Slovenian filmmaking, especially documentary, is characterised by often being “generationally” marked by auteurs who, in a certain period, push the boundaries of formal innovativeness and substantive incisiveness. Matjaž Ivanišin is doubtlessly such an auteur; his creativity boasts an exceptional sensibility for documentarily synchronising the contemplation of the past, the present and the future of various ethnic communities, groups or individuals. Such a creative principle is especially important in examining the landscape of post-Yugoslav identity, since transnationality and cosmopolitanism are among the key components of establishing new areas of freedom or reconstructing the possibilities of former multiethnic coexistence. In this article, I will analyse Ivanišin’s creativity in the conceptual framework of refractive essay cinema. This form of film essayism is a way of thinking in the audio-visual field whose most important two elements are the questioning of the regime of representing reality and consequently the exploration of the aspects of (anti)aesthetics with the help of the creative principle of critical recreation. In Ivanišin’s work, such a method comes most to the fore in his documentaries Karpopotnik (Karpotrotter, 2013) and Playing Men (2017). Here, I will focus on the first, in which Ivanišin uses an incisive essayistic approach to enter a dialogue with the films of Karpo Godina, one of the key alternative filmmakers of Slovenian and Yugoslav cinema. With his approach of recreative reconstruction, Ivanišin combines Godina’s image of the past and his own view of the present into a unique poetical and humanistic vision of a world without borders and limitations.  

The Features of Refractive Essay Cinema 

The concept of the refractive essay is taken from Timothy Corrigan’s typology in The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker (2011). His conception of film refraction as a form of critical confrontation with cinema and other arts and aesthetic experiences originates in two reflections of André Bazin, who often used examples from nature and the exact sciences to illustrate his insights. The first reflection can be found in Bazin’s discussion of the film Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, Robert Bresson, 1951) in “Le journal d’un curé de campagne and the Stylistics of Robert Bresson” and Bazin’s belief that Bresson’s adaptation of Bernanos includes “all that the novel has to offer plus, in addition, its refraction in the cinema.”1 And we come across the second reflection in Bazin’s discussion of the differences between André Malraux’s novel Man’s Hope (1937) and the author’s eponymous film (L’Espoir; Days of Hope, co-directed with Boris Peskine, 1945), in which Bazin concludes: “the film and the book are the refraction in two different artistic mediums of the same creative impulse, which places them on the same aesthetic level.”2 In his typology of film essayism, Corrigan thus discusses refractive cinema as a unique mode of reflection in the audio-visual field. Its most important elements are the questioning of the representational regime of moving images and consequently the exploration of aspects of (anti)aesthetics with the help of the method of critical recreation.   

The first factor refers to the filmic treatments of experiences, realisations, and events, and to their audio-visual reflections, which deflect through the fates of individuals and, in different time periods and socio-political circumstances and within cultural dominants, take place through various aesthetic practices, which undermines the belief in the stability and credibility of a certain form of representation: “like the beam of light sent through a glass cube, refractive cinema breaks up and disperses the art or object it engages, splinters or deflects it in ways that leave the original work scattered and drifting across a world outside. Rather than the mimetic idea of a mirror reflecting a world, these films set up a chain of mirrors (…) that disperses the image through a social space.”3 With the second foregrounded element, Corrigan refers to the aspects of critical recreation or reconstruction as a method that includes both actual experiences – in the form of subjective experiencing – and their evaluation in the current socio-political situation. In this combination, the viewer becomes a sort of “juror” who, similarly as in a trial, while verifying the credibility of the evidence or the testimonies of the decreed reconstruction, assesses the suitability of the proceeding itself, the justification of using the chosen means and the correspondence with prior notions, but especially the possibility of comprehending the polysemy of the process that can never be completely objective.  

Karpotrotter: Refractive Compilation Essay 

Searching for what I need,
not even knowing what that is exactly,
I’ve walked from man to man.
I’ve left with each of them a bit of what I don’t have
and what I’ve been searching for. 

Ivo Andrić, excerpt from Signs by the Roadside 

Karpotrotter – the first image of the film

Karpotrotter is Ivanišin’s exciting homage to one of the key creators of Yugoslav and Slovenian engaged cinema – the famous film director and cinematographer Karpo Godina. The direct connection between Godina’s persona and the conception of cinema as a specific act of resistance originates in the fact that his work belongs to the core of the phenomenon of New Yugoslav Film, often more known under the derogatory term “Black Wave”. Film history considers Godina one of the key figures of the most important period in the cinema of former Yugoslavia due to both his own filmmaking, which at the time consisted mostly of short films,4 and his collaboration with the most prominent names of New Yugoslav Film such as Želimir Žilnik, Branko Vučićević, Bata Čengić, and a number of others. Ivanišin’s work is also a unique cinesthetical conversation between two filmmakers of different generations, but with a similar filmic outlook, based on respect, patience, sensitivity, curiosity, and playfulness. In the 1970s, Godina made a significant part of his documentary-experimental oeuvre in Vojvodina, the region of former Yugoslavia with the most diverse ethnic (and consequently identity) structure. The most famous work among his films from Vojvodina is the short Zdravi ljudi za razonodu (Healthy People for Fun, 1971).5 Another worth mentioning is the peculiar documentary road movie Imam jednu kuću (I Have a House, 1971), which has been only partially preserved. Forty years later, Ivanišin took his camera on the same journey as Godina and, in a compilation manner – by combining Godina’s original material, his own footage, and a poetic narrative – created a work that is not only an homage to his predecessor, but also an enthralling ode to the art of film. 

