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From Yugoslav to Serbian Cinema: 1991-2001 Themes and Characteristics of a Cinema Industry in Transition
© Maria Palacios Cruz
First Publication: "Balkan Identities Balkan Cinemas" Published by NISI MASA - European network of young cinema. March 2008
 
 
   
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While in the 1990s other former Yugoslav republics such as Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia were already building their new national cinematographic identities practically from scratch, things in Serbia and Montenegro were much more complex. Still officially Yugoslavia (or more accurately, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, or FRY), the country’s film industry appeared to be the natural heir of the former Socialist Yugoslav cinema. It was a decade marked by the rise of Serbian orthodox nationalism as well as by currents of Yugo-nostalgia, a decade of war, inflation, embargo and international isolation. The ‘new Yugoslav’ cinema hesitated between a potential new Serbian (or Serbo-Montenegrean) identity and the old Yugoslav one. The post-Yugoslav transition in Serbia (in all aspects - political, social and cultural) lasted for longer than in other former Yugoslav republics and perhaps only came to an end when both Serbia and Montenegro declared their respective independencies. This article is intended to be an examination of the themes evoked by Yugoslav cinema of the 1990s. Strongly influenced by the events of the decade, the films from this period (1991-2001) are perhaps the best testimony of those terrible years.

The impact of reality

“Concern with recent history, devastating wars, ethnic cleansing and balkanisation became the main thematic obsession of Yugoslav cinema at the end of the last century.”[1]

During the 1990s, the magnitude of political events dominated the cinematographic medium. Comedies, science fiction, historical dramas… the war became the irrefutable reference for every genre. Yet, this was nothing new for Yugoslav cinema. As Marcel Martin wrote in 1970, “Yugoslav cinema is the most political of all Socialist cinemas. […] It is a cinema that doesn’t settle for simply suggesting and evoking the social or even political aspects of the national situation, but that tries to explain them and to denounce what’s going wrong. […] Yugoslav cinema tackles the present and it does so with an unprecedented lucidity and vigour.”[2]

Darko Bajic, author of both Crni bombarder (‘Black Bombarder’, 1992) and Balkanska pravila (‘Balkan Rules’, 1997), explained at the time of the filming of Rat uživo (‘War Live’, 2000), right after the 1999 NATO strikes in Belgrade, that he didn’t feel that hindsight was necessary in order to examine historic events, and that films must be made straight away. For him, historical hindsight carried political associations, and what truly interested him was the people and not the politics[3]. Another known Belgrade director, Srdjan Dragojević, admitted that when he made Pretty Village, Pretty Flame and The Wounds in the 1990s, whilst he didn’t dispose of the historical distance that these films needed, the need to make them was always far more important : “I had the urge to make these films, so I never thought of historical distance. Of course not. Especially for Pretty village, Pretty Flame. And it did hurt the film a lot, the lack of distance. Some of the reviews were bad because of that. Some of the festivals refused to screen the film because of that. In Venice they said it was a Fascist film, a Serbian Fascist film. But it was understandable, from today’s perspective. At the time, we were really mad.” [4]

At the time, there were many reasons to fear that filmic representations of the war would present a black and white Manichean discourse of ‘good’ Serbs against ‘evil’ Croats or Muslims. However, this did not occur. In order to face reality, the Yugoslav cinema of this period made use of other genres, such as comedy and melodrama. Even when the war was more directly concerned, human tragedy always remained at the very centre. Many filmmakers embraced the thesis of the war as a Balkan curse and of the Balkans as a powder keg ready to explode every fifty years. This became the main position supported by Yugoslav filmmakers - the war was a tragedy for all involved, and the guilty parties were many: whether it be the political class, the war profiteers or simple fate.[5]

If we take the relationship to the reality of the 1990s as a classifying criterion, we can identify four main categories of Yugoslav productions made between 1991 and 2001: war films, escapism, historical dramas and urban films.

