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Artfilmfestival 2006, report by Thomas Ahlqvist, Sweden

The Artfilm Festival in Trenčianske Teplice/Trenčín, two cities in the Carpatian Mountains some 120 kilometres north of the Slovakian capital Bratislava, may not be one of the more well-known festivals. Despite a Swedish actor, David Dencik, winning the prize for best actor/actress, not one paragraph about this 14th international film festival has been seen in a major Swedish newspaper.

This is for several reasons a flaw. On one hand, successes for Swedish cinema, though in a Danish film, are nowadays not common. On the other hand, an ambitious program and prizes of 10 000 EUR each to best director, best director of photography and best actress/best actor, are proof of an arrangement with resources deserving wider recognition. A further 15 000 EUR to different short film awards reflects the fact that the festival promotes shorts. The list of invited guests is impressing with Andrzej Wajda and Goran Paskaljeviă as the most renowned directors. In spite of this, the festival has a charming smallness, making it possible for an ordinary visitor at the festival to attend to press conferences and seminars with participating film workers.

Wadja appeals
One of the privileges for the festival direction is to give worthy film makers awards for lifetime achievements. The award given to Jacqueline Bisset was perhaps not undeserved, but I suppose one reason was for the star to flash in competition with the press photographers. She thanked a lot of male colleges, first of all Frank Sinatra, whose courtesy had helped her as newcomer in the dream factory. More consistency had the Golden Camera Award. This year two such awards was rewarded.
One was given the domestic Duđan Hanák who, after some feature films forbidden by the regime during the sixties, mostly have made documentaries and still photography. The second was awarded the Polish director Andrzej Wajda. In a press conference the director compared the problems of making film today and before 1990. In his opinion many high-quality films were made during the Communist era and he didn't have any economical problems. Ashes and diamonds had a total of 47 000 zloty, corresponding to the price of a normal car. His latest major film Promised Land did cost about thousand times as much, but it's only nearly the salary for a director of one part of a soap in television. Still 16 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall film makers are depending on government support and the political influence is noticeable though in another way. The major reason for politicians to subside domestic European must be it's preservation and development of the national culture and in that way the national consciousness. Most of all Wadja did appeal for a new European network for film distribution. He also named television the major enemy to cinema. The audience brought up by television and video has became a restless generation of zappers jumping from one thing to another without the power of concentration. Cinema can give unforgettable scenes which can change life. Next large project will be a film about the Katyn massacre, where the Soviet army in 1940 killed about 4000 Polish officers, a subject not to be talked about in Poland until lately.

Swedish efforts
Artfilm has several series outside the competition program. This year there was, besides Finnish and Indonesian participation, quite a few Swedish films from the latest years shown under the tittle Wild Strawberries. Thom Palmen from Umeĺ Film Festival talked about Swedish films and Josef Fares was often seen on the festival venues. Swedish participation in the competition was less frequent. Only one totally Swedish film participated, Pernilla August's Time Bomb, without getting any mention. Swedish producers can perhaps do more. Certainly the both in time and geography near Film Festival in Karlovy Vary has greater reputation, but you shouldn't disregard the value of the Slovakian Festival, not even outside the small country's boarders.

Great differences
How was the competition? Let's start with the feature films. The films showed both geographical and quality differences. The Festival is concentrating on European film but one of the strongest participants was Chinese.
A minor theme in the completion series Blue Angel was transvestism. Neil Jordan who have touched the subject in The Crying Game now makes a full blow in Breakfast at Pluto, 36 chapters accounting the life from cradle to 25-years age of the naive Patrick Braden in search of his lost mother. Unfortunately is the impersonation of Cillian Murphy a little too vague and undeveloped to make the film unforgettable, but Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea and Brendan Gleeson in supporting acts makes the film worth seeing.
Partly the same theme, but with a interpretation whetting the appetite, is on focus in the Danish/Swedish A Soap (En Soap), with a striking performance by David Dencik as Veronica. The transvestite Veronica, who has locked himself up with the television soap and the embarrassed mother as only contact with the outer world, finds himself being neighbour to the contact-seeking and life-experimenting Charlotte. A well acted chamber-drama, presenting two lost souls with extremely different lifestyles and mentality, who in some way finds each other. The film was highly esteemed by the FICC jury and we gave it the Don Quixote Award. The grand festival jury gave the award for best actor to David Dencik, in Sweden most known for his achievement as Lasermannen in the television drama with the same name. The young actor who personally collected the award gets his international breakthrough with En Soap.

