Ljubiša Samardžić and Tijana Kondić on the set of Nataša

The Pula Film Festival, 22-30 June 2001

The film ended, and the spotlights came on. As the director (along with several other members of the crew) mounted the stage, the Festival audience burst into spontaneous and rapturous applause. The excitement peaked as the director took a few steps forward and raised his arms upwards and outwards in a gesture that encompassed both fraternal welcoming and victorious celebration. “You haven’t changed,” he told the crowd, which duly increased the intensity of their applause.

It sounds an almost commonplace occurrence and perhaps not one worthy of any special mention. But in this case the director, Ljubiša Samardžić, was Serbian, his audience, the 48th Pula Film Festival, was almost exclusively Croatian and the film, Nataša (Natasha, 2001), was the first Serb film to be shown in Pula’s grand Vespasian Arena (the spectacular, well-preserved remains of a 2000-year-old Roman coliseum) after a long and fraught decade.

Different paths

The audience was applauding not only a film it had just enjoyed but also the return of a much-loved figure in Serbian cinema and a previous regular to the Festival, one of many who had given the event a star-studded glamorous appeal. Up to 1991, Pula had honoured Samardžić with six Golden Arena awards in his capacity as an actor. However, with the outbreak of bloody inter-ethnic conflict as the former Yugoslavia collapsed, the Festival first ceased to take place and was then truncated in its remit from being a festival of “Yugoslav” film to being one of just Croatian cinema.

Meanwhile, Samardžić used his iconic status as an actor to launch a production company, Sinema Disajn (Cinema Design) and commence a career as a director. His first feature, Nebeska udica (Sky Hook, 2000), focused on contemporary themes – basketball and the NATO bombing of Belgrade and was presented in competition at last year’s Berlinale and went on to play at a string of festivals, including Karlovy Vary, Moscow, Milan and Los Angeles.

Nataša, his second film, is again highly topical in its subject matter. The heroine of the film’s title is a 17-year-old schoolgirl (played by Tijana Kondić, who picked up a Golden Arena for her performance) whose father, a high-ranking policeman, has been shot dead. The reasons behind the hit remain mysterious to both Nataša and the audience. Armed with her father’s address book and a series of stolen mobile phones, she proceeds to taunt those she believes are connected to the killing through a somewhat infantile game of cat and mouse. Meanwhile, she also plays with the affections of two friends, a married bookshop owner and a mafia mobster, as Belgrade prepares itself for the September 2000 elections. However, her quest for the truth gets her into increasing trouble, as her meddling makes her father’s killers realise they must retrieve the address book.

A new face to Serbia

Perhaps Nataša is also highly suitable in terms of its subject matter to symbolise the return of Serbian film to Croatia, given that it seeks to express the frustration and helplessness of a people for whom the distinction between those with power and those without has never been sharper. If Serbo-Croatian relations are truly to warm, then this distinction will doubtless come to the fore in explaining much of the brutality that has occurred.

Throughout the film, posters and stickers of the youth resistance movement Otpor are easily visible, and towards the end of the film this becomes manifested in street protests. Moreover, Nataša is at pains to stress the new in Serbian society. The emphasis is constantly on youth culture, new technology in the form of the mobile phone, modern street slang and urban culture, such as roller-blading. Nataša herself is a hip young thing and even her disaffection with society has a fashionable quality to it.

This glorification of youth and youth culture is matched by a denouncement of all things old, and all the elderly characters are in some way unlikeable drunk, rude or out of touch with modern society. This is, as the Croatian film critic Jurica Pavačić pointed out to me, an interesting contrast to Serbian films of the 1990s, in which the older generation where treated with respect and portrayed as having integrity and a sense of timeless values of good while the middle generation was demonised for its cynical careerism and manipulation of the system.

Whilst Samardžić feels confident about expressing the emergence of a new youthful Serbia, the overall mood of the film is far from triumphalist. Breaking away from what genre archetypes would require as mandatory, there is no final confrontation between Nataša and her father’s killers and still less any form of the avenging of his death as if Serbia feels that, despite the changes, ordinary citizens are still powerless against higher, darker forces in society.

