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Home > Festivals & Events > Slovenian New Wave
Slovenian New Wave
December 4, 2008 until December 11, 2008

This six-film survey, drawn from the Slovenian retrospective presented in July 2008 by the Film Society of Lincoln Centre in New York, is programmed by Richard Pena and organized by Irena Kovarova, a  New York based independent film progammer.  Presented in collaboration with the Slovenian Film Fund and the Embassy of Slovenia.


 

VIVE LA RESISTANCE!

A NEW WAVE FROM SLOVENIA

spare_parts.jpgOff the beaten, banal, accelerated track of globalization, somewhere in among the ruins of that seemingly anachronistic and unfashionable notion of ‘national cinema,’ you will discover a small, tenacious surprise called Slovenia. As Hollywood spreads its distribution and production tentacles ever deeper into Europe, and as the European Union itself encourages co-productions between an ever-expanding number of member states (reaching 27 in 2007, with the inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria) to produce sometimes bland, placeless ‘Euro-pudding’ films, there is resistance to these considerable forces of cultural and cinematic homogenization. This happens in all countries to some degree, of course, but arguably nowhere so consistently, inventively, and disproportionately as in the tiny nation of Slovenia. Indeed, one of the most exciting developments in contemporary European cinema in the last decade is the very impressive arrival and persistence of a distinctive, accomplished body of work from this country of two million people nestled in the Adriatic curve between Italy and Croatia, and bordered to the north by Austria and Hungary. Recent international festival successes of filmmakers such as Jan Cvitkovic (Bread and Milk, Gravehopping), Damjan Kozole (Spare Parts, Labour Equals Freedom), Janez Burger (Idle Running, The Ruins), Igor Sterk (Express Express, Tuning) and others reveal a veritable auteurist renaissance in a former Yugoslav republic that peacefully went its own independent way in 1991.

To account for the rise of Slovenian cinema in the last decade, it is important to have at least a cursory glance at its tangled history: It is a history characterized by alliances with or occupations by its regional neighbours; it is a history shaped by a staunch resistance to assimilation, political and otherwise; it is a history of quiet internal independence even when the country was controlled by various external powers. In fact, from as early as the ninth century Slovenia had fallen under foreign rulers, including partial control by Bavarian dukes and the Republic of Venice. With the exception of Napoleon's brief presence in parts of Slovenia and Croatia (the "Illyrian Provinces," as he called them), Slovenia was part of the Hapsburg Empire from the 14th century until 1918. Nevertheless, Slovenia resisted – resistance being a defining feature of the Slovenian sensibility – the dominant Germanic influences and retained its unique Slavic language and culture.

In 1918 Slovenia joined with other southern Slav states in forming the Kingdom of Serbs Croats and Slovenians as part of post World War I peace plan, later renamed in 1929 the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. It fell to the Axis powers during World War II. After its stubborn resistance to German, Hungarian, and Italian occupations during WW II, the federation of Yugoslavia was forged under legendary Balkan strongman, Josip Broz “Marshall” Tito. During the communist era after 1945, Slovenia became Yugoslavia's most prosperous republic, at the forefront of its unique mixed economic system. Within a few years of Tito's death in 1980, however, Belgrade initiated plans to further concentrate political and economic power in Serbia. Defying the politicians in Belgrade, Slovenia underwent a remarkable opening up of its society in cultural and economic terms world. In September 1989, the then Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia adopted an amendment to its constitution asserting Slovenia's right to secede from Yugoslavia. In December 1990, 88% of Slovenia's population voted for independence and six months later the Republic of Slovenia declared itself a separate republic. A relatively bloodless 10-day war with Yugoslavia followed; Yugoslav forces withdrew after Slovenia demonstrated stiff resistance to Belgrade.  Once again and at many levels, one of which is evident now in contemporary Slovenian cinema, it pays to resist.

