Post-Yugoslav Film: Style and Ideology

Stylistic Models 2

Jurica Pavičić

6. The Film of Self-balkanisation 1


6. 1. Cannes 1995: political controversy

In May 1995 the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina were entering their last and decisive stage. In that last wartime spring, the enclaves of Bihać, Žepa and Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina were still resisting the Serb siege, and Serb Krajina in Croatia was still recovering from the loss of Western Slavonia, which Croatia had freed in Operation Bljesak (Flash) in the first week of May. Summer was yet to come, bringing the climax of the war and its two last, decisive chapters: the fall of Srebrenica and Operation Oluja (Storm).

Like every spring, May was the time for the international Cannes Film Festival, the most influential festival in the film industry and culture. The festival of ’95 was the 48th, and twenty-four films were entered for the competition, among them Ed Wood by Tim Burton, Land and Freedom by Ken Loach, Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch, La Haine/Hatred by Matthieu Kassovitz, Ya a yao dao waipo qiao/Shanghai Triad by Zhang Yimou, and To Vlemma tou Odyssea/Ulysses’ Gaze by the Greek veteran of political film Theo Angelopoulos. 

Besides these, the feature film competition included a film from former Yugoslavia, Underground by Emir Kusturica. This was a spectacular three-hour-long political allegory based on a theatre text of the same name by the legendary theatre writer Dušan Kovačević from Belgrade, whose texts were often adapted for cinema. When Underground arrived on the Côte d’Azur it had already aroused considerable controversy. At the time when it was made, it was the most expensive European film of all times. Part of its budget, the exact amount was never disclosed, was funded by the regime-run Serbian Radio Television under the strict control of Slobodan Milošević, thus infringing the economic embargo imposed on Serbia.[1] It did not suit the film’s main producer, the French company CiBY 2000, to divulge its coproduction links with the notorious regime, so – according to Florence Hartmann – the company kept its coproduction with Serbian Radio Television tightly under wraps (Hartmann, 1995). However, official Serbia never hid its links with the film and sent a delegation to Cannes, headed by the minister of culture, the future film producer Nadežda Perišić. Kusturica himself, in the week before the festival began, gave a provocative interview in the journal Cahiers du cinéma, in which he expressed open pro-Serbian political stands for the first time in the French speaking region. He described independent Croatia and B&H as Nazi satellites, said that he did not fear Greater Serbia but only Greater Germany, and described the war in former Yugoslavia as an “earthquake” and a “natural disaster” (Gruenberg, Jousse; 1995). While that number of Cahiers du cinéma was still on news-stands, and the festival in its second week, terrible news came from Bosnia and Herzegovina: on 25 May - three days before the festival closed – Serb forces in east Bosnia shelled the promenade in Tuzla in an evening attack and killed 71 civilians. Under such circumstances, Kusturica’s political stands and Underground itself became a political theme of the first order. 

This was the context in which the festival jury, presided over by Jeanne Moreau (and including, among others, Nadine Gordimer, Gianni Amelio and John Waters), proclaimed the prize winners on 28 May. Although many commentators (including Time critic Kieran Corless) supported Theo Angelopoulos’s film as the favourite, Kusturica’s Underground won the Palme d’Or. This triggered an acrimonious polemic lasting more than eight months in several French, German and American papers, including Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung, New Yorker, Sight and Sound and others. It was joined by film critics, film experts, philosophers, politicians and journalists specialising in the Balkans, among others Slavoj Žižek, Alain Finkielkraut, Adam Gopnik and Peter Handke (Iordanova, 2001: 127-135). Some of the critics attacked the jury’s decision as politically incorrect and called Kusturica a “servile and glittering illustrator of criminal clichés” (Finkielkraut) who “supplied ethnic cleansing in Bosnia with libidal energy” (Žižek, 1995: 38). Kusturica’s defenders included the Austrian writer Peter Handke, who accused the film’s critics of wanting to “impose sectarian morality on creative freedom” and said that “Shakespearian energy, artistic strength, always outweigh moral considerations” (Iordanova, 2001: 127).  

Another film from Serbia appeared only one year later and caused a similar if not even stormier polemic, but this time primarily restricted to post-Yugoslav lands. This was the war film Lepa sela lepo gore/Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996) by director Srđan Dragojević, author of the comedy Mi nismo anđeli/We are not Angels which defined the characteristics of the escapist pink wave in Belgrade-made films in the first war years. Based on a war report in the magazine Duga, the film showed a true episode of the war in eastern Bosnia. Dragojević used the story about a group of Serb soldiers trapped in an unfinished tunnel as a starting point for a grotesque, sarcastic film in which he mocked Bosnia and Belgrade, militants and pacifists, communism and post-communism. In Serbia the film was for a long time an unparalleled box-office success (612,574 viewers in 1996). Although it never made any of the three major festivals, Dragojević’s film achieved outstanding international visibility[2] and became the subject of long-lasting and widespread discussion among critics and film experts. Similarly as Underground, Pretty Village, Pretty Flame also met with bitter political criticism.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina Dragojević’s film was received with hostility. The director was reproached for making the film in Višegrad, on locations where there had been ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks, of making the film with the help of the Bosnian Serb wartime authorities, and of inviting Radovan Karadžić to the premiere (he did not come). The media also carried unconfirmed information that the Višegrad paramilitary commander Milan Lukić, later sentenced to life imprisonment in The Hague, had provided Dragojević with logistic help for the film. When this report was published in the Croatian media in 2009, the film producers threatened to sue and to force an apology from Jutarnji list, the weekly Globus published a polemic between Dragojević and the Sarajevo actor Emir Hadžihafizbegović (Dragojević, 2009a: 73), and the news portal e-Novine another between Dragojević and the American-Serbian film scholar Pavle Levi (Levi, 2009, Dragojević, 2009b). However, Pretty Village was not attacked only because of the way in which it was made, but also censured for its political content – more exactly, for the implicit attempt to show the two sides in the war as mirror images of each other and as basically the same. This led the prominent Slovenian critic Marcel Štefančič to write in amazement in the Zagreb left-wing and pacifist magazine Arkzin that the film “is an insult to everyone who knows what took place in Bosnia in the last four years” and added: “Imagine how the world would have reacted if the Germans had made a film about World War II in 1946, with the sub-text: ‘We’re crazy – well, what the fuck, so we are! But all the same, we’re the strongest’” (Štefančič, 1996: 35). The Sarajevo director Faruk Lončarević later made a similar comparison with Nazism, writing that Dragojević’s film is “the worst prostitution of the film form since Triumph des Willens by Leni Riefenstahl” (Lončarević, 2008: 168).

Critics had already spotted clear similarities between Kusturica’s and Dragojević’s film in subject-matter, motif and style (Velisavljević, 2008a). But it may be more important that kindred motifs and stylistic characteristics could be recognised in many other successful films produced in the eastern post-Yugoslav cinemas after the mid-nineties. These were Dragojević’s next film Rane/Wounds (1998), Do koske/Rage (1997) by Boban Skerlić, Bure baruta/Cabaret Balkan (1998) by Goran Paskaljević, Gipsy Magic (1997) by Stole Popov, Dust (2001) by Milče Mančevski, Bal-can-can (2003) by Darko Mitrevski and Sivi kamion crvene boje/The Red Coloured Grey Truck (2004) by Srđan Koljević. Also very close to this poetical paradigm is Pred doždot/Before the Rain (1994), which won the Golden Lion Award in Venice in ’94 and brought the first major prize to post-Yugoslav cinemas. As could be expected, Kusturica’s later films also showed similarities in style and motif, such as Život je čudo/Life is a Miracle (2004) and Zavet/Promise me This (2007).

Since some of these films were extremely successful and widely distributed (in the first place Before the Rain, Cabaret Balkan and Underground), it should not be surprising that this body of films became practically a synonym for Balkan and post-Yugoslav cinema, or even – as suggested by Nevena Daković (2008) – a “Balkan genre”. In 2000 the internet journal Central European Review published a thematic number about Yugoslav film (Horton, 2000a, ed.) in which all the six texts are about films belonging to this aesthetic, and it is similar in many other collections and journals (for example, the collection East European Cinemas edited by the Hungarian scholar Anikó Imre - see Anikó, ed., 2005). Festivals, coproduction companies and distributors showed a similar approach: the above body of films created a horizon of expectation among Western viewers, which would monopolise their perception of Balkan cinema for a long time – until the full affirmation of the Romanian new wave. 

Because the two most outstanding films belonging to this stylistic model were politically controversial, discussion about films of this kind often moved in the direction of (vulgar or not) contents analysis, in which people weighed whether and to what measure they were dissident, regime supporting, anti-nationalistic, nationalistic, whether they back this or that national ideology or propaganda pattern or interpretation. All this made them forget Slavoj Žižek’s warning in a text about Underground, that the real “political significance of a film is not in its open bias, in the way in which it takes sides in the post-Yugoslav conflict … but more in its very ‘apolitical’ aesthetic approach” (Žižek, 1995: 38). In the second half of the nineties this “apolitical aesthetic approach” strengthened into the dominant poetical model in Serbian and (partly) Macedonian cinema which, just like the model of self-victimisation, contained an implicit ideology. I use a term that Tomislav Longinović (2005: 46) used in a somewhat narrower meaning, and call films of this kind “films of self-Balkanisation”.


6.2. Anticipation of the style: Before the Rain

The first contours of the future poetical model of self-Balkanisation appeared in a film that had its world premiere only about ten months before Underground. This film was the first great success of post-Yugoslav cinema in the nineties, and its success began a period of great international popularity of films from this region. The film was called Pred doždot/Before the Rain and was the debut feature film of the American-Macedonian director Mičko Mančevski. In September 1994, this film won the debutant Mančevski – an affirmed director of music videos – the Golden Lion at the Mostra in Venice. He divided the award with the Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang for the film Aiqing Wansui/Long Live Love, and that year the competition for the award also included some later iconic films, such as Little Odessa by James Gray and Heavenly Creatures by Peter Jackson.

Made when the war in B&H had already escalated, in Before the Rain Mančevski hypothesises about a “Bosnian scenario” in his own country – Macedonia. The film centres on interethnic armed conflict between the Macedonian and Albanian inhabitants of two neighbouring villages in the rural Macedonian provinces, and the paradox of Before the Rain is that Mančevski anticipated a war that had not yet taken place: at the time when the film was made interethnic conflict in Macedonia was still in the stage of political tension without a single fired bullet, and the war that Mančevski “screened” was actually to take place seven years after the film premiered. 

Before the Rain starts with a scene in a monastery garden in which the young monk Kiril (Grégoire Colin) is picking ripe summer tomatoes. The old prior comes up to him and warns him that it is going to rain, which is how the script announces the metaphor in the film title – a meteorological metaphor of a shower/war. As the prior speaks, we also realise that the young Kiril took a vow of silence.

Kiril retreats to his room and he finds hiding in it a shorn, almost androgynous teenager, who turns out to be a girl. It is Zamira (Labina Mitevska), an Albanian girl from the neighbouring village whom a vengeful Macedonian crowd is pursuing, convinced that she killed one of the villagers, a Macedonian, with a pitchfork. The angry villagers, armed with Kalashnikovs, burst into the monastery, interrupt the rite and forcibly search the rooms. They do not find Zamira, but the monks do. They throw Kiril out for breaking the rules and he starts off for the town with Zamira, but as they are running away armed Albanians take them by surprise, among them members of Zamira’s family. They tell Kiril to go on running, and they intend to take her back by force. When Zamira tries to run away, her family kill her from the back. 

The second part of the film takes place in London where we see Anne (Katrin Cartlidge), an editor in a photo agency. Anne is married and pregnant, but she leaves her husband and starts a relationship with the Macedonian Aleksandar (Rade Šerbedžija), a famous photo reporter who has won the Pulitzer Prize. During her work in the agency she studies Aleksandar’s photographs, among them photographs from the investigation about Zamira’s killing. Aleksandar tries to persuade her to leave everything and travel to Skopje with him that same evening, but she refuses and leaves for an agreed-on meeting with her husband, whom she intends to leave. During their conversation in a restaurant an argument breaks out between the waiter and one of the guests at the counter, both of Yugoslav origin. The guest is thrown out of the restaurant, but he returns and begins shooting at random, killing Ann’s husband Nick.

The third part of the film follows Aleksandar, who lands in Skopje and takes a bus to his native village. It is the village in which the murder in the first part of the film happened. The Albanian and Macedonian neighbours are armed, the approach roads have guards armed with Kalashnikovs. Aleksandar is horrified by the atmosphere in the village and his family. He wants to visit Hana Halili, an Albanian woman, his childhood sweetheart. He finally persuades Albanian vigilantes to let him into the village, and when he goes to Hana’s house, her father (Abdulrahman Shalja) receives him courteously, but he only sees Hana for a moment, as she serves coffee. Next morning he learns that his kinsman has been killed and that his neighbours have arrested an Albanian girl whom they suspect of the murder. It is Zamira, Hana’s daughter. Aleksandar disarms the guard and sets the girl free, but one of his kinsmen shoots him in the back. Aleksandar falls down wounded, and Zamira runs towards the monastery. At that moment we again see the scene with which the film began – Kiril in the vegetable patch. Aleksandar dies, and a summer shower pours down on the valley from the dark clouds. 


Translated by Nikolina Jovanović

The translation is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre.

[1] The exact participation of RTS in the film was never disclosed, and estimates run from 5% of the film’s budget to as much as 10 million dollars. More about this in Iordanova 2001: 124ff., Hartmann 1995.

[2] Sight and Sound included it in a selection of thirty most important war films, and it also entered Halliwell’s Film Guide of the one thousand greatest films of all times.

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).

The Development of Post-Yugoslav Cinemas and the Eastern European Context 2.

Jurica Pavičić

2. The Development of Cinema in the Post-Yugoslav Countries


2.1. Slovenia

In 1991, all the post-Yugoslav countries began their new cinematographic life from the same starting point, emerging not only from the same cinema tradition of shared genres, star system and system of values, but also from the same cinema tradition in the institutional sense. This was the tradition of late Titoist communism characterised by the system of what were known as self-management communities of interest (samoupravna interesna zajednica - SIZ), public tenders for screenplays, the reliance of cinema primarily on public funding, and the direct or indirect influence of the dominant ideology and the Party (more about this in Škrabalo, 1998: 371-374; Turković, Majcen, 2003: 29-30). Another characteristic of this cinema tradition was that it institutionally relied on auteur film,[1] decentralisation of production and a relatively well developed culture of supporting and accepting films about “sensitive subjects”.[2]

Starting from this common point, the different post-Yugoslav countries institutionalised their cinemas in different ways, under different socio-economic conditions and at different times.

Slovenia, unlike the other Yugoslav successor states, had managed to avoid a long-lasting war on its territory and serious inter-ethnic conflict. It set up institutions consistent with those in developed Central European democracies as early as the first half of the nineties, and these included the regulation of cinema.

Not long after Slovenia gained independence, the government closed and liquidated the national film studio Viba film, which it then renewed and modernised to serve exclusively as a technical basis (Vrdlovec, 2005a: 279). Emulating the standard practice of European film institutes or boards, in a law passed on 1 April 1994 Slovenia founded Filmski sklad (Film Foundation) of the Republic of Slovenia, a public fund that took over the equipment and property of the former production studio Vesna film. The newly-formed Filmski sklad was to “ensure the continuous programming of film production, plan and secure funding from the state budget, supervise the work of producers and the use of public funds, gather proposals for co-financing, promote and market Slovenian films, develop script-writing activities” and perform many other, mostly cultural activities.[3] The first film that Filmski sklad financed was Rabljeva freska/The Executioner’s Fresco by Anton Tomašič (1995). Filmski sklad was the first and for a long time the only public film fund on post-Yugoslav territory; in the other countries filmmaking was in the domain of the executive authorities (ministries of culture) or private companies. In accordance with the somewhat state-governed character of Slovenian transition, where rapid privatisation and liberalism were treated with a degree of reserve, cinema remained under a high degree of state control. Sklad is/was primarily financed from the budget, and Sklad and what is now the public studio Viba film were charged with “implementing the National Cultural Programme” in “productive and reproductive cinema”.

Relying on these two – basically government – institutions, in the nineties Slovenian film kept up a not very great, but a continuous and stable production. As in some other transition countries, in Slovenia the most critical years for production were just after the  change of the system, when (for example) in 1992 only three TV films were made, and in 1994 only one cinema film. Even after the establishment of Sklad, Slovenia did not manage to completely avoid oscillation in feature-length production, which varied from only one title a year (1996), to as many as eight (2002). At the end of the nineties, however, production stabilised at a minimum of four films a year, and in this period Slovenia also made its first feature-length animated film (Socijalizacija bika?/Socialising the Bull? – Zvonko Čoh, Milan Erič, 1998). Furthermore, in 2001 Slovenia became a member of Eurimages and in 2003 it opened the new Viba film studio, completely built from budgetary funding. In the post-Yugoslav context Slovenia stands apart by its systematic nurturing of short film. Filmski sklad regularly subsidises short films, and some of them have been very successful, such as Adrian (Maja Weiss, 1998) or (A)torzija /(A)torsion (Stefan Arsenijević, 2002 – nominated for an Oscar and awarded a Golden Bear). What is more important, they served as a springboard for a new generation of authors, for example Maja Weiss and Jan Cvitkovič. This can also be seen from the fact that the most successful Slovenian film in this period – Cvitkovič’s Kruh in mleko/Bread and Milk (2001) – was financed through the short-films programme.

Despite this institutional stability, in the early and mid-1990s Slovenian film was invisible on the international scene, did not have much attendance at home, and did not win international awards. In this period, according to the Slovenian critic Zdenko Vrdlovec, “for the home audience (Slovenian film) became a synonym for ‘when I close my eyes’ – and this did not refer to Franci Slak’s film of the same name,” (Vrdlovec, 2005a: 279). The only exception was the road comedy Babica gre na jug/Grandma goes South (1991)  directed by Vinci V. Anžlovar, seen by 79,000 viewers in Slovenian cinemas in the year when Slovenia gained independence. This pleasingly aestheticized, “video edited” film is sometimes interpreted as the first cultural response by Slovenian cinema to the new consumer and market society era, where the “southward” journey of the three characters (a young couple and an old woman) functions like a metaphor of “going West” – that is, of the hopes and aspirations of two generations on the threshold of the imminent capitalist society (Petak, 2010). What makes Anžlovar’s film typical of the Slovenian nineties, however, is what Vrdlovec called the “pleasure principle”: “in the first decade of the “new regime”, wrote this Slovenian critic, “Slovenian film became somewhat childish, succumbing to the principle of pleasure, to playful and light subjects, and lost a feeling for reality,” (Vrdlovec, 2005a: 312). This course, however, did not at first bring it popularity but marginalisation. 

The visibility and popularity of Slovenian film began to improve in the last third of the nineties. In this sense the breakthrough year was 1997, when the first domestic hit appeared in cinemas and two Slovenian films achieved moderate success in the foreign art-niche for the first time. The most successful in the “year of reversal” (Vrdlovec) was undoubtedly Outsider by director Andrej Košak, which after its cinema première in February 1997 quickly drew the highest audiences by Slovenian films after independence, with 91,000 sold tickets. The culturological effect of the film was all the more important because Outsider dealt with the shared Yugoslav past (taking place in 1979/80, at the time of Tito’s death) and because the main characters of the film are a father and son, unassimilated Bosnian immigrants. The success of Košak’s film showed that Slovenia had gone beyond the stage of denying the Yugoslav heritage and had started its re-examination (more in: Petak, 2010). Outsider was a symbolical turning point in several other aspects: it was the first Slovenian film after 1990 distributed in all of post-Yugoslavia and the first Slovenian film in this period which was at least modestly shown at A festivals: in July 1997 it played in the programme of Karlovy Vary. After Outsider, interest in Slovenian film and its box-office success at home grew. In 1999 the generation drama V leru/Idle Running by Janez Burger had 54,084 viewers, in 2000 Damjan Kozole’s comedy Porno film had 54,915, and in the following 2001 Vojko Anzeljc’s romantic comedy Zadnja večerja/Last Supper had 63,173 viewers.[4] In this period two other films approached the number of fifty thousand: Nepopisan list/What now, Luka? (Jane Kavčič, 2000), and Jebiga/Fuck it (Miha Hočevar, 2000). The greatest hit of that period, however, was the comedy made by the actor, TV and film producer and director Branko Đurić, Kajmak in marmelada/Cheese and Jam (2003), seen in Slovenia by 155,043 viewers (Štefančič, 2008: 291). This record was not even broken by Petelinji zajtrk /Rooster’s Breakfast (Marko Naberšnik, 2007) based on the novel of the Prekmurje writer of best-sellers Feri Lainšček. In 2007 this film had 126,275 viewers. It is interesting that three of the four greatest Slovenian hits were in characters and subject-matter connected with the area of Yugoslavia. In Outsider, the main characters were Bosnians and the Bosnian actors Zijah Sokolović and Davor Janjić played the leading parts. Branko Đurić, the director and leading actor of Cheese and Jam, used to be a member of the Sarajevo group Top lista nadrealista and the film is about the dysfunctional marriage of a Bosnian man and Slovenian woman. Rooster’s Breakfast, on the other hand, based its popularity on that of the Croatian pop-star Severina Vučković, who plays herself in the film.[5]

Parallel with domestic viewing, in the late nineties Slovenian film also became more visible internationally. Here, too, the turning point was in 1996/7, and the first film that made a move in that direction was a low-budget 74-minute film without dialogue. Its title was Ekspres, ekspres/Express, Express and its author the 29-year debutant Igor Šterk. That film - in style and spirit kindred to the films of Jacques Tati  - won the audience award in Cottbus, an award in Trieste and three awards – of jury, critics and audience – at the Montpellier Festival of Mediterranean film. “Express, Express,” wrote the Slovenian critic Zdenko Vrdlovec, “after a long absence returned Slovenian film to the international arena,” (Vrdlovec, 2005a: 295-296). New success followed soon. In 1999 the director Janez Burger made a drama about the Slovenian “X generation” Idle Running, which became the greatest art success of Slovenian film after gaining independence. This black-and-white drama about a lethargic student, played by the future director Jan Cvitkovič, was shown in the competition section in Karlovi Vary and won a number of awards, including the main awards in Cottbus and Trieste, and an award in Sarajevo. Not long after this success Jan Cvitkovič, the leading actor of Idle Running, also appeared as a debutant feature-film director. His film Bread and Milk (2001) – again black-and-white and again a low-budget drama, on alcoholism – won the Luigi De Laurentiis Award at the Venice Mostra in 2001 for best debut film, and awards in Cottbus, Motovun and Bratislava. The success was all the greater because Cvitkovič was an amateur filmmaker, he had studied archaeology but not graduated, and he made the film on a budget he received for a short film. The Venetian prize filled the Slovenian public with such enthusiasm that Cvitkovič even got the offer to donate it to the lobby of a Ljubljana multiplex. The Slovenian film boom was rounded off in 2003 when Damjan Kozole’s film Rezervni deli /Spare Parts entered the competition section of Berlinale. At that moment it seemed that Slovenian film was going through a renaissance: popular at home, and more visible than ever abroad.

These euphoric expectations did not completely materialise in later years. The next films made by Cvitkovič, Kozole and Šterk did not repeat the foreign success of their predecessors.[6] This was the time when the first cracks appeared in the developed system of public cinema institutions in Slovenia. This especially became obvious after November 2004, in the period of Janez Janša’s centre-right government. At that time filmmakers criticised government policy especially vehemently, and the personnel and financial policies in film institutions (for example, in cinematheque or at festivals) were a subject of petitions and protests. Filmski sklad was shaken by accusations of malpractice, auditors found irregularities in its work, and in one period Sklad was even paralysed in its work as an institution. One of the effects of this was changes in management, and nine directors replaced one another at the head of Sklad in 15 years, some of them remaining in office for no more than several months.[7] Under such conditions there was a proposal to close Sklad down and bring cinema administration back under the wing of the ministry of culture, commented in the professional film press as a “turn-about unique in European practice” (Rudolf, 2009). Finally, in February 2010 Stojan Pelko, state secretary at the ministry of culture and a film expert, suggested that the much-criticised Slovenski filmski sklad should be replaced by Slovenski filmski centar (Slovenian Film Centre), a body that would mediate in securing support but not co-produce films, and which would get part of its revenue from the tax on public and commercial TV. This new organisation of cinema, described by Pelko as “based on the Croatian and Slovak experience” (Rudolf, 2010a), was partially set up in 2011.  

In feature-film production the effects of this instability were felt in the second half of the decade: in this period much of Slovenian feature production were low-budget films, TV production and/or films made on video. They were made even by affirmed directors: in 2007 Damjan Kozole made the marital drama Za vedno/Forever without any funds from the national budget, with only two actors in a private flat. This flexibility in production also had some good effects: it maintained the total annual number of live-action feature films on the level of between 5 (2007) and 13 (2008), so one might conclude that Zdenko Vrdlovec was right in saying that the “record number of annual productions was not the result of higher subsidies by the national film fund, but the opposite… of new forms of independent production that did not depend on the support of the fund but were often invented for the production of only one film, usually using a digital camera,” (Vrdlovec, 2005a: 331). This democratisation in production increased the number of feature films made, but it also had side effects. First, it was more difficult for this low-budget production to achieve visibility abroad and it was more difficult for it to enter the major festivals.[8] Second, the new modes of production were a hurdle for older and less flexible authors. It is therefore no surprise that of the 31 directors who made a film in Slovenia since 1994, as many as 21 were debutants. Because of this mass of debutants, Slovenian film really “deserves the epithet of ‘new’” (Vrdlovec, 2005a: 331).


2.2. Croatia

Croatian cinema started to develop in the nineties in a completely different surrounding from Slovenian cinema. From 1991 to 1995 Croatia was in a war which caused considerable human casualties and material damage, but which was only sporadically felt in Zagreb as the main centre of film production. Also, in that period Croatian film was under the influence of an extremely ideologically charged social environment and political climate, characterised by heightened nationalism, domination of the ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica - HDZ), and the rule of an authoritarian regime with strong elements of the personality cult of President Franjo Tuđman. In this atmosphere there was neither the political will nor the ideological understanding to organise cinema through autonomous professional institutions. During the entire nineties and much of the following decade cinema was directly administered by the ministry of culture, which organised tenders,[9] financed films and directly supervised the national festival in Pula. In this period short and documentary film were neglected and almost completely taken over by television. However, live-action full-length films, which were seen as a matter of national prestige, were not affected by the war and economic difficulties to the measure that might have been expected. Like in Slovenia, the critical years came immediately after the collapse of the old system, which in Croatia coincided with the beginning of the war. Thus only two live-action feature films were made in Croatia in 1992, and only three in 1993. However, in the second half of the nineties the number of films increased to six, which was declared the standard number until the middle of the next decade. Then the number of independent productions[10] increased and the total number of feature films increased to eight, nine (in 2003) the record ten in 2009 and 2011, and again record 15 in 2013. Films made in independent production in Croatia were at first not as frequent as in Slovenia, but they had a great influence and were very successful (such as Ta divna splitska noć/That Wonderful Night in Split by Arsen A. Ostojić or Fine mrtve djevojke/Fine Dead Girls by Dalibor Matanić).  However, things changed at the end of the decade, and the turning point was certainly Pula 2011, at which exactly half the films (five) were for the first time made outside the regular tendering system.      

During the 1990s and early 2000s the strong influence of the state on cinema was a cause of lasting dissatisfaction among professional filmmakers, who kept demanding the establishment of an autonomous film foundation or institute. In the formal sense, this demand was put forward most clearly in January 1998 in the 12th number of the magazine Hrvatski filmski ljetopis, in the thematic block Kulturna politika – dokumenti  (Cultural Policy – Documents), which analysed the existing legislation, presented and criticised the film bill proposed by the Ministry of Culture, which was never enacted, and demanded a film act and the foundation of a Croatian Film Foundation that would match the north-European film institutes or boards.[11] Not long after, the film historian Ivo Škrabalo explicitly formulated this demand in the programmatic “Apel za hrvatski film” (Appeal for Croatian Cinema) published in the weekly Tjednik in March 1997 (Škrabalo, 1997: 29-30).

After the death of Franjo Tuđman and the change of government in January 2000, cinema emerged from the ideologically charged atmosphere and threat of (self)censorship. However, the new administration did not want to give up its powers and found a film foundation, which was finally established when the Cinema Act was passed on 18 July 2007. Under this act, the Croatian Audiovisual Centre (Hrvatski audiovizualni centar - HAVC) was founded, which was in charge of financing, promotion, education, co-production, referencing and documentation. HAVC also received an autonomous income from a percentage of the gross revenue of internet service providers, telecommunication operators, cable and national televisions and film distributors, ranging from 0.1 % (for cinemas) to 2% for public television (which opposed and sabotaged the implementation of the regulation for a long time). The contributors, however, were also given participation in decision-making. This fundamentally decreased government influence on film, but increased the influence of large companies and the media. Thus in one decade Croatia went the full circle from the most rigidly state-administered cinema in the region to the most liberal legislation in the region, although the new – completely liberal and anti government-run – cinema system did not completely come into being straight away, especially its financial aspect.[12]

Although the socio-economic conditions in the two countries were incomparable, Slovenian and Croatian film had a similar curve of ups and downs. In Croatian film, too, the early and mid nineties was a period without much international visibility[13] and one when Croatian film did not enjoy a good image among domestic audiences and critics, and was even a subject of scorn. At that time Croatian film was looked on with a lot of more or less deserved negative prejudice, which at the end of the period  (2002) led to Hrvoje Turković’s polemic text Treba li Hrvatskoj cjelovečernji film? (Does Croatia Need Feature Films?). Croatian films, wrote Turković, are generally considered poor and poorly watched. They are technically “extremely unsatisfactory”, artistically unsuccessful, and therefore unnecessary. Thus they exist “only for the sake of the filmmakers themselves” and “for the sake of state representation”, and one wonders, “why subsidise a failure” (Turković, 2002: 87-89).[14] Prejudice of this kind was very well illustrated in the widespread joke from that time, saying: “There is to be no making of new films until people have seen all those already made!”

This dislike of Croatian film among the home audience was greatly the result of badly made war films, full of propaganda and marked by implicit chauvinism, hate speech or stereotype ideology. An early example of this kind of film (also known as “državotvorni film”- state-building films) was the war film of director Oja Kodar Vrijeme za…/The Time for…, mocked by critics although the total number of viewers was not small (63,454). In her study on Croatian war film Anja Šošić (2009: 13) wrote, on the basis of interviews with many Croatian film professionals, that “many people I talked to (…) call the film a disgrace of Croatian cinema” (Šošić, 2009: 13). However, Oja Kodar’s film was not the only such disgrace. Many similar films followed, and a racist portrayal of the other nation and black-and-white characters were especially a feature in: Cijena života/The Price of Life (1994) by Bogdan Žižić, Kanjon opasnih igara/Canyon of Dangerous Games (1998) by Vladimir Tadej and Bogorodica/The Madonna (1999) by Neven Hitrec. A symbolic example of this kind of ideological cinema was certainly Četverored/In Four Lines (1999) by Jakov Sedlar. Based on the homonymous novel by Ivan Aralica, and on the real-life and terrible crimes committed by the victorious partisans over their defeated enemies in May 1945, Jakov Sedlar’s film in the end turned into a mixture of filmic semi-literacy, grotesque historiographical simplification and philo-Fascist revisionism. Made just before the parliamentary elections at which the ruling Croatian Democratic Union was threatened by the centre-left coalition, the film aimed at influencing voters and turning them against the “communists” by showing their historical stigma. In the desire to strengthen the film’s propaganda effect, the authorities made a move unprecedented in cinema practice and showed it on public television as a four-part TV series while it was still playing in cinemas. The propaganda effect, however, was not achieved: the opposition coalition convincingly defeated the ruling party at the elections in January 2000.    

Films of this kind – which Etami Borjan compares with the socialist realism of the forties (2009: 152) – made Croatian films completely odious to the home public, and in the 1990s they were frequently a subject of scorn and unselective media attacks. As a counterweight to this “official”, “regime-cultivated” cinema, a group called young Croatian film was formed in the mid-1990s composed of a circle of about ten directors born in the 1960s and early 1970s. They made sporadic attempts to represent themselves as a coherent group (Pavičić, 1993a, 1993b), and these attempts were supported by critics in the desire for refreshment on the production scene, but actually there was never a unifying poetics model in young Croatian film, and its members in any case belonged to two generations in age and in creative approach. 

The first generation were authors born in the first half of the 1960s, such as Hrvoje Hribar, Lukas Nola and Vinko Brešan, whose films favoured a higher degree of stylisation, irony, ideological scepticism, a certain populist line, departure from realism, interest in the fantastic and grotesque, and a visible influence of the postmodernism of the eighties, in the range from cinéma du look to Slobodan Šijan (Pavičić, 1993a: 84-85).

