Jurij Meden, the Slovenian director of 1717 Kilometrov Poletja 2009 (1717 Kilometers of Summer 2009) and Bilijana Garvanlieva, the Macedonian director of Tabakmädchen (Tobacco Girl) shared the Best Newcomer Award at this year's edition of Dokufest. Tobacco Girl also garnered a special mention for the Human Rights Award, its jury saying that Garvanlieva's film takes the form of a "poetic confrontation of established social norms and multi-layered inequalities."
These filmmakers aren't exactly newcomers in terms of making films, but the Balkan Documentary Competition jurors (Emel Celebi from Turkey, who won the Best Balkan Documentary Award last year for her Sisters of Lilith; Michael Palmieri from the US; and Sissi Korhonen from Finland) decided that they wanted to recognize the fine work these directors presented, particularly since they work so independently, or without direct support from their own countries. In fact, in her acceptance speech at the awards ceremony, Garvanlieva noted that she's made her films, including this one, "no thanks to my country" of Macedonia. Recognition and support have come mainly from Germany.
Both half-hour films, in their own unique way, artfully show the traditional versus modern dilemmas and contradictions of their regions, each beautifully illustrating the speed at which life can move when one is determined to rocket through time and space. In Meden's case, it is a physical journey by car of almost 2000 kilometers through six countries; in the young girl, Mümine's case, she traverses centuries of tradition in an attempt to land squarely in the midst of modern times. The growing pains are intensely palpable, both for her, and for her family.
Tobacco Girl opens with a haunting song telling of the 600-year-old history of the people that inhabit the high mountain regions of Macedonia, part of the Turkish minority that resides on the land. As a family unit--mother, father, two daughters and two sons--they do backbreaking work in the tobacco fields, the crop their only source of income. As the tobacco is meant to be sold for survival, so are the children who work the fields, for they are just as precious a commodity to their parents as the substance they sell at market. In her direction Garvanlieva shows, to wonderful effect, the claustrophobia of their lives, and I cannot praise highly enough cinematographer Susanne Schüle's camera work, which is absolutely exquisite. The vibrant, multicolored traditional costumes the women wear stand out in bas-relief, not only from the dun-colored background of the village's dirt and wood, but also against the Western wear the men sport--leather jackets, T-shirts, jeans, all shades of brown, black and gray.
What is so appealing about this story is that instead of presenting some boring ethnographic treatise on these mountain people, the director tells the story from the 14-year-old girl's point of view, gossiping with her girlfriends, flirting with boys, talking incessantly about their crushes and obsessions, their dreams for the future. But Mümine wants more. She describes sorting tobacco with her family as pure "agony," and is determined to educate herself enough so that she can marry the person she wants to marry, so that she can move to the capital city of Skopje to go to school and do well enough to become a teacher, in the process, totally breaking "the laws of nature" her people have followed since anyone can remember. The intimate scenes with the family are painful in their complexity--no raised voices or overly dramatic scenes, but plenty of fierce looks and reprimands, particularly from the matriarch who threatens the girl with permanent expulsion from the family if she runs away to the city.
Yet the whole family is moving into modern times, using their earnings to buy a new house--but still compelled to sacrifice a goat in honor of their new dwelling; shopping for new appliances--but still discussing marrying off their children for the highest financial advantage, first the eldest son, then the eldest daughter, and then Mümine. It is determined the youngest girl will fetch the highest price because she is so pretty. However, the boy she loves is poor, and this angers her mother no end. The camera consistently captures Mümine's universal beauty throughout the film, yet, oddly, when we do see her in modern dress at the end visiting the school in Skopje decked out in jeans, tennis shoes, hoodie, hair tied back in a ponytail, she appears to be just an ordinary, average, modern teenager. Yet this is exactly who she wishes to be.
Jurij Meden is a freelance film writer and curator, his catalog bio consisting of this meager information: "born in Ljubljana in 1977, film worker." In his glorious experimental piece, 1717 Kilometers, we journey through his native Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzogovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. The film is a super 8mm record of summer, filmed by Meden and Vlado Skafar, "filled with idiotic excursions, false goals, prodigal waste, disappointed loves,
galling personal insufficiencies, and half-witted associations." It is a thrilling road movie on speed. As visually stunning as the piece is, the sound design and score must be noted, as well. Created by Paulo Raposo, a sound and media artist based in Lisbon, Portugal, the music and ambient recordings add a totally appropriate psychological element, capturing the essence of the hallucinogenic quality of a long road trip, the world flying by, hour after hour, day after day, from the confines of an automobile.
The film's physicality reflects how much ground gets covered, geographically, emotionally and otherwise. The road becomes an alternate universe, road weariness creating its own dreamscape, the monotony and hypnotic cast of it all, life passing by as if it's one extended mirage, image after image floating out of the emptiness that surrounds the strip of road one follows until it turns into total and utter abstraction, one image blending into another, coming in and out of focus, one moment the colors overly-saturated, then everything blurry and opaque. The distinct world of the constant traveler is one of feeling, somehow, captured, even though the journey is through one's own auspices, the "freedom of the open road" a siren call for many, a rite of passage. But there is a feeling of isolation that is contradictory to the freedom of movement, a feeling that there is no one else in the world that knows where you are since your physical location changes every moment, you're always somewhere different than you were just a second before. Lost, you have the effortless freedom of a ghost and feel as if you could float on the wind and blow through solid obstacles without touching them. It is a fantastic journey, one simply signed at its close, as if it's an art piece (which it is), JM 2010.