Slovenia is an Eastern European country, approximately the size of New Jersey, which borders Italy, Hungary, Austria and Croatia. It declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 after a short 10 day war. A country of 2 million citizens, 60% of which is covered by forests, vineyards and mountains with access to the Mediterranean Sea, Slovenia is becoming a popular tourist destination. What might not yet be well-known, is the country’s long history of film production, with a current output of 6-8 films a year.
And so last week, The Film Society of Lincoln Center celebrated Slovenian Cinema with a retrospective of 13 classic and contemporary feature films. The event presented a rare opportunity for the New York audience to view treasures from the film archives and also inspiring recent works.
AT THE CROSSROADS is The Film Society’s second installment of an ongoing series of films from the former Republic of Yugoslavia, which started last year with an overview of Croatian Cinema. Curated by Richard Peña and organized by independent film programmer Irena Kovarova, with the support of the Slovenian Film Fund and the Consulate General of Slovenia, AT THE CROSSROADS opened with Marko Nabersnik’s recent box office hit ROOSTERS BREAKFAST . The film marks Slovenia’s third most successful film of all time after TROY and TITANIC.
Nabersnik’s first feature ROOSTERS BREAKFAST is based on a novel by the popular Slovenian author Feri Lainscek. After having just lost his job, young Djuro moves from Maribor to a small village near the Austrian border to work as an apprentice to Gajas, the local auto mechanic. It does not take long for Djuro to fall in love with the local beauty, Bronja who is married to Lepec, a shady businessman. Even though Djuro and Bronja try to keep their relationship a secret, Gajas soon finds out. Gajas however is dealing with his own little drama– he is infatuated with Severina, a popular singer who is in town for a concert. When Lepec sets up a midnight rendezvous between Gajas and Severina, everyone’s lives are changed forever.
The story starts out small and grows more dramatic as it moves along. Set in 1998, just 7 years after Slovenia’s independence, the film uses this transition as a backdrop – with vast amounts of cigarettes, coffee, and schnapps consumed throughout the entire movie.
Nabersnik was present for the opening of the series and pointed out that the actors’ regional accents added to the film’s popularity in Slovenia – unfortunately this nuance is lost in on a non-Slovenian audience. However, still plenty humor and charm come across thanks to strong performances by character actor Vlado Novak as the older Gajas and Primoz Bezjak as the young Djuro. For his next project Nabersnik told us that he will again be working with ROOSTER’S BREAKFAST author Feri Lainscek on a film about the life of local gypsies in Shanghai, a village in Slovenia.
One of the most prolific production companies in Slovenia is EMOTION FILMS. Founded in 1986 by producer Danijel HoÄevar and filmmaker Damjan Kozole, it was one of the first independent production companies in Slovenia, producing such festival favorites like BREAD AND MILK by Jan CvitkoviÄ, the Czech-Slovenian co-production LONERS by David Ondricek, Damjan Kozole’s 2003 Berlinale competition entry SPARE PARTS as well as IDLE RUNNING by Janez Burger.
In 1999 Janez Burger co-wrote and directed the laconic black and white feature IDLE RUNNING, which immediately put him on the international festival map: Dizzy (Jan CvitkoviÄ) is stuck. A long-term student, he still lives in a dorm and seems unable to make any decisions about his life, including those pertaining to his lengthy but floundering relationship with his girlfriend. It is only when his new roommate moves in with his pregnant girlfriend that Dizzy wakes up and takes charge of his life and future. Written together with the lead actor, CvitkoviÄ, IDLE RUNNING poignantly observes the struggle of growing up and moving on in life.
After the success of IDLE RUNNING, co-writer CvitkoviÄ went on to direct his first feature BREAD AND MILK in 2001. This film also was invited to numerous festivals around the world, and won the LION OF THE FUTURE award at the 2001 Venice Film Festival among others. In 2003, CvitkoviÄ and Burger opened their own production company STARAGARA. Amongst a number of film and theater projects, Burger recently produced Jan CvitkoviÄ’s feature, GRAVEHOPPING –yet another international festival hit and the official Slovenian entry to the 2006 Academy Award foreign language category.
As a filmmaker Burger just completed the short film ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE ALPS, which is currently traveling the festival circuit. In addition to producing other filmmakers’ projects, Burger is also in pre-production with his next feature film, CIRCUS FANTASTICUS, scheduled for production in 2009.
In addition to IDEL RUNNING and SPARE PARTS, EMOTIONS FILMS also produced Metod Pevec’s 2003 feature BENEATH HER WINDOW, another film in the CROSSROADS series. Dusa (Polona Juh) is a dance teacher burdened with a desperate middle aged mother, an absent father and mired in a hopeless love affair with a married man. She has lost her way and even the pills that are supposed to make her feel good only seem to make her more depressed.
