Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 18
25 October 1999

K I N O E Y E:
Another Truth
Recent Serbian documentaries at the Raindance Film Festival

Maria Vidali

It is a positive fact a British film festival has dedicated one day to films coming from a country which has such a negative reputation among the British population. Whilst international attention has focused on the Kosovars as the "losers", the Serbian people have also lost out, having both suffered the rule of their authoritarian president and been stigmatised for his actions.

A day of Yugoslav cinema was, therefore, a great opportunity for the Serb people to bring a wider awareness of the problems Serbs face to an international audience. The showing proved to be a clear demonstration that, in politics and international affairs, "the good and the bad guys" theory, that is often used to justify political actions, is far from reality.

Milosevic's authoritarian rule has been substantially conducted by controlling the media. The regime has taken over, banned and nationalised the independent electronic media, such as TV Studio B, and the daily papers have not escaped Milosevic's attention either - Borba for instance was taken over. It has sacked journalists and put other obstacles in the way to prevent the free functioning of an independent media.

Among the electronic media to have suffered was the B92 radio station of Belgrade, which as B92 Video and Film Production made three documentaries and three short films which were screened at the Raindance Festival. B92 is one of the few independent radio stations which broadcasts political programmes and had an anti-war attitude even while the Serbs still appeared to be winning in Bosnia. B92 is living proof of the existence in Serbia of powers that resist the tight control of the regime.

The documentaries on show, including those of B92 and others, covered a broad spectrum of topics from the demonstrations against Milosevic in 1996-97, to criminality, ethnic cleansing and refugees. The predominant elements of these films are death, grief and despair, which reflect the situation in Yugoslavia in the last decade of the 20th century. Violence, cemeteries and graves, tears and sad faces appeared again and again on the screen. The select audience of the Global Cafe in Soho, where the documentaries were screened, was truly shaken. The violent break-up of a country, the civil strife, the massive displacement of populations and the great loss of life are issues which have shocked Europe, let alone the Yugoslav people itself.

Goran Markovic's Belgrade Follies (produced by B92 Video and Film Production) was shot in the weeks following the municipal elections of 17 November 1996, when the government of Slobodan Milosevic attempted to annul the election results by refusing to allow new mayors from Zajedno - the political opposition - to take up their offices. As a result massive demonstrations took place daily for three months on the streets of Belgrade. Brutal police measures were used and the broadcasts of B92 were jammed. Finally, because of internal instability and international pressure, Milosevic accepted the election results and Zoran Djindjic - leader of the Democratic Party, one of the leading parties of the Zajedno coalition - became the new mayor of Belgrade.

The film starts with scenes in the studio of B92, where journalists talk about the jamming and plan their future action. There follow scenes of demonstrations on the streets without any dialogue. The only sound is march-like music which fits in with what is being shown on the screen. Brief commentaries on the background and a record of the demonstrations are given by intertitles.

The documentary is undoubtedly very lively and successful in terms of portraying to the audience the climate of turmoil and unrest together with the feeling of enthusiasm and solidarity among the demonstrators. The spectators feel that they are actually there when the demonstrators are bitten by the police dogs or when they clash with the supporters of Milosevic. The original ideas of the demonstrators, the whistles, trumpets, flowers, costumes, the street parties and the street theatre are all shown with humour.

However, the documentary fails to refer to the political aspect of the demonstrations. The role of the Zajedno coalition as leader of the public unrest is not mentioned anywhere. Consequently the idea is presented that these demonstrations were something totally independent and spontaneous. Furthermore, no ideological profile of the demonstrators is given apart from the fact that they are opposed to the illegal annulment of the election results by the Milosevic government. Questions unavoidably arise when in December 1996 the government organises a counter-demonstration, which leads to violent clashes between the two camps. The natural question that comes to mind is whether it is a confrontation of two political fronts - the old Communists and the elements of change. Do the protesters support a change of government alone or do they wish for a broader change in politics, a transition towards a more Western democracy and a market economy? How solid are their political ideas? We are given little information on such hopes and aspirations.

Additionally, the documentary fails to inform the audience about the stagnation of political life in Serbia because of the lack of mature opposition leaders who could replace Slobodan Milosevic. As a result of the impotence and opportunism of the opposition, Zajedno split shortly after the end of the popular unrest and opposition leaders started to make mutual accusations of treason and collaboration with the regime. The film, therefore, stands as a spirited picture of resistance, without analysing its idealism or failures.

Janko Baljac's The Crime that Changed Serbia ( also from B92) looks at the general issue of crime. Since the beginning of the war in Bosnia, criminal activity in Serbia has risen dramatically. According to this documentary, the fact that the number of crimes doubled in the first years of the war is mainly attributed to the boom in arms traffic after the UN sanctions were imposed on Yugoslavia.

The film is composed of fragments from interviews with leading criminal personalities who were operating in this period. There also interviews with police officers and photographs of criminals who, with members of their gangs, are all fully equipped with guns.

War-struck Serbia is a frustrated nation. Young people realise that their future consists of poverty, uncertainty and fear. As in many cities of ex-Communist countries, they are easily tempted by the money, the glamour and the delights that being a member of a gang can offer. Besides, there is a lack of other attractive options when society is collapsing around them and living standards are falling dramatically. Being a member of the Yugoslav Mafia gives a feeling of security becauseit has the air of being the only fixed feature of Serbian life. In the words of one of the interviewees "Every young man in Serbia dreams of becoming a member of a gang for five minutes in his life." The same person adds that "Mortals (that is, ordinary people) will not experience in their entire life what one of us experiences in one day."

The perception of capitalism as the pursuit of easy money and profit without productive activity is another reason for youngsters to get involved in illegal activity. It is a generation that wants it all and it wants it now. It is a struggle of young people to distinguish themselves from other citizens of Belgrade in a malicious way and secure, as they perceive it, a better future for themselves. The idols of this generation of young are notorious criminals such as Carlos and Arkan. They acknowledge the fact that criminal activity in Serbia has not reached Western standards because of the lack of "professionalism."

The power of the film is that criminals themselves are talking about crime in Serbia. They explain how things work and assess the positive and negative aspects of the criminal profession in the country. It is a unusual and disquieting opportunity for the viewerto peer into the underworld of the Balkans. The last scenes - the funerals of three of the people who had been interviewed and were killed during the shooting of the film - came to remind us that what we have seen and heard, no matter how unbelievable it may seem, is real. It is a documentary based on an original idea, rarely seen in the past and its immediacy make it compelling viewing.

Ninoslav Randjelovic in his New York 1998: Others on Us asks two simple questions to the citizens of New York on a hot summer's day - "What do you think about the Kosovo crisis?" and "Do you think the US should intervene to bring peace?"

The replies show that: American citizens either feel sorry that they do not have an opinion because of the poor coverage of the issue by the US media; they do not care and believe that the government should solve their own country's problems first; or they approve of the US intervention in other countries, although they do not really know what is going on, and actually feel proud to be citizens of a world super-power. The few people who do have an opinion believe that there is usually something more than protection of the human rights of a minority that would prompt the US to intervene in another country.

Less than one year before the first NATO bomb was dropped on Belgrade, this film reveals in a funny, but tragic way that very few American citizens know where Kosovo is, fewer actually care and even fewer have an opinion on the issue. This, in a country that has played the leading role in deciding and implementing the bombing of Yugoslavia, as a solution to the violation of the rights of the Kosovo Albanian minority. The film thus presents the Achilles' heel of democracy: the mandate comes from the people, but there are some issues that people just don't give a damn about.

The war may be over, but not the struggle for survival and a decent life for the Serb refugees that came to Serbia from Western Slavonia, Krajina and Bosnia, or were displaced within Bosnia between 1991 and 1996. Ivan Markov's The War is Over consists of interviews with refugees, mainly farmers, in their homes and scenes of the villages where they have settled, the roads, the shops, the crowded cemeteries. The film looks at two cases, one in Tenja and the other in Bratunac.

The essence of being a refugee - that of having touched the bottom of the human condition - is perfectly illustrated. It is a valuable record of life in refugee homes and the everyday reality of refugee centres. Refugees are packed in derelict houses. Humanitarian aid is scare and comes only once per month - two cans of fish and beef, a litre of oil, a kilo of sugar and one and a half kilos of pasta. They are hit by unemployment and their savings are running out. The living conditions are terrible and treatment by the locals is bad. They are overwhelmed by feelings of disappointment, frustration, nostalgia for their homes and native towns and by the feeling that they have been betrayed and forgotten by the Serbian state. The situation is most tragic; being refugees in what once was their country.

Janko Baljak's Ethnically Clean (the third film from B92 Video and Film Production) documents the "Boljevic case", an example of ethnic cleansing of Hungarians and Croats by Serbs, is examined here. In 1991 in the village of Bilje eighteen civilians of Hungarian and Croatian nationality were killed in two months. Dusan Boljevic and his wife Zagoda, both Serbs, were charged with the murders.

The documentary is composed of scenes in the court and reconstructions of the crimes. A psychiatrist gives an explanation of the social psychosis created by the war. The film approaches ethnic cleansing from a novel viewpoint, but this unusual approach is not entirely a successful one, and Ethnically Clean was one of the least successful of the documentaries shown.

Ninoslav Radjelovic's Kosovo and Metohija: Under Siege is the story Serbian people who were "kidnapped" in Kosovo by Albanians, before the crisis intensified. Their relatives talk about their tragedy together with representatives of the Orthodox Church.

From this another theme is expanded upon -the danger ofattack which many monasteries in the area faced and their consequent desertion. In Velika Hoca, one priest was kidnapped and the church was abandoned after an attack. The monks and nuns of the monastery in Devic refused to leave no matter what happened. Some charge the Belgrade authorities with incompetence and unwillingness to protect them. However, one Orthodox priest expresses the belief that a democratic change in the country as the only solution to the Kosovo crisis.

The film, without taking sides, reveals that the Serbian population of Kosovo has also suffered loses because of the hatred between the two peoples.

These films may have their faults, as all films do, but they are important documents which cannot be ignored - especially when viewed together, as happened at Raindance. The views presented are ones which the Western media has largely ignored or are ignorant of. These films merely highlight what should already be obvious - that it is ridiculous to look at the recent Balkan troubles without taking local points of view into consideration.

Maria Vidali, 25 October 1999



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