Post-Yugoslav Film: Style and Ideology

The Development of Post-Yugoslav Cinemas and the Eastern European Context

Jurica Pavičić

1. Introduction

1.1. The disintegration of Yugoslav cinema

In the last week of July 1991 the city of Pula was preparing, as it did every summer, for the Yugoslav Film Festival, the principal federal film festival which was that summer to be held for the thirty-eighth time. Kevin Reynolds’s Hollywood spectacle Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves was to open the thirty-eighth Pula in Vespasian’s Roman amphitheatre, the Arena, and the debutant Zrinko Ogresta’s Fragments was to open the Yugoslav competition. The city of Pula prepared for the film festival as it had done every year: it was covered with posters, reporters found printed catalogues in the press-centre, the Podravka Company prepared a reception for five hundred guests, and a prominent festival guest, the Hollywood actor John Malkovich, commanded everyone’s interest.

            The circumstances around Pula, however, were far from normal. For four full years federal Yugoslavia had been embroiled in a severe political crisis. This crisis had begun in the late eighties with a nationalistic coup in the League of Communists of Serbia, had continued as a conflict of republican factions within the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, and after the first multiparty elections in 1990 had become definitely inter-ethnic. At the end of June 1991 Slovenia and Croatia, after long and fruitless negotiations about the reconstruction of the federal state, proclaimed independence. This led to an attempt by the federal army to establish control over the northern and western Yugoslav borders, which started the ten-day Slovenian war. At the beginning of July the European Community diplomatically intervened to end hostilities, and Slovenia and Croatia agreed to a three-month moratorium on their independence. However, at the beginning of July Slovenian athletes left the Yugoslav sports teams, the Slovenian swimmer Jure Bučar refused to swim for Yugoslavia at the Mediterranean Games, and the basketball playmaker Jure Zdovc left the Yugoslav team which beat Italy in Rome on 1 July and became European champion. 

Croatia itself was unrelentingly sliding into war. In early July, two Croatian policemen and several Serb volunteers were killed in an armed clash in Tenja. Next day the Croatian village of Ćelije, fifteen kilometres from Osijek, was burned down, and Slobodan Milošević called up the Territorial Defence of Vojvodina in the village of Aradac near Zrenjanin. There was shooting in the streets of Osijek, the local Serbs mined the railway line near Perušić and electrical cables in the hinterland of Zadar, cutting off electricity in Zadar, Biograd and Pag on 17 July. Several days earlier, the Croatian Secretariat of General National Defence sent instructions to civilian defence headquarters about how to behave in case of an alert and ordered the preparation of shelters. During that month there were reports about casualties, wounded and mortar attacks in Vinkovci, Daruvar, Vukovar and the surroundings of Zadar and Sisak. On the very day when the Pula Festival was scheduled to begin, six people were killed in open combat in Erdut, there was artillery firing in Klisa, Ernestinovo, Vukovar and the new part of Tenja, a bomb went off in a cafe in Osijek and in a goldsmith’s shop in Vinkovci, owned by Serbs. On that day 106 children evacuated from the Osijek area arrived in Dubrovnik, the federal government (Federal Executive Council) proclaimed that there were already 44,316 displaced persons on the territory of Yugoslavia, and a day later Slobodna Dalmacija published a graphic image of siren alert signals. On the same day the Lika railway line was definitely closed, and Žarko Domljan, Speaker of the Croatian Parliament, said “the Yugoslav federation no longer exists”, and “the SFRY Assembly should not be expected to sit in full ever again”.[1]

Under these circumstances most people found it distasteful to hold a Yugoslav film festival, and Croatian politicians considered it politically counterproductive. In the weeks before the Festival, the management and the artistic director received many withdrawals by Serbian filmmakers (Goran Paskaljević, Žarko Dragojević, Goran Karanović, Dragan Kresoja), some of them openly boycotting the festival in Croatia, others withdrawing in protest because of conditions in the country, still others calling on technical problems (Šömen, 1991: 46). Thus the Festival Council, headed by Antun Vrdoljak, film director and a high-ranking official in Tuđman’s HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union – Hrvatska demokratska zajednica), decided to cancel the festival. The decision was announced at a press conference on the opening day after the noon projection for journalists of Ogresta’s film Fragments. Ivo Škrabalo, the artistic director of the Festival, read the reasons for the decision:

  “…under the present circumstances of an insane imposed war, the Council of the Pula Film Festival has decided that the Festival will not be held in protest against violence. This act of cancelling the Festival, the programme   ofwhich has been prepared in all its details, is our call on all filmmakers and people engaged in culture to raise   theirvoices against violence over the spirit, over the entire cultural and civilisation heritage and over the values   for which filmmakers have always striven in their work.”  (Pavičić, 1991: 21)                                                        

Antun Vrdoljak, president of the Festival Council, commented the decision: “If 400 people have already lost their lives in the fighting in Croatia, this is not a time for festivals,” (Šömen, 1991: 46).

And so, after 38 years, the Pula Film Festival disappeared, a festival that had during its existence been the most important social event of Yugoslav cinema, its symbol, and in a way also a cultural symbol of Titoist Yugoslavia. Even if we cannot agree with the Serbian film theorist Ana Janković Piljić that “the last film festival in Pula and its collapse marked the beginning of the war in Yugoslavia” (Janković Piljić, 2008: 28), because – at the very least – the war was by then already in full swing, it is quite certain that the collapse of Pula 1991 marked the end of the common Yugoslav cinema. It was the political and institutional end of a cinema that from its pioneer beginnings in the late 1940s to 1991 produced 890 feature films and more than one thousand short films and documentaries, whose authors were nominated for an Oscar for foreign language film five times and won an Oscar for a short animated film, a Gold Palm in Cannes, and, among others, prizes in Venice, Berlin, Moscow, Oberhausen and Annecy. After the cancelled Pula 1991, the cinemas of the Yugoslav countries each went their own separate ways, just like the states that they belong to.

