Patricia Corbett is an independent arts critic, curator and lecturer, specialising in interdisciplinary genres. A former director of major contemporary venues and historical sites, her articles appear in international periodicals including La Rivista dei Libri/The New York Review of Books, Connoisseur, New Statesman. Atlantic Monthly, Times Literary Supplement.
Memory emerged as the overarching theme at the ninth annual SEE à Paris Festival, showcasing a selection of feature-length, short, documentary and animated films from fifteen South-east European countries. In the most incisive works, particularly those inspired by historical events, the cloudy lens of personal recall succeeded in exposing truths that lie in that everyman’s land between fact and fiction.
So it was fitting for the Festival to launch with Robert Jankuloski’s homage to Yanaki and Milton Manaki, the founding brothers of cinematography in the Balkans and, one might argue, the Ottoman Empire. The Manakis’ careers – indeed their very lives – reflected, often dramatically, the peninsula’s shifting national boundaries and allegiances, as they ricocheted from the court of King Carol I to wartime internment in Bulgaria or self-exile in Greece. No assignment was too modest or too challenging, whether baby pictures or battlefield reportage. However, what distinguishes the Manakis was their sympathetic portrayal of ethnic diversity, doubtless rooted in their Vlach origins: witness the 1905 short of Despina, “our 114-year-old grandmother at work”, spinning and weaving in Aromanian garb.
The Liberators, directed by Viktor Bojinov, is adapted from Heights, Milen Ruskov’s prize-winning novel Heights. Filmed in chronological and seasonal sequence, this 147-minute box-office hit retains its literary scope as it depicts the tragi-comical misadventures of a couple of benighted Bulgarian outlaws allegiant to Vasil Levsky’s Internal Revolutionary Organisation, ca 1870. In a Montenegrin entry, Never-Ending Past, an emblematic father-and-son duo experience the interlinked traumas and aftershocks of World War II, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of Yugoslavia. A similar unresolved generational relationship underpins Jani Bojadzi’s The Mocking of Christ, which revisits in macabre detail some of the more obscure, violent and still controversial aspects of the 2001 insurgency in Macedonia.
In other offerings, memory serves to anchor and define individual identity. Lada Kamenski, a Croatian mockumentary complete with hand-held camera asides, shows three actresses (Nastasa Dorcic, Ksenija Marinkovic, Doris Saric-Kukuljica) auditioning for a movie about a textile factory shutdown. Gridlock ensues as the protagonists maneuver and joust against the fictive backdrop of a shared past. Mihaela Popescu’s highly stylized, cryptic Yet to Rule probes the cerebral constructs and feral urges at play – or at war – in a woman magistrate’s existence: here, too, familial antecedents weigh heavily on an exquisitely ambiguous outcome. In Branislav Milatović’s surrealistic short A Head Full of Joy, based on Ognjen Spahic’s anthology, a psychiatrist finds himself helplessly drawn into a patient’s elaborate Nipponese fantasy, remote in both time and place; and yet, as the camera draws back, the last wide-angle shot reveals a shoal of beached carp flopping on the parquet at his feet…
According to the Romanian essayist Emil Cioran, “man starts over again every day, in spite of all he knows, against all he knows.” This year’s Festival demonstrates the myriad ways South-east Europe has taken up the challenge of starting over again, because of all that is known and remembered.