This year, the Skopje Film Festival changed venue, embraced Europe, dropped it's lo-fi aesthetic and lost the aroma of pot. Igor Pop Trajkov mulls over whether the event was better for the changes.
The Skopje Film Festival was founded in 1998 to help fill the cultural gap in Macedonia's capital. Bearing in mind that it is an international festival, it adds a cosmopolitan air to the rather lacklustre impression the city conveys. That this glamour has been achieved in Skopje is mostly due to the former and present organisers (particularly Dejan Pavlović, Tatjana Janevska and Labina Mitevska among the current set) and their ability to grasp the nettle.
The festival has gone beyond the conventional presentation of the latest artistic achievements in European and independent American film. Composed of a cross-section of interests and tastes, the audience at the Skopje Film Festival has become a rare and quality indicator on the issue of what the novel film generation audience attending the cinemas really needs today. Moreover, over a period of time, the festival has created a reputation for promoting new directors, such as Darren Aronofsky or Michael Haneke, who were rather controversial, experimental or even unacceptable and who only much later became well-established names among cineastes. As a result, if you are present at one of the festival screenings, you can experience not only the unique collective pleasure of the festival but also the joy of discovering something new.
Changes to tradition
This year the festival had new features that contributed to its glamorous appeal, whereas other moments stripped it of its grandeur. What was considered a bad sign by many was that the screenings this year were held at the Kultura Cinema instead of at the Army Community Centre. From a technical perspective, the films were poorly screened and the ambience was terrible: there was no open informal community space available as the whole of the premises had been rented to commercial cafes or bars. This compares with the Army Community Centre, which in had provided plenty of lounge space for young people to "chill out" in between or after screenings. This gave the event a somewhat underground feel to it, with frequently a whiff of cannabis in the air.
Furthermore, this year the festival agreed to actively accept the role (which in previous years had been imposed) of being a vehicle for the European integration process by joining the European Festivals programme. This involved accepting a series of films that are being sent to festivals all over the continent under the sponsorship of the European Co-ordination of Film Festivals, itself partially funded by the European Union's MEDIA programme. This significantly diminished the relative presence of lo-fi and experimental films—which could formerly have been considered the basic aesthetic approach of the Skopje festival—both within the overall programme and at peak screening times. On the other hand, the loss was not as great as might be supposed, as production of these films is at far lower levels than it used to be. In addition, the standardizing of the European programme of the festivals enabled the presence of some of the stronger films. Better still, there was a general absence of really weak films, which has not been the case in previous years.
Although the majority of the films had already taken part in other major festivals in Europe there was no feeling that this was some rag-bag, second-hand collection. This is mostly due to the division of films into categories that established them as cohesive aesthetic groups and made them fresh and immediate to audiences. Almost every category was accompanied by a comprehensive debate carried out by a highly professional group of discussants in front of the audience.
The audience also showed that it can make up its own mind and was not always swayed by big names and previous festival laurels. Many members of the audience, for example, were distinctly unimpressed by Jean-Luc Godard's Éloge de l'amour (2001) and walked out half-way through, and the much-praised Monsoon Wedding (2001) by Mira Nair got a rather lame reception, with the most common comment of being that it was merely average. Even the traditional pets of the Skopje audience–Scandanavian films within the programmes of the "Nordic Light" section and Emir Kusturica, represented this year by his documentary Super 8 Stories (2001)—did not prove to be as favourably received as they have been in previous years.
The real revelation for the audience was Safar e Ghandehar (Kandahar, 2001) by Mohsen Makhamalbaf, screened at the opening ceremony of the festival. The experimental films of the Brothers Quay also received sound interest. From the major winners of previous awards, the greatest excitement was caused by the film Intimacy (2000) by Patrice Cherau, Sous le sable (Under the Sand, 2000) by Françoise Ozon, La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001) by Michael Hancke and La Stanza del figlio (The Son's Room, 2001) by Nanni Moretti. The latter two were so popular that additional screenings had to be provided.
