8-17 November 2002
Festival website: www.filmfestival.gr
“I have always thought that European cinema [industries] should protect themselves…” said Nae Caranfil introducing his latest film Filantropica (Philanthropy, 2001) at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, “…from the cultural invasion of Romanian films.” When the audience had picked themselves up off the floor from laughing hysterically, Caranfil accusingly asked them when the last time was they had seen a Romanian film. Silence reigned.
From the international perspective, it was a particularly glum year for Caranfil to make his challenge. Even festivals that have previously been assiduous in promoting film from Southeast Europe have run into difficulties in 2002. A-status Karlovy Vary did relatively well presenting seven features from the Balkans but the “Alpe-Adria” Festival in Trieste showed a mere two and the Cottbus Festival of Young East European Film screened just one. Ironically, many of these films were from Slovenia—a country that a number of commentators (including a good many Slovenes among them) would consider to be not particularly Balkan and more central European.
However, Thessaloniki made a rather more energetic stab at putting together a Balkan programme. Since 1994, the Festival has committed itself to promoting cinema from the region in recognition of its importance. There is not just a Balkan Survey section at Thessaloniki, but films from the peninsular feature prominently in the International Competition. Last year, an Albanian film, Fatmir Koçi’s Tirana Year Zero, snatched the Golden Alexander, the main prize offered by the Festival to films in competition.
This commitment was strengthened this year when the Festival announced it would be starting the Balkan Fund, a script development programme that aims not just to support cinema from the region but to bring the Festival closer to filmmakers working there. An added perk is that the Festival will get increased publicity at other international film events, as supported films will be required to acknowledge the festival in the film’s credits and all paid advertising. With Thessaloniki already providing a headquarters for the South-East European Cinema Network (funded by the Greek Film Centre), the Fund is an added armament in the concerted push to make Greece’s second city a Balkan film capital.
These cultural aims are mirrored in a wider interest in restoring Thessaloniki’s historic role as an economic and trading centre for the Balkans, a position the city lost due to decades of Communist isolationism and Greece’s own economic and political instability. Now, though, the Balkans are actively seeking integration with Europe, and Romania and Bulgaria have dates to start negotiations with the EU on accession. Greece is well aware of the leading role it can play, and the wealth that could come with that.
So, the Festival backing out of its commitment to Balkan film because of a slightly less fruitful year was simply not an option. It’s the long run that’s important here.
The begging business
Caranfil would no doubt be amused that a seemingly selfless act such as setting up a script development fund could have so many ulterior motives behind it. For this is precisely the point of his new film, the aforementioned Filantropica, which he described in his pre-screening introduction as a “dark, hopeless, miserable, desperate comedy.”
Ovidiu, a middle-aged teacher living with his parents who aspires to be a novelist who still lives with his parents, finds his humdrum life interrupted when a flirtatious model falls for him. Suddenly, he finds he requires a vast income to match the lifestyle expectations of the voluptuous and materialistic young girl. A chance encounter leads him to the Philanthropy Foundation, a shadowy organisation that gives beggars a PR makeover to make their stories more likely to persuade passers-by to part with their cash. The Foundation takes a cut of their earnings in return. For Ovidiu, though, the Foundation has a more elaborate scam in mind and the mild-mannered teacher soon learns how to manipulate people’s heartstrings to get them to part with their cash. But the object of his desire finds out that his wealth is false and when Ovidiu tries to win her back with an act of philanthropy, he finds that he himself has been the dupe.
The story might seem very peculiarly Romanian, but for Caranfil it is a universal tale and the director pointed to recent news stories that have highlighted begging mafias in Paris and Greece. But at a deeper level, the film is about how compassion is continually taken advantage of and manipulated. Despite the absurdity of the film, Caranfil insisted that although he thought he was engaging in hyperbole when he worked on the first draft as he researched his subject he found that he was “just lightly touching reality”.
