Festival Spotlight: Trieste Film Festival, January 22-26 2016

As most films from South Eastern Europe are rather small productions with a limited reach, film festivals play an important role in their marketing and further distribution. They serve as a hub for film professionals to meet and mingle and find collaborators and inspiration. Many professional festivals now offer so-called industry events that attract directors, producers, distributors but also actors of course.

Film festivals are also the place to see the newest films before their theatrical release, i.e. if they manage to find a distributor. With many films we are dealing with here on SEE Film Club, festivals and special screenings are the only way to see these films on a big screen or see them at all. Whereas there is an abundance of film festivals in general, there are only a few dedicated to Eastern European film – reason enough to give an overview about the most important ones world wide. Welcome to the Film Festival Spotlight!

TFF_2016We start our series with the Trieste Film Festival, one that holds a very special place in my heart. The city of Trieste is magnificent in her own right, with a tormented history. As the Eastern most outpost of Italy, the city was also the nearest Western city Yugoslavs could reach, therefore many have recollections of buying jeans at the infamous market, the only place to get them. The city developed as the imperial port of Austria during the times of the Austro Hungarian Empire, but it was allocated to Italy after the Word War II and subsequently italianized, even thought the surroundings are still very much Slovene and the border is just up the hill not even a 20min drive from the city centre, and an hours’ drive gets you into the Croatian peninsula of Istria.

With the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Trieste gradually emerged from it’s marginal position and is now a bustling regional centre boasting grand palazzi with a certain patina that give the city a somewhat melancholic atmosphere. The Film Festival played a vital role in this development: Founded in 1998, it strove to shed a light on the neighbours that were so close yet seemed so distant.

The Trieste Film Festival is held every third week in January, which is why it is the first festival featured here. The festival programme shows films from all over Eastern Europe, that compete for best feature, best documentary and best short film. Additionally, there are retrospectives or countries in focus, for example the new Romanian cinema this year.

Two events set Trieste apart from the usual film screening festivals: The week-long industry event “When East meets West” aims to connect up-and-coming filmmakers from the region with producers and funders from usually one Western European country or region. Now in its 5th year, filmmakers can apply with their idea, receive a master class and then pitch their project to selected funders. In 2016, the region in focus is Spain, Portugal and Latin America. Films that started out here now return to the festival in the category “Born in Trieste”. The other event, Eastweek, is a script writing workshop with benefits (such as Master classes, workshops in marketing and general tutoring) aimed at young talents and is organized in cooperation with film schools from central and Eastern Europe.

As many cultural institutions in Italy, the Trieste Film Festival has been affected by severe cut backs in funding for the arts in Italy and nowadays promotes also Italian films and includes them in the industry events previously reserved to filmmakers from Eastern Europe. In early 2016, the long-standing festival directrice and founder Annamaria Percavassi passed away. With many challenges ahead, you cans till feel that the festival staff put their heart into it and as it is a rather small festival, it makes for great networking. And Trieste is especially beautiful in the cold winter wind and the pale sunlight. trieste2-fb748317bf3ec20e5865b7d021b4d8671



FEHER ISTEN // White God screening at 14 Pews – July 31, 7pm

A central European city under a blue sky, yet the streets strangely deserted. A girl on a bicycle appears and then, they appear from behind a corner: a pack of dogs, running in full speed after the girl.

A horror movie? This most remarkable scene from FEHER ISTEN / White dog, sets the stage for this nightmarish tale between a superior species and its disgraced inferior. Premiered and won Cannes Film festival 2015, the Hungarian production by director Kornél Mundruczó stars real dogs.

Shows this Friday at 14 Pews, 800 Aurora St

At 7pm

In cooperation with animal adoption organization Friends for Life.


SEE Fest in LA is over and here are the winners:

“Director Tudor Jurgiu from Romania won Bridging the Borders award for Best Feature Film of the festival for his debut film, The Japanese Dog. Special Jury Mention went to Croatian filmmaker Tomislav Mršić for his debut film, Cowboys, and Special Jury Prize for Best Ensemble Cast was awarded to Albanian feature Bota, co-directed by Iris Elezi and Thomas Logoreci.

