Blurred Memory, Responsibility, War Film: Ordinary People (2009), Waltz with Bashir (2008)

January 31, 2010 at 4:18 am

Ordinary People is a Serbian film, which is a co-production of France, Switzerland, Serbia and the Netherlands and does not seem to have a title in Serbian. As France is a co-producer, no wonder it screened in the context of Cannes IFF in 2009; it won awards at Sarajevo and at the specialist East European film festival in Cottbus, Germany.

Perhaps the most impressive recent film from the region, this almost silent, slow moving, and seemingly dull story chronicles one day in the life of soldiers whose work is killing people all day long while staring at the blue sky and smoking cigarettes in the breaks in-between work. It is mid summer, and groups or men are brought in and executed in groups of five or six, shot at the back of the head on the premises of what appears to be a disused vacation camp. The victims are passive, there are no interactions between prisoners and executors, and only in one instance a captive shows signs of resistance. Another one attempts to initiate something like an investigation into why he is here, hoping he may get out, and only gains an extra few minutes of hope – he is still executed along the others.

The protagonist is a young man, Dzoni, just out of high school. There were no jobs when he graduated, he explains, so he joined the army. One learns little of him: he is clearly a most average young man who likes to sleep in, and in his free time smokes cigarettes and stares at the clouds in the sunny sky. That is, when he is not busy killing. At the first group of prisoners he tries to opt out, but then joins in and does his work along the others, he does not want to be ostracized. At the end of the day the soldiers are asked to do some more but he leads something like an improvised protest and says the work been enough and they should now call it a day. The lieutenant, pictured here as he is training the soldiers for the job, is a kind of a father figure. So much so that at some point I thought it may be revealed he is the protagonist’s real father. At the end of the day he catches up with Dzoni in the men’s toilet where he issues a brief technical remark on how to aim better the next day.

Clearly, it is in former Yugoslavia during one of the several wars of the 1990s. As the film is Serbian the soldiers are presumably Serbian as well, executing prisoners from the other nations that sought secession during the wars of Yugoslavia’s break up. But there is very little to identify the place and the time, and indeed, the action of the film could take place in almost any historical period and geographical place. It is a war film about killing in the context of a war that is not of the soldiers’, one in which they take part almost mechanically by doing their little part. It is about how guilt and responsibility is devolved by dismantling the operation into small parts where no one is ultimately responsible.
Reportedly, the film is partially based on some personal experiences of the director who served in the Serbian army in the 1990s. It is probably this fact that has made a number of reviewers to accuse it in trying to exonerate the Serbs for the troubles they have been charged with in the context of the wars of Yugoslavia’s succession. There is no mercy in these critics – the director is said to seek to excuse the killings by showing that individual soldiers cannot be held responsible.

But is this really the case? Ari Folman’s oneiric animation Waltz With Bashir (Israel, 2008), one of the most impressive films I saw last year, was not subjected to such criticism, even though it speaks of largely the same issues. Like Ordinary People, Waltz with Bashir evolved around a young protagonist and his buddies, all involved in an atrocity in a way that similarly dismantles the operation into small parts and creates a context where no individual can be vested with responsibility over the reprehensible results of their collective actions. I cannot recall any critics claiming that Folman was trying to exonerate his protagonists. In both cases the films make a powerful statement that raises above concrete wars and contexts: personal memory becomes blurred and reminiscences uncertain when confronted with the master narrative of the big picture that emerges in the aftermath of the atrocity. Once the focus zooms in on the atrocity for a close scrutiny, personal responsibility becomes increasingly difficult to pin down on to an individual, as singular people have been just parts of an operation that now seems to lack the mastermind that would take responsibility for the whole. Thus, in these two films, war cinema charts out new areas for investigation into the realm of guilt and remembrance.

© Dina Iordanova
31 January 2010

Book Is Good But Film Is Better: Tromso International Film Festival, Norway

January 26, 2010 at 3:59 am

‘Book Is Good But Film Is Better’: this is what a bookmark that I picked up at the festival, featuring the raindeer-horns logo of the festival, reads. I agree.

Located on a fjord more than 200 miles north of the Polar Circle (the Nowegian classic Ni Liv was shot in the area) and thus perhaps the northernmost festival in the world, the International Film Festival in Tromso (Norway) celebrates its twentieth anniversary with this edition, which this year is called Frozen Land-Moving Images. Started in 1991 by a local cinema exhibitor, Focus cinema’s Hans Henrik Berg (who died two years ago), the festival has grown to become one of the largest most important events in Scandinavia. Originally taking place in the cinema that Berg was running, it now uses multiple venues around town: the six-screen multiplex, the old cinema (a 1915 building), as well as various other adapted locations; it is amazing that all these were fully available to the festival organisers for the duration of the festival and that all were really high quality venues with excellent seating, accessibility and visibility. The former cinema building is no longer used for screenings but it has been remodeled into a light-filled library which is one of the architectural landmarks of the town, displaying the traditional clean lines of Scandinavian design. The new FocusKino multiplex is just down the street. During my stay in Tromso I could not help thinking of St. Johns, Newfoundland, on a daily basis — so closely do these two towns resemble each other that they should be twinned, in my opinion. The weather was not particularly cold for the duration of our stay (it would have been colder in Newfoundland), but still it was nice to be able to order food in the local eateries by dispensing of food vouchers that were reading ‘Frozen Land/Hot Food’.

The festival takes place in mid-January and is thus one of the earliest events on the global festival circuit. This is the period when the sun has not really shown up here for a few months; it is not really dark all the time and there is a period of daylight over several hours. Simply the sun never comes above the horizon during this period; it was scheduled to be welcomed on 21 January but the morning was foggy and the promised ceremony never took place as nothing of the sky was to be seen, so thick was the fog (the husky ride did not take place, either, as the snow on all the tracks was melting this January). Tromso is also known as the best place in the world to observe the Northern Lights, but we did not get the chance to see them, either. Still, our caring host Randi took us on a wonderful cable car ride to a nearby mountain, from where we could look over the area and the island.

The most interesting screening programme is the one that takes place daily in open air. The photo I display above is showing one of the screenings, but it is from a past year. Things look even nicer now, with the screen being entirely cushioned in snow, like a giant snowy sculpture, and with other snow sculptures and an igloo standing next to it. It is not very warm to watch a film here, true, but it is perhaps one of the most interesting open-air events that I have come across*. This year the main attraction is the screening of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, with a special musical score by Swedish composer Matti Bye. On Thursday morning, 21 January, just at 9 am (still before dawn), I passed by to see a group of little citizens of Tromso, 6-7 year olds, preparing to view a film in open air. Some of them were being seated by their teachers on bean bags in front of the screen, on the icy ground, while others were orderly seated at the three-tier seating area that had been cut out of ice at the back of this improvised open air theatre.

The festival awards a range of trophies; I most liked the description of The Norwegian Peace Film Award which ‘is awarded a film spotlighting direct, structural or cultural violence’, as the festival organisers believe that ‘films that focus on oppression and abuses of power can make a difference’ (this time around it has gone to the Georgian The Other Bank, which has won a host of international awards since I wrote of it in March 2009). The festival sells over 50,000 tickets, a particularly noteworthy fact, given the population of Tromso itself is about 65,000 in total — and indeed, local people are to be seen at all screenings, even at those taking place at 9 am. Another noteworthy detail is that the six-screen multiplex in town is entirely dedicated to festival screenings during the week of the event, a rare instance where commercial interests and obligations are suspended in order to make way to public service type cultural activity (ultimately possible because the city has got a big say in the way the cinema is run). We were invited here by director, the beautiful Martha Otte (pictured), a transplanted American who has lived here for more than thirty years and who has run the festival since 2005. My own involvement was in a panel discussion on film festivals which was never publicly listed for some reason, and at which I participated along Jonathan Rosenbaum, Christoph Mercier from Fox Searchlight (who told us how Hollywood strategically utilises festivals by rolling out new titles through a careful selection of a circuit of festivals where these films are entered in order to enhance their subsequent box office performance in Europe), and Variety’s Jay Weissberg. It was also an opportunity to meet the transnationally-operating programmer Neil Young who blogs on festivals and films out of Sunderland at Jigsaw Lounge (that is, when he is not busy with his equestrian day job).

