Once a Year in the Balkans

The town of Bitola nestles comfortably amid the imposing backdrop of the Balkan Mountains. The minuets blend on the skyline in harmony with their Orthodox neighbours. The main street of this historic cultural crossroad bustles with young men and women drinking mainly coffee. There seems little more to do than meet, talk and stroll.

 

However every year this Macedonian town is the host to the oldest Festival in the World devoted to the craft of Cinematography. For six nights a year this occasion truly belongs to the people. A sprinkling of foreign guests pass through this charming crossroads of time, often more like ships in the night. The jury members usually stay the course, sustained by fine food and wine and overwhelmed with friendliness. But this Festival really belongs to the people of Bitola and their passion for film.

The Big Hall fronting the town Green is dominated by a statue of a cinematographer. The film goers mingle in their hundreds under the massive figure of Milton Manaki, one of the pioneering Balkan cinematographer brothers. The long red carpet at the televised Gala is strolled in splendour by the President, Dr Gjorge Ivanov accompanied by the great and the good. After the opening they are mostly destined to evaporate, leaving the townspeople to their Annual highlight.

This thirty fifth Festival was as glamorous as this writer has witnessed. The dignity and charm of the French actress Juliette Binoche was set to captivate all who had the pleasure to meet her. In the acceptance speech for her Golden Camera for outstanding contribution to Film Art, Miss Binoche paid tribute to the skills of the cinematographer, mentioning their importance being gauged by being really missed when visiting the loo on set!

The roll call of great cinematographers who have visited the Manaki Brothers Festival to receive their Golden Camera Awards was further enhanced by the presence of Chris Menges BSC ASC and Luca Bigazzi AIC. Apart from his ASC Lifetime Achievement Award, two Oscars for The Killing Fields and The Mission, the trophies and triumphs of Chris Menges are too numerous to mention. Luca Bigazzi has been nominated for the top Italian Oscar, the di Donatello Award no less than fifteen times and won it a record six occasions. The film The Great Beauty, shot with his friend the director Paolo Sorentino won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film earlier this year. Previous Lifetime Achievement names include Nykvist, Francis, Alekan, Ondricek, Delli Colli, Coutard, Yusov, Storaro, Ballhaus, Petritsky, Carvallo, Williams, Suschitzky, Zsigmond, Spinotti, Berger, Tovoli and Alcaine.

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This Festival has always been held in Bitola, the home of the Manaki Brothers. An attempt to hi-jack it in 2008 to the capital City of Skopje was soundly aborted following a determined campaign led by the dynamic Mayor of Bitola and former actor, Vladimir Taleslki. His promised at that time to fund the building of a new cinema as a homage to the Manaki Bros. This pledge has been kept together with that to improve the quality of projection. The new cinema is nearing completion and a Barco 2K digital projector has been installed in the Big Hall. No cinematographer need fear the quality of the projected image.

The jury in the main competition were under the guidance of a former Camerimage Golden Frog winner, Giora Bejach ACT. The pre- competition favourite was the Polish film IDA which has captured praise and Awards internationally. The Golden Camera however went to the Ukranian film The Tribe whose cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych appeared on screen to give a moving speech of gratitude. No one begrudged his triumph. Cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal were awarded the Silver Camera for IDA and the Bronze Award went to the young English Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe for his impressive filming of ‘71 set in the troubles of Northern Ireland.

manakiqqq    On the left is Froshina Boskova who runs the Junior Programme sponsored by VIP pictured with Labina Mitevska, Festival Director.

A retrospective was presented by the Macedonian Film Professionals Association in honour of Milcho Manchevski whose films Before the Rain and Dust were screened. At a Q and A Milcho implied regret that he had not appreciated earlier enough in his career the value of collaboration with the cinematographer. His cinematographers included Darius Khondji, Manuel Teran and Barry Ackroyd.

Imago has supported the Manaki Festival for many years. The Third Imago Conference of Balkan Cinematographers was constructive and informative ahead of an important European Conference on Social Dialogue to be held in Brussels next March. Delegates from Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia were joined for the first time by representatives from Albania. Romania sent apologies through Imago vice-President Ivan Tonev. A Fourth Conference was requested next year. This increasingly important Conference is only made possible through the assistance and generosity of the Festival Organisers

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Imago also co-hosts a Series of in depth talks with Golden Camera recipients lasting around two hours. Chris Menges and Luca Bigazzi in separate sessions both took the audience through illustrated journeys of their photographic lives. Those who missed both events missed an inspiration.
The Theme of the Festival was “To the Stars”. Future Funding is secure through the Patronage of the Government of Macedonia and the Municipality of Bitola. The real stars are the Festival Director, Labina Mitevska, advised by Blagoja Kunovski-Dore and Gena Teodosievska, selectors of the Main and Documentary programmes. The unsung stars continue to be the voluntary workers without whom nothing would happen.

The stars working for the future of film are the sponsors of the Junior Programme, VIP. Under the guidance of Froshina Boshkova the young people of Bitola are being encouraged to take an interest in film through classes at the Festival. Their ninety second film was screened at the close. Theirs is the future! The knowledge of the role of the cinematographer in filmmaking appears as secure in Bitola as it is in Hollywood!

Nigel Walters BSC/Imago President