A Festival That's Not Over the Hill

in 7th Motovun Film Festival

by Sheila Johnston

“On 26 July everybody has to be in Motovun,” announced the website of the Motovun Film Festival, which began on that date. And it seems that just about everybody on the Istrian peninsula, and far beyond, took the instruction at face value. For the next five days, Motovun’s population ballooned from 600 to 12,000 and this sleepy hilltop village briefly became the city which never sleeps.

Most of the visitors were well on the right side of 25. To accommodate them, the Festival set up a camp site at the foot of the hill, a vast bivouac which put one in mind of a besieging medieval army – or, perhaps more appropriately, cinema’s answer to Woodstock. Legend has it that Motovun sits on “dragon lines” (alignments of ancient sites across the landscape, called “ley lines” in England), which may explain the astonishingly mellow atmosphere. Not that the place could be described as peaceful in any sense: all-night bars, discos and rock-concerts catered handsomely – and very noisily – for those unable to get tickets to the packed-out screenings.

Now in its sixth year, the Festival was created as a response to Hollywood’s domination of Croatian cinemas. And, although it follows hard on the heels of events in Split and Pula, the programmers this year succeeded in assembling a strong and varied line-up of world cinema. My colleague, Irena Paulus, gives an overview in her report of the feature films in the competition, but the lively documentary section was also impressive.

Motovun lost out on Fahrenheit 9/11, which had played in Pula. But it offered instead a more sober meditation on American belligerence abroad with The Fog of War, Errol’s Morris’s elegant Oscar-winning study of the former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

And, in the absence of Michael Moore, there was another example of the exhibitionist-documentarian in the rapidly expanding shape of Morgan Spurlock. In Supersize Me, Spurlock, a fit and lithe 33-year-old, submitted himself to a month-long exclusive “diet” of meals at McDonalds, with truly alarming effects on his health and a bulging silhouette that soon began to resemble that of, well, Moore himself. Like that director’s movies, Supersize Me was entertaining, slickly packaged – with great graphics, animation and soundtrack – and shamelessly demagogic.

The cult of personality was also much in evidence in the FIPRESCI prize-winner The Five Obstructions, reviewed in full on this website by Goran Gocic, In it, the Danish director Jorgen Leth is challenged to remake one of his own early shorts by his younger compatriot Lars von Trier under a series of crippling conditions. The result is both a suite of fascinating variations on a filmic theme and a provocative portrait of two violently clashing characters.

Jesus Du Weisst, by Austria’s Ulrich Seidl (who made a notable feature debut three years ago with Dog Days) was a rigorously stylised, faintly creepy portrait of a group of lonely people and their relationship with prayer, and pushed at the boundary between documentary and staged drama. All four of these movies demonstrate that the Fred Wiseman-style of unflashy, quietly observational, fly-on-the-wall documentaries is currently well out of fashion – no doubt partly as a result of Moore’s phenomenal success.

Motovun is, of course, unable, to attract major world premieres (the Croatian films in competition were, as Irene Paulus notes, both rather disappointing). And it faces significant problems: the difficulty of ferrying both people and equipment up the steep hill through the narrow cobbled streets and an acute shortage of accommodation. Nonetheless, the village succeeded in hosting a scattering of international artists, including Britain’s Stephen Daldry, Nik Powell and Gary Lewis, and the American actor Jason Biggs. A more serious blow fell when Croatia’s Ministry of Culture slashed the budget by 50% on the eve of the Festival. Motovun’s response was to print T-shirts denouncing the deed – and sold in aid of the cash-strapped Ministry.

What the Festival does have to offer is a warm welcome, tons of energy, and the kind of imagination and panache to distribute 2000 individual glasses of Sljivovic to the audience at the closing night ceremony. The toast was raised with gusto. In a summer season overcrowded with film festivals, large and small, Motovun has found its niche and occupies it brilliantly.