Lars Nilsen here. I just returned from Slovenia and a trip to the Grossmann Fantastic Film & Wine Festival. When I first received the invitation I think I sort of glossed over the wine part. I thought, “Oh, a film festival with wine. Fun.” But I hadn’t quite understood that it meant that as a jury member I’d also be judging the wines of the region, many of them. Very good ones. I did my level best to balance the demands of being a conscientious judge, representative of Fantastic Fest and wine swiller but it was a demanding detail so I apologize in advance if my memories are a little cloudy.
The Grossmann Fest is located in Ljutomer, Slovenia. Americans are a bit hazy on the location of Slovenia, I certainly was. It’s a very small country, part of the former Yugoslavia, bounded by mountains on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. Slovenia is a stunningly beautiful country, full of tall firs, rolling hills and meadows and many, many grapevines. Most of the structures appear to be of just post WWI vintage but there are many older and, of course, many newer. As soon as I arrived I began to understand a bit about the people of the region, everyone at customs in nearby Graz, Austria was laid back and friendly. I had just had a bad experience with Swiss customs the previous month when I brought in film prints. A hostile Swiss customs officer sneered at the horror films I was bringing in and assessed a heavy deposit on them. No such hassle in Graz. A 20 year old kid kind of looked at the boxes and shrugged and I was through.
The driver Marko immediately had great news, Christopher Lee was in Ljutomer for the fest! It was a secret that would be announced later in the day. I had noted a number of Lee films in the program but I hadn’t guessed that Christopher Lee, of all people, would be in attendance. This news, and the beautiful forested landscape of Southern Austria and Slovenia put me in a fine mood that would hold up throughout the fest, with the periodic support of good white wine and a spirit called Slilovitz, which seems to be a kind of general anaesthetic.
The films in Grossmann are shown in several venues. The two main venues are a 200 seat theater my new friend Nenad called “a fine example of communist architecture” and the main square of the town, where a screen and projection system stand throughout the fest. From what I can tell, the whole town turns out for the festival and some of the most memorable aspects of the trip were the sights of the townspeople walking around the square with vampire makeup on, drinking Jagermeister out of test tubes. According to my fest contact Tomaz, the Grossmann fest is the main event all year round in the town. I actually began to wonder if the whole thing was going to turn into some WICKER MAN style nightmare, with Christopher Lee there to preside, but everything was fine.
I had never participated in a wine tasting before and I think I may not have understood all the rules of the game. As I later discovered, it’s not strictly necessary to drink all of the wine you are presented. But I wanted to be Mr. Macho Texas Man so I drank about a liter of wine in a 40 minute sitting on the first afternoon’s tasting with only a little wine and cheese on my stomach. When a bee landed on the table, I vaguely recall asking everyone if this were some “famous local bee”, which everyone seemed to find very amusing. Then I was walking, I think, unless someone carried me, to the theater where Christopher Lee was introducing RASPUTIN, THE MAN MONK. Lee is nearly 90 years old but his voice is as commanding as ever (which is saying a lot) and his memory is as sharp as a vampire’s fang. The presence of such an eminent man, a hero of mine for as long as I can remember, snapped me back into some kind of provisional sobriety and I will cherish the moments for the rest of my life. After he had completed the introduction, I was standing with the rest of the audience clapping vigorously as he walked up the aisle stairs to leave. He maintained eye contact with me the whole way and the look on his face said, “why are you doing that?”
As a juror it was my job; along with my colleagues Englishman Phillip Bergson and Dinko Tucaković of Belgrade, both imposingly brilliant men; to choose the best film between Alex De La Iglesias’ maniacal BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA, Trent Haaga’s wry and funny CHOP, the excellent hard sci-fi movie http://en.grossmann.si/film-program/vicious-cats/transfer, MASKS, from Germany, about a demented acting school, and the Serbian film SKINNING, which presents the rise and fall of a skinhead leader in frighteningly plausible terms. Though it was a difficult job (made even for so by the difficulty of securing an English language version of one of the films) we came to a unanimous verdict and named BALADA TRISTE DE TROMPETA best film. Its lead actor Carlos Areces received a special prize for his work in the film as well and we awarded a special citation for bravery and integrity to crowd favorite SKINNING.
The most memorable part of the festival (and it was a festival that severely challenges memory retention), was (naturally) every second with Christopher Lee, though he’s slowed with age, his voice is exactly the same as always, which is to say that listening to it is a little like listening to Pablo Casals play the cello or Lester Young play the saxophone. I’m sure when I am an old man I will regale my imaginary grandchildren with the story of the time I met Sir Christopher Lee. He spoke before the crowd three times, I found a clip of him here. Unfortunately, I am also in the shot (that’s me in the blue T-shirt) and if I look a little perturbed, it’s because the sound was just barely feeding back in my ear and two oblivious jerks just out of frame were carrying on a presumably irrelevant conversation in a Slavic language right next to me.
Menahem Golan of Cannon Films was there too, also receiving a lifetime achievement award and screening several films, though two of the three got lost in transit somehow and replacements were arranged. Golan is not a shy man and his stories of overcoming obstacles and seizing just the right moment time after time in his career left a picture of a man who is eager to polish his legacy and be seen, rightly, as a pioneer of international film production and distribution and not as a trash merchant. It was a great joy to watch his berserk Chuch Norris anti-terrorist film in the main square with a bunch of beer drinking Serbs and Croatians, many of them pumping their fists and yelling U.S.A.! It gave me a real sense of the huge propagandistic value of these kinds of cartoonish films throughout the world.
The whole festival wrapped up with a giant concert featuring Hungarian bands and an old school British punk/psychobilly band called the Meteors. The whole scene was surreal as the local vampires wandered around the square, some dancing to a Hungarian version of “Sweet Home Alabama”, which my new friend told me is a standard part of every Hungarian bands’ repertoire. I went to bed early, but the music and drinking and shouting went on into the night. When I woke up early to meet my driver, there were still vampires roaming around Ljutomer, looking disoriented and squinting in the sunlight as they waited for their coffee.