Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

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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

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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

7 Virgins. When Ballesta poses and pouts

Sarajevo FF, 2007. A film review.
It’s a drama, it’s a slick flick, and it’s “pretty-bad.” When does a non-judgmental style simply become exploitation? That’s a question still to be answered. The only sure thing is that this seductive Spanish film will successfully separate teenagers from the price of admission in their wallets.
Seven Virgins is a seductively cinematic story that is tragic on several levels. Tano, played by Juan José Ballesta, is a teenage boy who is serving time in a reform school. He comes out on a 48 hour pass in order to attend his brother’s wedding. We are instantly charmed by his youthful vigor, (Ballesta was born in 1987!) but forewarned by Tano’s coldness to the brother who has come to pick him up at the institution. We are then treated to the sight of him stealing money from his grandmother nearly as soon as he walks in the door. During the following two days, we see him fall back in with his casually delinquent friends. The relationships that he has are heartbreakingly dysfunctional. Among his friends the only allowable shows of affection are the play of insults. This game of dissing is fairly normal among macho characters, but these characters don’t know when to stop, they lovingly insult each other to the point of provoking violence. On top of that, they steal from each other, and recklessly put each other into danger. They all clearly care about each other, but are prevented from showing it by the macho rules they live by. The only affection Tano can publicly show is for the dead, the people that he has killed in a car accident, and even there, one has to wonder if he is sorry for the dead or for the fact that he is now serving the sentence.

His relationship with his girlfriend is nothing more than carnal, a situation she finds nearly unbearable, and when he gives her a gold chain that he has obviously stolen from a friend, this is the last straw, and she leaves him. At first he finds it impossible to speak to his brother about his brother’s hesitations about marriage, but then he does eventually reach out to his brother, and helps to make the wedding a success. Presumably, this is supposed to represent some kind of personal growth on Tano’s part, but it is peanuts, in the context of everything else that occurs.
The film is very entertaining, in an irresponsible and exploitative way. That, to my mind, is the saddest part of all. Teenage rebelliousness has existed forever, but the nihilism depicted here is something more disturbing. It is the dislocation of a society

Juan Jose Ballesta in a poster

Juan Jose Ballesta in a poster

moving headlong into a new century, when Grandma still lives in a peasant world of superstition, while the teen is living in a world of drugs and petty theft at the shopping mall. Yet, we are never asked to reflect on this social schizophrenia in any meaningful way during the film, we are just invited to enjoy watching the teens have sex and play their deadly pranks as though it were all a big joke. To my mind, this is cruel treatment of the characters and careless irresponsibility toward the young audience. The film does serve as a fine vehicle for the young star, Juan José Ballesta, as he performs in ever more complex roles. (check out his excellent performance in Ladrones, (Thieves) in 2007 to see his professional growth). Indeed, this stardust connection may be the only thing keeping “7 Virgins” from speedy obscurity.

What are the ethical responsibilities of a filmmaker that presents such drowning, amoral characters as sexy role models for the young people of his country? I don’t know, but I have a feeling that we don’t discuss this enough. Perhaps the filmmaker would claim that he does not mean for these characters to be role models, and that his audience will be sophisticated enough to perceive the underlying sadness of these boys, but I would not be convinced and I think the film’s official website proves otherwise. I don’t think we should allow filmmakers to get away with such disingenuous cop-outs. To be fair, there is some attempt to depict the inevitable consequences for the boys’ actions, both for them and for their victims, but it is overwhelmed by the unreasonably sympathetic characterizations and fawning rationales for their irresponsibility.
The film was presented in the “TeenArena” section of the Sarajevo Film Festival, films devoted to teenage viewers. The promotional copy ends with the observation that “Tano’s leave turns out to be a journey into maturity.” This is surprising, as it suggests that we are to consider Tano’s irresponsible actions at the end of the film to represent some kind of maturity. I think Spain’s future deserves something better than that, as do the boys in the film, who are the biggest victims of their own predicaments. The acting was excellent, and in fact, the main actors have won awards in Spain for their performances, but this movie, probably the most professionally filmed and commercially viable in the category, did not manage to seduce the young jury and audiences who judged the TeenArena. It was passed over for the Best Teen Film award, which was won by “This is England,” directed by Shane Meadows.
7 Virgins. 2005, Spain. Directed by Alberto Rodriquez, written by Rodriguez and Rafael Cobos, and produced by José Antonio Félez.
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May 9, 2009 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beyond the Kosovo rainbow. Today’s gay people trapped in a deadly past.

