Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 9 
13 May

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Hope in the face of adversity
Slovene cinema and the Portorož Festival of Slovene Film

Portorož was shorter this year and Slovene film still has some way to go, but there was still optimism. Brian J Požun looks at the event and the national industry.

The fifth edition of the Festival of Slovene Film, the most important showcase for the national film industry, was held in the resort town of Portorož from 4 to 6 April. Last year's festival ran for four days, but even though the past twelve months were hugely successful for Slovene cinema thanks to the international success of Danis Tanović's No Man's Land (co-produced by Slovenia, where the film is called Nikogaršnje ozemlje) and Jan Cvitkovič's Kruh in mleko (Bread and Milk), this year's festival ran for just three days, the result of the shaky situation being faced not only by the festival's organizers, but also by Slovene cinema itself.

Still, the same quantity and quality of films as last year was featured. In 2001, five features premiered, including Kruh in mleko, which won the Golden Lion of the Future at last year's Venice film festival. Other highlights from last year were Sašo Podgoršek's yugo-nostalgic Sladke sanje (Sweet Dreams) and Vojko Anželjec's Zadnja večerja (The Last Supper), which proved to be favorites on the international festival circuit.

This year's festival also premiered five films in competition, as well as two out of competition and all together, ten new and recent features were shown. The schedule was rounded out by a selection of documentaries, made-for-television works and student and video films.

Lifetime achievement: Jože Gale

Joze GaleThe first order of business was the Badjur Award for Lifetime Achievement. This year it was given to Jože Gale, who created the beloved Kekec series of children's films. His 1963 Srečno, Kekec! (Good Luck, Kekec!) was shown at the Venice festival almost 40 years ago—the last time a Slovene film would be shown there until Jan Cvitkovič's Kruh in mleko (Bread and Milk) was shown last year.

Gale got his start as an assistant to director France Štiglič during the production of the first Slovene film ever, Na svoji zemlji (On Our Own Land, 1948). In 1952, his first Kekec film won the Silver Lion at the Venice film festival. All together, Gale has directed nine films.

Big winners snub the capital

In Mladina, Marcel Štefančič Jr wrote that "The sea is out—Bela Krajina is in." Though it is difficult to talk about trends in a national cinema that is as small as Slovenia's, Štefančič is absolutely right. Slovene culture often seems focused on the capital and tourists tend to stick to the coastal region, but many of this year's films set out to explore the uncharted interior of the country.

Janez Lapajne's Selestenje (Rustling Landscapes)Four of this year's ten feature films were shot in places off the beaten track, far from both the capital and the coast. The festival's top winners, Šelestenje (Rustling Landscapes) and Varuh meje (Guardian of the Frontier), both take place in the rural Bela Krajina region. Zvenenje v glavi (Ringing in the Head) was filmed in a prison in Slovenia's second-largest city Maribor, which exists in Ljubljana's shadow. The fourth, Na svoji Vesni (On My Darling Vesna), was shown out of competition and takes place in Novo Mesto, the unofficial capital of the Dolenjska region.

Janez Lapajne's feature-film debut Šelestenje deals with the complex nature of love. After his girlfriend, Katarina, has an abortion because he is not ready to be a father, Luka leaves Ljubljana for the Bela Krajina countryside. Katarina follows him, but questions their relationship when she meets a soldier named Primož. The story becomes even more complicated when Luka meets another girl. The low-budget film was shot over two weeks without a screenplay. The director provided the actors with only a scenario, and they improvised the dialogue themselves.

Šelestenje walked away with the festival's top honors, including the Audience award and the Society of Slovene Film Critics Award. It also won the best feature-length film and best actor Vesnas, the festival's primary awards named after the main character in the classic Slovene film of the same name.

Maja Weiss's Varuh Meje (Guardian of the Frontier)Varuh meje took home two Vesnas, for best actress and best director. This is the first feature film by Maja Weiss, already an accomplished documentary film director. It is also the first feature film ever directed by a Slovene woman. The film deals with issues like intolerance and nationalism, and tells the story of three young girlfriends who spend their vacation canoeing down the Kolpa river, in Bela Krajina near the border with Croatia.

Andrej Košak's novel Zvenenje v glavi is an adaptation of a novel of 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. Zvenenje v glavi won Vesnas for best screenplay and best music.

Sasa Dukic's Na svoji Vesni (On My Darling Vesna)Na svoji Vesni, the latest film by cult director Saša Đukić, is a raucous spoof along the lines of the American Police Academy films. 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. Despite the fact that it was shown outside of competition, this may well be the most important Slovene film of 2002 (see accompanying article in this week's issue "Small town on the edge").

Bucking the trend was Igor Šterk's second feature film, Ljubljana. The story deals with the lives of five young people from various backgrounds who all have one thing in common—they all live in Ljubljana and their lives are decidedly connected to the city.

Šterk's first feature, Ekspres, Ekspres (1997) was a major break-through for Slovene cinema, and so hopes were high for this film. Ljubljana played the Rotterdam festival in January and has been in domestic distribution for three months, but has not lived up to expectations. Even still, Ljubljana won Vesnas for best actor and for photography.

The best of the rest

The other five films were a mixed bag. Miha Celar's Amir and Christian Ashiaku's Fantasy did not make much of an impression. Franci Slak's Pesnikov portret z dvojnikom (Portrait of a Poet and His Double) is the film version of a mini-series which aired on national television last year depicting the life of Slovenia's national poet, France Prešeren. The film won a Vesna for its costumes.