Down the River by Asif Rustamov from Azerbaijan won the Best First Feature award. Two narrative documentaries shared the Best Documentary Award, The Undertaker by Dragan Nikolić from Serbia, and Romania’s Flowers in the Shadows by Belgian director Olivier Magis.   Awards for Best Cinematography went to Bulgarian Rat Poison director of photography Krasimir Andonov (feature film), and Dragan Vildović (documentary film) for his work in In the Dark from Serbia.

In the shorts category Strahinja Savić from Serbia won Best Short Fiction award for Nine Days, Alexandr Baev’s Once Upon Another Time from Georgia won for Best Documentary short, and Anton Octavian from Romania won Best Animation Short award for Elmando.
Winners of 2015 Audience Award were Albanian Bota (feature film), and Serbian In the Dark (narrative documentary).”

Congratulations to the winning filmmakers!


Whenever I am moving somewhere, one of the first things I check out are the film festivals. Houston has a few of them, but the more I got in touch in with the film community, the less I heard about worldfest. I checked out possibilities to work or volunteer there, and was staggered to find their statement that you should not have visible tattoos or piercings if you should feel inclined to work (or, for that matter, sacrifice your time in exchange for valuable experience) there. The sentence concludes with “we are kind of old school here” followed by a smile. Well, this is Texas after all, I thought, yet decided not to get involved.

However, I searched their program and actually found a short film from Croatia in a short film block and went to see it last year. It was the worst block of short films I have ever suffered through. The Croatian film was also not good, but still one of the better ones in this compilation of horrible shorts. And I know what bad short films are from the time I helped a friend screen the submissions for a short film festival in Berlin. Believe me, there are many bad short films out there.

Anyway, last monday I went to see MOST NA KRAJU SVIJETA / THE BRIDGE AT THE END OF THE WORLD as part of the worldfest program. Another thing that added to my mistrust in the festival is the fact that they show all their films at a multiplex cinema somewhere in Houston’s no man’s land of strip malls and supermarkets, half an hour drive away from where I live. Most film festivals who try to show arty and independent films try to avoid these settings at all costs, not so worldfest.

When we arrived, the theatre that could easily fit 500 had roughly 10 (at most) spectators scattered among its tiers. A group of older men sat in the front, marked as being related to the festival by the badges around their necks. We waited untill the time the film was supposed to start had passed and one the older man rose to address the audience. He apologized and explained that there were technical with the screening DVD, and added that “like all things from Croatia, this DVD is moody”. He went on to advertise other films showing right now, one about poverty in the US depicting people off food stamps making a comfortable 50.000$ a year. He said this in an agitated tone which made me hear “let’s kill them all!” between his lines. I don’t know who the guy was, he did not even bother to introduce himself, but his speech spoke of utter disrespect  and revealed his dismissive attitude towards Worldfest’s claim “we see things differently”.

With this bad start, I hoped the film would at least be interesting. After ten minutes, the technical problems were solved and the film started. The synopsis (here) sounded promising, yet it summarized onyl the first five minutes. The film is set in the late 90s/early 2000s in a village in rural Croatia, where refugees from Bosnia now occupy houses that used to belong to Serbs, who fled Croatia towards the end of the war. Now, the war is over and people have to come to terms with the new situation, the trauma of being displaced and the shadow of atrocities looming large like the grey winter sky over the rural community that was shook and altered in its very foundations. Benumbed by the recent events and facing an insecure future, the visit of the Serbs threatens to disrupt the attempt to create a sort of normality.

