By Andrew James Horton
January 2, 2005 - 1:57 PM PST
Rushing through the festival center, I was stopped in my tracks by a clear, forceful voice with a Laurence Olivier-style delivery extolling the virtues of all things digital. It was Peter Greenaway, here at the festival to pick up an honorary Golden Alexander, in the midst of giving a press conference.
Greenaway's latest project, the three-part The Tulse Luper Suitcases, is on show at the festival. Or rather, I should say, part of the project, since it not only embraces the three features on show at the festival but also a series of art installations, DVDs, CD-ROMs and more, all devoted to Tulse Luper, whom Greenaway describes as his alter ego. Some 500 people are currently working on producing all this material, and Greenaway, who now lives in the Netherlands, expects it to absorb his attention for the next three years, after which he hopes that the project will continue independently of him with a life of its own. Intriguingly, Greenaway claims that Tulse Luper will rival Harry Potter. Hmm...
Meanwhile, on the subject of Golden Alexanders, it should be explained that the award gets its name from the legendary military commander Alexander the Great, the subject of the latest Oliver Stone film. Greeks take enormous pride in their history and, as a result, have taken umbrage at Stone's film, which paints Alexander as being bisexual. A group of Greek lawyers are now threatening to sue Stone and Warner Brothers, while Stone maintains a historian was constantly on set to ensure historical accuracy and gay and lesbian groups have hailed the film as a milestone in Hollywood blockbusters.
Back to films at the festival, though: I suffered a big disappointment attending Radivoje Andric's When I Grow Up I'll be a Kangeroo (Serbia, 2004). Andric is Serbia's answer to Kevin Smith, making screwball comedies about his country's own slacker generation. Local audiences have responded warmly to his films, which capture the mood of the times and are not overt political or social commentary (a pleasant contrast to many films from the Serbia). Andric's latest, though, just isn't as side-splittingly funny as his previous ones and doesn't even have a pretense of a plot.
More encouragingly, I caught two films from the festival's Victor Erice retrospective. More word on these magical, luminous films when I've seen the lot.
A couple of days ago, I reported on a Serbian film that, in part, looked at the country's role in war crimes in the Yugoslav wars of secession. Today, it's Croatia's turn. If anything, the debate in Croatia is even more of a touchy subject, as the country has largely escaped being viewed as culpable in the eyes of the international community thanks to the convenient death in 1999 of its own ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic leader, Franjo Tudjman, who viewed the Nazi-created Croatian state in the Second World War years as "an expression of the historical aspirations of the Croatian people." Today, there is a deep suspicion of the Hague and those who committed war crimes are viewed in some sections of society as heroes protecting the motherland. Enter Vinko Bresan's new film, Witnesses (2003), playing in the festival's Balkan Survey section.
Of all the directors to emerge from the remains of the Yugoslavia after the Dayton Peace Accords were signed, the most internationally successful so far has been Bresan. All his films have critically examined the recent past, and his first two - How the War Started on My Island (1996) and Marshal Tito's Spirit (1999) - were comedies. But this time, he's veered away from the comic to a serious drama examining the real-life murder of a Serbian civilian by Croatian soldiers in 1992 (via a novel by film critic Jurica Pavicic). Using a Pulp Fiction-style narrative to revisit events from different angles, Bresan slowly builds up the full story of moral weakness and guilt. Along the way, the film explores the arguments that come instinctually to many Croats, that investigating a single death of a single Serbian civilian (and, as it happens, a morally reprehensible one) when Croat lives are being lost all around is meaningless.
Full marks then to Bresan and Pavicic for their moral stance. But dramatically, the film suffers from some flatness. Perhaps the transition of the central character from a state of guilt by twist of fate to one of guilt by reason of moral failing is too fine a distinction for Western viewers unfamiliar with the heady arguments that surround Croatia's involvement in the war.
Later in the evening, I caught another Russian film, Marina Razbezhkina's Harvest Time (2004). Out of four Russian films I've seen, three have been very good and only one disappointing. This reflects a wider recovery of Russian cinema, following the dark years that followed the country's economic woes in the 1990s, and has been seen in the emergence of other films and directors at other festivals - think of Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Return, which scooped up the Golden Lion at the 2003 Venice Film Festival.
Harvest Time is a poetic film that looks back at a childhood on a collective farm in 1950. It's notable in two respects: firstly, its tender evocation of the passing of time, memory and its destruction, and secondly, its ability to recreate the age. Many films made in the former Eastern bloc after 1989 have had difficulty in looking back at the Stalinist years - and particularly youth in this era - caught between the feelings of individuals and the collective experience of the country. Either they turn the film into a savagely bleak indictment (focusing on the public and the collective) or into a gooey nostalgic whitewashing (focusing on the private and the individual). Harvest Time, though, captures both the harshness of the age - the poverty, the scars of the Second World War, the political pressures of the period - and the smaller scale human emotions necessary in portraying childhood. So, while Harvest Time's formal qualities are hardly those of Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece The Mirror (1975), with which Harvest Time shares some themes, Razbezhkina's debut feature is still accomplished.