Too many films to mention here, so I will skip writing about this. From among the screenings I attended, I feel I ought to mention one though: It took place at the oldest functioning film theatre in Northern Europe (built in 1915), this showcased two recent documentaries (the second one not yet finished) by locally-based Knut Eric Jensen (best-known internationally for his cult documentary Cool and Crazy**). There was also a discussion with the director, of which I could not understand much as it was in Norwegian — the cinema was full and before entering the theatre, the line stretched all across the pedestrian street in front of the building. I can barely recall another event where I would have seen such unanimous and excited expression of approval and admiration to a filmmaker like the support I witnessed during this screening; I do not know how he does it, or perhaps such sincere expressions of unreserved admiration may be a feature of the Nordic character. In any case, the ovation the director received was quite something and was clearly meant to express support for the person, not so much for the specific films that were being shown.

* Kay Armatage has written a piece on the theme of open air screenings at festivals, published in the special issue of Film International on festivals, 2008.
** See Bjorn Sorenssen’s excellent analysis of this film in the 24 Frames: Scandinavian Cinema book.

© Dina Iordanova
26 January 2010

‘Ayde!’ and ‘Lele pile’

January 16, 2010 at 9:49 pm

Looking at the December issue of the once authoritative newspaper Kultura (which has nowadays lost much of its previous ground in Bulgaria’s social context), I see they have marked the twentieth anniversary of the changes by running a piece called 20 Years Later, referring to materials published in the newspaper back then. The author of this review does not happen to have found an article of mine, which run on their front page about April 1990, of importance. However, when I recently discovered and re-read this text, I was genuinely struck by its predictive power. It was called Ayde! (difficult to translate it, but perhaps Screw it, let’s do it may come close in this instance). It contained a forewarning to what I thought was to come: a deluge of what later on came to be known as pop-folk, turbo-folk and, a term that only came in circulation later, chalga; mass popular culture that most of us truly abhorred back then… If I remember correctly, when writing that piece, I did not even believe myself very much. Twenty years later, though, the chalga has become the mainstream and has grown really strong roots.

Thus, twenty years later, my predictions have not only come true but have far surpassed my imagination. And, as I am largely absent from Bulgaria, I am told, I have not really been exposed to the excesses that my friends and family who are based there have been treated to over the years.

In any case, my recent visit in December 2009 gave me some exposure, as it is virtually impossible to avoid the chalga; it is ubiquitous and inescapable. There are at least five or so 24-hr channels that broadcast nothing but. The first pan-Balkan channel, called Balkanika, also broadcasts mostly chalga in blocks sourced by the various nations in the region, from Croatia to Turkey. The market leader in Bulgaria is Planeta Payner, a record and events company that runs a TV channel on the side, apparently one of the few extremely successful enterprises in the sphere of the so-called creative industries. I understand that I have only been exposed to the tip of the iceberg, as all I have seen is television images, far remote from the real live contact with the range of talented and superbly looking silicone beauties that reign the show circuit in various clubs and bars (see picture, featuring here chalga performers celebrities called Andrea and Galena). The interesting thing is that there are literally scores of these women, and I am made to wonder how can a small country like Bulgaria (about 7.5 million population) sustain such a vast cohort of busty celebrity. Most of the tabloids in the UK deal with the bosoms of author Katie Price a.k.a. Jordan, and, until recently, the US had its Anna-Nicole Smith; somehow these two women seemed to provide enough tabloid material and, even though there are a number of secondary stars and starlets of this type, there is usually one larger than life undisputed queen of the bombshells that reigns. Not like this in the Bulgarian case — it seems there are at least twenty of them that have regular presence in all sorts of media. It was difficult to learn my ‘who is who’ for the short duration of my stay in December, but it was enough to establish two things: first, these stars are, among other things, also leading role models for the young generation, and, second, some of them are using their influence to sell classical feminist ideas to their audiences (perhaps one of the most interesting interviews I witnessed broadcast on Planeta Payner TV early one morning and featured one of the silicone beauties who looked as if having just come out of a night club, wearing a strapless black leather body with matching leather gloves that reached far above her elbows to foreground her sculpted exposed shoulders; at 7 a.m. a few days before Christmas she was dispensing with Betty Friedan-type feminist advice to her young viewers).

