Slovakia – Still Updating

in 16th International Film Festival Bratislava

by Martin Kanuch

How is Slovak cinema maturing? What is its output, its relevance today? In the course of the last two years questions like this have once again initiated new discussions, recapitulations, recollections and writings between filmmakers and film critics. The thing is that in 2013 we remembered 20 years of independent, “self-governing” Slovak cinema. And again in 2014 representatives of Slovak film culture are remembering and celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution (November 1989) – a quarter of century of radical changes, a period of slides and revivals, a time of permanent updates in thinking and filmmaking.  
Slovak cinema does feel good. “In 2013, 22 Slovak and co-production theatrical films were produced, being the highest number in the history of Slovak cinema,” wrote Miro Ulman in the “Report on the Slovak Audiovisual Situation in 2013”. Both its revival and growing potency are also confirmed by the release schedule of 24 titles (11 debuts) this year. Recent presentations of Slovak cinema at European film festivals and markets (Berlin – Velvet Terrorists, Rotterdam – My Dog Killer) underline its good, healthy condition. After years of anesthesia and marginality it has finally gained power and self-confidence. Slovak filmmakers still, of course, need new impulses, connections, experiences, but the cinema has already been put upon the European audiovisual map.  

The International Film Festival Bratislava, like other film festivals in Slovakia, necessarily represents this process of emancipation through the annual selection of the best films from the overall national film production (fiction films, documentaries and animations, majority and minority co-productions), in particular competition or overview sections in its program. At first, the growth of film production has increased the number of films, which can be selected without any worries by the IFF Bratislava program director Nenad Dukic and included in one of three competition sections – first and second fiction features, first and second documentary features and short films.

The competition of first and second fiction features at the 16th edition of International Film Festival Bratislava was represented by one of the most awaited projects of the year – Children, a film by a well-known documentary filmmaker Jaro Vojtek. He moves very familiarly within the borderlands of fiction and documentary filmmaking (The Border, 2009). But his first and evident shift into fiction with Children has paradoxically weakened his ability of sensitive insights (empathetic zooming in) into personal and intimate parts of living, behavior, acting and decision making of his characters. Children and adults (parents) give a bit of a cold impression, as they are portrayed as being seen from a distance. Vojtek directly uncovers their gloomy living conditions, but his approach doesn’t provoke any stronger emotional response, nor any distinctive engagement of its viewer.
Slovak Films in the program of the Bratislava Film Festival are included primarily in a traditionally separate program section entitled “Made in Slovakia” (re-established in 2009). The Section is designed by programmers to attract the domestic audience (with its focus on the most recent titles), but “the selection should simultaneously introduce contemporary Slovak cinema to foreign festival-goers and guests in the most representative way possible”. This year consisted of four fiction (Slovakia 2.0, In the Silence) and documentary (wave vs. shore, Live for Passion) feature films and two short animations made by young female directors (Fongopolis, Nina). A relatively small program, “Made in Slovakia” mirrors a remarkable variety of genres, styles, and narrative/visual approaches. On one hand fictions can reflect contemporary hot and controversial issues and problems within Slovak society – unemployment, health care, political non-culture (Slovakia 2.0 – 10 shorts, each a 10 minute account made by 10 directors on 20 years of Independent Slovakia). On the other, fiction films do not fear to reflect our painful past (In the Silence – a docu-musical based on a story of a musician Agáta Schindler – a poetic journey mapping out fragments of destinies of four Jewish musicians during the Nazi rule in Slovakia).

The first of two documentaries is a portrait of a Polish mountaineer Wieslaw Stanislawski, a pioneer of mountain climbing in the High Tatras during the first half of the 20th century (Live for Passion by Pavol Barabáš). The second one is a collective portrait of eight famous Slovak photographers (Generation 1960), students of FAMU in Prague (Stano, Župník, Prekop, Švolík, Varga, Pavlík, Štrba, Stanko), who have introduced a phenomenon of the Slovak New Wave into photography since the 1980s. The film is the directorial debut of Martin Štrba (one of the aforementioned group) who has been a renowned cinematographer since the 1990s (he is a close collaborator of Martin Šulík – the most important Slovak director in the era after the fall of communism). In the context of a whole year’s film production, Štrba’s wave vs. shore was one of my most pleasant personal surprises: because of its spontaneity, creative energy, playfulness, visual originality and deep insight into the life stories of particular personalities. An ideal timing enabled viewers not only to see the film itself, but also attend the summarizing exhibition of photographs by given artists presented in the 24th year of the Month of Photography Festival.

Edited by Steven Yates