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An Overview of the (New)* Croatian Cinema
© Jasna Zmak
First Publication: "Balkan Identities Balkan Cinemas" Published by NISI MASA - European network of young cinema. March 2008
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Like all young cinema industries, the Croatian one (Croatia obtained its independence in 1991) has had little time to develop and to create a distinct identity of its own. The very small number of films made within the past 15 years - around 90 in total, approximately 6 per year - is thus quite understandable, as is their varied quality. [1]

There were many factors which hindered the process of creating an established film industry, some of which are still valid today. Probably the most important of these factors was the war fought against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the subsequent political changes involved in the fall of Yugoslavia (i.e. the transition from socialist to democratic state). All of this prevented the setting up of continuous film production with a firmly established regulatory system, and unfortunately there is still a lot of work to do in that area.

Nevertheless, before gaining its independence, Croatia already had a long and important history in filmmaking as a part of the former Yugoslavia. This certainly gave a good starting point, but it was also something of a burden for future filmmakers.

It is understandable then that filmmakers, when faced with the new reality that was laid before them during the first few years of the new Croatia, chose the important changes their society was going through as the dominant themes for their films. Indeed, there are very few films made in the last 15 years which do not (directly or indirectly) deal with either the above mentioned war, the Yugoslav way of life which existed before it, or its aftermath, the Croatian nation and its newly established state. The treatment of these subjects of course varied over the years, often depending on the current political situation in the country.

War years, war movies

Even during the hardest years of the war, film production survived, and there were several films made (or perhaps more accurately, finished, as for most of them production had already begun before the war). They were small productions, without big international or even national success amongst the general public and the critical press. From their titles we can easily conclude what they were about, just to mention a few; Zlatne godine (‘Golden years’), Isprani (‘Washed out’), Priča iz Hrvatske (‘The Story from Croatia’), Hrvatske katedrale (‘Croatian Cathedrals’), Vukovar se vraća kući (‘Vukovar: The Way Home’)… They were mainly either very dark, uninventive war stories - frequently with a strong national perspective - or nostalgic, patriotic melodramas. In both cases they often had poorly formed stories and characters.

In 1994 however, there was an exception to all of this, if only in terms of the money which was invested – a big international English-language production was shot in Croatia. It was Gospa (‘Our Lady’), by Jakov Sedlar. Apart from the title, the film had nothing to do with religion, but instead depicted a black and white view of the communist era. It was a view which corresponded to that of the government in charge at the time. The same author would go on to shoot two other similar productions throughout the following years.

It was during this same period that many new and/or young filmmakers (e.g. Nola, Žmegač, Ogresta) emerged who would later deliver more important works, whereas the older generation of directors who had already been working during Yugoslav times, although still active, were to become less and less engaged (Berković, Babaja, Papić).

It is perhaps in this era that the widespread negative attitude towards homemade Croatian films was born. This common view can be summarised in the sentence: ‘They’re boring and all about war.’ This statement would fortunately be proven wrong, at least partly, in the years to come.

Times of Comedy

In 1996 something happened that finally shook up Croatian cinematography, bringing viewers back to see domestic films and obtaining international recognition at the same time. It was the first war comedy – Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku (‘How the War Started on My Island’) from director Vinko Brešan, which was an absolute hit. Just like his second film Maršal (‘Marshal Tito’s Spirit’), it had a well-constructed and intriguing story (involving a conflict between the Yugoslav Army and a group of villagers at the time of the Yugoslav break-up), colourful characters with memorable quotes and an island setting. The plot of Maršal, on the other hand, was built around the controversial premise of the spirit of the former head of state, Tito, coming back to life in a small Croatian village…

The same year as Maršal (2000), another successful film was launched which used humour of a very different type: Blagajnica hoće ići na more (‘The Cashier Wants to Go to the Seaside’). It was the debut of one of the most prominent young directors in Croatia, Dalibor Matanić. The film was a critical examination of the transitional period in Croatia, but again also a comedy (although with a central female character this time). Two years previously, director Snježana Tribuson had managed to completely avoid the war period in her acclaimed romantic comedy Tri muškarca Melite Žganjer (‘The Three Men of Melita Žganjer’).

Border Post by Rajko Grlic


There were a number of equally inspiring movies of an entirely different genre - drama - produced after the war. Also made by young directors, in many ways these films differed from the war period dramas, although, again, many of them dealt with war and post-war themes. Amongst them there were films like Mondo Bobo by Goran Rušinović (1997), Nebo, sateliti (‘The Sky, the Satellites’, 2000) and Sami (‘Alone’) by Lukas Nola (2001). These productions were labelled by some as ‘art movies’, because they managed to develop specific, atmospheric
environments and powerful visual images which raised them above the other, more averagelooking films of the same period. In their non-conventional style and aesthetics they were closer to the independent European film scene, proving that Croatia hadn’t lost touch with contemporary art movements from abroad.

