I am a freelance writer and curator living and working in Belgrade (Serbia). My articles have appeared in Cineaste, Jump Cut, Studies in Eastern European Cinema, and KinoKultura while my book ‘Yugoslav Black Wave’ was nominated for Edition of the Year at the 2011 Belgrade International Book Fair. I have curated film programs for the Yugoslav Kinoteka and am the selector/programmer for Alternative Film/Video Belgrade. Currently I am working as managing editor for NECSUS_European Journal of Media Studies (www.necsus-ejms.org).
Visit my blog at http://decinema-decuir.tumblr.com/
Will (socialist) man be reformed? This question is asked in the opening sequence of Dušan Makavejev’s Čovek nije tica (Man is Not a Bird, 1965). Will he be rebuilt, and if so, will he preserve certain parts of his old body and spirit? The ideal socialist man is a worker. He reforms and rebuilds society, in addition to material objects. The fruits of his labor are held up as evidence of the fertility of socialist ideology. This is the unique commodity fetish of the socialist state. In the process of this fetishizing, the worker becomes a celebrity. This film series takes a close look at the creation and celebration of socialist reality stars.
There is an interesting sub-set of films emanating from socialist countries that take an exaggerated and often cynical look at the unique star culture that surrounds work and workers. In these films, workers become reality stars avant la lettre, with television shows and documentary reportages dedicated to chronicling their heroic exploits. In this sense, these films often criticize the visual culture (and ideology) of their national systems. What results are unique self-reflexive films that recall the Hollywood backstage ‘rise to success’ biography – but from a socialist point of departure.
One recognizes this dynamic in the film Man of Marble (Andrzej Wajda, 1977), which traces the efforts of a film school student named Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) as she tries to piece together a documentary about a forgotten and one-time legendary worker named Birkut (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz). Birkut’s successes as a bricklayer were celebrated in an unfinished documentary film which Agnieszka uses as the basis of her investigative work. She first encounters the legend of Birkut as a majestic marble statue (hence the title of the film) deposited in the archives of a museum along with other discarded relics of socialist realist iconography.
Agnieszka quickly grabs her camera and mounts the statue when she sees it, in order to steal its likeness from the unsuspecting museum authorities. The image of her straddling the statue immediately recalls another film by Makavejev, Spomenicima ne treba verovati (No Need to Believe in Monuments, 1958), in which a woman makes love to a statue that represents a national heritage. Makavejev combats the dogma of socialist realism with sex while Wajda does so using a self-referential mode of documentary address.
Statues are an overriding symbol of socialist realism and they give a larger-than-life presence to ordinary workers who are chiseled into a marble or iron-clad immortality. At the same time that statues bestow immortality on their subjects, they also rob them of a pulsating life force by freezing them into monuments for posterity. This unique historical and cultural flow leads us to a film like Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953), directed by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker. In this short essay film, statues are animated with the souls of those who come to regard them. Statues become the site of a struggle against political repression, just as art has the potential to be both a revolutionary and reactionary tool. This exploration of men made of wood and crystal brings us back to Wajda and his sequel Man of Iron (1981), which picks up where Man of Marble left off.
The legend of the worker Birkut is reborn in Man of Iron through his son Maciej (also played by Radziwiłowicz), who an alcoholic television director is hired to make a production about. However, in this instance, this program is not meant to glorify. The communist party engages the director to slander Maciej because of his involvement in what they call counter-revolutionary activity. The power of moving images is used to both edify and destroy in these two films by Wajda, and such is the ability of the socialist realist aesthetic with its dubious star-making potential.
