So Keen to Play Loose: The Cinema of Igor Bezinović

Kino! Št. 33

Michael Pattison
Neil Young

So Keen to Play Loose: The Cinema of Igor Bezinović

Kino! Št. 33

Michael Pattison
Neil Young

So Keen to Play Loose: The Cinema of Igor Bezinović

The following exchange, between critics Michael Pattison and Neil Young, took place across several days in September 2017.

Michael Pattison (MP): In Varna, Bulgaria, attending Love Is Folly Film Festival in August, I participated in a roundtable on the concept of youth in cinema. Lamenting the extent to which the British feature-film landscape has become saturated with utter tedium, with its script development schemes and its regional production labs and its expensive film schools and its drab rural dramas, I remarked that it was no coincidence that the best active filmmaker under 40 years of age was Igor Bezinović.

Though such claims are largely unquantifiable—and, in an age where discovering hot new talent has taken priority over actual analysis, they say more about the critic than the filmmaker (not to mention the cumbersome burden it places on the latter)—I felt an intuitive truth-bomb had been dropped upon the room, which at any rate was full of older Bulgarian colleagues who were hearing Bezinović’s name for the first time.

You’ve made the same claim elsewhere. It was at Kino Otok in 2015 that we were first exposed to Bezinović’s work: a programme of his shorts, many of which I saw again in a similar screening (under the same curatorial hand as at Otok) at this year’s FeKK, a shorts film festival in Ljubljana.

So I suppose my opening question, given the ultimately flippant foundations of such quips, is a general one: why do you think Igor Bezinović is the best filmmaker under 40?

Neil Young (NY): Don’t flip the script on that quip! IB may not be a household name in many households other than his own (and yours, and mine) but in terms of being The Best Active Filmmaker Under 40 the question is beggared: who the hell else is there? Some of the top Austrian experimentalists are still in their fourth decade, like Johann Lurf and Lukas Marxt, ditto Canada’s Stephen Broomer, and we can point to outstanding individual films from youthful talents all over the world, especially in the realm of shorts. But in terms of assembling a proper body of work, an exquisite corpus if you like, Igor (first-name terms; I consider him a pal) at 34 is already in a league of his own.

He is probably best known internationally (if at all) for his two longest enterprises to date: student-protest documentary The Blockade (Blokada) from 2012, and his current festival-circuit award-winner A Brief Excursion (Kratki izlet), from this year. Both are very solid works, but I prefer his shorter stuff, as it is here that the confluence of economy, humour, originality and (deceptively casual) political intelligence— it’s this specific confluence that sets him apart from and above his peers—is most exhilaratingly showcased, whether he’s operating on a tiny canvas like the 4-minute Kierkegaard (2014) or what I would consider his masterpiece (so far), Veruda: A Film about Bojan (Veruda: Film o Bojanu), the 34-minute documentary from 2015. You like that one too, if I recall.

MP: Yes, very much so. It was included in the FeKK programme, and while I had seen it several times previously, it gave me a fresh emotional wallop—not as if I was making some new discovery, or as if I was watching it for the first time, but because of the precise opposite: knowing what I know about the real-life fate of its subject, who died in a prison fire in November 2015 (after the film was made), it was impossible to shrug off such extra baggage.

The film had moved me previously: it’s a startlingly direct portrait of a young man in his early 20s, who happens to also have a criminal record and a violent past (and, perhaps, a violent present), working his way through a series of rehabilitative encounters with various formative (or not-so-formative) figures from his life. Bojan’s charm is obvious, and Bezinović hones in on his comical appeal as a sharp and sensitive soul who barely blinks when recounting past, unpleasant deeds. Life is brutally absurd and absurdly brutal; it’s rare to find oneself in the hands of a filmmaker confident and controlled enough to allow the simultaneous hilarity and horror of a person’s actions to come through.

