Updated: Mar 1, 2021
16th Feb 2021. Last week the Clermont-Ferrand short film festival announced the winner of the coveted International Film Award, for Sestre (Sisters) by the Slovenian writer-director Katerina Rešek (Kukla). Slovenia is a small nation of two million people, so this is a big deal for them. Only one in 100 films are selected for the international competition, and there are usually around 100 films selected, so to be the best in this festival, widely regarded itself as the best in the world for short films, is an even bigger deal.
I know all this because two years ago I was on the international competition jury. and I know a lot about Slovenia because I married a Slovene, and have a house there, and I eventually learnt the language, a lifetime struggle which I will deal with in another post.
It was fascinating being on a film festival jury on two counts.One is how well you are treated. Five-star hotels, champagne receptions, a special row of seats reserved for you at every screening, and at every international film presentation a photo of you and your fellow jurors precede the programme as the lights go down. Your head can be turned by all this. It's disturbingly quite easy to get used to it, even if I sometimes wondered why I had been invited. True, I had a film in the special section, (not the competition, I had applied before and never got in), a documentary on artificial languages I had made 25 years ago with Tony Steyger. One of the organizers had seen it at a French film festival when it came out, and thought it would fit in their languages theme.
But I was on the jury for international short fiction, not experimental or art film, where I might have been more at home. The star of the festival, Claire Denis, was ironically on the experimental jury, in the Labo competition. I wondered if I could ask her if we could swap. Also on my jury were mostly young film directors with a couple of highly regarded films under their respective belts. One, Nadav Lapid, went on to win The Golden Bear in Berlin the very week after Clermont-Ferrand. I considered whether to adopt the protective overcoat of Imposter syndrome, but decided against it. My fellow jurors were very friendly, I was having too good a time, and in any case seeing all these international films was absolutely fascinating. it struck me that there is a certain kind of film that strikes a chord with selectors at this and possibly other less mainstream festivals. A window on a closed world, in Mongolia, or Romania, or South America. Films with a social conscience; you can see why Ken Loach plays so well outside of the UK. Serious films for the most part; romantic comedies were decidedly thin on the ground, nor indeed were any laughs. Some were harrowing in fact; not the kind of films I would normally go to see for fun, but in that suspended state of a week where everyday was cinema, lunch, cinema, hotel, I started to love the experience. Most interesting was to see the British films that had been selected for the competition, and what light that shone on an outsider’s vision of the UK. Pretty bleak, and northern, and working-class seemed to be the picture, that year at least. It was interesting that the south of the country was hardly represented, apart from a quirky film about a south coast lido. No, gritty Manchester, or Liverpool, or (most harrowing of all) the shopping centre at Bootle Strand, in a dramatised documentary about the Jamie Bulger case. Is this because an international filmic UK is coloured by a Ken Loach filter, as an antidote to all those white linen suit films of Edwardian goings-on? Our own national Brexit filter shows a sun-dappled nostalgia past; see The Dig for example, the recent surprise hit on Netflix. But others don't see us that way. I haven't seen Kukla’s film, but it will be interesting to see what light it shines on present-day Slovenia. Good luck to her.