The New Slovene Avant-Garde Nov 19-24 at the Northwest Film Forum

Film festivals dedicated to some foreign country or minority group proliferate in Seattle, so it's not at all unusual to find oneself buried in a landslide of movies from some hitherto unexplored culture. But the same festivals come around year after year, and after a while the Polish, queer, Jewish, Nordic, or whatever perspective starts to lose its celluloid sheen. Thanks then to Northwest Film Forum for coming through with a gigantic arts festival dedicated to Slovenia, a country that didn't even exist when most of us took geography in grade school.

Of course we have a massive international film festival here too, and if you'd been paying attention you could have seen at least five Slovene movies over the past few years. Watching films from Slovenia--and other small countries from Central and Eastern Europe--is a thrilling exercise in nonreciprocal bewilderment. I love being plunged into a culture where I feel utterly unmoored (pop quiz: Is Ljubljana a brand of Slovene mouthwash or the cosmopolitan capital of a country with a higher literacy rate than the United States?), and where the characters mess with American culture and iconography with abandon (in Sweet Dreams, the protagonist compares his mother to Lana Turner in Madame X).

With an art exhibition, a miniature book fair featuring English translations of Slovene novels, a performance by the industrial band Laibach, and an appearance by the Slovene ambassador to the United States (no joke), you'll have the opportunity to disabuse yourself of all your misconceptions about Slovenia (if you'd ever bothered to form any). The Film Forum's series adds up to one extraordinarily well-contextualized film festival--or an especially film-rich cultural event, depending on your perspective. But the movies, thankfully, are strong enough to stand up on their own.

The opening film, Saso Podgorsek's Sweet Dreams (2001), is a hysterically dark coming-of-age story written by Miha Mazzini and set in Tito-controlled Yugoslavia in the 1970s. It's the kind of neutral-hued, brutal nostalgia that only formerly Communist countries can pull off, and it's delightful from beginning to end.

Our skinny hero, Egon, is saddled with a grandmother who claims to communicate with angels and who, at one point in the movie, appears to have wrapped her imagined stigmata wounds in bandages. But at least his grandma has his best interests in mind. His mother is a platinum-coiffed basket case who alternately blames her son for his own malnourishment and force-feeds him mounds of canned meat. Shunned by his peers at school, Egon makes social headway only when he interrupts his gym teacher--a capitalism enthusiast with a vague resemblance to Bela Karolyi--in the middle of sexually assaulting Egon's classmate. The grateful girl brings him pie in exchange for volunteering to distract the sadist.

These circumstances may sound exceedingly bleak, and they are, but the film maintains an impressive levity, assisted by a twinkling soundtrack that flirts with, but never capitulates, to whimsy. Egon, too, trucks along in an untouchable state of suspended optimism. After nursing a secret desire for a record player, he finally hatches a plan to trap his mother into buying him one. The scenes in which Egon professes an undying love for a precious child singer named Heintje (a real Dutch star who scored a hit with the single "Mama" in the 1960s) strike a note of unbearably exquisite hilarity.

Sweet Dreams' screenwriter Miha Mazzini is apparently a little hung up on bizarre child stars who hold a special appeal for the mothers of Slovenia, because his short subject The Orphan with the Miraculous Voice (which will precede Sweet Dreams at NWFF) deals, incredibly enough, with the exact same theme. In this slightly more absurdist take, a singing orphan named Piccolo Willi turns whomever he touches into a clone of himself. Only one person can stop him from covering the world with virtuous, warbling babies. (Terrifying, no?)

The newest feature film in the series, Spare Parts, played at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year, and it's the polar opposite of Sweet Dreams in terms of tone. A clear-eyed, nauseating depiction of people-trafficking along the Slovene/Italian border, the film invites us into the black world of immigrant smugglers through Ludvik, a former speedway champion, and his assistant Rudi, a new recruit who had idolized his boss in his youth. Home base is a decrepit city that used to house a nuclear reactor; everyone in town is suffering from cancer, and Ludvik's wife has already died from the disease.

Spare Parts is incredibly difficult to watch. It's technically adept, with a murky palette that matches the queasy inhumanity of the smuggling culture. As Rudi becomes inured to the work itself, his initial scruples flake away and it's a struggle not to understand the abuses that result from the globalization of human trade. The film is like Michael Winterbottom's In This World without the distancing maps or the instantly recognizable melodrama; it drowns you in the problem without any respite. It's hard to recommend Spare Parts, but if you see the film, the images will stay with you long after you leave the theater.

Then there's Guardian of the Frontier. This film, by Maja Weiss, is a strange specimen indeed. It's a sort of lesbian- exploitation road movie, except the road is a river separating the relatively affluent Slovenia from war-stricken Croatia. Three college coeds borrow a couple of canoes for a leisurely paddle down the border, teasing one another about a girl who's gone missing in the area. Then a tangent about a fairy king who forcefully weds virgins who get lost in the woods kicks in, and the movie goes completely off the rails. It's entertaining enough (especially if you play count-the-blatant-phallic-symbols) but really, truly weird.

There are a bunch more films in the series, including Predictions of Fire, a documentary about the vaguely Dadaist (a)political art collective NSK, and Dark Angels, an off-putting allegory in which a group of childhood friends (played by members of a Slovene heavy metal band) grow up to form a circle of corrupt authority figures. The shorts program, which includes the excellent Oscar-nominated work (A)Torsion and a 2000 film by Miha Mazzini, should be intriguing. For a complete list of films and events, see www.nwfilm-forum.org/slovenia.

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