With the magic touch of an exceptional sensibility that only distinctly dedicated filmmakers possess, Ivanišin created a kaleidoscope of images, words, voices, and sounds in which one can detect both past and current dilemmas regarding the coexistence of differences, the examination of cultural and ethnic diversity, and its influence on the political and social dimension of the everyday. A special atmosphere in the essayistically and meditatively conceived depiction of impalpable time is created by the poetic interventions of the “commentary”, with which the author of the text and the film’s narrator Nebojša Pop-Tasić defines the happenings, the interpersonal relations, and the tradition of the inhabitants of the villages in Vojvodina to which the film takes us. The pronounced auteur approach – in which we hear echoes of a dialogue and the pulsation of a polyphony between two filmmakers who belong to different generations, but have a most similar feel for experiencing, depicting, interpreting, and documenting the position of humans in the world and the world in humans – points to the permanent relevance of certain modes and processes of dealing with such omnidirectional relations. At the same time, the new film is a subtle reflection on the role and the significance of filmmaking in reconstructing individual and collective memory and identity, which, despite the poetic inspiration (or precisely because of it), also reveals an inkling and an echo of the tragedies in former Yugoslavia.    

An important element in conceiving the meaning dimensions of Karpotrotter is the interpretation or intervention at the verbal level. The commentary is composed as a compilation of various sources with which the visual spectrum is organised in a coherent whole. It most often functions at the (self)reflective level, where it either relativises the meanings of the visible – in the relation between the “original” and the “recreation” – or recontextualises them and thus points out the different dimensions of sense in the conception of cinematic articulation. At the simplest level of expressiveness, we could say that, in Godina’s approach, the role of the commentary is played especially by music, while, in Ivanišin’s film, it is played by the “recited” original poetic narrative combined with the film’s musical dimension. At the same time, the “commentator” role is also assumed by short flashes of memories that locals share about Godina or about the individual protagonists of the original film, whom Ivanišin’s adaptation presents in a new perspective.   

Structurally, Karpotrotter consists of a prologue dedicated to the creativity of the Yugoslav Black Wave, a central part that collages the social and aesthetic diversity of two auteur languages, and the epilogue of “returning” home, which constitutes a poetic summary of the main part of the film. We could say that, with the prologue, Ivanišin points out how the employed devices refer especially to those aspects of creative multilayeredness that reflect a commitment to the aesthetic, formal, and narrative elements mastered in the period of Black Wave film subversions. The homage, also expressed through Godina’s “method of work”, begins with a reconstruction of the famous and today already anecdotal telephone call that Godina received from Želimir Žilnik in 1968, which lead to one of the most famous masterpieces of Yugoslav New Film – Rani radovi (Early Works, Želimir Žilnik, 1968). Žilnik managed to convince Godina with the anthological argument: “if you’re hesitating by any chance, let me just say this: I don’t know anything about directing, you don’t know how to handle a camera, so, together, we could create something huge.” The prologue continues with a series of photos from the filming of Early Works, accompanied by Tasić’s commentary. The latter concludes with a point that encapsulates the essence of what Godina and Žilnik realised while making Early Works, as they became aware that they “changed the world into what it actually is. Finally, they realised that it wasn’t the revolution that had eaten its children. The children had eaten the revolution. The children had eaten it all.” 

Karpotrotter – a photo from the set of Early Works

All Paths Lead to Oneself 

The film’s central narrative part, which is separated from the introduction and the conclusion with the drive of a Zastava 600 (the legendary popular car in former Yugoslavia) across the endless plains of Vojvodina, is divided into chapters, titled after the villages in which the events take place. The film is based on a unique alternation of intersubjectivity and intertextuality, which takes place according to the principle of compilation, in which three basic methods of combining different materials predominate. These methods are three different processes of refraction, which are reflected especially in the types of passages that exist between the images and the sounds of various sources, statuses, and conditions. In simplified terms, we could call them juxtaposing, paraphrasing, and transilluminating. These approaches are not strictly separated, they alternate, but so that, in the course of the film’s narrative and within the dynamics of audio-visual articulation, the process intensifies from the simplest (juxtaposing) to the most complex (transillumination).  