Sarajevo FF, 2007. A film review
It’s easy to forget with all of the other ethnic, social and economic problems that the people of the former Yugoslav republics face, but intolerance toward gay people in this region can be particularly cruel and violent. This is a first look at homophobia, Kosovo style, with its world premier at the Sarajevo Film Festival, 2007.
The courageous and pioneering documentary, Beyond the Rainbow, was written and directed by Ismet Sijarina and produced by Kastrati Cooper for Crossing Bridges Production. “Crossing bridges” is a particularly significant phrase in a Kosovar context, as the simple act of straying across the wrong one can be deadly for the Albanian residents of this province of Southern Serbia. The symbolism works well for gay people as well, as they must be doubly concerned about wandering into dangerous territory. There are many bridges that need crossing in this part of the world, and many people massing on one side yearning to get to the other. In this case, it’s the bridge over the chasm of dangers that separate the dark, secret world that Kosovar gays are forced to live in and the world that they can see and hear just across the way in western Europe. They can look across at what people in other European societies have been able to achieve, but it is solace and torment in equal parts. They have the unpleasant choice of staying locked up in their dark houses staring across the divide, or they can make a run for it, across the dangerous bridges, dodging the snipers that exist all around them.
A considerably amount of time in this documentary is given over to interviews of four gay men who sit uncomfortably perched on stools, silhouetted in shadows to protect their identities, talking about their feelings, their fears, their humiliations and their hopes. The story is often told between the lines: the way they make excuses for the actions of others, the way they spin their own rationales in ways that western gays would never dream of explaining themselves, the way that some of them put up smokescreens of bisexuality to hide from others and from themselves. This is unfamiliar territory for Western Europeans, like the societies of sixty years ago, when there was no freedom for gay people, not even in their own minds. In fact, one of the characters says that people cannot allow themselves to be free neither in their actions nor in their thoughts. This mental prison is taken up again in the recurring staged scene in which a gay man debates with his embittered alter ego, which ridicules his sexual orientation and almost succeeds in convincing him to accept the deception.
Other citizens speak as well, including social workers and religious spokesmen. A lesbian who is eloquent about her situation, says in contrast to the religious figures, that we live heaven and hell right here on earth, and the interviews given by young straight men on the street, as they cruelly mock the calls for gay rights, is a frightening reminder of the physical danger that the silhouetted interviewees face.
I saw this film in Sarajevo, a city that itself has lived through the era of deadly bridges. It was just a decade ago that the low, harmonious bridges that span the city’s river were some of the most dangerous urban places on earth. And yet today, in this peaceful place, it seems so impossible, so absurd. But what about those other bridges that the gay people of Kosovo are so worried about? Do the gay Sarajevans have any better access than their Kosovar cousins? Sadly, the answer is, just barely. It seems that even here, in this intelligent, cosmopolitan city, homophobia is rampant as well. There isn’t even one gay bar in Sarajevo, and the one organization, Queer BiH, that holds gay parties every month or so, does it with hired security guards. While the film festival was going on, Queer BiH announced that it would organize Bosnia’s first gay pride march in June, 2008, and the news was immediately taken up on the front page of a scandal sheet, ready to stir up trouble for the benefit of circulation. Even here, where people have lived through years of suffering over foolish sectarian divisions, this shameful homophobia still holds sway.
Beyond the Rainbow is a proud, courageous film that reminds us that there is still much work to be done to chase out the secret ghosts lurking in ex-Yugoslav societies. Some bridges are peaceable thoroughfares, for sure, but there are many more that still need to be secured, and all declarations of victory are still very premature as long as gay people are still forced to speak from the shadows.

