Women on the Verge of a Breakthrough

There's a lot of journeying going on in the lesbian world of film, from the Balkans to Central Asia to our own backyard

American entries to the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in short supply this year? Fine. Let's see how lesbians in Slovenia do it. That's right, Slovenia. And judging from Maja Weiss's excellent feature Guardian of the Frontier(Varuh Meje), they do it damn well. It being filmmaking, of course.

Weiss's debut feature follows three lovely Slovenes on an allegorical trek into places that are off limits, territories wild and unfamiliar, and situations alternately terrifying and intoxicating (both literally and figuratively). All are university students in the progressive capital of Ljubljana: Alja (Tanja Potocnik), an aspiring writer who doesn't know what she wants to write about yet (though chances are, after their experience together she'll have some pretty good material); Alja's "nice girl" roommate, Simona (Iva Krajnc); and Alja's unconventional best friend, Zana (Pia Zemljic). When Simona and Zana meet up with Alja at her parents' upscale suburban home, they all plan to break summer's monotony with a pleasant float down the River Kolpa. Ambivalent about her ever-present, ever-ready hometown boyfriend, Medo, Alja is visibly eager to ditch him for a weekend of female freedom. "Full speed ahead!" shouts the newly nose-ringed Zana, thrusting her arm and head out the window of Medo's reliable economy-size car as it putters further from civilization, loaded down with the canoes and camping gear he is loaning them. Medo drops the women off at river's edge with a parting joke about "bears, wolves, and serial killers," alluding to recent reports of a girl's disappearance from the area.

But rather than veer down the gruesome and mind-numbing psycho-killer/sex-slasher trail, Guardian blazes its own, and what ensues is a challenging, twisted, and ultimately fascinating adventure propelled by fear, love, discovery, and the power of the imagination. Nestled in "God's country" and straddling the blood-soaked border that separates Slovenia from neighboring Croatia -- or as Zana calls it, "a country of killers and perverts" -- the carefree women lounge, swim, liberate themselves from restrictive bikini tops, and belt out American tunes, including the popular Slavic version of a Tina Turner hit: "Rollin', rollin', rollin' on the Kolpa."

From Germany to Uzbekistan, Nina Petri and Jeanette Hain discover more than landscapes
From Germany to Uzbekistan, Nina Petri and Jeanette Hain discover more than landscapes
Pia Zemljic: Out of the closet and into the Slovenian woods
Pia Zemljic: Out of the closet and into the Slovenian woods

Details

Guardian of the Frontier screens at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 5, at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach.

Journey to Kafiristan screens on Saturday, May 4, at 7:00 p.m. at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach.

Treading Water screens at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, May 2, at the Colony Theatre.

The Trip screens at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 5, at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E Flagler St.

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But this idyll is undercut by ominous music, and societal constraints prove tougher to wriggle out of than a two-piece. The ubiquitous, leering Guardian of the Frontier, played to eerie perfection by popular Slovene personality Jonas Znidarsic, serves as the girls' relentless reminder. While fleeing an unseen threat in the woods, the three companions are tripped up, not by a pesky branch, but by a consuming argument about their identities as women. As they tumble along in the dark trying to decide where they can go next to escape a potentially horrendous fate, a parallel debate about women's roles and restrictions unfolds. "Why is being a nice girl such a bad thing?" asks the bashfully flirty Simona. Meanwhile Zana's and Alja's relationship intensifies and the former grows increasingly bold about her desire.

From marriage and morality to patriotism and xenophobia (and of course homophobia), Guardian delves deep, mingling the unexpected, and most important, crossing borders, with a powerful mix of unsentimental gallows humor, surreal imagery, and fairy-tale whimsy. Think of a feminist Deliverance as envisioned by Campion, Kusturica, and the Brothers Grimm. "It's as if everything yesterday was a dream," says Simona in one scene. In another the trio tromps lost and passportless through a sleepy Croatian hamlet, their bright bikinis and vital skin shining against crumbling stone walls like flags of recognition. In this way Guardian of the Frontier itself unspools like a dream: beautiful, inevitable, and disconcerting. With Weiss's able direction the challenging project blooms.

Born in 1965, Weiss has been an active force in promoting women's voices in film in her country. Financed by the Slovenian Film Fund, Guardian of the Frontier is her country's landmark first female-helmed feature. This past February Guardian garnered the Berlin Film Festival's Manfred Salzgeber Film Prize for an innovative European film, and in April won the distinction of best student film at the Slovenian Film Festival Awards. Its Miami screening marks the film's North American debut. -- Robin Shear

Restless Hearts on the Road

In Journey To Kafiristan, a German-language feature here in its East Coast debut, two Swiss women journey across Europe and Asia by car just before the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Explorer Ella Maillart is intent on visiting the remote, semimythical land of Kafiristan, a wild, unexplored terrain somewhere north of Afghanistan. She takes along a traveling companion, the restless Annemarie Schwarzenbach, a stunning, cross-dressing lesbian writer with a penchant for drugs and sexual adventure. The pair face an array of obstacles along their journey through the Balkans, Turkey, and Persia. As they proceed, Ella begins to realize the truth of what Annemarie has known all along: that exploration "has to be inside, not on a map."

Based on the real lives of these two women, the script traces an actual journey they made and draws extensively from Schwarzenbach's writings.

Both women are trousered outcasts from typical, straight European society. But while their predicament is the same, their personalities are decidedly unalike. Ella is practical, sturdy, and industrious, emotionally reined in, in denial that her journey may be motivated by something other than scientific curiosity. Annemarie, meanwhile, is a provocateur. With her tailored jackets and ties, she defies the Muslim edicts against women's dress and behavior. At a diplomatic party in Teheran, she aggressively woos the wife of the Turkish ambassador, then beds her, causing Ella no small trouble.

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