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Vol 3, No 3
22 January 2001
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Bratislava and BeyondInternational Film Festival Bratislava
After years in the shadow of Czech cinema, Slovak film is now trying to grab its fair share of the limelight.
Peter Hames

Ask an English critic about Slovak cinema and you are likely to draw a blank. Apart from confusions about Czechs and Slovaks, a look at the records reveals that only two Slovak films have ever been released in the UK—Juraj Jakubisko's Zbehovia a pútnici ( The Deserter and the Nomads, 1968) in 1970 and Juraj Herz's Sladké hry minulého leta (Sweet Games of Last Summer, 1969) in 1973.

Slovakia's forgotten influence

For those who know, of course, there is a significant tradition. Štefan Uher's "new form" film Slnko v sieti (Sunshine in a Net, 1962) arguably initiated the aesthetic climate that gave birth to the Czech and Slovak New Waves of the sixties. In the late sixties, the work of Juraj Jakubisko, Elo Havetta and Dušan Hanák established a recognisable school of Slovak cinema.

The use of folk culture and carnival as a living tradition, an approach later associated with Yugoslav directors like Emir Kusturica, was already being pioneered by directors such as Jakubisko (dubbed "the Slovak Fellini") and Havetta. Unfortunately, their first and probably their best films coincided with the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of 1968, leading to an extended ban and a curtailing of international recognition.

Slovak production was maintained after the onset of "normalisation" and often attained a level of originality and interest above that of its Czech counterpart. The number of features was sustained at around eleven a year until 1990, subsequently falling to an overall average of two features with a total of only one film a year in 1998 and 1999.

Rebirth of a national cinema

The end of state funding and the split-up of Czechoslovakia seemed to have dealt a death blow to the Slovak industry. Jakubisko has left for the Czech Republic and other Slovak film-makers have had to find work there. Hanák has completed only one film—the documentary Papierové hlavy (Paper Martin Sulik's Krajinka (Landscape, 2000)Heads, 1995). Only the talented Martin Šulík seems to have transcended it all with a succession of five features, including the internationally acclaimed Záhrada (The Garden, 1995) and, this year, Krajinka (The Landscape).

It was against this background of both public and official apathy that the Bratislava International Film Festival made its debut in 1999. In the age of the US-dominated mainstream, of course, film festivals have developed into something like an alternative distribution system. For two weeks of the year, the rest of the world and the history of the cinema are resurrected. But one senses that Bratislava has a more radical aim—to kickstart film culture in the broader sense and to recreate a climate in which Slovak cinema can develop.

Going international

A prime objective, of course, is to present international festival successes of the past year. The 2000 festival, taking place early in December at Istropolis centre and Ster Century Cinemas, provided opportunities to see, for instance, Dancer in the Dark, Songs from the Second Floor, La Liaison Pornographique, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Shadow of the Vampire, Angela's Ashes and American Psycho. With no less than nine separate strands, the festival's emphasis was international and pan-European, focusing on the work of young directors.

In its EC-sponsored European strand, it emphasised films that, as Festival Director Peter Nágel put it, often had difficulty finding distribution even in their own country. More specialised strands were devoted to Philippine cinema, a profile of Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki, as well as the intriguingly titled "Free Zone: Special Forms of Erotic Life." The Festival competition for first and second feature films split its awards between Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher (Grand Prix and Best Actress) and Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy (Best Direction and Best Actor). Ramsay's British—or rather Scottish—film is an excellent example of Nágel's point.

One of the most interesting initiatives was the inauguration of what is planned as a regular strand building on film links between the Visegrád countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia). Documentary films proved of particular interest, with screenings for Rudolf Krejčík's suppressed 7 dní (Seven Days to Remember, 1968), on the Prague Spring, Mad'arsko: 1956 (Hungary: 1956), specially compiled for the Bratislava Festival, and the classic account of the triumph of Solidarity in 1980, Robotnicy '80 (Workers '80, Chodokowski and Zajaczkowski, 1980).

Features selected extended back to Martin Frič's Czech-Polish Dvanáct křesel (The Twelve Chairs, 1933), adapted from the story by Ilf and Vladimir Michalek's Je treba zabit sekela (Sekal Has to Die, 1998)Petrov, and forward to Vladimír Michálek's Czech-Polish-Slovak-French Je třeba zabít Sekala (Sekal Has to Die, 1998). This presents an obvious (if neglected) avenue for production, particularly given the Eurimages funding requirement of three or more production partners. But it offers both the possibilities and the dangers of all co-production. The most convincing films, such as the Slovak-Czech Signum Laudis (Martin Hollý, 1980) and Anjel milosrdenstva (Angel of Mercy, Miloslav Luther, 1993) were rooted in particular cultures and sensibilities.