It is, perhaps, a less tidy film compared to, say, his exquisitely crafted portmanteau comedy E pericoloso sporgersi (Don’t Lean Out of the Window, 1994) but in its themes it is far more rewarding and the Thessaloniki audience in particular reacted very warmly—indeed ecstatically—to the film.
Dead on screen
An enthusiastic response also greeted Milorad Milinković’s debut Mrtav ladan (Frozen Stiff, 2002), and at a post-screening Q&A session an audience member asked with some anger in his voice why the film had not been included in the competition—a query that won him loud applause from fellow viewers. At a press conference later, it emerged that the film had been completed too late to be entered into the competition. Milinković places Mrtav ladan in a long line of black comedies such as The Trouble With Harry (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1955) and Weekend at Bernie’s (dir. Ted Kotcheff, 1989) that have dead bodies in the starring role (in this case, one of Serbia’s most famous actors, Bata Paskaljević played the corpse). The film is very much a genre piece and intense allegories of Serbia’s tortured recent history are wholly absent. Whilst this might be disappointing for Western audiences (somebody at the screening asked Milinković in absolute bemusement why he hadn’t wanted to make a war film), it reflects a growing trend in Serbian cinema to stop analysing the past and get on with the present. That said the film is up-front about mafia violence and drug abuse in Serbian society—an interesting attribute for a film that has a highly romantic ending that reasserts sentimentality and family values. It’s hard to imagine an American film attempting to marry these contrasting story elements together, but perhaps for Serbs the idea that a warm fluffy Hollywood kind of happiness can emerge out of the criminality of modern society plays has a very therapeutic effect on audiences.
Two Balkan films played in competition: the Slovenian film Slepa pega (Blind Spot, 2002) by Hana A W Slak and Cristu Mungiu’s Occident (2002) from Romania. Both won prizes, with Occident winning the Audience Award and Slepa pega earning Manca Dorrer the Best Actress Award. Dorrer’s victory had many critics at the awards ceremony scratching their heads, though, as they struggled to recall what had been so noteworthy about her performance. Part of the problem was that Slepa pega belongs to an increasingly uninteresting genre of films that depict with a documentary detachment drug- or alcohol-fuelled disintegration amongst the young leading to death. It seems to be something of a local speciality and of late Slovenia, Austria and to a lesser extent Hungary have been churning out these downbeat features with little in the way of poetics to redeem them. As if to prove the point, the other Slovenian film at Thessaloniki, Igor Šterk’s Ljubljana (2002), playing in the Balkan Survey, was from exactly the same mould.
Go West young man
Occident, however, was a far more memorable film, and, like Filantropica, it is an interesting example of using humour and lightness of touch to make a more depressing comment on society. The film combines three stories, each nominally about a different pair of people, but with the three stories overlapping and to some extent explaining each other. In that sense, it’s a puzzle picture very much in the vein of E pericoloso sporgersi, the debut by Mungiu’s compatriot Caranfil with a whackiness that will remind some of the similarly structured Knoflíkáři (Buttoners, 1997), the Czech cult hit by Petr Zelenka that triumphed at Rotterdam in 1998 and walked off with the consolation Silver Alexander from Thessaloniki the same year.
The main theme of Occident is the pull of emigration and the push of limited opportunities in Romania itself. This is clearly not a new theme, but it is a timely one. Moreover, Mungiu’s comic touch has helped propel the film to Cannes’s Quinzaine de Réalisateurs, allowing a second trip to the festival for Occident‘s star, Alexandru Papadopol, who also took the lead in last year’s Romanian hit at the international festivals Marfa si banii (Stuff and Dough, 2001) by Cristi Puiu.