Wajda’s Man of Marble links us to Želimir Žilnik’s Dupe od mramora (Marble Ass, 1995), a film about gay subculture in Belgrade and prostitutes who consider themselves stars playing in a glamorous version of their own lives. Does the sex worker have a role to play in socialist labor ideology? However, in this series, we are primarily interested in another film by Žilnik: Tako se kalio čelik (The Way Steel Was Tempered, 1989). In this film we see another man of iron: Leo (Lazar Ristovski), who is a smelter struggling against the new wave of post-socialist capitalists who want to sell the factory he works in. Through a series of misadventures that include being tossed in jail (for trying to overturn a monument), Leo somehow becomes labeled an outstanding worker and a nostalgic relic of a dimming ideology, and is exported to the Soviet Union where he is feted as a hero. He returns to his native Yugoslavia a star, driving a fancy car.
Another interesting star-making turn occurs in the film Slike iz života udarnika (Scenes From the Life of an Outstanding Worker, 1972) by Bato Čengić. Adem (Adem Čejvan) is a miner whose exploits are documented by Filmske novosti newsreel cameramen. In the process of the newsmakers following his daily routine, he becomes a reality star. We see how the filmmakers within the film falsify actuality in order to glorify it. Socialist realism is laid bare as simple propaganda, which is ultimately ineffectual and relegated to the cultural trash heap, similar to the basement ‘archive’ of discarded statues and monuments in the film Man of Marble.
Is this false reality, this glorification of the mundane, any different from the overbearing reality show culture of the 21st century, where everyone can be a hero (without actually achieving anything) for 15 minutes? In considering this cultural dust bin from a historical perspective, we are reminded that waste products of the socialist state are not so different from the refuse of the capitalist environment. The phenomenon of reality stars as disposable commodities is prefigured in these revelatory films.
Greg de Cuir, Jr.
Curator, Yugoslav Kinoteka
On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Alternative Film/Video Belgrade we are organizing the first Alternative Film/Video Research Forum. This two-day event (6-7 December 2012) running concurrently with the festival (5-9 December 2012) will gather a group of researchers and writers who are concerned with alternative/experimental/avant-garde/underground works of film, video, and new media, for an intimate forum where papers will be delivered and discussions held. The theme for this initial forum is researching and teaching alternative film and video. How has this field of inquiry been shaped over the years and what are the current challenges that those working in this area face? What are the blind spots in writing the history of alternative film and video and what are the future directions? Currently we are accepting abstracts of 300 words along with short paragraph bios for consideration. Accommodation will be provided for selected research forum participants. Please forward submissions to Greg de Cuir, Jr., Selector/Programmer for Alternative Film/Video Belgrade, no later than 1 August 2012 at email@example.com.
Alternative Film/Video Belgrade (Serbia) is the premier international festival in the Balkans for new film and video tendencies and one of the oldest festivals of its kind in Europe. It was founded in 1982 as an antidote to commercial film and video-making and to support radical practices in celebrating the moving image. Alternative Film/Video Belgrade is organized by and hosted at Academic Film Center, which was established in 1958 as a ciné-club and where many legendary filmmakers in the former Yugoslavia worked, such as Živojin Pavlović, Tomislav Gotovac, Kokan Rakonjac, and others. Visit the website at www.alternativefilmvideo.org.
What strikes one on first impression of the Polish ‘Black Series’ is not the quality or scope of the socio-critical aspirations (though it certainly exists to be appreciated) but rather the poetic imagery of the films. The general critical line has it that the Black Series was a cycle of documentary films in the late 1950s in Poland that diverged from the rigid socialist realist path adhered to by the Polish National Newsreel and instead exposed the difficult and often seamy reality of life on the streets of Poland. These films were coded ‘black’ for the same reason that classic (American) Film Noir was before or the Yugoslav Black Wave would be after: because of the downbeat tone and oppressive atmosphere presented.
Like Film Noir the Polish Black Series really was black – many of the films take place at night amid the inky shadows and blind alleys of the city streets. In fact, some of these films mobilize the stylistic tropes of Film Noir to such a degree that we would be hard-pressed to call them documentaries at all – or maybe we could liken them to the semi-documentary crime film sub-cycle within Film Noir that appeared at the end of the 1940s. The films of the Black Series often utilize vivid reconstructions of events and occurrences and a narrative exposition that allow them to create a world rather than reflect it. Any poetics of the Black Series may be well served by first considering their generic conventions.
