Once Upon a Time There Was a Tolerant Country...
Brane Mozetič, organizer of Ljubljana's Festival of Gay and Lesbian Film, interviewed
Slovenia's Festival of Gay and Lesbian Film (FGLF), which this year took place from 2 to 9 December, is the oldest—and virtually the only—such festival in the region. After 17 years, the festival should be a venerable institution in the capital, Ljubljana, but sadly this is not the case. The festival's longevity is more a testament to the dedication of its organizers than anything else.
An accomplished poet both in Slovenia and abroad, Brane Mozetič is one of those dedicated organizers. He is also one of the country's leading gay activists. In the heady atmosphere of the 1980s, when Ljubljana had a reputation for being the most liberal city in Yugoslavia and a mecca for counter-cultural movements, Mozetič became one of the first Slovenes to openly declare his homosexuality.
Twenty years into the gay-rights movement, however, it seems the public remains in the dark. In July, Mozetič participated in a chat on the website of the local daily Večer, and after several quick comments and questions about his literary work and the gay rights movement, the chat shifted into surprisingly prodding questions about his personal life.
Mozetič says this is because the average Slovene has no idea about what it is to be gay:
Of course they have no idea, since they don't know any gay people themselves. And that is because gays hide themselves. People only know about a few, say where they live or where they work, but even if they do know, it is not discussed. It is always something about which it is best to be silent. The majority of gays think that way as well, and do not support gay activism.
If people do have any sort of ideas about gay people, they are derogatory: men who behave like women, or who molest young boys, or who have sex in the bushes. They have no idea that it can also be about a couple who lives an entirely normal love life or social life.
Today, he estimates that Slovenia's openly gay community is only 1000 to 2000 strong, and sharply centered on the capital, Ljubljana.
Judging by Mozetič's comments and the gay community's small size, it is hard to imagine that something like the FGLF has been sustained for 17 years. But actually, according to Mozetič, last year's festival drew more than 2100 people and many screenings were almost sold out. "In recent years," he says, "attendance has been rising and more varied, so there is also a wider audience—mostly young people."
The gay-rights movement in Slovenia
The gay-rights movement took off in 1984, when the non-governmental organization (NGO) Magnus was founded with the aim of fostering gay rights. Three years later, an NGO for lesbians called LL was established, and then in 1990, the two groups formed the national gay and lesbian organization Roža Klub.
Throughout the 1980s, the movement gained momentum, and scored a significant, albeit partial, victory in 1991 as the country prepared for independence. Roža Klub had demanded that the constitution explicitly protect gays and lesbians; in the end, they were half-successful. The clause dealing with anti-discrimination ends with "... any other personal circumstance." It was not perfect, but it was a start.
Unlike New York's Stonewall Riots in the 1960s, there was no watershed event that sparked Slovenia's gay-rights movement in the 1980s. Mozetič says that "it was just the spirit of the times, or the result of the rise of various social movements. In the 1980s, other movements came onto the scene in a strong way, like environmentalists, peace activists, feminists—and all of these movements were somehow connected."
One of the first activities organized by Magnus was the first FGLF, in 1984. "In the first years, say 1984 to 1986, there was a real boom. The entire alternative scene was enthusiastic, it was cool to care about something, you had to be there. There was an explosion of liberalism and freedom."
Throughout the 1990s, however, the movement faltered. Society and politics turned their attention to the difficult task of creating a state once Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia in June, 1991. According to Mozetič, it was not only the politicians who turned their backs on the movement, but other parts of civil society as well:
Later, things cooled off and the festival became something mainly for gays and lesbians. The other movements no longer supported us in other ways as well.
But in the past few years, the straight public has returned, not because it is fashionable, but because maybe there is something interesting, or because it has somehow become a bit more normal, ordinary to the public.
That does not hold for the institutions. They were less receptive from the start, but at the beginning of the 1990s, they showed more liberalism. In recent years, though, hidden homophobia has been on the rise, among low-level bureaucrats as well as among state secretaries of various ministers, commissions, the media, what have you. Some have even publicly stated that it isn't necessary to advertise gay-rights issues, or to pay them any mind.
A challenge to the public
|West Fickt Ost :|
One from central
This year's festival does not include any films from central or eastern Europe, with the exception of two from Germany: Jürgen Brüning's West Fickt Ost (West Fucks East, 2001) and Anne Høegh Krohn's Fremde Freundin (Unknown Friend, 1999). Slovene cinematography has had several brushes with homosexual themes, but has yet to take the plunge. The openly gay actor and director Boštjan Hladnik (b 1929 in Kranj) has included homosexual characters in his films, particularly Maskarada (Masquerade, 1971), which presents lesbians and alludes to gay men, and Ubij me nežno (Kill Me Gently, 1979). More recently, Miha Hočevar's Jebiga (Fuck It, 2000) included two gay men as bit characters. According to Mozetič, "gays will appear in films in the future for sure, since they already appear as characters in TV series and elsewhere."
