Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 April 2014
The new teacher Robert Zupan finds himself isolated in the school
Class Enemy is one of two standout films so far in my BIFF screening selections (Diego Star review coming up later). It was the Slovenian entry for the Foreign Languag Academy Award. I’m surprised that a film like this hasn’t got UK distribution. I can only assume that some kind of institutional inertia exists in UK distribution which prevents films from smaller territories like Slovenia from gaining a high profile. Perhaps the box office records of the two films which Class Enemy most resembles is helpful in thinking this through – Die Welle (The Wave, Germany 2008) and Entre les murs (The Class, France 2008). Die Welle was dismissed by leading UK broadsheet critics, seemingly unable to see beyond it as a popular youth picture whereas The Class was warmly embraced as an auterist film by Laurent Cantet and went on to do excellent business as a specialised film. I thought both films succeeded in their explorations of the classroom environment and the interactions of teachers and students. Class Enemy is aesthetically more like Die Welle – presented in CinemaScope with instantly identifiable teenage types. But its tight focus on teaching styles and classroom interactions and its complex narrative also align it towards The Class.
I don’t think that Class Enemy actually moves the action beyond the walls of the school until the closing scene. This insularity actually points towards its universality. Slovenia is in some ways the most affluent, liberal and generally ‘calm’ of the countries formed after the break-up of the Yugoslavian federation – at least that’s how it seems from the outside. In reality I understand that the trauma of the after effects of World War II and in particular the the conflict between quislings and partisans has had a lasting impact. Slovenia is also a country strategically placed at a crossroads between Western, Central and South-Eastern Europe with potential migratory flows and domination by different hegemonic powers throughout history. The class of students placed at the centre of the narrative reflects this diversity with students whose backgrounds suggest different European histories – and with the single East Asian student symbolising the globalised world now open to Slovenes. Given the region’s history it isn’t surprising that the central drama involves German culture and accusations of ‘Nazi behaviour’.
Some of the students. Luka (second left) is the instigator of the rebellion. (Triglav Films)
The film’s dramatic conflict is created conventionally by the arrival of an ‘outsider’ who disrupts the equilibrium of the school and this class of 17-18 year-olds in particular. Their ‘liberal’ friendly teacher is about to go on maternity leave and she introduces the new German teacher, Robert Zupan. The new teacher seems to have a very different teaching style – strict and possibly authoritarian. When a tragedy occurs affecting all the students in the class, Zupan is held responsible because of his methods and their impact on students. The class comes together (with at first just one dissenter) in a form of rebellion which gradually escalates. The school authorities are forced to try to find a solution which means facing the parents as well as the students and Robert Zupan.
Class Enemy is the first feature film by 29 year-old Rok Biček. The excellent Press Pack includes an interview in which he discusses his methods. His two main inspirations seem to be Michael Haneke and the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, the former prompted the coldness and surgical precision with which the events are analysed and the latter the basic long take style. Given the single central location and the focus on one class and three or for teachers, casting was very important. Biček says he took his lead from the Palestinian-Israeli pairing of Scandar Copti and Zaron Shani and their approach to Ajami (2009). He decided to mainly use professional actors for the teachers and found non-professionals for the students. The latter then built their own performances around their reactions to the constructed performances of the teachers. The students were kept away from the ‘actor’ teachers until their scenes so that they responded as naturally as possible.
The whole story was based on a set of incidents during Biček’s own school career. His skill has been in developing these into a narrative structure that allows a complex drama to emerge. This is a film which at the same time gives ‘concrete’ explanations /resolutions to certain narrative strands but still leaves open the possibility of a different reading. There are no ‘right’ answers as such. For instance, the headteacher does eventually ‘solve’ the problem but the film can still be seen as an indictment of modern school administration which often seems better at handling PR than in finding the best ways to offer real education. Similarly the German teacher (brilliantly played by the leading Slovenian theatre actor Igor Samobor) does indeed act in a rigid and authoritarian manner – but his actions can be read as rational and supportive and ultimately of benefit to students. The students themselves behave as any group of individuals placed under stress and towards the end of the narrative Biček also brings in the parents who also present ambiguous responses to the situation.
