60th Belgrade Documentary and Short Film Festival


The main festival venue at the Belgrade Youth Center

April 2013 marked the 60th year of the Belgrade Documentary and Short Film Festival, which places it among the oldest film festivals of any type in Europe. In light of this unique position within the international film festival landscape, it seems that an investigation into the history of the Belgrade Festival, or “Kratki metar,” and its connection with the unpredictable political winds in the former Socialist Yugoslavia (now post-socialist Serbia) would be a welcome addition to the annals of general film culture.

Towards that, a young researcher named Dunja Jelenkovi? has edited a volume on the lengthy history of the festival, charting its development across the decades and also anthologizing critical writing on the subject. Jelenkovi? has previously served on the festival selection committee and, thus, possesses an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the event. Her volume, The Short Film Fest – 60 Years (Belgrade: FEST Head Office, 2013), paints a picture of a festival that was founded in June 1954 as the first annual film event in the newly-born Socialist Yugoslavia and quickly ascended to a high level of importance within the nation. It reached a golden age in the 1960s where it was a mecca for a new generation of cineastes and an occasion to celebrate diverse film art across all of the republics in the federation.

Today, the festival is now international in scope while still placing an emphasis on domestic production. At the pre-grand opening, programmers delved into films from former Yugoslavia’s glorious past and presented a program of masterworks from the now-defunct production studio Dunav Film. Mostly culled from this 1960s golden age, these shorts map the provocative stirrings of Yugoslav New Film throughout the decade. This includes films like the lyrical Children (Puriša Djordjević, Yugoslavia, 1962), which documents Roma kids who sing on the streets for spare change. Children is a relatively early depiction of the Roma community that stands in continuity with other shorts on the same subject, such as Jatagan mala (Dušan Makavejev, Yugoslavia, 1953), an amateur film now considered lost, and Little Pioneers (Želimir Žilnik, Yugoslavia, 1967), a film essay on a diverse group of unruly street kids.

Another interesting film in this program is the quasi-horror short The Mallet (Aca Ili?, Yugoslavia, 1977), which is famous, in part, for amassing the largest number of festival awards in the history of Yugoslav production. This gripping allegory depicts a lone, black chick among a sea of golden ones, who struggles to escape death by mallet in a processing factory. The Mallet seems nothing short of a small miracle and must be included in the canon of great performances by animals on film. Like The Mallet, many of the other films in this program are evocative visual poems that also contain an element of critical, social engagement. In addition, there are some wonderful surreal images in these shorts, such asa boy being hugged by a large trained bear in Assemblies (Aleksandar Petrovi?, Yugoslavia, 1965), broken and mangled female mannequins in What’s to be Done? (Marko Babac, Yugoslavia, 1965), and a man in drag wearing a wig firing a machine gun at an animated monster in Stain on the Brain (Dusan Vukoti?, Yugoslavia, 1968).

The festival exhibit of Lifetime Achievement Award winners

The festival exhibit of Lifetime Achievement Award winners

The opening ceremony was an occasion to celebrate Želimir Žilnik, the newest addition to the pantheon of the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Žilnik’s filmmaking career stretches across almost fifty years, and includes both cinema and television, not to mention his recent work organizing video workshops and other forms of media activism. Perhaps most famous for winning a Berlin Golden Bear for his debut feature film Early Works (Yugoslavia, 1969), Žilnik’s career, much like this festival, is in need of thorough investigation and contextualization. For example, the period of his career in which the doors were shut to him in the feature film world because of the backlash surrounding the “Black Wave” (a controversial quasi-movement in the 1960s that suffered under an official attack form party bureaucrats), he moved into television production because of the freedom of expression it provided. As a veteran who first made an impression in the 1960s with his amateur avant-garde shorts and then his professional documentary shorts, Žilnik is well-deserving of his canonization.

After Žilnik was presented with the award by fellow ex-Yugoslav filmmaker and festival jury member Lordan Zafranovi?, there was another screening of the film The Mallet. This was an odd programming choice given that the evening should have been solely dedicated to Žilnik, and the opening night presentation featured his new video work. Following The Mallet was a screening of Žilnik’s Little Pioneers (1968), one of those wonderful and engaging documentary shorts that announced his talent to the world (that same year, Žilnik won the Grand Prix at Oberhausen for his film The Unemployed [Yugoslavia]). One of the young truants profiled in this film was Pirika, a girl brimming with talent and personality, who Žilnik gave a supporting role to in his film Early Works. Pirika disappeared from Žilnik’s life for the next forty years until they met accidentally on the street, which became the point of departure for his new biographical video essay Pirika on Film (Serbia, 2013).