The Black Series opens up a dark crevice in the history of the Polish documentary and this chasm is alluded to in the titles of some of the films, which evoke a draining out or depletion: ‘Article Zero’ (1957), ‘People from an Empty Zone’ (1957). This void is presented in the Black Series as a dangerous space, an unknown quantity that the viewer must contemplate – a world that has been otherwise hidden. Likewise place and space become important signifiers in the titles of the Black Series, grounding these films in specific locales that are examined: the aforementioned ‘People from an Empty Zone’, ‘Where the Devil Says Goodnight’ (1956), ‘Little Town’ (1956), ‘Rocky Soil’ (1956), ‘Warsaw 1956’ (1956), ‘Place of Residence’ (1957).
Yet it is the gripping and expressive imagery in these films that reigns supreme. The roving bands of criminal youths that haunt the concrete jungles in ‘Look Out, Hooligans!’ (1955). The slightly surrealist touch of the animated black bars that mask the faces of real prostitutes in ‘Article Zero’. The sick man hoping to outrun death by escaping from his doctor’s office into a graveyard in ‘Rocky Soil’. An infant child tethered to a table by rope who breaks free and balances precariously between life and death on the upper floor edge of a hollowed out tenement building in ‘Warsaw 1956’. This latter image somehow perfectly sums up the Black Series as an unhinged flirtation with mortality, a fearless peering into the abyss of not only Polish cinema but Polish society as well.
Greg de Cuir, Jr
Curator, Yugoslav Kinoteka
The inspiration for this film series is the 50-year anniversary of its namesake the Non-Aligned Movement, which was founded in Belgrade in 1961 as the ‘Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries.’ Following from that we present to you the concept of ‘non-aligned cinema,’ which is cinema that emanates from the member countries of the Non-Aligned Movement.
The original purpose of the Non-Aligned Movement was to gather countries that did not wish to be associated (or dominated) by the two major power blocs of the time: the United States of America and the Soviet Union. Likewise, in the world of cinema there have traditionally been two major power blocs: Hollywood, which is seen as a ‘first cinema,’ and the European art film, which is seen as a ‘second cinema’ (perhaps Soviet montage cinema can be grouped within the latter). Non-aligned cinema is in celebration of ‘third cinema’ against the artistic and financial hegemony of the first and second.
However, non-aligned cinema goes one step further in its radical rejection of pre-existing artistic supremacy. Third cinema itself has been co-opted into an ascendant aesthetic category, with certain directors and films enjoying the privilege of sitting at the international dining table of cine-artistic preeminence. For this reason, non-aligned cinema is not interested in those whose reputations have been rehabilitated into the pantheon of (Western-defined) greatness. Non-aligned cinema celebrates the suppressed while doing its best to preserve a sense of cultural diversity in the world.
Representing Egypt is not Youssef Chahine but rather Hassan Ramzi, a director who began his career in the 1940s. From Cuba, instead of Santiago Alvarez or Tomás Gutiérrez Alea we present Julio García Espinosa. Espinosa was very active as a writer and director in the Cuban film industry and was one of the founders of the Cuban Institute of Art and Film. He is probably best remembered for writing the influential critical article ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’ (1969), a manifesto that non-aligned cinema stands in solidarity with.
From Lebanon we introduce you to the director Muhammad Selman, about who very little is known even though he was very active throughout the 1960s. From Morocco we bring you Souheil Ben-Barka, whose film ‘La guerre du pétrole n’aura pas lieu’ (1975) was nominated for a Golden Prize at the Moscow International Film Festival (an award he would win in 1983 for his film Amok). Representing Peru we have Bernardo Arias, whose film ‘Allpakallpa’ (1975) was nominated for the Golden Prize in Moscow the same year that Ben-Barka’s was (Arias would win the Silver Prize instead).
