Split International Film Festival , which is in its 17th year, is a fascinating antidote to some of the larger film festival we may be familiar with and defines an area of film culture that can truly argue itself to be alternative. This festival, under the directorship of Branko Karabatić (himself an independent film-maker) seeks to maintain a rigorous adherence to its starting idea – to find films that are truly experimental and challenging in nature, to find film-makers who stay working outside of a system. Film festivals (in the same way as studios or film-makers) can perform a vital ‘service’ in maintaining spaces for a different kind of film culture to thrive, increasingly when the terms ‘experimental’ or ‘independent’ where used in reviews or criticism can have a mainstream feel to them. With Looper opening Toronto, packed with indie cool and arriving to reviews promising intelligent S-F but already with its distribution deal in place, we’re reminded yet again of the tightrope organisations running festivals have to walk between film culture and film commerce.
To stay outside of that category, and to maintain a base for genuinely new and challenging voices generates you neither large funds nor huge audiences. But my small experience of the programme last week in Split revealed that films – sometimes underfunded or small or star-less, or the vision of one person – can deliver real pleasure and surprise and these not necessarily with a lack of finish or sophistication. It is, as it is curated this year, a substantial programme with some beautifully-crafted narratives that are engaging films (easily better than some I’ve seen at much ‘bigger’ festivals. Just as some of the performances given by actors or got by directors put better-funded work to shame). The reach is international (e.g. Germany, Cambodia, Thailand, Mexico, China – to name a few) and it also included seminars relating to the work of artists (e.g. animator Simone Massi) and a collaboration with the Estonian Film Foundation, with a review of that country’s film culture and of its own winter festival, ‘Black Nights’. Tristan Priimägi (Estonia’s representative) commented on the shared experience of countries emerging out of more submerged political identities amongst their geographical neighbours – a statement which received a very warm response from the audience. A Croatian film festival might be pigeonholed (in more Western audiences’ view) by its recent history. Instead, its emphasis couldn’t be more strongly on being an international point of ‘cultural conversation’ and without an insular feel. It has drawn film-makers such as Bela Tarr (who held a series of masterclasses at the festival last year) and Sally Potter who has exhibited her work here and clearly intends to be an intellectual meeting point (more so than a market-driven festival).
The opening night film from Colombia, Chocó(which had already appeared at the Berlinale) represented the festival’s intentions nicely, with some beautiful cinematography, naturalistic performances and a structure that maintained a tricky balance between the inner and outer consciousness of its protagonist.
The festival’s theme throughout was ‘resistance’. Of the films I saw (also screened at Cinema Karaman in the old town), I’ll add some brief reviews of Chocó, Roman Polanski A Film Memoir, Despite the Gods and The Catch – which, even in a small range, threw up very different ideas of resistance. There are films here that talk about the resistance of cultural differences, modern politics, gender oppression and the importance of finding a place to make your stand. They all pay attention to the particular international culture they arise from. In a town thriving commercially from the cruise ships and sun tourists (me included) with a rich Dalmatian culture, these intelligent films provided an intellectual “cool breeze” (to borrow from Carl Sandburg) as a striking and stimulating counterpoint to the “play of sun-fire” on Split’s antiquity outside. You need to allow extra time to travel up Zlatna Vrata’s airy staircases to view its collection of fascinating film posters and who needs a traditional red carpet when Split’s film festival is staged within Diocletian’s Palace! More details, all in both Croatian and English, can be found at http://www.splitfilmfestival.hr/.