Since the year 2000…

As quite frequently in Croatia many of the films produced never even reach home theatres but are screened only at specialised festivals for Croatian films (e.g. the ‘Pula film festival’ or the ‘Dani hrvatskog filma’), and very few reach the international market (even those that do rarely make it into film theatres, and if they do, it is always only in neighbouring countries), these few past years have shown a growing trend for national film productions, both in terms of the number of films made and their popularity.

In the year 2002, Fine mrtve djevojke (‘Fine Dead Girls’) was shot by Matanić, a drama (which develops into a tragedy) intended to demonstrate the homophobia existing within the new Croat society by taking a lesbian couple as its focus. Matanić would in his later films deal with other marginalized segments of society, always taking them as his main characters - for example a mute painter (in the biography of Slava Raškaj) and a young yuppie (a subculture that is only now emerging in Croatia) who gets infected with AIDS in Volim te (‘I Love You’)Since Croatian national television has always played an important role in the production of new films (a position many want and have been trying to change), many of the films produced have been subsequently transformed into television series. The most famous of all (and, of course, the most discussed) are perhaps Konjanik (‘Horseman’) in 2003 and Duga mračna noć (‘Long Dark Night’) in 2004 by the veteran directors Ivanda and Vrdoljak. Both were large-scale productions with epic narratives set in the past. One dealt with the battles of the Turkish Empire, while the other was set during WWII (and therefore could not avoid having a political dimension).

Amongst the films which dealt with more recent history, there were a few omnibus stories in which the upshots of the war and transition could be seen. These were Tu (‘Here’) by Ogrestaa successful debut by Ostojić called A Wonderful Night in Split; and Sex, piće i krvoproliće (‘Sex, Boose and Short Fuse’) by Matić, Jurić and Nuić. Made between 2003 and 2004, all of them were dramas, focussing on characters such as junkies, criminals, ex-soldiers or generally people without ambition for the future. It was a gallery of characters often used in Croatian film, since they would all become an important segment of society as of the 1990s. In 2003, director Brešan shot his third movie Svjedoci (‘Witnesses’), a drama based on a novel which, for the first time, portrayed Croats committing a crime upon a Serbian family.

Whilst the former years of the new Croatian film era were often dedicated to dramas, the past two years have been marked again by comedies with eccentric and lively characters, frequently offering an ironic view of the ‘nouveaux riches’ in Croatia (and, finally, leaving the wars behind). In 2005, Što je Iva snimila 21. listopada 2003. (‘What Iva Recorded on October 21st, 2003’) was shot by Tomislav Radić, who was already known for using elements of ‘cinema verite’ in his features. The film is constructed from a young girl’s point of view as she films the birthday party celebration her parents have organised for her. In his second film Oprosti za kung fu (‘Sorry for Kung Fu’), Ognjen Sviličić (also Radić’s co-writer on ‘What Iva recorded…’) brought to the surface the issue of cultural differences in the new Croatian democracy, focusing this time on a young mother carrying a child by a Chinese father.

A Wonderful Night in Split by Arsen Anton Ostojic

Two of the latest films produced in Croatia are based on books written by the same author: Ante Tomić. What’s a Man Without a Moustache? and Border Post were made respectively by well-known directors Hribar and Grlić. The latter is the first regional co-production involving all of the countries of the former Yugoslavia, viewed by many as an attempt to ‘rebuild’ something which no longer exists (approved of by those who see it as a logical step towards broadening the market for films, but criticised by others). The film follows the lives of soldiers in a Yugoslav army garrison and ends with brutal killings, a narrative which acts as a kind of mirror reflection of the violent war in Yugoslavia which would actually occur some years later.

The process of reunification on this level is certainly something which will mark the future of the Croatian film industry (and of course other film industries of former Yugoslavian countries), which has finally started to recover - just like the country itself after the transformations which it underwent in the 1990s. This can be seen not only in the number of films produced and sums of money invested in them but also in their quality, both from the critics’ and the audiences’ points
of view.


[*] For the purposes of this article, ‘new’ will refer to Croatian cinema after 1991.
[1] Before going any further, it is perhaps necessary to point out that this article will only be referring to full-length feature films produced in Croatia, and will exclude shorts, documentaries, animations and experimental films

You can find a link to the book here.
  What Is a Man Without a Moustache?
  Border Post
  A Wonderful Night in Split
  Skies, Satellites
  Dalibor Matanic
  Ante Tomic
  Ognjen Svilicic
  Hrvoje Hribar
  Rajko Grlic
  Boris T. Matic
  Zrinko Ogresta
  Branko Ivanda
  Tomislav Radić
  Vinko Bresan
  Krsto Papic
  Arsen Anton Ostojic
  Davor Zmegac
  Lukas Nola
  Pula Film Festival
  New Romanian Cinema between Exoticism and State Subventions
  Do the Balkans Imply a Peculiar Sensibility?
  History of Cinema in the Balkans: Common Pioneers and Similarities
  Imagining the Balkans... in Film
  Read the Book
  NISI MASA Official Web Site
  altcine Explore movies by Country People To read
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