Two debuts

The two new Central European films making their debuts at Bratislava were Jan Švankmajer's Otesánek (Czech Republic, 2000) and Vladimír Adásek's Hana a jej bratia (Hana and Her Brothers, Slovakia, 2000). At over two hours, Otesánek is Švankmajer's longest film and provides unaccustomed space for his human protagonists and the development of narrative. It's a retelling of the fairy story familiar from K J Erben's collection, which is here used as an explicit parallel. A childless couple find a tree root in the shape of a baby and attempt to raise it. In the process, it becomes real, grows larger and develops an insatiable appetite that culminates in cannibalism.

Well-received by an audience attuned to its black humour, it is arguably more "entertaining" than his most recent features—but still a shock for the
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unprepared. The interpenetration of the "unreal" world of animation and the "real" world of actors continues and there are consistent links with earlier films (particularly the Slovak-made Do pivnice / Down to the Cellar, 1982). It's a film that will no doubt—and justifiably—generate pages of analysis in years to come.

Adásek's Hana a jej bratia was the only new Slovak feature film and competed in the competition. Its central character, Martin (Martin Keder), uncertain about his sexual orientation, keeps both straight and gay porn under his bed but, more importantly, a collection of old LPs by the Czech singer, Hana Hegerová. In a sequence of what function as cabaret episodes, Adásek himself appears as a red-haired Hana and addresses the audience through her songs.

The film focuses on Martin's relationships with a range of "crazy" family members and local inhabitants. Comic, whimsical and sensitive, the film attempts a perilous balance and, perhaps inevitably, falls short. An independent, low-budget film made under some difficulty, it marks the arrival of a new and clearly persistent talent. Adásek now plans a contemporary version of Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince.

Does anyone care?

In his press conference, Adásek referred to the problems of both official and public apathy. Young Slovak film-makers, unlike their Czech counterparts, could not find funding from television and there was little sense of a cinematic consciousness among the informed or general public. This had been reflected in the disintegration of the film community.

But all that may be about to change. It seems likely that Krajinka will enjoy some international success (it is already scheduled for the Berlin Eva Borusovicova's Modre z neba (Blue Heaven, 1997)Festival), and a new film is due from Eva Borušovičová, who made the promising Modré z neba (Blue Heaven, 1997). The Bratislava Festival has begun to make a significant impact and the Slovak Film Institute has produced a range of new publications, including a monograph on Šulík. There are proposals for legislation that could stabilise production at five to six features a year.

According to Dušan Dušek, a jury member and screenwriter on Hanák's Ružové sny (Rose-Tinted Dreams, 1976) and Ja milujem, ty miluješ (I Love, You Love, 1980) and now Krajinka, there are many talented film-makers likely to emerge from VŠMU (Vysoká škola múzických umeni) in the next few years.

Slovakia's next international hit?

As for Krajinka, currently on release and therefore not granted an official screening at the festival, it is likely to acquire a growing status. It is tempting to regard it as an elegy for the passing of Czechoslovakia—or, at any rate, the Slovak experience of that period. Its sequence of ten stories Martin Sulik's Krajinka (Landscape, 2000)is clearly linked to historical periods, with the tenth located after the suppression of the Prague Spring. Yet the political links are lightly sketched, and it is the personal and imaginative content that Šulík and Dušek have sought out.

Based on their own and their parents memories of village life, it tells of "a country that never was and never will be." It has obvious parallels with Vojtěch Jasný's Všichni dobří rodáci (All My Good Countrymen, 1968), a portrait of the Moravian experience from 1945-1968 but, unlike in Jasný's film, the characters rarely continue between episodes, and the role of the voiceover narration acquires more significance.

In fact, it is the lulling narration and the landscape itself that embrace Martin Sulik's Krajinka (Landscape, 2000)the constituent stories in a single development. The unforgettable characters, the significant objects, the beauty of Martin Štrba's photography and the power of Iva Bittová's singing are just some of the ingredients in a multi-layered and deeply felt film. Unlike Jasný's film, which ends with the false hope that (because of the Prague Spring), things will now be different, Šulík and Dušek offer the observation: "This country will never be again... only a small landscape remains..."

But rumours of the death of Slovak cinema have proved somewhat premature.

Peter Hames, 22 January 2001

The Bratislava film festival website can be visited here.

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