A Slovak Gem – Unknown to Most

IFF Bratislava

November 8, 2010

Allan Stevo

I’ve numerous times traveled from Chicago to Bratislava in November.  In Bratislava, November is the month that has the unpleasant distinction of helping you recognize exactly where your shoes have sprung a leak.  After babie leto (Indian Summer) comes to an end, the months of relative dryness are put behind and the sun spends a few months on vacation.  A regular and constant wetness is characteristic of this month, and daylight savings makes an early morning even darker.

Today, November 8, 2010 is the first ‘November’ day of the year.  The cold is unlikely to subside until the spring. The weather will, instead, grow gradually colder until the rain turns to a regular sleet and offers occasional snow as well.

That snow accumulates gradually and stays all winter.  By March, you’re so thrilled to see the practically unmeltable gray city snow disappear that you want to run out there and pour hot water on it yourself.  This is Bratislava’s fall and winter, much different than the beauty of the Tatras, or the beauty of virtually any other place in Slovakia at this time of year.  Those places are magnificent four seasons a year.  And Bratislava is too, if you scratch the surface.

There are two things that make this Bratislava weather especially enjoyable, because when the weather turns gray, and the even-tempered November rains begin to fall, it’s a given that these two events are around the corner.  One you’ll hear about in a few weeks – it’s the Christmas Market.  The other takes place this week and it’s overlooked by many, underestimated by others.

It’s a film festival.

A film festival may not sound like anything special, but I assure you that it is.  I think so highly of this film festival that I clear my schedule, buy a festival pass, and make arrangements to spend each day of the week in a movie theater seeing the stories of the world, gaining new perspectives, and learning the untold tales of central Europe.  Most importantly, I learn things that non-filmmakers would never talk about because of their perceived lack of importance.  Some filmmakers know how to bring value to these overlooked topics.

For example, two years back, I learned that marionettes were a subversive form of speech and art that government badly wanted stamped out during communist times.  Yes, by marionette, I mean those little wooden dolls on strings.  Their stories were told by roving bands of men and women who went from village to village writing material and entertaining small crowds.  Not Broadway, or Hollywood.  Just eking out a living entertaining small village and town crowds.  These bands were too decentralized to effectively be censored and the documentary The Last Caravan (Posledná maringotka) tells that story.

Or in Slepé Lásky (Blind Loves) I learned how blind people in Slovakia find romance in a fascinating, sometimes disturbing, sometimes endearing picture of blind Slovaks making their way through the world. The film especially focuses on their search for companionship.

In Český sen (Czech Dream), a documentary that premiered a few years back, a pair of Czech troublemakers takes us through an advertising campaign for the opening of a non-existent new store.  Through this, they demonstrate the ease of stoking mindless passion for low prices in the Czech Republic.  Throughout the movie we, the audience, realize that no store actually exists and the moment that information becomes public, it creates a tense moment on camera.  It’s a film that’s critical of the hype of advertising and critical of the consumerism that’s invaded Czech culture – a change that one can also easily see in Slovakia with the change in personal interests culture-wide with each passing year.

Shown at the festival this week was a Bulgarian film Gradat na jenite badante (The Town of Badante Women) that takes a look at women leaving their towns to find work in the West.  I learned from the movie that for 750 Euro/month, you can convince a Bulgarian woman from the town of Varshets to leave her husband and children and raise another family’s children instead.  The film deals with that life choice, which appears to be endemic in Varshets.  The film also deals with the effects on the families who are left behind.

A Polish film, a drama, tells a common story of this region, as it explains how organized crime operates.  It offers a view of the sheer brutality of the criminal organizations that moved into the power vacuum after 1989 and continue to subvert the rule of law throughout the region even today.  Chrzest (The Christening) is its name.  Last night, after the screening, I was able to meet the director of that film and sit in on a 20 minute question and answer session about the movie.  The opportunity to meet the filmmakers is something that makes this film festival even more interesting than watching a movie at home.

In the films of the region, there’s an appreciation for what oppression means, what freedom means, what democracy means, what responsibility means. That dialogue is actively being discussed in Slovakia.  These are questions that the region has long been trying to answer.  Increasingly, people throughout the region, and entire nations, are finding their own answers to those questions.

