In early June, on the north-eastern coast of the Adriatic sea, a small film festival takes place over a few days. Situated in the bilingual littoral region of Slovenia and attracting international guests as well as cinema-goers, Kino Otok – Isola Cinema operates in three languages: Slovenian, Italian and English. I decided to visit, perhaps more than by the films themselves thrilled by the prospect of the first five days of the year at the beach and charmed by the picturesque, Venetian-style narrow streets of the maritime town providing shade from the scorching sun. However, it soon became clear that I needed to compromise: the festival was screening several gems that I regretfully missed during my festival circuit, and it seemed like the sunny beach would have to be sidetracked for at least some of the time. (I heard there were jellyfish in the water this year, anyway.)
One of the most delightful treats of this year’s Kino Otok were the short films of two young Croatian filmmakers, Hana Jušić and Sonja Tarokić. The two young women are friends and have been making films both separately and together – and while each of the films they have done separately tackles a troubling aspect of the Croatian society or typical Croatian family life, their joint work cannot help but be swayed by a kind of frivolity, a mischievous mixture of biting satire and affectionate portrayal of conservative young women. I am speaking of Smart Girls, a 24-minute, Almodóvaresque comedy about two best friends, Marija, who has sex with her boyfriend only because she plans to “marry him for sure” and Nikolina, who is still a virgin. Realising that the social attitudes towards virginity have changed, she decides to adapt and restructure her beliefs.
When I asked them about the gap between Smart Girls and the recently-flourishing representations of female friendship in comedy of Hollywood films and popular TV series such as Lena Dunham’s Girls, Hana Jušić remarked that she finds the series unnecessarily ghettoises female friendship. “I’m not sure how female friendships are different from male friendship or any other friendships, for that matter.” Sonja Tarokić added that in Smart Girls, there is never any doubt of the two protagonists being friends and sticking up for each other, even though in general, their world-view is quite conservative, at times even misogynist—towards other women. “Together, they are powerful, establishing a front line against the world—you can’t hurt them, because they’re a team.” Talking about her childhood girl-friends from a conservative environment that served as an inspiration for the two protagonists in Smart Girls, she explained: “They think of themselves as real ladies, putting men in their place, enforcing a gender-binary dynamics: ‘You’re a man, I’m a lady, you can’t ask me this or that because it’s offensive.’” Hana Jušić agrees: “Everything is shameful – intimacy, representations of intimacy. Women care a lot about their appearance, they dress provocatively, but at the same time, they’re very conservative when it comes to sexuality. When something doesn’t fit in their world-view, they pretend it isn’t happening—and it’s never talked about.”
Both Jušić’s and Tarokić’s other films (Terrarium and Chill by Jušić are available online) have been screened internationally, at film festivals in Rotterdam, Chicago, Tallin, Linz and Vilnius. On Shaky Ground by Tarokić and No Wolf Has a House by Jušić, screened at Kino Otok, examine the everyday and the seemingly banal, exploring the curious inner worlds of individuals and new perspectives on interpersonal relationships. Despite thematic parallels in their films, their solo projects are as different as night and day: while Tarokić’s films are firmly grounded in realism, her narratives composed of precisely detailed stories of ordinary people, Jušić’s cinematic world is extravagant with idiosyncratic humour, eroticism, violence and camp, anticipating the shakiness of the foundations of society’s core beliefs.
As soon as the sun set, the audience of Kino Otok international film festival were mostly divided in two. The beach with a small lighthouse was home to “Video on the Beach”, a free-entrance exhibition of short films, shot by independent filmmakers from all over the world—from Slovenia to Australia and even featuring a “festival on loan”, a selection of fiction, horror and fantasy short films by the programmers of the nearby Trieste Science+Fiction festival—a programme section visited mostly by a younger crowd and effortlessly transforming into a night of partying on the beach afterwards. On the main square of the town of Izola, the Manzioli Square, however, feature films from the main programme section were screened, also open-air. The opening night of the festival showed a restored film, In an Airship over the Western Front, featuring aerial footage from the World War I battlefields. Recently discovered in the archives of the French army in Paris, the footage was commissioned by the French army’s cinematographic service, perhaps aiming to show the damages to request war compensation at peace negotiations. The 78-minute silent film, shot completely over the shoulder of the pilot, Jacques Trolley de Prévaux, by cameraman Lucien Le Saint, drifting over the ruins of cities from Nieuwpoort in Belgium to Marn, was accompanied with live jazz music, a curious choice for many as it combined an almost lounge kind of dreaminess with the dramatic impact of the images on the screen. However, it seems that the mood of the music has in a way accentuated the horrors below, seen from afar, from the distance of the airship, yet, unlike a plane, close enough to bring out the details of the massacre; in the face of all the despair also portraying a feeling of relief that after five years of clashes, it’s finally over, the music as light-hearted as the pilot’s occasional wave to an unseen spectator on the ground.
And finally, also at the Manzioli Square, there was the film I was hoping to see at some place or another since last year’s Locarno, where it premiered: Fidelio, Alice’s Journey by a French first time director, Lucie Borleteau. I’ve heard and read a lot about the film beforehand, so I expected much—and I’m pleased to say it didn’t let me down one bit. The film is a leisurely-paced, thoughtful exploration of faithfulness, monogamy, erotic attraction and romantic love with all of its its (im)possible ideals. The fact that Fidelio, Alice’s Journey never forgets to keep track of the subjectivities of everyone involved in the narrative benefits the titular Alice (played by Ariane Labed) the most. Contrary to popular representations in mainstream cinema and on television, hers is a character of a liberated, uninhibited sexuality, daringly oblivious to the mores of a society of patriarchy or even its remnants. Though saying that may not sound very revolutionary in the post-sexual-revolution pop-culture representations, Fidelio‘s Alice proves most of the—I wanted to list some promiscuous heroines of contemporary cinema here, but realised I couldn’t think of any—still somewhat tailored to the narrative of men’s desires and the narrative of the “good” kind of girl(friend). On the other hand, it makes traditional feminist cinematic and TV heroines from Bridget Jones to, ultimately, Hannah Horvath*, appear somewhat excessively preoccupied and frustrated by their own desires. Alice’s emotional and sexual life signal unequivocally that for her, monogamy is no more natural than for anyone else, no matter the gender, and that sexual attraction is different from love and monogamy is different from fidelity. Fidelio, Alice’s Journey ponders the institutions of marriage and family, as well as subversive love-affairs both on a narrative and visual level. Socially acceptable scenes of Alice and her boyfriend and their family reunion bathe in bright, conventional colours, while night-time adventures on the ship are shot in darker shades, the green flashes of light revealing only the key elements of an erotic situation: the cheek, the palm, the back, the shoulders and so on to the most important of all—the gaze. Used wittingly and at the same time effortlessly, Fidelio, Alice’s Odyssey establishes it as a cinematic tool of addressing the rarely addressed—the female spectator.
*Disclaimer: Despite how it may appear in this article, I actually love Girls.