In the first method, Ivanišin’s original auteur images and the existing material (both picture and sound) are juxtaposed in a sequence, or rather alternate in it. On the one hand, he uses Godina’s past footage, characterised by a particular “portrait mode of filming”, which means that his static camera records locals in front of their houses. On the other hand, Ivanišin introduces his own portraying principle, according to which he moves the villagers from in front of the buildings, or from the exteriors, to the interiors, to the homeliness of family spaces, most often kitchens.

Karpotrotter – a typical portrait image from I Have a House

Karpotrotter – a typical portrait image by Matjaž Ivanišin

The above, however, is not a matter of a simple comparison, but of particular “dialectical juxtapositions”, in which there is a constant passing between different – both temporal and spatial as well as visual and mental – dimensions of conveying heterogeneous matter. This approach testifies not only to the diversity of film articulation, but also to the complexity of the mechanisms of such polifilmicalness. In it, the sutures of the visual field of a diverse origin take place through various folk songs, which in some places appear acousmatically and occur off screen, while in others they are synchronous and originate in the happening in front of the camera. In general, the film’s musical dimension is heterogeneous; in addition to the folk songs in past and present interpretations (acousmatic and synchronic), we can also hear parts of the original soundtrack for I Have a House

The method of paraphrasing (citing or interpreting with adaptations of meaning) is again characterised by its use at different audio-visual levels, only that the filmmaker’s interventions are more intense than in the case of juxtaposing. The method of paraphrasing is most distinctive in the chapter “The Cross Village”, in which the central place belongs to the character of the ‘village weirdo’ Ficko. In this treatment, the most exciting situation in the visual field is when a “cited” moving image by Godina is “frozen” into a still, that is, a static photograph. With this change in the state of the image, the emphases in meaning also change, which Ivanišin intensifies by presenting the actual photographic image of a young Ficko.6 At the verbal level, there are times when the memories of the locals are “drowned out” by the commentary, which testifies to the fact that, in the given moment, Ivanišin is interested less in the “factuality” of a particular fact of the past and more in its present poetic reinterpretation. The latter gets a unique ring also because of the unusual two-part polyphony, since the narrator’s commentary never totally drowns out the words of the locals and thus their memorial soundtrack shines through the interpretation.

Karpotrotter – a photo of the village weirdo Ficko

This already announces the third method – the process of a distinct transillumination, which, in addition to the interventions in the dimensions of meaning, also reflects the interventions at the level of temporality. The key stylistic innovation here is Ivanišin’s gradation of the previous approaches; that is, his further development of the juxtaposition of present and past audiovisualities and the method of paraphrasing by making one speech drown out another. As a basis, Ivanišin uses Godina’s image of a girl, dressed in a national costume, who, in a foggily blurred landscape, sings a Hungarian folk song. Then, the song is repeated, sung again in the present by the same performer – the local Lenka, who sang the song 40 years earlier. Her past image then becomes the background of her new performance of the song. The images thus transilluminate both temporalities through each other – both the currentness of Godina’s filming and Ivanišin’s “dubbing”. In this transillumination, the criterion of temporality shifts from chronos to kairos – from time conceived as duration, measurable in the process of constant passing, to a time grasped as a gappy, split state of immediate nowness and presence. An image that internalises such a time is, if we use Walter Benjamin’s definition, a dialectical image, that is, an image in which the past and the present “shine in a constellation.”7

All these and a number of other non-emphasised elements – for example, framing modes, the choice of field sizes, camera angles, the grain of the picture due to the use of different recording devices – point to a thought-out conception based on the awareness that only an attentive dedication to the aesthetic dimension of the filmic can contribute a smidgen to the attempt at understanding its cinesthetical essence. In this dedication of (self)reflection and the examination of the substantial aspects of the filmic, situations emerge when, in decisive places, essential breakthroughs happen precisely with the help of method and chance. In these refractive combinations, it is not only the question of conceiving the meaning of filmic expressiveness that is intensified, but also the relativity of its truth or reality within the dilemma about the ways of establishing a relation between filmic facts and the depicted world. What we have in mind is in concordance with the famous, long-ago thought-out principle of Robert Bresson from his Notes on Cinematography: “the true is not encrusted in the living persons and real objects you use. It is an air of truth that their images take on when you set them together in a certain order. Vice versa, the air of truth their images take on when you set them together in a certain order confers on these persons and objects a reality.”8

At the end, we cannot bypass the genre connotations of the discussed film. In the first place, Karpotrotter already structurally reflects the elements of a road movie, which are only further emphasised at the level of meaning. The classical imperative of a road movie as an aimless journey – encapsulated in the belief that the path is more important than the goal – or as a journey towards an unreachable goal – encapsulated in the maxim of travelling from nowhere to where it is impossible to get – always also encompasses the suggestion of a process of self-discovery; a journey into oneself. That is why it can be no coincidence that, in the end, Ivanišin’s wandering across the expanses of Vojvodina amounts to a “return” to oneself, a return home, that is, to the space and time in which he will build, out of lived experiences, “a house that will dwell within” him, as the narrator’s commentary concludes the film.

