Delicate Renaissance

Films from the Former Yugoslavia

Among international-minded film nuts, Yugoslavia used to have a reputation for making slow, dreary dramas, despite occasionally producing innovative filmmakers like Dusan Makavejev. Then Emir Kusturica came along with his quirky, offbeat films that combined the fatalism of South Slav humor and wry observations about the communist regime, seizing the attention of the international film world.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, a whole slew of filmmakers from the former Yugoslav republics have taken Kusturica’s legacy and gone forward. Ironically, Kusturica himself is now a pariah for his embrace of Milosevic during the siege of Sarajevo. He spends most of his time in Paris, still making sharp, witty films and occasionally appearing in the work of others (most recently Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief). However, he has become the Balkan version of Leni Riefensthal, a prodigiously talented filmmaker forever tainted by his political associations.

With the break-up of the Balkans, filmmakers who would have once shared the same passport have emerged as leading young talents in competing nascent national cinemas. From the traditional powerhouse of Serbia (which was the center of live action filmmaking in the ex-Yugoslavia) have appeared such talents as Srdjan Dragojevic (Rane) and Predrag Antonivijec (Savior). The animation capital, Croatia, has its own burgeoning film scene that includes Dalibor Matanic (The Cashier Wants to Go to the Seaside) and Vinko Bresan (How the War Started on My Island). Not all of these films focus on political issues or even the recent war, but nearly all of them have sharp social commentaries in their work, combined with strong visual accents.

Slovenia

Maja Weiss is one of the leading filmmakers from Slovenia, which is both the richest of the former Yugoslav states and the one closest to Europe. Weiss began her career as a documentarian and has produced several films including Cesto Bracjia in Jedinstvo (The Road of Brotherhood and Unity), where she traveled with her sister Ida (who doubles as her producer on all of her films) on the old highway of Brotherhood and Unity that was supposed to inextricably link the old Yugoslavia together, interviewing the inhabitants as she went. This documentary, which is at once personal (she begins in her home village of Metlika and visits her relatives in Serbia with whom they no longer discuss politics) but also political and social. Cesto provides the long-hidden coda to the Yugoslavian wars.

Weiss has branched out into narrative filmmaking with her festival hit Varuh Meje (Guardian of the Frontier). As in her documentary work, this film bridges the political and the personal in exploring the relationship of three girls taking a canoe trip down the Kolpa River, which forms part of the border between Croatia and Slovenia. The frontier in its title not only refers to the “frontier” of sexual and maturity that the girls cross into, but also the changing political and social situation in Slovenia, as the girls travel physically and emotionally through fears of identity, personality, politics and sexuality. At its heart, Guardian of the Frontier is about struggling to become an individual from a feminine point of view. Weiss parallels the personal journey that women make every so often with the political and social questions that still face her infant country.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Danis Tanovic and his Cannes and Oscar-winning film No Man’s Land have put Bosnian filmmaking on the map. But there are several other young filmmakers making their mark as well. Pjer Zalica’s Gori Vatra (Fuse) which won the Silver Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival and Srdjan Vuletic’s Ljeto u zlatnoj dolini (Summer in the Golden Valley), which has yet to be released, are two promising upcoming films from Refresh Productions. Refresh, based in Sarajevo, was founded as part of an Internews media development project in the years following the Bosnian War. It has subsequently split off from the founding NGO and become its own entity, producing, among others, No Man’s Land and the Vuletic and Zalica projects.

Vuletic in particular has become well known for his short film work including Hop, Skip & Jump and Ten Minutes. Both works are about the Bosnian War and each uses a simple story to convey the devastating emotional and social effects of the war.

Hop, Skip & Jump uses a love story as a metaphor for an entire society’s implosion. The 20-minute short starts with a relationship that goes sour during the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. The ex-lovers next meet again during the war — she is a sniper aiming at his window. Later, when the war is over, they see each other on a bus. Although there is no dialogue throughout the film, the story eloquently conveys the emotions rather than the politics of war.

Ten Minutes follows similar themes. While a little boy goes off to find bread in the middle of the Bosnian War, a Japanese tourist in Italy has his pictures developed in 10 minutes. The parallel stories contrast the conclusion of the film, the striking difference between life in Bosnia and life in Rome, a mere two-hour plane ride away, where 10 minutes can mean a photo or death.

Macedonia

Probably the most well-known filmmaker from the former Yugoslavia outside of Kusturica is Milcho Manchevski, whose greatest strength is in tearing apart the conventions of narrative storytelling and rewriting film language towards the characters’ emotional needs. Manchevski’s first film, Before the Rain, which focused on three love stories and how ethnic violence destroyed each of them, was nominated for an Oscar in 1994. His long-delayed follow-up film Dust was surprisingly different from Rain, with the lyrical romanticism and beauty of Rain replaced by the dazzling-yet-violent imagery of Dust. Dust is, however, in its own way as beautiful and heartwrenching as Rain, even as it explores completely different territory.

In Dust, Manchevski is clearly more interested in emotions than politics or even narrative facts, and the movie is led foremost by the characters’ emotions and memories. Dust takes place partially in present-day New York and, like Rain, partially in turn-of-the-century, Ottoman-era Macedonia. In the Macedonian segments, Luke (David Wenham, last seen as Faromir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), an American cowboy fleeing troubles at home, has gone to pursue a career as a roving bandit amid the chaos of tribal warfare. Both periods of time flow in and out of each other in the memories of an old woman, Angela (Rosemary Murphy), who has only a short time left to tell her story and give her gold to someone. That someone turns out to be a thief (Adrian Lester) who will at once be redeemed through her friendship and will become the carrier of her legacy. The gold becomes a sideline to the rest of the story, a mere lure of attraction, as both Lester’s and Wenham’s amoral-outlaw characters move from materialism and individualism to a more spiritual path. Manchevski uses the historical and cultural background of the Balkans to make a movie about humanity and personal growth that is both affecting and endearing in its own way.

Manchevski is easily the most prominent international profile of these filmmakers, but many post-Yugoslav Serbian filmmakers were in vogue in the international film world recently. However, these filmmakers and their colleagues are hampered in achieving greater recognition and opportunity by lack of resources and lack of support from the state broadcasters who fund most of the filmmaking in the ex-Yugoslavian countries. Despite his international success, Manchevski has indicated in interviews that he might not make another film because of the frustrations of financing and marketing his work. If a filmmaker of his caliber can be thwarted from progress, the future prospects of other struggling and talented filmmakers from this fertile area may be in doubt.