The brilliance of Biček’s direction lies in first the ‘surgical precision’ with which he presents the drama and then in the careful balancing of the possible readings of the actions. I can see an argument for showing this film to all teachers training for work in secondary school classrooms (assuming that we have any training left in the bizarre English education system). The work that trainee teachers might do in attempting to read the film would be highly beneficial. Perhaps I’m biased as both an ex-teacher and ex-teacher trainer, but I’d give the Bradford European feature prize to this film. There is still one screening to go in the competition so I’ll hold my fire for the moment.
Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: BIFF 2014, classroom drama, Slovenian Cinema | 1 Comment »
Posted by keith1942 on 15 February 2014
Apologies for the lateness of this tribute. I noted the attention given to the demise of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Shirley Temple and (to lesser degree) that fine actor Maximilian Schell. Then checking over obituaries I see that we have lost this fine Hungarian film director.
I was fortunate to see his great films – The Roundup (Svegénylegények, 1965, The Red and the White (Csillagosok, Katonák, 1967) and Red Psalm (Még Kér a Nép, 1972) at Film Societies in the 1960s and 1970s. Even in that radical decade of political and unconventional films this output stood out as distinctive and enthrallingly critical. The early films featured long travelling shots that Vincente Minnelli would have died for. Even now I have only seen a small part of his output. There was a major retrospective in London earlier this century, but as I remember only one film co circulated in the provinces. The Leeds International festival of 2011 featured a two of his films: thought unfortunately one of them relied on DVD.
Janscó’s work remains among the most impressive and stimulating of European art cinema. Certainly his best work in political terms is as striking as that of Jean-Luc Godard whilst his command of film technique equals that of Michelangelo Antonioni. A proper testimonial to his unique contribution to European cinema would be a retrospective. The Berlin International Film Festival has announced plans for one. Let us hope that these will get a wider distribution
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Posted by keith1942 on 28 November 2013
The trio on the road
This was a feature in the European Catalyst programme at the Leeds International Film Festival. It was there as the first example of what the Catalogue termed the Romanian New Wave. I have to say that I am sceptical of the notion of a Romanian New Wave. There have certainly been some interesting films produced in Romania in the last few years. 4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 days (4 luni, 3 saptamini si 2 zile, 2008) was the best, though also the most downbeat of those I have seen. However, I tend to think of ‘new waves’ in terms of the nouvelle vague or of Dogme 95, where there is both a recognisable group and a coherent approach which is distinctive and which to some extent subverts the conventional, even in art cinemas.
If there is a Romanian New Wave then this feature did not inspire my interest. It was the most unrewarding of all the films I saw during the Festival. The basic plot follows two young men with a girlfriend who drive from a coastal town to Bucharest. They are carrying, for money, a bag of medical products. You might surmise that the medicines turn out to be something less healthy and more illegitimate.
Most of the film follows the journey of the trio, with disruptions caused both by other groups and their own inexperience. For me the journey went on far too long: I actually found this film (running 90 minutes) seemingly longer than the several three-hour epics also in the retrospective. I friend said the film reminded him in an odd sort of way of Mean Streets (1973). And it did have the tone, but not the skill, of early films by Martin Scorsese.
Moreover, I got little sense of any distinctive Romanian culture or situation. The Catalogue suggested the film offered “incisive reflections of his home country”, [i.e. the Romanian director Cristi Puiu). In fact I found the film rather conventional in both plot and the contradictions faced by the characters. It did not help that the film was screened in a not very good quality 35mm print. There were only ten celluloid prints during the Festival and this was likely the worse.
My feelings were that the concept of European Catalyst film did not really embrace this film. In fact I am not convinced about the worth of the concept itself. Still I have attended Festivals where the worse film in the programme was below the standard of this feature!
Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: Leeds International | Leave a Comment »
Posted by nicklacey on 13 September 2013
Train of hope
This fascinating youth pic, from the Czech New Wave, both ‘universalises’ the teenage (or early-20s) experience and sets in squarely in its time. The time was just before the ‘Prague Spring’, but clearly government influence was already loosening, particularly with the relatively graphic nudity and the scene where the youth union meeting is satirised. Being a teenager yearning for a (sexual) relationship is the predominant narrative of youth pics and Czechoslovakia in the ’60s was no different. In fact, it was accentuated by the 16:1 ratio of women to men in the blonde’s (Andula) town, Zruc. To counteract the problem the local factory’s ‘social director’ persuades the army to move a garrison of men to the vicinity. However, they turn out to be middle aged reservists of little interest to Andula and her friends.
