Two new doc festivals in Zagreb and Belgrade respectively were steps in the right direction as they both premiered with a cracking success.
«The general audience is left shorthanded for the possibility of learning that the documentary film today, possibly more than ever in its past, is a vibrant, creative, exciting, popular, risky, but also a beautiful form of film expression.»
These were the words of Nenad Puhovski, programme director of ZagrebDox, the new International Documentary Film Festival that took place in the capital of Croatia on 21–26 February 2005. He wrote them in his inspiring foreword to an extensive festival catalogue that invited the audience to watch an international and regional competition programme, a retrospective of Danish documentaries, an homage to Kieslowski, a selection of films by Nick Broomfield and a Croatian programme from the ’60s and ’70s – 99 films all told, 41 of which were in the two competitions. Very ambitious indeed, with a very successful result: 6500 spectators.
One month earlier (22–25 January) a similar success (3500 spectators) had been generated by Puhovski’s Serbian colleagues Svetlana and Zoran Popovic, who had chosen a completely different format for a European Feature Documentary Festival with the title “The Magnificent 7”. Seven films were shown, each followed by one hour of discussion with the general audience *and a masterclass with invited directors for film professionals.
Puhovski in Croatia, the Popovics in Belgrade – they accomplished something that one day might be looked back upon as pioneering efforts by bringing back the free documentary to audiences. Both initiatives in Zagreb and Belgrade were assisted by young professionals and by their enthusiasm and talent for promotion and generosity.
A New Festival Format in Belgrade
The motivation of the Popovics was basically the same as Puhovski’s: give people a chance to see new, powerful films that are seldom or never shown in our country. The audience responded with a resounding ‘Yes’.
A thousand people turned up to see the opening film, Touch the Sound by director Thomas Riedelsheimer (Germany), shattering the modesty and scepticism of the Popovics and their small efficient team, who had promoted the event on a shoestring budget. A few hours before the screening, Svetlana and Zoran Popovic said to me they were expecting around a hundred people to show up because “many of our friends have said that they were occupied elsewhere and couldn’t come.” The two indefatigable film producers and owners of the private Kvadrat Film School (see DOX#35) demonstrated a fine sense of timing for an almost no-budget mini-festival that highlighted seven directors and their films. Thomas Riedelsheimer (Germany), Jeppe Rønde (Denmark), Sonia Herman Dolz (The Netherlands), Kim Longinotto (UK), Kersti Uibo (UK-Estonia) and Stefano Tealdi (Italy) shared their documentary knowledge and skills with young Serbian colleagues in well-attended masterclasses.
Breaking the Isolation
The top priority of today’s young Serbian filmmakers is to break the isolation after the war in ex-Yugoslavia and the NATO bombings of their country. They need to travel, they need to get their films shown and they need to learn about the European market, because back home they have very few possibilities to realise their ideas. Only limited financing is available from the Serbian Ministry of Culture, there is no big hope that the huge, local, public broadcasting company will ever develop – and European funds like MEDIA are not open to countries outside the EU. Serbian and Croatian filmmakers who wish to make films requiring a bit more financing than the minimum – an understatement – have to rely on different foreign sources, like the Jan Vrijman Fund. And on having contacts to international, open-minded TV channels like Finland’s YLE and Arte, the French-German cultural channel.
To make it easier for the region’s filmmakers to establish contact with European potential financiers, Nenad Puhovski had organised a workshop in connection with ZagrebDox. Fourteen filmmakers, three of them from Serbia-Montenegro, presented their projects in a workshop where Sabine Bubeck (commissioning editor from ZDF/Arte), Heino Deckert (German producer and distributor) and Rada Sesic (born in Yugoslavia but now living in the Netherlands, representative of the Dutch Jan Vrijman Fund), briefed the filmmakers on the European perspectives for co-productions. The fourteen projects all dealt with subjects from the region at a very early stage, becoming issues that everyone agrees are best treated by regional filmmakers but are de facto usually dealt with internationally by non-regional production companies or broadcasters. Even if people like Nenad Puhovski, a director and producer himself, has proved that it is possible to build up a continuous professional production of strong and critical films through his production house Factum (see DOX#35), most Western broadcasters prefer to send their own people down to produce programmes that often suffer from superficiality. As Zoran Popovic expressed during a debate in Belgrade: “They only go for the sensational, the war criminals, the mafia stuff. They aren’t interested in the daily life lived by human beings with or without hope.”
To this statement you might argue that he is right, or you can say that the only way to fight this tendency is to inform western audiences that talent does exist and interesting films are made locally. The film policy challenge is to spread this knowledge. One way is by establishing contacts that may be beneficial to both the regional producer and director, as well as the West European investor.
Luckily there are examples of successful joint ventures. Four of the five films that received prizes at the ZagrebDox regional competition had been through one or more of the European documentary financing gatherings or otherwise been commissioned due to talent. Jasmila Zbanic’s (Bosnia) strong film on memory and media violence *Images from the Corner, was one of five films in a theme evening edited by Kathrin Brinkmann from ZDF/Arte. Florin Iepan’s (Romania) strong film on the Ceausescu era Children of the Decree (review p. 23) has a lot of international financing, as does Andrey Paounov’s (Bulgaria) Georgi and the Butterflies, everybody’s darling at the pitching forum in Amsterdam in 2003. Finally, the Jan Vrijman Fund helped the realisation of another Bulgarian film Dancing Bear Park by Eldora Trajkova.
Building on Tradition
The famous Yugoslav documentary tradition is well known by people like me who saw the non-verbal, visually strong, often metaphoric, short documentary films at the festivals in Oberhausen and Tampere way back in the 1970s. Those short films shot on 35mm film material have disappeared as they have everywhere else. The majority of the documentary films I have seen from Croatia and Serbia after the war that put an end to Yugoslavia have been nationalistic, political propaganda or nostalgic cultural and folkloristic trips to a calm life in the countryside. Exceptions exist and many of them are found in the milieu surrounding the film school of the Popovics in Belgrade and Factum in Zagreb. Bringing in films by internationally acclaimed directors, made in the tradition of the free film, as happened with the two new festivals in Belgrade and Zagreb, is a film policy statement for the countries involved.
Belgrade, Serbia & Montenegro
Touch the Sound by Thomas Riedelsheimer (Germany/UK 2004)
In the Dark by Sergey Dvortsevoy (Russia/Finland 2004)
The Day I will Never Forget by Kim Longinotto (UK 2002)
Screaming Men by Mika Ronkainen (Finland 2003)
Jerusalem, My Love by Jeppe Rønde (Denmark 2003)
The Master and His Pupil by Sonia Herman Dolz (The Netherlands 2003)
Citizen Berlusconi by Susan Gray (Italy 2004)
Awards for Regional Competition
Images from the Corner by Jasmila Zbanic, Bosnia-Herzegovina (Main Prize). Blue Pony by Ivona Juka, Croatia (Mention). Children of the Decree by Florin Iepan, Romania/Germany (Mention). Dancing Bear Park by Eldora Trajkova, Bulgaria (Mention). Georgi and the Butterfly by Andrej Paounov, Bulgaria (Mention).
Awards for International Competition
The 3 Rooms of Melancholia by Pirjo Honkasalo, Finland (Main Award). Life in Peace by Antoine Cattin & Pavel Kostomarov, Russia/Switzerland (Mention). The German Secret by Lars Johansson, Denmark (Mention). Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgistan by Petr Lom, Canada (Mention).
Children of the Decree by Florin Iepan, Romania/Germany.
Direct by Nebojsa Slijepcevic, Croatia.
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© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).