Each year when late autumn temperatures drop, and the days become shorter and darker, the city of Ljubljana immerses itself into the cinematic gems from around the world. For ten days that always seem to pass by too quickly, our small capital lives and breathes cinema, with people rushing all over town, trying to catch their next screening or a quick coffee date where they’ll discuss the films they’ve seen so far. This year, however, the festival had to adapt to the new pandemic reality that locked down the entire city, forbade its citizens from crossing municipal borders and even enforced a nightly curfew that made it impossible to move around freely after 9 PM. While they were hoping for a physical edition until the very last minute, the 31st Ljubljana International Film Festival had to be moved online, but this also meant its program got reduced by half due to distribution restrictions of certain films and the inability to include an extensive retrospective of Federico Fellini that was supposed to take place in the Slovenian Cinematheque. Our FIPRESCI jury thus worked online, and despite the relatively low number of competition films that were part of this year’s “Perspectives” section, had an inspiring final deliberation during which we unanimously decided to award a Kosovan drama Exile (Exil, 2020).
Sweat drips out of every frame of Visar Morina’s sophomore feature, which examines a slow-burning sense of paranoia that awakens within Xhafer, a Kosovo-born chemical engineer living in suburban Germany. A father of three, with a German wife and an Albanian mistress on the side, he seems to be living a life every immigrant would dream of. But Exile, which incorporates strong elements of a thriller, soon takes a dark turn when he finds a dead rat at his home’s entrance – an event that sets the anxiety-filled tone of the film that visualises both the daily microaggressions ingrained in Western racism towards the “Other”, and his own personal prison of insecurities. A multi-layered script is accompanied by flawless direction, cinematography, and suspenseful sound design, all of which hold us in a sense of panic, not unlike the one we observe in close-ups of Xhafer’s sweaty neck as we follow him through the dark corridors that fully implement a claustrophobic feel of someone lost in a labyrinth of self-pity and deeply internalised xenophobia.
Another film that left a strong impression was The Assistant (2019) by Kitty Green, which guides us into the harrowing patriarchal reality of the film industry, daringly drawing parallels with the company once established by the Weinstein brothers. Green’s observational camera examines a single workday of a young assistant as she performs monotonous office routines. The film is subtly nodding to Chantal Akerman’s feminist classic Jeanne Dielman, 23, qu ai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), while subtly also incorporating undertones of a thriller, as there is something dark looming over the place – a mysterious, unseen presence of a cruel, misogynistic, powerful boss, whose tendencies to humiliate and sexually abuse his employees send shivers down our spine. Silence is an important part of this film, which almost entirely relies on diegetic sounds of an office: a copy machine, computer keyboards, phone ringing. The sounds only amplify the “culture of silence” that grew around the industry, and that in this context creates a feeling of anxiety and suspense. With this minimalist, yet somehow ground-breaking film, Green puts us into the position of an insignificant, quickly replaceable assistant, who gets bullied into quiet submissiveness and complicity in her boss’s shameless abuse of power. Yet the director remains aware of the complexity of the situation, which shows us the inner battle of someone who finds herself in front of two almost impossible choices: keeping her integrity and diving into the reality of broken dreams and an uncertain future, or ignoring her sense of morale and trying to persevere while holding a steady and well-paid job. Perhaps she could someday climb the ladder and change the system from the top? Or will staying inside this rotten industry fundamentally change her before she could implement any difference?
Experiencing the Ljubljana Film Festival, an event I have been regularly attending for over a decade, from the comfort of my living room was definitely interesting. But cinema is supposed to be a social experience: people gathering in dark theatres, sharing laughs, tears and feelings of amazement. I’m therefore already looking forward to next November, when our city will once again become one with cinematic masterpieces and extravaganzas from around the world. Or so we hope.
© FIPRESCI 2020
Edited by Nace Zavrl