When film festivals come into existence, they result from the perception of both an abundance and a lack. It needs someone to see the riches that cinema all over the world has to offer, but at the same time to be aware that there’s a need for a local and social context to discuss, contextualise and relate to them; he, or let’s say she, realises that DVD and downloading are great tools to make discoveries but that “watching a movie” and “cinema” might still be two different things. So, if she is endued with enough energy, she decides to set up a festival, and that’s where the organisational, institutional and financial problems usually begin.
In the case of the Croatian festival entitled Film Mutations: The Festival for Invisible Cinema, this was the case but it was somewhat different. For even as it owes its existence to the individual enthusiasm of Tanja Vrvilo, the director and founder of the festival, its main impulse came from a book, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of Cinephilia, that it pays homage to in its very title. (1) Aware of the paradoxical element in this, Vrvilo decided to take up this exchange of letters about “the changing face of world cinephilia” that had itself been a consequence of the growing importance of festivals, and re-translated it into yet another festival. In 2006, the idea of creating a local forum for the book’s global attitude took definitive shape, and a year later, in summer 2007, the first Film Mutations were launched in Zagreb, precisely 10 years after the global email-exchange had taken place. All the authors (except Kent Jones, who could not attend) of the first installment of letters that make up the crucial part of Movie Mutations were present: Jonathan Rosenbaum, Nicole Brenez, Alexander Horwath, Adrian Martin and Raymond Bellour, and each of them curated individual programs, the most ambitious being an extensive series on “The Treatment of the Lumpenproletariat in Avant-garde Cinema”“ put together by Brenez. The spectrum of films and filmmakers in the festival ranged from Philippe Grandrieux via Eric Khoo or Gustav Deutsch to Ken Jacobs, who also presented one of his Nervous Magic Lantern live performances,
Now running in its third year, the festival has established itself firmly even if the economic conditions are difficult. This time, there were four curatorial focuses, one of which – the work of Harun Farocki – I myself was involved in. Two other curatorial programs happened to be reactions to sad and shocking events. First, there was the death of Nika Bohinc and Alexis Tioseco, who were murdered close to Manila in September 2009. To commemorate the young Slovenian and Filipino film critics, both of them crucial and animated figures in the festival circuit, the festival in its entirety was dedicated to them. Additionally, Alexander Horwath picked Robert Franks beautiful and touching video diary The Present (1996), a series of places, reflections and memories worthy of remembering the sad occasion.
Robert Frank’s video was part of the program ”I sent a letter to a friend”, taking up a line from Lav Diaz’ poem “In memoriam”, but also alluding to the long love-letter Tioseco had written to his girlfriend in Rogue in 2008. Horwath’s first and most obvious choice had been Lav Diaz’ Batang West Side (2001) that Tioseco had written about enthusiastically at a very early stage. It is an indicator of the festival’s attitude that Vrvilo, when she realised that the film was impossible to get, did not give in but decided to invite Diaz and show two other movies of his instead. So the audience in Zagreb got the rare opportunity to spend two entire days with Ebolusyon ng isang mailyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004) and Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007), although Diaz himself could not be there in the end.
The second shocking event was the police brutality that made Joachim Gatti lose an eye in July 2009. Gatti, grandson of the filmmaker and poet Armand Gatti, had been protesting peacefully against the eviction of an occupied building in the Montreuil suburb of Paris when he was hit by a “flashball” fired from a policegun. An impressing number of filmmakers, amongst them Philippe Garrel, Jean-Marie Straub, Ange Leccia and Pierre Léon, united in a collective that called itself Outrage and Rebellion and produced short interventionist films to articulate their opposition and anger against all kinds of state and police brutality. Nicole Brenez, film theorist, original “movie mutant” and involved in curating programs for Film Mutations since its inception, made this omnibus film a cornerstone of her program, named The Visual Pamphlet: Milestones and Actualities, that highlighted Jean-Luc Godard (Le Gai savoir  and Je vous salue Sarajevo ), Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (Une visite au Louvre  and Europa 2005 – 27 October ) as well as films by Lionel Soukaz.
The interventionist short format of the Outrage and Rebellion films allowed for illuminating correspondences and contrasts with the rest of the program, as the films – in addition to being shown in one continuous block – were featured as supporting films in other screenings. Especially in their direct confrontation with films by Harun Farocki, who was the special guest of the festival, this worked very well; you had the discussion about anarchism in Philippe Garrel’s La Séquence Armand Gatti (2009), a sequence shot for La naissance de l’amour (1993) but not included in its final version, or Straub’s Pour Joachim Gatti, an angry declamation of a text by Jean-Jacques Rousseau next to Farocki’s manifold contributions to a political work with images.
With major shows and retrospectives in Paris, London and Cologne, all of them in 2009, there can be little doubt about Harun Farocki’s visibility and the ever-growing critical attention that he has received, especially in art contexts. For the Zagreb audience, however, it was the first opportunity to get a broader perspective on his work. Farocki himself was present for a lecture dealing with his current work, a continuation of the two-channel installation, Immersion (2009). While Immersion deals with the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder of Iraq veterans who are supposed to recount their trauma with the help of a software called “Virtual Iraq”, the work currently in production (working title: Serious Games) goes back to the preparations for war in American training camps. It is striking how similar both kinds of abstraction are: the computer generated images of “Virtual Iraq” and the stylised and simplified visual signs representing Bagdad or Kabul in the container village, where typical incidents are simulated with extras playing Arabs. Thanks to Vrvilo, it was possible to not only include 13 films by Farocki and 2 programs providing some context to his work (one of them devoted to his elective affinities with Godard, the other presenting two “classics” using surveillance footage, Michael Klier’s The Giant  and Heiner Mühlenbrock’s The Stone-Cold Eye ) but also to display two installations, I thought I was seeing convicts and Counter-Music (2004).
As I could not stay for all of the festival, I did not get to see much of the Found Bodies program that Vrvilo herself had curated, so I cannot say much about the two films by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, at least one of them co-produced by the German TV-station ZDF at the heroic time when commissioning editor Eckart Stein co-funded projects by James Benning and Jean-Pierre Gorin. However, I’m sure I have seen the most extraordinary part of it: a benshi-performance of Ozu Yasujiro’s Umarete wa mita keredo (I Was Born, But…, 1932) that featured Kataoka Ichiro, one of the few young Japanese people still trained in the tradition of benshi, which could be poorly translated as “film narration”, as it comprises dialogue, narration and comment in a unique and original way. Originally a feature of the silent era, the craft and art of benshi has survived thanks to the production company Matsuda, established in 1952 by the last benshi from the silent era, Matsuda Shunsui.
The motto of this year’s festival was “Installations for Cinema”, borrowing a term coined with a somewhat ironic inflection by James Benning when his casting a glance was shown at documenta 12 in 2007. What do the migrations between cinema and art spaces mean? How do they affect our concentration or distraction when facing moving images? The motto was all the more suitable this year as the festival itself had migrated from a cinema in the centre of Zagreb, where it was hosted in 2007 and 2008, to the Muzej Suvremene umjetnosti (Museum for Contemporary Art) in Novi Zagreb, across the Sava river and a little lost in the midst of a purely residential area. This museum, a vast exhibition complex with escalators and a giant double-slide by Carsten Höller that the kids love, had literally been inaugurated the night before the festival started. For the technicians and the entire logistical plane of the festival, this meant jumping into rather cold water. Like pilots who get to know their navigational instruments in mid-flight, they managed to adapt to projecting all kinds of formats from AVI via Beta to 35mm in practically no time.
It is an incredible effort to bring a highly ambitious and strong program to Zagreb, a town which, as I learned, no longer has a regular cinémathèque and where independent cinemas close their doors one after the other. It might suffice to mention that each and every film had to be translated to spot Croatian subtitles, sometimes without getting the dialogues or screeners from the distributors. In addition to that, all the screenings and events were free of charge for the audience. For a festival that has no institutional background and relies on the work of enthusiasts, this requires an amount of idealism that is hard to overestimate. To be honest, I don’t know how Vrvilo and her assistant Jasna Žmak found the time to not only get the festival going, but also to print a rich catalogue that can serve as a textbook with essays by Diaz, Farocki and others.
The most impressive discovery of the festival was a Croatian film, Ivan Martinac’s Kuća na pijesku (The House on the Sand, 1984/85), an enigmatic, dream-like stream of images, sounds and voiceover narration that generates a vibe that is crystal clear and awkwardly hypnotic at the same time. It was the only feature length movie that Martinac shot, who was born in 1936 and deceased in 2005. We follow a character called Josip K. (literary associations welcome), an archaeologist living in Split. We register some of his daily routines, see him walking the streets, driving his car, answering the phone. Nothing much happens, it seems, yet the sequences are interspersed with dreams and strange visual riddles and anticipations. Towards the end of the film, some shots are heard on the soundtrack. Is this supposed to mean suicide? I thought so, but then Josip K. is back, in the same house, inhabiting the same rooms, answering the same phone, except now his family name is Kostelac instead of Krizanic and he is played by a different actor. Is it his brother or some kind of doppelganger? Or have we seen pictures of death all along? There aren’t many films that I look forward to seeing again with the same excitement. One of many beautiful lines in the narration (except for the one that I borrowed as a title for this text) sounds like a motto to the endeavour of the whole festival: “Nothing is built on rock, everything on the sand, but we have to work as if that sand was rock.” There’s good reason to hope that the festival’s ambition and Vrvilo’s enthusiasm will manage to turn sand into rock.
Film Mutations: Third Festival of Invisible Cinema
12-18 December, 2009
Festival website: http://www.filmskemutacije.com/