Aside from these films, there was little of interest on offer: From Croatia, there was Snjezana Tribuson’s Ne dao bog veceg zla (God Forbid Greater Evil, 2002), one of a number of recent sentimental films about growing up during the 1960s under Communism; Macedonia was represented by Sudijata (The Judge, 2001), a frenetic visual overdose of post-modernism and X-Files-style paranoia by painter and video installation artist Zaneta Vangeli; Bulgaria had only a co-production with Macedonia, Ivan Pavlov’s uncompromisingly bleak Sadbata kato plach (Fate as a Rat, 2001); and Bosnia was only represented by a couple of documentaries shot on video. However, even this meagre representation was better than that for Albania, which had nothing at the Festival.
Making the industry work
Despite the apparent lack of films and the bleak international representation of Balkan film, there was actually a fair amount of cautious optimism about the state of the cinema industry in Southeastern Europe at Thessaloniki and everywhere I went I seemed to hear the phrase “next year will be much better” when I asked about the poor showing this year. Even for Milinković, who considered 2002 “the best year” for Serbian cinema, the future seemed to be even rosier.
It also has to be remembered that international presence is not really a yardstick of success for a functioning film industry. To really work, the business needs first and foremost to be able to attract domestic audiences. In this respect, there is room for some hope. Serbia is the leading country in this field, with domestic films—even second-rate pot-boilers—regularly outplaying Hollywood blockbusters. For example, Milinković reported that in less than a month of his film playing on theatrical release it had attracted 120,000 admissions, and he estimated that it would go on to a total of 250,000 to 300,000 eventually. Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, only attracted around 60,000 admissions throughout its run.
In Romania, both Occident and Filantropica have been huge hits with the national audience. This is a stark contrast to Marfa si banii, which despite going down well at Cannes failed to attract Romanians to the cinema (I was told this was because the marketing for the film had been botched). Caranfil put the admissions for Filantropica at 150,000 on a release that is still going strong and described the film as “probably the most popular film in the last 12 years”. In fact, this is at the moment an exaggeration, as in the mid-1990s A doua cadere a Constantinopolului (The Second Fall of Constantinople, 1994) topped the box office charts with over a million admissions. Nevertheless, Mungiu told me that the only reason this film had done so well was that audiences wanted to see local celebrity in a nude scene, so perhaps Caranfil can have some claim to success in attracting people on the basis of his story. This general trend for increasing audiences for domestic films holds across the former Communist countries, after reaching a low in the mid 1990s when American films accounted for 95 percent or more of box office takings.
Where Serbia and Romania differ, though, is in the thorny issue of profit. Milinković’s film became profitable after only three weeks into its theatrical release in Serbia, a result that he seemed to think was very good but not unique, whereas Caranfil seemed to consider profit a theoretical impossibility for a Romanian feature. There’s more at play here than just box office numbers (which for Filantropica and Mrtav ladan are not a million worlds apart). Mrtav ladan is able to recoup the investment in it partly because of the manner in which it was made. The budget was nominally USD 400,000, but having state television company RTS on board as a co-producer (a new role for them: although there was a statutory obligation for them to support films in the Milošević years, they ignored it) enabled much of the financing for the film to come in the form of payment in kind, which did not have to be repaid. This is a normal arrangement, and television companies frequently provide services, equipment and/or manpower in return for domestic broadcasting rights and sometimes even beyond. However, in Serbia payment in kind happens on a far more complex scale. Thus, as part of the co-production deal for Mrtav ladan, RTS provided a meat processing factory with free advertising time on their airwaves, the factory then gave a consignment of meat to a hotel and in return the hotel accommodated the entire cast and crew for the film (some 60 people) for the duration of the month-long shoot. No money changed hands between any of these parties. With this kind of creative financing, only USD 200,000 of the USD 400,000 budget had to be produced in hard money that needed to be amortised.
Meanwhile, with Romanian filmmaking almost guaranteed to be a loss-maker, directors can really only rely on one factor when they approach a potential private investor—philanthropy. Romanian state television is currently not involved in film production, and directors from the country frequently have to look abroad for financing: for example, all of Nae Caranfil’s films have been made with some degree of foreign money, with Filantropica being a co-production between Romania and France—a country which has also invested in leading Romanian directors Lucien Pintilie and Radu Mihaileanu.