Meanwhile her neighbor, Jasha (SaÅ¡a Tabakovic), an aspiring filmmaker, has fallen in love with her. He starts to visit her apartment and adjust small things whenever she is not around. Dusa starts to suspect that something is going on, and finally catches him. After each take some tentative firsy steps towards one other, a tender romance begins to develop. BENEATH HER WINDOW is a gentle coming of age story, focusing on a woman looking for true love.
The theme of coming of age is also the subject of Saso Podgorsek’s feature film SWEET DREAMS. Set in the early 1970’s, 13 year old Egon has to delicately navigate his life at home and in school. At home he lives with his grandmother, who constantly wards off evil spirits, and his single mother who feigns dead instead of coping with difficult situations. At school he is verbally and physically abused by his gym teacher. Carrying all this extra baggage, all Egon wants is a record player so he can listen to his favorite rock music. Using all his charm and wit, his dream eventually comes true. The addition of some absurd elements, like Egon’s grandmother choking on her third teeth, make this tragic-comedy very endearing.
The only film by a women filmmaker in the series is Maja Weiss’ 2002 feature GUARDIAN OF THE FRONTIER. Alja, Zana and Susana, three young and beautiful university students, are about to take a boat trip down the river Kolpa. Just prior to their departure they learn about a missing girl. All the police have found so far is one of her shoes. With this mystery-thriller set up, the three take off, and from now on, each person they encounter, each noise they hear, each item they find along the way becomes a potential threat and thrill. In addition to this underlying mystery, the triangular friendship between the three women also adds tension to the film – aspiring journalist Alja has fallen in love with literature student Zana who struggles with her feelings for Alja and her boyfriend back home. Meanwhile, economics student Susana fantasizes about an older man whom she seems to meet everywhere she goes. Bojan Kastelic’s photography beautifully captures the rich and luscious Slovenian landscape – and the three young actresses (Iva Krajinc, Pia Zemljic and Tanja Potocnik) are convincing as they try to come to terms with their own emotions while drifting in and out of reality.
As for vintage films, France Å tiglic’s 1956 feature VALLEY OF PEACE was part of the bill. The film tells the story of the 2nd World War, seen through the eyes of two children who have lost everything but their faith in a better world. The film is shot in black and white and documents moving performances by the child actors Evelyne Wohlfeiler as Lotti and Å tiglic’s own son, Tugo Å tiglic as Marko. John Kitzmiller plays the African-American pilot soldier, who is shot down by the Germans. After he meets the children in the forest they continue their quest for the VALLEY OF PEACE together. However, the valley they discover is not peaceful at all, and so Lotte and Marko are devastated. In a gesture of great hope and bravery, Lotti gets up, looks around and declares that this simply is not the right valley, and that the next one might be the right one; and so they move on. Å tiglic sensitively depicts how children react to the horrors of war yet remain hopeful.
The program also included Bostjan Hladnik’s DANCE IN THE RAIN, Andrej Kosak’s OUTSIDER, Matjaz Klopcic’s PAPER PLANES, Karpo Godina’s RAFT OF THE MEDUSA, Frantisek Cap’s VESNA and Franci Slak’s WHEN I CLOSE MY EYES.
One commonality of the films I watched was the subject of coming of age in Slovenia – whether it is young children during war times, a youngster in the early 70’s, a young man shortly after Slovenia’s independence, an old-time
student around the time of the millennium, or young women during a recent summer vacation. Plus, although taking place in regional settings, all these films touch on universal themes that move them from the local to the global and make them relevant beyond their individual timeframe.
Most of today’s Slovenian productions are supported by the state funded SLOVENIAN FILM FUND (SFF) with an annual budget of approx. 4 Mil. Euro. The average budget for a Slovenian feature film is around 1.1 Mil. Euro, and SFF can finance up to 90 % of this. The rest of the financing often comes from co-production partners in Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia or Bosnia & Herzegovina, Germany, and most recently Poland. Euroimages, a pan European funder, is another financing source for Slovenian co-productions. In addition to co-financing films, Nerina Kocjancic,SFF’s Head of Promotion and Sales told me that they also support the promotion of Slovenian films at international film festivals around the world as well as their distribution. Furthermore, SFF co-produces most of the domestic film festivals, co-finances workshops and seminars and works closely with the Slovenian Media Desk (a pan European agency desgined to strengthen and promote European Film, TV and New Media productions). Jelka Stergel, SFF’s Assistant Director for Promotion and Marketing is happy to report that SFF’s annual budget has steadily increased over the past five years. For the future she hopes that more private funders will invest in film productions.
After a successful run at Lincoln Center, programmer Kovarova is now working on getting AT THE CROSSROADS on the road throughout the US. A stop in Cleveland is already confirmed; Boston, DC, Vancouver, and Denver are also in the works.
For more information about Slovenian films, please visit: