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Australia’s ‘Touring’ Festivals

March 27, 2010 at 4:49 am

I am posting here and excerpt from our new volume: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities.

This is an exchange with Australian film critic and academic Adrian Martin on the matter of distribution entrepreneurship and cultural diplomacy, one of the areas explored in the book.

Dina Iordanova: ‘Like most other major territories,’ writes Sandy George in Screen International, ‘Australia has a clutch of festivals dedicated to spotlighting cinema from a single territory, of which the French, Italian and Spanish film festivals are the biggest’ (‘Spreading the Foreign Word’, 29 May 2009: 34). In the case of Australia, however, this seems to be an interesting case where cultural diplomacy and film distribution related to overseas cinema work together. According to George, the touring French Film Festival is organised by Alliance Francaise and the French Embassy, yet one-third of the thirty or so films that it showcases do have an existing local distributor attached, thus the event can be regarded as a specific distribution set-up. Distributors have been taking ‘a slice of all festivals receipts’ since 2006, she notes, and have recognised that festivals showings assists them in reaching out to wider audiences than the normal art house circuit. Jean-Jacques Garnier, the French Embassy’s cultural attaché, dubs as an artistic director for the festival (George 2009). Apparently, there are also a German, an Italian, and a Spanish film festival, all of which seem to tour the same range of cities (Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane), thus covering the territory with an array of nationally-themed film festivals, all quite highly placed within the ‘vertical mosaic’ of festivals here. I was struck to discover the advanced level of coordination of these festivals. It is only here that we so regularly see national film festivals that are listed as ‘touring’; they always seem to go to the same set of cities, and they all seem to have a web-site that is set up in a uniform way (e.g. Spanish Film Festival; Italian FF, Greek FF). So I wonder if there is any special cultural policy context in which this is taking shape with such uniformity? Admittedly, we have got some varieties of this in the UK (e.g. French Film Festival and Italian Film Festival, run by the same group, that go to a selection of cities) but ‘touring’ here usually involves a combination of mixed cities, whoever has come on board, really, rather than a showcase systematically covering the big cultural centres, whereas in the Australian case it always seems to be a cluster of the same cities. Would you like to comment about this observation?

Adrian Martin: Yes, the situation of the touring national film festivals is peculiar to Australia, and for a very specific reason. It all has to do with a distribution/exhibition company called Palace, which has been running since at least the 1980s and is still essentially a ‘family business’ run primarily by husband (Antonio Zeccola), wife, and their grown-up kids at various levels of the organisation. Palace is among the few surviving ‘independent’ distributor-exhibitors of the twenty-first century scene in Australia, partly through savvy business sense and also through their various deals with the major commercial distributors. Palace has managed to extend into several states of Australia. Hence the spread of state-venues you have noted. Palace has always had a strong connection to (mainly European and ‘old school’) art cinema. Their exhibition venues are known to the public as ‘boutique’ or ‘arthouse’ cinemas, and the actual programming mixes typical arthouse fare (Haneke, French comedies, Jarmusch, etc.) with films from the majors like Tarantino and suchlike.

So, Palace has always been involved — as a matter of Italo-Australian national pride, partly! — in certain high-profile festival-events that are very successful for them: especially Italian and French. This goes back (in my recollection) at least to the 1990s. Palace have a technique that works well for them: when they programme these festivals (by sending their own reps to Italy and by having contacts with the likes of Unifrance), to avoid problems with booking and availabilty of prints over the entire haul of the national tour around Palace cinemas, they actually buy the rights to about a dozen of these films. So they have one or two 35 mm prints that screen really only for the duration of the event (and afterwards can be made available for Australian cinematheque and other special screenings). A year or so later all the films are released on Australian DVD (‘bare bones’ style, subtitled in English but with no extras) in a ‘box set’ called something like ‘Italian Film Festival 2008’. Palace also have a relation to a music-publishing company, so there are also CDs that help to promote these events, e.g. ‘Soundtrack to the French Film Festival’, which is usually just a lot of current pop tunes with little relation to the films! But the CD sells well with the ‘world music’ crowd in Australia.

Now we come to the next part of this process, which has been occurring in recent years. Palace does its own festivals, but it also ‘hosts’ others, responding to advances from small cultural groups in the Australian, Spanish, German and other communities: a Spanish group named ‘Filmoteca’ (a monthly film society), for instance, or the Goethe-Institut. Palace becomes a partner in programming these events, sourcing prints and doing promotions and sets up the national touring, which is the big drawcard for these small groups. Palace has a say in how the event unfolds. If it has just bought, for example, The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel, Germany, 2008) or some other new high-profile title, it will propose that it is the showcase Opening Night presentation in the German Film Festival, and Palace will bring down the actors and/or director for promotional purposes.

To sum up, this whole phenomenon is not at all a ‘cultural policy’ initiative of governments (although some of the small ethnic-interest cultural groups I have mentioned may receive various government subsidies – but nothing like what it takes to do a national film tour). It is purely an ‘enlightened business initiative’ by a company that itself started as a small, independent business and has held on to some of its cultural goals to showcase international art cinema — even if still in fairly mainstream terms.

New Book Announcement: Moving People, Moving Images

March 12, 2010 at 4:50 am

Co-written with my colleagues William Brown and Leshu Torchin, Moving People, Moving Images: Cinema and Trafficking in the New Europe is the first title in our new series on Cinema and Transnational Discourse (St Andrews Film Studies, 2010). The next title planned for the series will look into the wide range of cinematic representations of international terrorism in cinema.

We hope to find a wide exposure for this volume, far beyond the narrow film studies field (it is no accident that this was also the best-selling title of all the books we introduced at the recent multiple book launch event at the BFI Filmstore on Southbank in London). It is a volume on the representation of human trafficking in international cinema, and even though it is a ‘film studies’ work, we believe it is really of interest to much wider circles as these are matters of immediate concern to social workers, migration specialists and activists. The book discusses a range of films, both feature and documentary, reflecting the situation with human trafficking in a great variety of countries — from Turkey to Sweden, from Sri Lanka to Greece, from Serbia to Italy, from North Africa to Spain, and so on.

ISBN (13): 978-1-9066-7803-6 (paperback)
180pp.
Price £17.99 (UK), $29.00 (US)
Available for purchase by clicking through to St. Andrews Film Studies bookshop

The volume is divided in three parts, which include respectively general essays; close analysis of fifteen important international films on trafficking; commentary on the political aspects of the usage of these films in the context of activism.

Here is a more detailed Table of Contents

PART ONE. Landscapes
William Brown – Negotiating the Invisible
Leshu Torchin – Foreign Exchange
Dina Iordanova – Making Traffic Visible, Adjusting the Narrative

PART TWO: Close-Ups

In-depth analyses of The Bus (Turkey/Sweden, Tunc Okan), The Guardian Angel (Yugoslavia, Goran Paskaljevic), When Mother Comes Home for Christmas(Greece/India/Germany, Nilita Vachani), Wesh wesh, qu’est-ce qui se passe? (France, rabah Ameur-Zaimeche), Poniente (Spain, Chus Gutierrez), Spare Parts (Slovenia, Damjan Kozole), Promised Land (Israel/France, Amos Gitai), Ghosts (UK, Nick Broomfield), It’s a Free World… (UK, Ken Loach), Import/Export (Austria, Ulrich Seidl), Love on Delivery and Ticket to Paradise (Denmark), The Silence of Lorna (Belgium, Dardenne Brothers) and Taken (France, Pierre Morel).

Part THREE: Traffic Jam
Film, Activism, and Human Trafficking

Excerpts of reviews:

Moving People, Moving Images tackles human trafficking, one of the most serious consequences of the massive movement of people enabled by post-Wall processes of economic and cultural globalization in Europe. While immigration, migration, exile, and the illegal movement of people have been the subject of much work in film and media studies recently, few volumes would take such a bold stand in favour of the possibility of filmic activism. One of the attractions of this book is precisely that it refuses to tread lightly and tentatively across the well-established divide between cinematic representations and socio-political issues. It makes a provocative argument for the political effect of films and proposes that human trafficking should not be the rightful, let alone the exclusive, domain of governments, NGOs, activist organizations and the social sciences.
— Aniko Imre, University of Southern California

Moving People, Moving Images is a groundbreaking and much-needed study of the intersections between film and human trafficking. Through a sophisticated and versatile approach, and against the backdrop of theories of economic globalisation, transnationalism, post-colonialism, identity and modernity, it offers a theorisation of human trafficking that engages with a range of published work on social and critical theory as well as on film studies…. This volume is both a complete and valuable teaching tool, and a precious resource for future research, and sets the agenda for more work in this all-important area.
— Laura Rascaroli, University College Cork, Ireland

Available for purchase by clicking through to St. Andrews Film Studies bookshop

Film Festival Yearbook 2: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities

February 23, 2010 at 12:54 am

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new volume on film festivals, co-edited with Ruby Cheung, a research associate of the Dynamics of World Cinema project and an alumna of our PhD programme in Film Studies at the University of St. Andrews. The book is the second in the series; the first volume, the Film Festival Yearbook 1: The Festival Circuit, was published in 2009.


FILM FESTIVAL YEARBOOK 2: FILM FESTIVALS AND IMAGINED COMMUNITIES

Edited by Dina Iordanova with Ruby Cheung
ISBN: 978-0-9563730-1-4 (paperback) £17.99; 304 pp. , 2010.

Film Festivals and Imagined Communities, the second volume in the Film Festival Yearbook series, brings together essays about festivals that use international cinema to mediate the creation of transnational ‘imagined communities’. There are texts about the cultural policies and funding models linked to these festivals, as well as analysis of programming practices linked to these often highly politicised events. The case studies discuss diaspora-linked festivals that take place in Vienna, San Francisco, San Sebastian, Havana, Bradford, Sahara, South Korea, and London and that feature cinema from places as diverse as Nepal and Kurdistan, Africa and Latin America. Authors include Lindiwe Dovey, Ruby Cheung, Michael Guillén, Jérôme Segal, Miriam Ross, Roy Stafford, Yun Mi Hwang, Isabel Santaolalla and Stefan Simanowitz, Mustafa Gündoğdu, and Dina Iordanova. The Resources section features an up-to-date bibliography on film festival scholarship (by Skadi Loist and Marijke de Valck) and an extensive thematically-organised listing of a variety of transnational festivals.

CONTENTS

Introduction (Dina Iordanova and Ruby Cheung)


PART I: Contexts

Mediating Diaspora: Film Festivals and ‘Imagined Communities’ (Dina Iordanova)
Directors’ Cut: In Defence of African Film Festivals outside Africa (Lindiwe Dovey)
Funding Models of Themed Film Festivals (Ruby Cheung)

PART II: Case Studies
Bite the Mango: Bradford’s Unique Film Festival (Roy Stafford)
Under the Migrant Lens: Migrant Worker Film Festival in South Korea (Yun Mi Hwang)
A Cinematic Refuge in the Desert: The Sahara International Film Festival (Isabel Santaolalla and Stefan Simanowitz)
Diasporas by the Bay: Two Asian Film Festivals in San Francisco (Michael Guillén)
Film Festivals and the Ibero-American Sphere (Miriam Ross)
Film Festivals in the Diaspora: Impetus to the Development of Kurdish Cinema? (Mustafa Gündoğdu)
Identities and Politics at the Vienna Jewish Film Festival (Jérôme Segal)

PART III: Resources
Thematic Bibliography on Film Festival Research – Update: 2009 (Skadi Loist and Marijke de Valck)
The Listings: Transnational Film Festivals (Dina Iordanova)
1. African Film Festivals (Lindiwe Dovey)
2. Latin American and Ibero-American Film Festivals (Miriam Ross)
3. Asian Film Festivals (Andrew Dorman)
4. Jewish Film Festivals (Jérôme Segal)
5. Palestinian Film Festivals (Serazer Pekerman)
6. Turkish Film Festivals (Serazer Pekerman)
7. French Film Festivals (Ruby Cheung)
8. German Film Festivals (Ruby Cheung)
9. Greek Film Festivals (Serazer Pekerman)
10. Taiwanese Film Festivals (Yun-hua Chen)
11. Overseas Film Festivals in London (UK) (Andrew Dorman)
12. Overseas Film Festivals in Los Angeles (U.S.) (Andrew Dorman)
13. Overseas Film Festivals in San Francisco (U.S.) (Andrew Dorman)

Buy from St. Andrews Film Bookshop by clicking through here.

Buy on Amazon by clicking on the image below

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

Ron Holloway (1933-2009)

December 19, 2009 at 4:35 am

It was less than a year ago, in February 2009, that I saw Ron Holloway and his wife Dorothea, at the FEST in Belgrade, where Ron and Slobodan Sijan had organised a round table on women-filmmakers in Eastern Europe. I knew that he was not well, but did not expect that he only had months left to live. He seemed as busy and as active as always, passing around copies of his ubiquitous publication KINO: German Cinema, which he had been publishing for many years (since 1979, as it seems) and which highlighted German and East European cinema and festivals. I just received the publication that resulted out of this project about ten days ago; one feels like life continues and that Ron has not left us.

My first encounter with Ron was through a book of his, Bulgarian Cinema (1986), which I read in the early 1990s. It strikes me that, like the cinema to which it is dedicated, this book is now being almost forgotten. It is not mentioned in the obituaries I read, and yet it is one of Ron’s most serious academic efforts. It is a systematic and deep study, in which he introduces the concept of Poetic Cinema, a key term that was adopted later on by Daniel Goulding and other academics and gained currency through its wider application to the cinema of Eastern Europe at large. This study remains probably the most academic study of Ron’s. I am deeply grateful for it as it greatly influenced and shaped my own scholarly interests.

I had several opportunities to work with Ron over the years. One of the projects was special issue on Bulgarian cinema which I edited for the on-line journal Kinokultura in 2006. Here is a link to the article we co-authored, entitled Hoping for a Bulgarian Film Revival.

There were several occasions over the years that Ron shared with me his dismay with Bulgaria’s film bureaucrats who had invited him in the early 1980s and had helped him to view all the films he needed in order to write his book. Later on, however, he felt ignored by them as, in the 1990s, they seemed to have had completely forgotten his existence and commitment to the cinema of this country. I tried to explain that governments had changed, that the new people were most likely considering everything done by their predecessors as worthy of destruction, and so on — yet, I can see very well why he was feeling so bitter. I would feel the same in his place. His death is not being reported in the Bulgarian newspapers as far as I can tell, writing this from Sofia where I am visiting at the moment.

During our encounter in Belgrade in February 2009 I kept pestering Ron with questions about his long life as a festival goer, to me he is probably the prototypical individual who I describe in my writing on the ‘Festival Circuit’ when I talk about ‘the festival treadmill’. He was a man living for an at film festivals. I very much wanted to learn, in particular, about the film festival of non-aligned nations, mostly from the Third World that the Soviet Union was trying to rally culturally, that had been taking place in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (USSR), during the 1970s and the early 1980s, a festival that no longer exists but which he had visited many times. He did not manage to tell me as much as I wanted to know, and promised to talk to me about it at a later point. With Ron now gone, the feeling is that a whole era has disappeared.

It is only now, from his obituary issued by Interfilm, that I learn about Ron Holloway’s involvement with the Cuernavaca (Mexico) centre for intercultural learning, run by de-schooling ideologue Ivan Illich, another person who has had a shaping influence over my thinking over the years.

© Dina Iordanova
19 December 2009

Berlin, December 2009: Highlights 2

December 15, 2009 at 1:39 am

The conference for which I had been invited was organized by the Institute for Cultural Studies and took place at Humbold University’s Graduate School at Luisenstrasse in Berlin (pictured), a building next door to the ugly massive of the Charite hospital.

Yet another event dedicated to ‘memory work’ and predominantly focused on the Third Reich period with little references to later developments or other strands of thinking, Whichever Stone You Lift offered quality scholarship of the ‘deja vu’ variety. The event concluded a month-long extremely interesting programme of screenings at the cinema of Hackesche Hofe which featured films that I would very much like to see in wider distribution, from the post-war last Polish Yiddish-language production, Unzere Kinder/Our Children (1948), to Katryn Seybold and Melanie Spitta’s seminal documentary on the persecution of Romanies, Das falsche Wort/The False Word (1987).

The film programme can be viewed here while the programme of the symposium is available at the site of RitesInstitute in Vienna, the owners of which were involved in moderating the panel I took part in. It was a conference like most other events I have attended in Germany, a European model to which I developed an allergy some time ago: speakers have about an hour at their disposal and present lengthy (and often monotonously delivered) papers that run for 40-50 at a time; there is little eye contact with the audience, and very few visual stimuli to keep the attention. This is then followed by a question period which normally runs over the time slot as the moderators believe it is impolite to pressure the speakers for shortness. Having grown used to the 20 min maximum paper format that is the norm in the Anglo-Saxon world (and with the ubiquitous paper note reminders ‘5 min’, ‘2 min’ or ‘stop now’ that the moderators show to the speakers as they go), I really could not help it but feel challenged by the length of presentations. A paper on black actors in the third Reich was presented by Viennese (and now London, Ontario) researcher Tobias Nagl. It was well illustrated and argued (even if it also run for unbearably long time in my view), and was thus the highlight of the event for me.

The discussion of our panel, dedicated to matters of representing Romani persecution in the context of popular culture, evolved around the need of a specific and more considerate history framework that should be applied to understanding Roma history, one that differs from the historical milestones linked to other groups. Once again, Roma issues resurfaced for consideration as related to other aspects of historical memory, the Jewish Holocaust in his case. Yet while the history of Roma and Jews overlap in the context of this particular historical experience, there are many aspects of memory and remembrance related to Romanies that cannot be exhausted only by such cross-referencing, which inevitably limits the multidimensionality of Romani memory. To me, this was one of the important messages that emerged from the debate.

It was great to be in the company of two extremely beautiful women for this panel. One was Katrin Seybold (pictured above), the veteran documentary filmmaker, who has worked with Sinteza Melanie Spitta over the years and has made a number of films that feature the plight of Roma and Sinti in Germany, was one of the guests.

The other one, Timea Junghaus (left), a Romni from Hungary, who works with the rich but still largely unknown material created by Romani artists across Europe. She spoke of her highly original curating work and of the various contexts that dominate curatorial practices and that, for a variety of reasons, routinely shut the work of Romani artists away from the public eye.

Timea is telling me that in her view the best film about the Romani experience is the puppet animation by Finnish director Katariina Lillqvist, a pupil of Jiri Trnka’s, which I am looking forward to seeing (here is a still from one of her animations).

The panel was moderated by Viennese filmmaker and curator Friedemann Derschmidt, who, alongside his partner, is involved mainly in curating film programmes linked to cultural exchanges with Israel and in maintaining an interesting web-site, in part entitled Israelstine.

© Dina Iordanova
15 December 2009

Berlin, December 2009: Highlights 1

December 11, 2009 at 5:42 am

This December I spent five days in Berlin: three for my own enjoyment and two to attend a conference. I thought I would do two separate posts to record the impressions of the travel: one about the leisure experience and one about the working context. I flew in on Ryanair, the first time I am using this company, as I have been avoiding because of the horror stories that British media regularly run about it. As it is the only one that flies directly from Edinburgh to Berlin, I had no choice, really. And then, the experience was not as bad as I had expected, I have had much more unpleasant time on flights of EasyJet in the past, a company that I am determined to avoid at any cost. Arriving at Schoenefeld I looked around for signs of the promised new airport for Berlin (which, hopefully, will help the city overcome its isolation) but could not discover them. Who knows, there may be things that are happening but are still invisible and it is possible that in 2011, as promised, we will see a big change. For now, however, things were the same as I knew them from the period I spent here in 2007; the next morning I was woken up by the noise from airplanes flying into the good old Tegel — my friend’s house in prestigious Ossie locale Pankow-Heinersdorf happens to fall just below the flightpath, so no avoidance of airplane noise is possible. It is noisier than living in the vicinity of the RAF airbase at Leuchars in Scotland …

The leisure experiences in Berlin were many and nice. The first day we visited a friend in the town of Zeuthen, which is located in the region of Brandenburg and thus does not count as Berlin. Nice large houses, trees, quiet atmosphere, and an S-Bahn to take you into the city. All in all a very nice place to live, with beautiful promenades on the waterfront. An imposing mansion painted in pink and ornate with statues, located on the waterfront where we went for a walk, turned out to house the Training Center for the company founded by Peter Dussman, the businessman who started in home cleaning services and care homes for the elderly but now owns Berlin’s premier cultural locale, Dussman das KulturKaufhaus on Friedrichstrasse. In the past, the mansion, reportedly, had belonged to the widow of a rich Jewish merchant who survived WWII and who sold the property to the Soviet forces, receiving several suitcases full of money, to just days after the sale see the value of the funds received dwindle and vanish.

