for Tribune: Postcard from Zagreb

Tuškanac cinema, Zagreb

a report from the 7th ‘Film Mutations’ Event – Zagreb, Croatia

According to my Croatian friend Ivan Ramljak, who should know about such things, his is the country in Europe – probably the world – with more film-festivals per capita than any other. Statistics from the government-backed Croatian Audiovisual Centre reveal that the body funded no fewer than 56 different events under the category “film festivals and other audiovisual manifestations” last year – and that of course doesn’t include those which got by without state subsidies. 56 film-festivals in this Balkan nation of 4.27m people – a ratio which, if mirrored in the UK, would result in the BFI funding 829 such events per annum.

And even a few days’ visit to the capital of the EU’s newest member – it joined on July 1st 2013 – supports Ivan’s confident assertion. While Croatia’s influence on cinema has in recent years largely been through its far-flung diaspora – John Malkovich, Eric Bana (born Banadinović) – signs of a healthy film culture aren’t hard to spot: even Zagreb’s multiplexes put their British equivalents to shame in terms of what can be viewed on an average night.

I was in town for just over a week spanning November and December for ‘Film Mutations’ (Filmske Mutacije), “the Seventh Festival of Invisible Cinema” (Nov 25 – Dec 5). Its unusual title is, by the way, derived from Adrian Martin and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 2004 book Movie Mutations, which took the pulse of – and exerted considerable influence upon – a period (still ongoing) during which critical and audience reactions to art-cinema were undergoing radical, often disorienting alterations.

Apart from a handful of screenings in the lively port of Rijeka and a smattering of sidebar events around the inland capital, Zagreb’s Film Mutations this year occupied the venerable, somewhat rickety Tuškanac cinema – named after its atmospheric, shadowily leafy neighbourhood close to the centre. This establishment is where Ivan is currently employed as a programmer selecting shorts for a weekly showcase – but over a decade ago he was the first artistic director of the Human Rights Film Festival (HRFF), whose 11th renewal started three days after Film Mutations. HRFF’s main home is Kino Europa – a true picture-palace whose functional, Yugoslavia-era exterior conceals an auditorium of sumptuous 1924 splendour.

Lux interior: Kino Europa, Zagreb

HRFF started the day before I left, but it was obviously a well-curated affair, its 31 feature-length films including what was for me 2013’s shining masterpiece (Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs) plus recent work by James Benning (Stemple Pass), Albert Serra (The Story of My Death) and Alain Guiraudie (Stranger by the Lake). But what were these three last-named doing in a human rights film festival? They deal, respectively, with the Unabomber (the right to blow people up?), Casanova meeting Dracula (the right to be a vampire?) and gay passions in a summer cruising spot. The latter’s inclusion was decidedly topical, however, as the big news in Croatia during my visit concerned the December 1st referendum over the definition of marriage. 65% of voters (from a 37% turnout) supported a constitutional amendment restricting ‘marriage’ to male/female unions – this result no shock in a country where 90% of citizens consider themselves Catholic and where the church had noisily intervened in the debate.

But whereas HRFF’s programming seems designed to showcase current trends and explore hot-button issues (it was originally a documentary festival), its Tuškanac-based ‘rival’ consistently seeks to offer more leftfield cinephile flavours. Perhaps as a consequence of this Mutations’ attendances were on the whole disappointingly sparse this year, with only a closing-night 35mm showing of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu’s silent classic Story of the Floating Weeds (1934) putting a significant number of Zagrebian bums on seats. This better-late-than-never ‘rush’ was mainly explicable to the presence of local musicians providing a live score, and the expert contributions of a kimono-clad professional benshi (silent-film narrator), Ichiro Kataoka, flown in from Berlin to perform the film’s dialogue in accordance with the traditions of Japanese silent cinema.

Archival fare forms the core of Mutations programming, and the seventh renewal largely eschewed current productions: the strand ‘Here and Elsewhere’ was dedicated to new shorts and mid-lengthers, but Claire Denis’ Bastards (Les salauds) was the only feature-length inclusion with a 2013 date-stamp. This moody, downbeat exploration of the murderous amorality of upper-class Parisian society was shown in the context of a generously lavish Denis strand presented in tandem with a smaller retrospective section devoted to her late compatriot, filmmaker/philosopher Guy Debord (1931-1994).

Ms Denis in Berlin

Born in Cameroon to French parents and raised in various parts of western Africa where her father worked as a civil servant, Denis moved to France at 14, later learning the ropes of film-making as an assistant to Jacques Rivette, Dušan Makavejev, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders. She then made the transition to the director’s chair with Cameroon-set Chocolat (1988), and the intervening quarter-century has seen Denis establish herself as by some way the most respected female director in the world – indeed, one of Europe’s leading auteurs of either sex. Such is her reputation that when it was announced last spring that Bastards would premiered at Cannes in the Un certain regard sidebar rather than the main competition, all hell broke loose in certain cinephile circles.

Cannes head-honcho Thierry Frémaux’s long-debated ‘sexism’ was blamed by many, but while Frémaux deserves much of the stick he routinely receives, his decision now seems sensible. Bastards, Denis’ first feature of the current decade – her previous outing was 2009’s White Material – isn’t in the same league as her finest efforts such as No Fear No Die (1990), Beau Travail (1999) and The Intruder (2004). Indeed, while the hauntingly dreamling Intruder often sails close to masterpiece levels, her three features since – including 35 Shots of Rum (2008) – are sadly redolent of a gifted filmmaker in steady, seemingly inexorable decline.


Denis’ films have always had a rough edge of experimentation, a sense that moods and themes are being combined and juxtaposed without a pre-ordained sense of how the results will pan out. In the case of Beau Travail (a fetidly intense retelling of Billy Budd set in a Foreign Legion camp in Djibouti whose vivid homo-eroticism probably wouldn’t find favour among referendum yes-voters) and The Intruder (shady millionaire travels the world for a heart transplant, then goes in search of his long-lost son), Denis’ methods successfully trap lightning in the bottle, her virtuoso command of image, sound and music trumping traditional considerations of narrative and/or character development.

And in the ebulliently no-nonsense No Fear No Die, whose viscerally-charged coq sportif sequences effectively bar it from UK screens, she showed she can also sock over a lean, noirish thriller when required. In Bastards, however, Denis saddles herself with a flimsy, melodramatic revenge plot – a sailor vows to avenge the mistreatment of his niece at the hands of a(nother) shady millionaire – whose cumbersome convolutions far outweigh even the tenebral soundtrack pleasures provided her frequent collaborators, Nottingham outfit Tindersticks. It’s set for UK release on February 14th – a somewhat off-beat choice for couples out for St Valentine’s, shall we say.

Nabbing the Croatian premiere of Bastards – which was presumably on the better-funded HRFF’s radar nevertheless has to be counted as a coup for Film Mutations, and it was a crying shame that Ms Denis had to cancel her planned visit to the festival quite a few minutes into the eleventh hour. As a result, Mutations had a low-key feel this time around – but it’s to be hoped that the funders at the Croatian Audio Visual Centre keep the faith with an event that shows impressive commitment to a strain of cinema that may not always be the most obviously accessible or ‘audience-friendly,’ but is therefore all the more vital and deserving of attention and support.

Neil Young
3rd January 2014
expanded from an article written for the next issue of Tribune magazine

links to official site

more from this trip: West On Bologne .