The FGLF has 15 screenings this year, of nine films from six countries and a special program of the films of Andy Warhol. Among the highlights are O Fantasma (Phantasm, Joao Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal, 2000), Drole de Felix (The Adventures of Felix, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, France, 2000), and Trembling Before G-D (Sandi Simcha Dubowski, USA, 2000).
Of those, one of them has already been presented in a former Yugoslav republic. At the seventh Sarajevo Film Festival this August, director Joao Pedro Rodrigues was on hand at the second showing of his O Fantasma. Audience reaction was mixed. Perhaps because everyone knew to expect it, no one seemed to question the presentation of homosexual themes. What was questioned was whether the story required that the lead character be gay, and whether the sex scenes had to be so graphic—even pornographic.
|Queer as Folk: |
Lemonade for Ljubljana
Sarajevo today finds itself in peculiar circumstances for such a film. The country has endured a decade-long atmosphere of extreme nationalism and religious prejudice. During the war, many of the original city dwellers fled or were killed, and were replaced by new arrivals from the countryside. Ljubljana has a liberal reputation, but circumstances there have changed as well. Would the reaction be more positive?
Mozetič, who spoke to Kinoeye before the close of the Ljubljana festival, said he believes this year's films would be challenging for the Slovene audience:
If the gay scene was more alternative years ago, it's now very commercialized, average, middle-class, consumerized. Gays and lesbians don't like daring films, or documentaries, or activist films or engaging ones either. They'd rather have sweetened lemonade, where everything is beautiful or what have you. They'll love [the British TV series] Queer as Folk. They totally hated the film Frisk [directed by Todd Verow , 1995] at last year's festival, since it shows gays in a negative light. So I expect they won't like O Fantasma very much. In it, the world is dark, it takes place somewhere in the margins... In any case, the best are the fairy tales. Years ago, the British film Beautiful Thing, a totally positive fairy tale, was a big hit.
Slovenska Kinoteka organized a special program of Andy Warhol's experimental films for the FGLF, which also coincides with a major Warhol exhibit at the Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana. Warhol's parents were Rusyns from Slovakia and the artist has been used in several countries as a posterboy for the Carpatho-Rusyn cause. However, Mozetič doubts that regional gay rights movements would take up Warhol in the same way: "Warhol was a cult artist in the 1970s, but today we probably see him more as a curiosity."
2001: A Gay-Rights Odyssey
At the end of last year, a new NGO called Urad za Intervencije (Office of Interventions or UZI) breathed fresh life into Slovenia's civil society by aggressively pushing issues like racism, refugees, the environment and globalization to the public's attention. This July, they helped staged a march to protest increasing xenophobia in society, which turned into Ljubljana's first gay pride parade.
One of the reasons for the demonstration was a highly-publicized scandal. In June, Mozetič and Canadian poet Jean-Paul Daoust were refused entrance into Galerija Cafe in Ljubljana by a bouncer who told them that "this is no longer a place for people like you." The bouncer was never reprimanded.
Moreover, according to Mozetič, UZI's support is unstable:
There are a lot of difficulties with the so-called alternative scene. Even among those people you find homophobia, leaving the gay community alone in the end. The straight population was not at the gay pride parade, they did not march with us. And with all of the other scandals, they support us cautiously at first and then later pull back.
In any case, the gay-rights movement has recognized the value of the UZI franchise. In organizing the "March Against Intolerance," as the gay pride parade was officially called, the various gay-rights organizations joined forces under the umbrella name "bUZI." The name is tongue in cheek, as Mozetič explains: "It is a sort of provocation—the word 'buzi' means 'bugger' or 'peder'."
Since Galerija Cafe is owned by the city, Ljubljana's mayor, Viktorija Potočnik, had to answer for what had happened. Bowing to the pressure of the gay pride demonstration, she invited a delegation from gay and lesbian organizations to a reception at city hall for the first time ever, just days later. In a public statement after the reception, Potočnik denounced the rise in homophobia Ljubljana has seen.
She also had to eat some crow. Earlier in the year, in an interview with the news weekly Mladina, she said that the city had not given any money to the FGLF because the organizers had not asked for any. At the reception, festival organizers presented evidence to the contrary. In her après-reception public statement, she also pledged to support the FGLF, and even accepted an invitation to open the festival in person.
Before the FGLF opened, Mozetič was sure Potočnik would show:
She did promise. Probably because of the sharp criticism thrown at her around the Galerija affair... And also because of a guilty conscience, since we reproached her for the fact that no one [from the city administration] ever comes. And of course because she told the public that we had not applied for funding for the festival and we presented evidence to the contrary and so she has to apologize.
|O Fantasma: |
A shocking little opener
And come she did. The opening film was O Fantasma, which mildly shocked audiences in Sarajevo, and according to Mozetič, it "most likely shocked the audience a little" in Ljubljana as well. Including mayor Potočnik.