click on image for source

We meet Filip, the main protagonist, himself displaced who now occupies a former Serb house with his wife and father. in his early 40s, he works at the local police, although it does not become clear if he is a special detective as he does not wear an official police uniform but jeans, an old army sweater, an olive green jacket and his trademark, a thick black woolen beanie covering his bold head. He is clearly the good guy with an air of authority surrounding him, but as an outsider he is uninformed about the community he is thrown into. He only learns about visit of the Serbs in a bar, from local drunkards fearing for their recently acquired livelyhood. When the Serbs arrive in busses with police protection, they seem to be equally bad off than the Croatians. They carry their belongings in plastic bags and are clad in worn down winter coats. Of course, Filip, free of hostilities, bids the former owner of his house inside and offers him the customary rakija. No deeper conversation can unfold, as the Serb is mute, a tiny yet lovable man with lively gestures only concerned about the bees he had to leave behind. But suddenly, Filip is called away to an incident, where on of the drunkards from the bar shoots at the Serbs in fear they will take his newly acquired house away from him. Filip manages to resolve the situation thanks to his courage and authority. While drunkard is being handcuffed he cries out that that’s how it has been agreed, revealing these hostilities are not just personal but structurally entrenched in the institutions of the new order.

So far, so good. This opening section offers a lot to deal with, but sadly, the film does not take up most of it. The visit of the Serbs serves only to portray Filip as the good, morally superior guy who tries to follow his ideals and behaves completely unaffected by his own traumata and experiences of which we learn nothing. From here, the film takes a completely different direction: The day after the shooting Filip is charged with finding an old man, also a refugee from Bosnia, who is reported missing. He starts his research into the family and the local community, and eventually finds him in his village in Bosnia looking at the bridge built in honor of once famous family member. The visit of the Serbs does not appear again throughout the course of the film, and the conflicts it seemed to tear open are not touched upon.

click on image for source

The figures remain utterly one-dimensional and seem devoid of inner conflicts or contradictions. The village community is made up by the stereotypical figures, the Ustasha shop keeper, the village idiot and the know-it-all old man who likes liquor more than he should. The female charakters are not better off, even though fewer in numbers. Here we have the dull wife of Filip, the village whore he has an affair with and the old peasant woman in black mourning attire. During the course of the film, we meet a  plethora of characters, but they are too many and all equally flat that their meaning and role for the progress of action remains unclear and they mainly distract the viewer. The cast fits a demure soap opera, an impression that is underlined by the dull cinematography, that would have probably been less annoying on a smaller TV screen.

The TV-format is not too surprising given that Croatian TV channel HRT is the main producer of this film, but selectors of a film festival should be aware of that. One of the worst scenes, whose style is completely unrelated to the rest of the film, is when Filip takes a relative of the missing man to a place in the woods where he tried to recreate the bridge of his Bosnian home village. The nephew then indulges in the family story about the bridge, in a dreamy soft voice that should probably allude to nostalgic memories of how it used to be contrasting with the hardship and losses of the reality. This is so inapt yet foreseeable, that it renders the rest of the film even more unconvincingly and boring.

Another thing that I find repulsive is the portrayal of women. Not only fails the film the Bechdel Test, the only roles women are portrayed in are house wifes, mourning widows and prostitutes. Not that Croatia is a pioneer in strong female roles in films, but the exclusion of any female perspective denies the fact that women are equally affected by the post-war conditions, yet, the film does not allow them to proactively deal with it.

My verdict: The first 15 minutes are promising, but the film fails to deliver throughout. It feels pieced together, the action progresses unconvincingly and the characters remain stereotypical. There are better examples dealing with such a topic out there.

Two Croatian films at worldfest Houston this sunday (April 12) and monday (April 13)!!

Browsing through the programme of World Fest, one of Houston’s Film Festivals, I was happy to find two productions from Croatia this year!

Sunday April 12, 7pm: Cvjetni Trg // Flower Square, Croatia, 2012
Synopsis: “Nationalism, church and organized crime make for an unholy trinity in Krsto Papic’s powerful story of a man trapped in a world he not only never made, but also wants no part of. The world is Croatia, where a mobster named Macko seems to controls everything — from the underworld to the Catholic Church to the fate of his brother, who resents the mafioso for sleeping with his wife and destroying his marriage years ago. The real focus of “Flower Square,” however, is a nobody actor in a puppet show named Filip, who is blackmailed into posing as a priest to trick Macko to confess to committing an array of crimes.”

get tickets here.

