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The Balkan presence at Belgrade FEST
© Greg DeCuir Jr.
First Publication: altcine 20/03/2014
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There are not that many large film festivals in the Balkans that are significant on the global stage. The Sarajevo Film Festival is ascending as the most important stop in the region. Some opinions have it that the Thessaloniki International Film Festival is descending and not operating at the high level it used to. What lies in between, specifically as a potential key landing spot for Balkan films, also as the traditional crossroads of the entire region, is Serbia and the Belgrade International Film Festival (FEST), which is older and has a richer tradition than most other festivals on the peninsula. The only problem is that Belgrade FEST does not make overtures to Balkan cinema – it does not even make overtures to Serbian cinema. Instead it prefers to be a showcase for the biggest international films playing at the biggest international festivals of the previous year, which, to be fair, is a significant part of that rich tradition it was built upon. There are smaller sections with unique and relatively unknown films of interest such as the program Europe out of Europe – but even this one which certainly feels like it should is not given a decisive Balkan slant. This is not to say that Belgrade FEST owes a debt to Balkan cinema, though it surely seems an opportunity is missed to assert itself in this manner on the international festival circuit.

So Hot Was The Cannon by Slobodan Skerlic

In the vaguely-named section FEST Presents there are two Serbian films and a Greek-Serbian co-production. So Hot Was The Canon (Slobodan Skerlić, 2014) served as the opening night world premiere at the festival. This is a Serbian war film based on the controversial award-winning novel by Vladimir Kecmanović about the siege of Sarajevo. It is a very powerful film with strong craftsmanship, though I wonder if it adds anything to the discussion and if Serbian cinema is playing one note too often. Nymph (Milan Todorović, 2014) is described by the director as a dark fairy tale which also contains elements of horror. The film stars Franco Nero and it too received a world premiere at Belgrade FEST. While Nymph traffics in the stereotypical plot points and imagery associated with the horror genre the film is also well-directed with excellent visual effects. In his press conference Todorović mentioned that there are not enough genre films made in Serbia. I would agree and perhaps say the same for the entire Balkan region. The Tree and the Swing (Maria Douza, 2013) is an uninteresting transnational Greek family melodrama made with a bland style bereft of true emotion. During her press conference Douza stated that she wanted to turn away from the politics and social realities that characterize so many of the celebrated contemporary Greek films in order to show another face of Greek culture. This lack of multi-layered, expressive potential may be the price paid for a disengaged film, a film that wears blinders. As the respected cineaste Dušan Makavejev once wrote in his early film criticism, ‘when you write a scenario look out the window’.

The Tree and the Swing by Maria Douza

The Europe out of Europe section features the world premiere of the Macedonian-Slovenian-Serbian co-production The Piano Room (Igor Ivanov, 2013). This film also detaches itself from surrounding political and social realities, confining itself to one hotel room and the various types that inhabit it. Not quite funny, not quite dramatic, and very much derivative of prior exercises in a unity of space, The Piano Room is forgettable. Moving along to the festival section titled Europe we find two Greek films from new directors. The first is Wild Duck (Yannis Sakaridis, 2013), which wants to be a whistle-blowing corporate conspiracy thriller but maintains too flat a tone and too many thin characterizations for it to have any impact with viewers. The second is September (Penny Panayotopoulou, 2013), about a single woman attached to her beloved dog. When the dog dies she loses her tether to the world and slowly tries to latch on to the family that lives on her block. For a while it feels as if the film could develop into a Fatal Attraction-like scenario but, again, it is dialed down too much in terms of atmosphere and conflict. All three of the Greek entries in the festival are a far cry from the often quirky cinematic stylization of the best recent Greek films. In fact, these three films play like nondescript television dramas in comparison.

