To introduce this special insert about documentaries in the SEE countries, Tue Steen Müller reflects on the important role that the documentary should play in a region haunted by civil war, ethnic conflicts and international political intrigue yet which hopes for peace and stability.

Tue Steen Müller
Previous founder/editor of the DOX magazine.

He finds that to forget and hide facts about recent horrors is not the right path to take, even if it would be convenient to say, ‘Let’s move on and build new societies and links.’ But in order for documentaries to reflect on these issues, they should be produced with respect for independence and freedom.

I arrived in Belgrade on the day when Milosevic was arrested and put in prison: April 1, 2001. ”Unfortunately, he did not commit suicide,” was the first comment from young documentary colleagues, referring to the dramatic situation that very same morning when the former leader of Yugoslavia had chosen to seek refuge in his villa surrounded by a couple of hundred supporters defending him outside. He was subsequently arrested and taken to prison without any drama and is now facing a trial. The new government wants to try him before a Yugoslav court, while the international community wants him taken to Hague to stand trial before the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.

The reaction of my young colleagues was engendered by disillusion and scepticism. For years everything in their daily lives had been connected to politics, and now they were fed up. What will be the outcome, if any, of these trials and won’t they rapidly transform into a never-ending story with no solution whatsoever? Therefore the reaction: if Milosevic had taken his own life, everyone could have hoped that all discussions would end from one day to the next. Undoubtedly many people in Serbia shared this point of view. They are tired of war and conflicts, they don’t want to hear the sound of falling bombs again. They want a new life, and the new era of Kostunica gives some kind of hope at least. The rest of the world is now more receptive to Belgrade. After years of isolation, this is what counts for many people. Whether Milosevic is sentenced or not is secondary – it’s history.

Need I say, however, that history does not disappear just like that? A decade with Milosevic has left scars and wounds that need to be healed. You just can’t close your eyes to what has happened.

Too Early?

They call this process Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa. Former Yugoslavia has a long way to go. I found proof of this the next day when some regional screening days were about to start as part of the national festival. The Sarajevo delegation had announced that they would not be attending. It was still too early for them to go to Belgrade to take part in a national festival, which until now had always been considered an extension of the ruling power. Even if they had come, what films could they have shown? Films on the Serb massacres in Bosnia Herzegovina? The answer is simple: no.

Serbia has a long way to go, and the country’s documentary filmmakers have an important role to play. They must focus on recent history and show the atrocities that have been committed on the screen. Everyone will agree that it would be best if they made the films themselves, however controversial this may be. Otherwise, we will only see West European historical reports. Remember how important it was that Latvian director Juris Podnieks made his Perestrojka films in the late 1980s when the Berlin Wall collapsed? It was an insider’s look, instead of just another outsider’s superficial interpretation.

Anatomy of Pain

The overall impression from the Yugoslav documentary festival this year was one of disappointment. Very few films dealt with current issues. Far too many demonstrated an escapist attitude and were nice, small films on deserted villages and cultures about to disappear. Many films or television programmes were mere reports without any cinematographic qualities whatsoever. They were reminiscent of the brilliant tradition of short documentaries in Yugoslavia decades ago, when we saw wordless, visual masterpieces shot on 35mm and used as small appetizers in the cinemas. Those days are gone, even if it’s worth mentioning that one of the masters from that golden period, Momir Matovic, is still very much alive and has developed a wonderful, satirical style in the film, Crna Gora.

Propaganda? Some of the films presented only the official view of the NATO bombings, of course, but there was also a powerful, emotional documentary by Janko Baljak, a distinct talent in Serb documentary, about the families of persons who were killed during the bombing of the Serb television station on April 23, 1999. The Anatomy of Pain 2 is the title of the thirty-minute film that takes one more inside and outside look at the building that was attacked again in October 2000, but this time by crowds during the revolution. Baljak goes back to the people who lost their loved ones to capture their feelings in this new historic situation. A different approach to current politics is also seen in Nastasija by Zeljko Mirkovic, who tells a joyful story about a couple waiting for the birth of their baby – and for Kostunica to win his victory. A child is born in a new Serbia. It sounds like propaganda, but it is made with elegance and a fresh sense of naïveté.

Tito Nostalgia

I travelled to Belgrade by train. I had left the Slovenian seaside town of Portoroz in early morning to catch the train from Ljubljana through Zagreb to Belgrade. One long day of watching the landscape. Looking at villages and people who once belonged to the same country. The closer I got to the border between Croatia and Serbia, the more visible were the wounds from a war that took place in the not so distant past.

Slovenia was not really part of that war, which is apparent from the nineteen documentary films presented at the fourth festival of Slovenian Film that took place in the peaceful summer town of Portoroz. On the contrary, the warmest applause was given to an elegant piece of nostalgia, a documentary named Tito, by young director Janja Glogovac.

The director was a child when the powerful leader died in 1980 and must have had experiences similar to those of a young Serb woman who, after watching the film, told me, ”I can still recall the images of my parents crying for days after the death of President Tito.” It is indeed a fine film full of anecdotes about a man of the world who loved to wear uniforms, many different ones every day, and had eighteen suits made every year. There is no sign of politics in this film, no mention of the camps where Tito sent his opponents. In this charming film, you get interviews with the chief of protocol, a cloakroom attendant and other people who were familiar with Tito’s eating and drinking habits.

