Searching for solutions after 1989

The social and political situation after the fall of the Communist regime in November 1989 brought about a fundamental change in the perception of Slovak cinematography. The fast development of social reality passed film work by and several films in production ‘aged’ almost overnight. The state monopoly system gradually began to fall apart and Slovak film found itself in a sphere of culture where the production and distribution base was expected to operate on the principle of free competition.
State property in the film enterprises was immediately earmarked for privatisation, the first in the entire field of culture and culture industries. But while Slovak Film Distribution, as a distribution business, underwent a relatively fast privatisation, the property of the production enterprise of Slovak Film Works Bratislava-Koliba found itself in the sphere of political influence and group economic interests. Although by 1991 it no longer received operational subsidies and its property was included in the coupon privatisation, the transition of ownership would take five more years in which the company would be dogged by allegations of asset-stripping and fraud. As a result Slovakia’s professional cinematographic sector went into decline and studio and laboratory facilities fell into disrepair.
1991 brought fundamental changes in the structure of cinematography in Slovakia; these were followed by the economic, institutional and independence (in terms of content) of the Slovak film industry from the state monopoly. The Slovak Film Institute (SFÚ) was now established as an independent institution, becoming the only state institution operational in the field of cinema, the capacity in which it has functioned ever since. Comprising of two organisational parts – the National Cinematographic Centre and the National Film Archive – the institute also took over the copyrights for Slovak films produced under the state monopoly and began to operate as the main presentation centre for Slovak cinematography and audiovisual culture.
Faced with a sharp decrease in subsidies, Slovak film was now expected to engage with the market economy and incorporate itself into the context of international creative and production co-operation, while also objectively assessing its own development. In addition to the challenge of making the transition to a new system of financing and a well-thought-out concept of technological and investment development, a certain degree of self-reflection was also required in order for Slovak film to identify its future potential. Understandably the extent of the change required of the Slovak film industry in such a short period of time was beyond the capacity of its management, with the result that a decline in film production in Slovakia became unavoidable.
With the state virtually abandoning its support of film production and distribution, cinemas were left to their own devices in the market environment. As a result, the majority of Slovak cinemas ceased to operate and the distribution space was quickly filled by large American companies and their products. The Association of Slovak Film Clubs (ASFK) was the only remaining alternative in this field until the following decade, when it was joined by several independent distribution companies.
During the 1980s an average of 10-12 full-length films had been produced each year, a figure which did not include the number of documentary and animated films and approximately 10 TV films or series produced for Slovak Television. In the second half of the 1990s and at the beginning of the new millennium, this number had dropped to just one or two films per year. In some years not even one new Slovak film was screened in the cinemas. The irony of this period is that despite the radical drop in filmmaking, Slovakia joined international European film and audiovisual programmes and supportive structures (Eurimages, the MEDIA Program) and ratified European conventions on film co-production and audio-visual heritage protection. Thus while on one hand the state officially ensured the incorporation of Slovak film into the European framework, on the other it did not provide the necessary funding and infrastructural support to enable equal partnership of Slovak cinematography in this context.
If, after 1989, some hitherto taboo themes or themes previously controlled by censorship were no longer inaccessible for Slovak feature films, some themes now became inaccessible from the production and creative point of view. Slovak film joined the relatively popular trend of ‘nostalgia’ in European cinematography. Besides the powerful documentary essay Papierové hlavy (‘Paper Heads’, 1995), directed by Dušan Hanák, the only other film that dealt with life during the previous regime was Muzika (‘Music’, 2007), directed by Juraj Nvota, which came 18 years after the fall of that regime.
Martin Šulík’s films Všetko čo mám rád (‘Everything I Love’, 1992), Záhrada (‘The Garden’, 1995), Orbis Pictus (1997) and Krajinka (‘Landscape’, 2000) represent the creative high point of Slovak filmmaking in the 1990s. During this period Šulík gradually matured as a filmmaker with his own style and poetics and became the dominant figure in Slovak film. He put emphasis on meaningful detail, a gripping handling of individual motifs and symbols and an outwardly discreet but thorough examination of the emotional world of his characters and their relationships. Šulík searched for meaning and metaphor in small motifs, situations and rejoinders, from which he composed a thorough and emotionally suggestive mosaic of the theme. In his films, reality naturally overlapped with fiction and the depiction of the world with distinctive reflection.
