Sexual Violence in the Cinema of Independent Slovenia

Week of the festival: Days of Poetry and Wine, Slovenia

/ by Tina Poglajen

The questioning of the politics of gender in Slovenian cinema has so far mostly been limited. Only in the past few years—and more often than not by the younger generation of (mostly female) film critics—have its images and narrative treatment of female characters been addressed critically. Dissatisfaction with the inequality of genders behind the camera has also started surfacing, and recently, the Slovenian Film Centre for the first time commissioned a research on gender equality in the Slovenian film. Published in March 2018, the research by Nika Gričar concluded that no more than thirteen out of 131 publicly funded fiction feature films have been realised by female filmmakers in independent Slovenia, a percentage falling well below the European average, and that in the recent years a downward trend of female filmmakers applying for funds has started to become apparent.


What can a cinema so determined by its male authorship then have to say? After 1991, film funding had preliminarily been taken on by the Ministry of Culture until 1994, when the Film Fund of the Republic of Slovenia took over, assuming the role of the manager of public funding of film production of the newly-independent nation-state. In reality however, the films to be produced would not deviate much from its Yugoslav predecessors, in terms of their masculine, patriarchal outlook. Critics such as Svetlana Slapšak, Dijana Jelača and Maja Bogojević have written about the images of women in Yugoslav film that had been based on representations of female characters as visual spectacle or sexual commodities, their bodies repeatedly infantilised or maternalised, humiliated, raped, beaten or dead. Occasionally, they were seen as metaphors for the land, both objects of patriarchal control. The rare liberated femininity had been brought to heel by means of the collective male institutionalised order of patriarchal forces. With the break-up of Yugoslavia, the national cinemas of Croatia and Serbia, during and right after the war, strove to formulate images of a new masculinity and femininity defined by their nationality. It seems Slovenian cinema took a similar turn, even though the country had been fortunate enough to be kept from most of the horrors of the war. While the nationalities of ex-Yugoslavia were portrayed as criminals or mobsters at the worst, or stereotypical caricatures at best, the treatment of gender seemed to have become disciplined by the transitional ideology of family conservatism. Revealing an even darker flip side, in the collective work of Slovenian cinema, the leitmotiv seems to be sexual violence against women.


The list of films seems to be endless. In the first film funded by the Film Fund of the Republic of Slovenia, the ridiculous Executioner’s Fresco (1995, dir. Anton Tomašič), an unfaithful wife is punished by a gang of bikers, who sexually assault and strangle her in the street; another woman is sexually molested several times and raped. In Carmen (1995, dir. by Metod Pevec), the eponymous heroine—a prostitute and a stereotype of the Victorian fallen woman—is violently threatened by one of her clients. In Outsider (1996, dir. Andrej Košak), the first Slovenian film that achieved mass success by attracting 90,000 viewers, an unconscious girl is raped repeatedly by several different men at a party, the scene intended as humorous. In 1997, Stereotype by Damjan Kozole tied its story together with interludes of a news story of a rapist (later revealed to be an actor) stalking and attacking panicked women in Ljubljana. In the satirical Dark Angels (1999, dir. Sašo Podgoršek) teenagers are sexually molested in a religious cult and an unfaithful wife is punished with sex reminiscent of a pornography film. In Porno Film (2000, dir. Damjan Kozole), the manic pixie dream girl is a victim of sex-slavery before the story of the film takes place and again at the end of the film. In Vojko Anzeljc’s Last Supper (2001), the protagonists of the film stalk and molest women; a pimp is violent to a prostitute and forces her into oral sex. In Poker (2001) by Vinci Vogue Anžlovar, which garnered something like a cult following, one of the main characters rapes and murders a female drug addict in the bathroom. In Rascals! (2001, dir. Miran Zupanič), the male in the couple fated to be together is aggressive and violent to his partner; she declares that ‘all decent women resist’. Sweet Dreams (2001, dir. Sašo Podgoršek) features sexual abuse in school. In Maja Weiss’s Guardian of the Frontier, the first Slovenian film directed by a woman—made in 2001, believe it or not—the most conservative of the three female protagonists either experiences or fantasises about an eroticised rape, then claims she was raped. In Amir (2002, dir. Miha Čelar), the protagonist rapes a woman in a bathroom of a train in a vulgar scene that is made further problematic by the nationalities of both: He is Bosnian, she Slovenian. He keeps acting violently to her and to her friend throughout the film. She falls in love with him in the end. The protagonist of Košak’s Headnoise (2002) is violent to his partner too, while a character in the prison—this time, male—is forced into giving oral sex. In Kozole’s bleak refugee drama, Spare Parts (2003), a female refugee is forced into sex to get medicine and food—afterwards, she commits suicide. In Cheese and Jam (2003), the friend of the male Bosnian protagonist lies to his female Slovenian partner to make her take off her clothes. The male lead of the romantic comedy Beneath Her Window (2003)—the love interest of the female protagonist—stalks and secretly watches her, including breaking into her flat, which is conceived as an act of romance.


