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Goran Paskaljević, a Balkan humanist
© Dimitris Kerkinos
First Publication: Goran Paskaljevic 50th Thessaloniki IFF Oxy Publications 2009
 
 
   
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Goran Paskaljević is an artist whose cinematic career already spans forty years. His work includes fifteen feature films, thirty documentaries and shorts, and is marked by a consistency in both aesthetics and ideology. A humanist, steeped in the simplicity of Italian neorealism and in particular in Vittorio de Sica’s work, Paskaljević makes films that are based on simple narratives which describe, sincerely and delicately, the emotions and life of ordinary people, always siding with the weak and the oppressed. Paskaljević centres his stories on the human condition, highlighting the small existentialist dramas of the young and older people alike, of those living on the fringes of society and of the underprivileged, emphasizing the efforts they make to survive. Ordinary everyday people are the ones that interest him most, those who have to put up with the sequels of historical events and are forced to find ways to cope and yet never lose their expectations for a better life. He treats his characters with warmth and empathy, putting forward their human dimensions, complete with faults and merits. Avoiding stereotypes and clichés, he neither moralises nor manipulates his audience. Even though in most cases the situations his characters have to face are beyond their control, and ultimately their struggle proves in vain, the efforts they make, the tenderness they manage to maintain, the faith they put in their dreams and fantasies, are not only moving in themselves but also radiate a feeling of optimism constituting expressions of resistance against a pre-established fate.
 
Against the backdrop of his national reality, Paskaljević tells stories which underscore the complexity and contradictions of the socio-political conditions of his time. Without aiming to make openly political films, he is nevertheless incapable of remaining detached from what is going on in his country: with a critical eye, he observes and records the events shaping local life, addresses the fundamental social tensions that underpinned the politics of his country during the nineties, and carries out a covert social critique which is usually expressed through metaphor and symbolism. Paskaljević captures the mood of his native land; describes social ties  (especially intergenerational relationships), and life in the city and in the country; and addresses the hardships of immigration, social and political transitions and, of course the impact of civil war on his country. With realism and poetry, black humour and irony, his films succeed in genuinely representing real life on the big screen and in conveying the filmmaker’s personal account of his time.

Born in Belgrade in 1947, Goran Paskaljević studied cinema in the famous FAMU school of Prague from 1967 to 1971 where he was a student of Elmar Klos. During his studies he had the opportunity to get to know and associate with the major Czech filmmakers of the day, such as Jiří Menzel, Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer, and to witness at close quarters the epitomy of the new wave in Czech cinema as well as its disintegration following the Soviet invasion of Prague. Goran Marković, Srdjan Karanović, Rajko Grlic, Lordan Zafranović, and cameramen Živko Zalar, Pega Popović, Vilko Filac – and a little later Emir Kusturitsa [1], all studied at the FAMU. This group of Yugoslav filmmakers became known as the ‘Czech School’; in the mid-seventies it revived and placed Yugoslav cinema at the centre of the international scene; it won over the local public and was instrumental in encouraging other Yugoslav film directors and producers to overcome their tendency to introversion.

Despite the obvious differences in aesthetics and subject matter in the work of each film director from the Prague School, the FAMU members formed friendship ties and worked together on the films they produced, sharing certain common traits. On the one hand, they followed the example of the previous ‘black cinema’ generation of Yugoslav filmmakers [2] who had discarded the existing cinema stereotypes and aesthetics criteria in favour of a cinéma d’auteur, producing films with social and political significance. On the other hand, they continued in the footsteps of the Czech new wave tradition of the sixties [3]. Their starting point was a desire to comment on Yugoslavia’s social life through films that would transcend national borders and interest international audiences. They therefore focused on the complexity of social life, integrating social contrasts, freeing their characters from all stereotypes and creating an atmosphere typical of their local surroundings, in order to produce humanistic stories that were able to offer a social critique, while at the same time functioned as comedies with unexpected reversals, satires that the audiences actually enjoyed.

