KURJA POLT 7: BEYOND THE UNCANNY

“It is only rarely that a psychoanalyst feels impelled to investigate the subject of aesthetics /…/ But it does occasionally happen that he has to interest himself in some particular province of that subject; and this province usually proves to be a rather remote one, and one which has been neglected in the specialist literature of aesthetics. The subject of the ‘uncanny’ is a province of this kind. It undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible – to all that arouses dread and creeping horror; it is equally certain, too, that the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with whatever excites dread. /…/ the ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”
– Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, 1919

“Perhaps the most important difference between the unheimlich on the one hand and the weird and the eerie on the other is their treatment of the strange. Freud’s unheimlich is about the strange within the familiar, the strangely familiar, the familiar as strange – about the way in which the domestic world does not coincide with itself. /…/ The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the ‘homely’ (even as its negation). /…/ the weird is constituted by a presence – the presence of that which does not belong. The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or if there is nothing present when there should be something.”
– Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, 2016

Freud developed his famous concept of the unheimlich – the uncanny, unhomely, the strangely familiar – on the basis of literary and linguistic examples. He mentioned only one film, Paul Wegener’s The Student of Prague (Der Student von Prag, 1913), which is hardly unusual. In 1919, when the essay was published, horror cinema existed only in prototypes. But it would be in the realm of cinema, and particularly horror cinema, that this special quality of the horrific would come to life most fully and fruitfully. In the arena of fiction and imagination, this unheimlich feeling can belong to the work (as artistic mode or device) or its audience (as experience and affect). It can be aroused by persons and things, impressions, events and situations. Freud lists particular motifs: inanimate objects that appear human (artificial dolls and automatons), doppelgängers, the fear of losing one’s eyes or limbs (prosthetics, severed heads, feet which dance by themselves), the fear of the dead and the return of the dead (spirits, ghosts and haunted houses) all the way to castration anxiety, Freud’s ultimate settling of the unheimlich enigma. A century later, British philosopher Mark Fisher (1968–2017) returns to Freud’s essay and in his study The Weird and the Eerie (2016), subtitled ‘Beyond the Unheimlich’, identifies two additional modes related to this complex category of the uncanny: the weird and the eerie.

Our thematic Retrospective: Beyond the Uncanny is not a filmic illustration in the service of theory. It offers us a chance to bring Freud’s and Fisher’s thoughts to mind and invite the viewer to take their precious books in hand, while we play freely with the categories of the unheimlich, the weird and the eerie, at times arousing uncanny horror, at others subverting it to comic effect, yet always allowing these marvellously diverse works of cinema to stand on their own. The chronologically earliest, and closing this year’s festival is Benjamin Christensen’s surreal, pioneering and strikingly progressive The Witch (Häxan, 1922). One of the most artistically unique and original works of cinema’s silent era will be accompanied live by Slovenian musicians Elvis Homan and Boštjan Simon on drums, saxophone and electronics. Georges Franju’s poetically surreal and chillingly visceral psychological nightmare, a bona fide classic of horror cinema Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage, 1960), will be our opening film. Director Joël Séria and actress Jeanne Goupil will join us to present a true gem of subversive cinema, the rarely seen masterpiece of youth rebellion and nonconformity Don’t Deliver Us from Evil (Mais ne nous délivrez pas du mal, 1971). Peter Weir’s sublime, enigmatic and eerie chronicle of a disappearance, where repressive Victorian nurture collides with ancient Australian nature, is a potent distillate of unheimlich unease. Thundercrack! (1975), the ultra-cult high mass of queer and camp cinema by avant-garde auteurs Curt McDowell and George Kuchar subverts the “horror” of its Gothic, dark-house setting with anarchic humour and delirious debauchery. With Karen Arthur’s dark and bizarre tale of madness, obsession and incestuous passion The Mafu Cage (1975), we will encounter the uncanny (along with some hefty taboos) at home. Schramm (1993) by cult filmmaker and underground icon Jörg Buttgereit will provide the indispensable castration anxiety, while its surrealist animated sequel Tomorrow I Will Be Dirt (2019) by Robert Morgan will weave together all Freudian nightmares. Joining us in person, director Jörg Buttgereit will bring along his newest short film Piglets (Schweinchen, 2020) straight from its premiere at the Berlinale.