As a barometer of social changes, Nataša is a fascinating document. But the very categories that make it interesting in this respect also eat away at its wider aesthetic interest. Nataša is very much tied down to a specific time and place and the universality of the film is somewhat limited.

This is partly due to one of Samardžić’s qualities as a producer: the extraordinary speed with which he works, which in turn bestows his films with a contemporary approach to their theme like few other production companies can. As Nataša‘s screenplay writer, Srđan Koljević explained to me, typically Samardžić expects it to take around a month between the presentation of the first draft screenplay and the start of shooting (even though the money may not yet be in place at that stage). Working at this kind of pace, Samardžić was able to measure the changing mood of the country and begin shooting a week before the September elections were due to take place. Rarely has cinema been able to respond so rapidly to constantly evolving circumstances.

Common experiences

Meanwhile, other films at Pula from the former Yugoslavia suggested that the Serbian experience, as expressed in Nataša, is not unique. Indeed, even Slovenia (a relatively prosperous country that almost completely avoided entering the war and which is now hotly tipped to be a frontrunner in the race for EU accession among former Communist countries) is producing films with noticeable parallels to Nataša.

Miran Zupanič’s Barabe! (Rascals!, 2000), for example, had a number of themes in common with Nataša: disaffected youth rebelling against a corrupt and violent society; an unsuccessful attempt to fight back against the mafia; a doomed love affair; and a lack of any final confrontation between the opposing protagonists. The theme of outsiders unable to adapt to contemporary society was continued in another Slovene film, Vojko Anzeljc’s Zadnja večerja (The Last Supper, 2000), which tracks the filmmaking escapades of two inhabitants of a mental institution. The film’s interest in characters marginalized by society continues a common theme for both director Anzeljc and leading actor Majaž Javšnik, who prides himself on being interested in “the world of lunatics, crooks and whores.”

It should not be presumed that those producing films on this theme are young and up and coming: Samardžić, as already mentioned, has a long and distinguished career behind him, and the important Serbian screenplay writer Gordan Mihić surprised many with his most recent script, for Đorđe Milosavljević’s Mehanizam (The Mechanism, 2000), a Tarantinoesque exercise in pulp fiction.

Mehanizam is far more dramatically gripping than any of the above-mentioned films and it attempts to tackle some weighty themes: personal freedom and escaping the cycle of violence. However, like Milosavljević’s previous film, Točkovi (Wheels, 1999), the film’s impact is limited by the voyeurism it encourages. Many, for example, will feel uneasy that the director chooses to depict the act of rape in terms of an act that only affects the body and the inner, emotional effects are not considered (contrast this, for example, with Goran Paskaljević’s portrayal of psycho-sexual abuse in Bure baruta / The Powder Keg, 1998, a Serbian film with a similar interest in cycles of violence). As such, Mehanizam falls into a common pitfall for Central and Eastern European directors: use of the camera as an exclusively male eye.

The Croatian crop

Polagana predaja

Although themes of corruption and shady business practices were central to the Croatian films shown at Pula, they were less violent than their Serbian counterparts, and the films largely displayed the disaffection of slightly older or even middle-aged insiders, rather than young outsiders: Holding (The Miroslav Holding Co, Tomislav Andrić, 2001) is the story of a photocopying shop-owner turned entrepreneur; Ajmo žuti (Go For it Yellows, Dražen Žarković, 2001) follows two friends who work for a Zagreb football club; and Polagana predaja (Slow Surrender, Bruno Gamulin, 2001) has a 40-year-old advertising executive as its main protagonist.

There was a Croatian film that did use characters living on the fringes of society. However, Lukas Nola’s visually stunning but otherwise vacuous Sami (Alone, 2001) has metaphysical pretensions rather than the intent of direct social or political commentary and as such stands slightly apart from the other films from the former Yugoslavia shown at Pula.