The second group of authors were directors born after 1966/7, such as Ivan Salaj, Jelena Rajković and Zvonimir Jurić. They belonged to the so-called “war generation” and the war impacted their “coming of age”. Their films incline to verism, pessimism bordering on gloom and an inclination to pathos, so their films were sometimes called the Croatian war noir (Pavičić, 1995a: 6-7). Ivan Salaj’s film Vidimo se/See You (1995) became something like the programmatic film of this generation, even an informal generation manifesto. Pro-government journalists attacked Salaj’s film and some others of the war noir as unacceptably negativistic, and in 1995 Milan Ivkošić wrote against the films See You and Ogresta’s Washed Out in Večernji list, accusing Croatian filmmakers of “destruction, experimentation and exhibitionism” that nurtures “seclusion and denies togetherness”, comparing them with the Serbian black wave from the 60s.  In Ivkošić’s text this comparison, of course, does not have positive connotations, but is used as defamation (more in Pavičić, 1995b).

The two generations linked into young Croatian film did not have the same fate. Authors of the first wave (especially Brešan and Hribar) soon became the mainstream of Croatian filmmaking and made some of the greatest local hits of that and the next decade. Much of the “war generation” dispersed, and so far only Zvonimir Jurić and Vlatka Vorkapić has continued a career in making feature films.[15]

Similarly as in Slovenia, Croatian cinema awoke in the last third of the nineties, too. In this period viewers reacted best to two comedies by Vinko Brešan, Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku/How the War Started on My Island (1996) and Maršal/ Marshal Tito's Spirit (1999). Although produced as a low-budget TV film, How the War Started on My Island turned into the greatest hit in the history of Croatian cinema so far, with 346,097 viewers. Moreover, it was shown in the Berlin programme Forum and won an award in Cottbus. Brešan’s next comedy, Marshal Tito's Spirit, attracted 100,011 viewers in Croatia, won the Wolfgang Staudte award of the Berlin Forum and the award for best director in Karlovy Vary. Both the films also played a kind of role in social therapy. In How the War Started on My Island Brešan used the figure of a stubborn, fanatical and funny JNA officer (Ljubomir Kerekeš) to “tame” the character of the enemy and make people laugh at the war, which in the first post-war year had a “salutary effect on the health of the nation which is hard to exaggerate”, as Ivo Žanić wrote at the end of 1996. In the same text, referring to Bergson, Žanić interpreted Brešan’s film as opposite to the “gestures of pathos” and “stiffness” of the Tuđman era, since “stiffness is comical, and laughter is the punishment for it” (Žanić, 1996).  It was similar with Brešan’s next hit, Marshal Tito's Spirit. It appeared in cinemas in the last autumn of Tuđman’s life and rule, and by humorously showing a comical disembarking of old partisans on a Dalmatian island Brešan prepared people for the return to power of the left-wing, which came several months after the film’s première.[16]

Brešan’s comedies were not only the greatest hits of that period, they also belonged to the small number of Croatian films that achieved limited international visibility. However, they were not the only ones to do so. Zrinko Ogresta had already achieved it with his first film Fragments (1991), which EFA included among the five best young European films. His next film Washed out (1995) won the TV prize Prix Italia, and his social thriller Crvena prašina/Red Dust (1999) played out of competition at the Venice Mostra. In that period debutant Goran Rušinović also made a limited appearance on the international scene; without formal education in directing, he directed the black-and-white crime film Mondo Bobo in 1997. This film was made outside institutional cinema, and its main sponsors were the entrepreneur Hrvoje Petrač – later convicted of organised crime, and the Osijek politician Branimir Glavaš – later convicted of war crimes committed in 1991. The film itself was a stylised black-and-white thriller with minimal references to social reality. It won the main awards at the festivals in Valencia and Cottbus.

The year 2000 was a clear-cut watershed the Croatian society as a whole. The country left behind a period dominated by intense ideology, one party and a strong leader, and entered a post-authoritarian period ruled by plurality in world view and a loose and unstable coalition government. The status of cinema did not change much in the operative sense: it was still headed from the Ministry of Culture, only now through professional mediation in the form of cultural councils. But the ideological changes were refreshing, if only because there was no longer an ideologically-desirable theme and worldview which filmmakers tried to satisfy. Because of this, state-building films disappeared and some of the authors who had made them vanished from the scene or retired into independent, low-budget production (Jakov Sedlar, Željko Senečić).

The de-ideologising of society and the introduction of institutional regulation of cinema also changed the generation scene in Croatian film. Like in many transition countries, in the nineties Croatian cinema lost the older generation of authors who felt lost in the production chaos of the early transition, or abstained from filmmaking because of ideological dissent from the dominant policy. As cinema became more ordered, some of them returned, such as Krsto Papić, Zoran Tadić, Petar Krelja and Rajko Grlić.

In the new decade the foreign visibility of Croatian film increased, but it still did not reach an exceptional level. In 2003 the first Croatian film since gaining independence was shown in competition at one of the three major festivals (Svjedoci /Witnesses by Vinko Brešan, in Berlin), and the film Tu/Here by Zrinko Ogresta won the special jury award in Karlovi Vary, and awards in Montpellier and Milan. Next year, the debut film A Wonderful Night in Split (2004) by Arsen A. Ostojić was nominated among the five best European debut films (European Discovery). Two films by Ognjen Sviličić – Oprosti za kung fu/Sorry for Kung Fu (2004) and Armin (2007) – were screened in Berlin in the Forum section, Karaula/Border Post (2005) and Neka ostane među nama/Just Among Us (2010) by Rajko Grlić were screened in the competition section in San Sebastian and Karlovi Vary (where the latter won the award for best director), Put lubenica/Watermelon Road (2006) by Branko Schmidt won the main award in Montpellier,[17] and Buick Riviera by Goran Rušinović (2008) in Sarajevo. Nevertheless, the awakened global reception of Croatian film did not help it to increase the number of viewers at home.

Although the first decade of the two thousands was a period of the gradual revival of cinema, when multiplexes opened and the cinema network recovered,[18] and despite the greater foreign success, in this decade Croatian films did not even keep the number of viewers that they had in the nineties. The lack of interest of Croatian audiences in Croatian films was still so pronounced that the Sarajevo director Pjer Žalica, in an interview to Zagreb’s Jutarnji list in October 2003, said that “it fascinates him in a negative way”. “What is taking place in Croatia is terrible and you must search for the deeper reasons for it. There is something wrong when a community shows no interest in works that were made in it,” (Lazarin, 2003: 58-59). The only real Croatian hits in this decade were two films distributed in 2005/6, both based on novels of the Split writer Ante Tomić. The rural comedy Što je muškarac bez brkova/What is a Man without a Moustache directed by Hrvoje Hribar was seen by about 180,000, and Border Post by about 43,000 people (Petković, 2006). Besides these, somewhat higher attendance was achieved by the high-budget historical epic Duga mračna noć/ The Long Dark Night (2004) by Antun Vrdoljak (29,603 viewers), the musical documentary by Igor Mirković Sretno dijete/The Happy Child (29,011), and Metastaze/Metastases (2009) by Branko Schmidt, based on the homonymous novel of Alen Bović/Josip Balenović (27,023 viewers in 2009). Even these more than modest numbers, however, greatly exceeded the average, and even the most successful Croatian films had attendance of between five and ten thousand. Not a single Croatian film was seen by more than ten thousand viewers in 2005.[19] In 2007 only two films went slightly beyond this number,[20] in 2008 only one – Kino Lika/Lika Cinema (17,288 viewers),[21] and in 2009 three, but two of them exceeded 10 thousand viewers only by a hair’s breadth.[22] In 2010 only one film topped the modest number of ten thousand viewers, Rajko Grlić’s Just among us with 16,308 viewers.[23]  This devastating trend shifted after 2011, when HAVC completely changed its programming strategy and oriented production more toward comedies and films for children. The success of comedies such as Sonja and the Bull or Svećenikova djeca/The Priest’s Children (2013, Vinko Brešan), and of the children’s film serial based on the character of Koko from Ivan Kušan’s classic children’s novels, improved the attendance of domestic films. The trend peaked with Brešan’s film The Priest’s Children, which was seen by more than 150 thousand viewers.

The increased foreign visibility of Croatian films in the 2010s, and the low box office success at home in the same period seem to be discrepant, but this is so only at first glance. Both these trends can partly be explained by a change in programme strategy which happened spontaneously at the beginning of the two thousands. Until then, Croatian film was under attack by the public and media because of low attendance, which made directors try to make more popular films. Brešan’s model (usually Mediterranean or regional) of political comedies was offered as a recipe for success and was imitated by a large number of filmmakers, but with less success (Srce nije u modi /The Heart is not In, Branko Schmidt, 2000; Holding, Tomislav Radić,  2001; Ajmo žuti /Go, Yellow, Dražen Žarković, 2001, and so on). As this did not lead to any significant changes in attendance, in the next period there was a spontaneous switch to the type of films that would have greater foreign success. This included concentration on politically contradictory subjects such as war crimes (Crnci /Negroes, 2009), homophobia (Fine Dead Girls, 2002), AIDS (Volim te /I Love You, 2006), trafficking (Watermelon Road, 2006), and also a stylistic shift from the classical narrative style to various modalities of the auteur film. This logically led to a fall in domestic attendance, and the renewal of the cinema network did not help Croatian film because at the same time there was a strengthening of the competing media space, especially commercial TV. The strong competition of national TV channels with long hours of live-action programme in Croatian sucked a large number of actors, directors and professionals from film, while at the same time film budgets decreased. Thus live-action film necessarily re-oriented to the festival art-niche. In this change, however, Croatian cinema – like Slovenian – had a limited degree of success. Both cinemas managed to enter the competition sections of the three great festivals with only one film before 2009.[24] Neither managed to enter Cannes, the festival that is the key measure of success in filmmaking.


2.3. Serbia

Unlike Slovenian and Croatian cinema, which – despite all their differences – strongly relied on the state after 1990 and achieved poor visibility abroad, in the case of Serbian cinema things were completely different. 

During the nineties SR Yugoslavia, that is, Serbia and Montenegro, was embroiled in a whole lot of wars, starting from that in Croatia, then in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to conflict with NATO in 1999. SR Yugoslavia was placed under international sanctions as early as 1992, which was an additional economic blow to the country whose economy was completely harnessed to aggressive military campaigns in neighbouring countries. Under such conditions, institutional support for film was small and sporadic during the entire nineties. The only institutional support film got was provided by public Radio Television, which was under the strong control of the regime.

However, contrary to what one might expect, the sanctions indirectly helped Serbian film, for several reasons.

The international sanctions made it difficult for Serbian films to access foreign festivals. Festivals that included Serbian films in their programmes faced, especially in the first year of the war, Croat and Bosniak demonstrations, and protests and criticism in the press. Under a tacit interpretation, which was implemented in practice, the embargo did not cover films made in co-production with other countries. Therefore Serbian filmmakers were forced to sidestep the sanctions by beginning to co-produce films in international co-production arrangements. In this way Serbian film increased its international visibility in the early nineties and developed the culture of co-production much more strongly than the relatively closed Slovenian or completely autarchic Croatian cinema.  

Furthermore, the sanctions unexpectedly opened up a market niche for Serbian film on the home market. During the sanctions many large Hollywood studios withdrew from the Serbian and Montenegrin market. The American films that were distributed in Serbia-Montenegro were pirated on a massive scale, which was not looked on as illegal in SR Yugoslavia as the country was in conflict with the West and was not motivated to harness the law enforcement system to protect the economic interests of American cinema. There was one more reason: the USA attack on SR Yugoslavia in 1999 made part of the general public hostile to American films. The combined result of all this was that Hollywood did not dominate the Serbian and Montenegrin market in the nineties and early two thousands as it did in Europe, and this opened the market to domestic films. These could not expect institutional support, but on the other hand they had a better starting position on the market. 

Consequently, Serbian films were a spectacular box-office success on the territory of SR Yugoslavia during the nineties and convincingly took first place on the annual lists. In 1996 the most highly-rated domestic film in SRY, Lepa sela lepo gore/Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Srđan Dragojević), had as many as 612,574 viewers, in 1998  Crna mačka, beli mačor/White Cat, Black Cat (Emir Kusturica) had 488,643, in 1999 Nož/The Knife (Miroslav Lekić) had 521,727, in 2000 Nebeska udica/Sky Hook (Ljubiša Samardžić) had 342,939, in 2001 Munje/Dudes had 571,341, and in 2002 the most successful film of all – the folklore melodrama Zona Zamfirova in the torlak dialect by Zdravko Šotra – was seen by as many as 1,005,156 viewers. It must be said that these hits were not exceptions: for example, in 1998 as many as five films had an attendance of more than two hundred thousand viewers, and between 1998 and 2005 at least three films a year (up to five) had more than one hundred thousand viewers.[25] Although Serbia has a larger population than the other post-Yugoslav countries, these numbers are really impressive and it is not difficult to agree with the Serbian critic Dimitrije Vojnov, who wrote:

What made Serbian film atypical in world proportions is also that, besides Indian film, it is the only out-of-Hollywood cinema that dominates its own market in viewer attendance.[26] (Vojnov, 2008: 98)

The combined lack of institutional support and strong market potential fundamentally shaped Serbian cinema in the 1990s and early 2000s. In this constellation it abruptly crossed the boundary from state regulation to a kind of “wild” capitalism. Most of the production money was supplied by the economy and private entrepreneurs. Films that could count on audience response were made, and any shift from the mainstream or author stylisation was unimaginable. The non-dominant film genres such as animation and experimental film died out. However, Serbia maintained a relatively numerous production of full-length films, which varied between 7 and 13 films every year, except in 1996 and 1999 (the years of the NATO interventions). Also, a sharped market instinct made Serbian filmmakers react to social events quickly. Ljubiša Samardžić made a film about the NATO bombing only several months after it happened (Sky Hook, 2000), and he made a youth drama that takes place during the crucial, historic elections only several months after the fall of Milošević in October 2000 (Nataša, 2001).   

Although domestic film continues to be popular in Serbia until the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the types of hits that attracted Serbian audiences changed as time passed. When the war broke out and in the first half of the 1990s the dominant Serbian hits were urban, youth films, strongly escapist in character, in which politics did make a cautious appearance, but not the war. Typical examples of this production is the first, original film of the series Mi nismo anđeli/We are not Angels by Srđan Dragojević from 1992, and the youth film on underground radio DJs Crni bombarder/The Black Bomber by Darko Bajić. Both films, with attendance of just over 80,000 viewers, came first on the lists in the first year of the embargo. It is not irrelevant that both were also exceptionally sought-after pirate goods on the other side of the front lines, in Croatia, where they were pirated and distributed from hand to hand, and even had a limited degree of media reception, as did some other Serbian films made during the war. Both the above films were highly escapist and completely urban.[27] We are not Angels takes place in the “hyperstylised reality of Belgrade” (Vojnov, 2008: 100), “the swinging Belgrade from video clips and student films of the eighties” (Vojnov, 2008: 101). Both rely strongly on American pop-culture influence: We are not Angels on Frank Capra and Hollywood romantic comedy, and The Black Bomber on Walter Hill’s films that exploit pop-culture mythemes, such as Streets of Fire (1984) or The Warriors (1979). This Americanophile filmmaking was partly the product of postmodernism and the taste of the generation. Similarly as in Croatia, where the generation of critics around the magazine Kinoteka explicitly extolled American studio film in the late 1980s and overrated it to the detriment of the films of auteur modernism. In Belgrade the circle of critics that gathered around the influential Professor Nebojša Pajkić (known as the “pajkićevci” – see Velisavljević, 2008b: 87) nurtured a similar aesthetic canon, admired Hollywood and Hong-Kong film and kept away from the then glorified, socially dominant auteur film. In the last period of communism this Americanophile attitude, as Velisavljević noted, was also a clear expression of political views:  

It is indicative that in Serbia, in the early 1990s, at the time when communism was on its way out… and at the time of the awakening of nationalism, two cinemas whose dominant ideology was very “patriotic” and anti-communist, such as those of America and Hong Kong, and right-wingers such as John Milius, were the source of the taste in the films nurtured by young critics. (Velisavljević, 2008b: 89)

When war broke out the ideological repercussions of this kind of poetics changed completely. Pop-films with a strong postmodernist, meta-genre line became an expression of explicit and intentional escapism, and their supporters declared them to be in the “spirit of the rebellion of the young and clever, the urban and different, the critical, against the rural populist culture” (Velisavljević, 2008b: 88), or, as formulated by Nevena Daković, “in film, the tools of resistance against the pessimism and isolationism of Balkanisation are the genre film, the sound of rock music, postmodernism and a cool escapist attitude” (Daković, 2008: 173). But this escapist note made some Serbian critics mockingly call such films the pink wave (Velisavljević, 2008a: 209).

This model of inoffensive, urban, youth films did not disappear from Serbian film production: they were also made, often with success, in following years (for example, Tri palme za dvije bitange i ribicu/ Three Palms for two Punks and a Babe by Radivoje Andrić, 1998, or Skoro sasvim obična priča /An Almost Completely Ordinary Story by Miloš Petričić, 2003). However, in the last war years the “pink” or “pop” film model was pushed aside both by critics and in viewer attendance, and in the mid-1990s films that brought considerable foreign respect for Serbian film took over.  

In the first war years Serbian films had sporadic foreign success, such as Tango argentino by Goran Paskaljević, which played in the Venice competition section in 1992, or Tito i ja/Tito and Me by Goran Marković, which won an award in San Sebastian. But the real success of Serbian film in world proportions began in 1995 when Sarajevo director Emir Kusturica made Underground in French-German co-production and with the help of Serbian public television, based on Dušan Kovačević’s theatre text which was fundamentally extended and politically updated. Kusturica turned the high concept theatre text about Titoism into a great, three-hour long political allegory which won him the Palme d’or in Cannes in that year. Partly because of the film’s content, partly because of the financial help which the production got from the strongly regime-ruled Serbian television, the decision of the jury chaired by Jeanne Moreau had a strong impact and caused a long and stormy debate (more in Iordanova, 2001: 127-135). The important award and publicity of this kind also attracted the home audience, so 167,259 viewers saw the film in Serbia, although it lasts for three hours and has none of the components typical of a mainstream hit.

A new controversial title, seen by many more people in Serbia and throughout the region, came next year. It was made by Srđan Dragojević, the director of We are not Angels and a kind of founder of the pink wave. However, his film Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996) was both thematically and stylistically a great change from his earlier light romantic comedy. This war film was an unparalleled hit in Serbia (612,574 viewers in 1996). Although it never entered any of the three major festivals,[28] Dragojević’s film gradually won considerable international visibility and became the subject of many reviews, essays and debates.

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame embodies, even more than Underground, the type of hit that dominated Serbian cinema in the second half of the 1990s. As a rule, these were films made with the help of co-production capital and dealt with the great themes of the Balkans in the nineties: war, violence, ethnic hatred, the inheritance of communism and organised crime.  Relying on caricatured stylisation and grotesque, they used hypertrophied stereotypes to show the Balkans as the microcosm of violence, rabid revenge, irrational passions and machismo. Dragojević’s next film Rane/Wounds (1998) was similar, it no longer dealt directly with the war but with the genesis of the new generation of urban criminals. It was the first Serbian film distributed in Croatia after the war, with considerable commercial success.[29] In the same year the veteran of the Prague school, Goran Paskaljević, made Bure baruta/Cabaret Balkan, a film based on the homonymous play by Macedonian writer Dean Dukovski, which through ten connected stories also showed the Belgrade asphalt as a place of irrational violence, uncontrolled hatred, long-prepared revenge, aggression and machismo.

In this group of films misanthropic pessimism, combined with borrowings from genre mythology and an effective caricature of the Balkan stereotype, merged into a successful poetic model popular with the Serbian public in the late 1990s: both Cabaret Balkan and Wounds had over 300, and Pretty Village, Pretty Flame over 600 thousand viewers. At the same time such films, especially those by Kusturica and Dragojević, were criticised (not only) in the region for cynicism and for their (not always) implicit political messages (Horton, 2000b: 112, Krasztev 2000: 23-24). Despite these objections, the films were very successful abroad. This is not only true of Underground, which won the Palme d’or, but also of Cabaret Balkan, which won the critics award at the Mostra in Venice and the critics award of the European Film Academy (EFA).

There were two other poetic consequences of the fact that until the beginning of the 2000s Serbian film depended more on the market, and less on the state. The first was that there was no mass production of intensely chauvinistic and directly ideological films in Serbia, such as those that characterised Croatian cinema in the 1990s. It is true that some Serbian films in the early nineties had elements of political propaganda (most visibly Vukovar – jedna priča/Vukovar Poste Restante by Bora Drašković from 1994),[30] but the only Serbian film from the 1990s which directly targeted and illustrated the nationalistic ideology was Nož/The Knife (1999) by Miroslav Lekić, based on the notorious and widely sold novel of the same name by Vuk Drašković from the 1980s. This film (like the book) resounded strongly and had more than half a million viewers.

The absence of war propaganda (even of the war itself) in Serbian films is not unexpected and fits into the pattern that prevailed in all Serbian culture and media in the war years. Right after the first year the war began to be minimised and marginalised in the Serbian newspapers and electronic media: in the TV news it was covered as peripheral foreign affairs might be (Skopljanac Brunner, 1999b: 338-340) and in papers it was often followed only by local correspondents on local pages (according to an analysis made by Ćurgus Kazimir, 1999: 131, on the example of the daily paper Politika). This general approach was the result, on one hand, of psychological suppression, and on the other of the official ideology which kept repeating that “Serbia is not at war”, and that the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia were civil wars for which Serbia was groundlessly being punished by sanctions. In this context, the regime had no mechanisms or any particular reason to support warmongering films, so they did not exist.

The second poetic consequence that the leap into the market economy left on Serbian film was the number and over-presence of genre and action films in the national production, especially in the period coinciding with the peak viewer attendance of domestic films, the mid 1990s to about 2005. In this period, genre and/or action films took up a considerable part of Serbian production, and the genres were various. There was a significant number of gangster films, Bulevar revolucije (Vladimir Blaževski, 1992), Do koske/Rage (Boban Skerlić, 1997) or Wounds (Srđan Dragojević, 1998; see Vojnov 2009: 41-44). There were also action thrillers such as Točkovi/Wheels (Đorđe Milosavljević, 1999), sports-crime dramas such as Apsolutnih sto/The Absolute Hundred (Srdan Golubović, 2001) or Jedan na jedan/One to One (Mladen Matičević, 2002), and spy thrillers (Balkanska pravila/Balkan Rules, Darko Bajić, 1997 and Četvrti čovek/The Fourth Man, Dejan Zečević, 2007). Then, of course, there were comedies, from romantic (Three Palms for Two Punks and a Babe, Radivoje Andrić, 1998) to regional (Seljaci/Peasants, Dragoslav Lazić, 2001) and sports (Ona voli Zvezdu/She Loves Zvezda, Marko Marinković, 2001). The genres included a musical film (Munje/Dudes, Radivoje Andrić, 2001), but also a horror (TT Sindrom/ TT Syndrome, Dejan Zečević, 2002), and even a youth fantasy (Šejtanov ratnik/The Devil’s Warrior, Stevan Filipović, 2006) and historical fantasy (Čarlston  za Ognjenku/Charlstone & Vendetta, Uroš Stojanović, 2008). Another characteristic of Serbian genre film was the combination of film and music, especially the rock and turbo-folk subculture. Thus turbo-folk singer Dragana Mirković played the heroine in the musical Slatko od snova/Sweetmeats made of Dreams (Vladimir Živković, 1994) and sang in the film in English (Kronja, 2001: 60), the plot of Dudes (Radivoje Andrić, 2001) revolves around the drum'n'base subculture, while the plot of A3 – rok end rol uzvraća udarac/A3 – Rock&Roll Strikes Back (Petar Pašić, 2006) – the third part of the series We are not Angels – is based on a satirical confrontation of turbo-folk and the old Yugoslav rock culture. It is interesting that this comedy, which ridicules the glitzy kitsch of the turbo-folk industry, was produced by TV Pink, the television company that created the subculture.


The strong reliance of the Serbian film industry on genre and subculture practices began to wane in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, in the period that the Serbian critic Srđan Vučinić called the time of the death of cinema halls (Vučinić, 2008: 206). This is the period when cinema halls began to be closed in large numbers, the cinema market thinned down, the leading producers turned to TV, and local attendance of Serbian films decreased considerably.

After the fall of Milošević’s regime in October 2000 Serbian film found itself in new circumstances. There was no more embargo, Hollywood returned to the local repertoire, and under the new coalition government Serbia entered into its thorny version of normalisation. One of the aspects of this normalisation was the introduction of regular public co-financing of films and the establishment of film institutions. In 2004 the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Serbia abolished the Film Institute (founded in 1959 as the centre for the professional training of film personnel) and on 9 December 2004 founded its legal successor, the Film Centre of Serbia (Filmski centar Srbije - FCS), a local version of West-European film institutes or boards. From 2005 there were also regular tenders, and from April 2006 these were held by FCS. Almost at the same time, however, Serbia faced the process of cinema-hall closure, which had peaked in Croatia six or seven years earlier. During this period of the “death of cinema halls”, according to Srđan Vučinić, “by the autumn of 2007 almost all the cult cinema halls in the centre of Belgrade had been shut down,” (2008: 206). This understandably devastated the attendance of domestic films, which decreased immensely although it still remained respectable on the relative regional scale: in 2006 the best-attended domestic film We are not Angels 3 sold 114,474 tickets, in 2007 Crni Gruja i kamen mudrosti/Black Gruya and the Stone of Wisdom sold 131,948, in 2008 Charleston & Vendetta sold 147,764, in 2009 Sveti Georgije ubiva aždahu/St George Slays the Dragon sold 115,840, and in 2010/11 Serbia again had a real box-office hit, the sports-history play Montevideo, bog te video/Montevideo, Taste of a Dream by Dragan Bjelogrlić, which was seen by about 400 thousand viewers in only eight weeks of distribution. Similar success happened a year later, with Srđan Dragojević’s new film Parada/Parade (2012). For the Serbian film economy, however, it was unfavourable that such hits gradually became the exception, and films with attendance of over 50 thousand rare.[31] Thus Vučinić asks, in his overview of newer Serbian cinema: “Can film, regardless of quantity, genre diversity and a new poetic approach, even exist in a state in which the cinema network is expiring?” (Vučinić, 2008: 206).

In the new situation of renewed institutional support and market decline, Serbian film naturally also changed in outlook. The first effect of normalisation was the return to cinema of the older Yugoslav authors, most of them renowned and affirmed directors who had barely worked or had not worked at all in the 1990s, in the period of a kind of wild capitalism in the film industry. During the nineties many of the classic old filmmakers in Belgrade – who belonged to the black wave or to the Prague school – felt disoriented in the new film economy and found it difficult to secure funds for a film. Of the “Prague” generation, only Emir Kusturica and Goran Paskaljević had continuous careers. At the time when the old cinema system was breaking down they were already acknowledged international directors and continued to work in foreign co-production arrangements: after 1990, Paskaljević made one film each in the USA, Ireland and Albania.[32] The only member of the “black wave” who worked without pause in that period was Želimir Žilnik, who made seven films after 1990. But these were extremely low-budget, live-action/documentary films without professional actors, which, although they were off-mainstream, sometimes had festival success (Mramorno dupe/Marble Ass, 1995) or even sound attendance (such as the documentary Tito po drugi put među Srbima/Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time from 1993).

These, however, are exceptions. In Serbia, too, like in Croatia, most of the directors from the earlier period disappeared from the scene in the nineties. With the beginning of normalisation, however, some of them returned. The film title Buđenje iz mrtvih/Awakening from the Dead (2005) is symptomatic for the whole age; it is a film that brought the Yugoslav veteran Miša Radivojević back to cinema after eleven years. Both for Radivojević himself, and for many authors of his generation, the beginning of the new decade really was a kind of “awakening from the dead”. The directors that came back to Serbian film after 2000 were: Srđan Karanović (Sjajem u očima/Loving Glances, 2003, after 12 years pause), Slobodan Šijan (Siroti mali hrčki/Poor Little Hamsters, 2003, after 15 years pause), but also Goran Marković, who had in the period between Tito and Me (1992) and Kordon/Cordon (2002) made documentaries and written plays, but had made only one live-action film (Urnebesna tragedija/A Roaring Tragedy, 1997).

The second consequence of the market decrease and the renewal of subsidising was the widening of the poetic space. The greater reliance on government support and the smaller dependence on the market provided directors with a broader field and resulted in the appearance of distinctly art films, such as Radivojević’s Awakening from the Dead (2005) and Odbačen/The Reject (2007), or Obični ljudi/Ordinary People (2009), a film by Vladimir Perišić which was screened in the Critics Week in Cannes in 2009 and won the Heart of Sarajevo award. Feature-length animated films were also made, like Film noir (2007) by Risto Topaloski and D. Jud Jones, and Technotise - Edit i ja/Technotise – Edit and I  (2009) by cartoonist Aleksa Gajić. In 2009/10 this shift from the mainstream obtained the first components of a consistent model. Many films appeared in this period with an “explicit approach to sex and violence, which were socially provocative”, was how director Mladen Đorđević described this change (Njegić, 2010: 24). Typical examples of these “direct, uncompromising, investigative” films were the works of Mladen Đorđević, both the documentary Made in Serbia (2005) and his live-action pornographic snuff film Život i smrt porno bande/The Life and Death of a Porno Gang (2009), which the Croatian press, after its Zagreb première, described as “shocking” and “a film of blood and sperm” (Njegić, 2010: 24). Besides Đorđević’s films, there were also the documentaries of Boris Mitić (Doviđenja, kako ste?/Goodbye, How Are you?, 2009), and the films Miloš Branković (Nebojša Radosavljević, 2008), Hitna pomoć/The Ambulance (Goran Radovanović, 2009), Flešbek/Flashback (Aleksandar Janković, 2010), Srpski film/Serbian Film (Srđan Spasojević, 2009), and Clip (Maja Miloš, 2012). Although it is too early to talk about a rounded poetic model, the films and directors of this group have some things in common: the complete rejection of mainstream standards of production and style, mixing live-action and documentary, avoiding well-known and affirmed actors, emphasised stylisation (including black-and-white camera), selection of characters from the extreme social margins and social outcasts, inclination to the bizarre, violent, erotic and even pornographic. At the end of the decade the young Serbian cinema chose this kind of shock strategy and low-budget l'art pour l'art films as a reaction against the fall in attendance and the “death of cinema halls”. The new Serbian film also used this radical approach to distance itself from the Americanophile, genre and anti-auteur taste that had dominated the earlier generation and age, and it turned in two opposite directions: towards the more pronounced auteur film, or towards films that exploited a particular genre but which in their radical use of violence and erotica stepped out of the mainstream. Rejected by viewers who turned to historical-populist films, lacking the developed co-production network of directors of the previous generation, young Serbian authors tried to turn their marginal position and low-budget films from a weakness into an advantage by intensifying contrast to the mainstream, either in subject-matter or in stylistic radicalism. 

In this period the structure of the by then thinning number of domestic hits changed. Before the beginning of the two thousands the biggest Serbian box-office hits were in one way or another socially relevant, and their subjects were the war, and social and political crisis. A good example of this is Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, Wounds or Rage. In the post-Milošević period films with a pronounced escapist note took the strongest market position: these were Zdravko Šotra’s amazingly successful folklore melodramas (Zona Zamfirova, 2002; Ivkova slava/ Ivko’s Saint’s Day, 2005),[33] period piece comedies (Pljačka Trećeg rajha/The Robbery of the Third Reich by Zdravko Šotra, 2004; Crni Gruja i kamen mudrosti/Black Gruya and the Stone of Wisdom by Marko Marinković, 2007), or fantasy films (Šejtanov ratnik/The Devil’s Warrior by Stevan Filipović, 2006; Charleston za Ognjenku/ Charleston & Vendetta by Uroš Stojanović, 2008). Whereas in the nineties Serbian film was obsessively linked to the present, after the fall of Milošević and after Serbia remained alone, the preferred subject of Serbian films became the past, either from the Ottoman period (Zona Zamfirova, Ivko’s Saint’s Day), from the time of the Serbian rebellion (Black Gruya), or from the period just before and after World War I (Charleston & Vendetta, Saint George Shoots the Dragon, Montevideo, Taste of a Dream). In this sense it is symptomatic that between 2007 and 2011 the most popular domestic films were costumed historical titles, and in 2009 all the three most popular domestic films were historical.[34]

This can better be understood if we remember that Serbia became independent in this period, however, not of its own will but because the remaining component parts of the former federation had seceded, even Montenegro and Kosovo. At the time when it remained alone and was redefining its identity, it used cinema to map its past and it found a haven in history, in the period before the political dividing lines and traumas of the 20th century. Russian film went through a similar stage after the dissolution of the Soviet empire, when Russia “remained independent” and lost its imperial power and self-respect. At that time, according to Vladimir Padunov, scholar of Russian cinema, “For the first time in a thousand years the Russian elite got the task of forging a national state on the ruins of a multinational empire,” (Iordanova, 2005: 233). It was in this period that a wave of looking-back films were made about the idyllic “better” past in imperial Russia, of which the most famous and most typical was Sibirskiy tsiryulnik/ Barber of Siberia (1997) by Nikita Mikhalkov.[35] A similar “forging of a nation on the ruins of the multinational” can clearly be recognised in Serbian cinema, which, just like its Russian counterpart, “desires emancipation and wishes to be left alone” (Iordanova, 2005: 234). In this process it finds a safe haven in what is specifically Serbian history (not collective/South-Slav), where the “better past” is shown either as a rustic idyll (like in Šotra’s historical romances) or as a period of collective hardship and pride.[36]

A perfect example of this cultural tendency is undoubtedly Montevideo, Taste of a Dream (2010), a sports-history play directed by Dragan Bjelogrlić which became the greatest Serbian cinema hit in the winter of 2010/2011, with as many as 400 thousand sold tickets in the first eight weeks of distribution. Taking place in 1929 in the Yugoslav metropolis Belgrade, which the film shows as a modern city of trams, Charleston and parties with jazz music, the film describes the efforts of Belgrade football players and football fans to take the team to the first world football championship in Uruguay in 1930. They are thwarted by the boycott of the Croatian players and clubs (after the assassination of the Croatian politician Radić and the proclamation of the royal dictatorship on 6 January 1929), but also because the king and the political and financial elite do not show any interest in the project. In the final happy ending, the Belgrade team wins in a friendly match against Bulgaria, the enthusiastic crowd collect contributions for the trip to Uruguay, and the players and stadium audience join in singing the Serbian national anthem Bože pravde/God of Justice. The political parallel between what happens in the film and real life at the time when the film was made is oblivious: after its neighbours turned their backs on it, abandoned by all, Serbia nevertheless finds a way to achieve something in sports and redefines its identity – now no longer a Yugoslav identity, but Serbian. The box office success of Montevideo is completely understandable, because the film is political wishful thinking about the possibility of a successful Serbia on the ruins of Yugoslavia.