The coming decades were to be a period of dramatic political events and social changes for the Yugoslav peoples and states. During the autumn of 1991 fighting in Croatia became real position warfare, which with interruptions lasted until August 1995, Operation Storm and the Dayton Agreement. After a referendum on independence in March 1992 war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its effects were devastating: an estimated 104,372 military and civilian casualties, 1.8 million displaced persons,[2] and the brokering in Dayton of a politically unstable Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is still today subject to political strife, negotiations and proposals for revision. In the meantime the former Yugoslav federation continued to break up into its earlier federal components which, one after another, became sovereign states.  Macedonia proclaimed independence already in September 1991. Montenegro, a Serbian ally in the wars of 1991-95, gradually changed its political orientation and finally the political option that supported independence and turning to the West overweighed. This process ended in 2006, when on 21 May at a referendum Montenegrin voters opted for independence, which was proclaimed on 3 June. The last chapter in the emancipation process of the former federal units was the secession of Kosovo from Serbia in February 2008. Although an independent Kosovo still causes political polarisation and legal dilemmas, Kosovo is today functioning as a de facto sovereign state which about 100 countries recognised by 2011, most of them NATO members and/or American allies. Seven new states were created in the process of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and five or six separate wars were fought on the territory of the former federal state.[3]

Concurrently with this pre-political turbulence, the area of former Yugoslavia was going through the same changes as all the other countries that had emerged from the communist system. These changes are usually known as “transition”, and they were more or less similar in all post-communist societies: “transition” always meant the privatisation of the economic system, increased social stratification, de-industrialisation, increased unemployment, and greater exposure to the consumer society. As early as the nineties, and especially in the first decade of the present century, the post-Yugoslav societies were exposed to manifold changes all taking place at the same time. On one hand, it was necessary to solve pre-political conflicts and deal with the consequences of war. On the other, there was a faster or slower process of building and strengthening democratic institutions, a process that sociologists call “democratic consolidation” (Merkel, 1999). At the same time these societies began to build a system compatible with that in developed liberal democracies, which meant many reforms – the introduction of VAT, pension reforms and issuing a taxation identification number, updating the cadastre, applying the so-called Bologna process in higher education or adapting laws. At practically the same time, the post-Yugoslav societies found themselves under the pressure of globalisation changes that were spreading throughout the world, starting with technological, media and information technology changes, to the relocation of industry to Asia, climatic changes and the energy crisis. In short, the two turn-of-the-century decades had all the characteristics of a “perfect storm” for the former Yugoslavia: local and global political, cultural and economic lines of force appeared in synchrony and blew away the earlier social life, replacing it by an unfinished and open process.

Cinema, too, was one of the facets of society that found itself exposed to this “perfect storm”.


1.2. Leaving “the same” and changing to “the different” 

The cinemas of the countries that developed from the former Yugoslavia embarked on this uncertain journey from approximately the same position, having inherited a similar tradition. Although the South Slav lands had entered the first, and even the second Yugoslavia with very different degrees of development, cultural and political traditions, social institutions and types of economy, there were no great differences among them from the aspect of cinema. None of the Yugoslav lands had a serious and continuous tradition of professional cinema before 1945. In all of them, before 1945 filmmaking primarily involved the arrival of foreign cinematographers and film crews, or the work of some enthusiastic amateurs such as Oktavijan Miletić, Tito Strozzi and Franjo Ledić in Croatia, Kosta Novaković, Mihajlo Popović and Maks Kalmić in Belgrade, Ernest Bošnjak and Aleksandar Lifka in Vojvodina, and Janko Ravnik, Metod Badjura and Božidar Jakac in Slovenia (Kosanović 2003: 203 ff). In some of them there were sporadic attempts at public cinema under the wing of the army, health service or political propaganda departments, but mostly this was small in volume and not continuous.[4] A continuous cinema with aesthetic ambitions and systematic public support did not develop in any of the Yugoslav countries until the time of communist Yugoslavia.[5] In this period Yugoslav cinemas worked within a socioeconomic framework that linked them together much more strongly than it divided them. They shared the political context of a one-party dictatorship with the strong personality cult of the head of state Josip Broz Tito. They shared the changes in legislative regulation in Yugoslav cinema, from a decentralised imitation of the Soviet model, through auteur to so-called SIZ (samoupravna interesna zajednica - self-management community of interest) cinema.[6] They shared genres, privileged subjects and motifs, and changes in style and taste. Finally, in that period Yugoslav cinemas also drew on the same personnel pool. Stars such as Velimir Bata Živojinović or Boris Dvornik played in films made by several production centres. Distinguished directors, such as the Croatian director Branko Bauer, made films in several (Bauer – five) federal units, and some of the greatest successes of (for example) Croatian filmmaking were made by “expat” directors – the Montenegrins Dušan Vukotić and Veljko Bulajić, the Italian Giuseppe De Santis, and the Slovenian France Štiglic.[7]

Considering these close connections there were doubts – and still are among some foreign film theorists – whether it is possible even to consider separate cinemas of the Yugoslav republics before 1991. There was a long and exhaustive polemic about this among several critics as long ago as 1968, headed by Slobodan Novaković and Ranko Munitić. The Belgrade critic Novaković tried to single out specific points of style that marked the Serbian and Croatian national “schools” (Novaković, 1970: 12-15)[8] while his counterparts rejected this kind of sub-division primarily on the grounds of utilitarian arguments, saying that this was “unnecessary division” and “fragmentation” (Munitić) and that the cinemas are “subject to the general course of socialist progress” (Božidar Zečević). After the dissolution of the country, dilemmas in the post-Yugoslav states about whether national cinemas had existed before 1991 tacitly ended. All the former Yugoslav republics began to take for granted, implicitly or explicitly, that the earlier tradition of authors and studios on their territory was also the tradition of their national cinemas. Synthesized national film histories were written in many of them (Ivo Škrabalo in Croatia, Petar Volk in Serbia),[9]many present their classics abroad under their own name,[10] although these are obviously films made in Yugoslavia. In Belgrade, too, where Yugoslavia continued to exist in the nineties as the legal name of the state and films made at that time were called “Yugoslav” abroad, a need was felt to map national cinema and call it Serbian. Thus in 1999 Ranko Munitić wrote the history of Serbian animation (Munitić 1999), and in 2001 Petar Volk, in the programmatic introduction to 20. vek srpskog filma (Serbian Film in the 20th Century), asked: “Why call it Serbian film? Is it not new Yugoslav film?”, and answered that “the time has come when film must be protected from manipulating with tradition, social and national interests” (Volk, 2001: 29). In Serbia, which had the largest and most successful cinema in former Yugoslavia in number of titles, a need was felt at the turn of the decade to name this cinema clearly as Serbian and separate from the melting pot of the former state. This need went together with the desire to forge a new approach to their part of the Yugoslav tradition and to re-evaluate “muffled values” through the prism of the new state and new political reality.[11]

Nevertheless, some film theorists outside Yugoslavia look on this “succession in cinema” with scepticism. The Bulgarian film theorist Dina Iordanova mocks Macedonian attempts to construct a national tradition based on only about fifty live-action films, and it is similar in Slovakia, in which “100-year of continuity has been discovered where none existed 10 year ago (apart from Czechoslovakia)” (Iordanova 2005: 235). Iordanova also quotes the Slovak-American film theorist Natasa Duroviceva who writes ironically about the “proliferation of new film-historiographic entities to match the various continuously redrawn state boundaries” (Iordanova, 2005: 235), and writes:

                  "Where we used to talk about one national cinema, however varied … we now face the difficult dilemma of who and what belongs where. The entire hurried attempt to create separate film traditions is especially artificial because it is being carried out at a time when the boundaries of national cinemas are in any case caving in and opening up to growing transnational filmmaking: today creating new national cinemas is acausa perduta." (Iordanova, 2000: 5)  

The editorial compromise in the Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema of the British Film Institute (one of whose editors is Iordanova) also shows that the existence of separate, pre-1991, national cinemas is not as self-evident in the West as it is in Yugoslav lands. For the directors and schools from the Yugoslav period the lexicon’s editors used two defining principles, calling them “Yugoslav directors of Serbian/Croatian/Montenegrin origin”, although this principle was not used for Czech and Slovak auteurs and actors (Taylor, Wood, Graffy, Iordanova, ed., 2000).[12]

Like in many such dilemmas, here too things in effect depend on what people want to see, the glass half empty or half full. Obviously almost all the films made in the Yugoslav period were created under a dual socio-cultural influence: on one hand there were the local components such as language and the local artistic and literary tradition, and on the other hand there were the general Yugoslav components, such as the ruling ideology, social developments and the fluctuation of filmmakers, cast and crew. Some films from that period obviously and clearly belonged to the local tradition and production. A good example is Babaja’s Breza/ A Birch Tree(1967), a film by a Croatian director, in Croatian production, made in the kajkavian dialect on the basis of a local literary classic. Some Yugoslav films cannot be described as belonging to a particular tradition that clearly. An example of this kind is Bauer’s Tri Ane/Three Annas (1959), a film by a Croatian director and Serbian scriptwriter made in Macedonian production, which takes place in Belgrade and Zagreb. Films of this kind were to a certain extent losers in the “cultural succession”; since it was not clear who they belonged to in the allocation of the film heritage, they were shown less, promoted less and researched less.[13] There is no doubt that films of this kind exist, just as it is true that not all Yugoslav films were of this kind. Some really could not and cannot be identified as belonging to one (or more!) particular tradition, whereas others obviously can.

Both groups of critics, however, those who have no doubt about the existence of  separate “film-history identities” within Yugoslavia, and those who doubt that they existed, share the view that the melting potthat existed until 1991 disappeared after the dissolution of the federal state, and that after that year post-Yugoslav cinemas each went their own separate ways.

This approach obviously relies on common sense. In the new period the successors of the former state began separate and completely different political lives, ranging from Slovenia, which is going through a peaceful transition and continuous economic growth, to Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kosovo, which had by the end of the first decade of the 21st century still not resolved their pre-constitutive status.[14]Politically, some of the Yugoslav states established a stable and functional democracy, others were in the nineties under the rule of more or less authoritarian national leaders, and Bosnia and Herzegovina still has elements of an international protectorate. The economic differences between the western and eastern republics have markedly increased.

The cinematic system mirrored these conditions. In some post-Yugoslav states cinema was always (Slovenia) or almost always (Croatia) supported by public subsidising, in others this was renewed in the first decade of the 21st century, in yet others subsidising is still unsystematic today. The models on which this support is/was given are still very varied, as are the sums of money involved. There are also enormous differences in the cultural context that surrounds and affects film: the television market, condition and status of educational institutions, co-production network. Given that they had started off from “almost the same” position, after 1991 the cinemas of the post-Yugoslav region were thrown into very different worlds.

The aim of this book is to research the effects this had on the practical aspects of making live-action films. It focuses on discovering stylistic changes in post-Yugoslav cinemas after the dissolution of that state and to what degree and in what ways these changes reflect the changes that are taking place in particular societies and in the world. Are the post-Yugoslav cinemas more strongly defined by what they emerged from (and what they have in common) or by their new political, social and cultural contexts (which are very different)? Are those cinemas still linked like “communicating vessels”, or have they – to quote Stanko Lasić’s frequently used witticism – become “Bulgaria to one another”?[15] If stylistic changes do exist, how strong are they and on what levels do they appear? Are they different in different cinemas? Do they correspond to changes that are taking place in film in general and – more specifically – in post-communist Eastern European film? Are the changes typical or locally specific?  Are they more conservative or more far-reaching than in other parts of the world? Do they go together with similar tendencies in other cultural activities, for example in literature? And – finally – were they brought about more by the development of the film medium, technology and aesthetics, or are they more the result of the local situation, including the ideological, economic and institutional contexts of the new national states?  


 1.3. The structure of the book and an overview of the dominant paradigms

To answer all these questions, several contexts which fundamentally shape filmmaking must be analysed.

The first context is the political and institutional framework in which cinema functions. This includes political life in each of the successor states, how politics and ideology relate to film, film-related legislation, material and institutional conditions. From all these aspects post-Yugoslav cinemas lived, and partly still live, under fundamentally different conditions.  

The second context is that of film in general in transition Europe, in all the societies that went through social changes analogous to those in post-Yugoslavia, although not necessarily through war. The post-Yugoslav societies share many economic, social and cultural processes with other transition societies, so some thematic and stylistic similarities can be expected in film, too.

The third context is that of the national ideologies and dominant policies in each of the post-Yugoslav countries. It is reasonable to expect that the dominant ideologies and policies, and the political and cultural-policy changes through which the post-Yugoslav societies are going, are fundamentally impacting film production and the basic stylistic and creative choices – in subject, genre and motif, and also in variants of rhetoric.  

These three contexts define the position of particular national cinemas – to use the language of Bourdieu – as fields of cultural production, and their place within the field of power. Looking on cinema as a field of cultural production, we can analyse its internal structure, dynamics, transformations and internal contradictions. The dynamics of this transformation is and will always be in a cause-and-effect relationship with the contextual lines of force, which themselves go through changes: economic, in ruling structure and ideology, transformations of legislative framework.

In the first part of the book I successively focus on all these contexts in a survey of the development of cinema organisation in each of the post-Yugoslav countries, starting from Slovenia to Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. I show the political and socio-economic conditions in each of them, film-related legislation, and institutional development and changes.  I also chronicle the most important live-action films, filmmakers, and the major festival and/or commercial hits. I show the most noted tendencies in genre, and the films and/or stylistic cycles recognised by critics. 

In the second part I highlight cinema development in other post-communist Eastern European lands. In the socio-economic context of post-1989 East-German film, I show the crisis of the previously dominant dissident/modernistic auteur film and changes in the Western reception of Eastern European films. I also show the various stages through which post-communist films went in addressing the communist past, from the early stage of the revisionist film, followed by the revision of revisionism in the Ostalgie trend, to the third and latest stage which the Bulgarian critic Temenuga Trifonova calls the “chamber of curiosities” (Trifonova, 2007: 33). I also write about historical epics, one of the few genres that dominated in transitional Eastern Europe both commercially and in production. The last chapter of the second part deals with the post-1990 participation of Eastern European film in world film styles and presents the internationally most visible, stylistically most polished and most successful Eastern European post-communist school – the Romanian new wave.

In the third part I compare the situation in Eastern Europe with that in the former Yugoslavia. In my view, notwithstanding some economic, social and political similarities, only Slovenia is consistently in touch with all the essential tendencies in film development in post-communist Eastern Europe. In the rest of former Yugoslavia, the war and its aftermath led to a post-communist period that was not (like in the rest of the East) a period “after history”, and the war, war traumas and national/nationalistic ideologies gave film (and stylistic practice) locally specific characteristics.  

The middle part of the book describes three major stylistic tendencies, and also three modes of representation, which were in my view dominant in post-Yugoslav cinemas, with the exception of Slovenia. The first could be called films of self-victimisation, which were very characteristic of the nineties in Croatia, and also appeared sporadically elsewhere (B&H, Kosovo). This stylistic tendency especially appeared in societies that spontaneously and overwhelmingly felt themselves as victims in the wars of the nineties. This victimised feeling came to expression in a typified narrative of strong propaganda, rhetoric of persuasion, unequivocally black-and-white characters and use of ethno stereotypes, frequently with hate speech, epic and melodramatic components, and a whole lot of trite motivation. Although this whole group of films is most obvious on the level of content, I argue that it is also a stylistic model that includes specific dramaturgic procedures and directing rhetoric.

The second dominant stylistic tendency is what I call – to borrow Longinović’s (2005) term but not also the meaning he gives to it – the film of self-Balkanisation. This paradigm of style – which includes the globally successful films of Mančevski, Dragojević and Kusturica – is based on grotesque, on caricature, including elements of slapstick and the logic of animated film. It internalises the Western view of the Balkans by incorporating hyperbolised Western cultural stereotypes about them. Self-Balkanisation films show war and social crisis as part of the culture, as a lasting and unchangeable Balkan condition. In this part of the book I also write about the ideological implications of this model and about the long and lively theoretic debate that developed around it.

The third stylistic tendency belongs to the early 21st century, the period after the Yugoslav wars and changes of regime in Serbia and Croatia. This current – which I call the film of normalisation (orconsolidation) - means a complete departure from the dominant style in films of self-Balkanisation. In these films minimalistic realism replaces grotesque and extreme stylisation, heroes capable of catharsis, change and social advancement replace the “wild Balkan figures” (Longinović, 2005: 37-46), and dramaturgy that returns to the classical narrative style with heroes who actively resolve problems replaces the passive dramaturgy of the victim in the films of self-victimisation. The films of normalisation bring changes on all levels: in character type, in visual approach, in stylistic procedures, in iconography and, first and foremost, in dramaturgy. 

