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The crime and the grime: former-Yugoslav filmmakers explore the dark.

A look at recent trends in filmmaking in this Balkan region.

Where is filmmaking going in the ex Yugoslavian region now, after the fall of communism and a lost decade of war? Filmmakers from different republics have struck out on their own, but move on parallel paths, and when it comes to screenplays about life in the twenty first century, there are some common threads. Keeping track of these threads is perhaps the best reason to attend the Sarajevo Film Festival when all the national productions display their best work.

click here to see the trailer

click here to see the trailer

Perhaps the films with the most potential for international success are the ambitious film noir features which have been produced in Serbia in recent years. These are character driven films in which people move relentlessly forward in their lives with a dynamic destructiveness that leads them right to the edge. Klopka, (The Trap), directed by Srdan Golubovic, is a masterful story of two parents’ attempt to pay for their child’s operation. Nebojsa Glogovac plays the tormented father. This was followed a year later in 2008 by The Fourth Man, directed by Dejan Zecevic, with a very similar feel, and a story that is perhaps even more riveting. Here, a man with amnesia finds himself manipulated by characters he cannot understand, predict or trust. Nikola Kojo and Marija Karan are outstanding in their roles. In these productions, the directors have taken advantage of the wealth of filmmaking talent and professional actors at their disposal in order to create films worthy of international recognition.

the trailer

the 4th Man trailer

Another urban genre that comes from Serbia uses far simpler contexts, but to surprising effect. The power is in their simplicity: they speak to people who are already familiar with this region using a symbolic shorthand that has an immediate impact. These are stories about the people who inhabit the Orwellian apartment blocks and grey crumbling neighborhoods of Belgrade, gritty, dangerous places. The scenes are peopled by an ensemble cast that depicts a social network that is still intact, but with absolutely no ability to support its members. These characters are not individuals, but members of a community in which the connections have all gone rotten. Unlike in the noir films, there are no “ticking clocks” in the plots, and that is precisely what makes them so disturbing: the sense that nothing changes, that there is only despair or hope, pick your choice.

If hope very rarely wins out in the end, it is only natural. In this world, people take out their frustrations and bitterness on each other, teenagers grow up violent and parents sometimes drink themselves into oblivion. This could be a relentlessly dismal landscape for a film, yet the stories succeed because they manage to make their characters’ tenderness and love of life show through. In 2006 there was Tomorrow Morning, directed by Oleg Novkovic, a film as moving and gut wrenching as Serbian head banger rock music. A young man has returned from abroad to spend a few days with his family and friends, and the inevitable confrontations reopen all the old wounds, one by one. Here again, the performances are the key to the film’s significance. Everyone is nuanced and complex, especially the two women, Nada Sargin and Danica Ristovski, who are beautiful sirens in their nihilism and subversiveness. The story shows these characters wearing their emotions on their sleeves, shouting their angst to the rooftops. The screenplay does not attempt to get too deep into their psyches, but that is okay, as this is twenty-something alienation, inarticulate and hinting at further development down the road. It is a theme that is taken up again in 2007 in the film Huddersfield, directed by Ivan Zivkovic.

Love trailer

Love trailer

Love & Other Crimes, gives the genre that further development, placing an older cast and setting a finely polished script. This 2008 film was directed by Stefan Arsenijevic and, not surprisingly, co-written with Srdjan Koljevic, of Klopka. It is a smoothly developed story of a group of marginalized people, somewhat more cynical, who live in a dehumanizing Belgrade apartment complex. Two rival neighborhood racket gangs extort protection money from neighborhood kiosk owners. They co-exist fine, until they are faced with the intractable problem of one kiosk that has been planted right on the boundary line between their turfs. The boss’ enforcer, played by Vuc Kostic, is in love with the boss’ girlfriend. Knowing that she plans to steal the boss’s money that evening and escape this dead end neighborhood forever, he attempt to woo her by bringing her around to see his personal world within their impersonal neighborhood. He shows her the spot where they first met, the roof, the neighborhood video store run by a mutual friend, his apartment, where his mother dreams pathetically about her career as a cabaret singer. It is the force of these cameo performances that really gives the film life, the lady in the kiosk who finally puts away her bitterness and accepts the makeup she is offered, the boss’s teenage daughter who toys with the idea of suicide, even the ditzy receptionist at the boss’s phony solarium business manages to imbue her barely speaking part with life and humor. Both Kostic and Anica Dobra, as the boss’ girlfriend, are excellent in their roles, giving these hard edge characters an extraordinary humanity and strength.

Themes of struggle against the unjust forces of society are not exclusively Serbian, though. Films like Tomorrow Morning or Love and Other Crimes are being made all over this region of the Balkans, where a promise for the future had hardly been fully articulated, before it was ruthlessly trashed by the forces of reality. These depressing scenes could be coming from Sarajevo, Zagreb or Skopje as well. But somehow, the same themes tend to look different from those places. It will be interesting to compare two new films with very similar concepts, following the lives of young urban hooligans, which will be released this year, one from Croatia and one from Serbia. Metastases, (Metastaze), directed by Branko Schmidt, is a hard hitting, visually brutal look at youths in Zagreb who are lost in a world of criminal gangs and drug abuse. It is scheduled for release in Croatia in July, 2009. The Serbian film with a similar

Skinning trailer

Skinning trailer

setting, is Skinning, (Sisanje), directed by Stefan Filipovic, which will open later in the year. This film focuses on the transformation of one young man, from math nerd to skinhead, as he is sucked into the overwhelming world of criminality that surrounds him in his working class Belgrade neighborhood