2.4. Bosnia and Herzegovina

If a turning point can be said to exist in Croatian and Serbian cinema between two very different periods in filmmaking and society in general – the nineties and the first decade of the two thousands – this turning point is probably nowhere as sharp as it is in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the case of B&H this turning point is between a period when there was practically no cinema at all, to a period when cinema rose to unprecedented heights.

In the nineties Bosnia and Herzegovina was engulfed in a war on its territory, a war that was incomparably more destructive than in Croatia. It was fought on practically the entire territory, included the most vicious war crimes, genocide and mass rape, and all the three nations in Bosnia and Herzegovina fought among themselves. The war ended without a real winner, and B&H emerged from the war completely destroyed, with poisoned inter-ethnic relations, politically unstable in the long term, legislatively and symbolically unfinished.    

Although some Serbian films were made on Bosnian territory under Serb control (such as Pretty Village, Pretty Flame), the Serbs in B&H did not undertake any significant film activities in the 1990s. On the other side of the front lines it was completely different, because there was a flourishing documentarist activity (mostly in Sarajevo). Its most viable and internationally most visible part was the production of the Sarajevo Group of Authors (SaGA) led by the affirmed pre-war director Ademir Kenović, who gathered around him a group of young directors, among them Srđan Vuletić and Pjer Žalica. During the siege of Sarajevo SaGA produced many noted short documentaries which did the round of world festivals, and the documentary omnibus MGM - Man God Monster (1994) by directors Ismet Arnautalić, Mirza Idrizović, Pjer Žalica and Ademir Kenović also played in the Quinzaine des realisateurs programme of the Cannes Festival.

During the war there was no live-action film production in B&H for understandable reasons, and the only films that appeared were those that had been in post-production at the time when the war broke out, for example Magareće godine/Donkey Years (1994), a film by Nenad Dizdarević based on the autobiographical novel for children by Branko Ćopić. The first live-action feature film of post-war B&H was made just after the war ended, in 1997, by the circle of SaGA filmmakers. It was the film Savršeni krug/Perfect Circle directed by Ademir Kenović, the script was by Pjer Žalica and the celebrated pre-war scriptwriter and poet Abdulah Sidran, who was the author of the idea and had written the scripts for Kusturica’s first films. Partly because of Sidran’s and Kenović’s high reputation, partly because the film had in fact been prepared during the war, partly because it was the first B&H film made at a time when the world public still had fresh memories of the siege of Sarajevo, the film attracted great attention of the media and film lovers, and entered the supplementary programme in Cannes. However, despite high expectations the film did not have the expected success.

After the war ended there was still no systematic film activity in the Serb part of B&H. As for the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1998 its government founded the Cinema Foundation whose objective was to “co-finance film projects, encourage the creation of script material, aid the protection, preservation and presentation of the film heritage, aid international cooperation” (Službene novine Federacije B&H 16/98, see Ibrahimović, 2008: 118). This set up the basic institutional framework for live-action production. However, at that time the B&H Federation had no financial resources or positive political motivation for the continuous production of live-action features. The only feature film made in this intermediate period was Tunel/The Tunnel (1999) by director Faruk Sokolović, based on the idea of Nedžad Latić. This very stylised political drama set in the late forties was about the suffering of political prisoners, members of the “Young Muslims” group. On one hand this film was a hagiography made to politically legitimise the Bosnian political elite headed by Alija Izetbegović, former ideologue of the “Young Muslims” and one-time political prisoner. It was also the film in which Bosnia and Herzegovina tardily fulfilled its “revisionist”, anti-communist, “mandatory programme”, characteristic of all Eastern European, post-communist cinemas. But, just like earlier in Croatia, in B&H, too, films like The Tunnel were of no interest either to the West or to local audiences.

Until 2001, film in Bosnia and Herzegovina was by far the least promising of all the Yugoslav successor states. And then everything changed. Paradoxically, the film that brought this change was not of Bosnian and Herzegovinian production at all, nor was it made in B&H.  

The film was Ničija zemlja/No Man’s Land, the debut film of Danis Tanović (Zenica, 1969), former army cinematographer in the Army of B&H, an emigrant living in Belgium. In 2001, Tanović wrote the script and filmed the war drama No Man’s Land about two Bosniak and one Serb soldier who found themselves in a trench on no man’s land between the enemy lines. In 2001 the film premiered in Cannes, where it won an award for best screenplay, and in March 2002 it won the Oscar for best foreign-language film: before Tanović no (post)Yugoslav filmmaker had won this prize, although six of them had been nominated.[37]

No Man’s Land was the work of a Bosnian and Herzegovinian author, but the film itself had nothing to do with Bosnian and Herzegovinian institutional cinema. It was made in British-Belgian-French-Slovenian co-production, it cost 5 million dollars, which would have been difficult to secure in the Balkans, it was made on location in Slovenia, and two of the three star roles were played by Croatian actors (Rene Bitorajac and Filip Šovagović). Still, the Oscar won by a Bosnian director caused cinema euphoria in B&H and made the public and politicians give stronger support to cinema. This led to a period when B&H made more films, and also when Sarajevo films had a series of impressive successes.


In 2003 three feature films were made in B&H, two of which – both by former SaGA documentarists – won important international awards. The film Gori vatra/Fuse, an independent debut film by Pjer Žalica, won the Silver Leopard in Locarno, and Ljeto u zlatnoj dolini/Summer in the Golden Valley by Srđan Vuletić the Tiger Award at the Rotterdam Festival. Both also had impressive local box-office success. In both cases the authors, who had spread the renown of documentaries during the war, won awards at important and carefully chosen B-festivals, and overnight B&H became an unusual cinema Frankenstein: a cinema without a studio, without a single 35 mm camera on its territory, but which had with only six films won an Oscar and two important festival awards. The finale of this successful series came in 2006, when the drama Grbavica by the debutante Jasmila Žbanić, about the relationship between a mother and her daughter who is the fruit of rape, won the Golden Bear at the festival in Berlin. After winning at Berlin Žbanić, until then a noted documentarist and conceptual artist, was greeted in Sarajevo in the way reserved for sports heroes. Film became a subject of national pride for the young B&H state, a factor of international legitimacy and a darling of the politicians. This new status was also reflected in audience attendance for domestic films, which was extremely high in that period. About 190,000 viewers saw Grbavica in B&H, according to data of the production company, although the film was not distributed in the Republic of Srpska.[38]  

In the next period B&H production continued to be small: a maximum of three feature films a year, and in some years (such as 2009) there was not a single domestic première. All the films were made with the help of a small local subsidy and with considerable co-production capital, less from the region and more from Western Europe. Even though they are not numerous, B&H films continue to achieve above-average international success and visibility. The film Snijeg/Snow (2008) by Aida Begić won the best film award of the Week of Critics programme in Cannes, the films Čuvari noći/Nightguards (2008) by Namik Kabil and Cirkus Columbia/Circus Columbia (2010) by Danis Tanović was screened in the supplementary programme of the Mostra in Venice, the Croatian-B&H co-production Armin (2007) by Ognjen Sviličić in the Berlin Forum, and Jasmila Žbanić’s new, second film Na putu/On the Path (2010) was again included in Berlinale competition.

In this period film production also began to awake in the part of B&H under Serb control, and in 2009 the first feature film was made in the new production centre in Banja Luka. This was the film 32. decembar/December 32nd by Saša Hajduković, a mosaic drama about the world of trophy women and transition entrepreneurs which shows the patriarchal, materialistic and disillusioned society of the new Balkan capitalism in a surprisingly discerning and gloomy way.   

Bosnia and Herzegovina also developed a rather untypical model of cinema organisation in which the fundamental and central role is not played by a foundation, or fund or institute but by – a festival. The Sarajevo Film Festival, founded during the war as moral support for the besieged population, turned into the central institution of B&H cinema during the first decade of the two thousands, the institution that takes care of promotion, foreign representation and preproduction incentives and programmes, such as the influential Cine Link. In this way the SFF made it easier for young Bosnian and Herzegovinian filmmakers to find co-production partners, and it also forged connections with authors from surrounding states for whom the Sarajevo pitching forum became an inevitable stage in the preproduction of films. However, the strong informal and formal role of the SFF did have critics in B&H. Since the SFF is in fact a privately-owned company, the local and regional press frequently criticises this system (Avdić, 2007: 4; Imamović Pirke, 2009).   


2.5. Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo

MACEDONIA was one of the first SFRY successor states to gain independence: it proclaimed independence as early as September 1991 and this was not – unlike in the case of Croatia and B&H – challenged from abroad. Thus Macedonia avoided involvement in the first stage of the Yugoslav wars, and the only pre-constitutive issue that appeared in Macedonia’s independence was that of its right to use the name Macedonia. It was Greece who challenged this right, and this conflict about the name has still not been resolved. This is why Macedonia did not become a NATO member, and why it did not move beyond the status of candidate in EU accession. 

The real source of instability in Macedonia was caused by the long-lasting, festering, internal conflict between the Macedonian-Slav majority and the Albanian minority. During the nineties this conflict was only on a political level, it strengthened during the war between the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo in 1999, and definitely flared into a war in 2001, when armed conflict between the Macedonians and Macedonian Albanians lasted for four months, from March to June. The war ended in the Ohrid Agreement, which kept the state intact, gave Albanians greater autonomy and participation in government. The emotional distance between the two ethnicities, however, remained enormous, and invisible but deep social barriers were created between the Albanian and Macedonian parts of the country (or even parts of towns). All this shows that the development of Macedonia was somewhat atypical in the post-Yugoslav context. The early nineties – the period when elsewhere war raged – was a period of peaceful transition, but conditions in the country deteriorated in the early 2000s, in the time when elsewhere (Croatia, Serbia) the war leaders and movements had left the scene and when the period of normalisation had started. Thus it is impossible to clearly recognise two periods in film transition in Macedonia – like in Croatia, Serbia and B&H.  

From gaining independence to 2011 Macedonian cinema made 28 feature films in nineteen years – just under one and a half film a year. As elsewhere, the first period until 1997 was the most critical, when one film a year was made, or none (1992). Production increased in the middle of the following decade when four films were made in 2004, three in 2007, and then there was a halt in production from 2008 to 2010.

Institutionally, Macedonia did not move far from state administration in cinema. An autonomous film fund was founded in 2007 but its only source of income was the state budget. The Macedonian Kinoteka engaged in promotion and securing international contacts through the special programme Maccinema.

Despite lack of money and small production, Macedonian cinema was the first post-Yugoslav cinema to achieve major international success. This was done by Milčo Mančevski, a Macedonian director of commercial and musical videos living in New York. In 1994 he made the film Pred doždot/Before the Rain, a film in three parts with cyclically organised time. The film mostly takes place in an Orthodox monastery and deals with an armed ethnic clash between Albanians and Macedonians.[39] This film turned into one of the most popular art-film hits of the early nineties: in 1994 it won the Golden Lion and critics award in Venice, and also many other international awards (among others in Warsaw and Sao Paulo), and was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign-language film. Most importantly, with Before the Rain Mančevski did a lot in outlining the model for the kind of Balkan film hit that would dominate in the nineties: this model was a combination of an engaged political subject, visually appealing, exotic Balkan landscapes and pronounced stylisation in directing.

No Macedonian film after 1994 came even close to repeating the success of Before the Rain. Even Mančevski himself did not manage to do this. His next films – the historical fresco from the time of the Balkan wars Dust (2001), the anthropological horror film Senki/Shadows (2007), and the live-action/documentary omnibus Majki/Mothers (2011) – had a limited impact. However, Macedonian films were successful at middle-level festivals: the drama from Gipsy life Gipsy Magic (1997) by Stole Popov won at the Mediterranean Film Festival in Montpellier, the drama about communist prison camps for political re-education Golemata voda/The Great Water (2004) by Ivo Trajkov won four prizes (including the grand prix) at the Mediterranean Film Festival in Valencia, Bal-can-can (2004) by Darko Mitrevski was awarded in Moscow and Motovun, “the first Balkan Dogma film” Boli li?/Does it hurt? (2007) by Aneta Lesnikovska was screened in the competition in Rotterdam, and the musical-political comedy Pankot ne e mrtov/Punk isn’t Dead (2011) by Vladimir Blaževski won in the important East of the West programme in the Karlovy Vary Festival. Of contemporary films, Jas sum od Titov Veles/I am from Titov Veles (2007) by Teona Strugar Mitevski enjoyed the greatest international visibility: it got a special jury commendation in Sarajevo, played in Toronto and was shown in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival.  

Small and fragmented markets with a small number of cinema halls were a problem in all post-Yugoslav countries, but almost nowhere was this problem as pronounced as in Macedonia. Besides being demographically small (2.1 million inhabitants), Macedonia is also a country with one of the lowest statistics of cinema attendance in Europe: according to the report of the European Audiovisual Observatory, an agency of the Council of Europe, in the 2003-2007 period between 100,000 and 280,000 cinema tickets were sold in Macedonia every year, with a tendency of decrease.[40] This means that in the anyway not highly populated Macedonia between 0.04 and 0.13 cinema tickets were sold per person a year, compared with 0.6 in Croatia (2006), 1.3 in Slovenia (2009) or as many as 4 per person in Ireland. Besides Bulgaria (0.31 in 2007) and Romania (0.13 in 2007), Macedonia is the country with continuously the smallest number of sold cinema tickets per person in Europe. This alone makes it difficult to expect domestic films to achieve serious attendance. Surprisingly, there were exceptions, and certainly the greatest was Bal-can-can (2004) by Darko Mitrevski. This film of the road with components of political satire, in which the heroes travel through Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia, B&H and Kosovo, turned into one of the major social phenomena of post-Yugoslav film: in small Macedonia it was seen by about 120,000 viewers.  


MONTENEGRO was politically, militarily and culturally closely tied to Serbia in the first half of the nineties. The Montenegrin citizens and political elite participated in the wars in Croatia and B&H, and until the mid-nineties Montenegrin policy was a firm ally of Belgrade and Slobodan Milošević. This policy gradually changed after 1996, when the Montenegrin authorities under Milo Đukanović gradually took over the policy of their former opposition and began to distance themselves from Belgrade. The process began with monetary separation (introduction of the German Mark and later the Euro), then by turning the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which consisted of Serbia and Montenegro, into a dual federation called Serbia and Montenegro (2003), and culminated in a successful referendum for independence in May 2006.  

Film activities in Montenegro developed in the same measure and speed as did separatist desires. During most of the nineties film production in Montenegro was practically non-existent: the old production companies were completely inactive, authors from the Yugoslav period passive, and there were no Montenegrin producers in the films made in Belgrade, even as minority co-production partners, although this was completely usual for film companies from Vojvodina. Things began to change in the late nineties when, according to Andro Martinović, “by returning to itself, Montenegro began to return to film” (Martinović, 2008: 318). First Montenegrin co-production houses were reactivated as partners in Serbian films made in Montenegro (Kud plovi ovaj brod/Where does this Boat Sail by Želimir Žilnik, 1999, and Belo odelo/White Suit by Lazar Ristovski, 1999). Montenegrin television produced several mid-length and short full-length TV dramas (Rođeni sjutra/Born Tomorrow, Draško Đurović, 1997, and Izabranik/The Chosen, Radoslav Stanišić, 1999), and in 1999 the established cinematographer and director from the Yugoslav period, Božidar Bota Nikolić (Balkanski špijun/Balkan Spy) made the first feature film in post-communist Montenegro – U ime oca i sina/In the Name of the Father and of the Son (1999).

Similarly as Balkan Spy, the film In the Name of the Father and of the Son was a “high concept” political farce in which Nikolić showed a satire of the totalitarian mentality, in this case of Montenegrin pro-Serbian militarism. The hero (played by the leading actor of Balkan Spy, Danilo Bata Stojković) is an elderly tobacconist and son of a partisan hero. Not wanting his own son to end up as a war casualty, he hides him from mobilisation in the attic, where the fugitive – left by his wife and humiliated by the war-mongering villagers – gradually goes mad. The story of the film is very similar to the well-known theatre play A Place With the Pigs by South African playwright Athole Fugard, but in the film Nikolić was in the first place interested in the ambience of Montenegro in the nineties, which he shows as a militant atmosphere dominated by the war-mongering media, the unbridled sway of the street and insincere political obsequiousness. The film (which was never completely finished) had only a number of public screenings, but it nevertheless awoke interest throughout the region as a “film of Montenegrin sobering”, or “the first film made across the Drina that shows their own role in the dissolution of Yugoslavia in a cathartic manner” (Pećanin, 1999).

The embryo of continuous live-action production in Montenegro began to grow on the eve of and not long after the referendum on independence. A visible mark of this change was Opet pakujemo majmune/Packing the Monkeys Again (2004), a youth drama by the debutante director Marija Perović, also the first woman director in the history of Montenegro. This film won the awards for best film, director, leading actress (Jelena Đokić) and supporting actress at the last joint national festival of Serbia and Montenegro in Novi Sad. This victory in competition with Serbian films signalled the new, propulsive cultural self-confidence in pre-referendum Montenegro, but was also interpreted as a symptom of crisis in the previously dominant Serbian film. 

In the next period a modest number of feature films was made in Montenegro, mostly by young authors: Pogled s Ajfelovog tornja/A View from the Eiffel Tower (Nikola Vukčević, 2005, based on the novel Zagrepčanka by Branislav Glumac), the youth drama Imam nešto važno da ti kažem/I Have Something Important to Tell You (Željko Šošić, 2005), the political satire Desant na Prčevo/Attack on Prčevo (Draško Đurović, 2008), the crime drama Gledaj me/Look at Me (Marija Perović, 2008), and the omnibus Ljubav, ožiljci/Love, Scars (2010) directed by four students of directing at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Cetinje (Ivana Ćetković, Branislav Milatović, Miloš Pušonjić and Mladen Vujačić), based on the short stories of Carver, Bukowski, Beckett and the Uruguay writer Mario Benedetti. To this list must be added the next film of the veteran Nikolić, an emigrant drama sited in Paris, Balkanska braća/Balkan Brothers (2005), horror film Posljednje poglavlje/The Last Chapter (2011) made by two brothers, Aleksandar and Nemanja Bečanović, and the political drama As pik/Ace of Spades (Draško Đurović, 2012) with Michael Madsen in one of the roles.

Films by new Montenegrin filmmakers did not have any particular echo abroad, but they were a vehicle for a whole new generation of debutant directors and actors, who showed coherent poetic leanings, to step out on the scene. The films are mostly about young, urban people from the higher and middle class, stylistically the films are strongly aesthetic, rather escapist and apolitical. Most of them show a surprisingly strong desire to escape from any kind of local colour, and the characters and plots are placed in an abstract, middle-class, urban area that could be anywhere. This point of style is especially unusual because it differs profoundly from the dominant current in Montenegrin fiction, which is – for example in the books of Andrej Nikolaidis, Balša Brković or Ognjen Spahić – strongly engaged and polemicizes with political and national myths. Whereas Montenegrin fiction, with writing of this kind, won a place as a vivid and intriguing post-Yugoslav scene, this is not yet the case with Montenegrin film.

In the pre- and post-referendum period Montenegro also developed the basic cinema institutions: Kinoteka was founded (in April 2000), studies of directing and production were introduced, short film production was developed and co-production links established, among others also with Croatia, which co-financed the film Look at Me. Nevertheless, in 2008 Andro Martinović, Montenegrin director and head of Kinoteka in Podgorica, writing in Sarajevske sveske, said with despair that “something exists at this moment that we could … call Montenegrin film, but by no means cinema”, and outlined the key problems of film in Montenegro: no drama programme on television, lack of technical and technological base, lack of funds and closing of cinema halls (Martinović, 2008: 318-319).


KOSOVO entered the post-communist period as the smallest and convincingly the poorest federal unit of SFR Yugoslavia, also the federal unit with the smallest cinema tradition (Dragojević, 2009; Imami, 2009; Sopi, 2009). Although films had been made in Kosovo before, the real development of cinema began in 1966 after the fall of Aleksandar Ranković and the foundation of the Kosovo Cultural Centre, and then also the Kosovafilm film enterprise.   

The first live-action film in Albanian was not made in Kosovo until 1968 (Vuk sa Prokletija/Vuk from the Prokletije Mountains), directed by the Serbian guest director Miki Stamenković to the script of Albanian scriptwriters. The first film to be directed by an Albanian was made one year later – the documentary Jedno rađanje/A Birth by Ekrem Kryeziu (Imami, 2009: 66). However, the first live-action film with a Kosovo-Albanian creative crew was not made until 1978 (Era dhe lisi/The Wind and the Oak, Besim Sahatçiu). Until the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the local Kosovafilm Company made fourteen independent live-action films in which the authors were until the mid-seventies usually non-Albanian guests, and after the mid-seventies the films were made by Kosovars, the people of Kosovo. The golden period of Kosovo film lasted until 1986, when Kosovafilm made about one feature film every year, mainly in Albanian (Sopi, 2009: 19). This small tradition was frozen after Slobodan Milošević assumed power, when the Serbian policy became to eradicate the attributes of Kosovo autonomy, abolish the university in the Albanian language and minority cultural institutions. In this way Kosovafilm was liquidated, too, in 1993, and the films and technical facilities were handed over to Priština Radio and Television, which was part of Serbian Radio and Television (Imami, 2009: 69). During the nineties Kosovo lived under conditions of real apartheid: Albanians were removed from all the pores of social life, culture in Albanian was exclusively non-institutional and that in Serbian was centralised and directed towards Belgrade. Because of this there was no systematic local film activity, and the only film made, Kulla/The Fort (Agim Sopi, 1991), was made semi-illegally, in co-production with Slovene Television.

During 1998 the interethnic conflict in Kosovo grew into a guerrilla war which escalated during the Serbian attack and the refugee crises that it provoked. NATO intervened from March to June 1999 and by bombing Serbia forced the Serbian army to retreat from Kosovo. Since then Kosovo has in fact been independent, but formally it is functioning as a UN protectorate (UNMIK) and uses the Euro as its currency. On 17 February 2008 Kosovo formally proclaimed independence, and the recognition of this independence produced a serious diplomatic breach both within the UN and the European Union. By the middle of 2013 Kosovo had been recognised by 96 states, most of them American allies, and most, but not all the EU members. Kosovo is thus not a full member of the UN or of other international organisations. On the ground it functions as an independent state which, however, does not control its north-west fringes, the majority Serb regions north of Kosovska Mitrovica.

The establishment of UNMIK very quickly restored cultural production in Albanian: the first documentaries were made already in 1999, and the first live-action film in 2000 (Vjeshta e trëndafileve/Autumn of the Roses, Agim Sopi). In 2003 the ministry of culture was formed and it immediately began to co-finance films. In 2005 the film academy and the Kosovo Cinema Centre were founded (Qendra kinematografike e Kosovës; Sopi, 2009: 20). The first three feature films were made in this period of enthusiasm, Etjet e Kosovës/The Thirst of Kosovo (Sunaj Raca, 2004), Kukumi (Isa Qosja, 2005) and Anatema/Anathema (Agim Sopi, 2006). However Kosovo, which was in any case poor, was additionally ravaged by the effects of war and undefined political status, so that the economic foundations for cinema were poor. There was no production at all or any institutional financial support between 2005 and 2008, but the situation improved during and after 2009, when few more films were completed, the metaphysical, stylised drama Përtej Rrugës/On the Other Side of the Road (Yll Çitaku, 2009) political comedy Gomarët e kufirit/Border Donkey (Jeton Ahmetaj, 2010), and the drama Agnus dei (Agim Sopi, 2012).

Most transition cinemas began their new film histories with “revisionist” films about the recent dark past, or with films made to politically legitimise the new ideology. To a certain degree this was also the case in Kosovo. The Thirst of Kosovo and Anathema deal with the sufferings of Albanians in the Kosovo war but – in the case of Anathema – also with the difficulties of a single mother in the patriarchal Kosovo society. Border Donkey by the director Ahmetaj is a political comedy that shows the difficulties of the Albanians during the seventies and eighties, in the period when their ethnic body was divided between two totalitarian states (Albania and SFRY) that eyed one another with mistrust, and where the border region was an area of constant tension for which Albanians on both sides bore the brunt. Ahmetaj’s film is a kind of high-concept political comedy and has poetic similarities with films of a similar genre made in Albania (such as Kolonel Bunker/Colonel Bunker (1998) by Kujtim Çashku or Slogans (2001) by Gjergj Xhuvani).

Nevertheless, of the five feature films made in Kosovo immediately after its secession, Kukumi (2005) had by far the greatest international echo. It is a black comedy by Iso Qosja, a director who also worked in the Yugoslav period and whose film Proka (1984) is often singled out as a classic of Kosovo production from the eighties (Sopi, 2009: 19). Kukumi attracted attention as a film that starts off in the opposite direction of what is usual; it is a satire about “state building” in the young Kosovo state, a black comedy about a group of psychiatric patients who escape from a sanatorium just after the proclamation of Kosovo’s independence and descend on the “normal” world which is, at that moment, far from normal. This unexpected, somewhat subversive approach to the new statehood awoke interest abroad, so Kukumi became a minor festival hit. It won the jury award at the Sarajevo Festival, and then also the peace award of the Veneto region, which is awarded as part of the Venice Festival. 

A further limiting factor for film production in Kosovo is the practically non-existent home market, considering that there are only three or four cinemas in all of Kosovo (Sopi, 2009: 21). Under such circumstances, live-action feature films in Kosovo are still more often the exception than the rule, but the simpler and cheaper documentary production is developing. Kosovo documentaries are shown at regional festivals like Zagreb Dox and Sarajevo FF, some of them win prizes, like Darsmat dhe pampersat/Wedding and Diapers (2007) by Antoaneta Kastrati Cooper Johnson and Caseya Cooper Johnson, which won an award at Zagreb Dox in 2008 (Nurkollari, 2008). Kosovo is also developing the documentary film festival Dokufest in Prizren, which has since its foundation in 2002 acquired considerable regional renown.  


Translated by Nikolina Jovanović. The translation is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre.


[1] Author’s cinema was institutionalised in the late sixties, when new legislation was introduced, in which authors and particular projects received funding, instead of production companies as it was before.

[2] The sensitivity of the communist system to politically provocative films oscillated in different periods, and some censor activity continued to the mid-seventies. But it is important to note that such films were openly debated about already in the early sixties, critics autonomously judged them and sometimes they also judged the activities of censors, and even communist-oriented critics and essayists sometimes defended these films (see Tirnanić, 2008; Pavičić, 2009)

[3] see

[4] Filmografija slovenskih celovečernih filmov, p. 259

[5] In the autumn of 2010 the comedy Gremo mi po svoje/Let’s go our own Way, by director Miha Hočevar, took first place, seen by about 185,000 viewers by February 2011 (Rudolf 2011).

[6] The films Odgrobadogroba/Gravehopiing by Jan Cvitkovič, Delo osvobaja /Labour Equals Freedom by Damjan Kozole, and Uglasevanje/Tuning by Igor Šterk.

[7] Such as Jelka Štergel, who headed Sklad at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, was dismissed, reinstalled after a court order in July 2009, and then dismissed again.

[8] In this, of course, there were exceptions, such as the very low-budget film of modest production Oča/Dad by the debutant Vlado Škafar, which was shown in 2010 with respectable success at the Critics Week of the Venice Festival, or the film Class Enemy by Kolj Biček, which was screened in the same program in Venice in 2013.

[9] During much of the nineties tendering was “continuous”, which means that there were no fixed deadlines or fixed number of films chosen, but the choice and timing was under the discretion of the film commissioner, which allowed the holder of this office wide opportunities for manipulation. In the last third of the nineties this office was held by Antun Vrdoljak, film director and former Vice-President of the Republic.

[10] In this text I use the term “independent film” in the inconsistent, colloquial meaning in which the professional cinema communities of the of former Yugoslavia usually use it. It refers to films made outside the national competitions for feature films or public TV, even if they received the government’s financial aid during postproduction. 

[11] “Kulturna politika - dokumenti”, in: Hrvatski filmski ljetopis, 12, 3, 1997, pp. 21-39.

[12] Sabotage by the contributors and a number of legislative imprecisions were the reason why the Act was amended, which was proposed by HAVC itself and enacted in parliament in July 2011.

[13] The only filmmaker whose films had a degree of international impact in that period was Zrinko Ogresta. His debut film Krhotine/Fragments (1991) was included among the five best European debut films, and Isprani/Washed Out (1995) won the Prix Italia television award. See Škrabalo (1998: 454).

[14] In his text Turković contests these arguments, saying that the poor box-office success of Croatian films is relative, that the opinion about the inferior technical polish of the production is based on inappropriate comparison with Western A production, and that film only seems to be glaringly expensive when it is compared with financing culture in general. 

[15] Jelena Rajković died young of cancer, and Ivan Salaj left directing for a long time.

Vlatka Vorkapić, after unsuccessful attempts to make a feature film, turned to ethnographic film and theatre, and finally reached cinema theatres in 2012 with a successful debut comedy Sonja i bik/Sonja and the Bull (2012).

[16] Brešan’s films were the greatest, but not the only hits in this period. Two other comedies also had a fair number of viewers: Tri muškarca Melite Žganjer/The Three Men of Melita Žganjer (1998) with 35,247 viewers, and Blagajnica hoće ići na more/The Cashier Wants to go to the Seaside (2000) by the debutant Dalibor Matanić with 48,768 viewers. One should also mention Milan Blažeković’s animated film Čudnovate zgode šegrta Hlapića/Lapitch the Little Shoemaker (1997), which in repeated replays and matinee and children’s screenings gathered almost 230,000 viewers by the middle of the next decade.

[17] At the same festival the composer Miroslav Škoro won an award for the music of that film.

[18] By the end of 2010 the number of screens in multiplexes in Zagreb had greatly exceeded the pre-war number of single screens. Besides in Zagreb, multiplexes were opened in Zadar, Rijeka, Šibenik, Split, Dubrovnik, Osijek, Slavonski Brod and Pula.

[19] Sorry for Kung Fu had 6,971 viewers, and Što je Iva snimila 23. listopada 2003/What Iva Recorded on 23 October 2003 had 5,687. All the data in this part of the text were supplied by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre.

[20] Pjevajte nešto ljubavno/Sing a Love Song by Goran Kulenović had 15,754 viewers, and Libertas by Veljko Bulajić had 11,131 viewers.

[21] The next film on the scale of domestic viewing was Nije kraj/It is not the End by the hit maker from the nineties Vinko Brešan, with only 6,533 viewers.

[22] Metastases by Branko Schmidt had 27,022 viewers, Kenjac/The Donkey by Antonio Nuić had 12,605, and Vjerujem u anđele/I Believe in Angels by Nikša Sviličić had 10,435.

[23] The next in attendance, 72 dana/72 Days by Danilo Šerbedžija, was by the middle of that year seen by 8,858 viewers.

[24] In the Croatian case this was Witnesses by Vinko Brešan (2004), in the Slovenian Spare parts by Damjan Kozole (2003).

[25] All the data in the text about the attendance of Serbian films are internal official data of the Film Centre of Serbia, for which I thank Miroljub Vučković.

[26] Of course, it is not true that Serbian film, besides Indian, was the only one that dominated its own market. Domestic film holds the same market position in many – mostly non-European – countries: Turkey, Egypt, Iran, South Korea. However, in the European context the market domination by domestic film during the nineties in Serbia really is an exception.  