And then Bojan recalls the violence he witnessed and received at the hands of an abusive father: with the same boyish frankness with which he’s told his previous anecdotes. It knocked me out; the structural shift into something more tragic, hinting at a deeper causal framework, prompted a profound reaction in me. I’m reminded of a passage in Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts:

Nothing in the world can be more limited and more inhuman than the wholesale condemnation of entire social layers according to labels, according to a moral catalogue, according to the main character of a guild. A name is a terrible thing… ‘This is a murderer,’ they will tell us, and we immediately envision a concealed knife, a brutish expression, and dark thoughts, as if murder was the full-time occupation or the trade of a person who once in his life happened to kill someone… I am repulsed by people who either don’t want to or don’t make the effort to go beyond a name, or see beyond a crime, a confused or false situation, chastely turning their backs or crudely shoving things to the side.

I think Herzen would be a big fan of Veruda

NY: No doubt..

Man can least of all be reconciled to the precariousness, the fragility, of all the most precious things that he possesses. It’s a simple matter: the more stable a thing, the more like stone, the more removed it is from our affections… because what is lasting is unmoving, unfelling, while what is fragile is process, movement, energy, das Werden.

Igor’s films could scarcely be less stone-like; they fizz with imagination and originality. I’m thinking now of Benjamin (2015), which consists entirely of a phone chat (very obviously un-staged) between himself and his grandmother about the somewhat controversial naming of the family’s latest arrival. A great example of the humour intrinsic in basic repetition… One gets the sense that Igor spent maybe €30 making the picture… but it’s a greater work of cinematic art than most of the films I saw last week competing for the Golden Lion at Venice.

Short films never get the attention they deserve, of course, and the funny ones have it even tougher—despite the fact that if such a thing existed as a Short Film Canon, a stack of them would be silent comedies: Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy. How many filmmakers does one meet or see being interviewed who clearly have little or no sense of humour? No wonder miserablism has become the default mode of arthouse cinema over the past few decades. I blame Bresson!

Anyway, I am getting off-subject here. Igor cracks me up in person and in his films. Kierkegaard (2014), all of four minutes, is easily the most hilarious film ever made about a philosopher: breezy, deadpan, unafraid to be daft even though its eponymous subject is a byword for daunting, soul-chilling despair! I think this and Veruda are his two masterpieces so far, though as you say it’s tough to even crack a smile while watching the latter now if you know what happened to the poor schmuck so soon afterwards. It was made for the main Croatian TV channel HRT—Igor has managed to make a nice little niche for himself in that sphere, though one fears for the independence of that outlet given the authoritarian tendencies of the ruling HDZ party. If Igor is forced out or coerced into toning down the edginess of his work, that would be an alarming signal indeed: canary in the coalmine stuff.

MP: Funny you mention Benjamin: when asked during FeKK, by someone who hadn’t seen any of his films, Bezinović advanced this as his own favourite. I suspect this is down to him having witnessed the easy appeal and translatability to cinema audiences, on numerous occasions, of something simultaneously so simple and personal. But the point is that one doesn’t need to have met the director, or to know about the film’s production context, to ‘get it’.

I think a key point to make here—especially in light of the two things you’ve mentioned, creative autonomy and the ability to develop an identifiable body of work through a range of styles and formats—is that Bezinović embodies both an artistic sensibility and mode of production that allows him to make a film out of just about anything. And he does. I think here of Pedro Costa in Zagreb, in which he condenses a three-hour lecture given by the Portuguese filmmaker in 2012 into a 57-second short, employing a black screen (as in Benjamin) and, with deadpan irony, explanatory text that draws attention to the rationale behind the film; the soundtrack, hilariously, is the lecture played back at however many times the speed needed to fit it into the shorter duration.

At a cursory glance, one might adopt a sceptical or even dismissive attitude toward a filmmaker so keen to play loose with the criteria required of ‘serious cinema’; but Bezinović unashamedly challenges the distinction between amateur and professional filmmaking. This is even true of A Brief Excursion, which playfully expands upon the preceding short A Very Brief Excursion (Vrlo kratki izlet, 2014). What did you make of the latter, and what do you make of the feature?