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

The Mosquito Problem. Bulgarian Film wins Human Rights Award at Sarajevo, 2007

Sarajevo FF, 2007. The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories. A film review

In a field of serious documentaries addressing problems that deeply affect the citizens of this recently traumatized city, how was it possible for a satirical documentary from Bulgaria to win the Human Rights Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival? With a subtle and irrepressible love of life. The Mosquito Problem and other stories, directed by Andrey Paounov, was this year’s surprise winner of the Human Rights Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival. Among the many documentaries that directly addressed the difficult social and political problems that have sprung up in the post-Yugoslavian Balkans, such a seemingly lighthearted satire was definitely a dark horse. But on closer inspection, the subtleties and significance of this playfully subversive film become apparent, and the prize quite reasonable. It is the story of an impoverished small town in Bulgaria that does its best to celebrate the little that it has: an unfinished nuclear power plant, an overgrown island in the Danube River, the ruins of a communist concentration camp for political dissidents, and above all, the billions of mosquitoes that plague this riverside town. Various townsfolk speak into the camera, giving their quirky take on things, their sometimes laughably naïve judgments invariably buoyed by their innate good humor and love of life. There’s the laid off construction worker from Cuba who occupies himself by collecting found art in the forest, the raggedy man in workclothes who ceremoniously introduces his piano works before pounding them out on a badly tuned piano, the caretaker at the former prison camp who dreams of turning the crumbling ruin, the scraggly marshland and the enormous annoyance of the swarming mosquitoes into a unique agro-tourist experience. The past is omnipresent, and the enigmatic story of a woman who, in the 1960s worked as a guard in the political camp acknowledges the political ambiguity and the impossibility of true reconciliation in the present Balkan conjuncture. She has recently died of Parkinson’s Disease, and her story is told from the daughter’s point of view, a sort of everywoman who represents the present generation, heirs of a whole Pandora’s Box of conflicting traditions and responsibilities. Her acceptance of her mother’s conflicting histories is at once deeply personal and symbolic of the instinctive goodwill of the townspeople.

The film’s framing images, coming at the beginning and the end, show young kids on bicycles and on foot following in the poisonous path of a truck spewing beautiful white clouds of insecticide. The sight of these children running in and out of the billowing poison joyfully jumping around and coughing unselfconsciously, while the exterminators watch impassively from the truck, is a fitting image of the irony and sadness of the situation… and the reckless, irrepressible joy. The Bosnian audience at Sarajevo was highly entertained, laughing often, sometimes at the idiotic squalor of life among the detritus of socialist central planning, something the Bosnians know first hand, though never to the same degree of absurdity. And sometimes at the goofiness of the citizens. Bosnians have never experienced the absolute abysmal economic and political system that Bulgarians lived with during socialism, so they can afford to laugh at this town which seems to have inherited only artifacts worthy of a junkheap. But I believe that their laughter was informed by a true respect for these people, and for their talent to turn lemons into lemonade. It must have been with admiration and envy that they watched these people who, without the resources to turn guns into ploughshares, did at least have the good sense and respect for human life to let the guns rust away into obsolescence. It has given them a great luxury that Bosnians were forced to forget about: the luxury of passing from Communist oppression to the long dreamed of western liberal society in peace. In this way, this hopeless little Bulgarian hicktown looks a little bit like paradise on the Danube. The Mosquito Problem and other stories. Bulgaria, 2007. Directed by Andrey Paounov, written by Lilia Topouzova and Paounov and produced by M. Bozhilov for Agitprop.

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