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame

War films

Strangely enough, and even though one would tend to associate Yugoslav cinema with images of war, very few films of this period spoke directly of the conflict. However, the war influenced Yugoslav films from the very beginning of hostilities : “Fiction came right after the true events. Vukovar’s fires were not yet extinguished and this baroque city on the shores of the Danube hadalready become the cinematographic symbol of endless destruction”.[6]

The Croatian war was the subject of Dezerter (The Deserter, Živojin Pavlović, 1992), Kaži zašto me ostavi (Why Have You Left Me, Oleg Novković, 1993) and Vukovar – jedna priča (Vukovar: The Way Home, Boro Drašković, 1994). The latter was probably the one that received the greatest international attention. A Romeo and Juliet style love story set in the devastated city of Vukovar, the film was accused of being a piece of Serbian propaganda. Ironically, the film is told from the point of view of a Croatian, Ana (played by Mirjana Jokovic), who’s left alone in Vukovar when her husband Toma, a Serbian, is called to join the army and to attack his own home town. With Toma gone, the spectator witnesses this woman’s intense suffering, when she is savagely and repeatedly raped by Serbian mercenaries. This is a good example of the complexity of war movies at the time, certainly neither Manichean nor Serbian fascist propaganda. Draskovic’s perspective was double, just like that of the ordinary people of Belgrade.

The Croatian war was also at the heart of the narrative in Budjenje proleca (FlashbackGordana Boškov, 1997), a kind of hybrid of a war film and an urban one. It spoke of the aftermath of war, of the incapacity to return to a normal life and the impossibility of leaving behind war memories, or forgetting those we’ve killed, those that are forever gone.

The subject of the Bosnian war brought the most important film of the decade: Pretty Village, Pretty Flame. In his hospital bed, Milan (Dragan Bjelogrlić), a Bosnian Serb, recalls the ten hellish days he’s just spent with his regiment, blocked by the enemy (a group of Muslim paramilitaries) in a tunnel. Alongside his memories of the war itself, those of his childhood friendship with Muslim Halil (Nikola Pejaković) invade his thoughts. Milan and Halil used to play in that very same tunnel, the ‘Brotherhood and Unity’ tunnel meant for a highway that would never be built. In the 1990s they find themselves fighting on opposite sides, and discover that the friendship they believed to be unbreakable is easily
overwhelmed by the absurdity and craziness of war.

The Bosnian war was also the subject of Nož (The Dagger, Miroslav Lekić, 1999), an adaptation from a novel by Vuk Drašković which was at the time the most expensive Serbian production in history. Nož is the epic story of Ilija Jugović, who was kidnapped by a Muslim family (the Osmans) when he was just a baby and renamed Alija. Alija/Ilija grows up unaware of his true identity, until the day he finds out that the Osmans are in fact an Islamised branch of the Jugović family. During the Bosnian war he meets his ‘brother’ who has been brought up in a strongly anti-Islamist environment. The films ends with the two of them wondering who they are and who they should hate, as the battle goes on around them.

As we have seen, the number of Yugoslav films devoted to the ‘spectacular’ aspect of war was rather limited. When speaking of the different conflicts of the 1990s (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo), Yugoslav films preferred to focus on the war’s rear-guard, the city (usually Belgrade). The war such films evoke is a passive war, which is lived in between fear, misunderstanding and expectancy. Most of these films belong to what we have established as the ‘urban film’ category. With the 1999 bombings, the war came into the city and the ‘war film’ and ‘urban film’ categories began to overlap. However, as the 1999 war was always filmed passively, from the point of view of those who waited in fear rather than those who fought actively, we shall include the films related to the 1999 NATO strikes in the ‘urban film’ category.

Escapist films

Escapist films are those which intend to remove the spectator from his everyday worries and to help him escape from the circumstances that surround him (particularly when these circumstances are difficult ones). The America of the Great Depression is a good example of a society where such films have flourished, as Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo illustrates. When discussing escapist films within the Yugoslav context of the 1990s, we don’t mean productions which made the miserable population dream of luxury and glamour, but simply entertaining films, which diverted attention away from the turmoil of the political scene.