NY: I think both Excursions are solid, and I am very glad that the feature (all 75 minutes of it!) is bringing Igor wider renown—it being so hard to get much recognition (especially from critics) in these non-meritocratic days unless one makes a film of more than 70 minutes. But both have a kind of beguilingly baggy shagginess which is all of a piece with the hazy summer atmosphere of the time and place where they were shot: A Brief Excursion begins at the Motovun Film Festival, and is the most pungent evocation of such Balkan events that I can recall.

The two films are both based on a 1965 novel—A Brief Excursion by Antun Šoljan (1932–1993)—and from what I can gather the adaptation is pretty faithful (“describes an allegorical quest for medieval frescoes in the myth-filled landscape of Istria, in which the main character is finally left alone to contemplate the meaninglessness of existence”). The baggy shagginess has a certain appeal, and the picture is made with a generous, loose-limbed spirit, a sense that it was thrown together by a bunch of pals after an all-night drinking session.

I personally like it better when Igor is more specific, focused, more clear-eyed, has more of a political edge (not that he hasn’t earned the chance to blow off a bit of steam…), such as A Short Family Film (Kratki obiteljski film, 2016) a 20-minute film which he made for Croatian TV just before A Brief Excursion, about an elderly lady who we learn has just got out of jail after serving a sentence for murder. No wasted minutes in that one. No fat on the bone…

MP: Nor in something like Waiting (Čekanje, 2014), his three-minute non-fiction account of a workers’ strike—as told from the perspective of those it unavoidably inconveniences: tourists, who are stuck in tailback traffic on Krk Bridge as a result of such action. This is a common tale these days, one that our mainstream media invariably uses to weaponize the working class against itself; how many times have we seen right-wing news items—and I would include here the predictably abhorrent output by the BBC in the UK—ostensibly structured, with crocodile tears, around sudden concern for a public inconvenienced by treacherous (demonised) workers?

Here, however, Bezinović—I imagine him nonchalantly rocking up, camera in hand, perhaps as a passenger in one of the cars at a standstill—redresses the balance in a calm and simple fashion. Though his first three interviewees decry the strike in the kind of manner that professional reporters would predatorily ensure made the evening news, the filmmaker is quick to position himself at the front of the action. Where a representative of the employing class spouts empty bullshit into microphones, and is immediately shot down by a protestor—who, we glean, has been impassioned into action by practical, economic needs rather than some wish to stop traffic. In the next interview, Bezinović himself intervenes when two people—who are in any case in support of the strike—speculate that the workers are striking because they haven’t been paid in seven months. “Nine,” the director corrects them.

How is that even possible?” the man in front of the camera asks. As incredulous as his response is, he also seems to be of an agreeable disposition: he’s smiling, he’s happy to be filmed, his body language suggests the opposite of frustration (at being held up on the road). I suspect a large part of that was assisted by Bezinović’s own presence, and his skill as an interviewer. I love how the film ends, too: an abrupt cut to black just as the worker from the earlier scene yells at another spokesperson for the company that hasn’t paid her for three quarters of a year: “You’ll eat lamb after this! And you, and you, and you. All of you! Shame on you!”

We cut to black, but the sound of fellow workers applauding—and the woman continuing to yell—persists. We know whose side the director is on.

NY: A valuable corrective! Last week in Riga I did a lecture about propaganda in moving images, covering film and television. I showed the audience a recent clip from Trump TV, a ‘Real News’ bulletin festooned in patriotic red-white-and-blue, with the perky presenter trilling out upbeat dispatches straight from the White House. Unambiguous stuff. Then I showed them a clip of how the world-respected BBC announced the birth of a Royal Baby on their 24-hour news channel, so cravenly lickspittle in every detail (“The Duchess of Cambridge was safely delivered of a son!” beamed a reporter) that it hopefully blew apart any conception that our beloved state-broadcaster operates in an objective and unbiased manner. Among other things, IB often operates as a straight-faced kind of satirist, whose deceptively unvarnished work—itself by no means ‘unbiased’ of course—indirectly but indelibly shows up the over-produced mainstream media with all its grotesque, power-serving distortions.