The troops’ arrival is one of many comic set pieces in the film. The girls, and the town, are full of hope until the balding men arrive who promptly march to their barracks singing a ridiculous song of blood and glory. Similarly in a dance hall three men bicker amongst themselves on how try of pick up the girls. They send a waiter with a bottle but it’s delivered to the wrong table. Writer-director Milos Forman’s observes all this affectionately, he is not mocking the small town travails of his characters.
As was much European cinema in the ’60s, the Czech New Wave was a ripple of the French nouvelle vague and the long conversations between characters reminded me of early Godard and there is a wonderful moment of Czech surrealism where a necktie is found around a tree when Andula walks through the wood for an assignation that never happens. The dancehall scene reminded me of the one in Billy Liar, shot three years earlier, emphasising how, in the sixties, youth culture was becoming internationalised.
Forman cast locals, mostly non actors, giving the film a realist edge that adds to the charm; it’s not surprising that Ken Loach often cites it as a favourite film. Its political edge is seen when the youth union meeting, of women, is asked to vote to be chaste. Only Andula, hiding at the back, doesn’t put up her hand in favour emphasising the conformism expected by the Establishment at the time. However, while she is something of a rebel, Andula is also a victim; she is betrayed by the smooth talking pianist. Their ‘love’ scene, with the recalcitrant blind, is funny. Overall the film is suffused with a melancholy tone; it entertains but doesn’t forget the pathos of young lust.
Posted in East European Cinema | Tagged: Melodrama, New Wave | Leave a Comment »
Posted by nicklacey on 30 August 2013
The bad and the good?
The abomination of war is accentuated in civil war; Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (original title translates better as Beautiful villages burn beautifully) covers the post-Yugoslavian war of the 1990s that foreshadowed the current ‘conflict’ between ‘the west’ and Muslims. Its complex structure focuses on a band of Bosnian-Serb militia who, amongst other things, burn Muslim villages. The main protagonist is Milan who, in pre-war years, ran a business with his Muslim mate. After scene setting, with a newsreel about the Brotherhood and Unity (such irony runs throughout the film) tunnel first opened in the 1970s, most of the plot takes place 20 years later in the dilapidated and unfinished tunnel as the militia seek shelter from the Bosnian army. Much of the narrative features flashbacks of how the disparate members of the militia joined up from the viewpoint of a number of them recuperating, after the event, in hospital.
Unsurprisingly the film divided opinion when it was release. In an excellent article Igor Krstic (http://www.kinoeye.org/03/10/celluloidtinderbox.php) notes that although Croatian critics dubbed the film pro-Serbian (Croatia was also embroiled in the war against Serbs/Serbia) it was also the first Serbian film to be successful in neighbouring countries after the war ended. While it’s easy to see why the film appears to be pro-Serbian, as we rarely get any other view than the militia’s, Krstic also demonstrates the film’s nuances; principally that the ragtag bunch of militia are not portrayed as likeable characters and in this the film is also challenging Serbia’s national mythology. One of the ways this is done is through the casting of Velimir Bata Zivojinovic as the unit’s commander; Zivojinovic starred in many Partisan films that were important in the myth-making of Tito’s Yugoslavia.
That said I did find the film disturbing. The Muslims who surround the militia are entirely dehumanised, Krstic himself points out that this is drawing of tropes of Hollywood’s representation of the Vietnam war where ‘Charlie’ was an invisible presence in the jungle. Krstic fails, however, to note that this is in itself racist – the enemy as the monstrous Other. Does that make the film racist? Not necessarily as it could be argued that this is a film from the Serbian perspective; no doubt being surrounded by others who want to kill you is a terrifying experience and the enemy will seem monstrous.
This is powerful film-making and draws upon the absurdist vein of Catch 22 and MASH; it’s a bleakly occasionally comic portrayal of the war that is brilliantly made and uncomfortable to view from a political standpoint.
