A Homeland Abroad
|Šulík: Highly exportable|
Neha in London
Martin Šulík has always been Slovakia's most exportable contemporary film director. His graduation film Staccato received an audience award at Karlovy Vary in 1987. But it was his second feature, Všetko, čo mám rád (Everything I Like, 1992), that flung him to truly world-wide acclaim, picking up a string of international awards and an Oscar nomination; a success that was consolidated by the critically acclaimed and commercially succesful Záhrada (The Garden) in 1995.
Since then, Šulík has become an unofficial film, and indeed cultural, ambassador for Slovakia, with his films having a lilting, unjingoistic brand of national pride but without alienating foreign audiences by drawing on experiences which only Slovaks can relate to. In this, Šulík—who epitomises his homeland in its scenically rural areas and country values—has undoubtedly been aided by a global interest in returning to a simpler life closer to nature. In short: for someone whose work comments on national values, Šulík is a remarkably universal director.
Hardly surprising then that in the last three years, Martin Šulík has been very well represented by efforts to promote Slovak cinema in London. Last December, for the second time in three years, the director was the focus of Slovak film celebrations, with four of his features slated to be represented at the 2000 Slovak and Czech Film Days.
Všetko, čo mám rád and Záhrada and were predictable items on the programme, but also down was Neha (Tenderness), Šulík's 1991 feature film debut, and one that has garnered far less attention than his two big hitters. Here was a chance for Londoners to see whether Slovak film amounted to anything more than a couple of chance successes by Šulík.
Three's a crowd?
Šimon, a twenty-year old student, feels himself to be removed from life, and not wishing to argue removes himself from it further. He communicates little with his parents, retreats to Bratislava and cuts off his hair.
His solitary existence is interupted when he eats out in a restaurant. The only other diners, an older couple who have evidently just walked out of an opera performance, have an argument, and the woman rises to the her husband's retort that she should join another table if she doesn't want to sit with him.
From there, Šimon is sucked into the fragile relationship between the pair, Viktor and Mária.
| Who's using who?|
Seemingly, with Viktor's encouragement, Šimon fancies Mária. And in this strange triangle he seems to be an intermediatary between the couple, and sometimes a barrier. Mária herself, though, takes exception to Viktor's claim that they need him to be able to talk, yet there is a clearly something missing in this relationship based on passion and cruelty. At times one can fully believe that there is indeed "Tenderness" in this couple's marriage. But mostly not.
Ultimately, though, Šimon's attempts to escape reality prove futile. The amoralism with which he tries to seduce Viktor's wife and take advantage of his deaf mistress (played by Iva Bittová) fails him, and finally he is left with the answer that he has purposely avoided—that life means something to him and he means something to life.
An early sighting of the usual themes
Šulík's considerable talent is plainly visible in Neha, a strong and rewarding debut, which combines dry comedy with Bergmanesque characterisation. The opening sequences, lasting some ten minutes or more and punctuated by only three short utterances, are particularly evocative pieces of film-making.
Although, like Všetko, čo mám rád, Neha's plot unfolds primarily in an urban context, the countryside appears in several trips out of town and Šimon's family home—the latter being both a place of refuge and one to escape from. Šulík's first full-length film, therefore, sees him fully immersed in the themes and motifs that have preoccupied him most: tense father son relationships, absurd reactions to incomprehensible situations and a lyrical sense of the countryside.
Award-winning music by Vlado Godár and sensitive (albeit somewhat static) camerawork from Martin Štrba—now one of the hottest cinematographers working in the Czech and Slovak film markets—complete this thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable film.
The problem of presentation
Neha may not be a major film, but it is one of which Slovakia can justly be proud and it makes an interesting case study of how to market a worthwhile film which has won respect but not international awards.
As, sadly, previous efforts have showed, presenting a good film in a large cinema in the centre of a big capital is not enough to bring in the punters. 1998's "Slovakia Discovered" season showed just four films (including Všetko, čo mám rád and Záhrada, with Šulík himself in attendence) in the spacious Bloomsbury Theatre (conveniently near the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where a colloquium on Slovak culture was also taking place). The venue was somewhat larger than the audience that could be mustered though, largely due to a lack of marketing. After one of the events, I ran into the then Slovak Ambassador to London, Dušan Slobodník, who admitted to me that the format had not been a success and that the Slovak embassy would continue to sponsor Slovak events in London, but would not actually be the sole organisor of them again.
