Post-Yugoslav Film: Style and Ideology

Jurica Pavičić

Stylistic Models

6. The Film of Self-balkanisation 1

The sixth part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

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.


Jurica Pavičić

Stylistic Models

6. The Film of Self-balkanisation 1

The sixth part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Jurica Pavičić

Stylistic Models

5. The Film of Self-victimisation

The fifth part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Imre Szíjártó

Cinemas in Central-Eastern-Europe at the End of the 1980s

The historical framework

In this chapter we attempt to delineate the socio-historical background of the Central-Eastern- European cinemas of the 1990s. We treat the period directly preceding the change of regime, namely the "end of the 1980s" as a relatively neutral period reference and describe events of the  period relevant to film history. Since state socialism collapsed in a different rhythm and logic in each country, we will discuss each country separately. As in previous chapters the descriptive approach will be complemented by a comparative one, since we also try to formulate the regional message of the transformation that took place in each country.

Jurica Pavičić

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

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

The fourth part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Iván Forgács

The Concept

Could there be a full gap between a state's political function and its ideology and recordable values with a humane trend? If not, in what kind of elements can be revealed the link? Is the opportunity of the violence game for this humanism inside? Could that state oppressor machineries work in the context of the humanism? How much was the film art of the East European state socialism specific? How much can be the intellectual-artistic peculiarities of the region's film production derived from the ideological values represented officially in these countries? May we talk about socialist cinema art in any kind of sense?

Jurica Pavičić

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

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

The third part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Imre Szíjártó

Theoretical Framework: Canon, Canonisation, School 

The political transformation in the East-Central-European region, which began in the second half of the 1980s and ended in the early 1990s, connected in two countries with the establishment of souvereignty, seems to be a perfect period – or to be more precisely, a perfect milestone in history – to analyse the constructedness of the canon. Although it is clear that changes in values systems do not occur from one day to the next, neither can they be understood as effects of historical milestone events, unless we pause the ever changing reality of culture. 

Jurica Pavičić

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

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

The second part of our translation project on publishing in English the text of Jurica Pavičić's book "Postjugoslovenski film: Stil i ideologija" (Hrvatski filmski savez, Zagreb, 2011.). The work is supported by the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. The text is translated by Nikolina Jovanović.

Krasimir Kastelov

Postmodernist Film Interpretations of the Communist Past

(The Bulgarian contribution in the context of the Central and East European cinema)

The proposed analysis of key films from the Bulgarian and the East European cinema shows, that their postmodernist specifics is not accidental, but it reflects the overall feeling of crisis, lack of meaning and absurdity which has engaged the minds of many filmmakers from our region – something typical for the transition between two eras, when one cultural paradigm is put aside, but a new one is still not widely adopted. On the other hand, the appearance of those films, in my opinion, refutes the premature conclusions of some Western theorists that the postmodernism is already dead. 
Thirty years after the first swallows of the postmodernist cinema in the West, the film art in the post-totalitarian East European countries takes advantage of its lessons in order to make sense of some of the unpleasant episodes of the communist past, “with irony, not innocently” by Umberto Eco’s definition. The wide international reaction to most of the titles, analyzed in the current overview, suggests perhaps the right path for overcoming the nostalgia of that era.