Potočnik opened the festival with a short speech before the screening, but as Mozetič points out, "in her speech, the words 'gay', 'lesbian', 'homosexual', 'gay and lesbian festival' were not pronounced even once—she bypassed it with 'our festival' or variations on that phrase. It's true, those words never come out of anyone's mouth."
State funding for fantasies, but not for reality
Even with the support of the city, the festival's budget is modest. The Film Fund, the government's central agency for cinema under the Ministry of Culture, gave the FGLF SIT 200,000, or about USD 800. The mayor's office came through with an additional SIT 500,000, but even that is only about USD 2000. The city's department of culture promised a further SIT 700,000 (USD 3000), but the money never showed up. So that is all the money in the festival's budget.
According to Mozetič, throughout its 17 years, the festival has not attracted a single sponsor from the private sector. In the past, NGOs like the Open Society Institute have contributed some funding, but that organization closed its office in Slovenia last year and none of the other NGOs were interested this year. Mozetič is critical of politics and the media. "The state has always tried to pretend that homosexuality does not exist and very much stamps out all contact with it. The media helps this along."
While it is true that the state did help finance the FGLF, other examples of its generosity put the figures in perspective. In February of this year, a university student was exposed as a fraud after claiming up to USD 55,000 for preparations for the European, and later the world, championship in computer science from the Ministry of Education over a period of four years. He lost a civil suit for breach of contract and now faces criminal charges.
Apparently a fictitious world championship in computer science is more worthy of state funding than the very real Festival of Gay and Lesbian Film.
The spirit of (in)tolerance
Twenty years ago it seemed inevitable that Ljubljana would become a center of gay culture in Europe. Even before the fall of communism and Yugoslavia itself, the city was full of clubs, magazines, exhibits and films, all geared towards a gay audience. The gay-rights movement was championing numerous issues and starting to make headway.
But after a decade of rising intolerance dating from independence in 1991, does any of Ljubljana's spirit of tolerance remain today?
Very little. With the coming of democracy, right-wing forces and conservative political parties became louder. The Catholic Church, which was for so many years excluded from public life and politics, became more aggressive, and seeped into new parties and into the pores of the state.
Intolerance migrated from the top down, to the people on the street. And by this, I mean all sorts of intolerance, towards all minorities, towards anyone different. Even women's equality is at a lower level than 20 years ago. The state has become very traditional, Catholic, backwards. And the media along with it. At the same time, the media is enabling the spread of intolerance, under the guise of freedom of speech.
This September, the magazine Sodobnost published an interview with noted psychiatrist Dr Janez Rugelj that immediately launched a short-lived public debate about the limits of free speech. According to Rugelj, lesbians are much more acceptable than gay men, "since you could really put a man in there with two of them..." The interview also included several rather explicit comments about homosexual men, while reserving comments like "If, for example, a beautiful woman lays down, spreads her legs and shows what's between them, beauty shines out" for women.
Mozetič, together with the NGO ŠKUC, later sued Rugelj for hate speech, but public interest has waned by this time, and there has been no significant public support for Mozetič and his case. "I think we'll stand alone once again," Mozetič comments, "even though he [Rugelj] is stirring up intolerance towards women, Muslims, the elderly and other groups. Slovene society has become very lukewarm, conformist, no one wants to speak up."
And in keeping with the lack of tolerance in Slovene society, press coverage of the FGLF has so far been lackluster at best. The country's major daily, Delo, has only mentioned it in passing in its daily events listings, as have most of the other dailies. The only notable coverage has been a rather full and praising write-up in the daily Večer.
Despite the downward trend in Slovene open-mindedness over the last ten years, it seems that the FGLF may very well be on the cusp of a renaissance this year, thanks to many factors. Attendance at the festival is on the rise, and the audience is increasingly diverse. Gay-rights issues were brought back into the fore this year, though only after several high-profile incidents. Civil society, on the upswing since last year, picked up the thrown gauntlet, and thanks to them, politicians, most notably Ljubljana mayor Viktorija Potočnik, are at least paying the gay-rights movement—and the festival—lip service. The Večer article may be a sign that even media coverage is slowly improving. Perhaps next year's 18th FGLF will not be such a struggle. But even if it is, it seems the festival's organizers, like Brane Mozetič, are on board for the long haul.
Brian J Požun, 17 December 2001
This article was originally published in Vol 1, Issue 8 (10 Dec 2001), of CER's film affiliate Kinoeye, the fortnightly journal of film in the new Europe.
Other film articles by the author:
Vol 3, No 32|