The Bosnian film It’s Hard to be Nice, directed by Srdjan Vuletic, looks at the postwar emotional landscape of Sarajevo, where a collective post traumatic stress disorder has taken hold and defined the normal relations between people. The main character, Fudo, and his friends treat each other with utter contempt, cheating and violently confronting each other at the slightest offense. This is not such a claustrophobic world as Belgrade, though. The outside world exists, but it is equally cruel and treated with equal hostility. Foreign tourists gaze at the ruined city indifferently and local robbers scan the home addresses of foreigners on extended stay in Sarajevo, targeting their apartments in Germany and Holland for burglary by accomplices. Fudo wants to be at peace with the world, but that’s not so easy, when he is being beaten down by the people and circumstance around him. Almost at the breaking point, in the final scenes he stands bloody and enraged, and stares into the eyes of a young child, deciding what to do. Sasa Petrovic won the best actor award in Sarajevo in 2007 for his role as Fudo. This is not surprising, considering this is just the type of role that goes over especially well at Sarajevo. Daria Lorenci also does well as his wife Azra. The story has been told before, but here the conflict is on-going and essentially unresolved in the end. This also works well in Bosnia, because it reflects the reality of this republic where an uncertain and unreal peace fails to totally mask the wounds. Whether those wounds are healing or festering is still anyone’s guess, and this provides the inherent tension of the film. Bosnian audiences respond positively to a story like this, because the open end suggests the possibility that this torn nation will heal through sheer force of reason. I wonder if Serbian audiences would accept such optimism for their own stories.

Another well-known film of this past year is the Macedonian I am from Titov Veles, by Teona

Titov Veles clip

Titov Veles clip

Mitevska, about three sisters in a small industrial city who dream of escaping from the polluted, haunted place they inhabit. But this is quite different from the films described above, in that these women are outsiders in their own world. They are the daughters of refugees, and they seem to maintain a real distance from their neighbors. Their isolation is one of the main themes of the story. this is the opposite of the characters in the Belgrade stories, where everyone is overwhelmed by their connectedness, feeling trapped by social responsibilities and the demands of family and friends. In Kino Lika, Croatian director Dalibor Matanic takes a similar approach to Mitevska, by telling a story against the backdrop of mountains, sky and village life. In these two films, the viewer gets the feeling that the answers lie somewhere in the forgotten traditions, in the wisdom of the ancestors.

At Sarajevo, 2008, the Slovenian film, We’ve never been to Venice, directed by Blaz Kutin, premiered. This film about parents dealing with the death of their young child, looked at alienation from a completely different angle, a withdrawal from the world into a mental prison of self-recrimination and silent despair. The lonely struggle of this couple is in some way similar to the ambitious father in the Croatian film Armin, directed by Ognjen Svilicic, and shown in 2007.

Each of the former republics has its own unique perspective and idiosyncratic problems, and each one can create a slightly different art. When they come together as equals, at Sarajevo in August, they are worth so much more than their parts. They create a stereoscopic view of their cultures. The guns have long fallen silent, and Serbians, Macedonians, Slovenians and Bosnians can give expression to their arts again, now for the first time in a century, as distinct cultures. But not everything will be easy, the international borders that have gone up on the region’s roadways, have gone up in people’s minds as well. The Sarajevo Film Festival, which takes place every August, gives filmmakers from across the region the chance to jump those boundaries, and to get together again, as people from distinct cultures, but sharing in a common aesthetic, a common history and similar problems.

Serbian cinema on Wikipedia

Serbian Film Commission


May 15, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , | 1 Comment

I am from Titov Veles: Special mention at Sarajevo

The Macedonian film, I am from Titov Veles won the Special Jury Award at the 2007 Sarajevo Film Festival. Special is just the right word for this movie, the latest from Teona Mitevska.
Perhaps the jury has a soft spot for this film, which was a SFF CineLink project in 2004, but there is no doubt that it is a special film. Teona Mitevska tells the story of three sisters who live together in a struggling post-industrial town in Macedonia. As the rest of the townsfolk get on more or less successfully with their lives, the three sisters are haunted and crippled by the past: their broken family history, and the physical and psychological damage caused by pollution, sexual promiscuity and drug addiction. The focus is on the youngest sister, Afrodita, who refuses to speak and lives in a dream world of desires and fantasies. She knows these things are unreal, but she is unable to live without them.
The film itself is at times dreamlike, surrealistic and poetic and at other times, brutally naked. This type of imagery may not appeal to all audiences, but it is well done and gives the film its unique quality. However, in my opinion, it is something else which makes this film special: the relationship between the sisters and their interaction with others. Teona Mitevska knows about family relationships, her production company is headed by herself and her two siblings, and she puts a lot of personal knowledge into this story. Morevoer, her sister, the very accomplished actress, Labina Mitevska, plays the lead role, successfully channeling Teona’s unique style of storytelling.
At the awards ceremony on Saturday evening, August 25, Teona played her “special” role to the hilt, floating onstage in her floorlength gown, she gave an emotional speech in which she tried to explain her personal vision of cinema, But no explanation was necessary, since the film speaks for itself. Labina and her brother were there, the multitalented trio not disappointing, as they took the limelight with their idiosyncratic wardrobe and creative spirit. Special is precisely the right word for them, and for this film.
I am from Titov Veles. 2006, Macedonia. Written and directed by Teona Strugar Mitevska.

May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , | 1 Comment