Post-Yu Cinema (2): Audiences don’t want war films anymore
It is crucial for the region to question its past, for each nation to reassess and feel responsibility for the atrocities each of them committed in the Balkan wars, and film is probably one of the best ways to do it. But Circles is one of the rare films that actually moved something, and was not just “preaching to the choir”. A large majority of cinephiles, intellectuals, educated people is aware that – whether they are Serbian, Croatian or Bosniak – terrible crimes were committed in their name.
But there is no will in the official structures to do something similar to what Germans did after the Second World War- not to just say they but actually do something about it. Even when the former Serbian president Boris Tadić went to Zagreb and Sarajevo and expressed apologies for the nineties, or his counterparts in these countries made similar symbolic gestures in Belgrade, the reactions in most of the public at home were negative. This ties in with the above-mentioned propaganda through the media. Unless something is actually done instead of just said, there will be no real change. Serbia still denies genocide in Srebrenica. Saying I’m sorry in Sarajevo just doesn’t cut it.
In the meantime, old audiences have gotten tired of war-related films, actually, they even stopped going to cinema. As old-style, single or two-screen cinemas in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia died out, so did the interest in movie-going. This was, of course, helped with rampant piracy even before the high-speed internet, when Belgrade and Sarajevo were among rare European capitals where you could buy the newest Hollywood, and even local product, on DVD on the streets. After 2005/6 and all the way until 2010, there was a huge gap in exhibition as multiplexes were not yet present enough. It’s only in the past two years that the distribution network is recovering, but now it’s the new kids who are going to the multiplexes and they don’t care about war or social problems. They want entertainment, and the distributors are always happy to deliver the newest batch of Hollywood fun.
Serbia used to be one of the rare countries in Europe, along with France, where local films would regularly beat Hollywood at the box office. Populistic comedy Zamfir’s Zona sold 1.6 million admissions in 2002 and 2003, the next film by the same team, Robbery of the Third Reich sold almost 600,000 in 2004. And even Srdan Golubović’s first film, Absolute Hundred, a serious-minded thriller about a young athlete and his drug-addicted brother- by no means an easy thing to watch- managed to attract almost 200,000 people to cinemas in 2001.
At the same time, in Croatia only two local films scored significant box office results, and both were comedies, How the War Started on My Island (1997, incredible 337,000 tickets) and Marshall (2000, 100,000 admissions), both made by Vinko Brešan who clearly knows how to make a hit. His latest film The Priest’s Children, which also competed at Karlovy Vary and is nominated for best comedy at the European Film Awards, scored 156,000 admissions this year.
But in the early 2000’s, Croatian film-makers were mostly busy making war propaganda films or trying to enter the European “art film” circle, both with dubious results. Now, with the new strategy of Croatian Audiovisual Centre (HAVC), formed by the late Albert Kapović in 2008, Croatia is getting more local crowdpleasers, which include children’s films such as the franchise based on cult writer Ivan Kušan’s series of books about the boy Koko, and the newest hit The Little Shoemaker, as well as more comedies like Sonja and the Bull by Vlatka Vorkapić.
But HAVC’s strategy isn’t only to support popular local films. In the past two years, there has been a significant rise in both quality and quantity of the production of documentary and short films, scoring good results at important festivals world-wide. More importantly, Croatia is making more room for less commercial films: the state and distributors have joined forces to digitise single-screen cinemas, and now 29 single-screen theatres in 28 cities have digital projectors which will enable distribution and exhibition of European, Asian and American independent films.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is moving ahead with the slowest pace. The country is divided in two, between the Federation (predominantly populated by Bosniaks and Croats) and Republika Srpska (mostly Serbian population), which both have their own laws, and the presidency consists of three members, one from each nation. In such a set-up, it is hard to get through any new laws on things “as trivial as cinema”, and the biggest push came from the Sarajevo Film Festival which, while big and powerful, cannot really replace systematic support to production, distribution and exhibition. Still, the highest grossers there are also local films, such as Danis Tanović’s Cirkus Columbia, or Jasmila Žbanić’s Berlinale winner Grbavica.
Whether a film is about war or not, Bosnian people simply go to see local product. We will see how Faruk Lončarević‘s second film With Mom, a decidedly middle-class drama about a family in which mother is dying of cancer and how they are coping with it, will do at the box office once it’s released, but this film would more easily fit into repertoire of arthouse cinemas in Holland or Sweden than in the few Balkan multiplexes. Of course, Serbian films are doing a good job in Republika Srpska, but with a total of 7 screens in the territory, the results can hardly be encouraging.
That is why the distributor and exhibitor Obala Art Center, one of the founders of the Sarajevo Film Festival, has started Operation Kino, practically a travelling cinema which takes new films to small towns and villages which haven’t had a cinema in 30 years, and is reporting excellent results for most of the films they are showing.
In terms of genre film, which could in the Balkans mean a sort of a bridge between arthouse and mainstream, Serbia is leading the way. Perhaps the first to start this was Dejan Zečević with slasher horror T.T. Syndrome in 2002- even such a challenging film was able to score almost 30,000 admissions at the time. Zečević continued with this approach in the Bourne Identity-style thriller The Fourth Man in 2007, and one of the best Serbian films in the past few years: The Enemy (2011), a horror story set in the Bosnian war.
One could argue that Maja Miloš’s Clip is a genre film, as well as Stevan Filipović’s Skinning about football hooligans and skinheads in Serbia. Filipović was even closer to pure genre with his first film, the 2006 fantasy flick Sheitan’s Warrior, made for under €200,000 and selling 32,000 admissions.
