The Legends, the History, the Smells and the Tastes By Stefan Ivančić

in 10th Motovun International Film Festival

by Stefan Ivancic

I. The Legends

I first heard of the Motovun Film Festival sometime around 2004, when I was just getting started in writing on film. A friend of mine was there the year before, in 2003, when Paul Thomas Anderson visited the Motovun Film Festival’s (from now referred to as MFF) fifth edition, where his Punch-Drunk Love (2002) won the “Propeller of Motovun”, the main prize.

I was told that Anderson accepted an invitation to go there after receiving a big truffle from the festival’s organizers, a big culinary delicacy from the Croatian Istria region where the MFF is set. Anderson enjoyed Motovun, as all its visitors did that year. Since then, he has become chairman of the advisors council of the MFF. As a big fan of Anderson, I was moved by this story and immediately knew that one day I would visit this festival.

II. History

Ten years after its birth, I finally managed to visit the MFF. Back in 1998, Rajko Grlic, director of the recent movie Border Post (Karaula, 2006), among others), still the artistic director of the MFF, had the idea of creating a film event that would give an opportunity for the audience, not just cinephiles, to see a kind of cinema that was invisible in the country, a cinema that was distanced from the standard distribution channels in Croatia. Before Motovun, Grlic run a film school in Groznjan, a village next to Motovun, and the original plan was to organize the festival there. However, Groznjan was too small for hosting a film festival. Although Motovun, with its population of 500, was not much bigger, it had a former cinema — the actual Kino Bauer. This proved to be the crucial ingredient. They managed to reform it, and in 1999 the MFF hosted its first edition with a budget of just 15,000 euros.

Today the MFF is a much bigger festival, with more film screenings, visitors and a larger budget — but it still has the spirit of a rebel child, and a kind of revolutionary atmosphere not usually attributed to film festivals in general. “Croatia is sometimes a very catholic country, but we still managed to do the condoms thing”, confesses Grlic, alluding to the campaign they made, together with the brand Trojan, giving a special free, MFF packaged condoms to each visitor, most of which are youngsters. Some years ago they also printed t-shirts with a satirical “help the Croatian Ministry of Culture” for a sort of charity campaign. This is due to the fact that, in the very last moments before the festival, the Ministry of Culture cut MFF’s financial help of 100.000 euros with the excuse of not having any more money to give. With this in mind, it has to be said that there have never been red carpets and dress codes in the MFF, although this year’s visiting country, Russia, turned the main square of the Kino Trg (the main projection location of the festival) into a replica of Moscow’s Red Square.

III. The Smells: Motovun 2008

The first thing one realizes when arriving at the MFF is that all the rumors about its positive atmosphere and relaxed mood are true (broadly described in FIPRESCI’s previous yearly reports on MFF). “We don’t conceive it just as a film festival. It is more like an event”, says Rajko Grlic. Although night time, open air screenings are packed, it is rare to see big crowds in the morning projections, as parties that take place every night in the streets of Motovun don’t stop even after sunrise, and there is free entrance to everyone without any kind of VIP snobbisms or similar.

Another trait specific to the MFF is its visitors’ cinematic curiosity. Coming back to the regular idea of invisible cinema and festival films, it is interesting to see the audience reaction after the Motovun screenings. These heart-felt, positive responses prove that the audience is not just interested in “crowd pleaser films”, though they are present in the MFF — at the 10th MFF program one could find Oscar-winning Once (John Carney, 2007), Ken Loach’s It’s a Free World (2007) or the Amélie-like Mermaid (Anna Melikian, 2007). Even if these type of films are there, the public also enjoy watching films that are conceived in the mind frame of experimental filmmaking and/or new aesthetical tracts, such as this year’s Motovun Propeller winning Silent Light (Stellet licht) by Carlos Reygadas (2006), Guy Maddin’s 2008 movie My Winnipeg (the only purely cut-and-edit film shown this year), FIPRESCI winner Blind Loves (Slépe Lásky) by Juraj Lehotsky (2008) or Lav Diaz’s 2007 elegiac Death in the Land of Encantos (Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto). The festival rewarded the nine people who managed to watch the entire nine-hour length of Encantos, as it was screened from 01.30 until 11.30 am, a long night and until next late morning. Some maybe would add Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys (Üç maymun) to the top of the list, but I personally agree with Christoph Hüber’s opinion that it is one of the ugliest HD films ever shot. Despite the fact that the story in Three Monkeys is quite interesting, it uses High Definition needlessly, even grotesquely. I fail to see why the movie was shot in HD, and not with a home handy-cam instead — its fake night vision color tones turn off any effect of HD’s perfect pureness of detail. What is the point in using High Definition if you are going to null all the specificity given by the format?

This year’s main competition program consisted of 19 films — obviously an excessive number, considering the MFF only lasts a mere five days. Many of these movies (or should I say all of them?) deal with broken marriages and disconnected or destroyed families. Festival programmers, the above mentioned Rajko Grlic and film critic Jurica Pavicic, have said this was not imposed by them, but just something that happened to be that way as a result of contemporary film tendencies. Alongside movies in the main competition, there were nine more movies in the sidebar. These ones where spearheaded by the first ever former Yugoslav movie spectacle, Tears for Sale (Carlston za Ognjenku, 2008) by debutant director Uroš Stojanovic. The MFF also celebrated 100 years of Russian film with a selection of representative works of its cinematography, organized with the cooperation of the Gosfilmofond archive making it possible to see the works of directors such as Yevgeni Bauer, Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky, among many others.

IV. The Tastes

When searching for the best and the worst examples of contemporary cinema among MFF’s selection, one could choose the two films that do not deal directly with the subject of family disturbances: Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007) and Gerardo Olivares’ 14 kilometers (14 kilómetros, 2007). Both films do not represent individual families but decaying countries and the life of its people as if they were a magnified, megalomaniacal version of a dysfunctional family. While Balabanov explores the late history of the former USSR, choosing real events that took place in 1984, Olivares deforms the present in a way that it is difficult to understand. 14 kilometers is NGO cinema in its worst — it not only uses all the clichés of the genre (immigration, racism, world music, etc.), but it also chooses to ignore the real problems of European society. This is especially apparent at the end, when a Spanish border policeman lets the two main characters, two African immigrants, enter the Schengen territory. After having suffered every single bad thing that was possible to find during their travel through the southern continent, their arrival in the promised Europe is turned into a bright “Welcome!” from one of its citizens, a representative one. I don’t think so. As it is said in 14 kilometers: “You’re leaving Africa dry!”

I vehemently implore each and every one of us to stop the kind of cinema that allows itself to shoot a death-ridden desert odyssey as if it was a MTV music video (all form is missing). They should strive to learn from films like Mahmat-Saleh Haroun’s Dry Season (Daratt, 2006) and Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako (2006) instead. On the other hand, nothing is random in Cargo 200, as it is a depiction of the rise of the individual against the collective ideals of socialism. Every single element present in the film (the colors, the characters, the places) stands for an idea. The most frightening of them all is captain Zhurov’s passive but aware-of-the-situation mother from that scary place called Leninsk — the mother Russia of that time. Just like 14 kilometers, Cargo 200 ends with two people walking up a road. Yes, there is always a new beginning. But the main difference is that the road taken by Valera and his new friend is leading towards reality, and the path taken by the 14 kilometers protagonists is a fake one.