Ljubljana la douce By Janine Euvrard
Ljubiana’s International Film Festival is the most important cultural event in Slovenia. The festival opened on November 10, 2006, with a rich and varied selection of about 130 films. The festival’s various juries were convened from November 17 to 24.
The programming is divided into sections, each with its own focus. The Avant Premières section presents established filmmakers with new highlights from European and other cinemas. South by Southeast is an overview of film production in Southeast Europe. Against the Wind features filmmakers who defy the prevailing trends, while Extravagance follows the work of significant creators of aesthetically original films. This year, the Tribute section introduced Lita Static, an Argentinian producer of Slovene origin, while Focus presented new French cinema. The Documentaries section offered us a selection of contemporary films from all over the world. The Perspectives section is open to new directors with debut features; they compete for the Kingfisher award, which this year went to Annette K. Olesen’s 1:1. Horizons is another competitive section; the prize, the Golden Reel, was awarded by the audience to Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto.
Two other awards are presented: The Amnesty International award for the best film with a human-rights theme, bestowed upon Jafar Panahi’s Offside, and the International Critics’ Award, which went to White Palms (Feher tenyer), by Hungarian filmmaker Szabolcz Hajdu.
This year again, the festival invited several guests, including directors, actors, journalists and producers. Question-and-answer sessions at the screenings were very enthusiastically attended by disproportionately young audience members. Even if their finished product is sometimes unequal to the filmmaker’s intentions, some strong, significant films stood out in the various sections mentioned above.
The Master (Misr), by the Polish director Piotr Trzaskalski, tells the story of knife-thrower Alexander Sapatin, nicknamed the Master; destroyed by the war in Afghanistan, he drowns his memories in vodka. He is accompanied through most of the film by various lost souls who cannot find a place in present-day society; Alexander does not bring them happiness any more than he can to himself, and he ends up standing in front of his burning caravan – which he himself has set on fire.
The Master is full of tenderness and compassion for its characters, never maudlin or melodramatic. Konstantin Lavronenko is superb in the title role.The tight, uncompromising editing enhances the film’s strength.
Ahlaam, an Iraqi film by Mohamed Al-Daradji, deserves notice above all for being one of the very few films shot in Iraq at the beginning of the American invasion.
Baghdad, 2003: Confusion, uncertainty and death engulf the bombed ruins of a psychiatric asylum. We move between the past and present of three Iraqi lives entangled by the chaos of America’s “Shock and Awe” campaign. Ahlaam is a young woman confined to the asylum after witnessing the violent arrest of her fiancé on their wedding day. Dr. Medhi, a hard-working idealist, longs for a free Iraq. And Ali, a patient and former soldier, is now shell-shocked and traumatized by the American bombings of his platoon.
The film lacks a point of view, and the bombardment sequences succeed each other rather mechanically, but nevertheless the director deserves to be encouraged. The film was produced under all but impossible conditions, with its cast and crew subject to kidnappings from both sides. Despite a go-ahead from the coalition command and the protection of the Iraqi police, Al-Daradji found it necessary to carry an AK-47 in one hand and his camera in the other.
South By Southeast
Christian Wagner’s Warchild, a Germano-Slovenian production, describes the misadventures and despair of a Bosnian couple who lost their daughter in the war. Now 13, the girl has been legally adopted by a German couple, so her biological parents can never retrieve her.
The mother’s quest, illegally crossing Bosnia towards Germany, is shown in a melodramatic and simplistic way; the film has faults – particularly its script – but it does strive to show how, by killing or separating entire families, the war tore a people apart.
Bulgarian director Milena Andonova’s first feature, Monkeys in Winter (Maimuni prez zinata) sketches three different destinies at three different points in time, as three young women all bear the cost of their fateful choices to suffer, struggle, and strive for happiness. The story begins in 1960, as Dona, a gypsy (masterfully played by the beautiful Bonka llieva-Boni, herself of gypsy origin), has three children by different husbands.
The film moves us on account of the frailty of the three women and the superlative acting of the actresses, but its construction is unclear. Perhaps Andonova tried to say too much in one film, and the material she shot deserved a tighter edit; she is, nonetheless, a filmmaker to watch.
What a Wonderful Place (Eize makom nifla), by the Israeli director Eyal Halfon, illuminates a rarely acknowledged aspect of Israeli reality: The smuggling of Ukrainian girls who are promised jobs but are forced to become prostitutes once their passports have been confiscated, and of Filipino and Taiwanese men imported as domestics.
Halfon defines himself as a “social” filmmaker, and his film exemplifies this. Along with the suffering and rare joys of the immigrants, he portrays the Israelis as a damaged, paranoid people, bruised by years of conflict. “We have become a very aggresive people,” he says, “and I see no solution; I don’t think even my children will see the end of it “.
What a Wonderful Place is a strong, uncompromising film. Halfon dares show the sometimes terribly cruel racism displayed by Israelis towards the immigrants, but he also shows the gentle compassion of some of their employers. The film also demonstrates the consequences of the exploitation of human beings in our time – a problem not restricted, the director points out, to Israel alone.