Escapist comedies proliferated during the 1990s : Policajac sa Petlovog Brda (The Policeman from Cock’s Hill, Mihailo Vukobratović, 1992) ; Velika frka (The Big Mess, Milan Jelić, 1992) ; We Are Not Angels, Srdjan Dragojević, 1992) ; Slatko od snova (Sweet Dreams, Vladimir Živković, 1994) ; Bice bolje (Getting Better, Milan Živković, 1994) ; Treca sreca (Lucky Three, Dragoslav Lazić, 1995) ; Dovidjenja u Čikagu (Goodbye in Chicago, Zoran Čalić, 1996) ; Tri palme za dve bitange i ribicu (Three Palms for Two Punks and a Babe, Radivoje Andrić, 1998) and Munje (Thunderbirds, Radivoje Andrić, 2001). Other escapist genres were also explored, such as the thriller in Točkovi (Wheels, Djordje Milošavljević, 1998) and Tesna Koza 4 (Skin Tight 4, Milan Živković, 1991), and science-fiction in Zbogom dvadeseti vek (Goodbye 20th Century, Darko Mitrevski and Aleksandar Popovski, 1999).

Of course, certain genre films not only intended to entertain but also hid an allegorical meaning. This was the case with Full Moon Over Belgrade, (Dragan Kresoja, 1993) ; Three Tickets to Hollywood, (Božidar Nikolić, 1993) ; The Jews Are Coming, (Prvoslav Marić, 1992) ; Black Bombarder (Darko Bajić, 1992) ; Aliens are to Be Blamed for Everything (Zoran Čalić, 1991). Dragan Kresoja’s film was a vampire story set in Belgrade right at the beginning of the war. A fantasy film on the surface, it also contains a strong political subtext - the film’s vampires are very hard to tell from true humans, yet they are the ones who decide people’s destinies. The Jews Are Coming, Three Tickets to Hollywood and Alliens Are To Be Blamed are comedies which may be read as parables of the great Balkan sins : ideological divisions, manipulation of the past, megalomania, myth-making, corruption, crime and lust for power.

In the meantime, others refused to face the reality of the war, like Goran Paskaljevic. In spite of his strong political commitment, Paskaljevic did not feel ready to speak of the state of Serbian (and Yugoslav) society until 1998, when he delivered the brutally desperate Bure Baruta (Powder Keg). Before this, he had produced two stories exemplary of his usual characteristic humanism: Tango argentino (1992) and Someone’s Else’s America (1996). Kusturica’s 1998 film Black Cat, White Cat also deserves a mention within this category, as it incorporated no references whatsoever to the history of the country or to any of the secession wars. With this film Kusturica tried to counteract the effect of the controversy provoked earlier on by Underground (1995). Thus, “more than any other film made by Kusturica, this is a film out for laughs. He does not abandon his love of the absurd. This time, however, it is channelled more into the set design than into the narrative structure or the plot, both of which are highly traditional. Lasting a relatively long 130 minutes, the film sees Kusturica reign in his ego and create a tightly controlled film which is not going to upset anyone.” [7]

Miki Manolovic in Someone Else`s America

Historical Films

“From Underground to such films as Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, to Premeditated Murder (Ubistvo sa predumišljajem ; dir. Gorčin Stojanović, 1996) and Balkan Rules  (dir. Darko Bajić, 1997), narratives try to rephrase and ‘correct’ the past, intending to provide new explanations for or make sense of the turbulent past.” [8]

Those films which have chosen to turn to the past in order to explain, or at least understand the present, have presupposed that the wars of the 1990s were a reincarnation of the unsolved conflicts and antagonisms of the past, for example those that divided the country during WWII. Unhealed wounds which had been buried under the ideals of brotherhood and unity, Socialism and self-management were reopened during the 1990s, unmasking Tito’s regime as a period of frustration and repression of national identities.

