Central and Eastern Europe, Slovakia

Slovakia: Restricted cinema in the era of economic transformation

The end of the last century brought new hope to post-communist Slovakia, but the state’s cultural policy quickly adjusted to a capitalist mode of production.Cinema mostly did not present a critical voice in this process. Narratives in Slovak feature films remained isolated from the political situation and critical documentary was censored on public television.

Ever more often, the media in Central Europe are talking about winners and losers of the systemic transformations that followed the collapse of the Eastern Bloc between 1989 and 1991. The processes set in motion during this period of often wild and unrestrained economic, political, and social change, influence the shape and quality of democracy in this region today. A time when newly-minted entrepreneurs became staggeringly rich by suspicious means when former state enterprises were sold off in fraudulent transactions, and society quickly stratified into the rich and the poor, the 1990s are a period whose legacies have arguably now become more pressing than those of the previous authoritarian communist regimes.

As a result, the decade has become a hot topic of media interest. But what about the role of culture? Has it not been overlooked? Films and TV shows of the 1990s in Central Europe tried to capture the rapid transformation from state socialism to free, and largely unregulated, markets – sometimes applauding the new political course, at other times criticising it. This series zooms in on the audiovisual culture of the first post-socialist decade in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, and asks what it can tell us about how filmmakers tried to make sense of the bewildering changes around them.

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It is impossible to understand Slovak audiovisual culture of the 1990s without its institutional context. The positive change of the ideological framework – the end of the doctrine of socialist realism and the art of decadent late-socialist Normalization film – happened alongside economic changes. The crucial and fatal moment of Slovak film in the last decade of the 20thcentury came with the end of the film studios at Koliba through their final privatization in 1995. Koliba and Slovak film were essentially knocked down by the painful economic transformation of the post-socialist country towards a capitalist economy. Various filmmakers tried to save the studios several times, for a while it seemed they were about to privatize them themselves, but today their hope seems naive. Their story is presented in the 2009 documentary film by Zuzana Piussi Koliba. Slovak film studios, a corpus that before 1989 had employed more than a thousand workers and had existed for almost half a century, became a victim of Prime Minister Mečiar’s Moloch of privatization, together with many other businesses from different industries.

Film and politics as separate worlds

A decade earlier, quality in Slovak cinema could be found somewhere half way between formal innovations and subtle (or absent) political conflicts in storylines, which were not too influenced by the dogmatic aesthetic framework of the regime. During the 1980s, however, Koliba Studios turned into a small but well-equipped European film laboratory (Slovak film entered a succession of co-productions in the 1980s). Their disintegration after the political upheaval defined the period of a long and cold winter of Slovak cinema, which only started to thaw again in the past decade thanks to the foundation of the Slovak Audiovisual Fund. The fact that this is a quantitative renaissance in particular, and that current film criticism quite uncritically and unanimously reproduces a narrative about the rise of Slovak film, which is simultaneously victim to aesthetic and ideological nonidentity, is something I wrote about in a reflection for the October 2018 edition of the Slovak engaged monthly Kapitál under the title Falošný humanizmus? Istá tendencia slovenského filmu (“False Humanism? The Tendency of Slovak Film”).

The struggle to rescue the film industry in Slovakia paradoxically took place in an era of spontaneous positivity and hope for a better and more cultured tomorrow and, in spite of the factual state of institutional decadence, eventually generated a remarkable group of films.

In the 1990s, not even ten feature debuts were produced in Slovakia. The generation that either entered this period as professionals or graduated from the Film and Television Faculty at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava during this time is not called the “lost generation” of Slovak film by accident. Many of them, naturally, entered the golden cage of a growing and economically attractive advertising business to find employment. Thus, not everybody by far was engaged in filmmaking. The struggle to rescue the film industry in Slovakia paradoxically took place in an era of spontaneous positivity and hope for a better and more cultured tomorrow and, in spite of the factual state of institutional decadence, eventually generated a remarkable group of films. From today’spoint of view, the first films of Miro Šindelka and Štefan Semjan appear abrasive and obscure. They attempted rather boldly to forge a connection with postmodern currents in world cinema, though their results are rather shaky. Interestingly, the films of these filmmakers at the time of their production gave the impression of other worlds cut off from the political presence, closed in on themselves and isolated from the reality of public life.

