Have no respect, it’s only film.
– Vassily Bourikas
The Alternative Film/Video Festival in Belgrade has historically been one of a triumvirate of critical festivals, with Pula’sMAFAF (1965-1990) and Zagreb’s initiating GEFF (1963-70), servicing experimental, exploratory, avant-garde, personal film in the former Yugoslavia, at Belgrade’s Academic Film Center (AFC) within the Student City Cultural Centre (DKSG). Initiated in 1982 it was resurrected in 2003 with a dual regional and international focus after a hiatus due to the collapse of the socialist states of the former Yugoslavia. As well as a series of curated and retrospective programs each competition program is now split into international and regional halves, selected by Greg de Cuir and Zoran Saveski with production support by Milan Milosavljević. Two film workshops were also available. One on scratch film by Ivan Ladislav Galeta, the other on filming and processing led by Vassily Bourikas. Initiated by de Cuir the first Alternative Film/Video Research Forum was part of the festival this year bringing together research on alternative/ experimental/ avant-garde/ underground film and video. Although I participated in this side-bar I will concentrate here more on discussions from the festival roundtable and contextualise a small number of films, a couple from competition but mainly regional work that I would find difficult to encounter without attendance here.
Under Festival Director Miodrag Milošević’s guidance, Vladimir Petrić, Jovan Jovanović and Sava Trifković reprised their role as the first festival’s jury, a brave gesture. A Thirty Years On roundtable demonstrated that these veterans had lost none of their critical bite, adding historical perspective to current trends. Neither did their age stop the three wise men from following change’s shooting star to deliver an early Christmas present, the Ivan Kaliević Award to Kirsten Burger and Laura Vogel for their Swiss made film What You Don’t Put in the Soup Goes Down the Loo. Like the flash crowd’s de-stabilising effect, this film’s use of dance registers a transition point, a mobile resistance to surveillance culture. In this over-information age Burger and Vogel’s film points out how public space can still be occupied creatively and performatively employing dance’s ephemeral mobility.
In Berger’s film a dancer (Vogel) moves, with a trace of Parkour, through water, subway and fountain, parking on fences, at times trying to engage with passers-by but only doing so successfully with another intruder into this Swiss city-urban landscape. The only person who responds positively with his body to the dancer is an outsider himself, a man who has travelled from Portugal. Vogel’s dialogue with and in a water fountain is very different to Anita Ekberg’s Trevi Fountain scene with Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita, there infused with erotic anticipation. Vogel’s transgression of public space is performed with a different vitality in the cold hard light of day. There are some young men sitting at this fountain’s side while having lunch but seated with their backs turned, their glances snubbing Vogel’s performance. This is not about performing to a male gaze or walking into the sea to disappear on its horizon line in a heroic gesture of self-effacement. This work sits more closely to the space explored by Cindy Sherman’s imaginary film scenes, but with its focused, critical persona no longer cocooned inside style, but a body openly marking its own relationship to public space. The prize for Berger is not money but a residency at the Academic Film Center to make another film, with all the access to technology this brings.
This is what happens in a country with what is considered internationally as a volatile and unstable currency; we return to a bartering system of exchange to retain value and and consequently encounter a different experience of community. But didn’t the Kino Club always operated in this way; as a socialist institution providing access to equipment, fostering grass roots production, a mirror to the co-op movement in Western Europe, UK, US in the ‘60s and in Australia the Sydney and Melbourne filmmakers co-ops of the ‘70s and video production spaces like Open Channel? Ivan Galeta insists that the trigger for an organised Alternative Cinema across Europe was the first Zagreb GEFF in 1963, fed by Kino Club productions, with its manifesto-like vision for artist made film. Although significant work was produced outside this system, notably Ljubomir Šimunić’s reviewed later, within the Kino Club structure Želimir Žilnik, for example, began making experimental films at the Novi Sad Kino Club (De Cuir, 2008) and Dušan Makavejev, considered the leader of the Yugoslav black wave (De Cuir, 2011), his W.R. Mysteries of the Organism (1971) resulting in his exile, began in the ‘50s at the Belgrade Kino Club.