Another film that incorporates this dimension of personal life is The Slices of Time, by Zemira Alajbegovic and Neven Korda, which here intertwines the personal dimension with history. Alajbegovic attended a documentary project development seminar at the European Film College in Denmark where she presented this idea. Now it is a finished film about two old women whose lives were influenced by tragic wars and conflicts, but Alajbegovic hesitated to declare openly in the film that the story was about her own grandmothers, who lived in Moslem and Christian cultural environments respectively. At the seminar, colleagues insisted that she include the personal element, which is one of the reasons that the film communicates a warm atmosphere around these characters. There are no pictures of war in the film, undoubtedly a deliberate choice by the director.

Zemira Alajbegović in Neven Korda (ZANK), Slices of Time

Do We Remember Sarajevo?

War and the human consequences of the regional conflicts are powerful elements in the programme of the SEE Docs festival in Dubrovnik. This is unavoidable, although we should remember that the Croatian festival will include films from Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Hungary. There will be many recommendations regarding style and visualization, and heated discussions will undoubtedly arise. If ready in print in time for the festival, one of the most remarkable documentaries coming out of the region will be Do You Remember Sarajevo? by Bosnian directors Sead Kresevljakovic, Nihad Kresevljakovic and Nedim Alikadic. The film is based exclusively on material shot during the siege of Sarajevo, where citizens of the city documented the events using small camcorders pointed out of the windows. The unstable camera movements give you an idea of what it must have been like. By assembling this archive material, you are invited to experience the terror felt by the civilian population. The film raises the natural question of how people are able to survive such crises. The film provides an answer and also includes humorous sequences where the brothers (i.e. the directors) freak out, simply because you have to react to the absurdity and tragedy of war. Last November I was in Sarajevo and visited the Saga Film Studio. Brimming with irony, the owner of the company, Ismet Arnoutalic characterized the siege as a golden period of filmmaking in Sarajevo. ”We met in the morning to discuss the sequence to be filmed. There was general agreement that it should always deal with simple stories from everyday life. At the end of the day, the salaries were paid: a sandwich or two plus coffee and cigarettes! Today they want to be paid in real money, for one thing. The other is that in reality no one is interested in the unique material we have from the war in Sarajevo.”

”We got a prize (the European Felix, ed.),” Arnoutalic continues in bitter irony, ”but no sales have been made.” Do we remember Sarajevo?

Wanted: a Documentary Culture

The documentary situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is extremely difficult. Public support is almost non-existent, and producers here and in many of the surrounding countries depend on financial help from abroad. The Soros Documentary Fund (SDF) has played a great role in supporting films from the region. Many films would not have been made had it not been for grants given by the SDF, which does not ask for rights of any kind in return.

The creation of a documentary culture cannot depend on television alone. Public support that gives the filmmakers some financial basis for their work must also be available. Television must be autonomous. A lot of ground needs to be covered before the region’s public stations can work independently, unfettered by political influence. The process is even longer and more tedious if the goal is reliable collaboration between television stations and independent production companies. This is indeed an area that needs West European inspiration. Irrespective of the nature of commercial development in many Western countries, the public service concept is essential. As is the assumption that the best documentaries come from an independent sector.

In Romania, the public station is now more receptive to working with independent producers. Even so, the financial input is far from sufficient to bear a viable documentary culture, but it’s a start. In the opinion of the Hungary’s many excellent documentary makers, Hungarian television is a bureaucratic system that needs refurbishing. Independent documentary professionals are currently mobilising an alternative by joining forces in lobby groups, definitely one way to create a documentary culture.

In Defence of Human Rights

In October 2000, I was in Bulgaria, a strong documentary player in the region. An international documentary seminar was held on the theme of human rights. Some forty people went to the cinema for four days to watch an international programme of films mostly dealing with human rights abuses. Two or three of the films from the host country dealt with the living conditions of the Bulgaria’s Roma population, a story filled with shame and formulated from a humanistic perspective saying, “Look how people live right next door.”

I suppose most people would agree that this is a central issue in documentary filmmaking and expect many films from the SEE region to deal with topical issues and the recent atrocities that have been committed. When in Zagreb, I saw a Croatian documentary entitled Storm over Krajina and was told how it had been received when presented at the recent Croatian Film Days. The films deals with Croatian war crimes, and the mere fact that it has been made needs to be acknowledged. At the premiere many people felt that making this film without mentioning what happened in Dubrovnik and many other places in Croatia was biased. This point of view is wrong, of course. Documentaries must bring out stories that are not politically correct, and there have been and will be loads of stories that shed light on the facts behind Serbia’s war crimes. But they are not the only ones we want. That would be too simple.

Operation Storm forced some 200,000 Serbs to flee their home

South East Europe is a region where people are on the move. Many have left, and are still leaving, to seek Western prosperity  – at least that is what they are hoping for – but many also come back to resettle. They find their homes in ruins and must start all over again or discover that other people are living in what used to be their homes. It is a never-ending story about the right to a decent life. If anything, working to defend humanity must be the very core of documentary filmmaking.


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