IHT/New York Times: Balkans Reclaim a Place in Cinema


LONDON — It was little wonder that Mila Turajlic looked a tad weary during a recent interview in a London cafe.

The 32-year-old Serbian documentary filmmaker had flown overnight from Chicago and was off again the next day for short trips to Portugal, France, Prague and Belgrade before returning to the United States to promote her documentary, “Cinema Komunisto.”

The film, which won Best Documentary at the Chicago International Film Festival, tells the story of the golden years of the Yugoslav film industry, from the 1950s to the 1980s. Ms. Turajlic, however, believes that the best days of filmmaking for the countries of the former Yugoslavia — Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo — may still lie ahead. “I think there is a fresh energy in the Balkans in terms of filmmaking,” said Ms. Turajlic, sipping her tea. “So this is an exciting time.”

While it might be premature to claim that there is a second New Wave of western Balkan cinema (the first new wave — or “Novi Film” — movement happened in Yugoslavia in the 1960s), it can be said that a large group of talented young filmmakers from the region are making an impact on the international film circuit.

Films like “A Trip” (Slovenia), “Josef” (Croatia), “Tilva Ros” (Serbia) “The Wedding Tape” (Kosovo) and “Koko and the Ghosts” (Croatia) and documentaries like “The Long Road Through Balkan History” (Serbia) and “Oktober” (Serbia) have all met with critical success this year at film festivals and screenings, both in the countries of the former Yugoslavia as well as abroad.

The region has also been drawing moviemakers from abroad.

Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” about the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, was filmed partly in Bosnia, and Ralph Fiennes’s movie “Coriolanus” (also his first time in the director’s chair) was filmed in Belgrade. Both movies opened in the United States in limited release this month and are likely to be strong Oscar contenders. Penélope Cruz has also been filming in the Balkans, shooting the Italian movie “Venuto al Mondo” (“Twice Born”) in Bosnia, while Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” starring John Cusack, was filmed partly on location in Serbia and is scheduled for release in 2012.

“All together, the next couple of years in the region are going to be interesting,” said Albert Wiederspiel, the director of Filmfest Hamburg. “It is going to be a very hot spot.”

As far back as the 1920s, silent film stars like Denmark’s Asta Nielsen were already shooting in Yugoslavia, and foreign filmmakers quickly caught on to the benefits of making movies in a country that offered everything from snow-peaked mountains to scenic coastlines along the Adriatic.

It also helped that the country’s leader, Marshall Josip Broz Tito, thanks to his time in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, had a firm understanding of the power of cinema in terms of propagating a new state, both for the local population and the world at large.

During his years in power, important film studios in Belgrade and Zagreb had their heyday and local films like “The Ninth Circle” (1960) “Tri” (1965) and “The Battle of Neretva” (1969) were all nominated in the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards. Meanwhile, foreign productions like “Sophie’s Choice,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Trial” — directed by Orson Welles — were shot in the country. Hollywood A-listers like Richard Burton (who played Tito in the 1973 biopic “Sutjeska”), Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner all came to make movies.

The wars that tore apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s also destroyed its film industry, which, according to Ana Ilic of the Serbia Film Commission, was in the 1960s and 1970s second only to Britain for the number of foreign-shot Hollywood productions. Foreign filmmakers stopped coming, and despite notable exceptions like Emir Kusturica “Underground” (which won the Palme d’or at Cannes in 1995) and Danis Tanovic’s “No Man’s Land,” which won Best Foreign Film at the 2001 Oscars, the local industry all but dried up.

“It is very sad, what 10 years of isolation does to you,” Ms. Turajlic said. “It sacrifices a generation.”

Now that the region is relatively stable and most of the countries of the former Yugoslavia are moving toward European Union membership (Slovenia already joined in 2004), the film industry has begun to blossom again — not only in terms of the number of films being made but also in subject matter.

In the earlier part of the last decade, the majority of films coming out of the region — including award-winning movies like Vinko Bresan’s “Witnesses” (Croatia, 2003) and Jasmila Zbanic’s “Grbavica” (Bosnia, 2006) — were focused on war and its aftermath. Now filmmakers are tackling everything from skinheads to small-town romances.

“I feel this is a time of big things happening in terms of expression here,” said Teona Strugar Mitevska, a Macedonian director whose latest film, “The Woman Who Brushed Off Her Tears,” will hit the festival circuit in early 2012. “For many years we went through wars, we made films about war but now, more and more, we are speaking of other things. We are becoming more universal in terms of the message.”

Not surprisingly, the film industry in the former Yugoslavia is vastly underfunded, so filmmakers have to rely on co-productions — not only with European partners but with regional ones as well. That has, in turn, helped promote their movies to a wider audience.

“You do not have a Serbian film any more in terms of production,” said Bojana Bandic, the artistic director of Serbia’s Cinema City International Film Festival. “There is always a part of the money, for example, from Croatia, Bosnia or Slovenia, because the only way to find enough money to make a decent film is to connect all these countries and their budgets.” Co-productions also make sense for Balkan filmmakers because some countries — like Bosnia and Macedonia — lack infrastructure, including equipment, crews and post-production facilities. Renting a camera from Serbia, doing editing in Croatia or having a star from Serbia appear in a Bosnian film have again become a normal part of filmmaking.

“We have a word in our Serbo-Croat language, ‘domace,’ which means “homemade,”’ said Daniel Rafaelic, a Croatian documentary filmmaker and historian. “This word reappeared in the last five years. You do not have in the papers anymore, ‘A new Croatian film in the cinema or a new production from Serbia.’ No, now we say a domace film.”

While this homemade industry is on an upswing, so too are foreign productions. At least for now, filming in most of the former Yugoslav countries is cheaper than filming in places like Hungary or Romania, and with Croatia and Serbia having recently passed legislation on tax rebates for foreign filmmakers, making a film in the region could become even cheaper still. (Serbia has yet to implement the law because of the economic recession.)

There are, however, still issues in some countries in terms of logistics — and bureaucracy. Bosnia does not have a cohesive strategy for luring in foreign filmmakers, which was an obvious problem last year when Ms. Jolie wanted to film in the country. Her permission to shoot in Sarajevo was briefly revoked because the subject matter of the film — about a love affair between a Serbian prison guard and a Muslim woman in a war camp — stirred up ferocious controversy. In the end, most of the film was made in Hungary, though there were still several scenes shot in Bosnia.

“I hope that, despite what happened, people will still want to shoot here,” said Ms. Zbanic, a co-founder of the film production company Deblokada in Sarajevo, who has lobbied officials on behalf of the Bosnian film industry.

Slovenia, an E.U. member and therefore a more expensive filming locale, has recently reorganized the Slovenian Film Center and is campaigning for tax rebates. Macedonian film advocates are also hoping to get a new law for tax incentives soon, and the government recently announced plans to invest in a film studio. There is also talk of creating a regional database that will make it easier for foreign filmmakers to scout locales, find crews and production facilities in the various countries.

While cost is always an issue, a culture that has a history of great cinema has an advantage. “It is in their DNA,” said Gabrielle Tana, one of the producers of “Coriolanus.” “Filming in Serbia was an extremely positive experience, it was well beyond people’s expectations. Because they have the tradition of filmmaking, we were embraced.”

Ms. Turajlic agrees. “My theory is that when you are working with foreign filmmakers — you are their second in a department or grips watch how foreign grips work — there is a direct osmosis for how things work in the West. I do not think that it is an accident that you have young filmmakers coming to the fore and foreign films being shot. I think this works well together.”

This piece originally was published in the IHT on 29 December 2011