[27] In We are not Angels the heroine’s father appears in camouflage uniform in one shot, for just a moment, and says: “Ljubinka, dear, Daddy’s going to war,” which one of the teenagers comments with: “He’s flipped out again.” This is the only reference to the current war in the film, and it is obviously ironic (Daković, 2008: 177). War and warfare are treated as undeserving of the attention of the smart youth, a matter for “flipped out oldies”.

[28] Cannes, Venice and Berlin. Pretty Village, Pretty Flame played at the festivals in Montreal and Salonika.

[29] The film had more than 80,000 viewers, and its attendance was probably increased by the bizarre decision of the Croatian distributor to subtitle it, which in itself caused a scandal and made people go and see it. 

[30] In 2009 this film was included in the specialised programme of the Zagreb Film Festival devoted to propaganda film, a programme that included Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl, and Disney’s propaganda films. However, when the film producers saw the context the film was being shown in, they withdrew it from the festival.

[31] In 2007 and 2009 only one Serbian film exceeded 50 thousand sold tickets, and in 2006 only two, one of which – Border Post by Rajko Grlić – was in fact a majority Croatian film in Serbian co-production. These numbers would have been excellent for Croatian and Slovenian cinema, but were far below what had become the standard in Serbia.

[32] In the USA Someone Else's America (1995), in Ireland How Harry Became a Tree (2001), and in Albania Medeni mesec/Honeymoons (2009).

[33] Just over one million viewers in Serbia saw Zona Zamfirova, and 617,000 viewers saw Ivko’s Saint’s Day. It is important to note that the films became hits despite a language barrier: both were made in the archaic torlak dialect of southeast Serbia, which the urban viewer finds difficult to understand. In Croatia and B&H they were subtitled, but this time, unlike in the case of Wounds, rightly so.

[34] Saint George Shoots the Dragon takes place during the Balkan wars, Drug Crni u NOB-u/Comrade Black in WWII  (44,943) in World War II, and Beogradski fantom/The Belgrade Phantom (30,414) was about the urban subculture of the 1970s.

[35] More in: Ravetto Biagoli (2005), Delcheva (2005)

[36] It is open to discussion whether this trend is typical only of Serbian film, or of Serbian culture in general, considering that the same type of searching for and finding “roots” in a specifically Serbian past can also be found in many books of fiction, such as the novel Vođa/The Leader by Aleksandar Novaković.    

[37] Franci Štiglic, Veljko Bulajić, Aleksandar Petrović twice, Emir Kusturica, Milčo Mančevski, and the Italian Giuseppe De Santis for the film Cesta duga godinu dana/A Road one Year Long made in Croatia.

[38] According to the data of the Deblokada production house.

[39] It is interesting that in this film Mančevski, under the influence of what was at that time happening in Croatia and B&H, invented an armed clash which had not yet taken place in Macedonia, but which would happen seven years later.

[40] European films strong as cinema attendance falls back, press release, European Audiovisual Observatory, Council of Europe, 2007.

The Development of Post-Yugoslav Cinemas and the Eastern European Context 3.

Jurica Pavičić

3. The Context of Eastern European Cinema after the Fall of the Berlin Wall


3.1. Glasnost and after: the dusk of Eastern European auteaur modernism

The countries of Eastern Europe that emerged from the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union did not, unlike the countries of Yugoslavia, go through war and interethnic violence in their transition: there was no bloodshed during the process of national emancipation and the transition to democracy in the European part of the Soviet Block, with the exception of street violence in Romania and a short-lived escalation into war in Lithuania.[1]

However, all the other transition-related challenges facing the young democracies emerging from the earlier real-socialism were largely the same as those encountered by the post-Yugoslav societies. Most of these countries went through similar social changes, which were typical and resulted from transition: sudden deindustrialisation, increase of class differences, development of primeval “wild” capitalism, problems with corruption, difficulties in the development of a functioning market and a successful democracy. The package of these social changes, typical of transition, also included changes in cinema.    

Before 1945 the cinemas of Eastern Europe differed in the level and wealth of national tradition. In some lands – such as Czechoslovakia – this tradition was rich, in others – such as the countries of Yugoslavia – insignificant. But after film studios were nationalised in the late forties, accompanied by the establishment of complete party control over the film industry (Liehm and Liehm, 1996: 84-105), the countries belonging to the Soviet sphere got film industries that differed in details, but were essentially the same. Film studios were state-owned and production was controlled. Unlike the polycentric Yugoslav model, production was centralised, usually subjected to the committee, the cinema commission or the ministry of culture. Unlike in Yugoslavia, where the studio system was rejected in the mid-sixties and replaced by filmmakers’ tenders (Škrabalo, 1997: 315-317), in these countries the studio system remained the basic form of cinema production right until the end of communism. This enabled communist parties to control the content of films both formally and informally through the internal mechanisms of filmmaking enterprises. The systems of control differed but were as a rule rather complex, as the editorial of the RussianLiteraturnaya Gazeta complained in 1954:

The number of examinations through which a scenario must pass makes cinema work very difficult for writers … A scenario goes to an editor of the scenario department and the editor-in-chief. Then the editorial board of the scenario department and afterwards the art council of the studio discuss it.  The decision of the art council must be approved by the director of the studio.  The studio is not entitled to sign a contract with the author, however, until the Main Administration of Cinematography gives its consent. And so at this point, the scenario is sent there. Again it goes to an editor of the scenario department and to the editor-in-chief, and from then to the assistant chief (of the Main Administration). Then straight to the chief himself, whose signature authorises the studio to make its arrangements with the author. And finally, the court of last instance (in 1954) is the collegium of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR. A verdict is rendered at 10 levels… (Liehm and Liehm, 1996: 74) 

Immediately after World War Two all the countries in the Soviet sphere of influence – also including Yugoslavia in the first, short period – went through a shorter or longer period of compulsory socialist realism (Zhdanovism), an aesthetic doctrine that imposed not only desirable subjects, character types and narrative stereotypes, but also laid down strong formal requirements. Each departure from these requirements in subject-matter was seen as disloyalty and sabotage, and each departure in style and form was looked on as “bourgeois formalism”, “lack of ideas”, “a reactionary approach” or “a varying of forms without content”, “weaving in a vacuum”, “cobwebs in empty space”.[2]  

This kind of repression over the freedom of formal expression lasted for different periods of time in different communist countries. In Poland it already slackened considerably in the mid-fifties. In Yugoslavia it was declaratively rejected after 1950 but continued to survive as a cultural reflex (Maković, 2004: 19-20; Kolešnik, 2004: 60), during the 1950s, producing what Turković called “uncertainty in criteria” (Turković, 2004: 138-143). In the 1960s socialist realism definitely became an object of scorn, even a politically discrediting label. In Czechoslovakia and Russia the break with socialist realism came with the auteur film of the sixties. In the Democratic Republic of Germany the thaw was patently broken off overnight at the 1965 plenum of the ruling communist party, SED, when a whole annual production was shelved, cinema accused of “nihilism, scepticism and subjectivism”, after which the entire film industry switched back to socialist realism (Bondebjerg, 2010: 32). In Romania a similar re-dogmatising took place in 1971, when a more tolerant atmosphere in cultural policy was reversed under the influence of the so-called July Theses (Bradeanu, 2006: 174). In Croatia the situation was similarly aggravated after the fall of the Croatian Spring in 1971, and in Serbia after The Plastic Jesus affair[3] and retaliation against the black wave.

The fact alone that socialist realism/Zhdanovism was imposed, never mind how strongly and persistently, made it part of the collective memory of the film industry, with deep-seated consequences. For Eastern European filmmakers the modernist style and poetics meant much more than formal liberation. Except in Yugoslavia, where “socialist aestheticism”, as a canonised version of modernism, became the ideological norm (Liehm and Liehm, 1996: 230), in all the other communist countries the modern style had subversive connotations. There, a move to auteur cinema meant more than liberation from market requirements or studio production standards, as in the West. Much more than in the West, modernism in style was an expression of individuality, of a free spirit, non-conformism, anti-establishment defiance. These connotations made Eastern European auteur modernism attractive to local audiences, and also to foreign film archives, festivals and distributors. It is therefore not surprising that the full international affirmation of Czechoslovak, Polish, Hungarian and Yugoslav film went hand in hand with the prevalence of auteur film in the late fifties and the sixties. This was the golden age of modernist currents such as the Polish black series, Serbian black wave or the Zagreb school of animation, and of the titans of Eastern auteur cinema Andrzej Wajda, Miklos Jancsó, Aleksandar Petrović, Lucian Pintilie, Sergei Parajanov, Andrei Tarkovsky, Vĕra Chytilová, Milos Forman, Rangel V'lčanov, Ante Babaja, Dušan Makavejev and Juraj Jakubisko.

For the West, entrenched in its “single-minded view” that could only see the duality of “oppressive state policy against dissident intellectuals” (Anikó, 2005: xiv), this was exactly the kind of cinema culture it favoured, so it became a synonym for Eastern European film. Consequently, the East greeted the fall of the Berlin Wall with an outdated cinema culture strongly dominated by – as Anikó wrote  – a “fossilised art character”, and its most important films reflected a “Euro-centric, male or masculine intellectual attempt to deal with national history using a sophisticated, self-reflexive, allegoric film style” (Anikó, 2005: xii).  In Western Europe this model of auteur film had for the most part already been abandoned by the end of the 1980s, but in the East it was artificially kept alive in the context of dictatorship.

At the end of the eighties, this “Eastern auteur policy” seemed healthy and successful because several circumstances played into its hands. In the Gorbachev era cultural life was liberalised in all European communist countries except Albania and Romania, resulting in the appearance of a new wave of provocative political auteur films. At the same time, films that had been shelved because of their confrontational contents began to be screened, such as WR misterija orga(ni)zma/WR Mystery of Orga(ni)sm, 1971, by Dušan Makavejev or Moj drug Ivan Lapšin/My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1984, by Alexei German. Some of these films met with belated international success, like the Georgian film Monanieba/Repentance, 1984, by Tengiz Abuladze. After being banned in the USSR for three years, the film was released in 1987 on the wave of perestroika and glasnost and won the Special Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival, the FIPRESCI Award and the Award of the Ecumenical Jury.

Furthermore, as the Velvet Revolution seethed in Eastern European countries a lively interest awoke in the West for culture and films from the Communist block. The Eastern European “pantheon” of authors, both expatriate and domestic, took up much of the programme at major festivals. A good example is the most influential film festival – in Cannes – which screened films by Bondarchuk, Tarkovski, Konchalovsy and Rangel V'lčanov in 1986, films by Tengiz Abuladze, Nikita Mikhalkov, Konchalovsky and Károly Makk in 1987, and in 1988 Krzystof Kieślowski and István Szabó were screened in the competition and as many as five films from Eastern Europe in the Un Certain Regard section, including films by Kira Muratova and Andrzej Zuławski, and also the Serbian film Slučaj Harms/The Harms Case by Slobodan Pešić.   

In this atmosphere a whole series of festivals was set up in the West at the turn of the eighties to the nineties, which focused on films from behind the Iron Curtain. In the late eighties a specialised festival for Central and Eastern European films was founded in Trieste, Alpe Adria Cinema, which grew out of the student film-study groupLa Cappella Underground. It devoted one of its first retrospective seasons, 1989, to the then-not-yet independent Croatia (Fornazarič and Percavassi, 1989). At the end of the eighties, the German Film Institute (DIF) organised the Eastern European Film Week which travelled around German cinema theatres and finally, at the end of the nineties, found a base in the neoclassical spa of Wiesbaden, in 2001 becoming the goEast Festival. In 1991 the “festival of new Eastern European cinema” was founded in the formerly East-German town of Cottbus – the seat of the Slavic culture of the Lusatian Serbs – which organised retrospectives of national cinemas and showcased new authors. In 1992 the old Greek film festival in Thessaloniki, which – similarly to Pula – had been a national festival, was given international status and established the Balkan Survey section (Horton 2007: 48-49).


3.2. The early shock of transition

Things changed completely very soon after the communist regimes broke down. Eastern European films lost the allure of forbidden fruit. The “system versus dissident” dichotomy, a driving force of Eastern European culture, lost its political foothold, except to a degree in authoritarian countries such and Croatia, Serbia and Belarus. According to Anikó Imre, a “tacit consensus” developed in the West that there was “nothing more to be said” about Eastern Europe, and the “loss of interest in Eastern European film has been a part of the more general loss of interest in the Second World in the aftermath  of the post- Berlin Wall euphoria” (Anikó, 2005: xv). Once more film festivals serve as a good indicator. In the decade between 1997 and 2006 only eight films from former communist Europe were screened in the competition programme of the Cannes Festival, six of them Russian and two from former Yugoslavia (Ničija zemlja/No Man’s Land by Danis Tanović and Život je čudo/Life is a Miracle by Emir Kusturica). Not a single Polish or Czech film managed to enter the competition in Cannes after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the first Hungarian film did not make it until 2007.[4]

In the meantime, socio-economic circumstances did not favour this obsolete cinema culture, either. As Dina Iordanova wrote:

The shift to a market economy affected every level of film industry, from its basic infrastructure to its forms of financing and administration. The pattern of changes in media economy and film industries was similar throughout all Eastern Europe: a sharp decrease in state funding, empty studios looking  to attract foreign film crews, the disappearance of domestic films from the circuits, armies of idle film professionals …. The rapid privatisation of many cultural institutions, film studios foremost among these, film production was to undergo a drastic transformation. The funding crisis led to shrinking production, particularly in features and animation. Financing for film production changed profoundly, moving from unit-based studio system to producer-driven undertakings. (Iordanova, 2000a: 2) 

This “production business”, however, had to come to grips with an unfavourable situation on the market. A great number of cinema theatres in towns had disappeared during the privatisation process, and multiplexes were not yet even in view. The Eastern European public, hungry for imported Western culture, ignored domestic films and they were pushed onto the margins of the market:

Domestic films, bearing a stamp of a lofty art-house tradition and the historical mission of national artist, came to compete at the box office with popular Hollywood fare in the theatres and on international film market: and were doomed to lose on both fronts. (Anikó, 2005: xi-xii) 

All the efforts to secure channels of distribution and screening at festivals faced the new reality in which Eastern European films were no longer attractive. If new production houses wanted to place a film, they became the hostages of large (mostly French) coproducers and world sales agents, which “resulted in a new kind of Western cultural colonialism” (Iordanova, 2000a: 2).

An obvious consequence of this process was a fall in production. This came to expression most in the largest Eastern European cinema – Russian – where 300 feature films had been made in 1990, the number falling to 153 in 1993 and only 46 in 1995, and hitting the bottom in 1996 – only 26 (Graffy, 2000: 5). This initial production crash did not happen only in the great cinemas, like Russian. It also affected small ones, such as Albanian, which produced 14 feature films in 1986 and only three in 1990. After a halt in production in the early nineties, after 1995 the number settled at two to three a year (Sopi, 2009: 14).  This early, shocking fall in production happened in almost all post-communist countries, but after recovering from the shock their film industries began to split in two clearly distinct groups: in the first were (often smaller) countries in which feature-film production turned to clear-cut commercialism and a struggle for local viewers, like in Poland, the Czech Republic or Serbia, and later also in Russia. Even there, however, there were oscillations, especially in periods of economic crisis as in 2009/10, when state subsidies in some Eastern European countries decreased by as much as 80%, and in others – like Ukraine – production even stopped (Kozlov, 2010: 20).

The old modernist authors were completely unprepared for this new context. “Larger than life,” wrote Anikó, “they remained frozen in a romantic modernist gesture,” (Anikó, 2005: xiv) while the production model in which they had built their careers crumbled before their eyes, as did the bipolar ideological model (totalitarian regime/auteur freedom) in which they could find their bearings and which was the only one that they understood. Many classics of modernism suddenly faced the unpleasant fact it was just as difficult, or perhaps even more difficult, for them to obtain a green light for a project in the market-oriented cinema production, as it had been in the corridors of the Soviet regime-governed apparatus. In what had earlier been a compact “class” of Eastern European auteur filmmakers, a clear caste-like gap opened up between two categories. The first were “international authors” who often lived in the West, made films in international coproduction and found it easy to enter A-class festivals (Lucian Pintilie, Aleksandar Sokurov, Emir Kusturica, Otar Iosseliani, Goran Paskaljević, Nikita Mihalkov, Radu Mihaelanu); the second were directors who found it much more difficult than before to make a film and who instead of state censorship now suffered the repression of “market censorship”, as Iordanova called it. Some of them were definitely disarmed by this new context: the best examples are two cult-status directors from the Soviet eighties, Elem Klimov and Aleksei German, who practically disappeared as filmmakers.[5]  


3.3. New themes: from films of revisionism to the “cabinet of curiosities”

Under the new circumstances, the Eastern European film industry understandably also embraced new subjects. The most important novelty was many films about subjects that had been prohibited in the previous period. Thus, according to Temenuga Trifonova, “in the first five years after 1989 Eastern European film was primarily preoccupied with the abuses and taboos of totalitarianism” (Trifonova, 2007: 32).

Most typical of these taboo subjects were compulsory nationalisation, secret services and undercover agents, gulags, contract murders and the troubles of dissidents and freethinking artists. In all of Eastern Europe film screens suddenly showcased aggressive, leather-coated undercover agents, and prisons, institutions, army barracks and camps became privileged film locations. Thus Agnieszka Holland made Popiełuszko/To Kill a Priest as early as 1988, a political hagiography of Jerzy Popiełuszko, a politically engaged priest killed by the Polish communist police. In Bulgaria, Kladenecut/The Well (1991) by Docho Bodzhakov and Sezonut na kanarčetata/Canary Season (1993) by Evgeni Mihailov showed the suffering of free-thinking individuals in communist Bulgaria (Delcheva, 2005: 199).Trahir/Traitor (1992) by the Romanian Radu Mihaielanu tells about the fate of a Romanian poet arrested for writing an anti-Stalinist article. In Albania Vdekja e kalit/Death of a Horse (Saimir Kumbaro, 1995) and Slogans (Gjergj Gjuvani, 2001) show the tragicomical, almost accidental victims of political persecution, and Kolonel Bunker/Colonel Bunker (Kujtim Çashku, 1998) is about the paranoid Albanian regime which had 800 thousand concrete bunkers built throughout the country. In Russia, Nikita Mikhalkov’s Utommlyenye sonstsem/Burnt by the Sun (1994) is about Stalinist purges in the thirties, and his hero is a communist general who does not even suspect that he, too, will be arrested.[6] This “cinema of revisionism” included films about the fates of decimated national minorities, which had never before been told, such as of the Transylvanian Germans (Der Geköpfte Hahn/The Beheaded Rooster, by Radu Gabre, 2007, Romania).

Ravetto Biagoli wrote that the new transition societies “generated an enormous amount of historical revisionism” (2005: 182), which came to expression in renaming streets, removing and erecting monuments, re-tailoring textbook history and canons of national greatness. “Revisionist cinema” also played its role. It glorified the newly-established, newly-great national figures, redistributed positive and negative roles, exposed what had been concealed in the past, and showed “real” history instead of the “false”, “former” one.  

Critics and theorists looked, and still look, on this “revisionist cinema” with justified reserve. Rumana Delcheva rightly wrote that this body of films “promoted a new kind of monologism aimed at silencing the voices of the past 45 years, while constructing a new grand narrative, equally epic and autocratic” (Delcheva, 2005: 198).[7] Such films, observed Delcheva caustically, “offered intellectuals expiation for the passive role they had played in the years of totalitarianism”:

By offering a highly naturalistic, almost grotesque image of the past, and an accompanying absolute negation of the entire era, the directors are also dealing with their own guilty conscience of conformism. (Delcheva, 2005: 200) 

“Revisionist films” hardly ever had either local or foreign success. Since the characters they showed were often simplified, black-and-white and rigid, they could not have any success in the art niche, and Eastern European audiences shrank from them for at least two reasons. The first was that they had themselves spent most of their lives in the former regime, usually entering into various kinds of pragmatic compromises, so they felt films about uncompromising, anti-regime martyrs as a kind of attack on their own lives. The second reason – as Delcheva noted – was the “growing disenchantment with the new capitalist world” (Delcheva, 2005: 203). In time Eastern European audiences discovered that capitalism was not only German cars and Italian shoes but that it also meant layoffs, insecurity and declining social rights, and a trend of “bitter-sweet nostalgia … for a bygone era that in hindsight does not seem all that bad” appeared in the Eastern European culture (Delcheva, 2005: 200). This culturological trend, named Ostalgie in German (nostalgia for the East), is best illustrated by the titles of two influential books of fiction from that period: Baječna leta pod psa/The Blissful Years of Lousy Living (1992) by Michal Viewegh and Kako smo preživjeli komunizam i još se smijali/How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1991) by Slavenka Drakulić.    

Both these books – whose titles have the ironic dichotomies blissful/lousy and survived/laughed - are a kind of programmatic description of the Ostalgie phenomenon. The books and films belonging to this trend do not re-evaluate communism, there is no revision of revision. Instead, the new larger-than-life narrative that had been established after 1990 is “softened along the edges”. The communist period is shown from the viewpoint of ordinary people, the focus is on everyday life under totalitarianism and shows pragmatic strategies for survival and everyday functioning. Most Eastern Europeans, who had lived lives of this kind, found it much easier to identify with this view of the past than with stories about outstanding dissident martyrs. Furthermore, in films of this kind the Easternersaffirmed their distinctive subculture, behaviour styles and memory at the moment when they were suffering blows delivered by the dominant Western culture and lifestyle.

In Germany the term Ostalgie was coined in connection with the film Sonnenalle/Sun Avenue (1999, Leander Haussmann) based on the novel of Thomas Brussig, which gives an ironic description of the life of young people in former East Berlin. However, Ostalgie began earlier as a trend in cinema, in the first place in the Czech Republic, where the new humorous approach to communism had already been expressed in the films Obécna škola/The Elementary School (1991) and Kolja/Kolya (1996) by the father-and-son team Jan and Zdenĕk Svĕrák, and in The Blissful Years of Lousy Living, an adaptation of Viewegh’s novel directed by Petr Nikolaev in 1997. Kolya is clearly a film of transition between two paradigms because the hero is a typical hero of “revisionist films” – a political-dissident artist who is a victim of repression by the system. But the film’s plot gives an ironic view of the stereotypes of martyrdom, Prague is wistfully shown on the eve of the change of system as a glamorous, picture-post-card town, and even the dissident’s fear, as Andrew Horton wrote, “is not real fear but alleged fear, full of superficial elements but without any true consequences” (Horton, 1999). The Blissful Years of Lousy Living, on the other hand, shows three decades in the life of a family in the pastoral environment of rural Bohemia, and – although the repressive context is clearly indicated – the film is convincingly dominated by “indestructible” and “eternal” constants which the regime cannot hurt: family closeness, hedonism, humour and the bucolic beauty of nature. Jan Hrebejk’s films Pelīšky/Cosy Dens (1999) and Pupendo (2003) belong to the same trend. Cosy Dens is a humorous portrayal of two neighbours, a communist and an anti-communist, on the eve of 1968, and Pupendo a comedy about a family trying to secure a visa for a holiday in Yugoslavia during the ”leaden years”. The “bitter-sweet” trend of Ostalgie is not only a Czech speciality. In Hungary, Csinibaba/Pretty Baby (1997) by Péter Timár shows Kadar’s Hungary in the mid-sixties, but with an accent on popular culture, pop music and youth sexuality. In Poland, Cześć Tereska/Hi, Tereska! (Robert Gliński, 2001) shows the growing up of an adolescent girl in a working-class quarter of new buildings in Silesia, and the context of communism is no longer an object of criticism or condemnation but is tacitly taken for granted in this film, which completely focuses on adolescent intimate life and family relations.  

If Kolya, Oscar-winner for best foreign film in 1997, initiated Ostalgie films, then this cultural trend undoubtedly culminated in Goodbye Lenin (2003) by Wolfgang Becker, winner of the European Film Award (EFA) in 2003. In this film the hero, Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl), sets up an imaginary, frozen-in-time East Germany for his mother, a fervent communist, who has woken up from a coma. Since he can no longer keep from his mother that the DDR has disappeared, the hero organises the kind of unification of Germany that his communist mother would find acceptable. In this parallel history, which he puts together for her by editing television inserts, the German Democratic Republic is not a passive, sinking object of annexation that has been permitted to join the dominant, victorious West. In Kerner’s parallel history, the DDR broad-mindedly and generously “accepts” West Germany under its wing.

This “film in a film” that ends Goodbye Lenin is the key for understanding the Ostalgie phenomenon. After the fall of communism, people in the former communist countries found themselves in the midst of a process over which their own societies had no control, but were passive objects. In the new Europe, the East became a passive receptor of technology, pop culture and lifestyle, the Eastern economy is owned by and under the control of the West, and political systems are harnessed in a process of mimicking the West, which assesses the success of the mimicry in accession negotiations and, later on, membership in the EU and NATO. What was perhaps even worse, theEasterners even lost control over their own memory and self-narration, because the larger-than-life narrative used to interpret and tell about the East was created in the West and impressed on the East through ideological “reassessment” using the media and education. A good example of this process of “memory expropriation” is given by the East German writer Jana Hensel, who in her autobiographical book Zonenkinder/After the Wall (2002) writes about how the inhabitants of the former DDR, in the nineties, began to exchange strange, over exaggerated anecdotes about their past. “The very fact that we exchange such stories shows the degree to which we have internalised the West-German view of our history. We have even forgotten how to tell stories about our own life in our own way, instead of this, we have adopted a foreign tone and perspective” (Hensel, 2002, quoted after Bondebjerg, 2010: 31).  

Goodbye Lenin is a film that imagines the inversion of this process. It is a kind of wishful thinking, a story that makes the Easterners’ hidden wish come true, at last turning them into subjects in the historical process, not only passive receptors. This wish is what generated Ostalgie literature and films: these films and books sprang from theEasterners’ yearning to resume control over their memory and personal history, instead of being under the control of the West and the ruling ideological narrative.

Because of this, the Ostalgie culture was never an aesthetic project directed against capitalism or for the restoration of socialism. On the contrary, this culture, by capitalising on the frustration of the East, carved itself a specific market niche within the capitalist market culture, becoming its functional and successful part.[8]   

Although films bordering on Ostalgie still appeared during the second half of the 2000s – for example, the popular Romanian omnibus Amintiri din epoca de aur/Tales from the Golden Age (2009) by six authors – the impression is that interest in Ostaligic films gradually decreased during the first decade. One possible reason is surfeit, because this had been the overriding cultural trend for six or seven years. Another reason, more probable, is the gradual generation change among filmgoers: the twenty-year olds who filled cinemas in the new decade could no longer have any personal memory of the preceding age. Be that as it may, a third stage is beginning in the onscreen representation of communism which neither condemns the earlier period nor re-examines it emotionally, but uses it as a value-neutral backdrop of images, perceptions and mythemes, similar to the street stands in East Berlin that sell models of the Trabant car and second-hand Soviet officer’s hats. In the words of Temenuga Trifonova, communism is becoming a “cabinet of curiosities” out of which “filmmakers self-confidently and with the playfulness of the postmodern art student” pick unusual exhibits (Trifonova, 2007: 33). Thus the greatest hit of newer Bulgarian film, Zift (2008) by Javor Gardev, uses the context of Bulgarian communism as an iconographic frame for a prison and crime drama in the style of Quentin Tarantino. In Taxidermia (2006) the Hungarian director György Pálfi uses the iconography of the Spartakiada Games and Soviet sports to emphasise the grotesque in a story about an obese hero, a champion speed-eater. Rewers/Reverse (2009) by Borys Lankosz of Poland uses the ambience of Stalinist Warsaw from the fifties as a setting for the personal drama of an introverted, sexually unfulfilled librarian. None of these films centres on examining communism: they use communism as an ahistorical chest of iconographic components, and the directors, as noted by Trifonova on the Bulgarian examples, “give vent to an arbitrary stylisation of history, keeping to self-confident fascination with the bizarre and the absurd” (Trifonova, 2007: 33).


3.4. A return to history

If, as Ravetto Biagoli said, “generating historical revisionism” was the dominant characteristic of Eastern European culture after the fall of the Berlin Wall, history films – expectedly – played a role in this newly formed history.  

The post-1990 reappraisal of history did not cover only the period of communism but equally, if not even more, involved earlier historical periods. It is not difficult to explain why this is so: fourteen new national states were created in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Wall, or even eighteen if we add Kosovo and the Transcaucasian Republics. Each of these old/new nations had the need to build up its identity through a re-examination of history, to create a gallery of heroes and historical mythemes. Even established national states such as Poland, Hungary and Romania felt this need, in the first place because in the communist period the official historical narrative had been subjected to the ideological dictate of Marxism and brotherhood with the USSR. Consequently, for both the new and the old Eastern European states the post-communist period was a kind of “return to the national state” which was “more a product of imagination and dreams than an historical fact” (Ravetto Biagoli, 2005: 182). In this context, historical films played the same role as memorial statues, banknotes, street names and the like: they served to produce an illusion of continuity which was to a great measure a construction.[9] History films became a favoured product of their nations, and also potential hits.     

Moreover, this role of the history genre is not new in Eastern European culture. While few Eastern countries have an SF and futurology tradition, almost all of them have a long tradition of the history novel and fiction, a tradition represented by popular national classics such as Gogol, Sienkiewicz or Šenoa. In many Eastern European literatures – including Croatian – this genre was the backbone of the story-telling tradition, and it included many different and old sub-genres. In the Balkan context one such was about the haiduks, which marked Croatian prose in the mid-nineteenth century (Nemec, 1994: 55-58), but also appeared in many cinemas in the widest Eastern European region, from Romania to Poland (Tutui, 2008: 170-189).

History epics continued to be filmed in post-communist times, now no longer as state projects in the name of the national ideology but as business projects which exploited the obvious attraction of history for the Eastern European audience. This gave rise to two paradoxes. The first is that such films, although they exploited national sentiments, were usually made in international coproduction arrangements. For pragmatic market reasons, and for the sake of being politically correct, they planned to attract audiences from the other side of ethnic demarcation lines, as well: thus Polish spectacles also counted on the Ukrainian market,[10] and Slovak ones on the Czech market. Another paradox is that they were more often made in large countries such as Russia and Poland, and more rarely and later in the younger national states with a limited local market, for which this kind of onscreen “history writing” would be more precious.  

The first wave of historical epics appeared in the 1990s in the two most developed central-European cinemas: Czech and Polish. In the Czech Republic a characteristic part of national production were World War Two spectacles, such as Tankový prapor/Tank Battalion  (Vít Olmer, 1991), Tobruk (Václav Marhoul, 2008 – about Czech soldiers on the North African front in 1941) and Tmavomodrý svĕt/Dark Blue World (Jan Svĕrák, 2001, about Czech pilots in the British RAF). In Poland, the wave of history spectacles was primarily based on classic Polish literature, in the first place by Sienkiewicz. Thus in 1999 Jerzy Hoffman made Ogniem i maczem/With Fire and Sword and Andrzej Wajda made Pan Tadeusz, and in 2001 the veteran Jerzy Kawalerowicz filmed Sienkiewicz’s third classic, one not thematically linked with Polish history - Quo Vadis. Commenting Hoffman’s and Wajda’s films, Rumiana Delcheva said that both the films based on Sienkiewicz’s knightly novels “are about what is considered the golden age of Polish history… when the country stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea”,  and noted:   

… an integration is achieved that does not require legitimating from the Western centre … Historical epics play an important function of cultural drivers toward the Western center. The return to a glorious past, whether real or imagined, becomes an expression of the ideologeme: “We, too, have contributed something valuable to the world.” (Delcheva, 2005: 207-208)

This comes to expression even better in Russian examples. In Sibirskij tsiruljnik/ The Barber of Siberia (1998) Nikita Mikhalkov gives an idealised picture of 19th-century Russia under Alexander III, showing it as a progressive, rich country of gallant balls, glittering mansions and technological advance, integrated in the Western world and without class tension. Defending the film from Western critics, Mikhalkov explained that by presenting this image he wanted to contest the established image of Russia in films, which show it as a miserable land of paupers and drunks. His film functions as a conservative nationalistic fantasy: it is dedicated to “honourable officers” and Mikhalkov – who had presidential ambitions at that time – is shown in the film in imperial uniform, riding on a horse.  

Although it cannot be included in the definition of the history epic genre, the film Russkij kovčeg/Rusian Ark (2002) by Aleksandr Sokurov legitimises national culture in a similar way. Made with dazzling technical skill in a single take, the entire film unfolds in the corridors of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, through which the invisible Russian narrator follows the French diplomat and aristocrat Marquis Astolphe de Custine[11] along the halls of the palace/museum. The French marquis and the invisible Russian narrator do not pass only through the rooms of the Hermitage, but also through time: from room to room vignettes from two centuries of Russian history are shown, which are at first idyllic and exalted (private lunch of the Imperial Family, audience of the Persian Ambassador), after which the “march of history” goes through an anti-climax showing the siege of Leningrad in 1941-44, and Custine sees coldness, hunger, the wounded and dead in a side room. During the entire tour Custine expresses the negative Western stereotypes about Russia and the East (“gifted copyists … who have nothing of their own”,  “Asia adores tyrants … the worse the tyrant, the more beloved his memory”…). At the moment when he loses his French travelling companion, the narrator stops before a splendid long take of the Neva and concludes the monologue with a sentence showing reverence for the myth of the Nation: “It is a pity that you are not with me: you would understand everything here, look, we are surrounded by the sea and we are intended to sail for ever… live for ever.” 

