Yugoslavia's Young Bunch
Oleg Novković's Normalni ljudi
Nebojša Krivokuca & Andrej Milivojević
The second high-brow Yugoslav film screened after the 5 October revolution, Normalni ljudi (Ordinary People, 2001), made by the young director, Oleg Novković, grapples with many of the issues that have preoccupied Yugoslav cinema since the Second World War. In Yugoslav cinema the issues of history, or to use more recent terminology, memory, responsibility and guilt, feature prominently. Directors tend to articulate these issues in generational terms and, to repeat an observation made by both domestic and foreign critics, from a male-oriented point of view.
With varied points of view on the matter, many Yugoslav films assert that the older generations-fathers in particular-are either eerily absent, or, worse still, in a crucial way responsible for the fact that their children and sons, especially, have to wear rags or uniforms. Children struggle through life alone.
The first post-war generation of rebels, directors belonging to the so-called "Black Wave" movement, addressed the question of history and memory of the Second World War. Živojin Pavlović's Zaseda (The Ambush, 1969) represents a paradigmatic film of that milieu, while Lordan Zafranović's Okupacija u 26 slika (Occupation in 26 Pictures, 1978) shows that well after the 1960s, directors poignantly addressed the legacy of the Second World War.
After Tito's death in 1980, a new generation of filmmakers, such as Emir Kusturica, revisited these questions and the older generation (ie the filmmaker's fathers) were in some sense "guilty," which makes sense, since they too experienced brutal treatment and abandonment.
Not surprisingly, young filmmakers working in Milošević's Yugoslavia also addressed these questions in generational terms. One way, therefore, to conceptualize Yugoslav art house cinema in general and recent cinema particularly, including Novković's film, is to see it as flooded by what may be termed the genre of the "lost generation."
Dreaming of a better life
Like all recent films, Novković's film thematically concentrates on hopelessness and violence generated by ubiquitous social dysfunction, and on people smoldered into Serbian dirt. It is replete with character actors who are mostly up to the task, and has solid direction but only tepid music (Novković, it seems, doesn't know as many musicians as Kusturica).
The story line is remarkably straightforward: A group of people, unified by virtue of their sitting around the same bar (a street-level windowless room), share with each other what their ideal-by Western standards-"normal life" would entail. In contrast to their Western counterparts however, they can only achieve this life by relying on violence, trickery, or simply by escaping abroad.
The protagonist, played by one of the finest young actors, Nebojša Glogovac, drives an ambulance that, despite his phenomenal efforts, never manages to get to the hospital fast enough. His romantic interest is involved in an abusive relationship with a prosperous gangster, poignantly introduced by her reluctant but foretold acceptance of his desire to sodomize her, while recognizing that Glogovac would truly love her.
The youngest member of this tight circle is a Kosovo war veteran who futilely hunts for work and is symbolic of innocence and unrealizable dreams. The young bartender dreams of escaping to Mexico, with a fake theater actress who rebuffs his earnest advances. All the barflies willingly, even stoically, accept making sacrifices, and with a blurred gaze they look to a better tomorrow that seems pathetically unlikely to materialize.
Novković effectively uses some techniques which are now standard in the West but still fresh in Yugoslav cinematography. For instance, he uses hyper-expressive, hyper-sensitive sounds that create an excellent contrast between the many internal monologues, and a cold, even faceless cinematography that is almost documentary in its style. Yugoslavia at the beginning of the new millennium indeed looks just like that.
In contrast to the internationally acclaimed film by Milutin Petrović's Zemlja istine, ljubavi i slobode (The Land of Truth, Love, and Freedom, 2000), the first domestic film screened after 5 October and featuring the most respected Belgrade playwright, Biljana Srbljanović, Novković's Normalni ljudi uses contemporary fiction as a basis for its screenplay. The experienced screenwriters, Srđan Koljević and the director, remain true to Srđan Valjarević's elegant and sharp prose. This highlights the closed circle in which violence is used as a defense against other violence, be it imagined or real or even intended, and so violence becomes defensive and, by implication, justifiable.
Against such banal violence, "defensive violence" only reciprocally appears as an adequate answer. At the same time, to return to the "lost generations" genre, characters that symbolize the older generation either remain infuriatingly silent—Tanja Kosković as the mother of the muse who takes care of her daughter's half-abandoned son—or they oppress their family and friends with their physical and metal illnesses-for example Milena Dravić as Koljević's aunt. Most disturbingly, the older generation unambiguously enthrones violence and patricide as the only means of survival.
The film's longest and deepest flashback is a morbid, but all too frequently retold tale. The bar owner, the film's archetypal father figure, played memorably by Boban Ninković, reveals to his sympathetic but unsurprised customer friends a dark secret. To defend himself from his violent policeman father, he bludgeons him to death—and this is a crucial detail—with the unsparing help of his kid brother. Their mother quietly watched on without so much as a cry of protest.
However, some standard flaws belabor the scenario. For instance, female characters appear as helpless creatures that fail to alter the course of events. Further, the scenario leaves certain key questions about the cycle on inter- and intra-generational violence without an adequate answer. In a noteworthy attempt to bewilder the cycle, Novković makes its internal logic confusing.
The film clearly puts the spotlight on an old and broader problem. Will Yugoslav cinema be a "cinema to engage," and specifically will it "engage" the viewing public by examining primarily the (recent) past of a people that feels like it has been collectively condemned or by projecting and promoting an open and future-oriented society?
Perhaps Yugoslav cinema may profitably learn from German post-war cinema before the appearance, in 1962, of the "out with the old—in with the new" Oberhausen Manifesto. (Yugoslav cinema, by the way, already has its Fassbinder, in the form of Milutin Petrović.) It seems that this film would be more interesting to foreign viewers. They are far less at home with what happened in the region during the last decade than domestic filmgoers who are already familiar with the film's tragedy. This cinematic adaptation will not so much help the natives understand their roles in the "Balkan powder keg" as it will help outsiders better understand that powder keg.
Most young directors working in Milošević's Yugoslavia, it may be fair to say, learned about the world and the world of cinema specifically by veraciously watching films from abroad. Unlike their older counterparts, who benefited from Yugoslavia's unique openness towards both Soviet or Eastern European and Western cultures and institutions as well as those of the non-aligned world, the young bunch developed in conditions of grotesque isolation and parochialism. Despite these difficult conditions, Yugoslav directors created noteworthy—even landmark—films. Especially promising are young directors, such as Novković, who would benefit from exposure in and easier access to the cinema world outside Yugoslavia.
Now that Milošević sleeps in a cell and Yugoslavia's international isolation
dissipates, it seems that a propitious moment has arrived for the world to learn anew something about the new(est) Yugoslavia. And cinema seems like a promising means to sketch and exhibit the spiritual and mental maps of Yugoslavia and the region that build upon the maps offered by older directors/cultural ambassadors such as Emir Kusturica.
The young bunch, directors like Srđan Dragojević, Milutin Petrović, Ivan Zečević, Oleg Novković, as well as the mature and established directors like Goran Paskaljević and Goran Marković, have much of Yugoslavia and the Balkans to show to the world. What is more, they finally have the chance to do so outside the matrix of "lost generations." So, watch out for them in a theater near you!
Nebojsa Krivokuca & Andrej Milivojevic, 7 May 2001
Also of interest: