Intriguing Program Spoiled by Organisation Problems By Jurica Pavicic

in 10th Split International Festival of New Film

by Jurica Pavicić

The MFNF, International Festival of New Film in Split (Medunarodni festival novog filma Split) is an international festival of (mainly) experimental and cutting-the-edge cinema taking place in the historic city of Split, the biggest city in the region of Dalmatia, on the Croatian Mediterranean coast.

From its foundation in 1996, MFNF oriented itself toward experimental film and video art. The reason for that can be found in a specific local tradition: during the 60s, Split was a strong centre for avant-garde filmmaking, and during the 80s it was a host of the then Yugoslav Summit of Alternative Cinema, hosting regularly modernist classic films from the likes of Dusan Makavejev and Zelimir Zilnik.

This year’s edition of MFNF (from June 3 to June 10) introduced some changes into this concept. The once prominent Short Film Competition shrunk this year, giving more space to a feature competition, features screened off-program (Focus), and to a specialised program for feature documentaries (Forum). Another program which is traditional in Split is Image, specialising in documentaries regarding the history of cinema or great filmmakers. Since 2002, the festival has merged the once separated video and film competition. From the late 90s, the festival has introduced a special third program specialising in new media (CD-ROMs, Internet art, video installations.). This year, that program was cancelled because of the reconstruction of the city gallery, its regular exhibition area.

During the years, the MFNF has earned the reputation of a festival with an interesting program, but bad organisation, bad public relations and low attendance. Unfortunately, that repeated this year: festival publicising was again nonexistent, attendance very low, media response mild, and projections were technically below any acceptable level. Such organisational problems were even more regretful because the program of the festival was very commendable, and it deserved more organisation attention and care.

This year’s main competition included ten features, two of them documentaries. The Grand Prix went to Homecoming , Jon Jost’s bleak, minimalist family drama taking place in a deep American province. Using long shots, static framing and minimum editing, Jost tells the story of a dysfunctional middle class family which is torn apart even more when the youngest son, the father’s favourite, gets killed in the Iraqi war. Jost’s family drama shares the same topics and atmosphere as Sam Shepard’s or Raymond Carver’s work, but Jost’s minimalist approach is obviously inspired by Dogma 95. The film is definitely interesting, but in my opinion we have seen better things in the Split competition. One of these ‘better things’ was the documentary Oh, Man (Oh, uomo) by Italian authors Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. The film (whose title is a quotation from Leonardo da Vinci’s sonnet) tries to describe the terror and consequences of war by using archive footage from the First World War, mainly from the collection of the Museo Storico in Trento. Italian authors never use footage of battles, trenches, or material destruction. Using mesmerising and refined editing technique, they start the film by showing the economic and health consequences of the First World War. Then they slowly shift towards the heart of darkness, the ultimate experience of terror: medical documentation stock from the 1920’s showing mutilation of legs, arms and faces of soldiers coming back from the battlefield. With no single word of comment, Oh, Man is one of the most powerful screams of anti-war despair seen recently in cinema.

From the rest of the competition, one more film is worth mentioning. Fallen (Krisana) is a stylish black-and-white mystery-drama by German Fred Kelemen who shot the film in Latvia, with Latvian actors and in the Latvian and Russian languages. Fallen is kind of moralistic detective movie reminding me slightly of Paul Auster’s unconventional use of genre. The film tells a story about a man who witnessed a possible suicide, seeing the woman who jumped into a river from a bridge. The curious hero (himself an archivist) starts his own investigation. Using the content of the woman’s purse he traces her Russian lover, interfering in a couple’s life with tragic consequences. Director Kelemen is Bela Tarr’s new cinematographer, and influences of the great Hungarian are obvious in Fallen , especially in long, elaborated shots and expressive use of black and white.

By far the best program of the festival was the off-competition program Fokus, which included eight features. Two of them are commonly known in critic circles: Antonia Bird’s investigation on the origins of 9/11 Hamburg Cell , and Yan Yan Mak’ s lesbian drama Butterfly, covering two decades of the history of sexual politics in Hong Kong and Macao enclaves. The biggest discovery of this program, however, was the Iranian film Beautiful City (Shahre Ziba) by young Asghar Farhadi (born 1972). This politically poignant, morally complex and (in film terms) superbly crafted melodrama won the FIPRESCI Jury Prize. Another pleasant surprise of the program was Santiago’s Days (Dias de Santiago), an imperfect but emotionally engaging drama from Peru, directed by Josue Mendez. Santiago’s Days central character resembles Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Santiago is a war veteran coming back to a Peruvian metropolis, rejoining his dysfunctional family. He unsuccessfully looks for job, studies computing, and avoids his old army lads who are turning into criminals. Santiago’s righteousness and incapability to adapt to civil life drives him close to bursting, but the film avoids a Scorsesean blood spilling finale. One interesting aspect of Mendez’s film is the use of different film stocks (grainy black and white and naturalistic colour), but I failed to understand any method or meaning in that creative decision.

The program Forum was composed from 13 feature documentaries, including Zhang Yang’s Hou Ge Ming Shi Dai (Post – Revolutionary Era) on Chinese underground music subculture. Also, the Short Film Competition featured 40 entries, including shorts by Bela Tarr, Avi Mograbi and eminent Croatian cinematographer Goran Trbuljak. The Official Jury gave the main festival prize to Dutch director Martijn Veldhoen for the short film (why do i keep going) FORWARD.