Listening to directors introducing their works has almost become monotonous. The weather has taken a sharply cold turn here, and the town feels as cold as Mount Olympus' snow-capped peak, visible across the bay. The unusually cold conditions have precipitated a wave of guests to comment that despite the actual temperature, the welcome at Thessaloniki is always warm. It might smack of crowd-pleasing sycophancy, but the consistency of the praise underlines the importance filmmakers attach to Thessaloniki as a forum for presenting their works and interacting with an audience. But back to the films themselves...
Romania's contribution to the Balkan Survey sidebar this year is Sinisa Dragin's The Pharoah (2004). It's a film that, like Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, uses a journalist's investigation to unravel the mysteries of a life. The title character is a strange beggar who wanders the streets of Bucharest with a set of bathroom scales. It is rumored that he spent over four decades in the Gulag camps in Siberia, and it transpires he was once a handsome young architect with an international love life. Here, the man who lost everything to degenerate in a bumbling wreck of a man becomes a metaphor for the decline of Romania, a country that had huge potential it was never able to realize. On a more literal level, the use of a TV journalist as the main character allows a more literal exploration into everyday life in the country now. As much film essay as narrative drama, The Pharoah is thoughtful in its exploration of its themes. But it's hardly riveting viewing and is constrained by the obviously limited interest that goes along with the film essay form.
No such problems afflicted Sophia Zornitsa's Mila from Mars (Bulgaria, 2004), also in the Balkan Survey. The film - billed as the first independent film production in Bulgaria and shot on DV - triumphed among the Bulgarian films at the Sofia Film Festival this year and went on to win at Sarajevo. The film is also currently playing in Mannheim. Zornitsa's debut follows the titular social misfit Mila as she tries to run away from her abusive boyfriend. She ends up in an isolated village in the depopulated border region of Bulgaria, where she baffles the chiefly octogenarian residents.
The film is obviously aimed at young people. In fact, it is obviously aimed at people period - something of refreshing change for Bulgaria where in the 1990s films were heavily influenced by the Soviet style of Tarkovsky and existed as an expression of the director's ego rather than being directed at an audience (one Bulgarian film producer I met only half-jokingly said that Tarkovsky should be banned from the syllabus of Bulgarian film schools). The film is unlikely to spark a wave of interest in independent filmmaking in Bulgaria, despite its success. But it will probably help reinforce the current interest in human interest film narratives.
Polish-born Pawel Pawlikowski is no stranger to Thessaloniki. His last film, The Last Resort (2000), picked up four awards including the Golden Alexander here a few years back and he's also served on the international jury. His current feature, My Summer of Love (UK, 2004) continues his exploration of provincial English life (he is currently at Oxford Brookes University with a research grant to study genres of realism in British filmmaking), this time focusing on two Yorkshire girls who, despite different social backgrounds, form a strong friendship on the basis of their common experience with dysfunctional families and then fall in love. It's a nuanced character study bathed in beautiful summer life, but I could never quite escape the feeling that there was something rather voyeuristic about a middle-aged, male director making a film about teenaged lesbians. He could have made the film showing little more than a peck on the lips between the two girls and some cleverly unobtrusive camerawork (the early stages of the relationship are actually shown with such discretion and are worthy of Ernst Lubitsch's famous touch), but even though it adds nothing to the understanding of the girl's relationship, there just had to be an explicit love scene included. Why?
The feeling was reinforced as I'd just come from a screening of Christophe Honoré's Ma mère (2004), also replete with scenes of lesbianism and with an added dose of incest (the film is based on a novel by pornography-obsessed philosopher Georges Bataille, after all). Isabelle Huppert fans get to see yet another manifestation of the psychotic character she's been developing over a number of films including Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher. Pawlikowski's film in comparison, though, is positively restrained and humanistic and will for most viewers be a far more rewarding viewing experience.
Preview, Muratova, Meadows, Meskhiev, Paskaljevic.
Greenaway, Bresan, Razbezhkina, Dragin, Zornista, Pawlikowski, Honoré.Omarova, Vuletic, Ristovski, Zalica, Erice, Kiarostami, Angelopoulos and Postscript.
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Andrew James Horton
Editor-in-Chief of the excellent film journal Kinoeye, Andrew James Horton has written for several publications, including Senses of Cinema, and most recently for us, three primers on eastern European and early Russian cinema.
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