Before making his first feature film, Paskaljević filmed about thirty shorts and documentaries for the Belgrade television. In these, he explored issues that were to interest him throughout his career; the experience he acquired making these shorts and documentaries was to be of great use to him in his future creations. In his second year of cinema studies he made Mister Hrstka (1969), the portrait of a solitary worker. The film sparked off strong reactions with the Czech government censor qualifying it as “offensive to the socialist system and harmful to the social order”. The film was proposed for the Oberhausen Festival but in the end was not shown since the filmmaker did not want to risk being expelled from the School. In 1970, again under the direction of Elmar Klos, he made A Few Words about Love and for his degree The Legend of Lapot (1972), in which he gives an account of the custom of stoning old people to death in a remote Balkan community. That same year he made The Jewish Cemetery, a film about the lives of gypsies in a Belgrade ghetto. This was followed in 1973 by Children, which is about the political manipulation of children; the film was given an award at the Belgrade Film Festival, as was his next film The Descendant (1974), which finds its inspiration in Serb mythology. Finally, his film Burden (1974) once again broaches the subject of social injustice focusing on the maltreatment of teenagers and the elderly.

Beach Guard in Winter

In his first feature film, Beach Guard in Winter (1976)– the film that was to start the trend of  the Yugoslav ‘Czech films’– Paskaljević addresses the young people of his generation, successfully capturing their feelings with genuineness and insight and recording their contradictions. In keeping with the two film trends that mark his time, he couples the ‘black cinema’ of his country with the Czech new wave. With Gordan Mihić, screenwriter of ‘black cinema’ and of Žika Pavlović’s films, he starts on a collaboration that will last through five feature films in the following twenty years, showing, with a humour reminiscent of Miloš Forman’s comedies, the social reality of his young characters. Emphasizing detail and atmosphere, Paskaljević illustrates social ties, highlighting the utter lack of communication between parents and children and their inability to be effective, since, on the one hand, parents cannot understand their children and play the educational role they wish to play, and on the other, the young cannot fulfil their own ambitions.

Two years later Paskaljević shoots The Dog who Loved Trains (1978), a road movie that focus on three outcasts who try to find fulfillment and personal happiness, but to no avail. Paskaljević’s use of neo-realistic aesthetics embodies reality in the film and is enhanced by the atmospheric filming of cameraman Aleksandar Petković. The film establishes a dialogue with When I am  Dead and Pale (1967) by his senior ‘master’, Žika Pavlović: both films have an element of pessimism, and though their characters strive for life, they are ethically passive and indifferent to all ideology, living in downgraded conditions and experiencing a harsh social reality, which is set off by a naturalistic, almost documentary style of filming. The Dog who Loved Trains, despite its intense existentialist mood, is a critical vision on the Yugoslav society of its time showing an individualistic world with no mutual trust, no solidarity, no family ties, no parental respect and in which money is seen as the only road to happiness.

The Dog Who Loved Trains

After dealing with the young and the outcasts, Paskaljević in his These Earthly Days Go Rolling By (1979) turns his attention once again to the elderly and focuses on human vitality and dignity. In cinema vérité fashion, he films non professional actors and builds his film on a simple story which is full of emotion and focuses on the relationship and friendship of two very different elderly men. He shows us their lives in an old people’s home, reminding us of the inevitable passing of time and how the only certainties of the human existence are its transience and decline; in this context, the enjoyment of life becomes an imperative need and a means to reconcile oneself with death. Though the narrative is realistic and documentary-like, Paskaljević makes strategic use of visual metaphor, adding a special poetic dimension to the story and turning it into one of the loveliest Third Age films ever. On another level, the film is a tribute to the filmmaker’s grandparents who brought him up, and to the wisdom of elderly people. This is the first film in which Paskaljević works with cameraman Milan Spasić, a collaboration that, despite some small interruptions, continues to this day.

Special Treatment (1980) is Paskaljević’s first political allegory. The film, a parable on despotism, hypocrisy and the abuse of power, is a reference to the failure of the Yugoslav political model. The narrative relates the efforts made by a doctor to have his patients implement a therapy –his therapy– that will free them from their addiction to alcohol and which is founded on willpower and physical exercise, a diet of apples and fresh air, Wagner’s music and theatrical performances of their individual traumas. The filmmaker observes his characters with perspicacity avoiding stereotypes, and deconstructs the initially successful image of Dr. Ilić by showing his tyrannical character and his hypocrisy; at the same time, Paskaljević shows his characters’ emotions with tenderness, keeping a fair balance between comedy and psychological drama. Once again, he elicits his actors’ best performance, as in the case of Milena Dravić who won the Second Best Actress Award at the Cannes Festival.

