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When a Documentary Isn’t: Inside Slovenian Non-Fiction Films

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By Noah Charney.

Slovenian documentary films are at their best when they do not appear to be documentaries. When we imagine documentaries, we tend to think of the History or Travel Channel variety. That’s the type that I occasionally appear in and have also helped to write and produce, so I have a sense of both what it is like to be in front of the camera and behind it, as well as what it is like to be a viewer. These tend to feature talking heads of experts on the topic at hand, who are filmed with a soft-focus background of bookshelves, as they tell a narrative and artificially-enthusiastic version of the events and offer insight and context. Then there is archival footage, or Ken Burns-style scanning over old photographs, and possibly a presenter striding through key locations and talking to the camera. That is documentary for television.

Documentary feature films of the sort that would screen at festivals and in theaters are of a different variety. One of the latest releases is technically a biopic about Vlado Kreslin, Slovenia’s almost legendary folk-rock musician, who is beloved of teenagers and great-grandparents and who has a sterling career that spans many decades. I am fortunate enough to call him a friend – he even performed at my wedding – and I also nearly wrote the script for a documentary about his career. That was several years ago and eventually funding was not secured for it, so he went to different direction. The end result, directed by Miran Zupanič, premiered in December at the city cinema of Ljubljana, Kinodvor. It is wonderful and could not be improved upon.

One of the key features is that it did not look like a documentary. There were no talking heads and there was no stream of praise for Kreslin and his work. In fact, if you are not from Slovenia or are unfamiliar with his oeuvre, you would almost be hard-pressed to figure out what the documentary was about. Of course, we see him throughout, in conversation with friends and colleagues and performing many songs in their entirety, which is part of the definition of a “music film,” as opposed to a film that has music as part of the background soundtrack, merely adding atmosphere. The film is called Poj mi pesem (“Sing me a song,” the title of one of Kreslin’s popular tunes). In it, we see Kreslin perform on enormous stages, like Ljubljana’s main cultural center, as well as at small intimate local concerts for a handful of villagers, from events involving politicians to a birthday visit to a 103-year-old woman, who received a private concert at her nursing home.

Poj-mi-pesem_01Kreslin is a born story teller who is hugely engaging, whether on stage or chatting over a coffee. He is universally beloved, which is a hard thing to pull off anywhere, much less in this part of the world, Slovenia, where there is a sense that no one can please everyone. He and his music have pleased everyone for decades and continue to do so. It is not just the high quality of his songwriting, performances, lyrics (he has traveled abroad representing Slovenia as a poet), but he is seen to embody Slovenia’s most admirable traits – he’s unpretentious, hard-working, clever, funny, and full of soul, honoring the history of the region, performing with minority groups who are sometimes given a hard time (Roma in particular), and respects, honors and riffs off of all that is best about Slovenian culture. This is one of the main points that emerges from the film about his career, without anyone saying as much directly to camera. The audience is left to infer all these things, which is risky, but more rewarding than the more American approach of spoon-feeding audiences the messages that the film-maker wants to proclaim.

This approach to documentary film-making, in which the audience must engage and piece together the puzzle of what the film is about, was also present in another film I saw recently, Mesto svetlobe (“City of light”) by Marko Kumer Murč (2017). It seems to be about a thermoelectrical plant in a Slovenian town, and the lives of several families who live around it. But I’m still not quite sure if that’s what it’s about, or if that is what it is about, then what lessons or ideas we audience members are supposed to leave with. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the film. It was beautiful, thoughtful, engaging, but nothing really happened, and it wasn’t really about anything. To me, this made it very Slovenian. I see a parallel in Poj mi pesem, which shows how the world reacts to Kreslin, and how he engages with his people, without really being about anything in particular. There is no tension, no quest, no destination determined at the start that will be reached by the end. In short, these sort of films would never be greenlit by American production companies, but that does not make them any less successful.

There is a rich Slovenian history to documentary films that are not really documentaries, and not films in the Anglo-sense of characters changing over the course of the story, tension and drama and questions asked and eventually answered. A forthcoming exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of Ljubljana will focus on film during the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. It turns out that the earliest Slovenian films were of a similar hybrid non-fiction nature.

The very first Slovenian feature film was entitled In the Realms of Goldhorn (V kraljestvu Zlatoroga, 1931), and I was recently fortunate enough to see it on a big screen, a silent film with specially-written orchestral accompaniment, at the brilliantly-curated Kulturni Dom Franca Bernika in Domžale, Slovenia. The director of that cinema and cultural center, Jure Matičič, fills the program with jewels, and this was a rare treat – to see a silent film with a live musical soundtrack.

This film is not a documentary, nor is it really a fictional feature. It was made long before there was any “film industry” to speak of, in a documentary style, by amateurs who were members of a mountaineering club. They created a quasi-fictional story about three friends who love spending time in the mountains and decide to go climb the highest mountain in Slovenia, itself a quasi-mythical place, Mount Triglav. The film shows the adventures of a student in the capital, an ironworker from the industrial town of Jesenice, and a farmer, childhood friends who get together in order to travel by train and then on foot through various idyllic landscapes on their way to scale this mountain. While the situation is contrived, and the characters are not based on the real three mountaineering friends, everything else looks like it could be a documentary. To say that the film shows their “adventures” is an overstatement. Nothing really adventurous happens. Not even a slip on the climb up. There is no tension, drama, nothing that is a stalwart of story-telling in the anglophone world. They simply travel and spend the night and eat and camp and hike and climb and have a nice time throughout.

This drama-free approach is certainly un-American, but there is nothing wrong with a charming and engaging and interesting lack of drama and tension. It’s actually a good film school assignment: Can you produce a film without tension that still retains the viewers’ interest? One can, and this is a fact that today’s film and television producers tend to forget. But these three examples echo in the sense that they show something happening and they show a window into a culture, deepening the understanding of it for locals and introducing it to foreigners in a way that is stylish and subtle and does not clang you over the head with the points it tries to make. From Slovenia’s first feature film to its most recent, one comes away with a sense that there is a continuity to the understated Slovenian style of non-dramatic film, for lack of a better term, that both resonates and feels a little bit anti-establishment, in this day and age of explosions and car chases equaling good entertainment.

Noah Charney is an international best-selling author and professor of art history.

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