Eight Days A Week: Diary for ‘Danas’ Newspaper
Wednesday 2nd December 2015
Amsterdam. I flew here nine days ago from Zagreb, to attend IDFA—one of the world’s biggest documentary film-festivals. My job as a film-critic and programmer means I attend a lot of film festivals every year: IDFA is my 28th of 2015, already two more than my 2014 “personal best” of 26. A lot of my colleagues think they’ve had a tough year if they make it to a dozen! IDFA ended Sunday night but I decided to remain in the Netherlands for another week, visiting and staying with friends here, in various cities. It’s a kind of mini-holiday, though terms like “holiday” don’t really apply when you spend around 11 months of the year away from home (I live in Sunderland, on the north-east coast of England.) I get a lift from my Amsterdam host to Rotterdam where I have tagliatelle with mushrooms (€10 or 1220 RSD!) at Pizzeria La Gaetano, just down the road from my friend H.’s new apartment on the Northern Island in the middle of the Maas river. Amsterdam is picturesque and historic but a bit “touristy” for me—Rotterdam, though not exactly beautiful, always feels like a real city in comparison (as does Belgrade…)
Thursday 3rd December
First chance I’ve had to have a “lie in” for a while and I take it, eventually rising from my bed around 11am. I get two metros from Rotterdam to my next destination, The Hague, which is only about 20km away. The journey takes under an hour and costs €4 (less than 500 RSD)—public transport is outstanding in The Netherlands, one of the most densely-populated and affluent countries in the world. I spend a couple of hours wandering around the city—which I last visited in in 2009—and as dusk falls meet M., who I went to school with in the 1980s and is now working at the Special Tribunal For Lebanon. We catch up over five “small” beers apiece at a noisy bar near the main square then head to the nearby seaside resort of Scheveningen, where M. has been living for the last couple of months. Another Italian dinner: ravioli at La Lanterna: €11.50 or 1400 RSD. The Netherlands is many things, but it is certainly not cheap!
Friday 4th December
M. has to get up early for work and so I’m up and out by 8.15am, out into the chilly North Sea breezes of Scheveningen. I get the tram with him into the city centre and look for some breakfast options—most places are, surprisingly, shut but eventually I find a cafe named after the French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo (a good omen) where I have coffee and a croissant. I wander around a bit and have another coffee at a tiny riverside place perched up above a canal where I read a couple of chapters of Graham Greene’s 1936 thriller A Gun For Sale (aka This Gun For Hire). Around the corner, near some kind of factory, I find another canal where I watch three swans taking off—a spectacular sight and a noisy racket. I get the train to Dordrecht where I have lunch with a Spanish pal, T., and his family, before getting another train back north to Amsterdam. In the evening I walk my host’s dog (‘Faro’) around the city for an hour or so, not bothering much if and when we get lost.
Saturday 5th December
Last full day in Amsterdam: I head to an internet cafe to—belatedly—do some actual work, making a start on the last three of the six reviews from IDFA I’ll be writing my main outlet, The Hollywood Reporter, a “trade” magazine based in Los Angeles. Using the notes I took during the screenings over a week before, I will deliver my verdicts (600 words or so) on two of the best films in the competition, Ukrainian Sheriffs and Thy Father’s Chair. I finish A Gun For Sale over a beer in a cosy bar with the unpromising name ‘Dopey’s Elixer’ then walk for an hour or so to another part of town where I meet friends F. and M., and we see Tim Roth in the arty Mexican thriller 600 Miles. I see hundreds of films every year at festivals but I like to go to the “real” cinema as regularly as I can—this will be my 59th non-festival film of 2015. Unfortunately a lot of the dialogue is in Mexican Spanish, and the only subtitles are in Dutch. A test of my linguistic skills! Afterwards we discuss all the stuff I missed over beers in a nearby pub.
