When Mladen Vusurovic decided to create a film festival in Belgrade, Serbia in 2008, he consulted a community of filmmakers that comprised several generations, knowing that in the region in which he resides, over a span of just a decade (or less), life can look and feel completely different in all of its aspects. Suddenly there is war, and then, a tentative peace: a reconstitution of all the parts that comprise a culture that is still trying to find its true north. Yet the same ideological struggles go on and on and on. In more peaceful times, the artists in that place attempt to illustrate and provide meaning to those struggles. In deciding to create, what he calls “this cultural event,” Vusorovic and his colleagues offer a program of international documentary work, creating an opportunity where the seeds of dialogue about the universal human condition can somehow ameliorate the propensity of many of the Balkan region’s inhabitants to judge things solely on the basis of past injustices inflicted upon them.
This is a way of life in a place where the very moniker, Balkan, connotes the odd mixture of honey (bal) and blood (kan). “You can find honey here; but first, you have to bleed for it,” says a young musician in Ruggero De Virgiliis’ thoughtful and beautifully shot documentary, Balkan Curtains, which appeared as a selection in the festival’s Serbian Competition Program. This year’s overall program, while not as well seasoned in a curatorial regard as some of the other more established festivals in the region, was substantial enough to fill the theatres, and there is much promise for the growth of this annual event in years to come.
A particularly wise programming choice, garnering an audience of close to 3,000 people, was to open the fest with Darko Bajic’s O, Gringo, a profile of Dejan Petkovic, a Serbian-born footballer who became a superstar in his adopted country of Brazil and is lauded as a local hero in his country of origin. Serbian independent cinema is still finding its way in this new landscape of post-traumatic, quasi-neo-Europeanized, EU nation statusvying confusion. For the majority of the population, most especially the creative echelon of society, there is a sense of being “trapped” in their own country. They don’t necessarily want to leave for good. But they are hungry to see the world, to have the freedom (at least in their minds) to be allowed to be a part of the rest of the world. Yet hardly anyone in the exYugoslav states could begin to tell you why this is so important.
DOX was particularly encouraged by a few selections coming from a fresh generation of filmmakers, and it wasn’t the ones coming out of any film school. Instead, the makers of films such as Balkan Diaries: Bulgaria by Goran Gocic; Boye: The First Real Female Sound by Brankica Draskovic; Awakening by Irena Fabri; I Will Marry the Whole Village by Zeljko Mirkovic; Mila Seeking Senida by Robert Zuber; and In Memory of Dragisa and Ivanka by Bane Milosevic, all tapped into stories both from within and without the usual points of reference. For most of the citizens of the Balkans (the “former children of Yugoslavia,” as one festival patron put it), there is nowhere to go except within.
Igor Toholj, a filmmaker and teacher born in 1968, is the programmer of the Serbian competition program. He is very much preoccupied with this particular juncture that best represents the region in the sixteen films he chose to exhibit this year. Like most regional competition strands, the selections were all over the map ideologically, stylistically, and otherwise: some works were preoccupied with parsing unsolvable episodes of the past, some paid homage to a lost Fatherland, some recreated new contexts for historical conflicts. The films range from very rough, deeply personal efforts from journalists “armed with miniscule digital cameras but huge enthusiasm,” such as the aforementioned Balkan Diaries, to films many years in development and polished to a high level of proficiency, such as Mila Turajlic’s Cinema Komunisto [see other article]. This is one of the few nonfiction films from the region that has managed to make an international splash, appearing in competition this year at festivals such as New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival.
In today’s marketplace, where documentary “experts” yap on about the ingredients one needs in order to break into the international marketplace, the phrase “personal stories with universal appeal” is de rigueur. At this juncture in
«there is nowhere to go except within»
the region’s independent documentary industry, it is my opinion that not vying, necessarily, for an international audience is a virtue, and here’s why: perhaps Balkan filmmakers do need to concentrate on telling Balkan stories that speak more to local audiences than international ones – in their own vernacular, providing sorelyneeded context, cogency to the transformation the current Serbia (and the rest of the Balkan region) is undergoing, “disclosing its significance,” and “sufficiently characterizing” the people that live there. This is really the best thing to which this, or any other, nascent regional fest can aspire, particularly since, in this case, there have been so many major interruptions to the country’s creative growth. Festivals like this one that continue to showcase the strongest, most vital and articulate documentary work from its own pool of talent provide a chance for healing, moving forward, resolution, and understanding.
Like many other cultural start-ups with lofty ambitions in the disenfranchised and still isolated Balkan region, the Beldocs fest must simultaneously react to, and participate in, the international marketplace. At the same time, there is an obligation to rebuild a new aesthetic (or refresh an old one, depending on whom you speak with) to better articulate the ways in which people are still enmeshed in a messy, wartorn recent past, and a future that not too many can describe or define with any confidence or clarity. The old is new again, and the new must reflect the past – East and West overlapping, integrating, enmeshed. It’s all utterly bewildering and extremely ripe with possibility. One comes away from an environment like this wanting very much to return as soon as possible.