The roundtable on alternative film touched on a number of issues, the following statements catching my ear in translation: The wish to be alternative has changed. It is important that the camera has become “easy”. Alternative films should pose new questions not museums for the iPod. Yet remastering can be a creative process. Can new media redefine the cinematic? What is essentially digital? What are the colour limits that the pixel allows, is this a new question? If the questions asked by these films are answered there is no point to them. It is what the questions open up that is of interest. Alternative films should change perceptions, whether physically or socially, and critically reflect what is happening in the culture at large. The numerous views in the films screened were reflected in breath of style and the mixture of narrative and abstract forms. The best of the films were like music, complex and to be seen more than once. Submissions to the festival are up 500+ so that selection becomes an award in itself, bringing pressure to start viewing and culling earlier. Is anything lost in this required efficiency? It was also noted that the need remains to keep talking, and that there is not enough writing about such alternative film; issues that the forum moved to address. The discussions relating to formalism and narrative also indicated that such oppositions had played differently here than the Wollen-initiated two avant-garde split of the ‘70s in the UK. I had entered a parallel universe in that regard, where it seemed that these two poles had kept dancing with each other.
The need to pay special attention to the regional was also affirmed; the “ghetto” of the regional. The strategy of placing the local and regional into two halves of the same program is a creative and productive response to this problem. In illustration I recall a survey of Dutch experimental film at Rotterdam’s IFFR a few years back, which drew a mainly local crowd. Why was the international audience somewhere else? Conversely, those players who fete visiting international avant-garde figures invariably discount and ignore its local practitioners. Such maneuvering tends to be a shrewder career move. Film artists value those that trust their own eye and ear rather than those who look around to see what other curators are showing.
Moving on to discuss some of the films, Vassily Bourikas had a double presence with his filming/processing workshop plus the curated The Shit and the Fanprogram. This program showcased recent Greek alternative film, reclaiming experimental film as an act of political resistance. The fractured narratives, the smash and grab imagery, this program’s street-cred, its return to express and witness a decade of national economic submission, exiles the scrubbed-up and aestheticised politics of something like Jean-Luc Godard’s much loved Weekend (1967) to a rich kid’s holiday romp. The two day weekend is meaningless when you are facing a decade-long death sentence. The manifesto is back as blind rage. When Bourikas implores “have no respect its only film” in order to allay any hesitancy in his workshop cohort, enticing them into the deep end, he also speaks to the mind-set required to negotiate the spiritual, moral and social stench he foregrounds in the current Greek situation. For Bourikas the experimentation of a “different cinema” is now imperative in addressing this extreme crisis.
In his retrospective, Serbian filmmaker Ljubomir Šimunić demonstrated a habit of gathering images with his camera like a bowerbird. While on holidays he turns into a surveillance machine in speed-up mode capturing bikinis on the boardwalk and the rich on their yachts drinking on deck. At home he compiles an ongoing Tito portrait. The unfinished Tito piece Love All around Us does not play out nostalgically but at an obsessive edge situated somewhere between violence and the sublime, reminding me in impact of Taiki Sakpisit’s Thai video Ripe Volcano. With Pression (1970-1975) and Gerdy, the Naughty Witch (1973-76) Šimunić tattoos Beograd’s city life onto your eye with his mobile double 8mm camera. The soundtrack’s familiarity reminded me of the transistor radio’s newfound mobility that drove and exploded youth culture in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Compiled in camera over 3-5 year periods these films’ double and triple layered imagery of street lights, neon signs, B&W TV and glimpsed everyday street scenes write the kind of eye movement across the frame that the Situationist city dérive elicited in chance walks and taxi rides through the city. What is documented here is a new way of seeing borne from city life, where reflections, the car’s mobility and the double images offered by both the taxi and shop window are inscribed onto the viewer’s sensory cluster. The layered speed of Šimunić’s visual writing also predicts the compacted grazing and sampling response to the tidal wave of visual media that today immerses the everyday, both on the street and online.