Paskaljević first American film, Twilight Time (1982), in a production with Dan Tana and MGM, will forever remain in the filmmaker’s memory as his worst cinematic experience, as he was forbidden to make any changes to the scenario during the shooting of the film. The result is an unbalanced, sentimental, family film, about a seventy-year old immigrant in America who returns home to his village in Serbia after an absence of twenty years. Despite cameraman Tomislav Pinter’s beautiful filming and despite the moving performance of Karl Manden, a veteran actor of Serb origin, the narrative lacks the dramatic development and the spontaneity which are the filmmaker’s trademarks in his other films.

These Earthly Days Go Rolling By

In his Illusive Summer of ’68 (1984), Paskaljević comes back to the question of youth examining what it was like growing up in the context of the explosive political events of 1968. Inspired by Czech comedies that refer to the same issue of youth and its adventures (Miloš Forman’s Black Peter, 1963; Jiří Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains, 1966), but also drawing from his own personal experience, Paskaljević – with tactful irony and wit – puts across the repercussions these events had on a provincial Yugoslav family. He records the monotonous atmosphere and point of view of the middle-class, the generation gap, and a greater interest in solving family and personal problems rather than political change. This is his last film with cameraman Aleksandar Petković and with the national production firm Centar Film: in a daring move for his time, he decides to found his own company, the Singidunum Film Productions, the first independent film production company in Yugoslavia.

Affected by the surge of child slavery among gypsy children, Paskaljević in his Guardian Angel (1987) penetrates into the world of the Roma, and, with the care of an ethnographer and writing his own scenario, he records their lives in a ghetto. With references to Italian neorealism and to Luis Buñuel and with non professional actors and a small budget, Paskaljević films the conditions under which they live with a sensibility akin to documentary filmmaking, realistically illustrating their poverty and misery and avoiding idealisation as much as stylisation. And yet, at the same time, his filmmaking goes beyond realism, creating with the aid of music by Zoran Zimjanović (another fundamental collaborator), a dream-like atmosphere into which he dramatically incorporates the gypsy myth of the guardian angel (Sambia), thereby mixing reality and legend. A film that bears testimony, the Guardian Angel is one of the most important Balkan films about gypsies.

A year before the war in Yugoslavia broke out, at a time when Eastern Europe was falling apart in protectorate democracies, Paskaljević worked on a scenario with one of the greatest Serb writers, Borislav Pekić, turning his novel "Time of Miracles" into a feature film with the same title. Time of Miracles (1990) is clearly a political film. In a small village at the end of the second World War two different world views confront each other – Christianity and Communism – in a struggle between the new and the old class, where ideological militancy eventually dominates. And though the film takes place in 1945, its similarity with contemporary times is obvious. It captures the pulsations of the new nationalist movement which at the time was rising in Yugoslavia and at the same time it highlights a situation in which specific ideologies collapse while others survive. Once again, Paskaljević makes use of allegory and through the visual metaphor of the wall paintings in the small village church he shows us how ‘blindness prevents people from developing a constructive comparison based on experience’.

Time of Miracles

The next film, Tango Argentino (1992), was made when economic sanctions were being enforced on Yugoslavia. The subject-matter is again the third age; this is the last of a trilogy that includes These Earthly Days Go Rolling By and Twilight Time. The film focuses on a ten-year old boy who is helping elder people find their lost youth and the joys of life. On their side, they offer him the tenderness, care and affection he never received from his parents and they also bring him face to face with the reality of death. Without dealing directly with the political situation in his country, Paskaljević focuses on human feelings – loneliness, nostalgia, friendship, zest for life, and conveys to us the last period of communism in Yugoslavia. He illustrates with humour the difficulties a provincial family encounters during a time of political and social transition, emphasizing the fact that, whatever the changes, life still goes on.