The list of films featuring violence against or rape and sexual molestation of women continues on and on, from one year to another, leading up to today’s films. It would be simply too taxing to try to list them all in the course of this article. Suffice it to say that this incomplete list alone names sixteen films made in the period of 1994-2003 featuring some sort of sexual violence, often rape, mostly against women, which stand for almost half of the 35 total films which have been funded and made in those years. From the year 2003 onward, it is worth mentioning Gravehopping (2005) by Jan Cvitkovič, firstly, because it has become one of the most internationally successful Slovenian films, and secondly, because it features a particularly gruesome and exploitative rape scene that is rarely matched even in a cinema such as Slovenian, where sexual violence thrives.


Some issues connected to the portrayal of rape seem to be emerging repeatedly. Firstly, the use of rape as punishment for a woman who has transgressed the boundaries set by the patriarchal order. This resonates with the feminist theory of the cinematic rape as a form of an—enjoyable—public spectacle inherently connected to the sadistic phallic gaze of the male spectator. Rape in mass media is a collective public fantasy, reinforcing both the physical and the symbolic subordination of women. The crowning example of this is the first funded film of independent Slovenia, the Executioner’s Fresco. In it, the character named Nataša is punished for—what is defined as—her promiscuity; the film makes it explicitly clear that she is raped and murdered as a consequence of her infidelity; the scene of raping and murdering her is exploitative and eroticised. The act of raping a woman couldn’t be assuming the role of social control more blatantly—and several feminist theorists have remarked that these images serve not just to discipline the women in the film, but also the women that are watching the film: Female spectators and female critics.


Secondly, the obliviousness of the male characters, the viewers and the filmmakers themselves of the concrete reality of the experience of rape, or the definitions of rape and sexual violence itself. This is proved by the ubiquity of rape and sexual violence even in (romantic) comedies, such as Outsider, Last Supper, Beneath her Window and others. Especially in Outsider, which in words of some critics announced the ‘spring of Slovenian cinema’, raising it from its lethargy, a film that has been seen by masses of schoolchildren in the course of their extracurricular activities and is still beloved by many today, there is a shocking scene of a naked teenager or young woman being gang-raped at a party, where she (presumably) drank too much and fell unconscious. The pose in which she is filmed recalls the Odalisque paintings, popular in Rococo, which were mostly painted for erotic or pornographic purposes—for example, the portrait of Louise O'Murphy by François Boucher—once again, the scene of rape acquires an erotic character, intended for the sadistic phallic gaze of the male spectator. What is even more shocking than the scene and its eroticism itself is that none of the characters in the film defines it as rape; even Sead, the romantic hero of the story, declines raping the girl not because he is against the act, but because he is too depressed to partake in the joke. It is questionable whether the filmmaker himself defines it as rape. Judging by the reception of the film and the published reviews, the viewers either didn’t define it as such either—or perhaps they had, but somehow didn’t have a problem with it. In a situation which points to the existence of something like a rape culture without any kind of feminist interventions, rape is not criticised or problematised; instead, it is an obscene joke told at a woman’s expense, stripping her of all power, and bestowing it on a chorus of laughing men concluding the scene.


There is a flip side of this. When the film deigns to define the act of rape as rape, it is often seen as something which annihilates a woman’s spirit completely. Abused, raped, or otherwise fallen, she often has no other option than death. One example is the female refugee in Spare Parts. This view of rape is intimately connected to the complementary archaic idea of women’s sexual purity, which was seen as a young woman’s cardinal virtue. The ideological justification for sexual inexperience in women is certainly part of a culture where women have traditionally been treated as a commodity to buy and sell through marriage in order to provide heirs, and in which therefore their sexuality has to be regulated strictly.


If the unbridled, open sexuality of a woman, or other forms of indecent behaviour (like drinking too much) is deserving of a public punishment in the form of rape, it then follows logically that to protect herself against rape, a woman should rein in her sexuality and stay virginal. This is the rationale of Gravehopping. The film goes to great lengths to emphasise that Ida, a mute young woman, is not ‘provoking’ sexual violence. She is never seen in a sexual context—even her relationship with Šuki doesn’t seem to go further than a child’s kiss, in the physical sense. She acts in ways children do: She plays hide and seek behind car tires, peeks from behind them, runs behind a car. She is the ultimate virgin—a child. The trouble is, she is raped anyway—and far more brutally than others. The reason for this is that the film needs a strong enough catalyst for the otherwise peaceful Šuki to take revenge—and for the tragic end to ensue.


It seems, then, that the Slovenian cinema is, in a lot of ways, impersonating a detective from a film noir. On the surface, he seems to be inspecting a riddle or a murder, but what he is really, perhaps unconsciously doing, is investigating the femme fatale, the woman, the problem of her sexuality—which is problematic through its existence alone: on a social level, as we have seen, but also on the level of an individual unconscious mind, which the society’s ideology at least in part shapes. In the introduction we noted the recent changes in film criticism, which has started to address these issues. These new, critical feminist perspectives need to be sustained—they are some of the rare voices with the capacity to intervene, and to speak out against the continuation and endless reproduction of the normalisation of sexual violence.

Tina Poglajen

’s writing on film has been published by Film Comment, Indiewire, Cineuropa, MUBI, Ekran, Dialogi and KINO!, among others. She is a member of the editorial board of Ekran, broadcasts for Radio Slovenia and works as a programme consultant for the Ljubljana International Film Festival. An alumna of criticism programmes in Venice, Locarno and Rotterdam, she regularly reports from film festivals and has written extensively on gender and sexual violence in the cinema of independent Slovenia.