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“Why am I here?” says Ivans Spelkovs as he waits for a film screening outside the imposing Sala Tripkovic theatre. “Well, I was born in the Moldovan Soviet Republic, I am a Latvian citizen and I speak seven mainly Slavic languages. You could call me an eastern-European patriot.” Spelkovs is the type of person that the annual Trieste Film Festival attracts with its 10-day showcase of central- and eastern European cinema. With his distinctive moustache, long, dark overcoat and matching fedora, Spelkovs is every bit the image of the Mitteleuropean of bygone times. This city is a fitting spot in which to encounter him: Trieste’s history as port to the Austro-Hungarian empire, then as a part of Italy stranded toe to toe with the Iron Curtain, makes it a cultural bridge between east and west.

As far as Italian culture goes, therefore, Trieste is something of an exception. In her last and perhaps most eloquent book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, travel author Jan Morris wrote: “Fortunately for me, Trieste has few formal sights to see.” And Trieste certainly lacks the tick-box cultural impact of Florence, Rome or neighbouring Venice. This city’s streets do not boast much-photographed Baroque façades or honeypot palazzos. In Trieste genteel, urbane charm and Austrian edifices of the belle epoque or Jugendstil are the order of the day. Landmarks here are somewhat unexpected and reward a closer look. On the Ponte Rosso over the Canal Grande a bronze statue of former Trieste resident James Joyce appears to be strolling with the lunch-hour pedestrians. Joyce’s figure is overshadowed by the wide domes and golden mosaics of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral; around the corner on the seafront is a Greek church that serves the maritime nation’s diaspora; and, inland, Italy’s largest synagogue is another reminder of the city’s multiethnic past.

It turns out that our Mitteleuropean friend Spelkovs is a film critic in town for the festival, attracted by its programme of dozens of works from the likes of Serbia, Lithuania, Russia and Romania. The Trieste Film Festival is unique in its mix and focus; it would be strange for someone such as Spelkovs not to be in Trieste right now.

“This city has always been a privileged observatory,” says Nicoletta Romeo, the festival’s director. “Trieste still has many relationships with these [eastern European] countries, not only economic or political but also cultural.” Aside from the dense programme there are a varied range of awards encompassing all film genres and – for the business-minded – a event called When East Meets West. This forum aims to bring together cinema professionals from Italy, eastern Europe and beyond.

With its brooding cityscape, more evocative of central Europe than the Italian peninsula, Trieste is a location scout’s dream. Here the Mediterranean and Balkan worlds merge, giving a mysterious visual anonymity to the director’s frame. “It is not typically Italian,” says Romeo as she looks out over the port from festival HQ. “You can shoot a film and pretend it’s Prague or Vienna – even London.” Regional support has a key part to play: Friuli Venezia Giulia hosts six film festivals, numerous production companies a vast film archive, not to mention official backing in the form of a muscular film commission and an audio-visual fund. “It creates research and production, and also showcases cinema in an almost unparalleled way,” says Romeo, though there is no sense that she is flattering the paymaster.

So what advice would she give to a city keen to host an internationally acclaimed film festival? “It really depends on the town. I’m not a believer in those festivals that are created centrally – say, in Rome – on a whim and parachuted into a seaside resort,” she says. “I think to create a meaningful and successful festival you have to dig very deep into the roots and history of a place and its people.”

In Trieste, recent chapters of history in particular are evident on just about every street corner – and Triestine culture is as distinct as you can get. Buildings, streets, docks and old railway sidings denote an era and strategic position that are all but memories now that global powers meet along more distant faultlines. Take the vast Salone Degli Incanti that dominates Trieste’s central shorefront. Built in 1913 as the central fish market, this lofty edifice now provides the city with a formidable space that hosts regular exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. Just up the road Trieste’s illustrious trading past, with all the opulence it brought to the city, is plain to see at the Museo Revoltella. It was built as a mansion and private art gallery by Baron Pasquale Revoltella using the fortunes he made from investments in the Suez Canal. Extravagant drawing rooms and modern galleries containing works from Italian greats such as Carlo Carra, Giorgio De Chirico and Lucio Fontana help keep the Triestini culturally stimulated. The Comune di Trieste maintains no fewer than 23 civic museums and seven city libraries and archives; not bad for a population of scarcely 200,000.

On a sunny Sunday morning along the elegant Via Cesare Battisti, just around the corner from the synagogue, the Caffè San Marco is hosting a lively q&a with some of the directors who are premiering their films at this year’s festival. Marcin Koszalka from Poland deliberates upon the transition from documentary to feature films while Serbian Mihajlo Jevtic and Hungary’s Klara Trencsenyi debate the autobiographical nature of their ideas of nationhood. Once upon a time parts of all these film-makers’ nations, like the city in which they now find themselves, were contained within the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Viennese Secession finery of the coffee house, a spot that was once frequented by Joyce and host of other authors, seems a fitting venue.

That complicated empire of carefully balanced ethnic interests no longer exists.But, in its long shadow, Trieste maintains a unique culture that is actively fostering cross-national dialogues in a seemingly effortless way. “I noticed that the film-festival programme lists each of the directors as currently being from such-and-such a country,” says Spelkovs, the ever-suave Slavic critic, before continuing with a wry smile: “I would add that Trieste is ‘currently’ in Italy.”

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