1975 was a bountiful year for non-aligned cinema in which we also bring you ‘The Golden Triangle’, a gangster film from Thailand that was co-directed by Rome Bunnag and Wu Ma. This was one of only two films that Bunnag directed, both in 1975 and both co-productions with Hong Kong. Wu is one of the more well-known actors in the history of Hong Kong cinema and also a director who made more than 40 films.
Jamaica is represented by the director Theodoros Bafaloukos, who was actually born in Greece. ‘Rockers’ (1978) is the only film he ever directed. The most well-known movies he worked on were those by the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, in which he was a production designer. Working in Libya was the Syrian director Moustapha Akkad. He directed three films in his career but history will likely remember him as the executive producer of the famous horror film ‘Halloween’ (1978) by John Carpenter, as well as all of its numerous sequels. Akkad’s ‘Lion of the Desert’ (1981) was an epic historical film that was financed by Muammar al-Gaddafi and which starred Anthony Quinn and Rod Steiger. Tragically, Akkad was killed in Jordan in 2005 by an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber.
The Indian director Sharad Patel made only one film, ‘Amin: The Rise and Fall’ (1981), which he produced in Kenya. Like Akkad’s film of the same year this was a historical biography about a national leader. Also like Akkad, Patel would go on to Hollywood success as an executive producer. From the Philippines we bring your attention to Cirio H. Santiago, the son of Dr Ciriaco Santiago who founded Premiere Productions in Manila. Cirio H. Santiago was a master of the exploitation film, having produced and directed over 80 titles from the 1950s to the turn of the century in both the Philippines and the United States. None other than Quentin Tarantino considers him an influence. Continuing with 1981, another key year for non-aligned cinema, we present Santiago’s ‘Firecracker’ which pits an American female martial arts expert against the Filipino mafia.
Turning our attention to Indonesia and the director Jopi Burnama, who also worked in the exploitation mode, we present the film ‘Kamp tawanan wanita’ (1983), a World War II women-in-prison film. When it comes to Iran the idea was of course to stay away from such ‘aligned’ names as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, or Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Instead we offer you the director Majid Majidi and his film ‘Children of Heaven’ (1997), which won awards at numerous international film festivals.
Finally, non-aligned cinema, just like the Non-Aligned Movement, would not be complete without Yugoslavia. Josip Broz Tito was the first secretary general of the Non-Aligned Movement and it was largely his brainchild (along with other key participants such as the leaders of India, Egypt, Ghana, and Indonesia). In recognition of this founding position we have programmed the first domestic feature film produced in the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia: ‘Slavica’ (1947) by Vjekoslav Afrić. We also bring you Vojislav Nanović, who directed the second feature film produced in Socialist Yugoslavia as well as one of the earliest films ever to focus on gypsy life: ‘Ciganka’ (1953). The final entry from Yugoslavia is the debut feature film by Vicko Raspor, co-directed with the great Aleksandar Petrović: ‘Jedini izlaz’ (1958). This was Raspor’s first and only feature film – though he also co-directed a number of documentaries with Petrović. He is probably best remembered as the founder of the Film Institute in Belgrade, the longtime director of the production company Dunav Film, and an accomplished film critic and publicist.
We hope you enjoy this selection of non-aligned cinema and appreciate the beauties of the paths less traveled.
Greg de Cuir, Jr.
Curator, Yugoslav Kinoteka
The 2011 edition of Alternative Film/Video Belgrade features its usual wide array of international and regional competitive entries in addition to a variety of special programming such as a retrospective from K3 International Short Film Festival (Austria); a selection of films from jury member Jean-Gabriel Périot; an edited series called Search and Seizure by Vassily Bourikas; a lecture on the history of avant-garde film in Slovenia by jury member Jurij Meden; Gerald Weber presenting the history of avant-garde film in Austria, including works by Peter Kubelka and Kurt Kren; a retrospective of Yugoslav experimental film from the 60s and 70s presented by Hrvoje Turković; and a non-competition sidebar called Alternative Narrative among other unique programs.
