The discussion on queer film history usually focuses on Western cinematic images, which implicates an open-minded West and a homophobic Eastern Europe. Even though the public discourse on homosexuality was often riddled with stereotypes, censures, and discrimination, East-European LGBT (mostly gay and lesbian) images did exist, often in an ambivalent relation to public attitudes towards homosexuality. A foray into Slovenian queer film history shows an interesting fact: even though pre-independence LGBT film images were scarce, they were nevertheless mostly made before homosexuality was decriminalized in Yugoslavia in 1977 and often more radical than post-independence images. This article is a short introduction to the history of queer images in Slovenian pre- and post-independence film.

How can we re-inscribe (often subtle and hidden) queerness into the history of Yugoslavian (and Slovenian) film? One line of inquiry is authorship, which is usually connected to a notion of a white male (most of the time heterosexual) genius and therefore an ambivalent concept in feminist and LGBT film studies. Yugoslavia had two openly gay directors: one was a Czech director working in the country, František Čap, who was responsible for some of Slovenian biggest film hits such as Vesna (1953) and Don’t Whisper (Ne čakaj na maj, 1957). The other, Vojko Duletič, filmed several movies based on the country’s literary canon, for example In the Gorge (Na klancu, 1971). Queer film theory would ask whether (and how) the author’s queerness and their access to subcultural discourses influences their cinematic expressions. Even though Čap’s Slovenian films were never analysed through a queer prism, Nebojša Jovanović’s article My own private Yugoslavia: František Čap and the socialist celluloid closet (2012), gives a clue to queer motifs in its analysis of the director’s Bosnian film The Doors Remain Open (Vrata ostaju otvorena, 1959). The film’s main protagonist Rade, whose body is fetishized (Jovanović claims him to be the prime example of a Yugo male pin-up), can be read as a closeted homosexual, but also as queer figure – a figure of in-betweenness, whose sexuality is not clear-cut. The director’s Slovenian classics, admittedly more heteronormative, nevertheless offer potentially subversive readings. In Homoseksualnost in slovenski film (2009), Brane Mozetič writes that, at the auditions for Vesna, Čap wanted to see his actors in swimsuits – their muscular bodies can be seen in the film’s scene by the Ljubljanica River. This small historical anecdote could be read as hint of the director’s queerness and a nod to the hidden queer community, but whatever his motives, the mainstream public never noticed it and the film was one of the most beloved cinematic works of the time.

On the other hand, Duletič’s films had an unmistakable quality that often caused problems for the director. Take for example his 1964 film Comrades (Tovariši). Meant as a propaganda for the mining profession in the newly developed town of Velenje, the film’s stylized composition of young semi-naked male bodies working and living together, was far from what the Velenje Coal Mine ordered. The protagonist – a sad young man – is another figure of in-betweenness, but there is no doubt about his beauty, which the camera captures in the morning sunlight as well as in the mine’s shadows. The Mine’s representatives were not impressed with the subtle homoeroticism in all-male collectives, and the film was never screened. 

The same ambivalent queerness can be seen in the director’s later film Doctor (Doktor, 1985), in which the protagonist lives with a man, their relationship never explicitly defined. In his interview with Mozetič, Duletič later admitted: “All of my movies are homo,” ending the viewers’ guessing game. 

Slovenia got its first gay-focused movie in in 1977 with the amateur coming-of-age story Boys (Dečki). A technically rather clumsy teenage angst story of two boys falling in love at a boarding school has familiar narrative elements of other international queer works (think for example of the marvellous German film Mädchen in Uniform, 1931, Leontine Sagan). If the amateur director Stanko Jost was often visited by the police during filming, it was not so much to put pressure onto him but just to check if everything was going well. This story reveals that the conservative, homophobic, and patriarchal Yugoslavia perhaps also allowed for some of the more “liberating” images of (homo)sexuality Slovenian film has to offer. Probably more famous examples are movies by Boštjan Hladnik. Censored for ten years, his Masquerade (Maškarada, 1971) not only critiques the bourgeoisie and its violent morals, but also juxtaposes them to liberating expressions of “free love” (it was the beginning of 1970s) and gender fluidity. His later work, Kill Me Softly (Ubij me nežno, 1979), could be read as a true Slovenian camp classic, owing its sensibilities and aesthetics to a greater visibility of LGBT subcultures of the time. Even though both films still objectify female bodies, they nevertheless show gaps in the Yugoslav heteronormative fabric. 

Given the described movies were made in the 60s and 70s, one would expect an optimistic trend, but greater inclusivity of minorities is not always a linear movement. After the country gained its independence, the Slovenian society experienced a conservative turn and, in the 1990s and 2000s, LGBT people were mostly absent from the big screen. In an interview with Mozetič, Duletić describes the new times as “the end of Čap’s line [meaning homosexuality], as if the catholic influence decided there will be no more of this.” 

Guardian of the Frontier, 2004, Maja Weiss

A few interesting queer images from that time can nevertheless be found: take for example Guardian of the Frontier (Varuh meje, 2004, Maja Weiss), Slovenia’s first feature directed by a female director, about a group of girls on a trip that goes terribly wrong, in which patriarchal violence and homophobia are critically portrayed as part of the new Slovenian fabric. However, queer images (mostly of gay men and rarely lesbians) usually took a more destructive and stereotypical turn: in Headnoise (Zvenenje v glavi, 2002, Andrej Košak), a tale about a prison uprising, a quiet philosopher turned psycho rapist and killer embodies the trope of homosexual monstrosity; one of his (also gay) prey, a tragic victim. In 9.06 (2009, Igor Šterk), a police-officer obsessively investigating a bisexual man’s death goes to a gay club, kisses a man and a second later pukes. In this image, bi/homosexuality is still something abject, something which causes literal and symbolic nausea. And we should not forget about the “Dead Lesbian Trope” – a narrative device that, rather than giving LGBT people meaningful stories, kills them off in the most bizarre ways imaginable –, which can be found in Dual (Dvojina, 2013, Nejc Gazvoda), a Slovenian version of the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy, in which two girls fall in love in one night in Ljubljana, only to be revealed that one of them is dying of cancer. It is not all monsters, victims, and corpses, though, and Slovenia is not exempt of global trends of a recent queer cinematic revival. Putting aside a vibrant indie short film scene, an example of a feature that falls victim to some of the described tropes, but tries to nuance them, is Consequences (Posledice, 2018, Darko Štante). A story about a closeted gay in a juvenile detention centre and the violent consequences of his sexuality was one of the more interesting tries of putting contemporary Slovenian film on the map of global queer cinema. 

In recent years, global cinema (with Slovenian one in tow) reflected on the ways it portrays the world and who gets to tell stories. After the fog of industry’s ways cleared, the landscape of cinematic discrimination was left looking quite depressing. But if you are a woman or a part of a minority and love the medium that does not always love you back, you knew that already. Slovenian film is no exception, and until it finds a way to diversify its stories and voices, minorities will stay a footnote in national cinematic history.