Russian Ark functions as a kind of “cultural patch”, a film whose ambition is to join Russia’s present with an idealised past, using “mass amnesia” to bridge the Bolshevist period which is “treated like a crack, and also an interruption in Russian history” (Ravetto Biagoli, 2005: 189). While the mythical bridging in Sokurov’s film uses high society and the culture of the imperial court, in Pavel Lungin’s film Ostrov/The Island (2006) this role is given to religion. Set in the period between the 1930s and the 1970s, the film shows the life of Anatoly (Pyotr Mamonov), a soldier who was wounded during World War Two, fell off a river barge and was saved by monks in an island monastery. Anatoly takes his vows and in time discovers that he has the gift of healing and prophecy. One day the communist Admiral Tikhon visits him on the island in secret, believing that Anatoly can save his daughter. It turns out that Tikhon was a soldier on the barge that night with Anatoly. A German officer had given him the choice of killing Anatoly or being executed himself. Tikhon fired, and spent forty years believing that he had killed Anatoly and that his career of a soldier and war hero was founded on cowardice and lies. On the island he and Anatoly recognise one another, and Tikhon finds redemption. It is not difficult to read an obvious political allegory in Lungin’s plot. The public, heroic history of communism is based on a lie. At the moment when the society based on falsehood finds itself in insoluble difficulties, it finds redemption in tradition and faith, and in this process the real course of history is revealed, until then shrouded in deception.[12]

The middle of the 2000s also brought a new cycle of real historical epics into the cinemas of post-Soviet central Asia. In 2004 the historical spectacle KöşpendilerNomad: The Warrior was produced in Kazakhstan, about the 18th-century dynast and hero Ablai Khan. Made to the script of the prominent writer Rustam Ibragimbekov, the film was a collective work by a “brain trust”: the Czech Miloš Forman was executive producer, the Czech Ivan Passer and the Russian returnee from Hollywood Sergei Bodrov co-directors, in cooperation with local director Talgat Temenov. According to Variety, the film cost forty million dollars, had several American actors (Jay Hernandez, Jason Scott Lee) and was financially supported by the Weinstein and Wild Bunch companies. In 2007 another central Asian war leader got his biographical spectacle – Genghis Khan. Mongol/Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan(2007) by Sergei Bodrov was planned as the first part of a yet unfilmed trilogy about the life of that Mongol ruler. The film shows the youth of Temujin (the future Genghis Khan) from boyhood to the moment when he becomes unchallenged ruler of the Mongols. In this case, too, a historical epic functions as a comment on the present (this time Russian). At the beginning of the film, the Mongols are divided, disloyal, dependent on the culturally superior Chinese, and Temujin himself spends a short time as their slave. The hero of the film saves himself from Chinese slavery, wins in a civil war and unites the Mongols in absolute obedience, turning them from foreign subjects into a self-confident empire. In short, Bodrov’s Mongol uses historical parable to describe the new self-confidence of Putin’s Russia.  

Another region in which national epics flourished in the late 2000s was the Baltic region. The Estonian historical/political thriller Detsembrikuumus/ December Heat (2008), directed by Asko Kase, takes place in 1924 and is based on an attempt (historically authentic) at a Russian communist coup in the young Estonian republic. This historical action thriller became the seventh most-viewed film in 2008 in the small Estonia. In Latvia a film was made in the same period that played on a mixture of glamour, patriotism and hushed-up history. Rīgas sargi/Defenders of Riga (Aigars Grauba, 2007) takes place in 1919 and tells about Latvian volunteers who defended Riga from the mercenaries of the German General Von Goltz, who had secretly colluded with the Russians. The film cost 3.5 million dollars, and with 140,000 viewers it had higher attendance in Latvia than Titanic (Pavičić, 2009: 77). Another film appeared in the same period in the same region, which, like the two above, exploited hushed-up history, contained an anti-Russian line and had a strong national charge: but in this case the author and the subject of the film guaranteed a much stronger foreign echo. This was the film Katyń (2007) by Polish director Andrzej Wajda, showing the massacre of 22,000 Polish non-commissioned and commissioned officers liquidated by the Soviet NKVD in a forest near Smolensk and on several other locations, to prevent them from thwarting Soviet political plans in post-war Poland. Katyń, like the Baltic films, was a local hit, but it was much more than that. The film about the Katyń massacre – in which Wajda’s father Reserve Captain Jakub was also killed – played at the Berlin Festival, was nominated for an Oscar, and official Polish diplomacy showed it worldwide. It was also shown in Zagreb in the arrangement of the Polish Embassy in Croatia,

All the films mentioned above are historical spectacles based on anti-communist and/or anti-Soviet revisionism, made to exploit national feelings and present a nationally-coloured history abroad. However, at the end of the 2000s several films were made in central Europe that not only do not exploit nationalism, but are completely the opposite: they use history as a reservoir of appealing stories known and attractive to viewers on several national territories. Such is the case with Bathory (Juraj Jakubisko, 2008) and Jánošík (Agnieszka Holland, 2009).

Both films are historical spectacles about real historical figures. In the first case it is the Hungarian, Baroque-age, Countess Erzsébet Báthory who in her castle in Slovak Ternčin killed between 35 and 600 young girls, servants and pupils of the gynaecium. In the second, the hero of the film was a Slovak, a Carpathian rebel, the “Slav Robin Hood”, known to the Yugoslav audience thanks to the Polish TV series by Jerzy Passendorfer from 1974. In both cases, the directors had been experienced auteur film directors before 1990: the Slovak modernist Jakubisko and the Polish director Holland. Both films were made in multinational coproduction and were distributed at the same or almost the same time on several territories (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia), capitalising on the fact that the historical stories on which they were based were relevant and generally known to the public in several countries.[13] In both cases production expectations showed themselves right: 425,000 viewers in Slovakia and 900,000 in the Czech Republic saw Jakubisko’s film, and according to data of the business bulletin Film New Europe,only in Slovakia, and only on the first weekend, 36,000 viewers saw Jánošík.  

In short, historical spectacles did not by any means disappear from Eastern European cinemas in the first decade of the 21st century; indeed, they got a new life. They can be divided in two different but interweaving models. In the first, historical epics are extremely national, if not nationalistic, made for the local audience and to promote the state and nation abroad. In the second, the films are made with the intention of attracting audiences on several territories. The first model is characteristic of the Baltic and post-Soviet regions, the second of the more developed liberal democracies and the market societies of Central Europe.

Nevertheless, with rare exceptions (Nomad) both kinds of films were produced for business reasons, where the nation and nationalism served to secure box-office success. Great epics used earlier to be made for the sake of ideological propaganda, but now they became a way of securing a self-perpetuating, viable, market-oriented film industry. This characteristic of Eastern European historical films necessarily had an aftereffect; films made to seduce their audience must to a degree flatter its self-regard. Or, as Peter Hames wrote: “Emphasis on narrative accessibility, popular actors and plenty of humour are the inevitable ingredients of box-office success – but so also is a need to flatter the public” (Hames, 2005: 147). In the case of historical films, this “flattering of viewers” meant conforming to the national ideology and flirting with more or less strongly expressed nationalism.


3.5. Escape into the margins 

Unlike Western cinemas, where entire genres functioned as a chronicle of society and its unsavoury hidden corners (for example, the gangster film, film policier or film noir), in Eastern European cinemas the communist-party-controlled studio system tried to give a polished version of society, in its propaganda approach removing from the screen, to a greater or smaller measure, the unacceptable, seamy side of life: poverty, deprivation, violence, alcoholism, inequality. This practice – in the Croatian language known under the Russian term lakirovka, lacquering - was not used to the same degree in all countries or in all periods, but it is difficult to find a communist state in which what Liehm and Liehm define as the self-censorship of “modest goals” was not used at some time and to some extent: 

if not the truth, then at least without lies: if not progress… then at least without retreating into the lines of artistic reactionaries; if not reality as it is, then at least not reality painted pink… (Liehm and Liehm, 2006: 80)

Having emerged from this kind of production practice, part of which was embellishing real life, the filmmakers from the auteur-film period had the need – to quote Branko Bauer – to show the “backyard” of society (Polimac, 1985: 100). Thus it is not surprising that many fundamental movements and schools of the Eastern European auteur film included satire, social criticism and a naturalistic aesthetic of ugliness in their poetic description: this is true of the new wave in Czechoslovakia, the black wave in Yugoslavia and the Polish cinema of moral anxiety.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall this long tradition of social criticism found itself in difficulties. Films of this kind were no longer widely popular with audiences, as the end of the Cold War ended the ideological dichotomy which had made them enticing goods in the West. Or, as Marguerite Waller wrote:

After years of…dodging censorship and sensitively criticizing  the social and psychological damage done by passing years of great and petty repression, it was not at all clear what they should be making films about. (Waller, 2005: 21)   

However, the post-communist society showed itself a hard nut for filmmakers to crack. The earlier dichotomies that had shaped the perception of society (the people/the authorities, freedom/repression, individual/system) not only did not function under the new circumstances, but were crumbling before the very eyes of the Eastern European intelligentsia. It became evident that the citizens of Eastern European had not brought communism down in the name of liberal individualism, but very often in the name of new collective paradigms – usually the nation and nationalism. It became evident that the people/authorities dichotomy was untenable, because in many countries (Belarus, Russia, Croatia, Serbia) people kept electing authoritarian leaders and political elites. Freedom also showed itself as an unstraightforward ideal, because in Eastern European practice democracy, as Ravetto Biagioli wrote, degenerated into a “cultural desert of violence, corruption and isolation” (Ravetto Biagioli, 2003: 445) and led to social collapse and new economic exploitation.  

Thus a double paradox happened in Eastern Europe after 1990. On one hand, the collapse of Eastern European societies became an attractive subject for Western filmmakers, often distinguished ones, who made many films about the East, especially about the post-Soviet and Balkan chaos: Lamerica (Gianni Amelio, 1994, Italy),  Pidä huivista kiinni, Tatjana / Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (Aki Kaurismäki, 1994, Finland), Vesna va veloce/Vesna is in a Hurry (Carlo Mazzacurati, 1996, Italy), Elvjs e Merilijn/Elvis and Marilyn (Armando Manni, 1998, Italy), Code inconnu/Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000, France), Lilya 4-ever (Lukas Moodysson, 2002, Sweden),Import/Export (Ulrich Seidl, 2007, Austria). These films showed the East with almost pornographic negativism, giving a caricatural illustration of the disintegration, injustice, poverty, social stratification and disorientation of the post-communist society and individual. Strongly patronising, these films portrayed people from the East as mixed-up children with unclear and immature perceptions about the Western world and reality beyond the Iron Curtain.[14]

At the same time, filmmakers from Eastern Europe moved away from that group of subjects and did not find the instruments to dissect the society in transition. There are surprisingly few convincing films about the drama of the transformation of one system to another: rare examples are the already mentioned Polish thriller Psy/Pigs(Władysław Pasikowski, 1992, Poland), or the Hungarian drama Edes Emma, draga Böbe/ Sweet Emma, Dear Böb(1992) by Istvan Szabo.[15] These films, however, are rare exceptions squeezed in between the two dominant themes from the early transition period: anti-communist revisionism and hedonistic commercial films that glorify the fledgling consumer society.  

Even in the countries in which functioning democracy took root and capitalism brought economic progress (Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic lands) it appeared to be difficult to represent the new capitalist society. Disarmed, unable to draw on the stock of images, perceptions and subjects from the preceding era, the filmmakers of the Eastern European ”tigers” took over the motifs, subjects and characters of Western European, socially-engaged films and applied them to their own environment, often in a mechanical and repetitive manner. They began to make films about immigrants, about violent and right-wing subcultures (Horem pádem/Up and Down, Jan Hřebejk, Czech Republic, 2004), youth violence (Lányok/Girls, Anna Faur, Hungary 2007, Klass/The Class, Ilmar Raag, 2007, Estonia), narcotics (Dealer, Benedek Fliegauf, 2004, Hungary), the disillusioned X generation (Farba, Michał Rosa and Jerzy Owczaczyk, 1997, Poland) or the new economic elite (Rusalka, Anna Melikian, 2007, Russia). Films of this kind had a dual rhetoric meaning: on one hand, they perpetuated the pattern of the engaged film inherited from the author’s earlier era. On the other hand, they complimented the self-image of their own communities, flattering them that they have become like the West because they have the same kind of social problems. Having Western-type deficiencies practically became a mark of success.  

Eastern European filmmakers found themselves facing social changes that were difficult to conceptualise, and in a new cultural landscape in which nothing was original but was just an imitation of the West. They were confronted by the biased view that the young Eastern European democracies (especially those that were successful) had no problems that were special, original or interesting outside their own backyards. This attitude crystallised in the recurring and generalised phrase that the developed Eastern European democracies had “no more great stories” to tell, implying that no one found what was going on in Eastern Europe interesting or important any more.

Because of this, Eastern European filmmakers very often avoided social subjects and preferred to make films about people who had rejected society or had been spewed out by it. Kristina Stojanova is right in saying that a “general escapist tone” characterises contemporary Eastern European cinema in which “Eastern  European directors, true, with rare exceptions, consistently prefer the isolation of closed existentialist worlds distant from an engaged analysis of the frenzied post-communist tensions” (Stojanova, 2005: 227). This led to the paradox that the ”genre” of films about people on the margins is perhaps the strongest, and certainly the most visible “genre” of Eastern European transition film in the 2000s. Often presented as a kind of Eastern European variant of the road movie, this genre (or production series) brought to the screen new, post-transition heroes: drop-outs who reject society, start off on a path without a clear goal, or live in countercultural pockets separate from the social mainstream.    

Two early and characteristic examples were two Russian road movies made in the same year – 2003: Koktebel(Boris Khlebnikov, Aleksey Popogrebskiy, 2003) and Vozvrashchenie/The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003). The heroes of Koktebel are a boy and his drunkard father, a failed aeronautical engineer, who roam the Russian backwaters on the way to the Crimean summer resort of Koktebel, where they have a relative. The overly-serious boy follows his father in thoughtless, aimless roaming during which they meet a gallery of misfits and pass through areas disjointed from modernity. The Return is another road movie, in which children (two brothers) are the hostages of their father’s seemingly aimless wanderings. In this case the father is a returnee who is after many years of absence taking his two sons to a lonely lake and during the journey he uses cruelty to impose his authority. A mixture of the road movie genre and the Russian provinces also appears in Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi/Travelling with Pets (Vera Storozheva, 2007), in which the heroine Nastasya, widow of a railway trackman, takes to wandering after her husband’s death; in Shchastya moye/My Joy (2010) by the Ukrainian Sergei Loznitsa, in which the hero is a lorry driver who has lost his way and is travelling through the Russian backwaters; and in Ovsyanki/Silent Souls (2010) by Alexey Fedorchenko, in which a husband and lover travel together to scatter the ashes of the woman they loved. In all the five films the heroes wander through the bleak back of beyond, places disconnected from the contemporaneous that are inhabited by extreme misfits, ruled by violence and lawlessness, and the action takes place in timeless, derelict inns, village houses, trackmen’s cottages, abandoned army barracks and sanatoriums. 

These five films were exceptional in the international success they received, but they were by no means exceptions. Showing dropouts dominated most of the successful Russian films from 2000s: in his next film Izgnanie/The Banishment (2007), Zvyagnitsev dealt with a marital crisis in rural isolation. In Rusalka/Mermaid (2007) by Ana Melikian the film’s heroine is the personification of a Slavic fairy and grows up with her mother in a remote seashore area. In Eyforiya/Euphoria (2006), Ivan Vyrypaev links a stylistically grandiose melodrama with the desolate, poverty-stricken, timeless ambience of the taiga backwoods. The hero of (2005), Ilya Khrzhanovsky, travels from dynamic, business-minded Moscow into the secluded, socially and hygienically degraded rural area. A co-author ofKoktobel, Boris Khlebnikov, in Sumasshedshaya pomoshch/Help gone Mad (2009) shows the life of a Belarus immigrant in Moscow, but the extremely caricatured and fairy-tale-like film is more like some kind of social fantasy reminiscent of De Sica’s Miracle in Milan, than like social reality. His former co-author, Alexei Popogrebsky, madeKak ya provyol etim letom/How I Ended this Summer (2010), which takes place on a meteorological station isolated in the polar circle. It is important to note that all these films were the most successful Russian art-films of the decade and had most success at festivals.

Escape into the margins can be seen best in Russian productions, but it is also characteristic of Hungarian, Estonian, Bulgarian and the earlier Romanian films. In fiecare zi Dumnezeu ne saruta pe gura/Every Day God Kisses us on the Mouth (Sinisha Dragin, 2001), one of the few noted Romanian films before the appearance of the Romanian new wave, is about a released prisoner wandering through rural areas and Gypsy villages. In the Bulgarian film Mila ot Mars/Mila from Mars (Sophia Zornitsa, 2004), a young city girl runs away and becomes the protégée of old women living in a remote, border village outside the scope of the law. In Divoké včely/Wild Bees(Bohdan Sláma, 2001), “the pre-modern myth about wise old people is sarcastically deconstructed, showing the fossilised, rustic idyll as a… heap of sex-obsessed, alcoholic hags” (Stojanova, 2005: 218). The Hungarian film Friss levegö/Fresh Air (Ágnes Kocsis, 2006) is about a mother and daughter living on the margins of society, completely separated from social contacts, and at the moment when the daughter runs away it gets the character (again) of a road film. Delta (Kornél Mundruczó, 2008) shows the incestuous relationship of a brother and sister and their conflict with villagers, and the location is an extremely archaic, atavistic village in the Danube delta. A similar Danube location appears in the Romanian film Ryna (Ruxandra Zenide, 2005) in which a patriarchal, tyrannical father brings his teenage daughter up as a man. In Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, 2009), made by a British director in Hungarian production, Romanian locations are used to tell a story about rape and revenge, and the director again uses a multi-lingual, remote Carpathian setting to stress a mythical and timeless dimension, reducing to a minimum admixtures of contemporaneity and all reference to the surrounding world. Like in the Russian case, these examples have not been carefully selected: the films listed above make up the lion’s share of the internationally visible Eastern European titles of the decade.

Another possible interpretation for this predominance of films about people from the fringes and showing one’s own land as exotic is that it is the result of the major Western festivals sifting Eastern production because they, for some reason, preferred such films to those that were socially engaged and/or urban. But it is, nevertheless, difficult to get rid of the impression that these thematic preferences were also a kind of flight from social changes which were tritely, repetitively predictable or discouragingly incomprehensible. Instead of showing settings representative of their societies, Eastern European filmmakers chose marginal pockets. They did not show these pockets as a desirable refuge from the “frenzied tensions”, but usually as real hellholes. The microcosms of Eastern European films are places of evil, revenge, repression, lawlessness, patriarchal outlook, alcohol and violence, regardless of whether they show the Russian provinces in Koktobel, the Danube delta in Delta and Ryna, or the remote rural areas in Mila from Mars and Katalin Varga,. By showing social microcosms of this kind, Eastern European “escapist” films make a pessimistic social comment.


3.6. Changes of Style: the Eastern European case

After the fall of communism Eastern European societies to a certain degree became passive objects of history. Whether in political and economic models, technology or cultural and stylistic trends, they became mere places of reception which assimilated what came from the centres of emission – the USA, Western Europe and Japan. Through pre-accession adjustments Eastern countries accepted democratic standards and institutions, tax, monetary and education policies, through general technological advance they adopted Western technological achievements, and through cultural circulation they adopted Hollywood genres, Broadway texts and musicals, Anglo-Saxon holidays, music styles, youth subculture and behaviour patterns. 

This passive response was also characteristic of film production and style. While some Eastern European film currents, such as the Czech new wave or the Zagreb school of animated film, had before the beginning of the nineties spread their influence and acquired followers outside Eastern Europe, and although some authors such as Dušan Makavejev or Vĕra Chytilova were in the foreground of stylistic innovation, after the nineties such situations were extremely rare. It is true that this was a period of profound changes in film technology, media sociology and style, but Eastern European cinema generally accepted them passively, rarely or hardly ever initiating them. 

The post-1990 period was a time of major technological changes in filmmaking which also led to changes in style, all of them the result of computer technology. Among other things, the computer generated image became a tool of films, the boundary between the live-action and animated film weakened, and a strong influence was felt of the style and dramaturgy used in computer games and virtual reality (such as the 3-D games space or interactive internet worlds like Second Life). After the mid-eighties commercial films, and to a great measure art-films, as well, turned to stylisation, metafiction and the creation of fictional heterocosms/zones. Film abandoned its earlier reliance on the photographable and materially recordable, which had so fascinated post-war theorists like Bazin and Kracauer, and live-action and animated film amalgamated. In style, image manipulation and special effects became the dominant characteristics, and film is approaching what Dudley Andrew ironically and sometimes one-sidedly called an “animated storyboard” (Andrew, 2010:4).

The predominance of this kind of style – which Dudley Andrew calls cinema of attractions (2010: xv) – provoked an expected and sharp response. After the end of the nineties the dominant style in art-films moved strongly towards “hyper-realism” and stylistic flirtation with the pseudo-documentary and the reality culture. This can be seen in a certain number of commercial films (Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, 1999; Cloverfield, Matt Reeves, 2008; Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli, 2007; (REC), 2007, and (REC 2), Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza, 2009), but the changes in style were most clearly expressed in low-budget art-films. Many authors and currents in contemporary art-film made a sharp turn in the opposite direction, reaffirming what Andrew calls the “Cahiers’axiom” in film theory: under this axiom, “cinema has a fundamental rapport with the real and the real is not what is represented” (Andrew, 2010: 5), therefore, under this axiom, film has the meaning and task to “reveal, meet, confront, discover” (Andrew 2010: xviii). Film is once more expected to explore the material and spiritual world, to be a tool of perception used by the “epistemological” and not the “ontological” dominant, to use Brian Mc Hale’s famous dichotomy (1992: 151-203). Furthermore, films that have moved in this stylistic direction exploit the ontological realism of the photographic image without preparation and at random. This return to Bazin’s or Kracauer’s heritage is clearly expressed in a string of contemporary cinemas such as Philippine, Argentinian, German and American.  

This change in style took place at the same time as the technological evolution and the appearance of the much lighter, more mobile and more democratically accessible DV camera or camcorder, which became the privileged tool of minimalistic hyperrealism. This process, and the ensuing stylistic effects, was first felt in cheap, low-budget productions, and it would be reasonable to expect filmmakers in the poverty-stricken Eastern cinemas to be among the first to accept them. Yet, the new and stylistic technological flexibility (which Nicholas Rhombes calls “DV humanism” and “mistakeism” – Rhombes, 2009: 25-30), was first accepted by authors from the smaller Western European cinemas (such as the Danish movement Dogme 95 or Pedro Costa from Portugal) and authors from the Third World (Philippines, Latin America, China), while Eastern European authors entered this stylistic changeover reactively and late.

The new, easily accessible technology relates to the new sensibility and stylistic choice in two ways: directors use the mobility of the new technology and base their work on long shots/sequences made by an extremely mobile and restless camera (as in the films of Dogme 95, Nicolas Winding Refn, the Dardenne brothers, Harmony Korine, Brillante Mendoz and the Philippine school), or they base their work on long, extremely static shots and long takes, where the camcorder is used almost like a ”spying” or a surveillance video camera (as in the films of Pedro Costa, Benedek Fliegauf, the Chinese fifth generation or the Argentinean new film – Lisandro Alonso, Lucrecia Martel, Celine Murge…). This radical stylistic minimalism invites the viewer “to participate as a voyeur, to watch an experience that is not his own, in the context of the shocking banality of everyday life” (Rhombes, 2009: 23).

This change in style went hand in hand with preferences in subject matter. The manifesto of Dogme 95 shows this most clearly by explicitly prescribing that historical and futuristic films should be avoided (“temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden”), as should “superficial action” and genre films; it criticises the “illusion of pathos and the illusion of love” and attacks the “golden calf – dramaturgy” (Pavičić, 1998: 99-100). The shift in subject matter to everyday stories shown in an ordinary, present-day setting was also characteristic of the Berlin School of filmmaking from the middle of the 2000s (Valeska Griesbach, Angela Schalanec, Dieter Petzold, Andreas Dresen, Maren Ade) and of the American off-off-Hollywood mumblecore project, which developed at the same time around the independent festival in Austin. A characteristic example is Beeswax (2009) by Andrew Bujalski, leader of the mumblecore movement. This film, shown at the 2009 Berlin Festival, has an amateur cast of actors and shows a relatively commonplace business conflict between two women partners who have a second-hand clothes shop in Austin.   

In short, after the late nineties film went through a change of paradigm which manifested itself in coherently complementary technological, thematic and stylistic changes and which appeared in several national cinemas, from the USA to the Philippines and from Argentina to China. In Eastern Europe, however, these changes had only a small and belated echo. Excepting the extraordinary case of the Romanian new wave, few authors and titles in Eastern European (post)transition cinema fit into this kind of changed paradigm. One of these few is the Hungarian filmmaker Benedek Fliegauf, whose films Dealer (2004) and Tejút/Milky Way (2007) are based on formal research into the long, static shot. In Dealer we follow one day in the life of a Budapest cocaine dealer who makes a round of his customers – which include a religious guru. In the film shots/sequences are juxtaposed with minimum causal or narrative links. Each shot/sequence is directed in one long, static take in which the only camera movement is a slow wheeling forwards or backwards. This cold, impersonal directing goes hand in hand with the visual impression of the film, the extremely cold colours and the settings in which the film unfolds, all of them sterilised, sanitized, dehumanised places such as a solarium, operating room or rich, modernistic flats. In Dealer Fliegauf dissects the life of the budding transition aristocracy using an extremely minimalistic and explicitly conceptual directing procedure which suggests footage by surveillance video cameras.

Fliegauf, however, is largely an exception. If we exclude the few older, affirmed authors who work in Western co-productions (such as Béla Tarr or Aleksandr Sokurov), most Eastern European authors opted for films that are much closer to the mainstream of narrative films and the standard industrial production model. They followed newer trends more as a reaction and a fashion, like in the case of sporadic Dogme-style films in Eastern Europe, which mostly used the Danish Vow of Chastity as an excuse for poverty in production. Eastern European cinema, even by younger authors, rarely participated in these new trends, and even more rarely anticipated them.  

Having said this, however, there is one great exception. This exception is - Romania.


3.7. An exception: the Romanian new wave 

Romanian cinema could rightly be described as completely opposite to the rest of Eastern Europe. In the 2000s Romanian filmmakers managed to form a recognisable national school based on shared stylistic characteristics. These characteristics were linked with the technological and stylistic changes that were underway after the appearance of digital video. Thanks to their quality and recognisable style, the films of this new Romanian cinema (also known as the Romanian new wave) achieved visibility abroad making Romanian cinema one of the most awarded and most respected in Europe. This success also brought Romanian cinema followers, so other cinemas, including Croatian, began to imitate the poetics of the Romanian wave

Paradoxically, all this happened in a country whose film tradition was one of the poorest in the former Eastern Block. Romanian cinema was strongly ideology-impacted even for Eastern European standards, and even the well-meaning Liehm and Liehm, when writing about Romanian film from the fifties, said that it had a “recognisable ‘style’ … based on dialogues in socialist realistic jargon” (Liehm and Liehm, 2006: 140). Even in the mid-eighties it was usual for Romanian films to be banned, harangued by workers’ collectives and tried in so-called “artistic courts” (Liehm and Liehm, 2009: 345-6).

During the early transition period Romania shared the fate of most transition cinemas, but the negative trends went deeper. Romania had one of the poorest networks of cinema theatres in Europe; during the nineties production fell to one or two films a year, and in 2000 not a single film was made (Franklin, 2009). Home films had exceptionally poor viewing, and the only Romanian filmmakers with visibility abroad were the already affirmed veterans Lucian Pintilie and Mircea Daneliuc. Things began to change in the middle of the 2000s, when excellent Romanian films began to appear at major festivals with amazing frequency.    

The first film with suggestions of the future Romanian Wave was Marfa şi banii/Stuff and Dough (2001), made in cooperation by two important future Wave figures, director Cristi Puiu and scriptwriter Răzvan Rădulescu. The film’s plot seems like a conventional post-Tarantino crime story about two amateur criminals who must carry an illegal package from the provinces to Bucharest. However, the film already shows stylistic features of the future current: a strict unity of time, long takes of sequences in cramped interiors (car, kitchen), realistic presentation of the banal aspects of “ordinary life”, absence of music or any kind of pictorial or sound stylisation and a specific treatment of dialogues, which are extremely long and often include elements of verbal abuse with the aim of one person imposing his or her will on another.

The Romanian new wave exploded after 2005, when five Romanian films won awards on three successive Cannes festivals: Moartea domnului Lazarescu/The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005) won the award of the Un Certain Regard programme, A fost sau n-a fost?/Was There or Wasn’t There?/12.08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006) won the Golden Camera award for best debutant, and the comedy California Dreamin' by Cristian Nemescu, who was killed in a car accident soon after, also won the Un Certain Regard award. Finally, in 2007 the film 4 luni, 3 saptamăni si 2 zile4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007) won the Golden Palm in Cannes, the FIPRESCI award for best film of the year, and two EFA awards for best European film and director. This was undoubtedly the climax, but not the end of the Romanian cinema renaissance. After this success other noted debutant directors appeared in the Romanian new wave (Adrian Sitaru, Radu Jude, Florin Şerban) making many successful films, such as Hīrtia va fi albastră/The Paper will be Blue (Radu Muntean, 2006), Pescuit sportiv/Hooked(Adrian Sitaru,2007), Boogie (Radu Muntean, 2008), Cea mai fericita fata din lume/The Happiest Girl in the World(Radu Jude, 2009), Felicia īnainte de toate/First of All, Felicia (Răzvan Rădulescu and Melissa de Raaf, 2009), Politist, adjectif/Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009), Eu cănd vreau să fluier, fluier /If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (Florin Şerban, 2010, Silver Bear in Berlin), Aurora (Cristu Puiu, 2010), Marti, dupa craciun/Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean, 2010), and Pozitia copilului/Child’s Pose (Catilin Peter Netzer, 2913 - Golden Bear in Berlin). An intriguing aspect of the Romanian new wave is the large number of directors and good films, and also that the creative figures who underpinned the wave are not directors but one scriptwriter – Răzvan Rădulescu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu; Paper will be Blue; BoogieTuesday, After Christmas; Child’s Pose), and one cinematographer – the Moldavian Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu; 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days).  

Although the Romanian new wave has as many as ten directors, the current has clear and recognisable stylistic elements. The first is emphasis on unity of time – these films often take place within 24 hours (Stuff and Dough, The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Paper will be Blue, The Happiest Girl in the World, Hooked…), during a weekend (Boogie) or several days (Police, Adjective; Tuesday, After Christmas). The second shared auteur characteristic of the Romanian new wave is the use of a long shot/sequence usually made with a very mobile camera, often in found settings or places prepared so as to enable the camera to move through them freely. The settings in Romanian new wave films are intentionally extremely banal: they take place in overcrowded flats, kitchens, student dorms and the corridors of public institutions, behind the peeling facades of Soviet-type high rises, and the protagonists are often urban bachelors and families with completely typical problems or those that are dysfunctional. The third obvious recognisable characteristic of the Roman new wave is the treatment of dialogue: in these films people talk a lot, the dialogues are often long and at the first glance not dramaturgically functional, and the language is used for domination, sadism and control. In these films the impact left by the communist, Kafka-like bureaucracy and the post-communist, corrupt state come to expression through a person in power verbally abusing someone who is not: the receptionist and gynaecologist abusing girl students (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), the doctor abusing nurses and the nurse abusing a patient (The Death of Mr Lazarescu), the airport booking official abusing a woman traveller (First of All, Felicia), a superior policeman abusing a lower-ranking one (Police, Adjective). The British critic Kieron Corless noted that “language”, as on the example of Porumboiu’s film Police, Adjective,  “creates and defines reality, shapes people and relations… by ignoring, or even clouding up what is really essential” (Corless, 2010: 42).

While the Romanian new wave is a typical example (and perhaps the best) of the poetics that dominated art-films of the 2000s in the way in which it relates to the camera, space and in the treatment of actors, what singles it out from this dominant approach is the somewhat “Eastern European” fixation on the past. Romanian new-wave films are often either about the period of Ceausescu’s communism (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; Cum-mi am petrecut sfărşitul lumii/The Way I Spent the End of the World, Catalin Mitulescu, 2006), or about the time of the short-lasting revolution that brought the communist dictatorship down (Paper Will be Blue, 12.08 East of Bucharest). It is interesting that the Romanian wave filmmakers, in their joint omnibus film produced at the moment when the Romanian new wave was already famous abroad, chose to show urban myths from the communist period (Amintiri din epoca de aur/Tales from the Golden Age; co-authors: Hanno Höffer, Razvan Marculescu, Cristian Mungiu, Constantin Popescu, Ioana Uricaru; 2009).[16] However, this fixation on the recent past is not absolute, and Romanian films often address typical transition problems such as emigration (First of All, FeliciaBoogie), the new consumer society (The Happiest Girl in the World) or the (post)transition family (Boogie, Hooked).  