Mixed views on the law
Both Romania and Serbia give state backing to films, but this is often a negligible part of the overall budget. Milinković, for example, estimated that government participation in Mrtav ladan was in the region of ten to 20 percent, but many directors from other former Communist countries would be envious at even this modest involvement. Generally, throughout the region there is a lack of a clear audiovisual policy among governments. Attempts at passing through new, updated legislation for the industry to match the post-Communist age have largely failed. Perhaps one reason is that politicians rank cinema as low on the long list of financial, social and legislative problems that the region faces. Culture ministers often seem to have more of a head for “high” culture such as literature and fine art and seem insensitive to the economic needs of a popular form that has a specific economic structure that it needs to operate in.
However, the industry itself has not always been able to give clear signals as to the shape that audiovisual policy should take. In Serbia, for example, a new film law is currently being drafted, and Milinković spoke admiringly of the French system of strong state funding for film and suggested that the Serbian government should lower the taxes that productions companies currently have to face and impose levies on imports to help fund the industry. Moreover, legislation is needed to allow the studios to seek investment. (Yugoslavia, according to Milinković, had “one of the best laboratories in Europe” in the 1960s and 1970s, but no new equipment has been bought since that time.) But, on the other hand, Milinković also expressed the general reservations of the industry that handing economic control of the film industry over to the state-appointed committee was a return to the Communist era. Indeed, it is ironic that the box office success of the Serbian film is largely due to the fact that the Milošević was largely uninterested in cinema and audiences flocked to see home-grown product that didn’t have the stamp of Slobo all over it. Could government control of the film business stifle Serbia’s domestic film success? The issue may be academic, however, since Milinković said that passing the law is unlikely to be a priority in the near future.
Perhaps government and television funding would not matter so much if export markets were more developed, but Balkan film is largely restricted to domestic distribution. True, the films can and do travel to festivals, but this doesn’t bring the producers any return on their cash. (Although a fee of a few hundred dollars is sometimes charged by the production company to festivals to allow a film to be screened.) The success of films such as Filantropica and Mrtav ladan with the Thessaloniki audiences is also misleading and in no way predicts box office potential. Festival director Michel Demopoulos told me that inter-regional distribution is “the most difficult thing. I’m not very optimistic. We are in the era of globalisation and we know that globalisation exists only for American products.” To illustrate his point, he noted that despite the highly favourable reception of films in the Balkan Survey section with the Thessaloniki audience that he could not recall any film from Southeastern Europe that had been distributed in Greece (“maybe there has been one,” he added, hedging his bets). He also highlighted the importance of the festival atmosphere in the positive reaction to these films.
Milinković, once again, has it luckier, with Serbia having so many neighbours with mutually comprehensible languages. The distribution rights for Mrtav ladan were sold to a Slovene company that also covers Croatia before the premiere. Macedonia looks set to follow. But even with these auxiliary sources of revenue, the domestic market is still the largest one for Serbian producers, and one that Croatian and Slovene films have not had much luck in cracking yet. Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land (2001), an international co-production by a Bosnian-born director, has been the biggest Balkan import so far, but that was on the back of an Oscar win—not something that many films from the region have been able to bank on.
Thus, the outward appearance of the Balkan film industry may be dire, but the domestic reality is a weirder mix of positive signs (increasing audience numbers and film production rates) and negative ones (lack of legislation and an inability to develop inter-regional markets). Perhaps, the outer appearance is to some degree correct in that the recent positive developments have yet to outweigh the inertia-laden hangovers from the past, except, perhaps, in the lucky case of Serbia. Until the balanced is reversed for the rest of the region, the industry will have to rely on philanthropy. Whatever happens, though, Thessaloniki will be a Festival that assiduously charts the developments of cinema in the region.
The realisation of this article was made possible by the Leverhulme Trust as part of the project Reshaping Filmmaking in Eastern Europe.