Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 3
12 October 1998

K I N O E Y E:
Avant-garde Film and Video in Slovakia

Andrew J Horton

When the Czech and Slovak Republics divorced, the Czech side managed to hold onto much of the cultural kudos that had previously been implicitly shared. Slovakia, meanwhile, is largely uncharted territory on the cultural map of Europe. However, London's recent Festival of Central European Culture provided an opportunity to explore this terra incognita, with two showings of avant garde film and video among the celebrations of Slovakia's cultural life.

In examining Slovak cinema, the festival avoided comparison with Czech film. Even using the term "Czechoslovak" for the pre-1993 years seems to be politically incorrect here. However, comparisons of Slovakia's "golden age" of cinema, the sixties and seventies, with Czech cinema are not just fruitful, they are also quite complimentary to the Slovak cinematic output.

Czech and Slovak cinema are very different creatures, born of diverging sensibilities. The first showing of avant garde films from 1963-88 makes the point immediately with Voda a praca (Water and Work, 1963), a documentary cum poem on old wooden water mills. Director Martin Slivka, like many avant garde filmmakers, celebrates power and dynamism in action. Being Slovak, however, his approach is different to the Czech one. Innemann's decidedly Czech Praha v zari svetel (Prague at Night, 1927) looks to the future in its praise of middle-class urbanism and, more specifically, electricity. Thirty-six years later, Slivka, by contrast, focuses on wood, water and wool to pay homage to a life which is deeply rooted in tradition and has not lost its balance with nature. People in Slivka's film enjoy work itself, not just the results of work.

Old-world master

Dusan Hanak, in addition to his retrospective of feature films earlier in the festival, is represented by two shorts: the sugary Impresia (Impression, 1966), based on the music of Debussy and Impressionist paintings; and the pivotal film Den radosti(Day of Joy, 1972), a playful depiction of the festivities around the performance "If All Trains of the World" by Alexander Mlynarcik. Den radosti shows Hanak using the "inter-genre" style of documentary which made his feature film Obrazy stareho sveta (Pictures of the Old World, 1971) a masterpiece. Still photography, live action, interviews, old etchings and archive footage of old train journeys are skilfully blended to create a sympathetic and humorous portrait of the romance of an old steam train and the joy of artists and the general public in participating in this children's game for adults. Once again, the avant garde is imaginatively used to eulogise over traditional values and the past.

Den radosti is important not just for the considerable pleasure it brings; it is the first of a series of films in which artists use film to document "happenings." Lift (1974) by Vladimir Havrilla, a sculptor, shoots frames of people at the peak of successive jumps to create an almost conceptual work exploring levitation. Kvetoslav Hecko's Atd... (Etc..., 1987) takes us into the world of Matej Kren and tries to convince us just what a wild and wacky artist he is. The film itself is not particularly experimental, though, and since Kren has produced far stranger pieces than those shown here, it is a disappointing example of the genre.

I was tempted far more by the catalogue description of Lubomir Durcek's Informacia o rukach a ludoch (Information about Hands and People, 1982): six strangers are seated blindfolded around a table and get to know each other only by touching each other. Regrettably, the film was withdrawn in London, and we are just left with its intriguing description.

There's always an exception, and here it is Stano Filko (aka Phylko). His high-tech films Blizenec (Gemini-Zwilling, 1984) and Minulost - Pritomnost - Buducnost (Past - Present - Future, 1988) about cloning and head-transplantation look distinctly to the future. Perhaps it is significant then that these films were made in the US.

Since independence

The second showing of films represented film and videos made since 1993. This has not, by any means, been a good period for Slovak cinema and many of the films in this section completely failed to conjure up a magic anything like that of Slivka, Hanak or Havrilla. Low-budget, concept films like Anna Daucikova's Chtonicky pozdrav pre C Paglia (Chthonian Greeting for C Paglia, 1996), which shows an erotic experience with a saucepan lid, and Jana Bodnarova's Pocuvanie hlasov (Listening to Voices, 1996), optimistically described as a meditative film, are overly simplistic and make their point within a minute but then drag on for ten more. Eniko Szucs proves with Voodoo Symbols (1996) that you don't need big bucks to make a well-paced and attractive independent film. The way she uses TV advertising and rock music is scarcely original though.

Fortunately, all is not lost. Beh na konci leta (Run at the End of Summer, 1993), directed by Samo Ivaska, both builds on and departs from the achievements of the golden age. It is a lyrical documentary constructed through symbolism. The film's subject is a percussionist whose performance is played against a cross-country race in the idyllic Slovak countryside, lit by the warm glow of the near-autumnal sun. Like the older films, it shows man's harmony with nature, but this time, a dash of mysticism and pantheism is added.

Slovaks have not been as assiduous in exploring cinematic form and means of expression as the Czechs. This does not matter. Slovaks have their sights set on different targets. The remarkable thing about Slovak cinema is its anticipation of a wider trend in thinking. Urbanism and technology are going out as many city-dwelling Europeans try to rediscover their spirituality and bond with the earth. Slovak cinema is often the art of young people looking in new ways at old things and as such will enchant anyone who feels nostalgia for nature. These days that excludes few people.

Andrew J Horton, 12 October 1998

In the same series:

Avant-garde Film and Video in Slovenia

Avant-garde Film and Video in the Czech Republic

Avant-garde Film and Video in Hungary

Avant-garde Film and Video in Croatia

Avant-garde Film and Video in Poland



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