Out of the Old Shadows By Barbara Lorey

in 16th Ljubljana International Film Festival (LIFFE)

by Barbara Lorey

The first of the former Yugoslav republics to break free from the then still communist Yugoslav federation, Slovenia successfully managed to avoid being drawn into the bloody Balkan wars and ongoing conflicts. Also, it was the first country of this region to succeed in getting a foothold into the European Union. This small, Catholic country of just two million inhabitants strongly affirms its place at the ‘heart’ of Europe, valuing its long historical ties to Mitteleuropa, rather than its common history with the Tito regime and the bloodshed afterwards.

The capital, Ljubljana, with its beautiful, well preserved architecture, its romantic river walks, overlooked by an imposing castle and surrounded by idyllic countryside, has became a major attraction for tourists. For a city of less than 300 000 inhabitants, its cultural life and events are impressive. Its centre is located in the Cankarjev Dom, a gigantic, bunker-like complex and pure example of socialist architecture, linked in those days, apparently, by subterranean corridors to the government building across the street.

Cankarjev Dom is also the headquarters of the one of the cities biggest events, the Ljubljana International Film Festival, which takes place each year at the end of November. With its amazing programme of about 108 films, divided into 12 different sections, and screened in five locations, LIFFE is definitely an audience festival. The 60 international guests included leading filmmakers from all over the world who were assailed by questions after each showing by the large and curious audiences, and the members of the three juries. Although the event is abundantly covered by the Slovenian press, radio and TV, the presence of foreign press and professionals was less apparent.

Founded in 1989 by Jelka Stergel and under her direction since then, the festival began as a kind of post-fest to the former Yugoslavian Film festival in Belgrade. It is publicly administered and has the strong support of the Ministry of Culture (up to 60% funding), the other 40% being covered by the box office (more than 50,000 tickets sold this year) and private sponsors. Although totally independent in program choices, the festival “has yet to fit into the house”, says Stergel, which means that most of her staff are state employees of Cankarjev Dom, doing their regular job, sometimes incompatible with the demands of the festival life.

Unhappy with the very complicated centralised distribution system back then that brought the films into the country mostly two to three years after production, Ms. Stergel chose a different path by starting independent art film distribution for filmmakers that didn’t find a way through the system, such as Wim Wenders, Pedro Almodóvar or, later, Emir Kusturica. However, since independent distribution was forbidden, they used their position as a cultural centre to show them under a non-theatrical label.

Since 1991, the festival has grown rapidly into an important regional showcase for foreign art film productions. Besides the competition programs, the avant-premieres are an important festival section: nine films this year, among them Haneke’s Hidden (Caché) and Jim Jarmush’s Broken Flowers.

The FIPRESCI jury was asked this year to give particular attention for its prize to a special section South by Southeast — expected to be a showcase of the most recent film production of the so called Balkans. However, not only does this Balkan denomination have a built-in problem of definition, but many other new films from this part of southeast Europe were shown in other sections, and Slovenian films found themselves altogether apart in a special Slovenian section.

Our seven films (among which Cristi Puiu’s Death of Mr. Lazarescu had already been awarded in another festival) included; the Bosnian video documentary feature Totally Personal (Sasvim licno), where forty-seven year old film-maker Nedzad Begovic retraces in a subtle, very personal, and wry humorous way his years growing up in Bosnia and Herzegovina; the first feature film produced under the flag of Kosovo, Kukumi, by Isa Qosja, a stunningly beautiful metaphorical tale about three mentally ill patients wandering through the rambling post-war countryside of Kosovo; Hostage (Omiros) by the Greek-British Filmmaker Constantin Giannaris, about the extremely sensitive issue of ethnic tensions between Greece and Albania; and two films from Serbia, the gloomy, disturbing Awakening from the Dead (Budenje iz mrtvih) by Milos Radivojevic, whose main character, a distressed middle-aged and bitterly disappointed liberal intellectual doesn’t leave much hope for Serbia’s future, and the absurdist political thriller South by Southeast (Jug jugoistok, by Milutin Petrovic, eludes the understanding of those unfamiliar with the Serbian film scene.

Last but not least, our favourite, a little gem from Croatia, is Tomislav Radic’s highly enjoyable and ingenious caustic comedy, the multi-layered faux documentary What Iva Recorded on the 21st October 2003 (Sto je Iva snimila 21. listopada 2003).

If most of the films produced in the Balkans (at least those accessible in festivals) still refer to the scars and the blood trails of recent history left in the collective conscience, Slovenian films seem to place themselves resolutely in the present, and deal with current conflicts. This undoubtedly talented new generation of Slovenian filmmakers merits certainly much deeper reflection.

Sitting underground in the Cankarjev Dom, closely examining this region through its films, piqued my curiosity and raised several questions, such as the untold stories of the Slovenian past, those that lay underneath the idyllic and polished surface of this little ‘musterland’, ‘the skeletons in the closet’ or, perhaps, the ones left unburied in the Karst region. It would also be interesting to see a treatment of the issue of the more or less invisible minorities, especially in these days of growing xenophobia in this country, and a very clear leaning to the right of the populist government.

Unfortunately the much awaited closing film Ljubljana The Beloved (Ljubljana je ljubljena), by veteran filmmaker Matjaz Klopcic, a tale about growing up in Ljubljana, “during a dark period of history” (catalogue text), was not subtitled. Also without subtitles was another Slovenian documentary in the program, Aven Chavora by Filip Robar Dorin, the second part of a trilogy tackling the highly conflicting and tense issues of Roma-minorities in Slovenia.