The lack of mutual familiarity on the part of both Balkan filmmakers and Western television is one of the reasons. Rada Sesic reports from the Thessaloniki Pitching Forum that brought together the two parties.
The impressions I got from talking to the participants of the Pitching Forum at the Thessaloniki documentary festival in March/April are best expressed in the title of Doug Aubrey’s road movie, Victim of Geography. This year, the Forum focused on Balkan documentary filmmakers, who indeed appear to have become ‘victims of geography’. Looking back on a great documentary film tradition and having received the most prestigious awards at Leipzig, Krakow or Oberhausen over the years, filmmakers from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Yugoslavia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, etc., are nowadays facing numerous obstacles in performing their profession. Apart from the financial collapse in their home countries, the filmmakers are hindered by their own ignorance concerning the promotion of their work. The problem lies in the previous institutional management of all cultural activities in the former socialist countries, meaning they were centrally organized and controlled by the state. Coming myself from the Balkans and living now in the West, I can clearly point out the gap dividing Eastern and Western film production and promotion.
In the old days one didn’t have to think about where to apply for money or how to promote the film abroad, since there used to be only one film fund and one “production company” – the state. Now, with all cultural activities cut off from state support, filmmakers often find themselves adrift in an open sea. They don’t know where to go, how to apply for foreign funds, how to prepare proposals, etc. Some quickly learned how to co-operate with foreign broadcasters and be well presented at festivals, but they tend to keep their precious knowledge to themselves. Forums like the one in Thessaloniki become real “eye openers” for people from these countries in transition.
“I come from a country with plenty of good film subjects, but with no money at all to make films about them,” said Jasmila Zbanic, a young Bosnian director. She had presented her new film “Red rubber boots” about a mother searching for the remains of her murdered children. Her new project, which she pitched in Thessaloniki, intends to follow the process of rebuilding the bridge in Mostar. Jasmila and many of her Balkan colleagues came to Thessaloniki with intriguing, locally orientated, but still universal subjects. The special value of these potential films lies in the fact that topics concerning Balkan countries, even while some of them might already be covered by outsiders, will now be explored by local filmmakers. Projects from Yugoslavia and Romania, for instance, are focussing on the reasons why young educated people are leaving their homeland. An idea for a film about how domestic artists see the disillusioned Balkans was presented from Bulgaria. There was a script about the post-Tudjman era in Croatia and one about Romanian society seen through the changes in the famous Chaushescou Building.
Participating at such a Forum for the first time, the filmmakers, some of whom already had a twenty-year film career behind them, learned about television slots at Arte or National Geographic. They got to know about Spanish and Dutch Television, Greece’s public and private channels or conditions at film funds that support projects from the Balkans, like Soros Documentary Fund and the Jan Vrijman Fund. Many of them admitted their embarrassement about the fact that most of their “hot” subjects – war tragedies, refugee problems, poverty, unemployment, etc. – have already been filmed by foreign crews, who knew very well how to expose their films later on to wide international festival and television audiences. Two masterpieces about the tragedy of Sarajevo made by local directors, Planet Sarajevo by Sahin Sisic and Ecce Homo by Vesna Ljubic were never sold to any big European or American broadcasters. The same fate has befallen most of Petar Krelja’s films, a Croatian director who depicted the life of refugees (On the side-track, American life, Susana’s smile).
In this respect, the participants at the pitching Forum at Thessaloniki reaped a twofold advantage. Filmmakers from the Balkans learned something about the international television market and film funds, and commissioning editors from various TV stations and funds got to know about the great potential waiting for them there. Why send a crew abroad, when you can buy a cheaper, readymade, local product? That is why I believe that this year’s Forum held at the 2nd International Documentary Film Festival of Thessaloniki will make a difference.
The Forum was organised by the EDN with the support of MEDIA Promotion, the Soros Documentary Fund, Eureka and the Thessaloniki Doc Festival