The surge of nationalism in Yugoslavia forces the filmmaker to leave his country in 1992 for Paris. His next film, therefore, Someone Else’s America (1995), will be a European co-production shot in a studio in Hamburg with a large multi-national crew. The theme is migration seen through the adventures of two European emigrants who seek the American Dream in Brooklyn. A comedy of characters with Miki Manojlović and Tom Conti, in a version of The Odd Couple (1968) with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon, the film illustrates the experience of migration and its sequels in three generations, offering us three different points of view on the subject. Paskaljević focuses on the dynamics of family and interpersonal relationships, praises friendship, gently brings out his characters’ weaknesses and relates their unfulfilled dreams with delicate touches of poetry that evoke magic realism. Furthermore, Paskaljević presents in this film the solidarity and common struggle of the two main characters as an answer to the civil war in Yugoslavia. Someone Else’s America is the fifth and last film based on a script by Gordan Mihić after Beach Guard in Winter, The Dog who Loved Trains, Illusive Summer of ’68 and Tango Argentino.
 
In 1998 Paskaljević returns to Yugoslavia and films The Powder Keg, first of a trilogy about Serbia in the last decade. Based on a play by writer Dejan Dukovski from Skopje, The Powder Keg takes place in Belgrade in November 1995, on the night of the Dayton Agreement: its subject-matter is the violence prevailing in the country. The theatrical frame is clear in the film as it “intersperses the ΄real-life΄ stories with a sense of performance" [4]. The general feeling of despair brings to mind films referring to the early Nazi years, such as Mephisto (1981) by Istvan Szabo or Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) [5]. Without any direct reference to the Bosnian war, Paskaljević makes us feel its impact on ordinary people showing us their despair and using their lives in order to “dramatize the spiritual condition of [his] people”. The film is a metaphor for the mental state of the residents of Belgrade, it "uses violence to condemn violence" [6] and brings up the question of guilt by confronting all those who feel they are the victims of this situation with their own responsibilities for what is happening. The episodic structure in The Powder Keg links the various stories of its characters in a criss-cross of events that happen during that one night in Belgrade. Trapped in a nightmarish vicious circle of hatred, violence and revenge, the victim in one vignette becomes the perpetrator in the next, ready to explode on the slightest provocation. Violence is not only physical, but also in verbal and psychological, aimed mainly at women. It is symptomatic of a sick situation that is beyond the characters’ control: “Although [the characters] believe they control the power they wield, it comes back to consume them" [7]. However, the representation of the absurdity of violence does not create characters easily stereotyped as evil; on the contrary, it highlights their sense of humour and through that, their humanity.

The Powder Keg was much applauded by the critics and received many awards – among them the award of the critics of the European Academy – and according to the eminent researcher on Balkan cinema, Dina Iordanova, it “was the only film which managed to communicate the effects of malaise and insanity to the outside world” [8]. However, Paskaljević’s continual criticism of Milošević’s regime resulted in an accusation against him in Politika, one of the most important Serbian newspapers, which at the time was controlled by the government. Paskaljević was called a ‘traitor to the Serb people’. So once again the Serb filmmaker was forced to leave his country. He shot his next film, How Harry Became a Tree (2001) in Ireland. The film is about intolerance and hatred in provincial Ireland in the twenties, and is an adaptation of a Chinese story (Lao Dan by Yang Zhengsung). It reproves irrational hatred and makes references to certain cultural elements common to both countries, such as conflict, revenge, nationalism. To a certain extent, the filmmaker identifies the persona of Harry with Milošević and thus adds an allegorical dimension to the narrative.

After Milošević’s fall, Paskaljević returns to his country to make the second film of the trilogy about contemporary Serbia, Midwinter Night’s Dream (2004), a love story which takes place in post-war Serbia. Because of the wars, extreme nationalism and violence, the country is in a state of collapse, physically and morally. Three outcasts meet against this background: a veteran soldier who can’t get rid of his nightmares and who vainly tries to connect emotionally with two Bosnian refugees, an autistic girl and her mother. Paskaljević here has a real autistic person acting in the role of the girl, whose participation determines his choice to use a digital camera, while it also “subtly blurs distinctions between the fictional and the real” [9]. The autism of the girl also functions as a metaphor for the alienation and difficulty experienced by the greater part of the Serbian population with regard to its more recent past and its inability to understand the reasons that lead their country to such extremes. Through silences and facial expressions rather than extensive dialogue, the filmmaker discloses the sympathy and warmth he generally feels for his main characters, who, despite their sufferings, manage to conserve their tenderness. The melancholic atmosphere of winter is captured with great poetic delicacy and realistic aesthetics in Midwinter Night’s Dream, and the filmmaker’s choice not to show any actual violence “echoes the practice of the ancient Greek tragedians who place all violent acts offstage” [10]