Posted in East European Cinema | Tagged: Balkan cinema, Bosnia, war film | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 19 April 2013
Eli and Val – lovers re-united?
It’s the second year of the New European Features competition at Bradford and just like last year there is a Bulgarian entry. The two films are remarkably similar in institutional terms if not in plot and narrative. Avé last year had a director with some US background/training, a young woman with some international experience and a story concerning a journey and decisions about where she wanted to be in the future. All those three elements are also present in Faith, Love and Whiskey. The director is Kristina Nikolova and this is her first feature – although she has been working as a cinematographer for ten years. Her co-writer and editor is Paul Dalio. They met on a course at New York University Film School (there are several stellar names on the film’s “thanks to” list).
In the interview below, posted on YouTube, Kristina Nikolova tells us that the film is partly autobiographical and its title refers to a Bulgarian saying in which ‘Faith, Love and Hope’ is altered to replace ‘Hope’ with ‘Whiskey’. The film marries two strong ideas. One is universal – a romance about a young woman who must choose between security and passion. The director tells us that she thinks the film is more ‘mainstream’ than it is a ‘festival film’. I think that she is right but the specific Bulgarian flavour makes it special. She tells us that many young people leave Bulgaria looking for a better future but that they return each summer to spend a few weeks drinking like crazy and enjoying meeting old friends. I’ve forgotten the reference but I also read a review of the film that quoted an Economist article claiming that Bulgaria was the ‘unhappiest country’ in the world when income levels and happiness indices were correlated. I also found this entertaining article which suggests that the Bulgarian problem is a combination of poverty (comparing income to other EU countries) and a native ‘superstition and fatalism’. It’s easier to be miserable and to avoid problems by going out and getting smashed. Looked at this way, the film’s narrative makes a lot of sense.
Eli (Ana Stojanovska) is a vivacious and attractive young woman who has a relationship in New York, but who has come back to Sofia to see old friends. She meets them in a bar and goes clubbing and soon finds herself back with the wild and romantic Val with whom she takes a trip into the beautiful countryside. Back in Sofia, however, her American fiancée has arrived and is looking for her. On a basic plot level it’s all very straightforward. The romance is well presented. It’s sunny and hot, there are cool streams for bathing and the booze flows freely. The film was shot on Super 16 with saturated colours and it looks great. I also liked the music, much of it guitar music reminiscent of deranged surf guitar or the work of Link Wray. Val (Yavor Baharov) is a charismatic romantic lead on the edge of oblivion and John Keabler is the stuffy but wealthy American. The local culture is represented in several ways that recall Avé. Eli has lost her parents (there is an interesting reference to her mother) and the one person she really cares about is her grandmother who brought her up. Bulgaria seems to be a society of the aged waiting for the return of the young – there doesn’t seem to be a generation between.
One of the best scenes in the film, which seems to sum up the whole narrative, doesn’t involve Eli. She has gone out and left both John and Val with her grandmother. Val is forced to translate for the old woman and the American. We feel for Val who must tell John, in English, how delighted the grandmother is that Eli has found her rich American. The subtitles tell us that Val is translating correctly, avoiding the opportunity to damage his rival. Then at one point he forgets which language he is using and has to stop to correct himself. It’s a brilliant piece of cinema with so many issues about identity compressed into facial expressions and a slip of the tongue.
This is another shortish feature running just 75 minutes and therefore difficult to place into distribution. I think I read that the film was likely to get distribution in Bulgaria but I think it is unlikely in the UK. I decided on reflection (and thinking about the migration issues) that I liked the film a lot. The plot is simple, the theme is important and the execution is very good.
Interview with the filmmakers at Slamdance, February 2012:
Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Films by women, Romance | Tagged: Bulgarian cinema, migration | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 16 April 2013
Rene Bitorajac (left) as the gynaecologist with one of his drug-dealing police friends
It’s difficult to write about a film that I had to watch through my fingers on several occasions. I have a phobia about scenes featuring surgical operations and there are plenty of those in this film set in a leading clinic in Zagreb. Those green gowns and spurting blood are too much and if this film hadn’t been in the European Features competition, I would have given it a miss. None of this is meant to imply a criticism of the film. In fact, I thought it was rather good. The title refers to the central character who is indeed a vegetarian and is mocked because of it by his friends in the police force. But he’s not the stereotype veggie – indeed his appetites are voracious. He seeks sex, drugs, bling and fast cars. He relaxes by drumming on his professional kit and working hard in the gym. No doubt he is actually a highly competent gynaecologist and a cultured man but unfortunately he is so wrapped up in corruption that he can’t extricate himself.
