Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Place in L.A. for South East European Cinema: Talking With Festival Director Vera Mijojlic

By James Latham
Film festivals often reflect the interests and experiences of their founders, which contributes to their great diversity around the world and even within individual cities that are big enough to support them.  Some festivals emphasize particular film genres, modes of production, or aspects of identity such as gender or ethnicity.  I spoke recently with Vera Mijojlic, who founded and runs a festival here in L.A. that is dedicated to the films of South East Europe. 

James Latham:  You founded the South East European Film Festival (SEE FEST) in 2002.  Tell me about its programming and mission.

Vera Mijojlic:  We show films made in or about South East Europe, which includes the countries of the former Yugoslavia along with Greece, Turkey, Albania, Romania, and other neighbors.  SEE FEST is a leading venue in the U.S. for the presentation of the cinematic and cultural diversity of this region.  The annual festival and year-round programming bring to American audiences films that tell a larger and more complex story about South East Europe than would otherwise be available.  We help to unlock the doors to understanding human existence in this troubled region.  SEE FEST also serves as a hub for cultural exchange and a resource for scholars and filmmakers on the cinema and cultures of the region.

JL:  I’d like to discuss those aspects of the festival.  But first, can you give me a sense of the diversity of the films you’ve screened?  What are some of the key trends or issues among them?

VM:  The films include features on subjects such as marriage in harsh economic environments, young people caught up in ancient blood feuds, and noir films about suicide.  There are also gentle and melancholic comedies on recent turbulent regime changes as seen by ordinary provincial protagonists.  We’ve also had documentaries on topics such as endless Balkan fights over claims (Whose Is This Song?); a road movie about Roma musicians traveling to India to reconnect with their traditions; and films about the tragic and humorous quest of the people struggling to assert themselves against the intense pressures of defunct empires and new regimes that are equally divisive.  So, some key trends or issues are harsh, black humor and depictions of human struggle and subterfuge; it’s no wonder that black comedies are a trademark of the region.

JL:  I remember teaching college-level film history, with even some pretty knowledgeable students being unaware that the 1920s Soviet Union had a domestic cinema at all, much less a highly innovative and influential one.  What's one of the biggest gaps or misconceptions you find here in the states about the films or cultures of South East Europe?  How does your festival work to counter such misconceptions? 

VM:  The biggest misconception is South East Europe as more or less the same as the rest of Eastern Europe, and identified only with the Eastern bloc.  The legacy of communism is there—but, in a large part of the region that used to be Yugoslavia, that system was quite different from other Eastern bloc countries.  Two other major forces that preceded communism have also shaped the region, namely Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.  Without knowing about all three of these systems, it is impossible to understand what is going on in South East Europe and why.  SEE FEST takes particular care to provide diverse points of view and present a layered picture of the region.  Our main goal is to give our audiences as much of the context as possible, to highlight as many cultural and artistic currents as we can, from music to dance, from humor to mind-boggling combinations of ethnicities, religions, languages, and intertwined histories.  There are many subcultures, minorities within minorities, with overlapping and often surprising cultural phenomena—when possible, we include films highlighting them.

JL:  These films are a far cry from—almost the opposite—of Hollywood sensibilities.  And Eastern Europe is literally quite far away from L.A., though we have a very diverse population here.  If the films primarily come from overseas, and your local audience is relatively small, how do you target potential filmmakers and audiences?

VM:  Through outreach, collaboration with a variety of cultural organizations, and year-round research of potential new partners.

JL:  Part of that outreach involves serving scholars and other people interested in the region with programming that includes conferences and retrospectives.  How successful have you been in attracting or developing this part of your audience?  Or in working with the many educational and cultural organizations that are listed as partners / sponsors on your website?

VM:  Our audience is as diverse as our films, but generally well versed in international affairs and knowledgeable of the issues.  The festival is a resource they can draw upon for the variety of fields they’re in. 