Paskaljević closes his trilogy with The Optimists (2006), an omnibus film on false optimism inspired on Voltaire’s "Candide". A fake optimism threads the five stories together with the director presenting the psychological agony of post-Milošević Serbia. The filmmaker echoes the new living conditions in Serbian society, observes the despair of everyday people, their entrapment in vain hopes and their artful exploitation by those who pretend to offer them an optimistic perspective of life. Inflected with irony and black humour, the film shows the lack of illusion in Serbia today, but at the same time addresses an international audience through the universality of its topic. Lazar Ristovski, as well as co-producing the film, plays different roles in each one of the five stories and is the main protagonist in all three films of the trilogy.

Honeymoons

In his last film Honeymoons (2009), the first ever Serbo-Albanian co-production, Paskaljević goes back to the issue of migration. He follows the fortunes of two young couples from Serbia and Albania who leave their respective countries seeking a more promising life in Europe. Both stories unwrap in a parallel way but never cross. They share a common end: disappointment for their unfulfilled dreams when, on arriving at the borders of the European Union, they awaken the suspicion of the authorities who treat them like second-class citizens and refuse to let them in. Honeymoons represents an initiative for a cultural approach that goes beyond prejudice and past political frictions between the two countries, highlighting the similarities instead of the differences, and emphasising their common goal: to become part of Europe.

Paskaljević’s cinema centres on man. It focuses on the feelings and daily struggles of ordinary people and it reflects the social and political conditions in which they live. He gives voice to the young and the old, wanderers and outcasts, all those living on the fringes of society and who, against the odds, are fighting for a better future. His films draw on real life, illustrating the full range of human emotions and bringing to the fore the humanity of three-dimensional characters, their striving and their unquenchable hope for a better life. Thus, actors play a key role in his work, since it’s them who transmit these feelings to the viewers. His ability to get the most out of his actors – whether amateur or professional – helps him elicit performances that always ring true, thereby reinforcing the authenticity of the narrative. Avoiding happy ends or melodramatic compromises, refusing to cater to viewers or to their emotions, Paskaljević tells us stories which, though invariably marked by a tendency for demystification and pessimism, never fail to move us, reaching beyond their national context and winning international acclaim, as much from the critics as from the public. With a strong feeling for detail and a knack for capturing the right atmosphere, often implementing a documentary filming style that sets off the dramatic texture of events, and by combining realism and poetry, dark humour and irony, Paskaljević creates an anthropocentric film écriture that ideally serves the critical way in which he sees and approaches life. In this way, he is able to successfully convey his vision and produce an important body of work that stands as a testament to his era and, as such, contributes to our understanding of his society and his people. An achievement which, beyond any doubt, ranks Paskaljević among today’s leading European filmmakers.