Paradoxically, the outstanding foreign success did not help Romanian cinema with the home audience. Romania has the lowest cinema attendance per person in Europe (0.13 a year in 2007), in a relatively highly-populated country a domestic film seen by 15 thousand viewers is considered a hit, and a characteristic example of viewing difficulties is what happened to the comedy The Happiest Girl in the World (Radu Jude, 2009), which did not sell more than 1,330 tickets despite its success at the Berlin Festival. This is not a unique example: only 2,556 Romanian viewers saw the thriller Hooked (Adrian Sitaru, 2008), and in June 2009 the Film New Europe information service reported that the most widely viewed Romanian film in that year, Weekend with my Mother (Stere Gulea), came only 62ndon the annual viewing list, with 4,144 sold tickets (Blaga, 2009). Under such circumstances Cristian Mungiu was forced to show his film, the Canners winner, through alternative channels, in culture, sports and community halls.

Translated by Nikolina Jovanović. The translation is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre.


[1] On 13 January 1991 the Soviet army quartered in Lithuania reacted to the Lithuanian Declaration of Independence by attacking the TV tower and killing 13 Lithuanians. The clash did not develop into a real war, however, and by the end of 1991 Lithuania was internationally recognised. This was the only armed conflict in the European part of the USSR after the fall of communism. Things were completely different in the Caucasian and Transcaucasian part of the USSR, where the post-communist period was marked by lasting instability and a series of wars: Armenia and Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Russia, Georgia and the seceding regions of Abkhazia and Ossetia.

[2] The quotations are from the programmatic text Reč književnika (The Writer’s Word) by the Serbian socialist realist critic Jovan Popović, from 1948.  See Mataga (1987: 70).

[3] The Plastic Jesus (1971) is a student film by Lazar Stojanović, student of the Belgrade Academy, in which the young director made fun of Tito’s personality cult. The film was banned, the director got a three-year prison sentence, and the affair was used as a reason to settle scores with black wave authors, especially the circle around the Belgrade Academy. See more in Tirnanić, 2008: 144-158).

[4] A London férfi /The Man from London (2007) by Béla Tarr. However, even this film was made in French coproduction and was shot on Corsica.

[5] Klimov never made another film after 1989, and German made only one – Khroustalov, mashinu!/Khroustalyov, My Car (1998), and this in French coproduction.

[6] The film got an Oscar for foreign film in 1995, and it is not inconsequential that the plot is very similar to that of an important Croatian, anti-Stalinist film from the sixties, Lisice/Handcuffs (1969) by Krsto Papić.  

[7] One of the few exceptions, and one of the best films about the transition, is the Polish police thriller Pigs (1992) by Władysław Pasikowski, in which the hero (Boguslaw Linda) is a former member of the communist secret police. Transferred into the basic police after the democratic changes, in the new circumstances he tries to prove himself as a professional and intends to unmask contacts with the Russian mafia. But in doing so he foils the plans of the new democratic bigwigs who defame him politically. In this way Pigs shows how the new, “epic and autocratic” larger-than-life narrative serves as a protective shell for a new, corrupt political elite, and by showing the redemption of a communist agent Pasikowski’s film polemicizes with “revisionist cinema”.  

[8] More than anywhere else, this is true of the countries of former Yugoslavia where the Yugonostalgia market, according to the Belgrade curators and art historians Jelena Vesić and Dušan Grlja, focused much more on “showing the socialist period as a paradise of consumerism”. This is expressed in creating myths about the material, consumer goods of that era, such as Bajadera (chocolates), Cockta (soft drink), Zastava 750 and Yugo 45 (cars). Thus Vesić and Grlja point out that “today Yugonostalgia fits perfectly into the model of [capitalist] cultural industries” (Vesić, Grlja 2010: 8).

[9] In this process the new historical narratives were often in mutual conflict. These conflicts sometimes even created a rift between the members of a single nation (like the “truth” about World War Two in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia). In other cases they caused international tension, like between Poland and Russia about Katyń, Russia and Estonia about removing the statues of liberators in Tallinn, or Poland and Ukraine about Ukrainian honours for the nationalistic guerrilla fighter of World War Two, Stepan Bandera.

[10] As Delcheva (2005: 206) shows on the example of With Fire and Sword (1999, Jerzy Hoffman).

[11] Custine is a historical figure, a diplomat and writer of a critical travelogue through Russia in 1839 (Ravetto Biagoli 2005: 186).

[12] One can make an interesting analogy between The Island and the classic Croatian novel Miris, zlato i tamjan/Myrrh, Gold and Incense by Slobodan Novak, in which the disillusioned members of the modernist generation find redemption in caring for an old noblewoman who symbolises denied history and identity.

[13] In an interview for Film New Europe, Holland said that Janošik had a different meaning for each of three countries: “In the Czech Republic Janošik is an abstraction connected with a TV series and pop-culture, not history. In Poland we counted on being compared with the TV series… for the Slovaks this hero is something entirely different, part of their national identity, a piece of history that constitutes the Slovaks as a nation of highlanders” (Grynienko, 2009).

[14] We find a similar patronising note in films about Eastern Europeans who emigrated to the West. As a rule they are shown as naïve, or through the stereotype of penetrating arrivistes ready for anything: examples are films such as I Want You (Michael Winterbottom, 1998), Last Resort (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2000), Birthday Girl (Jez Butterworth, 2001), La silence de Lorna/Lorna’s Silence (Dardenne brothers, 2008), or Ken Loach’s episode about an Albanian pickpocket in the omnibus Tickets (Abbas Kiarostami, Ken Loach, Ermanno Olmi, 2005).

[15] In both the films, not at all by chance, the drama of transition is shown through the story of people who were minor travelling companions of the regime, and whom the new system spat out as an unnecessary encumbrance: inPigs the hero is a former member of the secret police, and in Sweet Emma, Dear Böb two teachers of Russian who are forced to learn English to keep their jobs after the political changes.  

[16] This is an omnibus film consisting of six stories based on urban myths from the communist period. An interesting feature is that the parts of the omnibus have not been signed, and formally it is the work of a collective of authors. 

The Development of Post-Yugoslav Cinemas and the Eastern European Context 4.

Jurica Pavičić

4. The Eastern European and the Post-Yugoslav Situation: Similarities and Differences


4.1. A different kind of transition

There were and still are understandable socioeconomic similarities between the situation in cinema in post-Yugoslav countries and in the rest of Eastern Europe. The post-Yugoslav cinemas – including that in Slovenia – also suffered the early shock of transition. There, too, public funding suddenly decreased or disappeared in the early nineties, and some studios suffered imprudent privatisation (Croatia, Jadran film) or vanished completely. In all post-Yugoslav countries – including Slovenia – film production decreased or even stopped in the early nineties; in some of them the crisis lasted for a short time (Croatia, Slovenia), in others for as long as a decade (Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina). 

In post-Yugoslav countries, too, there was a great decrease in the number of single screen cinemas, although the time of the cinema network collapse and its later renewal by multiplexes differed depending on economic development. In Slovenia, multiplexes had already replaced the failed single screen cinemas by the mid-nineties. In Croatia, the collapse of single screen cinemas peaked in 1998/99 but the number of multiplex screens largely compensated for the effects of this collapse during the following decade. In Serbia single screen cinemas disappeared from cities in the middle of the following decade.   

Another characteristic feature of post-Yugoslav lands, and also of the rest of the East, was a generation change among filmmakers after 1990. Just as in the rest of Eastern Europe, the older generation of auteurs from the socialist period split in two separate “castes”. The first were internationally known filmmakers who continued to work in foreign coproductions – Emir Kusturica and Goran Paskaljević. The second were distinguished auteurs from the earlier period who made very few films during the nineties or none at all, which was not only true of Serbian directors (Goran Marković, Srđan Karanović, Miša Radivojević, Živojin Pavlović,  Slobodan Šijan), but also of Croatian (Rajko Grlić, Krsto Papić, Krešo Golik, Zoran Tadić) and Slovenian directors (Karpo Godina).

Despite these similarities, in one essential element the situation in post-Yugoslav countries and in the rest of the European East differed completely. For the rest of Eastern Europe the period after 1989 was period “after history”, a time of no epic and outstanding events, of at first glance no great stories, so stories were sought either in the past or in evading social issues. The situation in post-Yugoslav countries – with the significant exception of Slovenia – could not have differed more. In the former Yugoslavia the nineties and the early two thousands were the very moment of dramatic social upheavals – wars, ethnic cleansing, material and human loss, personal and family tragedies, exodus, struggles against authoritarian ideologies and leaders. These events were so dramatic that they became constitutive experiences for each post-Yugoslav nation and society. They dominated public perception and memory to such a degree that everything that had happened earlier became ephemeral and irrelevant. For post-Yugoslav communities, the period after 1989 was by no means a time “after history” – indeed, it was a period of the “intensification of history” with such a concentration of events in a short period of one decade that would for a long time to come alter and retailor the political, demographic, economic and cultural reality of the region. This essential, fundamental difference between the post-Yugoslav and Eastern European transitions was also reflected in cinema. 


4.2. An exception: the case of Slovenia

Of all the post-Yugoslav countries only Slovenia developed peacefully and without a traumatic transition. Accordingly, of all the post-Yugoslav cinemas only the Slovenian consistently reflected the trends typical for the rest of Eastern Europe. Slovenian culture was the first, and for a long time the only, one to pass through the cultural stage of ostalgie – in the mid-nineties this could best be seen in the form of special programmes in clubs, so-called pioneer evenings, which included Yugoslav music, clothes and imagery. Films that re-examine Yugoslavia in various ways are still an essential part of Slovenian production (Sladke sanje/Sweet Dreams, Sašo Podgoršek, 2011; Zvenjenje v glavi/Headnoise, Andrej Košak, 2002) and even became hits in Slovenia (Outsider, Andrej Košak, 1997; Traktor, ljubezen in rock'n'roll/Tractor, Love and Rock'n'roll, Branko Đurić, 2008).  

Similarly as in Central/Eastern European filmmaking, many leading Slovenian films were about young misfits and people on the fringes of society (V leru/Idle Running, Janez Burger, 1999; Barabe!/Scoundrels!, Miran Zupanič, 2001; Slepa pega/Blind Spot, Hanna W. Slak, 2002) and characters in social evasion, which was often shown through the road movie genre (Babica gre na jug/Grandma goes South, Vinci V. Anžlovar, 1991; Idle Running, Janez Burger, 1999;  Nikoli nisva sla v Benetke/We’ve Never Been to Venice, Blaž Kutin, 2008; Izlet/A Trip, Nejc Gazvoda, 2011). The social landscape in Slovenian films to a high degree coincides with that in developed north-European societies: Slovenian cinema makes films about immigrants (Porno film, Damjan Kozole, 2000; Kajmak in marmelada/Cheese and Jam, Branko Đurić, 2003), trafficking (Rezervni deli/Spare Parts, Damjan Kozole, 2003), the ultra-right subculture (Predmestje/Outskirts, Vinko Möderndorfer, 2004), drug abuse (Slepilo/Blindness, Jan Bilodjerič, 2005; Blind Spot, Hanna W. Slak, 2002), prostitution (Slovenka/Slovenian Girl, Damjan Kozole, 2009), post-transition family crises (Uglasevanje/Tuning, Igor Šterk, 2005; Za vedno/Forever, Damjan Kozole, 2008), and working-class crisis in the post-industrial society (Delo osvobaja/Labour Equals Freedom, Damjan Kozole, 2004).

In short, Slovenian cinema as a type almost ideally represents the thematic interests and genres of the new Central-European cinemas – with only one exception. In Slovenia there were no market prerequisites or real interest in historical epics, and only several costumed biographical films were made. 


4.3. Revisionism and ostalgie

Although the Slovenian experience greatly coincides with that in (for example) Hungary, the Czech Republic or Slovakia, in the rest of post-Yugoslavia the trends were and still are inconsistent with those in Eastern Europe, and often completely the opposite.   

First, the “revisionist” trend of the early nineties did not have a strong echo in post-Yugoslav cinemas. Films of this kind were made only sporadically, most of them in Croatia, but even in these rare instances they had been conceived and begun on the eve of the political changes, such as Krhotine/Fragments (Zrinko Ogresta, 1991), Tito i ja/Tito and Me (Goran Marković, 1991), Luka/The Port (Tomislav Radić, 1992) or Priče iz Hrvatske/Stories from Croatia (Krsto Papić, 1992). “Revisionist” or anti-communist films also occasionally appeared in cinemas in which production had been interrupted in the nineties, as a settlement in arrears the post- (or anti-) communist debt (Tunel/The Tunnel, Faruk Sokolović, 2000; Golemata voda/The Great Water, Ivo Trajkov, 2004; Gomaret e kufirit/Border Donkey, Jeton Ahmetaj, 2009).   

It is not difficult to explain why fewer revisionist or anti-communist films were made in the cinemas of the region. One reason is that the more liberal cultural policy of communist Yugoslavia already had a long tradition of films about the dark sides of the communist past so a large number of films had already before 1990 been made about subjects such as post-WW2 executions (Tri/Three, Aleksandar Petrović, 1965; Jutro/Morning, Puriša Đorđević, 1967), the repression carried out by the victors over the defeated (Mali vojnici/Playing Soldiers, Bahrudin Čengić, 1967; Sokol ga nije volio/Sokol did not Like Him, Branko Schmidt, 1990), the violence of Tito’s political police (Lisice/Handcuffs, Krsto Papić, 1969; Otac na službenom putu/When Father was away on Business, Emir Kusturica, 1985; Srećna nova '49/Happy New Year ‘49, Stole Popov, 1986), the prison on Goli otok island (Sveti pesak/Sacred Sand, Miroslav Mika Antić), the fate of unwanted minorities (Sokol ga nije volio, Sokol did not Like Him, Branko Schmidt, 1968; Na istarski način/In the Istrian Way, Vladimir Fulgosi, 1985) or forced nationalisation (Parlog/Fallow Land, Karolj Viček, 1974).  In other words, “revisionist cinema” did not have as many disregarded faults to feed on. However, the second and undoubtedly the more important reason was that in comparison with the dramatic events that were currently going on, filmmakers were no longer interested in the dark sides of history: beside what was taking place at that very moment, the past seemed unimportant and pale.   

Ostalgie films were also not as characteristic of the post-Yugoslav region as they were of the rest of Eastern Europe. In Croatia the official ideology of the nineties was strongly anti-communis, and Yugo-nostalgia was a defamatory political label common in the dominant political jargon. In the context of a strongly state-run cinema, filmmakers avoided projects of this kind so in Croatia ostalgie predominantly remained in the domain of literature (Slavenka Drakulić, Goran Tribuson) and pop-music (Osamdesete/The Eighties by Daleka obala). Serbia and Montenegro were in the nineties ruled by the same people, with almost the same ideology, as they had been in the communist eighties and the democratic and opposition movements were explicitly anti-communist,[1] which meant that the basic political precondition for any ostalgie culture – i.e., that the communist authorities had been overthrown – was not fulfilled. In Bosnia and Herzegovina sorrow for the eighties was and has remained a widespread dominant feeling, and one can rightly say that nostalgia for the idealised, multicultural eighties is a fundamental component in the cultural self-image of post-war B&H (clearly recognisable in the prose of writers such as Aleksandar Hemon, Nenad Veličković and Miljenko Jergović, or in pop-songs like Yugo 45 by Zabranjeno pušenje). However, at the time when ostalgie was relevant as the impulse of a generation, Bosnian and Herzegovinian fledgling film production was immersed in other subjects.   

All these factors resulted in ostalgie films – with the exception of Slovenia – being rarer and coming later than in the rest of the East. They appeared in Croatia first, but not until after the political changes of 1999/2000: examples are the films Kraljica noći/Queen of the Night (Branko Schmidt, 2001), Ne dao bog većeg zla/God Forbid a Greater Evil (Snježana Tribuson, 2002), Karaula/The Border Post (Rajko Grlić, 2005) and Moram spavat, anđele/I Have to Sleep, My Angel (Dejan Aćimović, 2007). Although too few to form a coherent trend, in Croatian cultural life they appeared as an obvious corrective, an attempt to revise the simplistic view of the communist period that had predominated in the nineties.  

Although Yugo-nostalgic films or Yugo-revisiting films (a more precise definition) were only a small part of the production in the new cinemas, they were the part of film production that found it easiest to cross regional borders. Thus the first film to be distributed in all the countries of ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s was a film about Yugoslavia in the 1980s –   Outsider by Andrej Košak. Another film about the eighties, the Croatian film The Border Post by Rajko Grlić, was the first film coproduced by producers from all the successor states. The Border Post – with 101,461 viewers in Serbia – was also the only non-Serbian film produced by the new cinemas that had considerable box-office success even outside its home territory. The fact that films of this kind found it easiest to cross borders shows that the shared Yugoslav experience was an integrating factor for audiences in the successor states, not a factor of separation.    


4.4. Historical Films as Exceptions

The same, however, cannot generally be said about historical films. The completely irrelevant place held by historical films, and especially historical spectacles, in post-Yugoslav cinemas is another special characteristic differentiating post-Yugoslav cinema from Eastern European cinema as a whole. Although historical spectacles sporadically appeared in Croatia (Četverored/In Four Lines, Jakov Sedlar, 1999; Duga mračna noć/The Long, Dark Night, Antun Vrdoljak, 2004), they were rare in post-Yugoslav production until the middle of the 2000s, and after that they in the first place became characteristic of Serbia (Zona Zamfirova, 2002, and Ivkova slava/Ivko’s Saint’s Day, 2005 by Zdravko Šotra; Čarlston za Ognjenku/Charleston & Vendetta, Uroš Stojanović, 2008; Sveti Georgije ubiva aždahu/Saint George Slays the Dragon, Srđan Dragojević, 2009).

There is no doubt that one of the reasons for this is that filmmakers and the public were interested in contemporary events, and history seemed irrelevant. Another reason is that the small and atomised post-Yugoslav markets, where only one cinema (Serbian) had a serious number of viewers, made it economically unfeasible to produce expensive historical spectacles. Central European cinemas found an answer to this problem by choosing models that were attractive beyond their own borders and harnessing coproduction synergy, as in the case ofJánošík or Báthory. In the countries of former Yugoslavia this synergy could not exist. History did not link the post-Yugoslav societies but divided them in bloodshed, so it was difficult to imagine even in the period of intensive coproduction networking in the second part of the two thousands a historical model that would commercially and in outlook connect Serbian and Croatian, or Serbian and B&H producers, and be attractive to audiences on several markets.

Thus historical spectacles remained rare in former Yugoslavia, and were nationally exclusive and turned to the public on their own territories. Both in Croatia and in Serbia they appeared at specific moments in history, which in both cases determined them fundamentally. In Croatia these spectacles, with several exceptions (for example,Libertas, Veljko Bulajić, 2006), were about World War II and were produced just before and after the political changes in 2000 as an attempt at an anti-communist re-examination of history under communism. In Serbia these films usually revisited the pre-Yugoslav period of Serbian history (19th century and World War I) and were made just before and after Serbia became independent, when it was redefining its identity by relying on a construction of pre-Yugoslav Serbia as – to paraphrase Ravetto-Biagoli – an “imaginary” and “dreamworld” community.  


4.5. Films featuring the group: town, generation, community 

The dramatic political events that overwhelmed people in post-Yugoslavia in the nineties also obviously forged social links. The war, political crisis and pre-political conflict influenced everybody’s life and underlined the feeling that every individual belongs to an often invisible or unchosen group. Thus post-Yugoslav cinema (again, without Slovenia) was never dominated by the film of evasion or social escapism. On the contrary, many major post-Yugoslav films go in the opposite direction: they show the fate of people in the group/town/society/generation, defining the individual through a forest of networked relations fundamentally determined by the political and social context. Post-Yugoslav films often focus on the collective fate of a generation or a home region. In various ways, this is true of films such as Bure baruta/Cabaret Balkan (Goran Paskaljević, 1998), Fine mrtve djevojke/Fine Dead Girls (Dalibor Matanić, 2002), Tu/Here (Zrinko Ogresta, 2003), Gori vatra/Fuse (Pjer Žalica, 2003), Kod amidže Idriza/At Uncle Idriz’s (Pjer Žalica, 2004), Sutra ujutru/Tomorrow Morning (Oleg Novković, 2006), Hadersfild (Ivan Živković, 2007), Sedam i po/Seven and a Half (Miroslav Momčilović, 2007), Čuvari noći/Nightguards (Namik Kabil, 2008), Snijeg/Snow (Aida Begić, 2008), Metastaze/Metastases (Branko Schmidt, 2009), Tilva roš (Nikola Ležaić, 2010), Varvari/ Barbarians (Ivan Ikić, 2013). In all these films the individual is shown as a social being conditioned by the group, completely different from the marginal people and drop-outs of Eastern European cinema. In post-Yugoslav cinema escape is as a rule impossible and immersion in society is unconditional.

Post-Yugoslav cinemas – just like the other Eastern European cinemas – also often use the mythemes and genre of the road movie. However, because of the different individual/group relationship the road movie in post-Yugoslav cinemas functions in a different way than it does in films made in Russia and Eastern Europe. In Russian, Hungarian and Bulgarian examples travelling into the rural backwaters means escaping from reality/history into the timeless, mythical and atavistic, but in post-Yugoslav films travelling to the provinces usually means “discovering” reality/history and shedding the sheath of escapist comfort. Accordingly, in Varuh meje/Guardian of the Frontier(Maja Weiss, 2002) inoffensive girls on a kayaking trip along the river Kupa discover the reality of the fascistic Slovenian provinces. In Putovanje tamnom polutkom/Travelling in the Dark Hemisphere (Davor Žmegač, 1996) selfish and spoilt people from Zagreb are thrown into wartime Gospić, in Sivi kamion crvene boje/The Red Coloured Grey Truck (Srđan Koljević, 2004) a naïve Bosnian driver and a girl hitch-hiker from Belgrade find themselves in the middle of the first war skirmishes in 1991 in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Bal-Can-Can (Darko Mitrevski, 2005) an ordinary Macedonian family is travelling through the wilderness of the Balkan criminal underworld, and in Turneja/The Tour (Goran Marković, 2008) Belgrade actors on tour through Bosnia discover the reality of the nationalistic ideology and Serbian engagement in the war. In all these cases the journey also means immersion in history-taking-place-now, it brings salvation from the state of escapist aloofness.


4.6. East/West: mirroring views 

Post-Yugoslav films also show the dynamics of the East/West relationship in a different way from Czech, Romanian or Polish films. Unlike the rest of the East, people from the former Yugoslavia enjoyed the privilege of an open border even before 1989, they were acquainted with the West through experiences of tourism and emigration, and the post-1989 period did not bring the shock of meeting the new and unknown world over there. On the other hand, the Yugoslav crisis and wars brought the West and Westerners to the former Yugoslavia in new and different roles: as monitors, mediators, peacemakers, journalists, humanitarians, and finally also as warriors engaged on one of the sides.

This also impacted films. Most Eastern European films about e/im-migration and the East/West relationship usually show the West and Westerners through the eyes of the East, which is losing its illusions about the “promised paradise” – as in Last Resort (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2000), Occident (Cristian Mungiu, 2002, Romania), Mila ot Mars/Mila from Mars (Sophia Zornitsa, 2004, Bulgaria) or Líštičky/Little Foxes (Mira Fornay, 2009, Slovakia). In post-Yugoslav cinema there is no theme of disenchantment with the West, for at least two reasons. The first is that the West was not unknown to the former Yugoslavs, and the second is that the West “did not come” in the real sense of the word. To be more precise, it came in the form of owning economic resources, capital and the consumer society, but because of political isolation, sanctions (Serbia, Montenegro), visas (B&H, Kosovo) and a halt in European integration, in the political and ideological sense it remained a postponed promise, a yearned-for destination, a nominally proclaimed political project. In post-Yugoslav films this delay became an object of narrative self-investigation.

Post-Yugoslav films characteristically introduce a foreigner or (even more often) an emigrant from the home region who observes his former community from the perspective of a Westerner. This is especially frequent in Serbian films (Cabaret Balkan, Goran Paskaljević, 1998; Sutra ujutru/Tomorrow Morning, Oleg Novković, 2006;Huddersfield, Ivan Živković, 2007), where this outside view underlines how disturbed and warped society has in the meantime become. Using this procedure, filmmakers subject their own society to the same external assessment that was politically formalised in the period of normalisation and the EU candidacy process, a period in which the Balkan/post-Yugoslav societies were evaluated from the Western point of view and rewarded for success innormalisation.     

In this process it is symptomatic that Croatian cinema typically showed a reserved or ironic view of the West and Westerners, although Croatia was the country that came closest to making the “European dream” come true during the 2000s. In the period when the “European dream” is really beginning to come true in Croatia (from the mid-2000s) several films were made, such as Što je muškarac bez brkova/What is a Man without a Moustache (Hrvoje Hribar, 2005), What Iva Recorded (Tomislav Radić, 2005) or Armin (Ognjen Sviličić, 2007), that treated with irony the subservient mentality and the colonial-style idolising of the West in Croatian (in the case of Armin - Bosnian) culture.

On the other hand, Western presence in the post-Yugoslav crisis impacted filmmaking, and Western interference in the war is usually shown sarcastically and critically, regardless of whether it features war reporters (Lepa sela lepo gore/ Pretty Village Pretty Flame, Život je čudo/ Life is a Miracle, Emir Kusturica, 2004), peace troops (Anđele moj dragi/ My Dear Angel, Tomislav Radić, 1996; Ničija zemlja/ No Man’s Land, Danis Tanović, 2001) or diplomacy (Gori vatra/ Fuse, Pjer Žalica, 2003; Kako ubiv svetec/How I Killed a Saint, Teona Strugar Mitevska, 2004). Films of this kind showed the Western view of the Balkans, and as these were festival films mostly targeting Western audiences they began to function as a system of multiple mirrors.


4.7. Local ideology, local style 

All these cases show that the post-Yugoslav cinemas – with the exception of Slovene – set off in a direction that was rather different from that of the rest of Eastern Europe. Post-Yugoslav cinemas had a different arc of development simply because this was also true of the societies in which they were made. Post-Yugoslav societies were simply crammed with history after 1989, and this history also had an effect on film. 

In some cases, as in Montenegro or Kosovo, the establishment of national sovereignty triggered the rebirth of cinema which had previously died down or been extinguished. In others, such as Croatia and Serbia, the turn of the decade brought such a sharp reversal in political development, and such a sharp and complete change of the dominant social ideology, that this change overturned the existing practice in filmmaking – starting from the system of institutions to genre models, and finally also to style. It must be said that these changes were largely “endemic”, very different from one milieu to another, and especially different from the rest of Eastern Europe (and also Slovenia), where there was no such “intensive history”.    

It goes without saying that these social, political and economic changes shaped the cinema system – its institutions, support system, financial basis, cinema market, legislation, formal and informal forms of (self)censorship. And these – again understandably – determined the preferred subjects, thematic preoccupations, recurring motifs and typical genres. However, in post-Yugoslav cinemas the political, social and ideological context to a great measure also shaped the dominant stylistic paradigms. These stylistic paradigms are largely a reflection and consequence of particular political circumstances and local/national ideologies. These dominant stylistic practices incorporate a self-narrative that nations and societies use to interpret themselves, and that the dominant ideology uses to interpret political reality. This narrative identity is not limited only to types of characters, typical motifs and the other components that shape meaning. In post-Yugoslav film, the discourse of ideology and discourse about history reveals itself in choice of privileged dramaturgy, in iconography, in visualisation and, inally, in the micro-stylistic characteristics of directing.   

In the following chapters I will show the dominant stylistic models adopted by post-Yugoslav cinemas, the socio-political circumstances under which they developed, and their links with national ideologies and local political, economic and social conditions. 

Translated by Nikolina Jovanović. The translation is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre.

[1] Clearly visible in the chanting of protestors during the Belgrade demonstrations of 1997 and 1999: “Red gang!”

Stylistic Models 1

Jurica Pavičić

5. The Film of Self-victimisation


5.1. Creating the model: A Time to  

In the summer of 1993 the Yugoslav war was at its peak. In Croatia, the territory of the secessionist Republic of Serb Krajina had already been under the control of Serb forces for almost two years, the large majority of the Croat population had been exiled from these regions, and in the border areas there was a state of neither war nor peace. At the peak of their domination Serb forces controlled 70% of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the anyway grave situation was further complicated by the Croat-Bosniak conflict, which had been ongoing in central Bosnia and the Neretva region from the summer of ’92.  The end of the political and humanitarian agony was not in sight.   

At that time Croatian cinema was also at the peak of its transition crisis. Only two feature films had been made in the previous 1992, only three in 1993, and all the films shown after independence had been gained in 1991 had in fact been prepared and their (pre)production started during late communism. This could also be seen from the fact that many of them thematically belonged to the “cinema of revisionism” and were a recapitulation of totalitarian, pre-war experiences: the fate of dissidents (Krhotine/Fragments, Zrinko Ogresta, 1991; Priča iz Hrvatske/A Story from Croatia, Krsto Papić, 1991), the collapse of the utopian communist project (Luka/The Harbour, Tomislav Radić, 1992) or the Croatian Spring movement (Zlatne godine/The Golden Years, Davor Žmegač, 1993). The war had already been raging for two years, but no war film had yet been made in Croatia. This situation frustrated the Croatian public all the more because the first films that showed the experience of the armed conflict from the Serbian point of view had already been screened in Serbia (Dezerter/The Deserter, Živojin Pavlović, 1992; Kaži zašto me ostavi/Say why have you Left Me, Oleg Novković, 1993).

In that summer the war drama Vrijeme za/A Time to premiered in Pula, coproduced by Jadran film and Italian public television RAI and directed by the painter and for many years the companion of Orson Welles, Oja Kodar (Olga Palinkaš). The film was made in international coproduction with the intention of creating an epic about the suffering of the innocent Croats, which would show the world what was colloquially known as the truth about Croatia. However, after the Pula premiere critics tore the film apart. Although it had a fair number of viewers (63,454), experts buried the film and called it “an orgy of cinema rubbish” (Visković, 1995: 19), “a shame for Croatian cinema”, “pure amateurism”, “trash” (Šošić, 2009: 13, 47), even a film “that is best erased from the body of Croatian cinema” (Juvančić, 1997: 27). A Time to became a symbol of the exceedingly nationalistic, wartime period of Croatian cinema and Croatian culture.

Oja Kodar’s film begins in an ethnically mixed village in an undetermined, rural part of Croatia. A JNA patrol has blocked the exits from the village and does not allow some Croat villagers to pass through with their tractor. Then a Serb wedding is shown, at which the local villagers celebrate together with JNA officers and the Orthodox priest and toast “Yugoslavia” and “Greater Serbia”. Soon an attack on the village starts, turning into a grotesque, caricatural orgy of rape, burning and slaughter. The father of a Croat family (Franjo Jurčec) is killed in his wine cellar by a Serb wedding guest to whom he had offered wine that very same morning. Having lost their father/husband, the mother Marija (Nada Gaćešić Livaković) and son Darko (Zvonimir Novosel) find themselves in the city as refugees. The mother intends to send her teenage son to his aunt in Germany, but he flees from the train, secretly signs up with the Croatian army and ends up on the front lines. After an artillery attack, an unrecognisable body is found in a gutted house with Darko’s Walkman and earphones, and his mother is told he is dead. The mother takes over the body and decides at all costs to bury him in her village, in no man’s land. As the village cannot be reached by car because the bridge has been damaged, she pulls a cart with the coffin through an apocalyptic war landscape of gutted houses, devastation and burn sites, like some variation of Brecht’s Mother Courage. She reaches the village graveyard, where she finds the family grave demolished, with an “inhabitant” in it: the local drunk and poet, the Serb Nikola. In the meantime Darko, lightly wounded, returns to the town in an ambulance and learns where his mother has gone. When the local Serb soldiers find Marija they intend to rape her, but the drunk Nikola interferes and shoots at them; he enables the heroine to escape but is himself killed in the shooting. Marija continues pulling the cart and the coffin, until she finds the living Darko, who had gone after her. The film ends in a frozen frame showing them running to embrace one another, and the narrator speaks the text from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, 3: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born and a time to die…” This quotation from the Bible gives the film its title. 

There are many reasons why A Time to met with negative reviews and is remembered as the negative paradigm of a whole era. The first reason, of course, is that it is a completely dilettante piece of craftsmanship. The film was directed extremely incompetently, it is stiff and unconvincing, the dialogues are paper-thin and full of pathos, the acting is unconvincing with extreme exaltation, and the iconographic exaggerations and grotesque characters produced an unintentionally comic effect, so that – as  Josip Visković wrote at the time – the viewer of Kodar’s film inevitably “sobs with mirth” (Visković, 1995: 20).

