Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 1
28 September 1998

K I N O E Y E:
Avant-garde Film and Video in Slovenia

Andrew J Horton

The avant-garde in Slovenia has long been known for its enthusiasm for all things high-tech. The Slovene evening, part of the London Festival of Central European Culture's overview of experimental film and video, was therefore set to present the most forward looking of the season. Symbolically, the two showings concentrated on much more recent productions than other countries did, and all the works were on video format. Can it live up to expectations?

The showing kicked off with Tako Mladi (So Young, 1984) by Borghesia, a group of performance artists, and it set the scene for much of what was to follow in the first group of films. Tako Mladi is a series of short stories that reflect on diverse aspects of youth culture from Nazism to the Slovene underground scene. Homoerotica, sadomasochism and cheesy centerfold poses are accompanied by insistent but tinny synthesizer music. Very eighties indeed.

Marko Kovacic's American Dream (1986) combines elements of mime and burlesque to produce a similarly dated visual effect. Things improved slightly with Bilokacija (Bilocation, 1990) a video by Marina Grzinic and Aina Smid about the separation of body and soul that uses harrowing footage of the 1989 war in Kosovo. Still, it fails to totally convince.

Whilst intellectually trying to elaborate on quite sophisticated points, all these videos seem to lose their appeal as art forms. Too often, their attraction rests heavily on the formal exploration of technology for its own sake. The irony is, of course, that by constantly striving to explore the outer limits of the new, Slovene film leaves itself open to quickly becoming out of date, and the actual appeal for most of these videos will lie with those with a taste for retro-kitsch.

Ageing quickly

The problem is particularly acute today, since cinema is now 102 years old, and experimenters right from its first days have been pushing back its frontiers. With nearly a century of cinematic avant-garde behind them, these eighties films struggle to find new means of expression, and some of the most radical works in the whole season look pathetically unoriginal compared to early pioneering classics by Man Ray, Rene Clair and Luis Bunuel. To give one example, switching between negative and positive images does little to challenge our way of seeing or thinking and has been used so often since the twenties that it has become a cliche. Yet many directors still seem to think it is the bees knees.

Slovenes, of course, are not the only offenders on this point, but the Slovene selection is a particularly good illustration of the point that there is more to being avant-garde than throwing standard cinematic conventions out of the window. More important is to create new conventions, which refresh and challenge our tired and blinkered view of the world.

If the passing of time diminishes the appeal of these technology-worshipping works, then perhaps it was inevitable that the second showing of the London evening of more recent Slovene works would be better. This it certainly was. Interestingly though, the works in the selection were better not just because the technology they use is less dated, but because of an increasing trend to use technology as a means of expression and not as a goal in its own right.

Taiga (1996) by builds up an operatic atmosphere of strange beings and forms. Particularly effective is the use of ice statues of dogs impaled onto sharp blades and filmed melting. Park Kulture (The Park of Culture, 1997) sees director Marko Peljhan fighting back against technology as he bombards us with a superfluity of useless news before urging us "They are observing you! Turn on your transmitters and observe them!"

Filmed dance

The most enjoyable film was Vrtoglavi Ptic (Vertigo Bird, 1997) directed by Iztok Kovac and featuring the experimental dance group En-knap. The agility and precision of the dancers impresses as much as the new grammar of dance moves they create. All the dances are shot in industrial settings with careful attention to lighting and atmosphere. Music for string quartet by Boris Kovac and a cappella singing make a pleasant diversion from industrial electronic music that dominated the rest of the showing. If this is a important piece of avant-garde work, though, it is not because of its contribution to film and video. No matter how interesting the photography and direction may be, at the end of the day it is En-knap who are breaking barriers and not Kovac.

To close the evening we were offered Postsocializem + Retro-avantgarda + Irwin (Post-socialism + Retro avant-garde + Irwin, 1997) by Grzinic and Smid. At break-neck speed and tongue-in-cheek opaqueness, Peter Weibel and Slavoj Zizek, assisted by a false moustache and large mouthfuls of cake, give us a run-down of the Hegelian dialectic that affects the avant-garde and ideology, while analyzing the correlation between the Levi Strauss food triangle and toilet design in Germany, France and America. This is a good documentary on Slovene intellectuals having on-screen fun. Just don't expect to be enlightened by it.

Disappointingly, none of the works of this screening were masterpieces or even close for that matter. This is not necessarily cause for pessimism, though. The Slovene collection was actually one of the few that saw more recent works having a markedly greater maturity. This leaves us the exciting possibility that the golden age of Slovene avant-garde cinema may be yet to come.

Andrew J Horton, 28 September 1999

In the same series:

Avant-garde Film and Video in the Czech Republic

Avant-garde Film and Video in Slovakia

Avant-garde Film and Video in Hungary

Avant-garde Film and Video in Croatia

Avant-garde Film and Video in Poland



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