Chinese winner
Second best in competition was accord to my view the Chinese Qing Hong (Shanghai Dreams). The director Wang Xiaoshuai, who in Sweden is mostly known for Beijing Bicycle, is this time depicting modern history. Intending to industrialise the Chinese rural areas party members in the big cities were, during the 1960-ies, recruited to what was called the third front. For the Wu family this was supposed to be a shorter time in the country side, after which they would return to Shanghai. But when their children born in "exile" are becoming grown-ups they realise a return, against the will of the party, is necessary. The film takes place in 1983 and focus on the 19 year old Qing Hong whose youth rebellion against her parents is universal. Well acted and charming, not the least when the local hoodlum rides away on his bicycle or executes solo dance inspired by Travolta. A film we can hope will reach Sweden. The festival jury awarded Wang for best direction which surely means they thought the film number one in the festival.

In the trapeze
Maybe the subject is to near to the director Szabolcs Hajdu as he in Fehér Tenyér (White Palms) recapitulates his brother's life as a world class gymnast and circus artist. This brother acts himself in the parts depicting his older ages in Canada. In this part the film loses interest, but the description of the almost torture like education he as future elite athlete in the 1980 Hungary is subject to, gives memories long lingering in my mind. Both the two kids acting the young Hajdu and not the least Georghe Dinica as the cruel instructor Puma makes memorable impersonations. Unfortunately the ending is somewhat Hollywoodish taking down the total, but certainly a film worth a wider screening.
The Polish film in competition, Komornik (The Collector), reflects the change of paradigm in Polish film policy since 1990. The Collector Bohme performs his parts with ardour, until he, owing to the meeting with a former youth passion, makes a religious transformation and tries, with even more fervour, to compensate the "evil" he had done to people in need. In the spirit of Kieslowskis, but without his capacity, the film is permeated by a religious (catholic) undertone, in my opinion making it hard for a success in Sweden.
Neither Verlengd Veekend (Long Weekend), describing a kidnapping in a Belgium marked by unemployment, can count on a distribution outside its home country, if not a television company shows interest. A few strong scenes but mostly a criminal comedy with logical weak spots.

More or less totally Russian
More impressing was the Russian Dreaming of Space. In the end of the 1950-ies the "mysterious" Gherman makes his appearance on the local boxing club near the Russian-Norwegian boarder. The young Horse becomes his dog like companion. What is Gherman hiding? Is he a cosmonaut to be or is he just dreaming of freedom? With handhold camera and coarse-grained film - giving Jurij Klimenko the award for best Photography - the director succeeded in capturing the closeness but also the hope for a better life in the grey Communistic everyday. Perhaps the anonymous meeting with the real Cosmonaut Gagagin tops the film, but surely it makes Horse's devoted worship of Gherman more trustworthy.
If Bednije rodstvenniki (Roots) is Russian or French is an issue of speculation. The director Pavel Loungvin is certainly born in Moscow and has made some films in Russia before he in the beginning of the 1990-ies moved to Paris. The current film is a cock-and-bull-story in the spirit of Gogol, about how the industrious Edikh succeeds in bringing wealthy western tourists, descendants from the Jewish Golotvin, a village totally ruined during the second world war, to visit the namesake Golutvin believing the have come home. Burlesque and with a lot of overacting - sometimes makes one think of Kusturica. I am glad to see Ester Gorinthin from Letters from Otar, who makes another good performance. Maybe the more small typed humour was hidden for me as the movie wasn't subtitled. Instead it was screened with a live interpretation. Such things happens on festivals. If the movie had been made in Sweden I suppose it would not have been screened at cinema clubs, but perhaps it is worth seeing for ethnical reasons.
The least successful feature films in competition were the expensive costume-piece Gabrielle, transformed from a short story by Joseph Conrad, and the Canadian Littoral. The former film with Isabelle Huppert in the leading part didn't engage me and the second examples who good intentions - to describe a Lebanon bombed to ground - goes awry when the capacity is less than the will.