short_circuits.jpgIn cinematic terms, film production began in Slovenia 101 years ago. Although the first moving images were screened in Slovenia in 1896, it was almost a decade later when the first cinematic images of Slovenia itself flickered across the screen. In 1905, Karol Grossmann shot the first motion pictures of Slovenia, people leaving a church after mass and a fair in Ljutoimer, as well as a few scenes in his family’s garden. Feature film production began in 1931 with Janko Ravnik’s silent feature, In The Realm of Goldenhorn. From 1945 onward,  as part of Yugoslavia, Slovenian cinema produced such important works as the wildly popular comedy, Vesna (1953, Frantisek Cap) The Valley of Peace (1955, France Stiglic), which captured a prize at Cannes, Dance in the Rain (1961, Boštjan Hladnik), voted the best Slovenian film in history, Blossoms in Autumn (1973, Matja× Klopčič) , and The Raft of Medusa (1980, Karpo Godina). While all dealt in one way or another with specific Slovenian realities these films were regarded, at least by foreign audiences, as being under the more general, often misleading banner of postwar Yugoslavian cinema.

Nine decades after Karol Grossmann, in 1994, the Slovenian Film Fund  (SFF) was founded. Replacing the moribund Ministry of Culture as the new state funding agency for film production, the SFF’s creation is essential to understanding the rise of a new wave of independent filmmaking in a newly independent Slovenia after 1991, as its very creation was fuelled by the renewed cultural energies unleashed by national independence. Intended to support and promote the emerging new talents of the early 1990s, the Fund backed the debut works of over 20 filmmakers in its first decade. With the SFF in place, the pace of film production increased as well, with, for example, some 25 films produced between 2000 and 2003. (Compare this with 127 made in the 62 years between 1931 and 1993.) Although the rate of eight features per year has dropped recently, and there are rumblings within the film community about the direction of the SFF (sound familiar, Canada?), the arrival of the Slovenian new wave has been made possible by the financial midwifery of the SFF and the creative invention of a talented generation of filmmakers.

As with other cinematic waves, the Slovenian version is a winning combination of artistic invention with low budgets, intimate stories, marginal protagonists, and location shooting.  One of the first films to announce internationally the emergence of a talented new generation of film artists in Slovenia is Idle Running (1999), written and directed by Janez Burger. Shot in black and white and recalling the early work of Jim Jarmusch, Idle Running is episodic, elliptical, and skeptical about the much-vaunted promise and opportunity available in the new capitalist society of Slovenia. The ‘star’ and co-writer of Idle Running, the gifted Jan Cvitkovic, would go on to make his own Jarmusch-inflected (or perhaps Burger-esque) directorial debut with Bread and Milk (2001), a tender drama about the grim consequences of alcoholism, which captured the ‘Lion of the Future’ prize at the Venice Film Festival. His most recent feature, Gravehopping (2005), a wry and bittersweet tale of a man who writes funeral speeches, won awards at festivals in both Cottbus and San Sebastian.  

Other filmmakers whose works concentrate on personal stories include Igor Sterk and Janez Lapajne. Set in rural Slovenia, Rustling Landscapes (2002), Lapajne’s startling debut film (his most recent film, Short Circuits, opens this series on December 4), is the story of a young couple whose relationship is slowly disintegrating. There was no shooting script for this film; it was entirely improvised, and is entirely convincing in its searching examination of how relationships fail. In a similar vein, though with a tautly constructed script, Tuning (2005) is Igor Sterk’s lucid, distilled dramatic examination of a middle-aged couple in a crisis of stasis. Both films emphasize the personal over the political, but underline how each informs the other and that the quest for personal contentment is bound up with more general questions of political and socio-economic context. 

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There are filmmakers in the Slovenian new wave whose works confront more directly the contemporary political contexts shaping the contours of personal experience. The most prominent auteur in this regard is arguably Damjan Kozole, a retrospective of whose rigorous work has recently traveled across North America, and whose films all deal critically with the human costs of the post-Cold War transition. Labour Equals Freedom (2005) locates its critique of transition with Slovenia’s recent ascension into membership in the European Union. In spite of the promises made about EU membership, the main character of the film, Peter, loses his job, which triggers many problems for him and for those in his life. His previous film, Spare Parts (2003), set in Kozole’s home town and site of Slovenia’s only nuclear power plant, concerns a young man hired by bitter ex-speedway champ who earns his living by smuggling refugees. At first he’s revolted by the human misery, but, hey, in this terrible new world order, a job’s a job. Selected for Competition at Berlin in 2003, it also won Slovenia’s Best Film of the Year award. Even Kozole’s earlier comedy, Porno Film (2000), which concerns a brothel owner’s desire to make the first indigenous Slovenian porn film, deals obliquely with artistic freedom, exploitation, and the human desperation found in the ruthlessness of unfettered capitalism.