Monday April 13, 9pm: Most na kraju svijeta // Bridge at the end of the worldCroatia/Bosnia/Serbia, 20134
Synopsis: “The film “The Bridge at the End of the World” deals with the unfortunate human destinies from the war in Croatia. In fear of the return of Serbian refugees to their houses in which they lived before the war and that in the meantime populated with Croat refugees from Bosnia, an old man disappears, and the investigation that starts from a police officer who lives in a Serbian house, will become more personal.”

get tickets here.

 Films screen at ACME studio 30, 2949 Dunvale St., Houston.



Game of Thrones actors and producers salute Croatia

Many extraordinary landscapes lend their charm to Game of Thrones, HBOs popular fantasy series. Glaciers in Iceland, palaces in Spain, but the crew definitely seems to have a liking to Croatia: More than 10 filming locations are located in Dalmatia! As the 5th season is about to start, actors and crew salute Croatia:

The cities of Dubrovnik and Split feature as King’s Landing, Minceta Tower stars as the House of the Undying and Braavos is actually set in Šibenik!

SEEfest LA (April 30 – May 7) announces program for 2015!

There are only a handful of festivals devoted to Eastern European film in the world, and one of them is SEEfest in LA. Taking place every year in April, the festival extends it’s program over a full week this year. Even though SEE stands here too for South Eastern Europe and it was decisively founded with the intention to promote films from this area, it also includes contributions from the adjacent region like Turkey, the Baltic States.

The festival is competitive, but unlike many others does not charge a submission fee. Films compete in the categories

Best Feature Film
Best Documentary Film (long and short)
Best First Feature Film
Best Short Film
Best Cinematography
And includes also an Audience Award.

And because the festival takes place in LA, the home of Hollywood and cradle of the US film industry, there is also a *free* industry event, this year on Saturday, May 2.

Check out the full festival program here.

Oscar entries from SEE

The Academy Awards are around the corner, a  good reason to have a look at the entries from South East Europe!

Bosnia Herzegovina: Sa Mamom /  With Mom, Faruk Loncarevic
The Hollywood Reporter writes: “An emotionally charged portrait of family power struggles, budding sexuality and terminal illness set in contemporary Sarajevo, With Mom is a classy second feature from the young Bosnian writer-director Faruk Loncarevic. ”

Bulgaria: Bulgarian Rhapsody, Ivan Nitchev
Again, the Hollywood Reporter: “Rival filmmakers protested that 74-year-old director Ivan Nitchev is a member of the official body that selected his movie, though he reportedly played no part in the secret ballot process. A solidly middlebrow period piece with an old-fashioned moral message, Bulgarian Rhapsody is perfectly adequate Academy Awards material.” full Article here.

Croatia: Kauboji / Cowboys, Tomislav Mrsic
“it’s a pleasant tale on its own modest terms, one with more laughs than it requires and a refreshing unwillingness to oversentimentalize its de rigueur last-act melodrama. When you have faux-cowpoke Croatians doing a tap dance in formation, who wants tears and a string section?” says the Hollywood Reporter (here). Kauboji / Cowboys screened as part of the Meditereanean Film Festival in Houston last year.

Hungary: Feher isten / White God, KornÈl Mundruczo
Won the “un certain regard” prize in Cannes, “the film follows the mixed-breed dog Hagen who moves, along with his guardian Lili, in with Lili’s father. Unwilling to pay a harsh “mongrel” fine imposed by the government, Lili’s father abandons him. Determined to find Lili again, Hagan soon attracts a large pack of half-breed followers who start a seemingly organised uprising against their human oppressors.”

Kosovo: Tri Dritare dhe një Varje / Three windows and a hanging, Isa Qosja
Kosovo’s first entry to the Oscars, “set in a traditional Kosovar village in 2000, a year after the war with Serbia, Isa Qosja’s “Three Windows and a Hanging” is a critical look at a patriarchal culture threatened by the knowledge that the enemy violated their women. When a local femme anonymously reveals to an international journalist that she and others were raped, the fallout from this once-repressed secret threatens to tear apart the fabric of village life in this finely written and directed drama”, says Variety here.