Of the films with a lower profile on the festival circuit, Richard Parry's South West 9 (2001) showed the most promise, above all because due to its fresh, innovative approach in applying expressive effects.
The "Old Lady" visits
The Old Lady herself—Europe—paid a visit to the festival this time as well. Not just that, she was all dressed up and at her most charming. As well as the numerous film stars and industry professionals who came to give seminars in Skopje, the festival was also graced by the presence conference held by the Council of Europe-sponsored Eureka Audiovisual. To give credit to the Ministry of Culture, who hosted the conference, the event ran smoothly and proved that Macedonia can organise such events as well as any other European capital. The point was well worth making to those at the conference, as the Eureka Audiovisual presidency is likely to be entrusted to Macedonia in the next few years. The conference, therefore, was a showcase for the Ministry of Culture to prove that the country is worthy of that trust, as much as anything else.
The Ministry's organisational capabilities weren't the only remarkable thing about the conference. Eureka Audiovisual seems to be changing the way it relates to the countries of central and southeastern Europe. In the past, Brussels has at times been aloof and even patronising, but the Eurocrats were seemingly anxious to come over as more down-to-earth and discuss the problems of the film industry and former communist countries in the same language that they discuss those of Western Europe. Nevertheless, the conference was still very much dominated by the presence of politicians, functionaries and film financers, with creative workers thin on the ground. Perhaps more attention should have been paid to the statement delivered by the German minister of culture at this year's Berlin film festival that the lack of productivity in the European film industry can only overcome by stimulating more creativity and talent.
The regional programme takes off
Nevertheless, what was really eye-catching at the festival this year was the regional programme, covering new feature films from central and southeastern Europe, as well as the premieres of the latest regional documentaries.
From Albania, there was the opportunity to see Gjergj Xhuvani's Slogans (2001), a pleasant and satirical melodrama with a wonderful Mediterranean feel to it. Poland was represented by the moving Cześć, Tereska (Hi, Tereska, 2001), which, while shocking, reminds us of the best that the Polish tradition can offer through the director's batten of Robert Gliński and camerawork by Petro Aleksowski (who provided local interest with his Macedonian background).
Audiences were also thrilled by Iglika Triffonova's Pismo do Amerika (Letter to America, 2001), a stunning, romantic story of a broken friendship. The work of the Slovene film director Jan Cvitkovič, Kruh in Mleko (Bread and Milk, 2001), made a particularly powerful impression with its introduction of poetry in its film narration. Danis Tanović's internationally prominent No Man's Land (2001 was also on display, and, as always when the films shows in Skopje, it sold out. Audiences were also impressed by the work of Srđan Golubović, Apsolutnih sto (Absolute Hundred, 2001), which proved that he can make an impeccable action film as good as those of Luc Besson.
The success of Apsolutnih sto in Skopje at the festival followed the popular Zemlja istine, ljubavi i slobode (Land of Thought, Love and Freedom, 2000), directed by Milutin Petrović, which showed at last year's event. Although films from neighbouring Serbia are commonly released theatrically in Macedonia, few of them are of the same high quality as Apsolutnih sto or Zemlja istine, ljubavi i slobode.
Another of the outstanding experiences of the festival was the chance to see Maja Mladenovska's documentary Roza (Rose), a poetic fable about a handicapped heroine starved of the full experience of life. Another documentary which impressed the audience enormously was was Mitko Panov's Comrades (2000), a tragic autobiographical story about three friends being separated following the Balkan wars.
Among the small group of international documentaries on show were the films Kurt and Courtney (1998), directed by Nick Bloomfield (an excellent film about a possible conspiracy against Kurt Cobain) and Julian Temple's The Filth and the Fury (1999), a riveting look back at the Sex Pistols.
The Skopje Film Festival may only be a couple of years old, but it is already growing into an impressive cultural addition to the capital's calendar, despite the disappointment of losing it's rough-edged, cult atmosphere.
Igor Pop Trajkov
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