Another reason for criticism was the strong line of “propagandistic lecturing” (Škrabalo, 1998: 481), which is obvious on at least three levels. The first is the portrayal of the characters, exceedingly black-and-white with a clearly ethnic dividing line: the Croats are all gentle, well-meaning, naïve, courageous and noble, and the only Croat with a slight admixture of “grey” in his character is a war profiteer (Damir Mejovšek), but he nevertheless transports Marija to the war zone thus risking his head. The Serbs, with one partial and miserable exception (the drunk Nikola), are not only negative but diabolically evil. This tone is already given in the introductory wedding scene, rich in all the Balkan stereotypes about the Serbs: there is blaring trumpet and accordion music, roast sucking pigs, shooting into the air and plum brandy, they wear caps from the Šumadija region in Serbia, which is geographically inauthentic, and speak in the ekavica dialect, all of which has nothing to do with the ethnography and dialect of the Croatian Serbs. This demonising of the ethnic Other continues throughout the film. Later on the Serbs commit the most gruesome atrocities (they rape, burn, crucify living people, while drunk throw bombs into graves, pull gold teeth out of a skull, and as an act of drunken wantonness they shoot at a crucifixion). Visually, Kodar’s film shows them more like the caricatures of Chetniks in the grotesque series of comics It's a Prot Picturesby Dubravko Mataković from Vinkovci, which came out in Nedjeljna Dalmacija[1] in the early nineties, than as an attempt to render a convincing representation of a war unit: they are fat, bearded, wear fur hats, are encased in Chetnik ornaments and cartridge belts, before an attack they roll about on the ground drunk, and they also have (excessively) typical Serbian names: Vuk, Stevo, Vasa. The Chetniks are also sexually insatiable, which does not only come to expression in the repeated raping but also in the grotesquely erotic relationship between the sniper (Ivan Brkić) and his mistress, a woman with a Roma accent and shown as a whore in a crimson negligee. The combination of eroticism and the fetish of weapons is clearly expressed in the scene when the sniper’s woman shoots through the window while the man, whose gun she is holding, caresses her from behind.[2] 

The second aspect in which propaganda comes to expression in A Time to is the pronounced explanatory discourse. In the beginning the Serbian war plan is explained by showing weapons being distributed at the wedding, at which the Orthodox priest corrects the officer who toasts “Yugoslavia” instead of “Greater Serbia”. At the same time, the Croats are talking politics in the inn, the old father refuses to see what is obvious and his son angrily says to him, “Old man, you’re a naïve Partisan!” When Darko refuses to go to Germany, he cries out in anguish to his mother, “But who will remain to defend Croatia?!” Perhaps the most direct explanatory scene in the film is that on the grave, towards the end, when an old Chetnik explains what an arms embargo is to a teenager by taking away his knife and making him defend himself bare-handed from an armed attacker. Made with the obvious intention of persuading the West to abolish the arms embargo imposed on the less well-armed Croatian side, this scene visibly demonstrates what director Lukas Nola in an interview called an “explanatory film”: “They kept explaining something to someone … we always had the need to explain to people in Sudan or Holland what is going on here.” (Šošić, 2009: 57)

The third propaganda aspect comes to expression in the way in which typical characters and situations are used to dramatise the way in which the inter-ethnic conflict begins and develops. It is shown through a repetition of typical motifs and dramatic structure which can be seen not only in this film, but also in many others from the nineties. In the beginning the film shows (motif 1Serb treachery: although the Croat made him a gift of wine, the Serb plans to repay him with evil and says, “Well, tomorrow that vineyard is to be mine”; at the same time the Croat isnaive (motif 2) and gives the Serb the wine as a wedding gift. Among the Croats, there are wise people who warn(motif 3) about Serb hypocrisy; for Kodar this is Marija herself, who cautions her husband, at the kitchen table, telling him “what it is all about”. However, he is in denial of reality (motif 4), which is expressed in the scene in the inn when he defends JNA “neutrality” and “state policy”. Then come revelation and the armed attack (motif 5) followed by banishment and life as refugees (motif 6). At the moment when the suffering in exile reaches its peak, self-victimisation reaches a rhetorical climax in the representation of a Roman-Catholic religious rite (motif 7).  The destitute and miserable refugees hold a requiem mass for Darko (thinking him dead) in a demolished town church. Water drips from the caved-in vaults, in the middle of the ruins is a black coffin, the stucco and frescoes show the impact of shelling, the wretched Croats begin to sing the old Croatian song “Oh Croat Mother, do not Mourn”, and the camera shows an ancient Madonna which is the only remaining inventory in the shattered church. The sufferings of the Croats are thus metonymically identified with the biblical Golgotha.[3]

This complex of components relating to dramaturgy, motif and style does not, of course, come to expression only in the cinematic rendering of the war in Croatia. The longish succession of motifs that we can single out in A Time to and in other films of self-victimisation can also be recognised – by no means unexpectedly – in the media depiction of the war, especially on television. Thus Puhovski (1999), in his analysis of hate speech in wartime Croatia, singled out many characteristics that coincide with the thematic components of A Time to. According to Puhovski, hate speech as a rule includes a negative presentation of the Other, conspiracy theory, mobilisation through an abstractly conceived cohesive community, and showing people who hesitate or are inclined to compromise in a negative way (Puhovski, 1999: 60). Turković gave a general overview of the characteristics of media bias and a list of the norms that govern it – “norm of conformity” (to the national interest), “norm of success” (or of optimism), “norm of rightness” (confirming the ethical superiority of our side), “norm of the inhuman enemy” and “norm of focusing on the national” (Turković, 1999: 408-410).  A Time to clearly obeys all these norms: it draws a clear ethical line between “us” and “them”, the heroes completely conform to the context of the national destiny/ideology, it demonises the enemy and concentrates only on the suffering of the Croats, and it offers – albeit a cautious and poorly motivated – happy ending.  But the central characteristic of this and all similar films is elevating victimhood to mythical proportions. As Puhovski noted, “… a demagogic interpretation … of victimised groups or the whole community … seen as a victim in their entirety is one of the essential characteristics of post-Yugoslav war propaganda” (Puhovski, 1999: 61). A Time to enlarges on this aspect of propaganda not only by showing suffering and martyrdom, but also through commentary on a meta-narrative level – in this case, it is the religious rite, the requiem mass among the charred wreckage. This kind of self-victimisation is a key characteristic not only of A Time to but also of the entire poetical model of which this film is the forefather.

It is interesting that many contemporaneous and later critics censured A Time to by comparing it with “the first Partisan films of the forties” (Škrabalo, 1998: 481) and recognising in it “conventions used in cinematic representations of the earlier war” (Šošić, 2009: 14). Ivo Škrabalo repeated this view in an interview published in Anja Šošić’s monograph about Croatian war film, where he repeated that Kodar’s film was “completely like Partisan films” and said that he was opposed to this poetical model because he was against the conventions of the Titoist genre: “We thought, since new times have come, that propaganda should not be used in the old way.” (Šošić, 2009: 50)

There are, naturally, certain similarities between Partisan war epics and films such as A Time to, for example, the distinct black-and-white division of the characters and visualizing the People as the collective victim/martyr/hero. There is, however, one essential difference between A Time to and almost all Partisan films, starting from the early socialist-realist ones to later “Hollywood-type” genre films from the sixties. Partisan films were based on a glorification of resistance and an active role. The key symbolic motif of the Partisan film was celebrating the gesture of rebellion and resistance, which ends in triumph however hopeless and pointless it may at first glance seem. Thus Partisan films always showed the active, enterprising hero, included violence and armed conflict, and had a dramatic climax which inferred the victory of the Partisans and the defeat of the enemy.[4] These characteristics made it easy to codify Partisan films as a specific genre of action films.  

In contrast, the “heroes” of A Time to are unbelievably passive. The Croats in the film are either meek and naïve or pathetically full of self-pity, crying around the kitchen table, lamenting and praying. The only real war scene in the film is when Darko’s unit lures local Chetniks into a village and kills them, but even this scene is directed without showing the main hero and there is an elliptic leap from the beginning of the armed conflict to its end. The film never shows Croat soldiers attacking, but usually joking or talking. The only active character in the film is the “Mother Courage” heroine Marija, but her epic effort is not directed at resisting the enemy but at giving her son a dignified burial. The only character who shows any activism based on ideological consciousness is Darko, but he is surprisingly absent from the dramatic development of the film.  Even at the end, when he courageously enters the enemy lines to save his mother, he arrives on the scene of the dramatic climax too late, after the mother has already been saved. In short, the dramatic hero of A Time to is a war hero who in the whole film does nothing in particular!

This is by no means unintentional. It is obvious that the ideological self-image according to which the Croats were the only and exclusive victims of aggression, and the film’s ambition to explain things abroad, implicitly placed a taboo on showing Croat characters as active participants in the war action. A Time to espoused that ideological taboo, because of which many televisions in the warring countries (including Croatian Television in the nineties) were banned from showing offensive actions of their own forces, or their own artillery in action (Turković, 1999). In films of self-victimisation our side could only be docile, passive and innocent victims, they never fought back, never took revenge or did anything to retaliate, because films of this kind served to illustrate the moral “triumph of the victim over the perpetrator” (Ravetto Biagoli, 2003: 455). Consequently, in films of self-victimisation the heroes were condemned to passively tolerating, and this is what makes them essentially different from the activist, enterprising heroes of Partisan films.   


5.2. A variation of the model: My Dear Angel

This shift in style from the activist war epic did not happen by chance. On the contrary, it had a deep ideological foundation. In the first half of the nineties the public, both conservative and civil-liberal, placed two contradictory priorities before Croatian cinema: to produce a war film that would have a propaganda effect, but which would not in the least resemble the Partisan films of former Yugoslavia, on which they looked as relics of a specific, failed ideology.   

The film Anđele moj dragi/My Dear Angel (1995) is an interesting case study inasmuch as it was an attempt to satisfy both tasks, to be an ideologically correct film of self-victimisation while at the same time avoiding the war-epic genre. It is not by chance that it was made by Tomislav Radić, one of the most outstanding filmmakers of Croatian intimistic modernism (Živa istina/The Living Truth, 1972; Timon, 1973), but also a representative of the ruling ideology in the nineties, either as a public figure or as editor at Croatian Television. All the contradictions of this dual approach can be clearly identified in the film through the dissonance between the two opposite stylistic approaches.

Based on Maja Gluščević’s youth novel Bijeg u košari/Escape in a Basket, the plot of My Dear Angel seems similar to that of A Time to: here, too, we follow the outstanding feat of an innocent victim who courageously and resolutely manages to escape from the enemy back lines. The film’s hero is Jerko (Milan Grabovac), a boy from a wealthy Croatian family in the surroundings of Dubrovnik (the film was made in the villages of Brgat, Ćilipi and Bosanka). After the aggressors kill part of his family (judging from the language they speak in the film they were, surprisingly, Serbs, instead of Montenegrins who actually besieged Dubrovnik), burn down his village and take his parents away, Jerko is saved because his mother threw him into the pack of a donkey, which carries him through the enemy lines. Finally he is found by a Croatian soldier and taken to a children’s home. But Jerko has become dumb with shock so the psychologist in the home, Bernarda (Sunčana Zelenika), tries to bring back his speech. In the film’s climactic scene, as he watches a report about the exchange of hostages on television, Jerko sees his family and his speech returns. But the soldier from Slavonia who saved him does not live to see that, because he is killed on his way home when his train is shelled.  

The story about an outstanding epic deed in Radić’s film is, however, pushed into the background because of introspective delving into the psychological. Radić’s film is structured in line with the conventions of modern psychologism and the stream of consciousness, and the material is organised similarly as in Mimica’s films from the sixties, Prometej s otoka Viševice/Prometheus from the Island of Viševica (1964) and Ponedjeljak ili utorak/Monday or Tuesday (1966). The framework narration follows the boy’s everyday life in the refugee home and the therapist’s daily attempts to establish contact with him. Some sensations from the present serve to “trigger” the boy’s retrospection, leading to the reconstruction of past events: the pre-war everyday life of a bilingual family (Jerko’s people are returnees from Germany), the war, escape in the basket and travelling with the soldier. The trigger for the key chapter in the retrospection is a small donkey in the Christmas Nativity scene organised in the home, which leads to an associative flashback of the boy’s escape in a donkey’s pack saddle.

Most of the film, especially the part that takes place in the children’s home, is consistently anti-epic, even non-narrative, and to a great measure dominated by little Jerko’s viewpoint. He wordlessly observes what is going on, equally scenes from his home in Konavle, a wedding, violent death, and the routine in the institution: bathing, going to sleep, watching television. Many subjective scenes dominate the style of directing, with a prevalence of close-ups in semi-dark interiors, which give introspective insight into the characters or their interaction during everyday activities: drying hair, showering, frying doughnuts, praying. In these sections, My Dear Angel calls to mind Radić’s cinéma vérité films from the seventies, but they can also be looked on as anticipation of the minimalistic verism of the coming decade as they are comparable to films of the Argentinian school (Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso) or films by Erick Zonca or the Dardenne brothers.  

Radić’s attempt to depart from the epic genre can be seen in avoiding to show the enemy (only two scenes are exceptions) and rejecting what was dominant in A Time to: explanation of how the conflict originated. My Dear Angel is structured as a series of intimistic scenes which are interrupted in a regular rhythm by eruptions of sudden, unexpected violence. This violence, because of the elliptic narration, seems unmotivated and unnatural, almost “ordered for the needs” of the script. Thus the boy’s uncle (Ivo Gregurević) is killed in a helicopter attack which ends suddenly and without motivation, just as it began. The death of the soldier who saved Jerko is the same: he is riding home (to Slavonia) in a train, one single shell explodes beside the train and he is the one who gets killed. The ending also comes without motive and preparation: Jerko’s village is suddenly free, the family and neighbours return and begin to renew the burnt down homes, and the whole political and military reversal is left out.

In short, in My Dear Angel Radić consistently uses a dramaturgic and directing strategy that avoids applying the conventions of a war film or anything epic. This makes it even more amazing that a film of this kind should contain almost all the general thematic and stylistic qualities of “films of self-victimisation”.

The first is idealising the national, rural arcadia: in this case it is Mediterranean (south Dalmatia) and Radić shows it as a sun-drenched garden of terraces, cypress and comfortable, prosperous households.

The second is the pronounced explanatory discourse in the film. Explaining the “truth about Croatia” is prominent in Radić’s film, and it is all the more jarring as it contrasts with the film’s dominant style, which strongly focuses on observation and has a pseudo-documentary approach. Right at the beginning the Dubrovnik family explain to their daughter-in-law, who is German, that the “Croatian flag used to be prohibited”, the psychologist Bernarda explains to the European observer (Zoran Pokupec) that the equidistance policy is unacceptable because “some people are attacking and others are being attacked. This is not a civil war.” Radić shows cynical Western indifference in the scene when two Italian observers visit the refugee centre, ignore Bernarda’s pleas for help and complain about the bad espresso in Gospić. Jerko’s uncle’s prison past is described in a dialogue scene – extremely clumsily written – that takes place in the kitchen where the women of the family are preparing food for a holiday and mention, in passing, that he had spent “ten or fifteen years” in prison because “he had been carrying a flag”. When they start off for the refugee home, Jerko’s parents say that they will be “coming back – but never again unarmed!” In the finale of the film Radić gives the explanatory monologue (impressively acted) of the mother (Dubravka Ostojić), who must care for the family although she left the prison camp with PTSP and had probably been raped. In this final monologue she asks “what does forgiving mean” and continues, “they did all the evil they could to me … I really don’t know what it is I should … I don’t want to think about them any more … but then, I must think.”

Even the genesis of the conflict – to which the film gives little space – is shown using the customary “grammar” of self-victimisation films. Here, too, in a family discussion about politics, we find (2) the motif of Croat naiveté(“Europe won’t allow it … it is important that we show respect for human rights”) which clashes with (3) thewarning of the wise (“you don’t know the Serbs”). The military attack (5) is focalised through Jerko’s childhood perception with emphasis on a series of non-epic, intimistic sensations (for example, the scene where we see Jerko’s German aunt mourning her killed husband, kneeling on the kitchen floor). Refugee life (6) is shown through everyday routine without any scenes of exaggerated pathos, but the film nevertheless includes the mandatory theme of films of self-victimisation – the epic exodus of victims – through the media, on the TV news watched in the home. Finally, My Dear Angel also sacralises the victim through a religious ceremony (7): at the end of the film a bell from a bell-cote summons the villagers to the destroyed church (a general place of Croatian films from the nineties) and they all pray together beside the mass killing ground, with the army holding guard.

Like in A Time to, the heroes in My Dear Angel are also strikingly passive. The only heroine who concentrates on a task is the psychologist Bernarda, who is trying to make Jerko talk, which does happen in the end but not because of her efforts. The parents, relatives and the boy himself are once again passive, docile victims who do not resist and do not act. Military actions have been skipped and the liberation of south Dalmatia is left out. The closest to a film “hero” is the soldier who saves Jerko and brings him to the home – but Radić kills this character in a poorly motivated and unintentionally comical scene of an attack on a train. Here, too, as in A Time to, the hero’s epic exploit does not focus on resistance or defence, but on removing the consequences of martyrdom. This film, too, is highly symbolical and includes a religious metaphor, a metanarrative link between a child on a donkey with the Bible, the Flight into Egypt and the night in Bethlehem. Here, too, the national fate is allegorically linked with the Bible.   

My Dear Angel is interspersed with religious metaphor (the donkey, the fallen Christmas tree, the prayer that Jerko and his mother repeat at the beginning and the end of the film), and this highly metaphoric content clashes stylistically with the pronounced pseudo-documentary and veristic nature of the film. This is only one of the symptoms showing that My Dear Angel is a film torn between two contradictory stylistic imperatives. On one hand, the film had to conform to the imperative of the dominant ideology and the stylistic practice of films of self-victimisation, and on the other it is shaped by the author’s own (modernistic, auteur) sensibility, and also a desire to avoid the conventions of a war epic. Trying to satisfy this second impulse, Radić made a strongly intimistic and veristic film devoted to everyday routine, human faces, looks and interaction. In his desire to fulfil the requirements of the dominant stylistic model, he included in the film a remarkable, symbolically saturated adventure, epic components, biblical references, allegory and religious metaphor. These two contradictory forces left My Dear Angel with an unstitched interior seam, and the film never manages to bridge the rift between auteur strategy and the dominant, ideologically privileged stylistic model.


5.3. Completing the model: The Madonna

Made in 1999, at the very end of Tuđman’s political era and in the last year of his rule, Neven Hitrec’s filmBogorodica/ The Madonna closes the arc in Croatian cinema which began with A Time toThe Madonna is the last Croatian film belonging to the stylistic model of self-victimisation, but it is also a film in which some of the fundamental characteristics of this model appear in their purest form and have been shown the most clearly.   

The reason for this lies in the fact that The Madonna is not an unaccomplished film like A Time to, or a hybrid between two stylistic methods like My Dear Angel. In The Madonna the model of the film of self-victimisation is completely undiluted, but the film itself is a good piece of craftsmanship and a fine production, which only serves to bring out the problems immanent to this stylistic practice. After A Time to and other war-time state-building films (Cijena života/The Price of Life, Olovna pričest/Leaden Communion and the like), critics in Croatia attributed the main weaknesses of such films to the incompetence of Oja Kodar and other filmmakers. The case of The Madonna shows that this is not so, and that even well-made films suffer from the problems inherent in this stylistic model.

The scriptwriter for The Madonna was the director’s father Hrvoje Hitrec, a relatively popular children’s writer and scriptwriter who was prominent in the nineties as a fervent champion of the nationalistic ideology and spent a short time as director of Croatian Radio Television. At the time when The Madonna was made his son Neven was a debutant, member of the young Croatian film generation, who had made only several noted documentaries before tackling The Madonna. At Pula 1999 The Madonna won the main festival prize – the Great Gold Arena – although the awards for best director and script went to another and better film, Zrinko Ogresta’s Red Dust.  

While A Time to is a faltering and clumsy film, this is not the case with The Madonna.  It is a film of lavish production starring some of the best Croatian actors (Ivo Gregurević, Ljubomir Kerekeš, Lucija Šerbedžija), and even its most severe critics acknowledge its level of production and directing (Levi, 2007: 128), that is, “the director’s sure hand” in the “evocation of appalling destruction” (Škrabalo, 2008: 206). Nevertheless, all the typical weaknesses that were attacked in A Time to as “propaganda” and “trash” are repeated in The Madonna with striking consistency.  

The film opens with two gloomy, badly dressed men sitting silently in a dark church. One of them offers the other a pistol, which the latter refuses saying that he has his own. Then events in The Madonna go back in time, into an ambience very similar to that at the beginning of A Time to. Again things take place in the rural provinces of Croatia (here, in Slavonia) in a village with an ethnically mixed population. In this film the countryside is shown with great attention, unlike in Kodar’s film, and Slavonia is portrayed using typical imagery: it is summer, the landscape is brightly coloured and sunny with warm, arcadian colours, there is yellow wheat, a row of houses, flocks of geese, flowerbeds, a river and a baroque church. This arcadian summer scene is in strong contrast with the gloomy opening scene. 

In the beginning The Madonna seems like a film about a love triangle among members of the same nation. In its centre is the young schoolteacher Ana (Lucija Šerbedžija) who cannot make up her mind between the flighty and violent youth Đuka (Goran Navojec) and the older, sober amateur sculptor Kuzma Glavan (Ljubomir Kerekeš). Between the two of them Ana chooses Kuzma, and they start a family. At the same time, political tension begins in the ethnically mixed area: a Serb policeman spits at a Croat political gathering, a school child refuses to write in the Latin script, and the Serbs do not allow the Croats to take a hurt boy to a doctor in town. The tension finally escalates into a real war, burning and mass violence. During the attack, the bookkeeper Rade (Ivo Gregurević), a Serb employed in Kuzma’s carpentry shop, grabs the teacher Ana, takes away her child and rapes her in the church.

After the climax of destruction and suffering, the film returns to the frame scene in the church. The war is over, the two former contenders in the love story have in the meantime become co-fighters, and are now also allies. Kuzma Glavan is getting ready to go to Serbia, where he intends to find the bookkeeper Rade and take his revenge for what Rade did to his wife. He goes to Vojvodina and finds Rade, who now has an orderly household, a wife and child (what he had deprived Kuzma of). He seizes him, closes him in a shed, ties him to a table and places a booby trap at the entrance. And at this moment The Madonna ends.

Similarly as in A Time to, in The Madonna the polarisation between the characters is decisively black-and-white and blatantly divided along ethnic lines. The Croats are gentle, tolerant and well-meaning, the schoolteacher Lukač (Vanja Drach) – a kind of ideologue of the nationally awakened Croats – boasts to the Serb boy that he was the one who had taught him to write Cyrillic, the hero Kuzma employs and gives a living to the future destroyer of his family Rade, and even the only problematic Croat – the violent drunk Đuka – ultimately goes through moral catharsis and ends up as a war invalid and an accomplice in his former rival’s vengeful crusade. At the end of the film their antagonism is overcome by a fact that goes beyond any kind of difference in character, by the fact that they are – both Croat.      

On the other hand, all the Serbs in The Madonna are evil, it is only a question of dramatic mechanism when their vicious duplicity will be revealed. Thus Rade starts out as a loyal worker who pretends to be a mediator between the confronted neighbours, but in the war shows himself as a rapist. In the police station only one Serb remains loyal to the new authorities, but even he, in a critical moment, slits the throat of his colleague on duty and sends word to a Serb village that the police are on their way. The other Serb characters in The Madonna are not shaded even that much: the Serbs are simply shown as “drunken wild beasts who given suitable circumstances inevitably give way to the primary instinct to slaughter and rape” (Levi, 2007: 113). Once more the Serbs are unshaved, fat and bald, again they drink to excess, deliriously enjoy violence and, similarly as in A Time to, there is the motif of the Serb teenager taught to hate by an older man/his father: in this case it is the little Vidoje who runs away horrified by the violence and ends up in a minefield. In The Madonna, just like in A Time to, the Serbs are reduced to a chauvinistic caricature, and even the usually restrained Ivo Škrabalo wrote that Hitrec’s film is a “one-sided summons to revenge”, “very close to endorsing hatred” (Škrabalo, 2008: 206).

Considering that The Madonna was made after the war had ended, when the propaganda effect was immaterial, in this film there is less desire to explain than in Kodar’s or in Radić’s My Dear Angel. Surprisingly, this does not mean that it is absent. The script nevertheless feels the need to explain to the public, through dialogues, that “Lukač’s murder is part of a greater plan”, and the character of the police commander from Zagreb (Goran Grgić) explains the role of the JNA and who started it all. It is even more unusual that eight years after A Time to and four after My Dear AngelThe Madonna uses completely the same typical motifs and dramatic structure as the two earlier films to show the genesis of the interethnic conflict. It, too, begins by showing Serb duplicity (1), when Rade places an advertisement in Cyrillic in the papers for a carpenter’s shop and starts to read only newspapers published in Belgrade. There is also the motif of Croat naiveté (2), as in the scene in which Kerekeš, sitting at the table, says that the Kosovo crisis has nothing to do with us (“Kosovo is a long way away”).  Like in A Time to,wise Croats warn (3), and just like in Kodar’s film the scene takes place in an inn, where the educated and politically conscious teacher Lukač comments the political news on television.  As the crisis gains momentum, the Croats continue to live in denial (4). When the Serb Rade disappears from the village, Ana denies that there is a political explanation for his disappearance and supposes that “perhaps he has found the love of his life”. Similarly as in My Dear Angel, in The Madonna the older generation voices warnings from the past: like Jerko’s grandmother in Radić’s film, here Kuzma’s mother reminds her son that the Serbs killed his father in World War II, and places the present events in the context of the unbroken cycle of Croat martyrdom and Serb wickedness. 

Similarly as in both the earlier films, the military attack (motif 5) takes place suddenly, after a time gap, when tanks swarm into the village without any preparation in the storyline. The attack itself is impressively directed, visually expressive, with sharp contrasts and camera angles, very fragmented editing, and the film is dominated by epic scenes of chaos and exodus with some scenes in slow motion. The film does not show the life of refugees, but there are two scenes showing self-victimisation through a religious ceremony (motif 7): shelling a funeral and returning to the devastated church. 

In comparison with the time when A Time to was made, by 1999 the dominant ideological model had already been firmly established, as were its two fundamental components: pronounced anti-communism and clericalism. It is thus not surprising that in The Madonna there are much clearer dramaturgic links between institutionalised Roman Catholicism and the nation than in Kodar’s film. At the beginning the parish priest is preparing to refurbish the church, which coincides with the time of political changes – the national revival on the eve of and after the first democratic elections. Kuzma Glavan is making a wooden statue of the Madonna for the new church, modelled on Ana, which establishes a clear association: religious renewal/national renewal/starting a new family. In the war the Serb aggression destroys the church and wipes out Kuzma’s family and the rape takes place in front of the statue of the Madonna, which establishes a double/triple desecration: of state, church and family. At the end Kuzma prepares for a campaign of revenge – something that is essentially anti-Christian – but this did not prevent the authors of The Madonna from placing the scene of planning the revenge, on the eve of effecting it, in the church. There Kuzma and Đuka conspire and exchange a pistol, as Croats who have become allies and under the vault of their religion/nation contemplate their “legitimate hatred” of the eternal Other.

However, this hatred – which the ending of the film fixes as perpetual and continuing beyond history – does not get a concrete form in the film through Kuzma’s revenge. Kuzma goes to Vojvodina, seizes Rade and rigs a booby trap, and the film ends in a close-up of the Croat/Victim who has to decide whether to pull the vengeful trigger or not. Like A Time to, The Madonna also ends in a frozen frame of a hero who did nothing of fundamental importance during the film, and the ending robs us of seeing his further (in)activity.

In other words, The Madonna, just like A Time to, deprives the positive characters/the Croats of an active role in the dramatic action. Although The Madonna, unlike A Time to, is somewhat richer in war scenes and although they have been better filmed, the undertakings of the Croat characters primarily focus on symbolic and ritual issues (inA Time to – a funeral, in My Dear Angel – escape on a donkey, here – making a religious statue), and not on social, political and war issues. In the storm of the war the Croats function only as meek sheep for slaughter, victims who passively suffer and endure and do little or nothing. Accordingly, Pavle Levi is right in saying that in (this) film “patriotism is measured by the text’s ability to … kill one’s own nation by the hand of the neighbouring ethnic enemy. In other words, in these films patriotism is measured by the degree of self-cadaverisation … the intensity of national necrophilia which they are able to generate” (Levi, 2007: 128). Comparing The Madonna with Miroslav Lekić’s Nož/The Knife, Levi illustrates them with a suitable quotation of the nationalistic Orthodox Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović: “Mourn for me while I am alive, not when I am dead.” (Levi, 2007: 128) 

This “self-cadaverisation” is crucial for every film of self-victimisation. Unlike Partisan films, these films face a taboo: they must never show our side being active, retaliating or resisting. In films of self-victimisation our sidecan only be passive, inactive victims, and the power of this dramatic taboo comes to expression in the finale ofThe Madonna, in which Hitrec uses an open ending to avoid showing the hero taking revenge. 

This taboo – obviously typical in Croatian cinema of the nineties – is clearly rooted in psychology, real-politics and communication. As interpreted by Boris Buden, when the war began the message Croatian culture sent to the West changed from the formerly dominant: we are the same as you are (we are hard-working, Central European, cultured, antemurale christianitatis), into its complete opposite: we are victims. “The identity formed in the process of political recognition and under which the Croats were finally recognised is the pure identity of victimhood… Croatia was recognised only after it had become a victim.” (Buden, 1999: 81) Under these circumstances the victim role became such political and cultural capital that the filmmakers in institutional cinema did not even think of playing and gambling with this capital by offering their public the “sinful pleasure” of an action war film.

Thus The Madonna, like other films of self-victimisation, rejected the tradition of the classic narrative style. The classic narrative style implies that we follow an action of the main hero which is relevant enough to keep our interest, whereas in films of self-victimisation such actions are ideologically contraindicated, and thus tacitly prohibited. Between pandering to viewers’ enjoyment and satisfying the pragmatic requirements of Ideology as the Spectator-in-Chief, films of self-victimisation chose the latter. The consequence was completely understandable: these films were not popular with the public. 


5.4. A correction of the model: Surrounded

Most state-building films in Croatia met with derision, had few viewers and were largely unpopular with the audience at large. Critics usually said this was because of their “low quality” – without giving a closer explanation of what this meant – or their “propagandism” – forgetting the immense popularity and success of the just as nationalistic and propagandistic music of - for example - Miroslav Škoro or Marko Perković Thompson.

The main reasons why these films were unpopular may not have been their propagandism, or even whether they were well made or not. They were more probably unpopular because they departed from the norm of the classic narrative style whose imperative is an active hero instead of a hero who is passive and does not take part in the main action. If this is so, it explains why Croatian war veterans often did not like state-building films. Instead of films showing the Croats’ courage and active resistance, films that they expected and which agreed with their experiences as viewers of Western (and also Partisan) action films, Croatian cinema served them films in whichtheir, i.e. our side, does nothing! It is therefore not surprising that veterans were angry with some state-building films, such as Dubrovački suton/Dubrovnik Dusk (1999, Željko Senečić). The Dubrovnik veterans and the local MP and war veteran Srećko Kljunak attacked this film, produced by Tuđman’s son Stjepan, saying that “it showed the defenders as drunks and deserters”, that the “film retailors Croatian history” and “leaves the impression that Dubrovnik was conquered” (Pavičić, 1999a: 6). What upset the war veterans was not the film’s “unpatriotic” ideological viewpoint (it was extremely “patriotic”, the producer had family ties with the President and the director was a privileged regime director) but something else: on one hand, the discrepancy between the stylistic codes inherent in a film of self-victimisation and expectations based on the classic narrative style, i.e. a genre film, and on the other, the imbalance between showing the Croats as meek and passive and the veterans’ own narrative identity, in which they saw themselves as courageous, enterprising victors.[5] 

This same happened in the wider cultural context. Cultural products based on self-victimisation were often met with irony and mockery (like Ivčić’s song Stop the War in Croatia), while the most popular cultural products of the era remain the ones with an activist viewpoint, those that showed resistance. This is equally true of high culture (for example, Antun Šoljan’s poem Vukovarski arzuhal/Petition for Vukovar, in which the poet threatens “you will pay for all this wreckage /you will remember Vukovar”), action pulp-novels, such as TG-5 by Igor Petrić (which describes a commando exploit by Croatian guardsmen in the enemy hinterland on Velebit, and the plot and style are reminiscent of Guns of Navarone by Alistair Mc Lean) and of pop-music (for example, the most popular Croatian “war evergreen” Čavoglave by Marko Perković Thompson, in which the singer specifies who the enemy are by listing the Orthodox villages in Petrovo polje and even threatens, “Our hand will reach you/even in Serbia!”).

