Canadian film, and a retrospective on Dutch director Johan van der Keuken.

The main competition, for first and second films, doesn't require the film to be a world premiere (although some are) and provides a useful second chance for young directors. Thus Ulrich Seidl's Hundstage (Dog Days, Austria), Kruh in mleko, Pawel Pawlikowski's Last Resort (UK), Paralelní světy, and Lynne Stopkevich's Suspicious River (Canada) had all appeared elsewhere. Dog Days won one of the two Best Director awards and Dina Korzun won Best Actress for her performance in Last Resort. The second Best Director award went to Le Souffle (Deep Breath), a first film by French director, Damien Odoul. Set against a rural farming background, it focuses on a troubled world of teenage life, using non-actors and black and white film to reflect a world that is both brutal and lyrical.

The award for Best Film went to Maryam Sharyar's Dokhtaran-e Khorshid (Daughters of the Sun, Iran), which had previously won awards at Montreal (Best Debut) and Rotterdam. Sharyar's background is different from the the Iranian directors to have so far gained recognition, since she studied screenwriting and directing at the University of California and worked for a period in the Italian film industry.

Maryam Sharyar at Bratislava

Set in north-eastern Iran, Dokhtaran-e Khorshid tells the story of a Turkoman apprentice to a carpet weaver in a remote village, and the exploitative and oppressive conditions under which apprentices work. But the film has an unusual twist—the central character is a woman pretending to be a man. Apprenticed by her grandfather, her earnings are meant to be sent to her family. Until recently, Iranian actors were forbidden to dress as a member of the opposite sex and the film addresses some taboo areas (for instance, another girl falls in love with her thinking she is a man). But the reasons for the subterfuge lie in the need to make a living, the need to survive. The images of the central character, Amangol (Altinby Ghelich Taghani) recall those of Falconetti in Carl Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928), and she also endures her "passion" in the dress of a man.

Breaking taboos: Dokhtaran-e Khorshid

But, while the film's subject is compelling, it's emphasis on visual storytelling, composition, and rhythm gives it a unique power. Some of its religious allusions would be unclear to a general audience but its powerful story and distinctive approach signifies the appearance of an important talent. Sharyar says, believably, that her pictures begin as visions, that she believes in "the truth of what you see in dreams." While we have become accustomed to the world success of Iranian cinema, this is a new voice independent of the schools of Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf. The film was completed in 2000 but has yet to be premiered in Iran.

As for Bratislava, it is a festival growing in status and self confidence, treading the balance between commerce, art, and social challenge, and it seems certain to form part of the Slovak cultural scene for some years to come.

Peter Hames

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Also of interest
About the author

Peter HamesPeter Hames is author of The Czechoslovak New Wave and editor of Dark Alchemy: The Films of Jan Švankmajer. He is an honorary research associate at Staffordshire University, programme director of Stoke Film Theatre and programme adviser to the London Film Festival.

Also by the author

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Footnotes

1. Peter Hames, "Bratislava and Beyond", Central Europe Review, vol 3 (2001), no 3, 22 January 2001.return to text

2. Peter Vermeersch, "Vying for Position", Central Europe Review, vol 2 (2000), no 41, 27 November 2000.return to text

3. See Brian J Požun, Slovene film makes a splash at the Lido, Kinoeye, vol 1 (2001), no 3, 1 October 2001.return to text

4. See Ivana Košuličová, "Worlds apart", Kinoeye, vol 1 (2001), no 5, 29 0ctober 2001 and Peter Hames, "Wild Decades and Velvet Hangovers", Central Europe Review, vol 3 (2001), no 18, 21 May 2001.return to text

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