Hard schedule
The festival program is extensive and as member of the jury you have to see all the films in the categories Blue Angel (10 feature films), Artefacts (29 shorts of more or less established film workers) and On the Road (22 shorts made by students) during less than a week, diminished the possibilities to take part of the rest of the offerings. I managed to put a few non-competition films worth seeing on my agenda.
The Austrian Keller can be accounted for as an example of the Hanecke School. Sebastian and Paul are teenagers with different kind of upbringings, becoming friends more or less by coincidence. Also by coincidence they meet the shop assistant Sonja, a girl with some what special sexual habits including a violent boyfriend. After knocking her down in her basement the youths takes her to a shut down factory to keep her imprisoned. This well acted drama, with very impressive acting not the least from Georg Friedrich as the boyfriend, winds up in an incorrect ending, but the film made me want to see more. Not a film for a larger audience who will be disturbed by the sense moral - or lack of it.
Goran Paskaljeviă presented two films during the week. I had time to see How Harry Became a Tree with Colm Meaney (also showing up during the festival) in the leading part - an Irish history about enmity becoming an obsession. Well done in a genre popular at cinema clubs some ten years ago.
The Polish Mistrz (The Master) is a road movie about a knife-throwing-circus - can't be much for a circus with one speciality, but the Russian Alexander is a master, remember. On his way through the Polish province he meets a prostitute, an accordion player and a French painter and has a love affair with a post office cashier. Though Konstantin Lavrenko from The Return is acting the part of the
circus artist it all boils down to a seemly simple story with more home-philosophising than I could take.
The film outside the competition program which made most impression on me was the Israeli Eize makom nifla (What a Wonderful Place). The director Eyal Halfon told us he was inspired by Amores Perros, and surely you could see characteristics from Inarritu's movies. He also clamed Israel to be the nation in world with most immigrants and that doesn't mean the Jewish population arriving to the country after the foundation in 1948, but whose, who with an German expression is called Gastarbeiter, mostly Asians and Africans working as cheap labour in homes and farms.
Taking three middle-aged men as centres the film tells the story of a society in dissolution. Not the least Uri Gavriel acting the from gambling-depts downloaded, former policeman Franco impressed and gave the otherwise tragic film a warmer air in his relation to the from trafficking exposed Jana.

Three little bears
That was the feature films. What to say about the 51 shorter ones? I must admit I started as a sceptic and truly not all of them were unforgettable but some does deserve a mention.
Let's start with the special mention of the FICC jury. The Estonian puppet film Brothers Bearhearts directed by Riho Unt starts in the Russian forest. Mother Bear is painting her three sons when the mean hunter Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin makes his appearance. He kills the mother, shoots the ears of one of the cubs and the feet of another one, whereafter he signs the mother's painting - Morning in the Fir Wood is well known in the Russian art history. This makes the starting-point for an odyssey to France, which will rewrite the history of modern art in an both amusing and captivating way. The Bearbrothers are now known under the names Henri (he with short legs), Vincent (the ear) and August. After Parisian complications they take air with the Moulin Rouge and returns to a Malevitch inspired Red Square to take revenge on Shishkin. Really much more fun than my retelling can give a hint of. Surely a film deserving wider recognition.
Mostly I fell for shorts with some humour. The English animation Little Things, directed by Daniel Greaves, about life's small annoyances, was a strong competitor to the bear-film. With great ingenuity and some surrealistic humour, the film gave me many good laughs.

With shaved head
Best documentary was according to the festival jury Eut elle été criminelle (Even If She Had Been a Criminal) directed by Jean-Gabriel Périot. Taking a starting-point in journal films from the French ending of the war, the film was showed, to the music of the Marsiellaise, how the collaborators, mainly the females, was treated by the liberated fellow citizens. The message of the film is that even if they had been criminals this way of treating humans beings is not acceptable. The same kind of pictures have been seen from Denmark and Norway and in still photographies the documentation by Henri Cartier-Bresson is well known, wherefore the film pictures was not a surprise for me. But the combination with the French national anthem made the film a strong statement.
Of the student films in the On the Road-category I will remember Kristina Dufková's Ze ţivota matek (From the Lives of Mothers) best - a film in which not only the world's all mother can identify themselves. A rather simple animated film concentrating on making it's points by turning reality up just a little bit. The German Fliegenpflicht für Quadratkörper (Bow Tie Duty for Squareheads) gave in high tempo examples of the transformation sign - human being - sign and so on. Many funny ideas though not everything did work.
One of the festivals more low voiced films was the Danish Skyggernas dal (The valley of Shadows). A few scenes made with non-moving camera - this could be as much anti-Dogma as it could be - or maybe not. Its tableau form and slowness makes Vladimir Tomic's film a moving description of how society takes care of the remains of a lonely human being after death. Twelve minutes making you alert on the directors future work.

Thomas Ahlqvist