The Turkish-German-Netherlands co-production Lifelong (Asli Özge, 2013) is set in the high art world and focuses on a successful architect and his somewhat less successful artist wife. Özge makes concessions to a unique form of visual expression with a distant and at times elliptical style. However, she drains her film of color and life while her actors sleepwalk through it. Indeed the sickly-looking artist has the demeanor and appearance of a corpse, which is likely the director’s aim in depicting the emptiness of the idle rich in Turkey. That blunt point is not so interesting in and of itself and in the end we are left with another family drama barely worth the attention.

Lifelong by Asli Ozge

The highlight of the Europe section is the Romanian-French co-production When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2013), directed by one of the luminaries of the maturing Romanian New Wave. Metabolism may be the most interesting of the features in this section that does not necessarily make it a good film. Porumboiu works in the great European modernist tradition of the self-reflexive film production exposé (see Truffaut, Godard, Fellini, et al) but with an added experimental touch of relatively static shots that often last the length of a single roll of 35 mm stock (around 10 minutes). Maintaining the minimalist voice of the Romanian New Wave, his characters spend their time discussing random subjects such as food, health, sex, and of course cinema. These sorts of aimless, faux-philosophical conversations feel very familiar; they are also detached from the surrounding society, from life outside of the film set, so to speak. In a previous article I have written that this film is one of those that augur a navel-gazing and perhaps decadent late period of the Romanian New Wave. Still, Romanian cineastes staring at themselves in the mirror of their camera lens is more interesting and dynamic than the product of many other national cinemas in the Balkans and beyond.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism by Corneliu Porumboiu

Shall we endeavor to call Slovenian cinema part of a Balkan cinema, if only because of the historical political links to the region? Regardless, I will discuss the film Class Enemy (Rok Biček, 2013) because I imagine not many critics will write about it and audiences will have few chances to see it. This debut effort pays homage to a sub-genre of Hollywood cinema that can be called the classroom drama. These are films in which a new teacher, often an idealistic one, takes over classroom duties and the young students, often from a tough working class environment, must warm up to unorthodox pedagogical methods while simultaneously learning something about themselves and the world around them in the process. Class Enemy is made in a low-key pitch, not quite minimalist but subdued, and features good ensemble acting with solid cinematic technique. However, I wonder if anything of significance is exposed regarding the state of Slovenian youths. If not perhaps Biček has the talent and desire to conjure such a revelation in his next film. As things go with Class Enemy we only learn that the kids are a bit spoiled and feel as if parents and teachers operate with the sole function of limiting their freedom. Maybe I read this dynamic a certain way now that I am (slowly!) approaching middle-age and have a family of my own.

Class Enemy by Rok Bicek

When considering this Balkan presence at Belgrade FEST one may be prompted to wonder what happened to the artistic cinema, the cinema of unconventional points of view and unconventional styles, the subversive cinema, the controversial cinema, the cinema of successful and respected auteurs? It seems that at Belgrade FEST we are given a timid and safe cinema, a de-Balkanized (i.e. homogenized) cinema. We cannot expect a diverse and representative sample of Balkan films at Belgrade FEST as long as there is no consistent and supportive housing for them – but we can and should expect a much better sample that provides this cinema the platform it deserves for new discoveries and a celebration of the many accolades it is receiving in other festivals throughout the world. Or maybe this is a task that the Sofia International Film Festival feels up to instead.
  The Tree And The Swing
  Wild Duck
  When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism
  Class Enemy
  The Piano Room
  So Hot Was The Cannon
  Corneliu Porumboiu
  Penny Panayotopoulou
  Yannis Sakaridis
  Dusan Makavejev
  Maria Douza
  Asli Ozge
  Rok Bicek
  Franco Nero
  Igor Ivanov Izi
  Milan Todorovic
  Slobodan Skerlic
  Vladimir Kecmanovic
  Thessaloniki International Film Festival
  Sarajevo International Film Festival
  Belgrade International Film Festival 2014 - FEST
  The old and the new in Romanian cinema
  The Balkan presence at Belgrade FEST
  Sarajevo Film Festival Web Page
  Belgrade International Film Festival - FEST Web Page
  Thessaloniki International Film Festival Web Page
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