Some of the directors presented in this year’s program will be familiar to the audience, such as the Croatian filmmaker Ana Hušman, whose wonderful film ‘Nogomet/Football’ deconstructs and rebuilds a famous World Cup broadcast in her trademark fashion. The cinema of Hušman commonly takes familiar events as subjects and reinvigorates and re-dramatizes them while questioning their very structure and essence. Also the Serbian filmmaker Zoran Tairović, whose longform carnivalesque masquerades are on full display in the unique film ‘Moment of Movement’. Tairović works at the margins of operatic spectacle and documentary and the center of his focus is often the disenfranchised.
The international competition opens with the film ‘Ink Bird’ by Inbar Ben Yishay, further proof of the incredible diversity and strength of Israeli film art. Ink Bird seems at first glance to be a performance piece staged among nature which then slowly slips into the repetitive loop of dream logic. A film like ‘Hamletmachine’ by Agustín Calderón shows that even though mainstream narrative may capture the hearts of many filmmakers in Spain there are engaging alternative works being made by uncompromising auteurs. ‘Hamletmachine’ is a super-charged adaptation of the Shakespearean work that assaults the viewer with a diverse series of energetic set pieces.
‘Dystopia St’ by the British filmmaker David Cave plays like an homage to David Lynch in the morbid darkness and non-sequential logic of its vision and also in its referencing of the mobility symbolized in the titles of two of Lynch’s greatest works: ‘Lost Highway’ and ‘Mulholland Drive’. The madcap ‘Pigs in Zen’ by Chinese filmmaker Michael Ziming Ouyang is no less surreal with a heavy dose of humor added. This film has a stripped-down do-it-yourself aesthetic with some authentic gross-out moments. However, the film launches into a different atmosphere with the introduction of a wonderful extended animated sequence that postulates the disastrous takeover of the world by pigs.
Some real treasures can be found in the Alternative Narrative sidebar for the adventurous yet patient viewer. ‘The Sunset of the Snail’ by Azad Mohammadi reveals the formative brilliance of what could be the next great film artist to emerge from Iran, that country bursting at the seams with uncompromising and talented directors. The film tells the silent tale of a lonely man who lives in an auto junkyard and comes across a woman with whom he builds a tentative connection. ‘The Sunset of the Snail’ is handled with delicate visual poetry that is just off-kilter enough to fall within the camp of alternative approaches. ‘The Story of John Mule’ by Dutch filmmaker Orly Nurany is a hypnotizing and self-reflexive odyssey into the working methods of a film director. While watching this film one also senses the influence of Lynch, particularly through the fluid blend of song and image that he achieved in a film like ‘Blue Velvet’ and that characterizes a wonderful scene set in a dive bar in ‘The Story of John Mule’. In this film the viewer is inserted into the position of a creator through subjective techniques and can witness first-hand the alternating beauty and entrapment of the artistic process. ‘The Story of John Mule’ is a work that is full of promise and it will be of great interest to see what Nurany achieves next.
The unclassifiable ‘Oppression, Dream and Redemption’ by the Italian director Gabriele Lenzi is one of those films that sticks out amongst the crowd and draws attention to itself. Characters appear to be disabled and appear to torture each other in the reclusive confines of a forest cabin while speaking only in primitive sounds and gestures. The entire film is rendered in a monotone color scheme that mirrors the bleakness of their existence and also the fate that awaits them all. Also presented to viewers in this sidebar are the very interesting films ‘The Mat’ by Joaquin Gasgonia Palencia and ‘The Bright Side of the War’ by Bagrat Simonyan, which make us excited and proud to say that alternative film culture is alive and well in the Philippines and Armenia respectively.
Palencia relies on a fixed camera position from a high angle to narrate a generational family story that takes place entirely on a living room mat. This view evokes the omniscient vantage point of God but at the same time abstracts meaning and frustrates identification through an elliptical narrative and formalist method. Simonyan’s film is a stark nightmare about a world on the brink of war and the men who possess the power to send it spiraling out of control. The film is black and white and suffused with a hazy glow that suspends it in-between oneiric planes. This is the type of work that gets under your skin and forces you to examine your own situation while simultaneously contemplating the predicament of those who live in a society where choice is a luxury and fate is a hazardous and diabolical plot.