Had there been a model for this in cinema, what would it have been like? Would it have been in the style of a genre film? Would it have resembled Voina/War (2002) by Alexey Balabanov or 9 rota/9th Regiment (2005) by Fyodor Bondarchuk, or any of the similar, extremely nationalistic Russian war thrillers? We cannot know for certain, because no such film was even made in Croatia, but we can make a guess based on the amateur short film U okruženju/Surrounded (1998) made in Požega by the war invalid Stjepan Sabljak (1968-2004) and a group of war veterans for only ten thousand German Marks. This amateur film – which also gained public renown because it was made using live ammunition – was completely the product of dilettantes, former fighters, which makes it interesting because despite the clumsy production it shows the kind of film that the target audience of self-victimisation films would have made.  

The outlook in Sabljak’s film is just as black-and-white, politically one-sided and nationalistic as in the films of self-victimisation. Here, too, the Serbs are shown as caricatures, dishevelled Chetniks, “the costumes and makeup are exaggerated, the Chetniks wear what are unmistakably cheap wigs, the characters are one-dimensional and the acting painfully self-conscious and unnatural … the narrative model is so obviously dilettante that it cannot hide the traces of its own structure” (Levi, 2007: 119). But where Sabljak’s attempt fundamentally differs from the norm instate-building films is not the (basically identical) ideology of nationalism, but the dramaturgic choice. InSurrounded the dramaturgy of self-victimisation is replaced by the dramaturgy of typical action films, whether those made in Hollywood or the Partisan type as made by Hajrudin Krvavac. The makers of Surrounded even advertised their film as the “first Croatian amateur action film”, not shrinking from using the label of a “trivial” genre, in which they differed from mainstream filmmakers.

In his analysis Pavle Levi rightly notes that Surrounded, unlike The Madonna, “shows no interest at all in the reasons for the ethnic hatred”, which it “accepts as a natural fact not open to discussion, something that is simply given” (Levi, 2007: 118-119). Rightly recognising this as a naked and pure symptom of the self-perpetuation of nationalism, Levi fails to notice the local Croatian context of this choice. Leaving “even a  pretence at an explanation” out of the film (Levi), not showing the causes, relinquishing passive self-victimisation and opting for the rudiments of the action genre of both the Krvavec and Walter Hill type, Sabljak and his amateurs in fact (completely unconsciously) metafilmically attacked the film of self-victimisation. Instead of it, they chose a classic action film in the Partisan tradition, which closes the circle in a way that must obviously be a nightmare for the conservative aesthetic public. Films of self-victimisation, i.e. state-building films, were not bad because they resembled socialist-realistic Partisan spectacles, but – the opposite – because they were fundamentally different from them: and Surrounded was an attempt by amateurs to bridge that stylistic gap.

Nonetheless, in the state-ruled Croatian cinema state-building films of self-victimisation were made, despite their unpopularity, during the entire Tuđman era, in the first place because Croatian films were not really made for the public but for the state/ministry/ruling ideology and for an imaginary world public with the task of informing it of the truth about Croatia. This poetical model developed and survived because of the wish to satisfy those two tasks, and died out the moment when political changes made these tasks superfluous.


5.5. The case of Kosovo: Anathema

The Croatian public and critics prevailingly believed, and still do, that state-building films of self-victimisation were a locally specific trend of the Croatian nineties, made as the product of a particular social climate and cultural policy exclusively connected with Croatia in the nineties under Tuđman.   

The following example shows that this is not so and that films of self-victimisation appeared in other post-Yugoslav cinemas as well, where political and ideological preconditions existed: heightened nationalism, armed aggression, a prevalent feeling that our nation is someone’s victim, and the wish to send abroad a message about political conditions understood in this way. All these components existed in Croatia in the nineties, just as they did in Kosovo after 1999. The example of the film Anatema/Anathema (2006) by Agim Sopi shows the appearance of the film of self-victimisation there, too, in a very different cultural context.

Kosovo cinema was brought back to life in the real sense with Isa Qosja’s film Kukumi (2005), which had a degree of foreign success partly also because it mocked and ironised the exaltation of young statehood. Sopi’s filmAnathema is completely different: although very critical of Kosovo reality and especially of the inherited patriarchal mentality, this film in many ways includes the general points seen in Croatian films of self-victimisation.   

Anatema begins with a title sequence showing visually stylised documentary war scenes: attacking Serbian tanks and ruins. After this sequence the film takes us to a small, unnamed Kosovo town through whose streets terrified civilians are running from the Serbian army which is shooting and killing indiscriminately. An American television crew appears in this chaos, and they find a wounded little girl in the street. They take her to the nearest medical facility, which is in the Serbian military base, where the Serbian officer accuses the journalists of spying and the girl is killed. Astounded by what he has seen, the American journalist Schwartz (Doug Barron) wants to inform the world, but his editor tells him that his assignment has been cancelled and that he is being sent to Gaza. His interpreter, an Albanian woman Ema Berisha (Lumnie Sopi), decides do the task herself. She goes to her own town, which is already in disarray because of the advancing Serbian forces. Ema uses the lull in the war to get married and spend her first wedding night. But in the morning the Serbs occupy the town, take away the Albanian women and mass rape them, and the colonel kills Ema’s mother. Ema ends up in Tirana with relatives. After the war, however, she faces new suffering: she has had a child but the community casts her off because they think that the child is the fruit of rape, and her husband no longer wants to have anything to do with her. Seeing that the child is a burden on her future, Ema takes him to an orphanage. The reporter Schwartz soon returns to Kosovo, and Ema is also helped by the Albanian officer Shpati (Blerim Gjoci) who was the one who saved her in the war. Ema soon realises that the monastery/orphanage is only a front for child prostitution and white slavery organised by local gangsters and the Belgrade mafia. She enters the institution pretending to be a servant, finds her child, in the decisive moment Shpati and the Kosovo army occupy the monastery, but then KFOR buts in, disarms the Kosovo forces and saves the villains.

As can be seen, Anatema is a dramatic diptych that can be clearly divided in two parts: the first is about the martyrdom of the Albanian/Kosovo collective ethnicity, and the second a rather inept film of social criticism showing the martyrdom of an educated and self-confident single mother in the patriarchal society of independent Kosovo. The first part is especially interesting because it is unusually similar to Croatian examples.

In Anathema, too, the place where the war suffering takes place is shown as traditional, highly idealised and very appealing. All the sites in which the Serbian crimes take place are ancient, stone-built centres of small Kosovo towns, the streets are clean and unspoiled by new interpolations, with a prevalence of the traditional architecture of stone paving, doors and stairways. Most of the places with a modern connotation are linked with the Serbs: the Serbian army has its headquarters in an abandoned industrial plant.

In Sopi’s film demonising the ethnic Other goes even further than in Croatian examples. The Serbs in Anathemaliterally stop at nothing. In the introductory scene their officer does not kill the wounded child saying, “leave her there, let her feel the pain”. The Serbian colonel later has the girl killed in cold blood. The Serbs in the army base are very similar to those in Oja Kodar’s film: unshaven, obese, untidy, grotesquely evil, anti-Semitic, they call themselves “the people of heaven”. Their colonel plays chess with a prisoner and shoots him when the prisoner checkmates him. Sopi uses an extremely grotesque style to show the ethnic Other, with admixtures of surrealism, so that in some scenes we feel an embryonic influence of Alejandro Jodorowski, Pasolini or Lordan Zafranović. In one scene the Serbian officer bathes in a bath filled with flower petals in a deserted thermo-electric power plant, holding a crucifix, with an Orthodox priest beside him, but also a succession of semi-nude women and champagne. Surrounded by this bizarre scene, the colonel interrogates the foreign journalists and the Albanian interpreter.

Anatema, too, is overloaded with excessive explanations. The colonel does not refrain from explaining, in English, that this is a “dirty war…in the Serbian tradition”, the motif of the editorial board that pulls its crew out of Kosovo is shown as Western cynicism, and the dialogues between Ema and the American journalists serve to express moralistic horror: “this can't happen here… not here… not again” despairs Ema. Anathema includes a motif frequent in post-Yugoslav, but not in Croatian films:[6] the figure of the foreign observer/arbiter through whose perspective the viewer from third cultures should look on the world in the narrative.[7] However, in Sopi’s film Westerners are shown in a light that is far from complimentary – what is more, as the film progresses KFOR and foreigners are increasingly shown as a factor of disruption that suspends justice and Kosovo statehood.

In the illustration of horror Anathema is very similar to the Croatian examples, but it draws more and with less inhibition from the stylistic repertoire of the war epic. This especially comes to expression in the middle part of the film, which shows the massacre in Ema’s home town. It begins with a scene of mass confusion and swarms of terrified people. Then follows the Serbian onslaught – again dramaturgically completely unprepared, like a bolt from the sky – and the grotesque scene of mass rape. After that follows a half long shot under the bluish dawn, the heroine is shown leaving the town in rags, weeping, everything is in a mist, crying can be heard and a sorrowful folk song. Self-victimisation is again – exactly as in Croatian examples – underlined by a religious ceremony. After the colonel shoots Ema’s mother, the old Catholic priest, who had only hours earlier married Ema on a burnt-out site, preaches about eternal life, and the victims pray. 

The final and most interesting correlation between Croatian films of self-victimisation and Anathema is the stand taken to showing armed resistance, i.e. to the defenders of the nation. In Sopi’s film the Kosovo army keeps appearing, as does the officer Shpati, the man who has the role of the patriarchal protector, the “knight in shining armour”, and finally the lover. However, although the first part of the film takes place in the midst of the war, Sopi conspicuously and consistently refrains from showing war activities of the Kosovo forces. Shpati and the UCK army disappear from the film, then reappear, and they patently disappear just at the moment when the civilians and the heroine are in danger. Mysteriously, they are never there when they are needed, and although we keep seeing them during the film, the Kosovo civilians, women and nation are delivered helpless to the diabolical enemy. In the first half of the film all the main characters (Ema, Schwarz, Ema’s fiancé and her mother) are conspicuously passive, and their (in)activity is reduced to suffering and impotent despair. Like in Croatian films of self-victimisation, in the Kosovo example the self-image of our nation as the unconditional victim is expressed in the specific dramaturgy: the heroes are condemned to non-action, only the Other/criminal has an active role in the plot, and the male protector/hero exists as an indicated force but never comes to expression in an active role. In this sense, the first part of Anathema is strikingly similar to A Time to and My Dear Angel. In the Kosovo film, like in the Croatian ones, the political community is formed through the status of the passive victim.

Things change completely in the second part of the film, when Anathema becomes a film of social criticism of the young social order and Ema turns from a passive sufferer to an action-thriller heroine and committed woman who enterprisingly faces adversity in the patriarchal society. Because of this the second part of Anathema has completely different stylistic characteristics, the epic of self-victimisation is replaced by a mixture of melodrama, crime story and political film, and gets the attributes of a completely different poetical model, much more characteristic of the post-Yugoslav two thousands.  


5.6. Go West

Made in 2005, at the time when the renaissance of Bosnian and Herzegovinian film was well under way, Go Westby director Ahmed Imamović is in many ways a kind of exception from the current norm. It was made at a time when post-Yugoslav cinemas had already moved beyond the poetics and ideology of self-victimisation to more sober war reminiscences. The film was a marked exception in a cinema in which the poetical model of self-victimisation – for reasons I will write about later – was not characteristic. Furthermore, Go West is interesting because here the stylistic model was brought to the highest level of receptive self-awareness and stylistic self-reflection.

Go West begins in the first days of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in occupied Sarajevo. The heroes are two homosexual lovers: Milan Ranković (Tarik Filipović), a Serb and judoist, and Kenan Dizdar (Mario Drmač), a Bosniak and violoncello student. Right at the beginning the film introduces the leading motif of films of self-victimisation – that of Serb duplicity – in the scene when the Milan’s Serb judo partner offers him a gun and encourages him to join the war: Milan, however, refuses. When the war in Sarajevo intensifies, Milan persuades Kenan to flee with him to the West but the Serb army takes them off the train not far from Milan’s home village. To save the life of his Bosniak lover, Milan disguises him as a woman and introduces him to the soldiers as his girl-friend. As they cannot continue on their journey, Milan and the disguised Kenan go to Milan’s house, to his father Ljubo (Rade Šerbedžija), a returnee from the USA who keeps the village inn. Milan and Kenan – who is known as Milena in the village – try to obtain exit papers from the Serb part of B&H. In the meantime Milan is drafted to the Serb army, so the false fiancée – in fact a man and a Muslim – remains alone in the Serb village, under the same roof with his “father-in-law” from whom he must hide his identity. The neighbour Ranka (Mirjana Karanović), a single mother and the village witch, discovers his identity. Wanting a man, Ranka seduces Kenan, and when he refuses to go away with her, she casts a spell on Milan. Milan really is killed in the war, and in a rage his father Ljubo attacks the war-mongering priest. Kenan, crushed by his loss, refuses Ranka, who in jealous fury smashes his ‘cello using the graveyard cross. At the end Kenan tells the whole story on French television, where his studio hostess is the actress Jeanne Moreau.

The main characteristic of films of self-victimisation – a strong impulse to explain – is visible literally from the first scene in Go West. The film brings a textual explanation of the chronology of and reasons for the B&H war already in the title sequence, in letters on a dark background. This is followed by a video tape of Kenan in the French TV studio, explaining the gender situation in B&H: “The Serbs, who are Orthodox, hate the Muslims, the Muslims do not like the Serbs, there are also Croats who are not friends with the Muslims right now, but all this will stop … but they will all equally continue to hate homosexuals. It is easier to stand having a killer in your family than a gay.”

Explicit explanation continues to remain a dominant feature of Go West. The scene at the judo training – where his partner tries to persuade Milan to take up arms – is edited parallel with a scene from the theatre where the master of ceremonies is talking about the need for living together, and Kenan is waiting to start playing. Throughout the film Imamović finds it necessary to openly underline what is politically obvious: Milan brings Kenan the news that his family have been killed, commenting “they had enough time and enough hatred”, the Orthodox priest blesses the wounded with the cry, “Serbia from New York to Tokyo”, at the end of the film Milan’s friend Lunjo (Haris Burina) sees Kenan off on the train with an almost “columnist-like” monologue whose point is, “We are slaughtering one another like in the Middle Ages, and people are making silicon chips.” The framework scene in the French TV studio, besides fitting a Western observer into the film, also functions as an explanation of this view. Asked by Jeanne Moreau to play something, Kenan plays without his instrument which Ranka had smashed (which is in itself a bombastic and shallow metaphor), and when the hostess says, “je suis désolée… j'ai ne rien entendu” (I’m sorry… I didn’t hear anything), Kenan/the narrator/the author answers “you should have told me to play louder”, by which he polemically and ironically comments the fact that – using a metaphor from the nineties – the West was deaf to the entreaties from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In Go West, just like in the kindred Croatian and Kosovo examples, a firm iconographic difference is made betweenus and them. However, in keeping with the political myth about urban coexistence in Sarajevo and about the ’92 war as one between city dwellers and non-urban country dwellers, this difference does not run strictly along ethnic lines but is a distinction between town/high culture/tolerance – village/primitivism/nationalism. The place and culture of our side is made to look beautiful, like in the Croatian and Kosovo examples, only this time it is not a rural and folklore arcadia but urban Sarajevo: Belle Époque Austro-Hungarian architecture along the river Miljacka, evening lights reflected from washed asphalt, dinner jackets, ‘cello music, political speeches about centuries-old tolerance. When circumstances bring Kenan to Milan’s home region, the ‘cello becomes the synegdoche of lost urbanity. So Kenan – like Władysław Szpilman, the hero of Roman Polanski’s Pianist – fulfils his supressed need for music by sitting alone in his room and imagining music, with his instrument dumb, while the meta-diegetic sound of his introspective “playing” can be heard off through images that show the primitive wasteland: forest and barren rocks, mist and the large wickerwork dummies/scarecrows which the villagers arrange around the village as some kind of pagan idols. An even more direct use of the same procedure is the scene in which the peasants mourn the death of their soldiers: lamentation, wailing and the playing of gusle can be heard outside, and in the room Kenan imagines himself playing the ‘cello. In Go West the ‘cello functions similarly as the wooden statue in The Madonna: as a direct and rather two-dimensional mark of spiritual elevation and belonging to civilisation. And just as in the Croatian film the statue is violated, so here the furious and possessive Ranka shatters the ‘cello (with a grave cross!). In both cases the act of barbaric destruction of civilisation is connected to unrestrained passion, accompanied by jealousy, eroticism and unbridled sexuality. From A Time to to Go West, films of self-victimisation always treat eroticism in the same way: extremely conservatively, showing the corporal as a component of the barbaric, violent and destructive. In Go West this is all the stranger as the film declaratively supports gender emancipation and an anti-religious, secular stand.    

Go West is one of the few, if not the only film made in Bosnia and Herzegovina in which there is an obvious demonization of the ethnic/political Other. Analysing Imamović’s film, the Croatian critic Mima Simić rightly notes that in Go West “the honourable Serb exceptions (Ljubo, Milan’s friend Lunjo) confirm the rule of the Serbs collectively as evil, toothless, dirty and brutal, and Orthodox churches as grotesque war-mongering institutions”, and she connects Go West with Croatian state-building films,  noticing that the “narrator is extremely inclined to ethnic stereotype, calling to mind the masterpieces of ideological-political kitsch from the cameras of Jakov Sedlar and/or Oja Kodar” (Simić, 2006). In Go West, however, demonising the Other is not unwitting, haphazard and iconographically primitive, as in the Croatian and Kosovo examples. Imamović is fully aware of how the West looks on the Balkans, which he internalises through the character of the TV journalist. In the same way he raises vilifying the Other to a level of consciousness that goes beyond the film itself, operating with imagery from films about World War II, spaghetti westerns (which he himself gives as a key influence) and the Balkan film, including the films of Emir Kusturica. As Mima Simić rightly notes, in his desire to make a politically rhetoric point Imamović “speaks the language that everyone understands, the language of stereotype” (Simić, 2006).

This deeper level is expressed as soon as the area under Serb control is entered. The scene takes place at night, on a railway station, and begins with a detail of the Serb officer’s sleeve: the officer is dressed in a dark-coloured leather overcoat similar to those worn by the SS, and on his sleeve he has a red band which blatantly alludes to those worn by the SS, except that instead of a swastika the white circle holds the Serb arms with firesteels. The entire iconography – night, steam from the engine, bursts of gunfire in the distance – transparently alludes to films about the holocaust, or to Yugoslav films about Nazi deportations (for example, the introduction of Ne okreći se sine/Don’t Look Back, Son by Branko Bauer from 1956).

The Serb village is shown through a combination of visual codes used in spaghetti westerns and what Daković (2008) and Iordanova (2006) call the “Balkan genre”. Ljubo’s and Milan’s village belongs to a backward civilisation, arid stones surrounded by more stones, gravel screes and deserted surface mines, and besides this landscape, the “western” visualisation is underlined by wooden huts, cattle pens and an inn (which, considering that Ljubo had returned from Texas, looks like a saloon). In showing the Serb rural culture and warmongering atmosphere, Imamović does not refrain from using the most grotesque iconographic combinations: children wear fur hats and brandish Kalashnikovs, the usual imagery of Serb parties (plum brandy, trumpets, roast pork), and there is even a bear (!). In a grotesque wedding scene, we see peasants riding on a gigantic tipper lorry used for surface mining, there are gusle and banners, and the unshaved, plump male singer in a white suit sings about “ten fingers to beat the Turk”. The village priest is a legless invalid who commutes from village to church raised and lowered in a grotesque wooden elevator. On his chair is a carved Serb coat-of-arms, and in the church he sings to gusle about the Vatican, Mecca and Washington who have ganged up against the Serbs. In what is certainly the most bizarre scene in the film, Bosniak prisoners – in an absurd inversion – pull a trailer in which there is a horse, and this grotesque procession is followed by a jeep pulling a speedboat through the dry wasteland, carrying soldiers and boisterous girls![8]

Criticising Go West as a seemingly gender-engaged but in fact a latently homophobic and basically conservative film, Mima Simić wrote:

The erotic component of the homosexual relationship is reduced to a shy minimum – the only kiss we see takes place in the dark and in an almost panoramic shot, while, on the other hand, the film does not hold back from showing female nakedness (masturbation!) and explicit scenes of heterosex. Rather sad, one would say, for a film whose main promotion strategy was homosexuality. (Simić, 2006)

Not only this critic but many others, as well, objected to the lack of warmth and convincing show of devotion between the two homosexual heroes in Imamović’s film: what is more, the three longest and most elaborately filmed scenes between Kenan and Milan are scenes of quarrelling, precisely distributed as in acts of a play at the beginning, middle and end. The relationship between the two heroes does not for a moment seem one of true affection. Furthermore, Kenan’s only sign of real emotion is for the fate of his own political collective, i.e. for the razed ruins of the neighbouring, slaughtered Bosniak village. Kenan visits it, meditates over the left-over sneakers and the devastated homes, and these scenes – visually and structurally similar to the journey through ruins in A Time to – are the only scenes when Kenan opens up emotionally. Like Kodar’s and Radić’s heroes, Kenan is completely passive, compliantly resigned and dependent on the help of other people, and just like in the Croatian and Kosovo cases, the personification of this help is a man/lover/patriarchal figure of authority (Milan) whose effective help is in fact put off, or even completely prevented. Thus Kenan is no more than a helpless, passive observer of brutality and primitivism. Unlike in the more direct and cruder Croatian cases, here the evil and primitivism of the Other are not shown through explicit atrocities (because in Go West they happened before Kenan’s arrival) but through the cultural “superstructure” of evil: militarism, harnessing the Church and chauvinistic propaganda, turbo-folk music, hate speech and so on. Furthermore, Imamović’s film no longer shows this through the naïve use of direct propaganda, but gives an intertextual and meta-genre approach and uses the imagery of films of self-Balkanisation, a stylistic model that had already been imprinted on Western reception as a regional brand. In doing so, Imamović was not in the least troubled by the fact that this stylisation, based on a kind of self-exoticising attitude, is founded on ideological connotations that are the complete opposite of those demonstrated in his film.  

Comparing Go West with Croatian examples from the nineties, Mima Simić noted that in his film Imamović took over the “burden of responsibility for the people he represents”, because of which “the story can scarcely be complex and stratified”, and “Kenan and Ahmed decide to sacrifice art on the altar of the homeland” (Simić, 2006). All these are reasons why Imamović’s film is closely related to the poetical paradigm of Croatian state-building films from the nineties. However, Go West differs from them by the context in which it was made. In Croatia, films of self-victimisation were the dominant kind of production in one period, relatively frequent[9] and ideologically and institutionally desired. In Bosnia and Herzegovina this was not so, notwithstanding that the Bosniaks/Muslims were both absolutely and relatively by far the greatest victims of the Yugoslav wars of the nineties.

This can probably be explained by the content of the national ideology of Croats and the Kosovo Albanians on one hand, and Bosniaks on the other. Both the Croatian and the Kosovo/Albanian ideology hinge on the motif of perpetuated national martyrdom, there is a tacit understanding that “they have always oppressed us”, that “they are impossible to live with” and that is why we must part ways (even if this means using force). In the context of the various national ideologies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the motif of eternal hatred rife in Bosnia, of the impossibility of the different nations living together and of Bosnia as a country of perpetual contradictions was, and has remained, not at the core of the Bosniak or the Unitary-Bosnia national programme, but on the contrary, it belongs to the secessionist Croat and Serb political programmes. As proof and an example of the “impossibility of Bosnia” they often (fabricating the essence of the text) mention Letter from 1920 by Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić, in which the narrator, in the first person, calls Bosnia “a land of hatred and fear” and continues: “…while everyone is sleeping, division keeps vigil in the counting of the late, small hours, and separates these sleeping people who, awake, rejoice and mourn, feast and fast by four different and antagonistic calendars, and send all their prayers and wishes to one heaven in four different ecclesiastical languages. And this difference, sometimes visible and open, sometimes invisible and hidden, is always similar to hatred, and often completely identical with it”(see Kazaz, 1999, Lovrenović, 2008).[10]

On the other hand, the Bosniaks as a nation have the greatest existential interest in the survival of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and when they conjure up the history and identity of B&H they always emphasise components of inter-confessional harmony, a balanced life of togetherness and the deep links among the Bosnian and Herzegovinian peoples. Idealisation of the Ottoman period of tolerance and multiculturalism is an essential component of Bosniak ideologies, both secular and less secular. Because of this, films of self-victimisation contradicted the cultural self-image and the dominant ideology of Sarajevo as the city of the Bosniak nation. Cultural products that accentuated the “eternal” and “irreconcilable” conflict and that collectively demonised the ethnic Other undermined the dominant and ideologically desirable self-image of Bosnia as seen in Sarajevo. A characteristic example of this is Namik Kabil’s documentary film Informativni razgovori/Interviews (2007), in which even after the interviewer’s repeated attempts the interviewed citizens (most of them Bosniak) uneasily avoid naming the attackers on Sarajevo or Mostar, indirectly calling them “they”, “the men from the mountains”, “everyone knows who”.   

This everyone-knows-who position is characteristic of most of B&H cinema, where the ethnic/ideological/political Other is either completely bypassed or is shown in a post-war and non-ideological context. For Sarajevo-made films this rule holds regardless of the author’s ethnicity or world view. Imamović’s Go West is a major and inglorious exception to the above rule. 


5.7. Films of self-victimisation: conclusion

Films of self-victimisation were the dominant stylistic model in Croatian cinema until Tuđman’s death. In Kosovo cinema, because too few films were made, it is difficult to speak about a dominant model, but on the basis of several films (Kosovska žeđ/Kosovo Thirst, Anathema) the impression is that this cinema, had it been more developed, would have to a great extent been the same. In B&H cinema, for reasons I have already written about, films of self-victimisation were never the dominant model, but this model did sporadically appear, both through entire films and through stylistic and thematic components in films that cannot otherwise be incorporated in the model.

It is possible to critically challenge the claim that films of self-victimisation were the dominant model in Croatian cinema in the nineties: films belonging to this paradigm were not the most numerous, nor were they the best or most popular in that period. 

This is true, but nevertheless this stylistic model dominated cinema in the nineties. Although the most popular and most successful Croatian films of the period did not belong to the above paradigm, they all in some way related to the film of self-victimisation as the dominant, institutionally favoured and ideologically desirable model.

The important and good Croatian films of the nineties did this in two ways. The first was to completely ignore the existence of the dominant model, and their “rootless” and “unpatriotic” attitude made them a positive scandal, likeMondo Bobo (1997) by Goran Rušinović. 

The second way was to undermine the dominant model using irony, satire or deconstruction and by doing so provide the viewer who belonged to the local culture with subversive ideological pleasure. In Croatia this was the case with Brešan’s comedies Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku/How the War Started on my Island (1996) andMaršal/Marshal Tito (1999), Hrvoje Hribar’s Puška za uspavljivanje/Stun Gun (1996) or Snježana Tribuson’s Tri muškarca Melite Žganjer/The Three Men of Melita Žganjer (1998), and in Kosovo with the film Kukumi (2005) by Isa Qosja.

There is a reason why films belonging to the self-victimisation model appeared most of all in Croatia, and also sporadically in B&H and Kosovo. In the post-Yugoslav cinemas they can be recognised wherever there were specific political, ideological and social preconditions. These preconditions were war, external aggression, heightened nationalism and the dominant feeling that the community we belong to is an innocent and/or helpless victim. During the wars of the nineties this feeling prevailed in Croatia, among the Kosovo Albanians and among the Bosniaks and the Bosnia-oriented citizens of B&H.  

This self-image of victimhood was all the stronger because it was often challenged, more rarely locally and much more often from abroad. The political entities that felt themselves to be victims reacted to being challenged by insisting on their initial stand to caricatural proportions, by rigidly emphasising the irreconcilable difference between “black” and “white”, and by insistently denying that there could be any shades of grey. In Croatia this need to oppose any qualifying of blame for the war was verbally expressed through the demand to name the aggressor,which was a ritual obligation imposed on public figures, politicians, cultural workers and publicists. Turković (1999) showed that this discourse was not necessarily derived from the dictates of ideology (top-down), but that it was much more often an uncontrolled reaction of the general public (down-top), the psychological need of an endangered collectivity. 

Under such circumstances cinema, too, created narrative worlds incorporating naming the aggressor. In these narrative worlds the differences between the “goodies” and the “baddies” were clear and irreconcilable, most characters were fixed in one of these two opposites, and the opposites were often, although not always, delimited according to ethnicity. Films of self-victimisation used this black-and-white approach and moralising on the border of caricature to oppose any actual and potential attempts to “mist up” and qualify what was seen as a permanent political truth and the community’s existential experience.

Reality constructed in this way was coupled with a specific style. All films of self-victimisation, regardless of the differentiating nuances shown above, are basically similar. They are directed using pronounced rhetoric, a declamatory and explanatory discourse. In some components of style they adopt the tradition of the war epic, showing the fate of the masses and the collective, depicting history in broad gestures and including outstanding and elevated feats of distinguished and faultless heroes.  But unlike standard war epics, films of self-victimisation do not have an active hero, their heroes are either passive victims or act heroically to decrease/erase the effects of Evil on the symbolic level. In the need to emphasise the one-sided victimisation of Our Side and the total guilt of the Other, films of self-victimisation generate a specific dramaturgy, the dramaturgy of the collective victim. Spontaneously borrowing from the conventions of films created to make a profit and from the classic narrative style, films of self-victimisation usually include the character of a hero/saviour/avenger/patron (the son Darko in A Time to, the soldier in My Dear Angel, Kuzma in The Madonna), but since any act by an active hero who solves the problem is counter indicated by the ideology of self-victimisation, the producers of these films make the most unusual efforts to postpone, relocate, avoid, place after the time of the film or in a final frozen scene, the climactic reckoning with Evil. In this way the dramaturgy of self-victimisation brings alive the situation in which the victimised societies were actually living in the nineties: the situation in which those who were in trouble sought help from the West/World/Europe, but this help was only announced as a possibility but postponed to an undefined tomorrow.     

In content, but also in style, films of self-victimisation were performative utterances. They showed that there can be no relativistic approach to the Yugoslav war but that the side that is right deserves and is seeking for support, and at the same time they themselves were a plea for help. Internally they served as self-confirmation of the ruling ideology, and outwardly they asserted it.

Translated by Nikolina Jovanović. The translation is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre.

[1] An example is the episode of It's a Prot Pictures of 30 December 1991, with grotesque caricatures of JNA officers wearing fur hats and Serbian national hats.

[2] It should be noted that the existence of urban snipers who shot civilians from high-rises in behind-the-front towns was one of the most widespread urban legends of the Croatian war. However, in actual fact not one case of this sniper activity in the back lines was noted, and the existence of snipers and the KOS (Yugoslav intelligence service) back-lines network served as an excuse for arresting, and then killing Serbs in Zagreb, Split and Osijek, later uncovered in cases such as Pavilion 22, Lora and the “garage case”.  

[3] National suffering is similarly consecrated in the short feature film Olovna pričest/Leaden Communion by Eduard Galić from 1995, in which the suffering of a Croat political and war martyr (Božidar Alić) is dramaturgically intertwined with the rite and Stations of the Cross in a destroyed church.  

[4] This is so even in cases where there was no historical basis for a happy ending, as in the case of Sutjeska(1974) by Stipe Delić.

[5] This narrative identity can convincingly be documented from literally dozens of volumes of memoir and autobiographical prose published by Croatian war veterans. More about this in Cvitan (2002).

[6] On the contrary, in Croatian films the Western observer and peace forces are often shown in a mocking or sarcastic vein, for example in Srce nije u modi /The Heart is not In (Branko Schmidt, 2000) and in the example already mentioned, in Radić’s My Dear Angel.

[7] There is a foreign woman journalist in the films Lepa sela lepo gore/Pretty Village Pretty Flame by Srđan Dragojević, Pred doždot/Before the Rain by Milče Mančevski and Ničija zemlja/No Man’s Land by Danis Tanović. InNafaka (Jasmin Duraković, 2006) the foreign arbiter is an Afro-American woman who moved to Sarajevo, and inGo West (Ahmed Imamović, 2005) this role is taken by a woman TV journalist in the framework scene (Jeanne Moreau). It is important to note that characters of foreign observers was also often introduced because of coproduction arrangements, in which foreign co-financers often insisted on actors and/or characters from their own countries.    

[8] Describing the debate after the public screening of the film in the presence of the author, Simić wrote: “To a comment about the rather one-sided presentation of the Serbs, the director immediately asked the young man who had asked the question to tell him his year of birth. ‘Because had you been there,’ said Ahmed, ‘you would have known that the Serbs really were like that. And I’m sorry I didn’t have more money’, Imamović added sadly, ‘I would have shown them in an even worse light.’” (Simić, 2006). Imamović himself denied saying this, but he also shocked the public by using insulting and homophobic vocabulary in the debate.

[9] This frequency should be taken with a grain of salt: about ten of the 42 films made between 1993 and 2000 belong to this genre.

[10] Enver Kazaz and Ivan Lovrenović explained that interpreting Andrić’s text by identifying the narrator’s voice in the first person with an expression of the author’s political stance is a banal approach.