Kraljica noći

The remaining two Croatian films at Pula were more lightweight in their approach: Viceno Blagaić’s Poslednja volja (The Last Will, 2001) pits corrupt Americans against poor, honest Croatians in something that aspires to be a James Bond-style action thriller with comic elements thrown in; while Branko Schmidt’s Kraljica noći (Queen of the Night, 2001) is one of a growing genre of films in Central and Eastern Europe which nostalgically depicts growing up under Communism with a comic touch.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these more escapist films were more popular with the Pula audience. But then again, this might also have something to do with the fact that they were noticeably more filmic than Holding, Ajmo žuti or Polagana predaja. Croatian films are particularly prone to feeling out of place in the medium. With such a small cinema industry, the majority of Croatian actors and directors have to also work in theatre to make ends meet. The crossover is not always fruitful, and frequently the alternative source of employment for these actors and directors is all too visible in their work for the silver screen.

It is also worth noting here that Croatian state television (Hrvatska televizija, HRT) is the most active producer in the Croatian film market (and was producer and co-producer for Holding, Ajmo žuti or Polagana predaja), and its influence has been widely condemned. Particularly under fire is HRT’s occasional practice of commissioning films in the form of a three- or four-part serial and then creating a feature film by editing the serial down to 90 minutes. Curiously, Kraljica noći was also produced by HRT, but somehow survived the process to emerge as a work with the appearance of being made for the big screen.

Doing better under rougher conditions

It was even more curious to hear that Serbians were jealous of the support that HRT could give to Croatian film. Although there is a Serbian state-owned channel that should in theory act as a film producer, the channel does not have sufficient funds to fulfil this role. They are even unable, as HRT invariably does in Croatia, to support films in kind, by providing technical services without charge (as opposed to actual financing).

This goes some way to explaining the strength of Serbian cinema over the last ten years, as films have been largely insulated from official interference. Even the financial support of the Ministry of Culture is usually only a tiny fraction of the budget and is only awarded once the film has already been shot.

This has meant that in Serbia new films have aroused considerable public interest, as they have represented an alternative voice in society. Such popular interest in cinema has helped, in some small measure, the few producers that do operate in Yugoslavia to obtain bank credits and to win the interest of sponsors, although such sponsors generally also provide only services in kind. As yet, there are no tax incentives to make sponsoring films seem attractive to Serbian businesses.

All this makes Croatia seem an odder country to envy for its film industry. Just as Serbian cinema has retained popular support as an independent voice, Croatian film has to an extent lost it. HRT was closely controlled by the regime of ultra-nationalist Franjo Tuđman (before the autocrat died at the end of 1999 and a Western-leaning liberal government took over). Many of the old guard still retain their old positions in the company.

Maybe we can even conjecture that the residue of this “official” dimension to Croatian film explains why this year’s output generally prefers to consider the fate of insiders to the system. Whether this is true or not, Croatian film can only benefit from moving away from the influence of the station.

A boost through co-productions?

The Serbs were also jealous of the news that Croatia looks set to join the Council of Europe’s fund to support international co-productions, Eurimages, from the beginning of 2002. Croatian journalists were more sceptical and stunned Eurimages representative Walter Lerouge (who broke the news to a press conference in Pula) with their scepticism of the scheme. Particularly at issue was the matter of the fee that Croatia would have to pay to join. Lerouge could not give a figure what the fee would be but insisted that it would be far less than the cost of one co-production. In other words, it would only take a single film project a year to be approved for Croatia to recoup the money.

However, this did little to assuage Croatian journalists, who couldn’t help but wonder if Croatia would even manage to achieve that. This was all the more so as Lerouge admitted that the number of members of Eurimages is now again expanding (after a moratorium on accepting new countries), but the money available has not increased.

He also acknowledged that the money available for small-budget films and films with little chance of widespread commercial success, most probably the category that co-productions with Croatia would fall into, was particularly insufficient. The sense of suspicion was heightened still further by the notion that this is a scheme that benefits larger, richer countries more than it does smaller, poorer ones. France has done especially well from the fund’s support.

