In the national competition of The International Documentary Film Festival Beldocs in Belgrade, Serbia, the main prize went to  Run for Life  by Mladen Matičević. Matičević is a Serbian film director whose autobiographical How to Become a Hero played at Amsterdam’s IDFA in 2007. That film described how he became a marathon runner in attempt to fight the depression which hit him when he was 40. In his followup, Matičević didn’t go far thematically, at least on a superficial level. Run for Life is the story of three Ethiopian athletes who, after participating in the Podgorica (Montenegro) Marathon, decided to apply for political asylum at the UNHCR office in Belgrade. The three Ethiopians were counting on their athletic qualities to help them get Serbian citizenship in order to compete for the Serbian national athletic team. After two months in a refugee camp, they contacted the Belgrade athletic club Partizan and got in touch with Zoran Molović, a former champion runner. Molović agreed to be their coach and provide them with lodging and food. That’s how the three young Ethiopians became residents of the village of Pambukovica, 100 kilometers from Belgrade.

Maticevic follows the Ethiopian athletes through their year-long stay in Serbia – from being accepted by the inhabitants of the village, through a number of races, attempts to acquire Serbian papers, misunderstandings with the coach and mutual quarrels – to a disappointing ending for which they themselves were more than partially responsible. Apparently, the Athletic Federation of Serbia didn’t find their results – which would easily qualify them for the kind of official international competitions that most Serbian athletes can only dream of – appealing enough to try to keep them in the country. Matičević is not only the director and narrator of the film, he also actively helps his protagonists with their lives in his homeland, and paints a convincing, poignant portrait of three young men who were desperate enough to look for normal life in a troubled country like Serbia.

Another Beldocs film tells a story that originates from the root cause of Serbia’s transition to a poorly functioning state. This is Mila Seeking Senida, winner of the Human Rights Award at the 2010 Sarajevo Film Festival – and the cause is, naturally, the Balkan war of the 1990s. Director Robert Tomić Zuber is a Croatian journalist whose investigative political TVshow is very popular in his country. As with Matičević, Zuber’s first film Accidental Son was autobiographical – the director found out that he had been adopted, and documented his search for his biological mother. And again, as with Matičević’s Run for Life, after helping himself in the search for his own identity, Zuber used an opportunity to help someone else do the same – and make a film out of it.

The person in question is Senida Bećirević, today an 18-year-old girl living in Sarajevo. When Serbian troops stormed her native village of Caparde in Western Bosnia in 1992, she, then a small baby, was pronounced missing – along with her sister and mother – only to resurface in Belgrade 16 years later under a different identity. During the attack on Caparde, a Serbian soldier saved the 11-month-old Senida and she ended up being adopted in Belgrade. The Janković family named the baby Mila and took care of her, never hiding the fact that she wasn’t their biological child. After a DNA test confirmed that she was the daughter of Muhamed and Senada Bećirević from Caparde, Mila decided to go in search of her family. Her quest is full of twists, just like in a Hollywood thriller.

«The highly emotional dimension of the film is what takes the viewer on a rollercoaster ride»

People Mila (Senida) thought were friends, and some of her relatives, turn out to be opportunists and liars – while complete strangers, including the director of the film, provide crucial help. The story is complicated and full of details – here Zuber shows why he is an acclaimed journalist – but the highly emotional dimension of the film is what takes the viewer on a rollercoaster ride. Mila (Senida) is an open, direct person not afraid to show her feelings in front of the camera, and we witness the full spectrum of sadness, disappointment, anger, excitement and hope. Of course, the girl was most likely to open up to someone with similar life experiences, and Zuber has clearly struck a chord, winning her trust. One of the highlights of the film is the girl’s meeting with her father. The scene in which Muhamed – a chain-smoking, boozing truck driver – explains how he “didn’t want to waste time looking for her because he couldn’t be sure she was really his daughter,” that he is “a busy man” with a “reputation to keep”, invokes so much anger in the viewer that one wonders where Mila (Senida) found the strength not to kill him on the spot. But people who have had a hard life are usually the first to forgive, and she even kisses Muhamed goodbye.

Mila Seeking Senida

So what brought on the bloody Balkan conflicts of the 1990s? Another film in the Beldocs’ national competition sets the scene from which the events of that turbulent period originate.
Cinema Komunisto by Mila Turajlić had its world premiere at IDFA and went on to a number of high-profile festivals including Tribeca, and recently won the prestigious FOCAL Award for Best Use of Footage in an Arts Production. Moreover, it is the first local documentary to receive theatrical distribution in Serbia in several years.  Cinema Komunisto  deals with the film industry in Yugoslavia under the rule of Josip Broz Tito, covering the period from the end of the World War II to the Marshal’s death in 1980. After his famous split with Stalin in 1948, there was a need for content to replace Russian propaganda films in cinemas, and Tito wanted Hollywood films. This decision was crucial in the cultural development of Yugoslavia – and while other Eastern European countries were toiling behind the Iron Curtain, Yugoslavs had the privilege of watching American stars, which marked the beginning of an influx of Western popular culture. Tito was a true cinephile and knew that film can be a powerful propaganda tool. He decided to build a film studio which, although never more than 30 percent completed, became one of the largest film-making facilities in Europe.

Today Belgrade’s Avala Film Studio is in ruins and in a frozen state of privatization, but in the 1960s and 70s Yugoslavia was one of the main destinations for international productions in Europe. And Yugoslavia had its own film genre – Partisan films, war epics depicting the struggle of Yugoslav guerilla fighters against the Nazi occupation. Turajlić interviewed some key figures in the industry, including director Veljko Bulajić, and film star (and living legend) Bata Živojinović, who relate their experiences of making films under Tito. As Živojinović says of The Battle of Neretva, Bulajić’s 1969 Partisan film which was nominated for the Foreign Language Academy Award (and has a poster designed by Picasso) “Americans could never make a film like that. They couldn’t afford to destroy so many tanks, jeeps, airplanes, and we could, because Tito said so.” Leka Konstantinović, Tito’s personal projectionist, noted down every film he played to the President over 32 years; the number exceeds 8,000. It is in Konstantinović’s fond memories of Tito that one recognizes that nostalgia for the former country that is present among successive older generations.

The research Turajlić did for the film was obviously very extensive, recovering archive footage and documents never seen before (including film screenplays with Tito’s remarks and instructions in the margins; he personally decided what could or could not be shown even before the films were made). The decision to leave out a narrator and instead establish a ”dialogue” between interviews and footage from over 150 films was clever and brilliantly executed. Dialogue from the films alternates with the interviewees’ comments in a manner that conveys a playful attitude on the part of the (first-time) director, and never loses focus on the seriousness of the subject matter. This makes the film simultaneously humorous, engaging and important – and above all else, it feels true and accurate.

The crew of The Battle of Neretva actually blew up a real bridge for the film, and its ruins are still in the eponymous river in Herzegovina, a testament to the country that eventually collapsed amidst the most bloodshed in Europe since World War II. People still nostalgically gather every year at the memorial centre there, paying their respects to the country in which it was easy to live decently. It seems that the bill for that ”good life” was delivered to later generations, who were forced to cover it in the nineties.

Vladan Petkovic
Vladan Petkovic was born in Belgrade in 1978. A graduate in Management in Culture, Theatre and Radio at Belgrade Faculty of Drama Arts, he has been the "Screen International" correspondent for the territories of former Yugoslavia since 2001. He also regularly contributes to the website and several Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian media.