Elsewhere, there is Vinko Moderndorfer’s Suburbs (2004), a ferocious assessment of contemporary moral and political torpor. It is a decidedly disturbing, utterly unflinching Kaurismaki-meets-Haneke portrait of four bored middle-aged suburban men who engage in scandalous, brutish behaviour with their neighbours and, in one extreme and controversial scene, a stray dog.  A savage critique of and warning about the atavistic seductions of ethnocentrism and rampant materialism, Suburbs is unsettling viewing. Tackling similar themes of ethnic difference and economic marginality, the very popular gentle comedy, Cheese and Jam (2004, Branko Djuric) is a love story involving a Slovenian woman and Bosnian man. Miha Hocevar’s On The Sunny Side (2003) also confronts the experience and aftermath of the Balkan wars and regional difference in its unpretentious study of two brothers from Mostar visiting their uncle in Slovenia as they do every summer. Hocevar’s Louis Malle-style humanism looks forward, not back, and characterizes ethnic and regional differences as possibility, not peril. Similarly, Maja Weiss’s powerful Guardian of the Frontier (2002) weaves themes of desire and sexual awakening into its protagonist’s growing personal and political awareness along the Slovenian-Croatian border.

What unites all these disparate narratives is a sense of marginality and alienation which stems from making – for Slovenia – yet another transition from one political and economic order to the next, all the while trying to retain autonomy and dignity in the process; to resist, however modestly. Beneath their often deceptively simple surfaces, then, these intimate, personal tales explore larger ideological debates underway in contemporary Slovenia, infused with a comic sense of the absurd and largely eschewing all-too familiar fabulist and ethnocentric excesses of other filmmakers from the Balkan region. As critic Zdenko Vrdlovec observes, “And it has been through the forms and motifs of marginality that Slovenian cinema (with Porn Film and Spare Parts) has touched on domestic ‘transitional’ reality (‘transitional’ in the sense of the capitalist transformation of society) and the new status of Slovenia as an independent country after the disintegration of former Yugoslavia.” 1

Despite a decade of unprecedented cinematic accomplishment for a nation of its size, the future is neither all bright nor all that certain for filmmakers in Slovenia. Hollywood continues to dominate the country’s cinema screens, and the bigger budgeted European co-production models threaten to further marginalize the small, artist-driven film, even in the digital age. Now that the first Slovenian wave has hit the shores of international cinema, will it be the last? Is this a momentary flowering of distinctive cinematic expression before the inevitable absorption into the ‘global’ movie marketplace? Whatever the possible answers, one thing seems certain: once again and as usual in Slovenia, resistance will be necessary, ongoing, difficult, and productive.

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Tom McSorley

 1. Zdenko Vrdlovec, “Slovenian Outsider Gone With Express Train,” in  Filmography of Slovenian Feature Films, 1994-2003 eds. Alenka Korpes, Zdenko Vrdlovec (Llubljana 2005), pp. 331-332.

 


Program:
Janez Lapajne  •  Slovenia  •  2007  •  106 min
Thursday, December 4, 2008, 7:00 pm, Auditorium, 395 Wellington St.
English Subtitles
 
Saso Podgorsek  •  Slovenia  •  2001  •  110 min
Friday, December 5, 2008, 7:00 pm, Auditorium, 395 Wellington St.
English Subtitles
 
Janez Burger  •  Slovenia  •  1999  •  90 min
Friday, December 5, 2008, 9:00 pm, Auditorium, 395 Wellington St.
English Subtitles
 
Maya Weiss  •  Slovenia  •  2002  •  100 min
Saturday, December 6, 2008, 7:00 pm, Auditorium, 395 Wellington St.
English Subtitles
 
Damjan Kozole  •  Slovenia  •  2002  •  87 min
Saturday, December 6, 2008, 9:00 pm, Auditorium, 395 Wellington St.
English Subtitles
 
Frantisek Cap  •  Slovenia  •  1953  •  93 min
Thursday, December 11, 2008, 7:00 pm, Auditorium, 395 Wellington St.
English Subtitles