Alternative Film/Video Belgrade, as is customary, will award recognition to a number of works deemed either important successes or explorations by the jury. The number of recognitions varies from year to year according to the wishes of the jury and there is no festival grand prize. Awarded film authors receive a residence grant at the Academic Film Center of Student City Cultural Center which comes with production support for realizing a film or video work during their stay. Audiences attending Alternative Film/Video Belgrade will be treated to an impressive cross-section of unforgettable works from North, South, East, and West in what continues to be the most important showcase for experimental production in the Balkans.
Greg de Cuir, Jr.
Selector/Programmer, Alternative Film/Video Belgrade
The exhibit Naked New York City examines the photojournalism of Weegee, particularly as represented in his book ‘Naked City’ (1945), and the film ‘The Naked City’ (1948) by Jules Dassin which was based on the book. The photographer who went by the nom d’objectif ‘Weegee’ was born Usher (later Arthur) Fellig in 1899 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now the Ukraine). In the 30s and 40s he worked in New York City on the crime beat, documenting the dark and violent side of the streets. His work is full of images of death and destruction but also a life-affirming beauty that he found in this tough urban setting.
Fellig got the nickname ‘Weegee’ in reference to Ouija boards because of his magical ability to arrive on various scenes of catastrophe before the police could. His secret was a police-band shortwave radio, an item which he was the only city reporter licensed to have. However, like Ouija boards, the photographic art of Weegee was often foreboding and disastrous, full of masked men and dead bodies. Weegee worked in a gritty, naturalist method that was predicated on speed. His car (which he often slept in) was a full-fledged studio with a makeshift darkroom in the trunk where he developed his prints instantly after capturing them. His stylistic trademark was stark black and white frames that captured subjects in motion using a hard flash as a lighting source, with unconventional vantage points that seemed to burst free from the unruly crowds that gathered in the grisly scenes he illuminated. The work of Weegee was characteristic of a tabloid look but also an unpolished or ‘naked’ realism that caught life unaware. Like a hunter he either relied on the element of surprise or laid snares for unwitting prey.
In 1943 some of Weegee’s photographs were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art for an exhibition called Action Photography. ‘Naked City’ was his first book of photography and by that point he had begun working with small-gauge filmmaking. The following year, after optioning the rights to his book to the producer Mark Hellinger, he relocated to Hollywood and began working in the film industry. Weegee also continued with his photography, but now focused on profiling actors and models while experimenting with plastic lenses, prisms, and photographic distortion. This modernist turn in his work was in line with the general trends in the art world in the 50s and 60s.
The film ‘The Naked City’ is one of the more noteworthy example of what can be called the ‘semi-documentary phase’ within the larger period of the classic film noir. Semi-documentary crime films were a cycle of productions in the late 40s that freely mixed authentic stories from police crime files, locations, and people with the expressionistic atmosphere of film noir. ‘The Naked City’ exposed the heart of New York City in documentary detail as witnessed in Weegee’s book and also adapted a sardonic first-person voice-over commentary that mimics the narrative captions found in the book. The film is justifiably famous for its many incredible set-pieces and its daring location cinematography, such as a chase atop the Williamsburg Bridge. However, it is arguably most well-known for the poetic closing voice-over address spoken by Hellinger himself in which he states, ‘There are eight-million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.’
The success of the film spawned a ‘Naked City’ franchise of sorts by serving as the inspiration for a television series called ‘Naked City’ that ran from 1958 to 1963. Each episode closed with a repeat of the famous tag line of the film. The ‘naked’ aesthetic that marked the television series, film, and book, characterized by an unmasking of the big city and a peering into its crime-ridden corners through a visual naturalism combined with a pulpy tabloid punch, serves as the focus of this exhibition and a potential subject for further investigations into the modern urban exposé.
Greg de Cuir, Jr.