For Igor Krstić, “the case of Yugoslavia raises the question of whether a society and its culture can become captured as an individual can by the burden of too much history” [9]. After WWII, the victorious communist government imposed peace among the different ethnic groups, forcing them to erase their war memories in favour of the official version on events. However, just like individuals, nations need to face up to their past and to understand what has happened before being able to forget and move on. Under communism, the atrocities of WWII became a taboo subject. The regime wanted the war to be remembered as a glorious Partisan fight against Fascism, and not as a bloody civil war. According to the anthropologist B. Denich: “Communist rule entailed ideological control over the representation of the past, and those horrible events that would disrupt the new inter-ethnic cooperation were not to be mentioned, except in the collective categories ‘victims of fascism’, on the one side, and ‘foreign occupiers and domestic traitors’, on the other side”[10].

During the 1990s, Yugoslav filmmakers felt a strong need to understand their recent past in order to be able to move on. Numerous films therefore focussed on the country’s Communist past: Originalna falsifikata (Original of the Forgery, Dragan Kresoja, 1991); Mala (The Little OnePedrag Antonijević, 1991); Tito i ja (Tito And Me, Goran Marković, 1992); Gorilla Bathes At Noon, (Dušan Makavejev, 1993) ; Ubistvo s predumišljajem (Premeditated Murder, Gorčin Stojanović, 1995) ; Underground (Emir Kusturica, 1995) ; Balkan Rules, (Darko Bajić, 1997) ; Povratak lopova (Thiefs’ Comeback, Miroslav Lekić, 1998) ; Nož (The Dagger, Miroslav Lekić, 1999).

Gorilla Bathes at Noon by Dusan Makavejev

This reinterpretation of the Titoist past was however not a phenomenon exclusive to the cinema of the 1990s. Already in the 1980s (after Tito’s death and the disappearance of Partisan films as a cult genre) critical filmmakers had begun to uncover the lies of the past by focussing their attention on the civil war years, the Stalinist post-war period and the years following Tito’s break-up with Kominform in 1948. Perhaps the best and most well known example from this period is Emir Kusturica’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, When Father Was Away on Business, (1985). But if in the 1980s what counted was the pursuit of truth, in the 1990s the aim of filmmakers was to identify the actual causes of the conflict…

Some films of the 1990s chose to delve into an even more distant past, thereby confirming the thesis of Balkan fatality and historical conditioning. Examples include Virdžina (VirginaSrdjan Karanović, 1991), the last film to be made in the former Socialist Yugoslavia; Nečista krv (Whirlpool of Passion, Stojan Stojčić, 1996); and Aleksandar Petrovic’s last work, filmed in the 1980s (originally intended as a TV series) and released as a feature in 1994, Seobe (Migrations). 

Urban Films

This category includes the immense majority of Yugoslav films produced between 1991 and 2001. Some are often regarded as war films - the conflict being always there, always present - but the fighting itself was rarely visible onscreen. These films presented a society in a state of crisis. Disorder, crime, immorality and violence took over everything and everyone. While the countryside was a battle-field, the cities in the rear-guard suffered the psychological and economic consequences of the conflict. Two films from 1998, Powder Keg by Goran Paskaljević and The Wounds by Srdjan Dragojević, were probably the best examples of the widespread insanity and malaise that reigned over the Belgrade of the 1990s.

Other examples : Stand by (Čeda Veselinović, 1991) ; A Night at my Mother’s House, Žarko Dragojević, 1991 ; The Boulevard of Revolution, Vladimir Blaževski, 1992 ; Diary of Insults 1993, Zdravko Šotra1994 ; Ni na nebu ni na zemlju, Miloš Radivojević, 1994 ; Marble Ass, Želimir Žilnik, 1994 ; Terrace on the Roof , Gordan Mihić, 1995 ; Dark is the NightDragan Kresoja, 1995 ; Premeditated Murder, Gorčin Stojanović1995 ; The Burlesque Tradedy, Goran Marković, 1995 ; Three Summer Days, Mirjana Vukomanović, 1997; Tango is a Sad Thought to Be Danced, Mladomir ‘Puriša’ Djordjević, 1997 ; Rage, Slobodan-Boban Skerlić, 1997 ; The Hornet, Gorčin Stojanović, 1998 ; Absolute Hundred, Srdjan Golubović, 2001 ; Natasha, Ljubiša Samardžić, 2001 and Normal People, Oleg Novković, 2001.