Sunday 6th December
I read news reports about how much of the north of England has been affected by flooding thanks to ‘Storm Desmond’ (a name which makes me think of Billy Wilder’s classic film Sunset Blvd.) Sunderland is always spared in such circumstances as the city’s river is in a kind of deep chasm. I find another internet cafe to finish two Reporter reviews and also do some editing work on a short film I’m currently assembling. When I was in Vilnius, Lithuania last month (I was on a jury at the Scanorama festival of European films) I found a disused sports stadium and, with the help of a young cameraman, shot about an hour of footage which will be whittled down to about seven minutes. Working title: Vilniu [sic] Detroit. Watch out for it at Belgrade next December. After a last dinner with my Amsterdam hosts I head to Schiphol airport for my flight to Belgrade. We land through fog, and as we approach I see clearly above the low cloud the stars that make the handle of the Plough pointing down towards the city: Megrez, Alioth, Mizar, Alkaid. Arrival at almost exactly midnight; always good to be back in my favourite European city.
Monday 7th December
My first visit to Belgrade was New Year 2008-9; my second was nearly six years later, for the Alternative Film/Video festival at Student City. Last December I stumbled across a terrific little restaurant near the railway station: “Naše more” (Milovana Milovanovića 4), and I went back when I returned to the city in May and again in September. This time I’m joined for lunch there by the two pals (M. and C.) I stayed with the night before, about five minutes away. I have a bowl of mućkalica (550 RSD), preceded by šljiva and accompanied by some bottles of Zaječarsko beer. Then some more bottles. I finally depart around six—for more beers with another pal. native Belgrader S. We start, aptly enough, in ‘British Pub’ on Balkanska, and… well, the rest of the evening is a bit of a hazy blur… Let’s just conclude that, as we say in England, “a good time was had by all.”
Tuesday 8th December
Hangover!!! Only as the chilly grey afternoon wears on do I gradually start reverting to normality, and get a taxi to New Belgrade for the 3pm start of AF/V. I covered the festival for Sight and Sound magazine last year, detailing its long history of showcasing experimental cinema, and explaining the various things that help to make it special: free screenings; no sponsors; no prize-money; welcomingly collegiate atmosphere. I’m on the jury this year and watch four separate programmes today: a recap of last year’s winners, a retrospective for the Croatian “amateur maestro” Mihovil Pansini, a compilation of remarkable “home movies” shot over some decades by Vukica Đilas (with live piano/hand-clap accompaniment from ‘LP Duo’)—unanticipated highlight of the day—and finally the first nine films in “my” competition. This wraps up around 11.30pm and I swerve the temptations of the festival cocktail in favour of an early-ish night and a chapter of Stephen Dobyns’ 1985 horse-racing detective story Saratoga Headhunter . From 1996-2011 I was employed as an official by the governing body of UK horse-racing, so this “turf” is familiar one for me.
Wednesday 9th December
An indoors day—like last year, I’m staying in the actors’ dressing room at the Cultural Centre in Student City—with much of it spent filling out my ballot for the numerous categories in the London Critics’ Circle Film Awards (never mind that I haven’t lived in London for 20 years!). Then I write a 1,000-word commentary about the year’s most notable cinema for the UK political fortnightly Tribune. On both fronts I’m especially enthusiastic about Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs, Alexey German’s Hard To Be A God and David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows—all of which obtained some measure of UK distribution in 2015. I do manage to pop out for some fruit and dinner in between screenings, and look out for the Western City Gate—aka Genex Tower—as I make my way through the streets of Student City. If Belgrade is my favourite European city, the Western City Gate—Mihajlo Mitrović ‘s 1977 brutalist, 30-storey masterpiece—is probably my favourite building on any continent. Last year I trekked the 12km on foot from there to the East Gate (the trio of gigantic, triangular apartment-buildings also known as Rudo) in Konjarnik, discovering several fascinating areas of the city on the way including Dušanovac. At the moment half of one side of the Genex Tower is dominated by a colossal advertisement for expensive watches, with a smug John Travolta staring out over the Bulevar Arsenija Čarnojevića motorway. Above his head I can just make out the slogan: WELCOME TO MY WORLD.
(written for the Serbian newspaper Danas)