I just watched Pedro Costa in Zagreb—thanks for the link. I smiled, mildly and wryly, at this respectful/provocative jeu d’esprit. IB and PC really are poles apart in so many ways—though I would love to see Igor make a documentary about ‘Pedro’s’ regular leading man Ventura, in Lisbon of course. His work so far has, with a couple of exceptions (Kierkegaard, shot in Denmark), been so squarely and richly Croatian/Balkan, but surely if there is any justice he will get nice invitations to places like Japan, Canada and Brazil over the next decade as his renown grows. The renown will grow, won’t it? What concrete steps do we (me and you) take to ensure this happens? How do we help justice be done?

MP: In terms of old-fashioned pitch-and-deliver film journalism we’re operating at the moment in a climate that fills me with little (and rapidly diminishing) optimism. But it’s not for lack of trying. Two weeks ago, I pitched a profile interview with Igor to a London-based, English-language ‘culture’ website with a wide readership and a sole focus on what it problematically calls “the New East” (so, Central and Eastern Europe, with particular attention paid to ex-Soviet and ex-Yugoslavian territories). They rejected my proposal, presumably because, sight unseen, the films themselves—A Brief Excursion’s Rotterdam premiere aside, though in any case these folks aren’t cinephiles—sound too niche. Never mind that an outsider (and previous contributor) like me had found more than enough political and cultural resonance in the work to merit an article on it.

Such short-sightedness strikes me as numbingly predictable, of course, and especially irritating given a general editorial desire from these publications to unveil the next big thing. Perhaps if I were to pitch an article on the top five new artisan bakeries in Vilnius, my chances of publication would improve…

I present all this merely as evidence of shifting tides; I know you’ve had similar difficulties getting commissioned, by the world’s oldest and most widely read English-language film magazine, on a filmmaker like Igor. The question is: does Bezinović’s renown need to grow for his talent and artistry to be sufficiently challenged? Maybe. When I told him in Ljubljana about my encountering a prohibitively German bureaucracy when trying last-minute to wedge A Brief Excursion onto the shortlist for the best debut feature prize at this year’s European Film Awards (I, a member of the jury deciding the nominees, missed the deadline), Igor laughed; and the prospect of his film even being compared to those other usual suspects (several dreary British dramas among them) does seem absurd. Isn’t there a validation, of sorts, a certain legitimacy, to be found in positioning oneself at the edges (as opposed to at the centre) of such an evidently rotten industry?

NY: My pitch to that esteemed outlet was actually a double-header, jointly profiling Igor B and his near-exact contemporary Hana Jušić, whose own debut feature Quit Staring at My Plate (Ne gledaj mi u pijat, 2016) is also currently enjoying some success on the festival circuit after premiering at Venice last autumn. It’s relatively more conventional than A Brief Excursion, but not by much: darkly comic, very claustrophobic drama about a working-class family living (with a convincing combination of love and friction) in a scruffy area of the coast city Šibenik.

I thought the fact that Hana is an up-and-coming, award-winning, female writer-director who has already developed her own distinctive style might have tickled the editor’s interest. But maybe part of the problem is that Croatia is so far down the cinematic radar at the moment: part of the EU, seldom anywhere near the news headlines, a nice place for Europeans to go on holiday, but who wants to watch films 111 about or from there? Ironically, it might require the government to go authoritarian and repressive (à la Hungary, Poland, Ukraine etc) for Igor and Hana to elbow their way into the international cinematic spotlight a bit more. Well-chronicled recent ructions behind the scenes at the country’s national film centre, the HAVC, which have (I believe) been involved in supporting Igor and Hana’s work, are a potential foreshadowing of future developments. Without being too cynical about this, nothing makes a filmmaker more attractive to festivals and magazine-editors than their art being suppressed or, even better, they themselves ending up in clink or under house-arrest.

And I do think that both Igor and Hana deserve more attention and renown, without them being compromised by the lab-deformed requirements of the “evidently rotten industry” you mention. Cinema is also an art, severely compromised by the industry aspects, but one that should point towards various more equable and even utopian futures, where the cinephile discourse is not so numbingly dominated by English-language fare, where we all can name four worthwhile filmmakers from every European (and African!) country, where “shorts” get just as much attention as “longs” and experimentalism is embraced rather than shunned. Dare we dare to dream?