Macedonia: Do balcak / To the Hilt, Stole Popov
Action adventure Western set in Ottoman rules Macedonia.

Moldova:  La limita de jos a cerului / The Unsaved, Igor Cobileanski
“A shiftless Moldovan teen slowly tries to climb out of the gutter in The Unsaved, the bleak but effective feature debut of Moldova-born director Igor Cobileanski. Written by renowned Romanian New Wave helmer Corneliu Porumboiu (Cannes Camera d’Or winner 12:08 East of Bucharest) and the director, this is a quiet and slow-footed character study punctuated by blackly comic moments in which, in typical New Wave fashion, the characters’ bad behavior and good intentions slowly turn into a noose around the protagonist’s neck.” writes the Hollywood Reporter here.

Montenegro: Dječaci iz Ulice Marksa i Engelsa / The Boys from Marx and Engels Street, Nikola Vukcevic
“A highly uneven revenge thriller drenched in the heady perfume of hot-blooded Balkan melodrama”, writes the Hollywood Reporter (here).

Romania: Câinele japonez / The Japanese Dog, Tudor Cristian Jurgiu
Hollywood Reporter calls the film a “a leisurely, lyric and clear-eyed study of the changes in the life of an elderly man following the 2010 floods that devastated the northeast of the country. Viewers anticipating the bleakness and grim humor that characterizes much of the Romanian New Wave will instead find here a gentle film which, while entirely unsentimental, is gently upbeat, and while slow-moving, carefully avoids indulgence” (full review here).

Serbia: Montevideo, vidimo se! / See You in Montevideo, Dragan Bjelogrlic
Variety remarks “The film follows the fortunes of the Yugoslav soccer team at the World Cup in 1930 in Uruguay.” (here).

Slovenia:  Zapelji me / Seduce me, Marko Santic
“A pair of emotionally scarred 19-year-olds seek refuge from a harsh adult world in each other’s arms (..) the Hollywood Reporter writes, but ” feels like a low-voltage festival movie, as earnest and self-absorbed as its adolescent protagonists” here.

LGBT films from SEE

(photo source: Balkanist Magazine)

The other day at a filmmakers gathering I had the pleasure to chat with Kristian Salinas, the artistic director of Houston’s Q-Fest, a queer and LGBT film festival. I mentioned the topic of the Sworn Virgins to him and what a coincidence that an Italian-Albanian co-production shown on this year’s Berlinale picked it up (see my post here).
Three years ago, the gay pride parade in the city of Split, Croatia, was cancelled due to protests and threats from religious and nationalistic groups of society.
I vividly remember the support march some friends organised in Rijeka, where I was living at the moment. We met on a square above the city centre on one of these cool spring days, when the weather cannot decide on rain or shine. Maybe 70 people had gathered, but there was no glitter nor revealing costumes, as you see in abundance on the big Christopher Street Day parades elsewhere. After a short speech, the crowd descended on the city’s main pedestrian precinct. A little down the hill, there was riot police to protect the demonstrators. Continue reading

SEE Films at Berlinale 2015

The grand dame of film festivals, the Berlinale, had always had good connections with South Eastern Europe and many films have premiered there. Just the other day I was talking about the phenomenon of Sworn Virgins in the mountains of Albania, where women vow to live as men and subsequently enjoy a man’s privileges. I knew there were some documentaries about them, and now the first feature film on that topics, Vergine giurata / Sworn Virgin hails from Albania and Italy! The only other candidate in the competition is a Romanian-Bulgarian history piece set in 1835 multiethnic Wallachia, where a father and son embark on a Western-esque man hunt. Whereas  Aferim! is shot in black and white,  De ce eu? / Why me?, shown  in the Panorama section, paints an equally grim perspective on contemporary Romanian society:  a young prosecutor is assigned to a case he cannot win. Flotel Europa, the only feature from the former Yugoslavia and patched together from home videos, depicts life of Serbian refugees in a hotel ship in Copenhagen. Croatia contributes a short film in the generation 14+ section: in Piknik / Picnic a box fight is needed to break the ice between estranged father and son.
Read more about the films after the jump.

Continue reading