Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 6
2 November 1998

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

Andrew J Horton

In common with other countries in East Central Europe, Croatia experienced an upsurge in avant-garde film-making in the late fifties as socialist realism lost all remaining credibility as an art form. The Festival of Central European Culture in London mapped out trends and developments in Croatian experimental film and video up to the present day.

The Croatians more than any other nation seem to have taken to the idea of conceptual or performance films, in which the emphasis is on the idea rather than the substance of the film. Some people might argue that such films are not really avant-garde films at all and are in fact ordinary documentary films of artistic happenings. They believe that whilst the works may be avant-garde, it is not avant-garde in the realm of film or video. I have some sympathy with this viewpoint, which does seem to have validity with some films, but I cannot subscribe to it completely. The Croatian conceptual films are good examples of why not.

Mihovil Pansini in K3 ili cisto nebo bez oblaka (K3 or Clear Sky without Clouds, 1962) edits together bits of transparent leader film; Zlatko Hajdler in Kariokineza (Kariokinesis, 1965/98) films a static frame being burned by the lamp of a projector; Goran Trbuljak in No Title (1976) films the video tape which is being recorded on, and then cuts it; and Dalibor Martinis in Open Reel (1976) wraps himself up in video tape as it emerges from the camera which is recording him doing this.

All these films set out to alter our understanding of what film or video is. Both the physical substance of the medium and the meaning of the images it provides are challenged. All four of the above works explore the frailties of the recording material (in the first three the limitations are obvious and in Martinis's work we see the corruption of the tape resulting from contact with the director as he winds it round himself).

We are asked to question the relationship between the original scene and the image we see recorded on the medium. In short, I like these pieces because they play tricks on the mind, sabotaging what one has taken for granted and whipping the carpet away from underneath one's feet - exactly as a good avant-garde film should.

Fading inventiveness

These experiments have got less inventive in recent years and I found in the second showing that my enthusiasm for conceptual film was dropping to the levels of antipathy. Tanja Golic still questions the reality of the image with More (Sea, 1996), which depicts the director in close-up against a TV screen showing the sea, but it does not have enough substance to make eight and a half minutes of this worthwhile. Equally drawn out for no good reason and to no good effect was Milan Bukovac's Multiplication (1994), an infrared recording of firemen crawling around a training exercise in the dark. The idea might be original but not enough to carry the work through.

Although conceptually based works were very strongly represented, there were many other delightful films that did not fit into this category at all. Don Kihot (Don Quixote, 1961), an up-dated two-dimensional cartoon version of Cervantes' story under the direction of Vladimir Kristl, was a festival high point and essential viewing for anyone wishing to have a thorough understanding of European avant-garde. Prije podne jednog fauna (The Morning of a Faun, 1963) by Tomas Gotovac is an amusing parody of film conventions, particularly in its last section where a sleepy Zagreb square is shot with urgent camera work and a dramatic soundtrack that contradicts the uneventfulness of the scene. A more recent piece by Gotovac, his 1996 Tomislav Gotovac, showed that the passage of 33 years did nothing to diminish the director's inventiveness. This eponymous work is a dynamic 70-second autobiography shown through photos, documents and snatches of film.

Danijel Suljic's Evening Star (1993) was based on a similar method of construction and gave the same energetic effect. Suljic edits together brief stills of newspaper and magazine photographs. By juxtaposing shots with similar subject matter, Suljic achieves a novel kind of animation which is humorous through it reminding us how cliched and repetitive our newspapers and our lives are. The effect is at its most amusing when the actions involve politicians. Strung together in a sequence, their gesticulations becomes meaningless and comical and we see them as empty posers, indistinguishable from each other and with more style than substance - fitting humour for the era of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Also worthy of mention is Ivan Ladislav Galeta, whose Ping-Pong (1976-78) uses split-screen techniques to warp the spatial reality of a table-tennis game.

Images of war

It would have been surprising if there were no films contemplating themes of war. Simon Bogojevic-Narath's Untitled (1992) does so in an indirect way by creating an science fiction world in which we are faced with the end of civilisation. Igor Kuduz, like Bogojevic-Narath, uses small-scale models in his Perpetuum Mobile (1992) to show destruction. The camera drifts across the artificial landscape, looking down at burnt out buildings impassionately. The model is detailed but at the same time makes no attempt to convince you that it is reality. The film has a peacefulness to it and we fail to be disturbed by the destruction amongst the garishly green, painted countryside. The film is not so much about war but how we perceive it and the distance between us as observers and the real emotions it involves.

Experimental directors are erratic creatures and are stimulated by only the most unpredictable of influences, which makes it difficult for any country to build up a national style of avant-garde film-making. Croatia's interest in conceptual films is, perhaps, something of an anomaly. Dr Hrvoje Turkovic, the curator of the Croatian showings, noted that in recent years it has become more difficult to talk about trends in Croatian avant-garde film and video and patterns are becoming more and more accidental. Increasing globalisation has meant that directors are more likely to be influenced by new developments abroad than a local film-making heritage. This is both understandable and regrettable. Given the relative maturity and homogeneity of the earlier period of Croatian avant-garde film-making, it would be a shame to see this heritage washed away in a wave of globalism.

Andrew J Horton, 2 November 1998

In the same series:

Avant-garde Film and Video in Slovenia

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 Poland



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