The Continuous Ascension of Slovak Cinema By Ladislav Volko

in 10th Bratislava International Film Festival

by Ladislav Volko

After Slovakia became independent in 1993, some described it as a country of film festivals with no actual films of its own. A bit of exaggeration, clearly, but the truth was that Slovak cinema was lagging far behind and could not keep up with the rising international competition.

Yet from its earliest days, the Bratislava International Film Festival has been enjoying an ever-growing reputation. Its quality and style, the films shown and the guests attending have garnered great respect for the festival. Being a festival for first and second films, one of its prime objectives is to discovering new talent. During its celebrated tenth year, professionals and amateur cinema goers alike have seen a number of works, offering both entertainment and food for thought. Sold-out screenings, predominantly attended by the younger generation, have vindicated the direction the festival has taken, and have also proven successful those ten years’ of hard work hunting for talent.

This year’s tenth Bratislava IFF basked in the creative atmosphere of heated discussions and encounters with film makers, while introducing a number of directors about whom, I am sure, we will hear more in the future. One of those is Amat Escalante, presenting his second film The Bastards (Los bastardos) after creating quite a stir with his debut film Blood (Sangre). The Bastards depicts a single day in the lives of two young and illegal Mexican emigrants, working in the US. The film made it clear that the world cinema has acquired an eminent new practitioner. Another prominent figure, the talented Hungarian director György Pálfi, a member of this year’s jury, presented his second film, Taxidermia, an exceptionally cruel account of the practices employed by the former totalitarian regime, wrapped in brilliant visuals.

Pierre Schöller, a French film maker, came to Bratislava to introduce his feature debut Versailles. In his film, he has opted for a traditional narrative, though the story of a small boy being abandoned by his mother to be subsequently picked up by a homeless person reaches the depth of a Dostoevskian tale. I could go on and mention, for instance, Namik Kabil, a Bosnian director working in Sarajevo, whose Night Guards (Cuvari noci) represents another take on the destructive fallout of the post war conflict, repressed in the unconscious.

As the program director Peter Nágel said, “our stars are the films” — a truth shining through the works presented. But, on the other hand, the film-makers attending the festival were the ones who — in addition to facilitating the contact of their protagonists with the perceptive audiences — made the panel discussions and clashes of views possible. As for the professionals, or the future professionals like the film and audiovisual students in attendance, the festival offered a great learning opportunity, one that they have surely benefited from. The audiences were also able to benefit from the online forum and share their views on world cinema developments. Many of the online debates picked up where the post-screening panel discussions left off – and they would merit further analysis.

The development of audiovisual technologies has facilitated an innovative point of view to various facets of the world. It might be a slight exaggeration, but contemporary film technologies have made the dreams of great film experimenters come true — like those of Sergei Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov, amongst the many others whose innovations inform cinema history — by inspiring works of imagination, symbolism, hidden meanings and mystery. Technology has enabled some of these works to even reach for the pits of Freudian unconscious. It seems however that the obsession with various technical achievements is now concurred by a new phase of experimentation, dominated by dramaturgy. Especially in works where while striving to present an overwrought testimony of human values dramaturgy embraces raw cruelty, grief, exile and lack of consolation. The saying “everything has already been invented” might very well apply to contemporary film, but new inspiration and excitement are still abound in non-traditional, sotto voce visual narrations, in the focus on detail and taking various view-points. The best works, shown at the festival, teach us to take a fresh, sidelong look at the world around us but to also reflect on the picture of the human mind they have assembled.

Judging by the majority of films, one could say that the proliferation of dramaturgical approaches has reached the outer limits of experimentation… Until one has seen a couple of films I would like to draw your attention to prime examples of bold narrative experimentation — the Norwegian film by Eva Sorhaug, Cold Lunch (Lonsj), and Under the Bombs (Sous les bombes), a film by Philippe Aractingi, a Lebanese-French-Belgian co-production. In its own original way, each one offers a powerful eye-witness account of the cruelty humans are capable to inflict on each other. Both films are a must-see.

The Bratislava festival also gave a chance to local products to openly compete with the international productions mentioned above. The names of the young film-makers Dano Rihák, author of Smog, as well as Viktor Csudai, author of The Catfish Summer (Poslední plavky) and director Peter Kristúfek, are to be remembered as we will surely hear of them again.

The list of renowned Slovak film makers features Dusan Trancík who introduced his film profile of Ludovít Winter, founder of the world-famous Piestany Spa. Pavol Barabás, a world-acclaimed documentary film director, contributed two films to the festival program: Bhutan, about seeking happiness, and Carstenz — The Seventh Mountain, both works speak of human survival in far-off cultures. Traditionally, the Slovak contribution to the festival also features several films in progress and at various production stages, in a way of informing the guests about what to expect in the near future.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that the festival’s selection of contemporary Slovak films is the best proof of the continuous ascension of Slovak cinema to international recognition. They have allowed foreign and Slovak festival goers alike to reconsider the above mentioned truism that Slovak film festivals outnumber the films produced by the country. As it happens, the festival has also encouraged establishing further co-operation on different levels. Somehow, the film previews let me believe that Slovakian films will again make it at the next edition of the festival in 2009.