After 2000, a new trend emerged in the Slovak feature film, represented by the emerging directors of the post-November generation – the urban ‘lifestyle’ film. The films of this new generation did not aim to bring personal evidence of the world, society or man. They attempted to attract by feeling, to entertain through some genre elements or to offer views of the life and civilisation and motifs of the ‘new age’. They emphasised staccato motif changes and several outward signs of the present world. The genre elements of thrillers and other action forms, light comedy, music, erotica and the discreet revelation of homosexuality belonged inseparably to this trend. Vladimír Adásek’s Hana a jej bratia (‘Hannah and Her Brothers’, 2001), Eva Borušovičová’s Vadí nevadí (‘Truth or Dare’, 2001), Katarína Šulajová’s O dve slabiky pozadu (‘Two Syllables Behind’, 2004) and Vladimír Fischer’s Polčas rozpadu (‘Half Life’, 2007) were outwardly reminiscent of some of the contemporary Czech films from the wave of commercially-successful films. However, the box office response was nowhere near as significant. Some films in 2007 and 2008 (Polčas rozpadu, Muzika) brought a gradual return of audiences to the cinemas to see Slovak films, but the only film to achieve major box office success in recent years has been Juraj Jakubisko’s historical epic Bathory (2008), an international co-production (Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Great Britain) which became the most expensive project in the history of Slovak cinematography.
In the wake of the the well-balanced dramatic film form presented by Miloslav Luther’s historic films Anjel milosrdenstva (‘Angel of Mercy’, 1993) and Útek do Budína (‘Escape to Budapest’, 2002), Czech and other foreign directors and co-producers entered the Slovak market at the end of the 1990s with a somewhat different view of filmic reality. Noteworthy examples include Vladimír Michálek’s Je třeba zabít Sekala (‘Sekal Has to Die’, 1998), Alice Nellis’ Výlet (‘Some Secrets’, 2002) and Tajnosti (‘Little Girl Blue’, 2007), Ivan Vojnár’s Lesní chodci (‘Forest Walkers’, 2003), Ivan Fíla’s Kráľ zlodejov (‘King of Thieves’, 2003) Michaela Pavlátová’s Neverné hry (‘Faithless Games’, 2003), Ondřej Trojan’s Želary (2003), Petr Zelenka’s Příběhy obyčejného šílenství (‘Wrong Side Up’, 2005), Jan Švankmajer’s Šílení (‘Lunacy’, 2005), Jiří Menzel’s Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (‘I Served the King of England’, 2006), Jiří Vejdělek’s Roming (2007) and Dariusz Jablonski’s Jahodové víno (‘Strawberry Wine’, 2007). However, most of these were creatively and financially small contributions to Slovak film rather than a manifestation of its independent creative or production potential. The exception was the film Sokoliar Tomáš (‘Thomas the Falconer’, 2000), made by Czech director Václav Vorlíček and based on the life of Slovak writer Jozef Cíger-Hronský. In this way, in co-production with Czech, Hungarian and French partners, Slovak cinematography returned to the genre of popular family films with a thematic base in Slovak literature. Thanks to its international co-production, Sokoliar Tomáš became the best-selling Slovak film abroad after 1989.
After the change in the social and political regime in 1989, Slovak film suffered both decline and creative success. The latter involved not only award-winning films from the socialist vaults (including several works by Dušan Hanák, Juraj Jakubisko and Peter Solan) but also new films from both experienced directors (Dušan Hanák, Miloslav Luther) and from the younger generation (Martin Šulík). After 2000, independent documentary films also witnessed considerable growth both at home and abroad, especially through the noteworthy travelogue films of Pavol Barabáš, Matej Mináč’s Emmy Award-winning full-length documentary Sila ľudskosti – Nicholas Winton (‘The Power of Good – Nicholas Winton’, 2002), and Juraj Lehotský’s docu-drama Slepé lásky (‘Blind Loves’, 2008), winner of the CICAE Award for Art Cinema at the Cannes International Film Festival. The work of the young generation of documentary film makers (Peter Kerekes, Jaroslav Vojtek, Marko Škop, Juraj Lehotský and others) who learned their craft at the Faculty of Film and Television of the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (VŠMU) in Bratislava proves that mature works of film-making can be made in the conditions of independent production. Animated film has also seen a gradual revival of creative talents.