Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Greetings From Free Forests, Images Or Soil
In this text, Phil Coldiron investigates Ian Soroka’s first feature Greetings From Free Forests, looking at its entanglement of place, politics and history.
Ian Soroka’s first feature, Greetings From Free Forests, lends itself to a deceptively simple synopsis: he has set out to trace six or so decades of activity in the forests of Southern Slovenia. He was drawn here, one imagines, because of the nearly too perfect fact that these same woods which once served as a natural fortress for Yugoslavia’s anti-fascist Partisan Liberation Front during the second World War, now house the Slovenian Film Archive, nestled in an underground bunker built, as the Cold War began, deep beneath the forest floor, a planned refuge for state officials. And indeed, Soroka weaves footage from this archive and others, much of it from the time of the war and its immediate aftermath, throughout his film, bouncing images of the past—all monochrome, all preserved or restored remarkably well—against both his own images of the area, done in crisp digital colour, and recordings drawn from conversations with the region’s present inhabitants.
To a certain type of modern moviegoer, the sort of film Soroka has made will be familiar: the discursive essay which proceeds by an associative logic to expand from an initial connection—say, the presence of a film archive at a site of considerable national historical import—towards the construction of a web of connections capable of catching something like history in all its suggestive inscrutability, its fondness for implication. He has plainly studied his Marker and his Steyerl. Seen as such, this would be a fine example of the form: deftly edited, argued lightly but legibly, with consistent wit (see, for example, the displacement of the tedium of explaining facts about a place onto a guided tour, heard and observed at a distance).
There is, however, a particular moment which seems to me to recalibrate all that surrounds it, to set the film vibrating at a frequency which is not paranoid, thirsty for connections, but skeptical of the idea that history will finally attach itself meaningfully to objects, whether images or soil. The sequence I refer to occurs a bit past half an hour into the film, just after it has finally arrived in the depths of the archive. From here, there begins a series of shots taken on the set of a feature chronicling the heroics of the resistance, starring a largely non-professional cast drawn from the ranks of these heroes, which would serve, as the voiceover tells us, as the first film of this new national cinema. In still, and then moving, images, we see the cast and crew mill about, technicians frame shots and arrange tripods, a lumbering dolly tracks in. And then, remarkably, as this dolly arrives at the end of its track, Soroka cuts to the same shot we have just seen filmed: we see the last few frames of this dolly into the stern face of a village matriarch as she stands defiant before some unseen fascist, “I’ll remove my shoes, to step upon our land one last time.” One might reasonably wonder whether her words are a triumphant reclamation of fascist rhetoric or a bleak harbinger of its inevitable return. Soroka, in making clear the construction of this romance between people and land, asks us to go further than this, to ruthlessly consider how it is that we—whoever that we includes—form the images we choose to see in nature.
Phil Coldiron is a writer in New York.