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Balkanima 2013
© Greg DeCuir Jr.
First Publication: altcine 10-10-2013
10 October 2013
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This year marked the 10th anniversary of Balkanima, the European Animated Film Festival in Belgrade. It made for an emotional occasion on multiple levels, not the least of which because the founder and artistic director of the festival, Nikola Majdak, passed away earlier this year. Majdak was the heart and soul of Balkanima, and he also happened to be one of the pioneering film artists and animators in Serbia and the former Yugoslavia.

Nikola Majdak

I remember when I first met the man some five years ago. He recounted his earliest encounters with cinema – discovering a mother lode of old film prints in a cave under the Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade after the liberation of the city during the Second World War. He thought he had stumbled across a junk pile, until he held up one of the film strips to the dim light and was able to make out the figure of Charlie Chaplin within a frame. Seeing this, he immediately ran to his superiors and reported his find. As legend has it, the film prints were in transit by the Germans as war spoils. They eventually became the basis for the huge collection of film materials that make up the Yugoslav Kinoteka archives. Majdak was full of such stories, and they were all interesting, whether exaggerated or not.

Majdak began working as a cinematographer almost immediately. He collaborated with some very important filmmakers, including Aleksandar Petrović, with who he made a number of short documentaries in the 1950s. These early documentaries often included animated sequences of an avant-garde nature, and in retrospect it seems that the link to this aesthetic was Majdak. He began working on directing his own short films in the 1960s and is considered to be one of the initiators of animated film in the former Yugoslavia.

In dedication to Majdak the festival presented a selection of his short works, which were projected before each competition program. One of his best-known and loved films is Vrijeme vampira / The Time of Vampires (1971), which is a comedic spoof of the classical horror genre. However, I most appreciated his films Čovek od krede / Man of Chalk (1963) and Grand Guignol (1993), which not only have a madcap and at times savage humor but also a surrealist edge. The festival also presented an exhibit dedicated to Majdak, including his original drawings, documents, and photographs. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Balkanima introduced a new interstitial featuring an animated Majdak. This insures that his presence will live on at the festival he so loved.

Balkanima is traditionally composed by student and competition programs, both international in scope, though the festival is billed as a European endeavor. While I did not visit the former this year, I can say that the competition programs were quite impressive. A strong display of animation techniques and skilled cinematic expression were evident in a variety of works. The grand prix went to the film Kiki of Montparnasse (Amelie Harrault, France), which was a lush impressionistic vision of belle époque Paris that narrated a story of artistic success. The award for best film from Southeast Europe was given to Boles (Špela Čadež, Slovenia), the story of a lonely man trying to type a literary work while being interrupted by a desperate neighbor. Both of these films celebrated writers – fairly odd, given that one normally considers animation an illustrator’s medium. Regardless, the jury members were drawn to the visual dynamism of these works and also the dramatic emotional force.

Balkanima is always a well-attended affair with infectious energy and passion. It holds a special place in this critic’s heart as the event that kicks off the festival season in Belgrade every autumn. As such, I do not miss it, even though I am not necessarily an animation aficionado. Balkanima has something for everyone, including children’s programs and various workshops. There are much larger animation festivals on the international trail, but bigger does not necessarily mean better. Balkanima succeeds on its own terms. Let us salute ten wonderful and memorable years and eagerly anticipate ten more. Rest in peace, Professor Majdak.
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