The book continues by showing how the three dominant paradigms of post-Yugoslav film affected certain well-known genres: crime thriller, action thriller and comedy. Finally, it shows the development of the foreign reception (co-production, festivals) of post-Yugoslav film, its approach to the particular dominant stylistic models, and its feedback effect on filmmaking.


1. 4. How dominant are the dominant paradigms? 

The three paradigms I offer as a key for understanding post-Yugoslav cinema are, of course, not totally encompassing. All the films made in that period do not belong to one of the three dominant stylistic tendencies that I offer as a key for understanding post-Yugoslav film. The films that belong to the three paradigms make up a smaller number of the total live-action film production from Zagreb to Skopje. Many fine films cannot be placed in any of these stylistic drawers at all, and these include some of the best films made in the region in that period: such as Jan Cvitkovič’s Kruh in mleko/Bread and Milk (2001), Danis Tanović’s Ničija zemlja/No Man’s Land (2001), Svetozar Ristovski’s Iluzija/Illusion (2004), Iso Qosja’sKukumi (2005), Mladen Đorđević’s Život i smrt porno bande/Life and Death of the Porn Gang (2009) and Vlado Škafar’s Oča/Dad (2010).

This is true of all post-Yugoslav cinemas, but perhaps most of all of Croatian. One of the reasons may be the country’s cultural, language, climatic and economic heterogeneity. Croatian film production was and still is the most heterogeneous and the most difficult to describe through a recognisable national style or through straightforward changes in clear-cut dominant styles. This is why many Croatian films (the most outstanding) cannot be placed in any of the three dominant stylistic tendencies that I singled out. These include Mondo Bobo (Goran Rušinović, 1997),  Maršal/Marshal Tito’s Spirit (Vinko Brešan, 1999),Nebo, sateliti/Celestial Body (Lukas Nola, 2000), Ta divna splitska noć/That Wonderful Night in Split (Arsen A. Ostojić, 2004), Što je Iva snimila 21. 10. 2003./What Iva Recorded on 21 October 2003 (Tomislav Radić, 2005), Karaula/Border Post (Rajko Grlić, 2005) and Metastaze/Metastases (Branko Schmidt, 2009), Priest’s Children (Vinko Brešan, 2013).

As there are so many important exceptions, one might ask how dominant the stylistic dominants that I suggest are. In my opinion they are truly dominant, for several reasons. The first is that these three stylistic models reflect the dominant ideologies that prevailed on both sides of the front lines, and also in the post-war period of transition and democratic consolidation. Each of these three stylistic paradigms incorporates the way in which the post-Yugoslav societies (or at least their cultural elites) looked on themselves in different periods. Second, in at least two of the three cases, the authorities, i.e., the official cultural-policy makers, explicitly supported these stylistic tendencies. Furthermore, the films that belong to two of the three stylistic models suggested are the most successful films made in the region of the former Yugoslavia after its dissolution, films that were shown abroad most often. Fourth, critics, publicists and journalists intuitively noticed these stylistic models as dominant, although they did not precisely name them, exactly describe their poetics or clearly single them out as a body. Therefore journalists, critics, publicists, and sometimes also philosophers and politicians, have led an indirect debate about the films that belong to these stylistic paradigms, which is especially true of films from the nineties. In some cases, the debate crossed local state boundaries and became international. In others, it took the form of stormy disputes which were often not only about a film/films, but also about the world views that they represented.


1.5. The question of style

A book about stylistic changes in a body of films unavoidably opens up the issue of understanding the concept of style. Since this book focuses on historiography, not on theory, I will not analyse the theory of style extensively here but will limit myself to the basic disputes in defining and understanding style, and on how they affect the methodology and subject of this book.    

Originating from the Latin word stilus, which means a wooden or bone writing implement, in classical rhetoric the word style was habitually used to mark the quality of someone’s writing: at first only the quality of handwriting, and later by metonymic transfer style became an attribute of the text itself, i.e., of the quality of the writing.

In everyday usage, film style often or even regularly refers only to the use of the means of film expression, the “plan of expression”, the microstructures of style. Thus some critics, when talking about film style, and this is also the customary use of the term, mean camera angles and object distance, the pictorial and sound characteristics of a shot, the rhythm and type of editing. From this aspect they developed an entire range of colloquial style-describing terms, where films with choppy editing and a faster pace are described as being in a “(video)sports style”, and films and directors that favour visible stylistic figures are described as using a “baroque style”, where the word baroque is divorced from its historical meaning. Theorists, however, do not limit the concept of style only to literary or audiovisual micro-style and level of expression. Understanding style (like Todorov) as the “result of the choice among a certain number of options contained in a language” (Biti 1997: 378), theorists have since the time of structuralism began to look on style as a choice among different paradigmatic options. Here the choice among options is not reduced only to camera position, angle, object distance or editing, but also to a choice among options in composition, narrative strategies, even variants of the plot. Because of this, an individual or collective style is not characterised only by the angle and position of the camera, composition of the shot or editing, but also by the subject matter and narrative procedures: the order of showing events, the selection and combinations of viewpoints, selection of genre conventions, fictional world and character typologies. 