Most of the festival competition screenings took place in the Belgrade Youth Center with some reprisals and special programs at other venues, such as the new Fontana Theater and the Belgrade Cultural Center. The competition program was divided up into multiple fiction and documentary sections, along with one animation and one experimental section. Many of the shorts in the fiction sections seemed to be more about serving as industry calling cards rather than presenting unique artistic visions. One of the fiction sections contained a number of shorts from FDU, the Belgrade national film school; many displayed a considerable amount of talent, which confirms a promising future for Serbian feature film production.

The documentary competition program I viewed fit neatly into the space of domestic ethnography, with directors trying to tell personal stories in the form of diaries that speak to larger social issues. Many of these stories dealt with problematic lives, particularly the situation of living with and caring for the elderly. If these personal diaries had a limited appeal it was not because of the content but rather a lack of proficiency in cinematic expression. However, at least one of these documentary shorts, Adrift (Frederik Jan Depickere, Belgium/Colombia, 2012), featured an unforgettable image: the Northern Lights snaking through the branches of treesin fast motion.

The special program Russian Contrasts: Patriots and Libertines went without catalogue notes, leaving one to wonder about the curatorial intent. There were only three shorts in this program and all were documentaries focused on youth culture: popular politics in Cry Tears of Happiness (Jari Kokko, Finland, 2012); drugs and night life in Masquerade (Artem Isaev, Russia, 2012); body piercing and the peculiar pastime of hanging by hooks embedded into skin in On the Hook (Daria Orhan-Panchenko, Russia, 2012). These documentaries were all constructed like television news magazines, perhaps speaking to the homogenous potential of digital production. In this program, it was interesting to see these directors attempt to take the pulse of a nation through observing its young. Perhaps most interesting in this effort was Cry Tears of Happiness with its slightly odd political summer camp aimed at developing and confirming a love for the hegemonic power structures in Russia.

Another special program entitled Angry Ukrainians was positioned in the catalogue notes as something of a wave, “like Italian neo-realists or British kitchen-sink realists.” Unlike those historical movements, these shorts did not present a very rigorous exposure of social ills or modern politics in the Ukraine, although Beautiful Woman (Alyona Alymova, Ukraine, 2012) offered a light satire of the allure of campaign advertising. Most of these shorts are melodramatic fictions. However, Nuclear Waste (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, Ukraine, 2012), the anti-melodramatic story of a married couple living in Chernobyl working in nuclear waste management, stood out from the others, and also played in the competition program. This short is near silent and adheres to the deadpan and formulaic aesthetic of slow cinema that often aspires to festival success (long static takes, stark documentary realism, and a morose atmosphere). Indeed this was the case in Belgrade, as the short won a golden medal for best film in any competition category.

There was only one experimental program in the competition section and it was a middling grab bag of avant-garde work, comedy shorts, and some animation. In fact, the award for best experimental film went to The Tale of the Wall Habitants (Andrej Boka, Serbia, 2012), which was of the hybrid live action/animation persuasion and a narrative fairy tale about war between windows and doors. There was not much experimental about this short, but then again the very nebulous descriptive “experimental” has been accepted and rejected many times over on both aesthetic grounds and at the leisure of the artists who practice this form. It is unfortunate that avant-garde work did not have a stronger presence in this festival, although perhaps it didn’t need to, as the very name of the festival prioritizes documentary and often equates “short” with “narrative” cinema.

The Belgrade Documentary and Short Film Festival trades on this lengthy tradition as a point of pride. The festival is not curated very tightly and it does not stamp itself with a unique identity that would set it apart among the crowded festival landscape in Belgrade. Still, the Belgrade Documentary and Short Film Festival offers something that other festivals do not: an outlet and space for short film and video culture to assert itself against the hegemony of feature films. This space – particularly with regards to documentary and narrative fiction – must continue to be cultivated in order to assert its relevance in a digital world where disposable short-form culture rules the day.

In 1971, Želimir Žilnik called this festival a graveyard. Perhaps it has not quite yet resurrected itself to reclaim the prominence it held in its first two decades of existence, but clearly the festival is here to stay. This is certainly a cultural victory worth celebrating both within the borders of Serbia and beyond.

Greg de Cuir, Jr. received his d.phil. from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts at the University of Arts Belgrade. He is the managing editor of NECSUS_European Journal of Media Studies and also selector/programmer for Alternative Film/Video Belgrade.