By Erica Johnson Debeljak.
The 26th Ljubljanski mednarodni filmski festival (LIFFE) took place from November 11 to November 22 last year. It is the fifteenth incarnation of this festival under the catchy acronym LIFFE, which doesn’t match the initials of the name in the Slovenian language, but perfectly captures the vibrancy and joy, not to mention marketing pizzazz, that the festival brings to this small Central European capital for ten days each November. This year the festival had multiple screenings of nearly one hundred and twenty films in six different venues under nine program headings: Perspectives (films which compete for the Kingfisher Award), Avant-premieres, Kings and Queens, Panorama of World Cinema, Extravaganza (extreme horror), Kinobalon (for children), Tribute (to the American indie filmmaker Hal Hartley), Retrospective (on Technicolor films), and Europe in Short. Despite this bounty, dedicated film-goers needed to be on their toes, because in-demand films often sold more than a week before the festival opened.
LIFFE does not belong among the flagship European festivals that set the agenda for the cinematic calendar – Cannes, Berlin, Venice – but rather is designed to meet the needs of Ljubljana’s sophisticated and – for most of the year – starved film-viewing public. Therefore, it has a broad focus, or rather multiple focuses. It brings in the big-name films and winners from other festivals, such as Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, Joachim’s Trier Louder then Bombs, Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanjuato, and Luca Guadagnino A Bigger Splash. It also spotlights the work of regional filmmakers from the republics of the former Yugoslavia and other small Slavic countries. This year’s standouts in that department were the Kosovar Three Windows and a Hanging by Isa Qosja, a stunning-looking film about the post-war fate of three women in a Kosovar village, Next to Me by Stevan Filipović, a Serbian take on The Breakfast Club which reveals the fascinating and highly entertaining variety of Serbia’s disaffected youth, and the trilogy The High Sun, by Croatian filmmaker Dalibor Matanić.
Other than that, variety is the name of the game and LIFFE does a great job providing it. This year featured a number of excellent documentary films – among them, The Wolfpack by Crystal Moselle, Rabin, The Last Day by Amos Gitai, and A Dog’s Heart by Laurie Anderson. As usual, the international range on offer was impressive from the Chinese selections, Hou Hsaio-Hsien’s luxurious and award-winning Assassin and Zhang Yimou’s moving Coming Home, to the more gritty Iranian films, Jafar Panafi’s Taxi and Rakhshan Bani-E’temad’s Tales, and films from Brazil, Iceland, Palestine and many more disparate lands. Offsetting the cornucopia of languages and the specificity of place were the works by the many renowned directors who eschewed locality and made films with English-language superstars in part to reach larger audiences: Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth with Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, and Jane Fonda, Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert with Nicole Kidman and James Franco, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster with Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. One other theme that pleased me, as the mother of three European teenagers, was the large number of films that focused on the dilemmas of European youth today: not only the abovementioned Next to Me, but the absolutely marvelous Mustang by Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven (nominated for this year’s European Parliament’s Lux award), a female complement to the quirky Wolfpack, and The Summer of Sangaille by Lithuanian director Atlanté Kavaité.
The 26th LIFFE Kingfisher Award went to the Icelandic entry Rams by Grimur Hákonarson, but the main prize was taken home by Ljubljana’s passionate filmgoers who were once again treated to ten days of high-quality film viewing.
Erica Johnson Debeljak‘s memoir, Forbidden Bread, was published in 2009 by North Atlantic Books. Her most recent novel, The Bicycle Factory, was released by the Modrijan Publishing House in 2015. She lives and works in Ljubljana.