The next highlight was the visit to the special exhibition Koscher & Co. at the Jewish Museum, which also housed its annual Chanukka Markt where we were able to treat ourselves to potato pancakes (latkes) with smoked salmon and sour cream. The exhibition is truly impressive and much larger than any of us expected. More than ten rooms feature information on the origins of various beliefs about what is appropriate to eat and what not. The material is not restricted to Jewish beliefs but is much wider and includes extensive information on Muslim, Hindu and other worldviews. I was pleased to see, for example, that there was some coverage on the practices of the Jain, a Hindu sect that I know from my period in Leicester (where their only UK temple is located), whose beliefs on what of the vegetables are appropriate to eat are among the most restrictive I have ever come across. One of the video screens in an adjacent hall featured clips of Aamir Khan’s vehicle The Ballad of Mangal Pandey, a recent anti-colonial Indian historical blockbuster that covers the 19th century mutiny which starts among Muslim mercenaries, triggered by British disregard related to Muslim and Hindu beliefs related to food.

In the evening, it was a visit to trendy Monsieur Vuong, a new Vietnamese eatery at Alte Schonhauser Strasse, the heart of cool Berlin. Indeed, the place, which features a large poster of this sexually inviting boy on the wall (an image replicated on servers’ aprons as well), was full of cool people of the kind that one usually encounters in this part of Berlin, mostly international students and local intellectuals, wearing elaborate black concoctions and spiky black hair with punk ornaments in it. This is the same street, by the way, where I had spent an exciting evening of potato cookery at the nearby Kochstudio Berlin Mitte (at Nr. 36 here), another cool Berlin location where they teach you how to make creme brule of potatoes and a starter of fried potato skins. The menu at Monsieur Vuong consists of only about 5 dishes, all very fresh Vietnamese fare which is adapted to the local taste but still remains authentic in feel. It is most of all about atmosphere, not so much about eating. I orderd a traditional chicken Pho which was acceptable, especially due to the freshness of the coriander in the pot. The spring rolls, coming with the thick peanut sauce, were also nice (and they still had them, even though ‘der Sommer ist vobei’/’the summer is over’ – an excuse used by a waiter in another Vietnamese place in Berlin a few years ago, when I tried to order spring rolls).

There is nothing like a German Christmas market! The one pictured here is the WeihnachtsZauber at Gendarmenplatz in the very heart of the city, one out of about 20 such marketplaces staged around town. In comparison with others (I also passed by the one at Alexanderplatz), this one is upscale and features really artistic fare: original jewellery, felt hats (I got one!), kashmere, ceramics. There are all sorts of nice little things to eat (racklette, grapes in chocolate), and one walks around with a glass of warm Gluhwein in hand while children’s groups perform carols on the stage near the Christmas tree. Nearby is Unter den Linden where all the trees are dressed in chains of lights and look truly fabulous.

This is a photo of one of the nicest concert halls that I have ever been to, the one of the philharmony at Gendarmenmarkt. I do not know what this building was before, and it seems it had been on the Western side, so I do not really know it. In any case, this concert hall was restored in recent years; this was my second visit to it. It is a really beautiful rectangular white space, and, as I was a guest of one of the musicians, my place was at the balcony just below the organ, overlooking the performers from the back: it was great, being able to observe the workings of the orchestra from this unusual angle, that gave me full insights into the movements and the actions of the percussionists and of the members of the blow instruments section. As the programme was mostly modern music (Frank Martin, Bruckner), all these instruments had a prominent role in the performance. Most enjoyable!

The only thing I had planned but did not managed to do this time around, was to eat a currywurst at Konnopke’s, in Prenzlauer Berg. A real Berlin institution, a Wurstchen at Konnopke’s was quoted as the last dinner of choice by Angelika Taschen, the eponymous publishing empire empress, a slender great-looking German woman. The taxi driver who took me down to the conference at Humbold University agreed that, by missing the chance to do my rites at Konnopke’s, I had failed to fulfill an important function that is a must for ‘Leute’ who claim to appreciate Berlin. He must have had about 500,000 pieces of wurst here already, he said. Eh, well, next time!

Thank you, all: Elena, Sabine, Muttu, Heidi, Markolf, and Rudy!

© Dina Iordanova
11 December 2009