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GOCRITIC! Trieste 2019

GoCritic! Review: Greetings from Free Forests

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- This complex and original documentary had its Italian premiere at the Trieste Film Festival, after it triumphed at DocLisboa

GoCritic! Review: Greetings from Free Forests

American director Ian Soroka's first feature-length documentary, Greetings from Free Forests [+see also:
trailer
film profile
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, is a promising debut which gathers together the stories and memories related to Yugoslav National Liberation Army partisans who took refuge in the forests of Slovenia during the Second World War. Winner of the DocLisboa's biggest prize, the Lisbon City Grand Prix, the film had its Italian premiere out of competition at the 30th Trieste Film Festival.

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In the opening scene of Greetings from Free Forests, all is dark: we listen to the sounds of the forest in anticipation of the images soon to follow, and a voice-over recounts the fable of Emperor Trajan and his donkey ears; a story which, according to legend, continues to spread throughout the woods by way of birdsong. All of a sudden, a beam of light from the video projector illuminates the forest, the machine humming in the background. In this light, we see a rock falling into a hole, its echo reminiscent of secrets buried deep inside the earth. Soon, another voice-over introduces us to the central story, telling the tale of partisans who hid themselves in forests and caves.

Soroka is a visual archaeologist of sorts, uncovering the many layers of memory and history hidden within Slovenia's majestic, silent forests. After much research, Soroka has produced an experimental documentary film which combines off-screen testimonies given by locals with images of the landscape, and also archive footage taken from Yugoslav newsreels of the late 1940s and early 1950s, amateur footage shot during the war, and scenes from World War 2-themed epics (known as the Yugoslav "partisan genre"). This approach allows Soroka to portray the multifaceted humanity, in both a figurative and a literal sense, which hid behind the trees and which counted hunters, tourists, speleologists, workers, and surviving members of the resistance among its many members.

Greetings from Free Forests is an unusual exploration of the bond between man and nature, and between history and memory. In an attempt to depersonalise the material and place the forest centre stage, Soroka keeps human beings at arm's length in his film: people who appear in shot are always seen at a distance, lost in lush, green trees, or in detailed, close-up frames of their body parts: hands at work or feet exploring the land. We never get to see the faces of interviewees and every voice tells a different tale, each one forming part of a larger (hi)story. Frames from past and present paint the big picture of the Slovenian forests, immortalising them in all their magic and mysteriousness. And then, in a powerful, central scene where the director superimposes images from an old war film onto the dark forest, the landscape and its inhabitants merge into one, creating the illusion of large tree-like human figures.

Using an approach similar to visual art - at times reminiscent of works by Michelangelo Frammartino (especially his cinema installation, Alberi), with whom Soroka shares a background in architecture - the film gradually reveals the different faces of the forest, which can act as a shelter, a source of life and food, and a guardian of memory. However, when examining these aspects, the film can sometimes feel constrained by the academic format favoured by historical documentaries, and the unexpected presence of a dramatic English voice-over, which is at odds with the Slovenian tales told in the film, only exacerbates the problem.

A surprising story on the making of an old partisan film in 1948, which was filmed among actual war ruins (an approach similar to Italian neorealism), tells of an attempt to create a new, collective memory at the end of the Second World War. Unfortunately, Soroka decided not to include the title of this old picture within the body of the present film (closing credits identify it as France Štiglic's On Our Own Land, a landmark title in Yugoslav and Slovenian cinema history), which does serve to surround it with a mysterious aura, but it also prevents the viewer from getting closer to the subject.

Moreover, whilst the detailed sound design helps create an immersive cinema experience and allows Soroka to achieve his objective of depersonalisation, it is sometimes difficult to keep up with the disparate voice-overs telling stories which are often unconnected, and this will especially be the case for audiences unfamiliar with Slovenian history. The filmmaker's insistence on formal experiments, such as pairing dialogue tracks from old movies with images shot for this documentary, and vice-versa, does make for an original viewing experience, but it also has its limits, and when these limits are crossed, the audience is left confused over the actual story being told.

Nevertheless, in his examination of a bunker originally built as an atomic bomb shelter back in Yugoslavian times, and which now houses the Slovenian National Film Archive, the young director reflects on the role of cinema in the preservation of collective memory and in the processing of wartime trauma. The Slovenian forest is at risk of erosion (partially due to logging, which is also covered in the film by way of old newsreel material), and the same can be said for memory. Greetings from Free Forests is a remarkable attempt to fight this process of oblivion.

This article was written as part of GoCritic! training programme.

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