Motovun Strikes Back

in 24th International Motovun Film Festival

by Hrvoje Puksec

Jovan Marjanović, Head of Industry of the Sarajevo Film Festival, recently talked about the “old abnormal” when promoting his festival around South East Europe. This year’s 27th edition of the SFF, which is due to take place in mid-August, has yet to prove that Marjanović was right to use that phrase, but o boy it certainly was true for this year’s Motovun Film Festival!

Founded twenty-three years ago, Motovun swept up the whole Croatian festival scene almost overnight. In retrospect, it actually defined it. The old world – with the Pula Film Festival’s monolithic reign of being the biggest and most influential film festival in the wider region – ceased to exist, and a rich, vibrant festival scene started to emerge, following in the steps of the MFF. In Croatia today, there is no major city that hasn’t got its own film festival, sometimes even two (in the capital Zagreb even more than 10 !), and non-commercial films from all over the world are being screened in the region continuously during the year. Arguably, as a consequence of the overall downsizing and fragmentation, some of the glamour also faded away but, at the same time, the uniformness and sameness of the red carpets was replaced by local flavors, sights and sounds – to keep it simple: with charm.

From Motovun’s point of view, the Corona crisis came at the worst possible time. The festival was in the middle of redefining and revitalizing itself after both the organization and the audience got a bit weary over the years. In the meantime, the small town of Motovun had become one of Croatia’s gastronomic places to go. Once a small, hidden town on the top of a hill that was the place of hidden wonders (such as truffles, olive oil, wine and prosciutto) yet to be discovered, it suddenly became a tourist mecca that did not need wild parties, daring films and artistic unpredictability. However, the pandemic scaled everything down – restaurants have enough tables for gastro lovers, and the festival has the rest of the city for just the right number of seats in front of the big screens.

In fact, the phrase “big screen” was not used randomly. Since the Motovun Film Festival went all out with no online screenings but a substantial number of guests and packed open-air cinemas, those big screens became the true stars of the festivals. Filmmakers came in numbers just to finally watch their films as they’re meant to be seen. And the audience, on the other hand, remembered how it feels to watch films outside their personal bubbles. Getting to see and hear people’s reactions as well as discussing films with friends and colleagues are a vital part of public screenings – it is something that should be cherished. However, as the past months have shown, the added value can easily be destroyed in the blink of a pandemic.

The virus nevertheless left a mark. Not only in terms of the organizational protocols due to Covid, but in the way it hit the film industry in general and film production in particular. On paper, the main competition actually looked pretty promising. It included films coming from a number of different genres and schools of cinema, and with prestigious awards attached – yet, the selection was somewhat rugged, eclectic in the wrong way. However, even despite the imbalanced programming, the festival still presented several well-made films and a few small gems.

The first to mention is this year’s FIPRESCI winner, Factory to the Workers (Tvornice radnicima, 2021), a documentary that portrays the only successful example of a worker occupation in post-socialist Europe. Over a period of six years, Srđan Kovačević followed the workers who occupied the ITAS factory in Ivanac, Croatia, in 2005. Tracing an arc from the big ideas they once had to their mundane (post-capitalist) struggles, the film captures the ups and downs of the almost utopian group of workers that are determined to survive. Set in the limbo between socialism and capitalism, the factory and the film itself both offer a rare view of the everyday life of contemporary workingmen in (Eastern) Europe in a painstakingly authentic way.

With Sanremo (2020), Slovenian director Miroslav Mandić presented his best film so far, a slow paced, poetic and masterfully crafted love story set in a nursing home. Late in his film, in one of the most memorable scenes of the entire festival, Mandić proves that even the smallest films can and should have ambitious aspirations – not only because of its breathtaking closing scene, but also because of the bullet-proof script that he manages to transform into highly precise filmmaking.

Finally, Pascal Tagnati stood out with his directing debut A Corsican Summer (I Comete, 2021) in the way he arranges a captivating set of smart, funny, unexpected and exciting vignettes that, as the film develops, start to fall into place, to create a sometimes chaotic but bitter-sweet drama that lingers somewhere between documentary realism and fictional absurdity. 

The 24th edition of the Motovun Film Festival showed us how the “old abnormal” can be entertaining and seductive. Films of quality and parties until the dawn garnished this protocol driven Coronavirus edition with unbreakable optimism. It was something that all the participants, guests and organizers of this year’s festival desperately needed, and it was delivered in heaps. A true celebration of cinema.

Hrvoje Puksec
Edited by Pamela Jahn