In the Slovenian diaristic program Finger in the Eye, Davorin Marc’s observations of everyday life demonstrated a great eye for body gesture and timing. Marc’s young friend/accomplice, standing smoking a cigarette while observing a park of everyday activity becomes strangely charged with anticipation. A visit to the same friend in hospital, and the wave of his broken plastered arm approached a disarming form of slapstick. Is this gesture hello, goodbye or look here? In its repetitions it became all three at once. I thought of an unexpected mix of Akerman and Keaton, or even Ken Jacobs following Jack Smith around in Star Spangled to Death (2004).
The Hungarian historic program’s final films by the Kőbánya Nonprofessional Filmstudio were charged with a similar immediacy and vitality. József Hajdú’s Áááá and Happening and Antal Geszler’s 1+1 leaden leeches from Bremen all originated on 8mm black and white but only video copies have been found. All included an obtuse running critique of its political milieu and art scene. Happening especially was filled with the technical paraphernalia of film production that reflexively performed as props in its own creation. The bad quality video that had survived and the lengths that archivist Sebestyén Kodolányi had gone to locate them sharpened the edge of its obtuse commentary on an apparatus/system that marked the group’s exclusion. The work, not part of the official story, had to be hunted down through half remembered events as testing as the fragments of performative commentary in the videos themselves.
Slobodan Valentinčić‘s curated program, Our Eyes are in Excellent Condition, selected from his Slovenian OM Archive of 8mm, super 8 and 16mm films, with such titles as the Dislocated Third Eye Series,sits between trauma and trance. The program notes state: “The identities of the individual members of the conglomerate remain shrouded in the haze of unverifiable hearsay and innuendo.” Does the OM archive suffer from a multiple personality disorder? Are not filmmaker names like Zend Kommandoh or Emannuel Gott-Art nom de plumes for a younger Valentinčić? And further does Valentinčić’s splitting strategy mimic or precog the former Yugoslavia’s fragmentation? As both curator and artist Valentinčić deftly inoculates this work against the curatorial epidemic cultivated by the digital explosion.
In the final film Dislocated Third Eye Series – Bismillah, by Sulejman Ferenčak (1984) the camera spins like a dervish through a green landscape, it blurs, stretches and streaks its imagery, creating a compacted workingman’s version of Michael Snow’s three hour La Région Centrale (1971). This spinning top of a film finishes with Valentinčić placing himself straddled in front of the screen letting its streaks wash over him, tied to the mast like a ship in a storm. He rides Bismillah’s wave, reminding me of the legendary ghost ship, The Flying Dutchman, destined never to make shore, with Valentinčič tied to its mast. It too was a visual illusion, a portent of doom.
Allan Brown’s Square Dance Hypnotist, also on the list of significant achievements from the festival, provided a critique of US culture. It sits neatly in that Canadian tradition exemplified by Mike Hoolboom’s found footage infused feature-length essays like Tom (2002) or Lacan Palestine (2012). This vein of Canadian experimental cinema manages to reclaim, against the odds, a sense of the personal out of the Spectacle’s detritus, evolving a visual language capable of articulating trauma along the way. Brown manages this with his repetitive square dance sequences, structured like Peter Gidal’s materialist films and like Malcolm le Grice’s Little Dog for Roger (1967) where the dog’s dance is reflexively re-iterated through the editing strategies and movement of the film itself, through the gate. The kind of thing that passed as family TV entertainment in the ‘60s here acts as a dissociative counterpoint to the suicide call and response caught on the police’s road patrol radio. At times these dance sequences develop a forensic viewing mode. The viewer is invited to inspect; what trace, denial or erasure, what dismissal, what trauma is hidden here?
Alternative Film/Video Festival
5-9 December 2012
Festival website: http://www.alternativefilmvideo.org
Greg De Cuir, Old School Capitalism: An Interview with Zelimer Zilnik. Cineaste Publishers, 2008. Accessed at http://www.cineaste.com/articles/emold-school-capitalismem-an-interview-with-zelimir-zilnik-web-exclusive
Greg De Cuir, Yugoslav Black Wave: Polemical Cinema from 1963-72 in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Film Center Serbia, Belgrade, 2011.