Notes

1 Ron Holloway also includes in this list Dejan Karaklajić and Miloš Radivojević who studied in Yugoslavia but shared the same convictions and cinema aesthetics (Holloway, R., 1996. Goran Paskaljević. La Tragicomedia Humana. 41 Semana Internacional de Cine de Valladolid, p. 155).  
2  Holloway refers to the gradual appearance of auteur-filmmakers in the sixties who found inspiration on the social and political interests of their time. These sixties films were interested in common issues: questioning politics, exploring good and evil, the artistic exploration through personal experience; identification with personal heroes, demystification of reality and an intense fatalism. ‘Black cinema’ was much influenced by Italian neo-realism and became the founding stone for the new Yugoslav cinema (Holloway, R., 1996, ibid., pp. 50-1). Inspired by neorealism and the new trends in European cinema, the ‘black cinema’ filmmakers rejected the dominant style of socialist realism with its officially sanctioned optimism and patriotic education of the masses, opting instead for exposing the darker side of the socialist state with its corruption and hypocrisy. The more radical filmmakers openly criticised communism (Nebesio, B.Y., 2008. “Yugoslavia. Novi Film” http://www.filmreference.com/ encyclopedia/Romantic-Comedy-Yugoslavia-NOVI-FILM.html). Their attention “was on the everyday existence of the working class, on their poverty, and on the betrayal of the socialist ideals by the red bourgeoisie, often challenged through references to radical thinkers such as Wilhelm Reich… The past was also closely scrutinised thus revealing the multiplicity of recurring traumatic narratives of history, nation and patriarchy” (Gržinić, M., 2006. “Early works”. In Dina Iordanova (ed.), Cinema of the Balkans, 24 Frames, London: Wallflower Press, p.70).
3 The Czech Nouvelle Vague lasted seven years (1962-69). In the context of contemporary cinema, it stands for a humane cinema marked by a sense of humour. “Devoid of ‘official’ ideology, it is filled with unorthodox compassion for people as they are, and no longer, as in Stalin’s times, as they should be”. One of the two prevailing complementary tendencies was a realistic one: it followed in the footsteps of neo-realism and cinéma vérité, “concentrated on the significance of the insignificant, using non- professionas and actual locales for greater authenticity. In contrast to Italian realists, Czech film directors (Forman, Passer, Menzel) seemed less ideological, sentimental and heroic”. The second tendency (Schorm, Nemec, Masa, Juracek, Věra Chytilová) “was far more cerebral; its scenarios were careful intellectual constructions; its settings and visual styles intentionally artificial; its tone oblique, suffused with existentialism. There was less of the smiling optimistism of the neorealist camp; a more sombre, even pessimistic, mood obtained. Stylistically, they tended to be allegorical, symbolist, or even ‘absurd’; touches of Buñuel, Fellini and Bergman, abounded and the possibility of an underlying complexity too dense to be unravelled was hinted at.” (Vogel, Α., 1974. Film as a subversive art. New York: Random House, pp. 139-140).
4 Horton, A. J., 1999. “Cabaret Balkan”. Cineaste, Vol. XXV, No. 1, December 1999.
5 Iordanova, D., 2001. Cinema of Flames. Balkan Film, Culture and the Media. London: BFI Publishing, p. 269.
6 Horton, A. J., 1999. “Vignettes of Violence. Different attitudes in recent Yugoslav cinema”. In Central European Review, Vol. 1, No. 18, 25 October 1999, p. 111.
7 Horton, ibid., p. 111.  
8 Iordanova, D., ibid., p. 269
9 Orr, J., 2007. “A Midwinter Night’s Dream”. Cineaste, Vol. XXXII, No. 3, p. 61
10 Orr, ibid., p. 60. 
 
 
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Category
 
 
 
 
  Honeymoons
  Beach Guard in Wintertime
  The Optimists
  Midwinter Night`s Dream
  The Dog Who Loved Trains
  How Harry Became a Tree (Bitter Harvest)
  Someone Else`s America
  Tango Argentino
  Special Treatment
  The Illusive Summer of `68
  The Powder Keg (aka Cabaret Balkan)
  Time of Miracles
  Twilight Time
  Guardian Angel
  These Earthly Days Go Rolling By
 
  Lazar Ristovski
  Predrag Miki Manojlovic
  Zoran Simjanovic
  Emir Kusturica
  Vilko Filac
  Gordan Mihic
  Rajko Grlic
  Goran Markovic
  Zivko Zalar
  Milena Dravic
  Srdjan Karanovic
  Goran Paskaljevic
  Milan Spasic
  Aleksandar Petkovic
  Tom Conti
  Borislav Pekic
  Tomislav Pinter
  Dina Iordanova
  Dejan Dukovski
  Lordan Zafranovic
 
  Centar Film
 
  Awards for Paskalievic΄s new film in Spain
  Do the Balkans Imply a Peculiar Sensibility?
  History of Cinema in the Balkans: Common Pioneers and Similarities
  From Yugoslav to Serbian Cinema: 1991-2001 Themes and Characteristics of a Cinema Industry in Transition
  The Balkans, A Spiritual Space and Less a Peninsula
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
       
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