Whenever we sent out calls for volunteers, or did some kind of outreach, many of the responses were inquiries from young scholars with some specific interest in the region we cover, such as film historians studying this relatively less familiar terrain.  There were also many people interested in issues that transcend our particular region, such as tradition vs. modernity in societies in transition; or the burdens of violent histories on small nations, and the legacies of ethnic or religious conflict stemming from them.  Cultural diversity and the influences of many invading cultures that left deep imprints in all kinds of ways—this is an important subject for us at the festival, for our audiences, and for many outside scholars and other researchers.  And, of course, for our filmmakers, who address these subjects with such great conviction and artistic expression in their work.

Our outreach also has been successful in other ways, like partnering with organizations engaged in clearing landmines left from recent wars in several Balkan countries.  And with groups committed to the cultural and economic development of the Roma people, who are one of the culturally most interesting but also troubled minorities in the region.  And with film schools and sister film festivals from Eastern Europe; and cultural groups that, like SEE FEST, bring together different nations and cultures to establish and promote dialogue and understanding. 

JL:  How has the general economic downturn affected filmmaking in the region?  Has the festival seen a reduction in submissions, or a shift in subject matter?  Is it harder to get filmmakers to travel here from Europe?

VM:  We haven’t yet seen any decrease in film production, except in Hungary, and that is largely due to an overhaul of the entire funding system.  Incidentally, the famed Hollywood producer, Andy Vajna, is now head of the Hungarian Film Fund.

I wouldn’t call this a full-blown trend, but we see more attempts at genre films.  Another interesting development is the emergence of ultra-low budget films, with some production companies making features for EUR70,000 (about 90,000 US dollars).

JL:  How about distributors?  Here in a company town, how easy or difficult has it been for you to attract distributors to attend?

VM:  It’s difficult to get them to attend.  Coming to festival screenings in a town which has several festivals, events, premieres, and special screenings every single day of the year is not the most efficient way for them to watch movies.  We have to find other ways to get our films in front of them, and getting distributors interested in a particular filmmaker, or a story that fits a distributor’s niche.

JL:  What kinds of opportunities for distribution are there for filmmakers in South Eastern Europe—how is it the same or different there than in the U.S. or Western Europe?

VM:  We’re talking about a very small market except Turkey, which is the only significant territory with robust film and TV production and distribution.  For the rest of the region, film sales are bundled and one local distributor buys the rights for several countries.  Commercial domestic films are doing very well, and everyone is doing co-productions to minimize the risk. Art film, like here, has a hard time finding an audience.  There are very few arthouse cinemas. International film festivals are therefore well attended, and many screenings are standing room only.

JL:  What, if any, elements would you like to add to SEE FEST, or expand upon?

VM:  We have started organizing retrospectives of national cinemas and plan to follow up with series on some of the major filmmakers, as well as expand presentation of films by up-and-coming filmmakers exploring new ways to tell uniquely flavored SEE stories.  This work takes a long time and effort and needs substantial funding.  We would also like to set up our own distribution, non-theatrical, primarily for the educational market.  And, down the road, we plan to establish a SEE Fest Resource Library for the cultural study of the region through film.

JL:  What parting words of advice would you have for filmmakers who want to submit to your festival, or, more generally, who are making films about South East Europe?

VM:  Trust your instincts to tell your own story.  Do not try to make films using cultural or cinematic references that are not from your own experience and cultural traditions – it always backfires.  For example, we’ve seen a lot of films depicting Eastern European gangsters, and are not particularly interested in these blatantly exploitative films.  We are looking for original stories and culturally relevant films that are representative of the countries and cultures they come from; films that open at least a small window into the lives of the people there and their everyday struggles.

JL:  OK Vera, thanks for your time and insights.

VM:  Thank you.


The seventh annual South East European Film Festival is scheduled for May 3-7, 2012 in Los Angeles.  To contact the festival, send an email to info@seefilmla.org

For more on The Valley Film Festival, visit our website or Facebook page.  If you’re involved with independent film and are interested in possibly being interviewed, or otherwise contributing to our blog, contact us anytime at info@valleyfilmfest.com

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