European Independent Film?

in 6th OFF PLUS CAMERA International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Alexander Yanakiev

In my opinion, something very important happened at the awards ceremony of the 6th edition of the Off Plus Camera International Festival of Independent Cinema held in Krakow, which went almost unnoticed by the large number of attendees. Marcin Krzysztalowicz, the director of the film which won the Krakow Film Award, admitted that it was only at the festival that he realized his film was an independent one. Manhunt (Oblawa) is a wartime drama about Poland’s Home Army (AK) in WWII. The age and emotions of the characters are rendered convincingly and nothing shows that it is a low-budget film made in defiance of Polish film tradition. The film was co-financed by the Polish Film Institute. In all probability, its budget was relatively low for such a sophisticated work and for the feeling of gloom and cold it succeeds to convey. But does this then make it an “indie”?

Google offers around 1,760,000 links to sites containing the phrase “independent film festival” and still another 11,400,000 for “independent film”, which however fails to define the essence of the phenomenon worldwide, but just shows that what we have here is a trendy brand. As for the US, things seem to be clearer: an independent film is a movie that is produced mostly or completely outside the major film studio system. Could then a European production made with public support be deemed to be independent? In my country, Bulgaria, there has been ongoing discussions on the matter over recent years, ignited by the release of films made without a penny of public funding. Are these what one could call independent movies? They are more often than not low-budget works claiming to be pronouncedly mainstream, so as to make the films pay off. On the other hand, the blockbusters of recent times are works that have been allocated significant public funds.

I believe that American terms and standards are not so easily applicable to Europe. The Off Plus Camera Festival is making every effort to find the right balance and reconcile the different practices. The festival’s artistic director Ania Trzebiatowska said: “I’m looking forward to films that are intriguing, original and straightforward. Movies that make me feel like not talking to anyone for a few minutes after they’re over, even if I won’t be able to stop discussing them.” Consequently, this is the most American of all European festivals I have ever happened to attend. Four of a total of twelve films in the Main Dramatic Competition “Making Way” were American, while the fifth was made as a co-production with France. Several more sections – “From the Gut”, “Black American Cinema”, “Dark Stars Rising” – featured American works alone, and the rest also screened such films.

The organizers of Off Plus Camera, whether knowingly or not, seem to suggest that the significant independent and avant-garde films following WWII are being made mostly overseas. Over a decade and a half ago, Tyler Cowen came up with an assumption that the achievements of French film ended with the war due to the fact that at the time no subsidies were granted whatsoever (cf. “French Kiss-Off. How protectionism has hurt French films” –, for one). I am unaware as to whether the young and enthusiastic movers of the Off Plus Camera Festival  – festival director Szymon Miszczak, artistic director Ania Trzebiatowska, and festival spokesperson and programmer Dr. Michal Oleszczyk – hold the same view. But I am sure that they happily welcome any film from the Sundance programme.

The competition left me with an impression that contemporary American independent auteurs are making more personal films and are not fearful that the subject matter or issues raised in their works could seem too trivial, private or individual or made just for the sake of eccentricity. The European filmmakers demonstrate more artistry and skilful command of visual language; they are concerned about their subjects making a difference to society, but steer clear of sounding simplistic or conveying overly plain messages.

This festival didn’t leave me with any clear definition of what an independent European film is either. Still, the festival and the city of Krakow are certainly worthy of attention and love.

Edited by Carmen Gray