Serbian cinema takes a leap onto the world stage with the programme presented at the international film festival Visions du Réel’s Focus Serbia.

The 18 documentaries selected for international film festival Visions du Réel’s Focus Serbia programme this year are a strong representative sample of Serbian documentary production from the past decade. Several films being screened either analyse or reinterpret important historical events from the country’s turbulent history – whether from the wars in the 1990s or the socialist Yugoslav period. As is often the case, many deal with society’s marginalised, or simply vivid characters that live their lives in the forgotten corners of the country. And quite a few are not related to Serbia itself, but other countries, cities and places in our globalised world. The Focus Serbia collection contains films from all three groups, with humour and bitterness, nostalgia, emotional and political issues often intertwined. All of them are highly personal and very different in terms of style and mood.

History revisited

On-screen personal interpretations of historical events take viewers down somewhat radical roads in recent Serbian documentaries. In Thetha Rhythm (2010) Bojan Fajfric painstakingly reconstructs a day in the life of a politician from the 1980s. The protagonist misses the chance to actively participate in the famous 1987 Communist League of Serbia session that brought Slobodan Milosevic to power and sat the wheels in motion for the breakup of Yugoslavia. But the politician in question was the filmmaker’s father – the reconstruction is not just an exercise in art direction and research, but a deeply personal history that reflects on the choices we may or may not make, and our own paths, often unaware of our bigger picture.

Using a mixture of interviews and archival sources bolstered by interactions with her mother Srbijanka, Mila Turajlic in The Other Side of Everything recreates her mother’s life story: she is a politician and an activist embodying The Other Serbia, an opposition group fighting against Slobodan Milosevic. But the story is also told using the symbolism granted by the divided apartment, half of it nationalised by the communist government after WWII and given to a poor proletarian woman. The narrative line leads Turajlic towards a story quite resonant in contemporary Serbian society: that of a bourgeois family whose struggle for democracy and Western liberal values is accompanied by a longing for lost privileges and its property.

Ideology and recollections of war

Marta Popivoda also uses archival footage and a voiceover in her experimental documentary Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body (2013), creating an essay-like audiovisual meditation on massive gymnastic festivals celebrating socialism, and mass voluntary labour activities that rebuilt the country after WWII. Both Popivoda and Dane Komljen rely on certain devices of experimental filmmaking and intend to touch on the political and the collective through the personal.

«Since Serbia is a country with many ethnic minorities, they’ve always been a topic of Serbian cinema.»

Komljen’s Tiny Bird (2013) assumes a more meditative, introspective tone – starting from his father’s documents, Komljen uses associational form to go deeper into the meaning of friendship and new beginnings. Although Ognjen Glavonjic’s Depth Two (2016) shares certain characteristics of the same minimalist style used by Komljen, it is the most grim of all in this category. A story of Serbian war crimes in Kosovo and the corpses of Albanian POW which were carried secretly in trucks to be disposed of on Belgrade’s periphery, Depth Two juxtaposes the seemingly peaceful landscape with voiceovers from witnesses that describe the concealment of mass death – if not for the witnesses, would we even know?

Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved our Collective Body by Marta Popivoda

 Stories from the margins

A colourful cast of outsiders and eccentric characters from the margins of society have always been a strong trait both of Serbian documentaries and feature films (the obvious example being those of Emir Kusturica). Lena Müller, Vuk Maksimovic and Dragan von Petrovic combine such characters with a «history revisited» approach in Dragan Wende – West Berlin (2013). A mixture of Ostalgie, Yugo-nostalgia and sarcastic comedy emerges, set to a funky soundtrack and frivolous anecdotes from the life of whacky Yugoslav «gastarbeiters» (migrant workers) in Germany. On the other hand, Marko Grba Singh in Abdul & Hamza (2015) follows two refugees from Somalia but focuses on the ordinary, uneventful scenes from their everyday life in the north of Serbia, while they wait to cross the border. Marko Grba is interested in creating a certain atmosphere and a visceral effect – in this case one of waiting and uncertainty, conveyed by long takes and a slow rhythm.

– West Berlin (2013)

Mix of cultural identities

Since Serbia is a country with many ethnic minorities, they’ve always been a topic of Serbian cinema. Stefan Malesevic in Gora (2017) chooses a combination of ethnographic film and poetic documentary, combining landscape, villages, songs and portraits of the Gorani people (Goranci) – a small Slavic Muslim community from spaces between Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia.

«This coming of (a global) age is a central theme of the era that Serbian documentary filmmakers are currently living and working in.»

Zoran Tairovic’s Little Red Riding Hood explores an ethnic minority as well, but it is not your ordinary documentary, if even one at all. While it certainly presents itself as an attempt to tell the classic fable of Little Red Riding Hood, it does so with the ethnic Roma characters so characteristic of Serbia’s classics such as I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Skupljaci Perja, 1967) by Aleksandar Petrovic, to whom it directly refers, or Black Cat, White Cat (Crna macka, beli macor, 1998) by the aforementioned Kusturica. A Roma himself, Tairovic subverts the usual representation of Roma in Serbian cinema, most obviously by using three different narratives that often don’t quite match up: a narrator’s voiceover, subtitles and a character’s lines spoken directly to the camera.

Zoran Tairovic by Little Red Riding Hood

Yet, in this seemingly chaotic collage Tairovic signposts symbolism right from the start. The first thing we see is a swastika on the forearm of a Roma dressed as a Nazi soldier, who dances with the grandmother. In that way, the story of the big bad wolf that ate the grandmother becomes related to Porajmos (the Romani genocide).

A Serbian global era

A large Serbian diaspora started to develop in Western Europe in the 1960s, which snowballed during the war in the 1990s. Serbia, as well as other countries which constituted the former Yugoslavia, by that point had three generations abroad. Their life stories form a rich and often painful history of asylum seeking,refugee status, or economic hardship. Jelena Maksimovic’s and Ivan Salatic’s Heavens (2014) focuses on one girl, raised abroad, who is exploring her identity and the relationship with her father by using home-videos from her childhood that he shot.With subtle interventions and the juxtaposition of archival footage and freshly-shot scenes, Maksimovic and Salatic create a fine emotional weave of nostalgia, love and self-exploration.

Ivan Salatic’s Heavens (2014)

In the 21st century, Serbia no doubt became part of an even more globalised world – filmmakers could more easily study abroad, get scholarships, travel grants and source their potential topics everywhere. Srđan Keca is an excellent example of such a filmmaker – raised in Belgrade, he studied in Paris and London, and now teaches at Stanford University. His film Mirage (2011) is set in Dubai, and while sometimes expressive and almost lyrical in the composition of shots and sound design, it is a bitter depiction of working class life, the dark side of supposed economic growth and the illusion of prosperity that, obviously, does not have a positive impact on everyone.

«Serbian documentary films have clearly come of age and stepped onto the world stage.»

Stefan Ivancic’s Soles de Primavera (Springtime Suns, 2013) can certainly be categorized as a fictional short, without strong documentary signals. Set during last days of summer, the story about four boys, with its loose narrative, long-takes and everyday dialogue, certainly has a veristic quality. What is interesting is that all characters either study abroad or are preparing to study abroad.

This coming of (a global) age is a central theme of the era that Serbian documentary filmmakers are currently living and working in. After several respected films from a whole new generation of auteurs (of recent note is Mila Turajlic’s 2017 IDFA award for best feature-length documentary), and of course with this selection at Visions du Réel, Serbian documentary films have clearly come of age and stepped onto the world stage. Now we must consider what Serbia’s filmmakers can take from it and how world cinema can similarly benefit from them.