As previously mentioned, with the NATO strikes of 1999 a new subcategory was born, a hybrid of the war film and the urban film. Once more, cinematographic representations immediately followed real events, and the first film to be set in a bombed Belgrade appeared in that very same year : Ranjena zemlja (The Wounded Country) by Dragoslav Lazić. Others followed in 2000 and 2001 : Zemlja istine, ljubavi i slobode (Land of Truth, Love and FreedomMilutin Petrović, 2000) ; Nebeska udica (Sky Hook, Ljubiša Samardžić, 2000) ; Dorcol-Menhetn (Belgrade – Manhattan, Isidora Bjelica, 2000) and Rat uživo (Darko Bajić, 2001).

Nebeska Udica was probably the most successful of them all. With a cast of well-loved local celebrities (Nebojša Glogovac, Ana Sofrenovic, Nikola Kojo), it was the story of a group of friends in Belgrade’s suburbs trying to rebuild their basketball field, which had been seriously damaged by the NATO strikes. After ten years of war, what we find is a society which has reached its lowest point. A portrait of the 1990s generation, a lost generation living within an equally lost society : 30-year-old teenagers who still live with their parents, who have never had a real job and for whom survival is already an amazing accomplishment. By the year 2000, Nebojša Glogovac (Ubistvo s predumišljajem, Bure baruta ou Ranjena zemlja) had become, in the eyes of Yugoslav audiences, the true embodiment of this frustrated generation. He and his friends sum up the constant deterioration of their situation : ten years ago, they would spend their holidays in Croatia ; five years ago, they could still go to Greece ; the previous year they hadn’t been able to go anywhere, but at least they still had their basketball tournament. Now, they have nothing.

They don’t even have any dreams left, and won’t until they decide to rebuild the basketball field. War is portrayed here through the fear, anxiety and expectancy of the characters. It is a passive war, practically unilateral (while the country was destroyed, Western forces were barely touched). The enemy is invisible and once again, the film doesn’t favour a Manichean perspective, but prefers to stand by the thesis of Balkan fatality. The Serbs are neither in the wrong nor in the right, but are simply condemned to tragedy. The only escape is exile (inevitably, this will always be the case in the Balkans), and thus Ana Sofrenović chooses a comfortable life in Italy over the true love of her husband.

In 2000 Dina Iordanova wrote : “Wrapping up the decade, it is very likely that the year 2000 will mark the end of the series of films that dealt with the painful and traumatic Yugoslav break-up. The directors responsible for the most important of these films now seem to have switched not only to other geographical but also to other thematic discussions”[11].

Indeed, with Milosevic’s disappearance, and the apparent end of the cycle of struggles for independence in the region, it is only natural that Yugoslav films (now Serbian) should have begun to free themselves from the binds of the political reality. This was certainly the case for some of the films which were produced after the declaration of the new state of Serbia and Montenegro (now already dissolved) in 2003. For example, the characters in Skoro sasvim obična priča (An Almost Ordinary Story, Miloš Petričić, 2003) ate cheeseburgers (not pljeskavicas), lived in an IKEA-decorated flat and talked about the Simpsons. Here, the atrocities and despair of the 1990s were clearly distant memories. Young filmmakers such as Srdjan Dragojević believed that cinema shouldn’t remain forever trapped in the political agenda of the 1990s : “Nobody accuses the makers of ‘Meet the Fockers’ of not mentioning George Bush and the intervention in Iraq. I don’t think that we have to be stuck forever in the political agenda of the nineties. I don’t think it’s an obligation. If you want to be political, you have a lot of legitimate subjects about the transition, its injustices, privatisation and so on. If you want to tell that kind of stories, it’s ok. But you cannot accuse those who make genre films of not being political. Sometimes the lack of politics is also a political statement. I feel I’ve said all I wanted, all I knew about that subject. Anything that would involve repeating these films [Wounds and Pretty Village] would be exploitation” [See footnote 4].