Croatia has reasons to both welcome and fear co-productions. On the positive side, co-productions were once very lucrative business for Croatia. Western money poured into Yugoslavia through the once-respected Jadranfilm production company, with international producers taking advantage of good technical facilities at significantly lower costs. The international dialogue that occurred through such co-productions was fruitful in the creative sense as well as the financial one: it enabled Yugoslav actors to work with international directors and Western actors to bring their reputation to Yugoslav films (most famously Richard Burton playing the role of Tito and Orson Welles in Stipe Delić’s Sutjeska/The Fifth Offensive, 1973).

War changed all that. Contacts were lost, and in the 1990s other formerly closed countries opened up to international production companies. To make matters worse, Croatia is now a comparatively expensive country for filmmakers. As a result, Jadranfilm is now on the verge of bankruptcy, and, as it is a private company, there is little the Ministry of Culture can or is willing to do. Re-establishing international contacts with producers would be an invaluable fillip to the Croatian film industry.

The negative side of co-productions was visible in Poslednja volja, a co-production between a Croatian and an American firm. Whilst, Blagaić (who is Croatian) was in his element directing Croatian actors, the American characters are acted with a standard that drops below that of daytime television soaps.

Poslednja volja

The danger with international co-productions is that, while directors may be sensitive to their own environment and the minutiae of behavioural details of the people within it, frequently they are insensitive to what makes people tick in other parts of the world and have no ear for the subtleties of how they speak there. Indeed, Eurimages co-productions have been criticised for producing exactly this kind of bland international hotchpotch, portraying a cross-cultural no man’s land that doesn’t correspond to any real time or place or how people acted in it.

Maybe, Croatia would be better to work with immediate neighbours with which a cross-cultural storyline would make more sense. I was eager to test this theory with Ibolya Fekete’s Chico (2001), a Hungarian-Croatian co-production set in Eastern Slavonia during Croatia’s war of succession with Serbia. The signs were encouraging that this might be a co-production that would make sense: Fekete’s first film, Bolshe vita (1996), successfully captures the international atmosphere of Budapest in the early 1990s, using British, Hungarian and Russian actors. However, Chico was not formally presented at Pula (although there was an “informational screening” which I did not manage to attend) but the film is soon to appear in competition at Karlovy Vary, not only another opportunity to see the film but also another encouraging sign of its quality.

Rebranding the event

Meanwhile, Pula is on its own drive for internationalisation, to reverse the decline in fortunes that the bloody wars of succession and the reduced selection of films have brought about. This year was the first year it was “a festival of Croatian and European films” with the hope that through such a format Croatian film can be given a platform by which it can be presented to the outside world.

However, to do this the Festival organisers will have to do more than just woo back international guests. Even domestic interest has trailed off: the Festival is state-sponsored (with the president of the republic acting as patron, just to give it extra official flavour) and as a result attending the younger, pluckier Motovun Film Festival, which is funded by the Istrian local authorities rather than on the state level, but not the Pula festival was something of a political statement in Tuđman’s time.

Opinion of national politics may be rising under the new administration, but the Festival’s woes are far from over: audiences have yet to flock back to the arena that was once packed for every screening with people standing in the aisles. But despite some organisational difficulties (the decision to become a festival of European film was made only two months before the start of the Festival), a bad choice of timing (the Festival was held during the middle of the university exam period) and one or two programming oddities (such as including two European films which are more than two years old in the competition), Pula’s organisers are remaining committed to clawing back some of the Festival’s lost prestige.

As such, Samardžić’s enthusiastic reception in the Arena stands not just as a potent symbol of Serbo-Croatian rapprochement but also of the yearning of Croatians to recover the status of the Festival as a world-class, glamorous film event.

No wonder Pula applauded Samardžić so loudly.

About The Author

Andrew James Horton is Editor-in-Chief of Kinoeye.

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