Seeing these questions answered through film makes sense.  I can read a 300 page Slovak novel.  I can even produce my own literary translation of a 300 page Slovak novel.  But the effort it takes to do so – to read intensively and for long periods outside of English – does not produce the results that just a few hours at this film festival provides.  These are film-makers investigating at the edges of society, investigating the story that is untold.  That’s a story that I have a difficult time accessing outside of film and one-on-one discussions.

And it’s no surprise to me that the festival here in Bratislava is so heavy on documentaries and that the Slovak film industry in general is heavy on documentaries.  Forty years of communist government lies, with no legal and reliable source of information, probably leaves a people wanting to see the world in a more truthful way.  It probably also leaves filmmakers wanting to explain the world in a way that they find more truthful.

These are aspects of the culture that are made accessible to me through this film festival and I know if I invest my time, I am rewarded each year with immeasurable cultural insight.  No other time would I say to myself “okay, today I’m going to sit down and watch 12 hours of movies.”  It would simply drive me crazy to be so sedentary.

Nor would there be an opportunity for me to so easily access 12 hours of meaningful films with the option to choose from four or five different movies at any given time.   The exception would be if I were to spend a long time searching for and acquiring those films.  Just as the filmmakers perform a great service for me by sharing all of their research and thought, the film festival organizers perform a great service for me by spending their time locating quality films.

I travel Slovakia with earnestness, in search of new hidden gems and in search of new conversations that might challenge my perspectives.  When I step into International Film Festival Bratislava, it’s as if a team of researchers went out to prove or disprove a theory and are now presenting it in a highly polished form for me personally to better understand.  This is a research service about regional culture and about life that I would not otherwise have.

This information isn’t put together by some German owned “Slovak” daily newspaper, whose impartiality I might call into question.  It’s not put together by a foreign embassy whose impartiality might be called into question.  It’s not put together by someone looking to make a buck off of me.  It’s compiled by small filmmakers trying to show their findings, their thoughts, their questions, and their abilities at a film festival.  Not every film is great, not every film is as professionally done as I’d like, not every film seems to want to get at the truth, but when it isn’t I just walk out and try another film on another screen.  A festival like this recognizes there’s no one source for good information—there are many versions.

Allan Stevo is the author of Somewhere between Bratislava and DC.  You can view more of his work at www.allanstevo.com.

Have you come across any Slovak films or films of the region that you particularly appreciate?  I’d love to hear about them.  Are there books about the region that are particularly meaningful to you?  Have you had experiences where oppression, freedom, and responsibility were defined differently by a person from culture than by a person from another culture?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


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  • An answer to your first question: I’ve seen some of Slovak movies (not documentaries), but there are two of them that are amazing.
    Obchod na korze, is a movie that was in 1960’s awarded by Oscar for foreign film. It is a great movie about World War 2, and how people in those times were getting shops previously owned by Jews in Slovakia (I do not know the English term for it:(). Main actors it that movie are amazing.
    Another great movie is Nedodržaný sľub (Broken Promise), which is also a WWII movie about a young Jewish guy that went to a working camp. You should see both movies…

  • Jaro,
    Thank you for the suggestions. I have Obchod na korze on DVD and I really like that movie as well. I’ve watched it several times and agree with you that it’s a powerful movie. About your question, Jaro, I’ve heard the term Aryanization used to refer to transferring property from Jewish owners and putting into the hands of friends of the regime. This website, which sounds authoritative, agrees with my usage of that word. That page also has a newspaper article dealing with Aryanization and refers to a label that was put on clothes “ADEFA,” which verified that only Aryan hands were used to make that clothing. Interesting website.

    As for Nedodržaný sľub (Broken Promise), I was able to watch it at Cinematik film festival in Piestany last year and liked that as well.

    It sounds like you appreciate historical films dealing with Slovakia and especially films dealing with the holocaust. There are many fascinating stories to be told about how individual Slovaks handled that time in Slovak history. Thank you for sharing these favorites of yours.


  • Are these films shown with subtitles?

    It is also the 20th annual month of photography in Bratislava. Lots of good exhibitions around.

  • Birgitte,
    Thanks for the heads-up about the 20th annual month of photography. I’ll have to go over and take a look.

    Regarding the film festival, almost everything is subtitled in English as well as Slovak or Czech.


  • I just finished reading “Siren of the Waters” by Michael Genelin – It is a police detective story set in Bratislava (and Nice) near the end of the Communist era. The picture that the book gives of the pressures that Communism put on family relationships is very interesting.

  • Sue,
    Thank you for the suggestion. Sounds like a book that I’d be very interested in.

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