Karpotrotter – the last image of the film


With an analysis of Karpotrotter, this reflection has tried to shed light on some of the pressing issues that emerge in the discussion on the refractive essay as the form with which film tries to get close to itself in the most intimate, most direct and most honest manner. These are the dilemmas that David Montero also opened in his exploration of the “thinking images” of European cinema: “if the essay film’s most recognisable feature is a meta-discursive reflection on images formulated in images: how is such a reflection articulated? How does it affect the positioning of both filmmaker and viewer in relation to what is represented in the film? How does this meta-discursive image relate to other social, cultural and political discourses?”9

Based on Ivanišin’s film adventure discussed in this article, the simplest answer could be that meta-filmic self-reflection is most often articulated as an act of liberation. It is a process that represents the return of truth to its origin – the previously generated images. Through the recreation of these images, the filmmaker conducts the process of subjectivation as a repeated, transformed division of the experiential field in which images had already been given an “identity” and their position in the cinema sphere had been defined. Cinesthetic subjectivation is thus a process that, if we paraphrase Jacques Rancière’s thought, disassembles and reassembles the relationships between modes of acting, modes of being, and modes of filming. In this sense, the filmmaker’s creative incisiveness reflects his awareness about the necessity of reflection with filmic means, or if we use Montero’s terms: of using the method of “a meta-discursive reflection on images.” Such a feature can be ascribed, for example, to the gesture of freezing the image or to the introduction of the dialectical image in Karpotrotter. The dialectical image leads us to a situation when a filmed moment acquires, as the filmmaker would say, “an intensity similar to the one of the event itself.”10 The fact that the film focuses on events in the territory of former Yugoslavia (both before and after its disintegration) is treated as an addition of a toughener to the reinforcement of the concept of post-Yugoslavness. The latter has been strengthening at the level of cinema precisely through a meta-filmicness that relativises discourses dictated by the domineering tendencies of imposing the one and only truth.

Translated from Slovene by Maja Lovrenov.


  1. André Bazin, “Le journal d’un curé de campagne and the Stylistics of Robert Bresson” in What Is Cinema? Vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 143.
  2. André Bazin, Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews From the Forties and Fifties, Bert Cardullo, ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 148.
  3. Timothy Corrigan, The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 191.
  4. Karpo Godina’s entire film oeuvre includes 18 short films, nine medium-length films and four feature-length works; as a director of photography, he worked on 21 features by directors from all over former Yugoslavia.
  5. The film presents the most populous six ethnic groups in Vojvodina. According to the director, 31 ethnic minorities lived there at the time.
  6. Here, we are talking about the famous difference between filmic and photographic image pointed out by Christian Metz: “Film gives back to the dead a semblance of life, a fragile semblance but one immediately strengthened by the wishful thinking of the viewer. Photography, on the contrary, by virtue of the objective suggestions of its signifier (stillness, again) maintains the memory of the dead as being dead.” Christian Metz, “Photography and Fetish,” October, Issue 34 (1985): p. 84.
  7. “Thoughts belong to thinking both in their state of motion and their state of rest. When thinking reaches a standstill in a constellation saturated with tensions, the dialectical image appears. This image is the caesura in the movement of thought. Its locus is of course not arbitrary. In short, it is to be found wherever the tension between dialectical oppositions is greatest. The dialectical image is, accordingly, the very object constructed in the materialist presentation of history. It is identical with the historical object; it justifies its being blasted out of the continuum of the historical process.” Walter Benjamin, “'(N)’ Theoretics of Knowledge, Theory of Progress,” The Philosophical Forum, Issue 1/2 (1984/85): p. 24.
  8. Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography (New York: Urizen Books, 1977), p. 38.
  9. David Montero, Thinking Images: The Essay Film as a Dialogic Form in European Cinema (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012), p. 2.
  10. Ciril Oberstar and Matevž Jerman, “Matjaž Ivanišin: ‘Če se ne razbiješ na tisoče koščkov, če ostaneš cel in cel vstaneš, šele nato lahko igraš,’” Ekran, Volume 54 (September-October-November 2017): pp. 16-20, p. 19.

About The Author

Andrej Šprah is a freelance researcher, part-time Assistant Professor of Film and Television History and Theory at the Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television, University of Ljubljana, and Visiting Lecturer in Cinema Studies at Alpe-Adria University of Klagenfurt. His research focuses on political documentary, the cinematography of former Yugoslavia, and the cultural, political and social implications of Third Cinema.

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