Our Focus: Africa combines the great classics of African film heritage with more contemporary and far-out genre creations. Ghana’s musical trailblazers, the witty satirists M3NSA and Wanlov the Kubolor aka FOKN Bois will join us in Ljubljana with “The World’s 2nd 1st Pidgin Musical” Coz Ov Moni 2: FOKN Revenge (2013) and a live concert! From Wakaliga, a slum in Uganda’s capital of Kampala and home to the grassroots film studio Wakaliwood, comes the most insane and insanely entertaining no-budget DIY action extravaganza that has taken festival audiences by storm: join us for a double boom of Bad Black (2016) and Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010) with star, producer and Wakaliwood ambassador to the world Alan Ssali Hofmanis and Ebola Hunter! Miguel Llansó’s Ethiopian entry Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (2019), an explosion of pop-cultural nostalgia billed as “The Matrix on Acid”, rounds off our contemporary offerings. And then come the giants of African cinema, Mauretania’s Med Hondo (1936–2019) and Senegal’s Djibril Diop Mambéty (1945–1998). Although considered a father figure of Panafrican cinema, Hondo’s films are still so young, fresh and radical today as if they were made – tomorrow. We shall explore his sweeping epic about the warrior-queen Sarraounia (1986), a hymn to dignity and a furious denouncement of colonial expansion, on 35mm in all its widescreen glory. The great soul of Senegalese cinema Djibril Diop Mambéty will be the focus of this year’s family Matinée with the newly restored versions of Le Franc (1994) and The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (La petite vendeuse de soleil, 1999) from Mambéty’s unfinished trilogy Tales of Little People. Hymns to the courage, resilience and imagination of the downtrodden and marginalized, brimming with deep humanity and Chaplinesque humour.

The Contemporary section brings a distinct and distinguished company from the festival circuit. Belgian cineaste and Kurja Polt 2018 guest of honour Fabrice du Welz concludes his “Ardennes trilogy” with a daring and delicate ethereal tale of teenage amour fou Adoration (2019). Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di Koko-da (2019) is a nightmarish pseudo-surrealist fairy tale for adults, infused with formal play and the darkest of humours. One of the major discoveries at last year’s Cannes, J-P Valkeapää’s Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Koirat eivät käytä housuja, 2019) is a darkly humorous and deliciously painful BDSM love story that enraptured cinephile audiences and critics. While Llansó’s Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway topped festival sections dedicated to new and idiosyncratic visions.

In the focus of the Endemic section, exploring genre tendencies in Slovenian and broader ex-Yugoslav cinema, is master filmmaker, cinematographer, a standard-bearer of the Yugoslav Black Wave and our eternal inspiration: Karpo Godina. Karpo will share with us juicy tales from the famous Belgrade Film Festival of 1972, where he brought together the who’s who of independent filmmaking – including Miloš Forman, Buck Henry, Paul Morrissey, Frederick Wiseman and Tinto Brass – to create the now legendary Dadaistic collage I Miss Sonja Henie (Nedostaje mi Sonja Henie, 1972). His own making of documentary The Making of Sonja Henie (1972–2007) will offer an insight into this wild creative process and serve as an invaluable record of a lost era. This is cult cinema in action!

The fourth Cult Film Conference, created in collaboration with the University of Northumbria from Newcastle, will delve into aspects of the cinematic uncanny with Dr. Alexia Kannas from RMIT University in Melbourne, and Doctors Claire Nally, Steve Jones and Russ Hunter from Northumbria. The film criticism workshop Shivering Skin, Sharpening Gaze will sharpen its pens yet again under the patronage of KINO! magazine. While our How to Make a Fanzine workshop will channel its knack for the surreal and seriously funny into the official festival fanzine Pullum Cutis.

Don’t look for it at home, the strangely familiar is coming to cinema!
Maša Peče & Kurja Polt Festival