Also, Uroš Stojanović‘s quasi-hystorical fantasy comedy Charlston and Vendetta, co-produced with Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp, managed to sell almost 150,000 admissions in 2008, although that was too little for the huge budget invested in it during the five-year gestation period it took to complete the film- besides the struggle for final cut between director and the producers, the CGI effects work got too complicated and delayed the release. By that time the overall cinema attendance had plunged seriously, and if this film had been released in 2004 or 2005 as it was initially planned, it could have easily scored Zamfir’s Zona-scale results.
And then, of course, there is the infamous A Serbian Film (2010) by Srdjan Spasojević, which caused a lot of controversy everywhere it was shown, and was released in the UK with 4 minutes cut out, the first censorship on such a scale in over 20 years. But its B.O. results were meagre at home, as it could only play in late-night slots, and anyway, this is hardly a film everyone should see.
Serbia also had a wave of urban, youth-oriented comedies which did well at the box office, especially films by Radivoje Andrić, such as Munje! in 2001 and When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Kangaroo in 2004. The latter was written by Miroslav Momčilović, who later directed hits Seven and a Half (2006), Wait for Me and Will Not Come (2009) and Death of a Man in the Balkans (2012). These films were also very popular in all of former Yugoslavia, and even in Bulgaria.
The general movie-going public in the region eagerly awaits every new Serbian comedy: it is a common-place that Serbs make the funniest films. If this is actually true is debatable and certainly depends on taste, but the general idea is present as such and this is what drives the box office. That is also the reason Srdjan Dragojević‘s Parade, a road comedy tackling the burning LGBT rights issue in the region (to dubious merit, but it did win three awards at the Berlinale, including the audience one), sold 600,000 admissions combined in all the seven countries remaining of Yugoslavia.
Lately, the Croatians also started making genre films. The first significant one was Kristijan Milić‘s war horror The Living and the Dead in 2007, in which Croatian soldiers in the 90’s war are confronted with ghosts of warriors killed in the Second World War. This served as a metaphor of continuity of antagonism and hostility in the Balkans, known as a region where there is at least one war in each 50 years.
Unexpectedly, the best “transgressive” (as in, containing explicit violence and/or sex) films coming from Croatia have been made by Branko Schmidt, a director in his late 50’s who was during the 90’s and first half of 2000’s best known for government-pleasing propaganda films. His Metastases (2009) and Vegetarian Cannibal (2012), both based on novels by Ivo Balenović, hit on the main problems of the society such as hooliganism, racism and corruption with power and without compromise, in a very modern way, with fast cuts and rock and hip-hop soundtracks, almost as if they were made by a 20-year old.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the only genre that seems worth tackling is comedy, but the public seems to be getting enough of it from TV series of the lowest humouristic level. Films such as Fuse! by Pjer Žalica (2003) or Ljubljana-based, Sarajevo-born legendary comedian Branko Djurić‘s Love, Tractor and Rockn’roll (2008) are rare examples of successful theatrical comedies in the territory.
WHERE IS THE REGION’S CINEMA GOING TO?
Today there seem to be two levels of film production and audience interest in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, especially the three we are covering here. And these levels overlap with different segments of society. On one hand, we have the young generation of people born during the nineties, who do not remember war, but are frequently more nationalistic-oriented than anybody else, and actually form the largest percentage of right-wing and football hooligan groups, which are of course led by older, more dangerous persons. This confirms the thesis on perpetual influence of media. Now, of course they do not form the real majority of young movie-goers. Most kids are simply not interested in war and social problems and will just go to see Hollywood films in multiplexes which are, naturally, situated in malls where they will go shopping and having coffee at McDonald’s. For them, local films are simply not interesting. They get entertainment in their own language from TV reality shows and soap operas- but this is a brainwashing that works everywhere in the world, so it is not specific to the region.
The other, much smaller segment of cinema-going public are intellectuals and cinephiles in the age group between 25 and 50. They too are shying away from war films but will be happy to see an important film tackling social problems, such as Clip in Serbia, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker in Bosnia or Vegetarian Cannibal in Croatia.
These are also the people who will go to numerous film festivals in the region- Croatia is the leader here with more than 50 international film festivals, probably the biggest number of such per capita in the world (Croatia’s population is around 4.5 million). That is where they will see European, Asian and South-American arthouse which can hardly find place in the regular distribution.
And who will see mainstream local films then? Is there really an actual mainstream in Balkan cinema? That is a question that is really hard to pin down. Without a real system in film-making, something that would resemble “industry” as it is known in Western Europe, and even in some Eastern European countries like Poland or Turkey, it is hard to expect a development of healthy national cinema. This goes back to the institutional issue which is inextricable from politics and economy, and it is clear that these are fields where the Balkan countries are at the lowest level.
Until there is a political will and economic interest in each of the countries, success stories will keep coming from individual efforts of film-makers and production companies which stand behind films like Circles, A Stranger and An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker. Balkan nations have the need for external confirmation: any product, whether it’s cheese or film, does not get approval at home until it has an award from abroad. Now, for cheese that is less of a problem- people have to buy it anyway, but film is hardly a household necessity. But if Circles helped the only real war hero from the nineties to finally get recognized at home, and if Iron Picker turned the spotlight back on to the social inequality and racism, maybe at some point an enlightened politician (although that sounds like an oximoron) will appear on the scene and dig out some political and economic interest in cinema to start a systematic support which might, in the long run, bring a progress to forming of an actual film industry.