The Slovaks were obviously not totally put off by the failure, as the following autumn the first Slovak and Czech Film Days appeared (recognising that, perhaps, Slovakia does need its older more successful brother to help it get some publicity). The Slovak Embassy was still involved, but this time the organisation was left to an outside company, Different Perspectives. The format was also radically different, with a large and unfillable theatre exchanged for smaller, more intimate locations around central London, namely two Internet cafes and the London Czech Centre, and admission was now free. This year, the main focus was on another marketable Slovak director—Juraj Jakubisko—and the number of films expanded greatly (although most were shown on projected VHS).
Into the new millennium
Spurred on by the modest success of the first Film Days, the venue and format was changed once again for the 2000 event (although still with Different Perspectives at the helm). The Curzon Soho cinema was used (a venue known for showing art house films), admission fees were charged and the number of films was kept roughly the same—quite an achievement since this time most of the screenings were from original prints rather than VHS.
Šulík was once again the focus, with the original plan to show Neha,
Všetko, čo mám rád
and his latest offering Krajinka
(2000). At the last minute, though, Krajinka
was withdrawn by the distributors, perhaps realising that since the film had been accepted for show at the Berlinale it would be better to hold out for a British premiere at the more prestigious London Film Festival, and the print languished in the Slovak Embassy for the duration of the weekend.
But despite Slovakia's film directing star in the programme, few gains have been made in audience figures since Slovakia Discovered two years previously. This is in marked contrast to the Czechs, whose film programmes have not just expanded in adventurousness but have also managed to get ever-increasing numbers of bums on seats. Going the other way, the Hungarians have successfully promoted their national film culture principally through regular video screenings at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, rather than large-scale events (a Hungarian Film Days at the ICA in 1999 suffered similarly to Slovakia Discovered and was not repeated the following year).
The Slovak and Czech Film Days had its own problems: a lack of marketing (I only found out about the event because I was actively looking for it); films were shown at inconvenient times, such as midday on a Sunday; last minute changes to the programme were unclear and unadvertised; and the event occurred shortly after the large, well-organised programme of Czech films and just days before Christmas. Even discounting these, it is questionable whether the Slovak and Czech Film Days is an economical way to introduce a film like Neha to a British audience.
The real problem with the Slovak and Czech Film Days though is that it is a neither a retrospective nor a collection of the most recent releases. Its whole name is an ambiguity and suggests, rightly as it happens, that the event is a hotch-potch of films with no theme. This contrasts with the Czech film events from autumn 2000, which had clearly defined themes and made explicit why these films were interesting to watch and relevant to a wider context, even through such simple devices as director retrospectives which bind the films together in some meaningful way.
Slovak and Czech Film Days on the other hand does carry the suggestion that this event is only for people who are interested in Slovak cinema—a sure way to guarantee small audiences. Interestingly, although the there was a heavy emphasis on Šulík films, there was little attempt to try and bill the event as containing a mini Šulík retrospective, with the individual films largely left to stand on their own feet. Neha then was not presented as being part of a logical continuum in Šulík's career, and less so as a part of Slovak cinema.
Such an approach is not invalid to promoting unknown films and may work for a film club-type way of promoting films (as the Hungarians have successfully proved), but for a concentrated event it quite evidently has its limitations. Putting on a whole range of films at a central London cinema and flying in Slovak film personalities (this year including Šulík's script-writer, Ondrej Šulaj), clearly is not enough to guarantee audiences. Would it not have been more cost effective to set up a Hungarian-style film club and promote Slovakia's film culture evenly across the year, with the saved money going for smaller, better-marketed, themed events?
Reviewing Slovakia Discovered two years ago, I concluded that "To reach a wider audience Slovak cinema needs to be marketed as 'good cinema,' not as 'Slovak cinema.' Although, of course, it is both." Certainly, the Slovak and Czech Film Days has made a nod in this direction by incorporating Czech films into the season (although the Czech films selected had no obvious reason for being included in with a group of Slovak films, either in thematic terms or due to Slovak cast or crew-members who worked on it).
However, London audiences have obviously yet to be convinced that films like Neha play a role in the development of Slovak cinema, nevermind in World Cinema. Promotion of Slovak film is gradually getting better, but clearly quality but unusual films like Neha need more than just a screening to get recognition in the wider world.
Andrew James Horton, 19 February 2001
Photo credit (Šulík portrait): Slovenský filmový ústav