Others have continued to treat questions related to the 1990s - generally filmmakers from the previous generation : Emir Kusturica revisited the Bosnian conflict with Život je cudo (Life is a Miracle) in 2004; Srdjan Karanovic devoted his comeback film, Sjaj u ocima (Loving Glances2003), to a couple of war refugees in the Belgrade of the mid-nineties; Goran Markovic’s Kordon (The Cordon, 2003) focused on the 1996-1997 student demonstrations. These examples are proof that the transition from Yugoslav to Serbian film has not been entirely accomplished, at least from a thematic point of view. Furthermore, as long as filmmakers from Yugoslav times are still active, it is very likely that the two cinemas will continue to coexist : the ‘Yugoslav’ cinema of the SFRY and the post-war Serbian cinema; the former staying trapped in the 1990s, and the latter tending to look in new directions.

It is hard to determine what the Serbian cinema of the future will be like. The heir of Socialist Yugoslav cinema? The end result of new transnational and global logistics? Innately Serbian? Many factors will be extremely important: the evolution of Serbo-Montenegrean relations, including the proliferation of co-productions amongst the former republics, cinema’s global tendency towards standardisation, foreign investments in the region, the return of the Yugoslav
Diaspora and the definitive healing of war wounds.

Notes

1 Dakovic N., “Remembrance of the things past : Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995)”, in Rings G., Morgan-Tamosunas R. (ed.), European Cinema: Inside Out, Universitatsverlag, Heidelberg, 2003b, p. 245.
2 “Semaine du Cinema Yougoslave”, 23-27 octobre 1970, Theatre du Parvis, Bruxelles (translation by the author).
3 ARTE archives : http://archives.arte tv.com/cinema/yougoslavie/ftext/menu.htm.
4 Discussion with the author.
5 Dakovic N., “Pretty Village, Pretty Flames : Conflicting Identities”, in Ross K., Derman D. (dir.), Mapping the Margins,
New Jersey, 2003a.
6 Dakovic N., “La guerre sur grand ecran : filmographie de l’eclatement yougoslave”, Le Courrier des Balkans, www.
balkans.eu.org, 2004.
7 Horton A. J. (dir.), The Celluloid Tinderbox. Yugoslav screen reflections of a turbulent decade, Central Europe Review (www.
ce-review.org), 2000, p. 41.
8 Dakovic N., 2003b, p. 245.
9 Krstic I., “Re-thinking Serbia : A Psychoanalytic Reading of Modern Serbian History and Identity through Popular
Culture”, Other Voices, vol. 2, no 2 , March2002.
10 Quoted by Igor Krstić, March 2002.
11 Dina Iordanova in Horton A.J. (dir.), 2000, p. 14.

 
 
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  Underground
  Black Cat, White Cat
  Someone Else`s America
  Tango Argentino
  The Powder Keg (aka Cabaret Balkan)
  Pretty Village, Pretty Flame
  Balkan Rules
  The Black Bomber
  Gorilla Bathes at Noon
  Absolute Hundred
  We Are Not Angels
  Tito And Me
  The Boulevard of Revolution
 
  Nikola Kojo
  Nikola Pejakovic
  Srdjan Dragojevic
  Dragan Bjelogrlic
  Srdan Golubovic
  Nebojsa Glogovac
  Mirjana Jokovic
  Emir Kusturica
  Gordan Mihic
  Dragan Kresoja
  Vladimir Blazevski
  Goran Markovic
  Darko Bajic
  Srdjan Karanovic
  Goran Paskaljevic
  Oleg Novkovic
  Ana Sofrenovic
  Bozidar (Bota) Nikolic
  Dusan Makavejev
  Zivojin Pavlovic
  Aleksandar Petrovic
  Dina Iordanova
  Zelimir Zilnik
  Aleksandar Popovski
  Darko Mitrevski
 
  New Romanian Cinema between Exoticism and State Subventions
  History of Cinema in the Balkans: Common Pioneers and Similarities
  Imagining the Balkans... in Film
  An Overview of the (New)* Croatian Cinema
  The Represantation of the Borders in the Films of Theo Angelopoulos
 
 
 
 
 
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