From the 1950s, under the influence of André Bazin and the journal Cahiers du cinema - but also under the influence of many local representatives of the auteur theory of criticism such as Andrew Sarris in the USA or Ante Peterlić in Croatia/Yugoslavia - film critics developed a critical discourse in which, by carefully analysing the solutions chosen by a director, they arrive at the stylistic characteristics of a particular film and then generalise these to reach the characteristics of the author’s style. In this way French critics in the fifties disputed the cultural prejudice that “all Hollywood films are the same” and developed an analytical apparatus which they used to demonstrate the specific auteur/stylistic features of different commercial studio directors, such as Hitchcock, Hawks or Ford.[16] Auteur-theory critics evaluated the work of a particular director on the basis of a recognisable style and internal consistency of the opus. The filmmakers whose films had clearly recognisable similarities in micro-style, but also in procedures of subject-matter and narrative, were recognised as “auteurs”, while the others were looked on as ordinary eclectic craftsmen. Although author-theory criticism did a lot for opening up the horizons of film theory and broadening canons, as a methodology it also had debatable blind patches. The first was the standard of evaluation, which was unfair to directors whose work was stylistically less coherent, who were “jacks-of-all-trades”. The second weak point was understanding style as the expression, in the first place, of the auteurs/directors. The auteur-theory critics rightly spotted that style is not just a blind and random choice of how to apply various methods of film craftsmanship, but that the choice is always based on worldview, on the author’s world or ideology. Starting from this approach, post-structuralist, Marxist and feminist critics read much more into style than the “trace of the author’s personality”; in their view, it includes “the trace that an author’s expression may hold of his or her geographical or national or civilisational or cultural climate, literary-history period, social rank or class or group, reigning taste, profession, literary current or school, literary field, mode or genre” (Biti, 1997: 377).  Thus contemporary theorists no longer look on style as the extrapolation and expression of a particular author’s personality, but as a “condition in which there is a multiplication, relocation and mutual influence of manifold determinants”, where style is formed on the “windswept and conflicting scene of mutual discourse open to the interference of social tensions, ideological processes and power relations” (Biti, 1997: 380), and the theoretic concept of style is linked with racial, class and gender identities.

In this book I, therefore, approach style from two starting points. The first is that style is an interconnected set of choices among various options, a set that goes beyond choosing manner of expression and also involves choosing paradigmatic options on more complex levels. Because of this, the choice of a particular dramaturgy, the composition of subject, character or hero type, and choices of particular genre components, can characterise an individual stylistic model, but also one that goes beyond the work of an individual.

Style looked on as a set of choices defines particular entities of film history (or more broadly, art-history): trends, groups (e.g., poetic realism, Italian neorealism, Zagreb school of animated film, Serbian black wave) or more widely, currents (German expressionism), and also – widest of all – stylistic periods. It is essential to emphasise that although we always notice and recognise different phenomena of film history from the stylistic choices they make, these choices cannot always be recognised on the same level. Some stylistic entities are recognised through artistic characteristics, parameters of shot or editing, others through dramaturgy (neorealism), yet others through specific, recognisable settings, character typology or subject-matter (film noir). Specific choices made on particular levels get the role ofdominants, in the meaning given to this term by Russian formalists (Tomaševski, 1972: 228).  Dominants allow us to notice kindred features and bring works together into stylistic entities: an auteur’s oeuvre, a current, stylistic paradigm, even cultural-history period.

This book deals with the fundamental stylistic currents in post-Yugoslav film. In this respect, it is important to emphasize some specific points. 

The stylistic tendencies described here go beyond the individual filmmaker. Although they were fundamentally impacted by some outstanding authors (such as Dragojević or Kusturica), the stylistic tendencies rise above the level of a personal style and function as a characteristic and expression of the community, of society and of national, but not necessarily only national, ideologies.

Furthermore, these stylistic tendencies can be recognised from specific stylistic choices. In some cases, the choices that define a style are recognised on the level of micro-style, in visualisation, editing, stylisation of film space and acting. In other cases, the dominants that crucially shape the stylistic model are more evident on the level of motive and choice of subject, and the style is essentially defined by the motives, character typology and choice of dramaturgy.  

Third, the stylistic tendencies that I have singled out are essentially historically conditioned. The films of the post-Yugoslav cinemas, naturally, have components connecting them with their own national cultural traditions, or with the common Yugoslav film heritage, or with some super-regional “Balkan” style, and also - naturally - with the general stylistic changes in world film after 1990. But the fundamental stylistic tendencies in post-Yugoslav film primarily and inseparably emerge from the political and ideological conditions in the post-Yugoslav societies on the eve of, during and after the war. These dominant stylistic paradigms have a built-in key which communities or groups of political communities use to understand and interpret this stormy political period, and they offer an attempt at collective self-positioning in times of war, post-war renewal and capitalist transition. The differences in self-interpretation and positioning among post-Yugoslav communities also produced different “national styles” – which should be understood very conditionally. In this case the “national nature” of the styles is not based on any essentialist understanding of the national culture as homogeneous continuity, but exclusively on the historical and political circumstances of the specific moment.


1.6. Literature 

There are two distinct and rather different bodies of literature about the development of post-Yugoslav film. The first is in the native languages of the region and is usually primarily about particular national cinemas.   