The most recently broadcast chalga musical clip this season, I believe, was the one I feature below. It is fairly representative of the genre and is called ‘Lele pile‘ (again difficult to translate, perhaps something like ‘come on my birdie‘ would come close). The perhormer is Milko Kalaidjiev, previously unknown to me but, as I am told, a man of robust presence in the respective chalga circles and referred to as ‘the republic’s first moustache’. Indeed, I saw this song performed not only on the specialised television channels but also on some of the terrestrial channels that broadcast to the entire population. The singer is using some local rap talent as support, as well as the usual entourage of chalga groupies; the text of the song is structured as advice to the ‘birdie’ of the title, suggesting that she gets ‘out of these clothes sooner, it is so hot here’ and that he would be her real fan if she lost two pounds, and more along these lines. Ayde!

© Dina Iordanova
16 January 2010

Bulgarian Feminist Icons: Stoyanka Mutafova (87), Lili Ivanova (70)

January 7, 2010 at 7:04 am

There wasn’t much new for me to discover during the brief December 2009 visit to Bulgaria. Re-discoveries dominated the experience; two of the most important ones were linked with the manifestations of high professionalism displayed by women of advanced age who I cannot help admiring: comedian Stoyanka Mutafova (born2 February 1922, currently 87 years old) and pop-singer Lili Ivanova (born 24 April 1939, currently 70 years old). Perhaps there is already writing that has given called these remarkable women Bulgarian feminist icons (in the vein of Svetlana Slapsak’s book which did the same in regard to remarkable women from former Yugoslavia), even if I have not seen it. If I were to write on the subject matter, however, these two women probably would have come on the top of my list. Among many other things, the longevity of their creative careers is truly amazing and admirable.

I had the chance to see Stoyanka Mutafova in Ionescu’s The Chairs on 23 December 2009 (pictured); she played along Ilia Dobrev (who is also in his late 70s), was as funny as ever, and at one point nearly performed a strip-tease. Mutafova’s long-time stage partner, Georgi Kaloyanchev (b. 1925), has already retired from the stage, yet she continues appearing in several plays and on television. There is a clip on YouTube which features an event from earlier in 2009 where the two of them are celebrated as stars in an impromptu ceremony in front of the NDK (National Culture Palace) in Sofia.

Lili Ivanova (pictured in a recent photograph) featured extensively on various TV channels during my stay. In addition, an authorized biography (marketed as a biography) called Istinata/The Truth, has appeared in 2009 (published by Ciela and edited by controversial journalist Martin Karbovski) and I had the chance to browse through the book: A model motivational reading for someone who needs role models for focus and ambition! The only disappointing feature of this inspirational text is that in it the author frequently goes on the defensive and feels obliged to address a variety of idiotic allegations and comments that have been made about her in the context of Bulgaria’s media and profane public discourse; she could have done better to ignore them altogether. The book is also full of photographs, the most intriguing were the ones for which she has posed for Playboy around the year 2000, slightly above the age of 60. Unfortunately, I cannot locate them on-line to display here.

Listening to the singer on television was an amazing experience: Her voice seems to be as strong and amazing as ever, she does not hesitate to dance on stage and shows off her legs. She is still capable of sustaining a two-part concert of about 150 min. duration, and it is a show that is of higher quality and professionalism than anything else one can come across in Bulgaria these days. It is from the perspective of the decades mostly that Lili Ivanova’s remarkable achievement can be appreciated. I also understand she has held a concert at Olympia in Paris in January 2009 (there is a poor quality recording of the event on YouTube). I cannot find a good quality recent clip on-line that would show the phenomenon Lili Ivanova, so I am including here a clip dated from two years ago, in which she performs one of her enduring songs, U doma/At Home (music Toncho Rusev, text Damyan Damyanov), a song which must be from the late 1970s originally.

Apparently, there has been a special concert to mark the 50th anniversary of Stoyanka Mutafova’s stage career on 25 May 2009. Here is a clip featuring a moment of the concert, where Lili Ivanova appears to deliver a pop-version of a famous Bulgarian folk song that tells the story of a young Stoyana in love with a shepherd. It is a rare chance to see these two feminist icons next to each other.

© Dina Iordanova
7 January 2010