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FILMS Slovenia/Croatia

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Playing Men: Exploring masculinity and competitiveness

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- Matjaž Ivanišin jumps from Mediterranean men's games to various interpretations of the word "play" in Slovenia's Best Documentary of the year

Playing Men: Exploring masculinity and competitiveness

Matjaž Ivanišin's Playing Men last week won the Vesna Award for Best Documentary at the Festival of Slovenian Film in Portorose (see the news), after its world premiere at FID Marseille. The film is a mix of various documentary forms that surprises the viewer repeatedly over its 60-minute running time, making them laugh, but also think and reflect. 

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The beginning of the film goes straight to the heart of its title, with the filmmaker's visit to a Turkish oil-wrestling tournament. This quintessentially men's sport (regardless of its inevitable homoerotic aspect) is followed by an almost theatrical presentation of a Sicilian sport: a Nigerian Catholic priest stands on a balcony in the village of Novara, holding a wheel of Maiorchino cheese, telling us its history. Then we see the wheel rolling down the narrow, cobblestoned streets through several scenes, and when it finally stops, a local tells us a couple of funny anecdotes connected to the game. 

This sport is followed by morra, a game played only with the hands. The rules are hard to grasp, and indeed, this game has numerous variants around the Mediterranean, but it is so cinematic that we do not actually care about how the winner is decided as we watch the film. Pairs of men throw out one hand each, showing up to five fingers, with a lot of gesticulation and shouting numbers, often in high-pitched voices – a distinctly Italian mannerism, although the game is played in Slovenian and Croatian parts of Istria as well. 

After a dance and a couple more sports, some of which are no longer played and only exist in folk memory, the director decides to train the camera on himself, initially through a humorous meta-device that is too surprising and effective to spoil. He digs deeper through his personal experience of a legendary match of a particular sport that has a universal resonance, but which is especially important for the Adriatic and the wider Mediterranean region.

Playing Men is a documentary that playfully (pun intended) explores the mentality and traditions connected to the word "play" and its various uses – from sports and music to acting, both in the sense of our personal life and the roles we play, and in the literal, theatrical or cinematic sense. With its dynamic structure and surprising split into two halves – the social and the personal – and through cultural references ranging from local to global, it explores the expressions and connotations of masculinity, often subverting it simply by changing its context. The notion of competitiveness, meanwhile, is never explicitly mentioned but is inevitably present in the different layers of the narrative.

Playing Men is a co-production by Slovenia's Nosorogi and Croatia's Restart.

See also

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