The two biggest Slovakian new wave directors, Juraj Jakubisko and Dušan Hanák, continued to make films in the capitalist context. Only their films can be seen as offering a political gesture in this period. Jakubisko concluded his “trilogy of fate and happiness” with the film Lepšie byť bohatý a zdravý ako chudobnýachorý (Better to be Rich and Healthy than Poor and Ill) in 1992, in which he captured the atmosphere of the years after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when the old was not gone yet and the new was still on its way, and liberty, commercialization and counter aesthetics had broken free. After putting a full stop on his feature production with Súkromné životy (Private Lives) of 1990, Dušan Hanák made his crucial documentary intervention. The film Papierové hlavy (Paper Heads) of 1995 reflects the state of the country after almost half a century of communism. And last but not least, the situation of the turbo-capitalist 1990s is represented in a rather expressive way in the 1998 adaptation of Peter Pišťánek’s successful eponymous novel Rivers of Babylon, directed by Vlado Balc.

Tradition next to postmodernism

Martin Šulík debuted at the beginning of the 1990s with a film called Neha (Tenderness) in 1991, an intimate introspective story with a minimum of dialogues. It takes place in the fictitious timelessness of Bratislava, filled with a pliable atmosphere and baroque chiaroscuro. Šulík’s surprising response to the turbulent times in Slovak public life after November 1989 was silence. Silence to think about the transformation of a young artist – the main hero, perhaps a distant alter ego of the author – and silence to reflect on the transformation of the post-revolutionary country starting its unbridled incorporation of Western capitalist models.

In his following two films, Všetko čo mám rád (Everything I Like) of 1992 and Záhrada (Garden) of 1995, the latter being Šulík’s most successful film, he refers to the post-1989 years through the stories of men who are searching for their identity at a time when the borders to the West have been open for a few years. Searching, though, presupposes finding, but does not rule out stasis. The heroes are thirty-year-olds who return to their roots, to their homes, to the Slovak countryside so that they can move on with their lives. In both films, we find the theme of a complicated father-son relationship and the reconciliation with the familial present and past. On the metaphorical level, these films cope with the fragile national identity of the post-revolutionary period. Šulík became the only director of the 1990s through whom we can follow a production continuum to this day, though his films of the 2000s and today cannot compete with the quality of his early production.

As for the two most bizarre debuts of the 1990s, we can mention the films Na krásnom modrom Dunaji (On the Beautiful Blue Danube) by Štefan Semjan and Vášnivý bozk (Passionate Kiss) by Miro Šindelka, both from 1994. Unlike Šulík’s minimalist and traditionalist touch strongly embodied in some state aesthetics of Slovak film, these two pictures are in a certain way subversive and nonconformist stand-alone attempts to establish a dialogue with contemporary world cinema, but both fell into a position of extreme kitsch. An interesting testimony of the period is the background – these films are proof of the uncontrolled artistic tendencies that were boiling over after the Velvet Revolution in bohemian Bratislava.

Censorship in public television

Documentary production with explicit political overlap was not in good shape during the 1990s. Mečiar’s public service television was a de facto propaganda tool for the governing party, HZDS (Movement for Democratic Slovakia), and besides strictly controlling broadcast contents, it produced a number of tendentious programmes, the best known of which is Ako ďalej pán premiér (What next, Mr. Prime Minister), in which the erstwhile Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar led “monologues with the anchorwoman Mrs. Pravdová (Mrs Truth)”, as ironically mentioned by the documentary filmmaker Marek Šulík in his reflection on censorship in television in the post-89 era.

The situation in Mečiarꞌs TV is well described ex-post by Marek Kuboša, the author of the documentary Taká malá propaganda (A little propaganda) from 2001. In this film, a former public television anchorman, for example, claims in his authorized statement that his model for the design of propagandistic television formats was Joseph Goebbels, the head of Nazi propaganda. At the same time, Kuboš and Šulík, together with Robert Kirchhoff, belong to a minority of filmmakers who, at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava and later in practice, tried to critically view the dark period of censorship which, after the regime change, disguised itself, persisted, and, as Šulík points out in his reflection, still exists as long as public radio and television remain under the direct control of Parliament. Šulík with Kuboš, Kirchhoff and others (e.g. Petr Kerekes, Jaro Vojtek or Zuzana Piussi) belong to the fundamental documentary Generation 90 of classmates who met at the Academy of Performing Arts in the era of Mečiar. Today they are leading personalities of Slovak creative documentary.

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Matej Sotník is a film critic. Translated by Zuzana Miháliková. This text is published in cooperation with the Slovak engaged monthly Kapitál.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 749475”.