Ivo Škrabalo wrote two surveys of the history of Croatian film (1998, 2008), and although both books deal with its entire history, considerable space is taken up by the post-1990 period. Petar Volk wrote a similar survey in Serbia (2001). Long essays reviewing national cinemas were also created for the needs of foreign presentation and specialised catalogues. In Slovenia Zdenko Vrdlovec (2005a, 2005b) contributed to an anthology of Slovenian film, and in Croatia Hrvoje Turković and Vjekoslav Majcen (2003) wrote for a publication of the Ministry of Culture. Agim Sopi outlined the history of Kosovo cinema – also including Albanian – as a graduation paper at Zagreb University (2009). In 2008 in Bosnia and Herzegovina the periodical Sarajevske sveske published a thematic number featuring post-Yugoslav film with contributions by authors from all the successor states. They mostly reviewed film development on their own territories, for example, Nedžad Ibrahimović (2008) in B&H, Srđan Vučinić (2008) in Serbia, Andro Martinović (2008) in Montenegro, and so on. The development of particular genres was also described, but again focusing on separate national traditions. Examples are Anja Šošić’s book about Croatian war film (2009) or Dimitrije Vojnov’s (2008) and Ivan Velisavljević’s (2008b) texts about Serbian “pop film”. Surveys about the development of style also mostly concentrate on particular national traditions, although there are rare exceptions such as Midhat Ajanović’s text on “films of double temporality” (2007) in Croatia and B&H, Faruk Lončarević’s essay about film language in post-Yugoslav film (Lončarević, 2008), or Sanjin Pejković’s text (2009, 2011) about ideology in Serbian and post-Yugoslav film.   

The second and larger body of literature about post-Yugoslav film is in English. This includes a rather large number of books, studies, essays and polemical texts, some written by film experts, some by experts on Balkan studies, and some by theorists of the broadest spectrum of interest, such as Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson. Unlike its local counterpart, this “global” critical literature is not a slave to the local dividing lines between cultures and states: moreover, much of it does not even stop on the boundaries of the former Yugoslavia but discusses the subject within the widest context of “Balkan film”. However, with rare exceptions such as Goulding (2004) or Germani Grmek (2010), Western theorists rarely make a deeper analysis of (post)Yugoslav production and examine instead the rather limited number of the most prominent festival hits. Because of this, Western film literature is usually about the relatively limited range of films that were shown most often and are best-known aboard, made from the middle to the end of the nineties, with intensive festival distribution and causing considerable controversy (not only political, but political, as well). Kusturica’s Underground thus triggered a long-lasting and stormy debate in the press that was also taken up by theorists, with the two confronted opinions well represented in texts by Slavoj Žižek (1995) and Kriss Ravetto Biagioli. In 2000 the internet periodicalCentral European Review issued a thematic number featuring post-Yugoslav film (Horton, ed. 2000a) in which most of the texts were about films which were then the subject of animated debates, such as Milče Mančevski’s Pred doždot/Before the Rain (2004), Srđan Dragojević’s Lepa sela lepo gore/Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996) and Rane/Wounds (1998), and Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995). Next year, in 2001, the foremost world historian of Balkan cinema, Dina Iordanova, published Cinema of Flames in which she wrote about the audio-visual representation of war and the relationship between war and film in post-Yugoslav (she names it more broadly: Balkan) societies. The American Marxist Fredric Jameson rounded off the exhaustive body of literature on post-Yugoslav film in the late nineties with the influential essayThoughts on the Balkan Cinema (Jameson 2005), which motivated me to develop my own hypotheses. There were also other thought-provoking texts about the films of that period: Bjelić (2005), Longinović (2005), Krstić (2009) and Pavle Levi, whose book Disintegration in Frames (Levi 2007) offers inspiring interpretations of the films of Emir Kusturica, Srđan Dragojević, Vinko Brešan and Croatian films of the nineties.

In the late nineties the films of self-Balkanisation were the most prominent and, for theorists, the most attractive part of post-Yugoslav production. As soon as this model dried up, global film theorists began to show less interest in post-Yugoslav film so literature about it in English has been decreasing since the mid-2000s. Some of the best-known overviews – such as Volk’s and Škrabalo’s, or Goulding’s book about the entire Yugoslav film – stopped with the late nineties or early two thousands. The most encouraging analyses of later films can, therefore, be found in the more intelligent newspaper reviews and essays. Outside newspaper reviews, there are hardly any texts or books that systematically deal with post-Yugoslav cinema after 2000; a rare and therefore valuable exception being the collection Uvođenje mladosti - sami sebe naslikali (The Introduction of Youth – They Portrayed Themselves) published in 2008 by the Film Centre of Serbia, in which about ten critics of the younger generations gave their views of contemporary Serbian film.

Post-Yugoslav film also appears more or less often in books and studies about wider geographic regions. Thus it makes a fringe appearance in collections and anthologies of Eastern European film (for example, Aniko, ed. 2005, and Taylor, Wood, Graffy, Iordanova, ed. 2000). In 2009 the Italian periodical Europa Orientalis published a thematic number about Eastern European film, in which Etami Borjan (2009) from Zagreb wrote a study on the comparative development of post-Yugoslav cinemas. This is a survey written with the ambition of giving a comparative analysis of post-Yugoslav cinemas, although it, too, treats them as mutually separate, unconnected entities.

Post-Yugoslav film and cinema come to expression much more in texts, collections and books about Balkan film, such as those written by Dina Iordanova (2001 and 2006) and Nevena Daković (2008), or the thematic number about Balkan cinema of the New York magazine Cineaste from 2007. Film is also incorporated, more or less, in theoretic cultural-studies collections about the Balkans and Balkanism, such as that edited in 2002 by Dušan I. Bjelić and Obrad Savić, and published by MIT (Bjelić, Savić, eds. 2002). Although Balkan studies  made a useful contribution to understanding (post)Yugoslav film by introducing a new context in the analysis and opening up comparison with film production in economically and culturally similar countries, this literature also had a problematic collateral effect. Daković, and especially Iordanova, are inclined to emphasise a specific Balkan approach, style or even “genre” (Daković), where (especially) Iordanova picks out and stresses the examples that underpin this presumption and highlights them in evaluation, anthologising and recapitulation. 