The feature-length documentary Zgodba gospoda P F (The Story of Mr P F) is a biography of Peter Florjančič, a Slovene inventor born in Bled in 1919 who fled his homeland when Hitler invaded, and who only returned last year. Florjančič spent many years in places like Davos and Montecarlo moving in elite circles with the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and Salvador Dali. Director Karpo Godina was awarded a special Vesna for the film.

Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land (2001)Finally, Danis Tanović's No Man's Land was shown as a special presentation. The film is a French-Slovene-Italian-Belgian-British co-production filmed mostly in Slovenia. The national film industry has taken great pride in its contribution to the Oscar-winning film, and the Slovene public has also shown great interest.

Before its screening at the festival, Tanović received his third Zlata Rola award. The Society of Slovene Filmmakers established the award earlier this year to support the national film industry. It is given to any film made or co-produced in Slovenia seen domestically by more than 25,000 people. So far, only four have been awarded: three to No Man's Land and one to Kruh in mleko.

Problems, problems

Though this year's fifth Festival of Slovene Film was a milestone, it was bittersweet in many ways. Much has been accomplished in the past five years, as proven by Jan Cvitkovič's Kruh in mleko winning the Golden Lion of the Future at this year's Venice film festival, but much more remains to be done before Slovene cinema—and the festival itself—can truly be called successful.

The festival has found itself in a crisis. Funding from Radio-Televizija Slovenia (RTVS) never came through, which meant the festival was cut back from four days to three. In her opening speech, festival director Živa Emeršić said that

Without status, as just a program of the Film Fund, without a permanent professional team, the festival comes about as an annual program of improvisation in the tenuous ties between the Film Fund and RTVS. Its form this year is the real reflection of dramatic circumstances which have almost reached the "point of no return"—the collapse of cooperation between the two co-producers of the festival.

She also pointed out that legislation is not making the Film Fund's work any easier. Last year's Law on the Film Fund virtually eliminated much possible co-production with RTVS. Prior to the new law, RTVS regularly gave 20 percent of funding to Film Fund projects; now that has fallen to less than five percent.

Jan Cvitkovic's Kruh in mleko (Bread and Milk, 2001)The Ministry of Culture and other state bodies are not picking up the slack. Despite the success of Kruh in mleko and No Man's Land, as well as earlier films such as Janez Burger's V leru (Idle Running, 1999) and Damjan Kozole's Porno film (2000), only one film was produced in its entirety by the national Film Fund last year because of insufficient funding, both from the state and also from other sources.

A new Law on Cinematography is currently being drafted and should be passed at the end of 2002. But according to Emeršič, it is already being influenced by commercial interests. She is not hopeful that it will do anything but harm Slovene cinema.

Investing in technology

Despite the problems Slovene cinema is facing, there remains reason for hope. The national film program's studio, Viba, is about to get a new, fully modern building complete with state of the art technology.

For years, Viba has been housed at Ljubljana's St Jožef church, part of a former monastery complex which also houses Viba's administrative offices and the Society of Slovene Filmmakers. The building is to be completed by the end of August, and Viba should be fully operational at its new premises by October.

Viba's director, Vladimir Peruničič told Večer that the new studio will be 10,000 square meters, of which 8,000 will be used for film production and post production, as well as for administrative offices.

It will offer producers standards on par with the practice of European national film production, in short, professional standards. The starting point of the basic studio was nevertheless the current state of domestic production, rather its capacity, and, with foresight, planning for five or ten years ahead. In short, without regard to the fact that the national cultural program as a document has not yet been passed, we will be able to realize an anticipated program of from six to eight feature films a year.

While the entire complex will go a long way to improve the state of Slovene cinema, the new post-production facilities will be the most important part. Post-production is not a smooth process in Slovenia, where the process generally takes two to three times longer than in other European countries due to a lack of state-of-the-art equipment.

Vince Anžlovar's thriller Poker premiered at last year's festival after being trapped in post-production for over a year; Igor Šterk's Ljubljana faced similar difficulties. Hopefully, with the new Viba film studio, the process will be streamlined and film production will increase both in quality and also in quantity.

Even beyond offering the new technological capacity, the completion of the new Viba film studio will mean a significant amount of money will be freed up for other activities—such as for new films.

Slovene cinema 2002

So far, several of the films at this year's festival have been released into domestic distribution. No Man's Land has been in theaters since late last year, and already more than 75,000 have seen it. This is the exception, however, since Slovene films are most often only seen by a few thousand people domestically.

Ljubljana premiered in February, but so far attendance figures have not been impressive. Much more promising is Šelestenje, which entered into domestic distribution on 12 April, with a gala premier at Kino Udarnik in Maribor. Its significant wins at the festival should translate into above-average attendance.

Although it doesn't enter into distribution until 8 May, two gala premiers were staged for Varuh meje in Bela Krajina's largest towns, on 11 April in Črnomelj and on 12 April in Metlika. Director Maja Weiss is from the region, and the film was set there as well.

Poster for the 5th Festival of Slovene FilmThe final film which has opened so far is Na svoji Vesni, which had a gala premier at the Marof sports center in Novo Mesto on 10 April. Originally, the film was only to be shown once, but demand was so great that a second screening had to be added. In just its first night, more than 3500 came to see it, and in its first week in Novo Mesto, it was seem by more than 8000 people.

Slovene cinema has had much critical success since the mid-1990s, with films like V Leru and Kruh in mleko, but has only rarely managed to attract the interest of the local movie-going public. Na Svoji Vesni enters domestic distribution on 25 April and could prove to be the film that gets Slovenes interested in their own cinema once again. Despite the hurdles Slovene cinema is facing, the promise of Na svoji Vesni and the new Viba film studio are sufficient cause for hope.

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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