This was the Croatian entry for the 2013 Academy Awards – which says something about the Croatian sense of identity. I’ve seen American reviews of the film which go with the character’s greed for money (and frequently compare him to the protagonist of American Psycho), but in the UK that isn’t really the issue – I think we home in on the questions about professionalism and what the subtitles refer to as ‘collegiality’. But of course neither Anglo or American perspectives can really explain the Balkan cultural issues. I’m guessing that somewhere in here is a metaphor/allegory for Croatia’s debate about joining the EU (which happens this Summer). There is still a great deal of baggage from the Yugoslavian past to work through before Croatia can be properly accepted. The issues highlighted in the film include blatant racism in the treatment of a Jordanian doctor in the clinic, the ex-military commanders trafficking young women from Ukraine etc. and the corruption and brutality that seems to permeate everything including a sporting culture that includes illegal dog fights.
The cinematography is mainly hand-held and though I find this difficult to watch, I can see that the approach is appropriate here. The film moves at a breathless pace and I find it hard to believe that it was only 85 minutes – I felt like I got more than 85 minutes of action. Rene Bitorajac as the central character, Danko Babic, is excellent. I kept finding him likeable even though I despised everything he was doing. That’s charisma. This is a strong contender for a prize – just like the other two films in competition that I’ve seen.
Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: BIFF 2013, Croatian cinema | Leave a Comment »
Posted by Roy Stafford on 14 April 2013
The two boys, unaware of the events to follow
One of the six entries in the European Features competition at BIFF, A Night Too Young is certainly distinctive but it will face problems because of its short length and possibly its subject matter. 65 minutes used to be the generally accepted point at which a film became a ‘feature’ rather than a ‘short’ – at least in France. At that length it presents a commercial distributor and exhibitor with the task of building a programme around it. In a festival like this it can be boosted with a longer ‘short’ alongside (as it was here).
The subject matter brings together adult partygoers and two 12 year-old boys. The boys are on the cusp of puberty as their discussion of sex in the opening scenes reveals. It’s the afternoon of December 31st in a small Czech town and they are playing on their sleds in the snow when they meet two men and a young woman. She asks the boys to buy some vodka for her from the store and to bring it to her apartment. They innocently do so and find themselves in a party situation with booze and dope and some serious tension in the air.
The director Olmo Omerzu is a Slovenian who has recently graduated from FAMU, the film school in Prague. It’s unusual that a graduation film gets to this length and even more that it gets into a big festival like Berlin and that’s down to some extra funding. Omerzu says that his influences include the Czech New Wave and that he cast the two boys partly because of the way that they seemed at times to resemble the two older men. The boy who plays Baluška (Vojtěch Machuta) has the most extraordinary face, sometimes impassive but at other times seemingly that of a much older man. The script is quite sparse in terms of dialogue and the whole narrative has the feel of a Pinter play. Our attention is drawn to the boys and we wonder what they are making of the events surrounding them. Omerzu has a background in “drawing comics for a Slovenian magazine” and there is something fantastical about how he visualises the mundane setting as the night draws in. New Year’s Eve is when we might expect a stranger knocking at the door and being invited in to join the party. It isn’t always clear what is actually happening and what is being imagined – and who by. The narrative isn’t quite linear – though I have difficulty remembering what happened and in what order.
I think I drew two main conclusions from watching A Night Too Young. First, this is what the industry often terms a ‘calling card’. In its present form it is unlikely to escape the festival circuit, but its strange attractions are likely to help Olmo Omerzu get funding for his next projects and I think we will see more of him in the future. (In another interview he suggests that this film has achieved distribution in Germany, Slovenia and the Czech Republic). Secondly, I was reminded of what a rich film culture there is in Central Europe and how we don’t see enough of it in the UK.
Posted in East European Cinema, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: BIFF 2013, Czech Cinema, Slovenian Cinema | Leave a Comment »