Because of this, Balkan film theory overlooks the complexity of the post-Yugoslav space which is – in the first place, although this is less essential – Balkan and Mediterranean and Central European, all at the same time. However, it is also a space in which the lines of force of a potentially macro-regional poetic tradition face stubborn, narrowly local, even sub-national particulars. Furthermore, the Balkan critical tradition greatly ignores, and partly even disapproves of, the global influences which undoubtedly mould (not only, but also) post-Yugoslav cinema, and these influences range from American independent film to Dogma 95, and from Iranian to Latin American film. Third, this critical tradition does not consider the degree to which the idea about a “Balkan style” is a kind of “self-fulfilling prophecy”, because it omits to make an in-depth analysis of the feedback effect of festivals, sales agents, academic critique and, in short, the effect of what we call the “Western taste” on local aesthetics. Consciousness about this does exist in some Balkan cultural studies, for example in the text of Bulgarian anthropologist Ivajlo Dičev (2002) about the influence of the globalised culture market on the paradigm of the Balkan artist. 

Finally and most importantly, these foundations of the “Balkan style” are historically static and ignore the political context and ideological currents in post-Yugoslav societies both before 1990, and especially after. The contemporary historical context, the war of the nineties and its effects, political everyday life and national ideologies, had a crucial effect on the formation of dominant styles in post-Yugoslav cinemas. Since these political/historical/ideological circumstances are to a great measure specific and grew out of different situations in each of these countries, and were also very different from elsewhere on the Balkans or in East Europe, post-Yugoslav cinemas have qualities that cannot simply be subsumed in a wider geographical context – be it Balkan or Eastern European.  

Translated by Nikolina Jovanović

The translation is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre


[1] “Jugoslavenska federacija više ne postoji” (The Yugoslav Federation no longer Exists), Slobodna Dalmacija, 27 July 1991, p. 8.

[2] Estimates by the demographic team of The Hague Court, given in 2010 by team head Ewa Tabeau. (see Jadrijević Tomas 2010: 9)

[3] A short war for Slovenia independence in June 1991, the Serb-Croatian war, the wars of the three hostile sides in B&H, the war in Kosovo and the Albanian-Macedonian clash in Macedonia.

[4] Examples are the School of National Health and Croatia Film in Croatia, and Yugoslav Educational Film and the Film Workshop of the Army Geographical Institute in Serbia.

[5] Croatia is a partial exception, where there was a state-run cinema department (Hrvatski slikopis - Croatian Film) during the Ustasha-governed Independent State of Croatia.

[6] In this context it is important to note that the models of organising and funding cinema were not always identical in all the republics, for example, Croatia had the Cinema Fund, which financed filmmaking outside film studios, from 1964, earlier than the other republics. Nevertheless, all the Yugoslav lands shared the first and the last “chapter” in film regulation: the Soviet model inspired by state-run organisation (until 1951), and the SIZ model, regulated by the Associated Labour Act and the Cinema Act from 1976 (more on this in: Turković, Majcen (2003: 28 ff).

[7] Vukotić won an Oscar for best animated short film with Surogat/The Substitute (1961), Bulajić won many foreign prizes for Vlak bez voznog reda/Train Without a Timetable (1959) and was nominated for an Oscar for Bitka na Neretvi/Battle on the Neretva (1969), De Santis’s Cesta duga godinu dana/The Year Long Road (1958) was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. So was, somewhat later, Štiglic’s film Deveti krug/The Ninth Circle (1960).

[8] He said that films by Croatian authors have a firm structure, are rationally more closed, visually more refined, inclined to global metaphor and “move from idea to life”, while Serbian films “are dispersed and break up into fragments”, are metaphorically much more open and “in the first place emotional”, they are characterised by the drastic, the bizarre, and move from “life to idea” (Novaković 1970: 12-15).

[9] Škrabalo (1998),  Volk (2001)

[10] The most typical examples are the presentations of Croatian film in Rotterdam and Trieste in 1999 and in the Lincoln Center in New York in the autumn of 2007, of the Serbian black wave in Trieste in 1998, Slovenian film in the Lincoln Center in New York in July 2007, and Bosnian and Herzegovinian film in London and in Zagreb.

[11] Which young Serbian critics had already done programmatically in the title of the collection Novikadrovi- skrajnute vrednosti srpskog filma (New Frames – Muffled Values of Serbian Film, Ognjenović, Velisavljević, ed. 2008)

[12] Sanjin Pejković (2011b) expresses similar scepticism for the way in which some national-film bodies classify Yugoslav films, and criticises “cutting and tailoring the creative heritage of the former state” and “writing new national narratives” in film theory. 

[13] A characteristic example is the spy thriller Kota 905/Hill 905 (1960), directed by the Croat Mate Relja. This good genre film was not shown after 1990 because it was made by a Croatian author and a Croatian production company but took place in Serbia and treated a more narrowly Serbian subject: the struggle against remaining chetnik guerrillas in Serbia in 1945. Because of this, neither of the two milieus saw it as belonging to their body of films on an equal footing. 

[14] I understand pre-constitutive status as covering issues such as statehood, international recognition, external borders and the constitutional foundations of a society – issues that precede and serve as a framework for classical political issues.   

[15] In a well-known polemic in Croatia in the mid-nineties the literary critic Igor Mandić claimed that Serbian and Croatian cultures would remain closely connected despite the disappearance of a common political framework, while the Paris professor and literary theoretician Stanko Lasić said that to Croats, Serbian literature would be as important as Bulgarian. Writing about this view with irony, in 1998 the magazine Arkzin formed an edition of Serbian writers ironically entitled Bulgarica, and the polemic had a stronger echo and lasted longer in Belgrade than in Croatia (see more in Lasić, 2004; Brešić, 2006)

[16] In the Croatian context, paradigmatic examples of this kind of critical practice were Ante Peterlić’s texts in the book Ogledi o devet autora (Peterlić 1983).