“Would you agree that images of empty streets and houses, which had otherwise been bustling, suggest an unusual, otherwise uncommon absence of the person, the citizen?” This is one of Selma Doborac’s queries in Those Shocking Shaking Days (2016), an 88-minute film loaded with ethical challenges to the viewer. “How about if you were to first consider that where the image ends, reality begins, or at least continues in a similar way, and that the end and the beginning of the frame simply cannot show the breadth and extent, but can very well hint at it?” Through a sequence of uneasy, incisive questions, Doborac invites – or rather jolts – the viewer out of an indifferent slumber. In so doing, she raises issues that are essential to this dossier: Senses of Cinema’s first sustained inquiry into nonfiction cinema from the territories of former Yugoslavia. Aesthetics and representation (war trauma, positionality, and the ethics of looking), the dynamics of state and international production (from festivals to networked platforms and beyond), problems surrounding historicisation (the place of ‘post-Yugoslav’ film within histories of world cinema and of Eastern Europe in particular), as well as debates around truth, social memory, and alternative facts will all make an appearance in these articles. As Doborac makes clear and as these pieces insist, no one is altogether innocent when it comes to images from the disintegrated country. Audiences cannot retreat into a space of interiority, of safe witnessing and observation, just as filmmakers are far from uninvested, objective voices. Every spectator, as Frantz Fanon would have it, is surely either a coward or a traitor; not infrequently, they might even be both.1

Viewer involvement and complicity are issues that trouble contemporary documentary as such, yet they are especially acute in an area where understandings of friend and enemy mutate with the political wind. Doborac again: “what would you do if an old friend called to tell you that from the moment he hung up you would have exactly five minutes, just enough time to pack your family albums or whatever you could gather up in such a limited time, and subsequently disappear, because he intended to blow up your house, which he was scoping out from a hill across the way? Would you think of generosity or kindness because your friend was so obliging, for the sake of your old friendship, as to a) warn you and b) spare your life (along with your photographic memories) instead of blowing you up with your house, as he could do if he wanted?” The problem has elsewhere been articulated by Pavle Levi: “where widely disseminated ideologies of hatred (capable of massive extermination of civilians) are under scrutiny, there cannot be any unknowing bystanders, disinterested parties, and safe distances. Needless to say, this point is the exact opposite of that evasive truism according to which, simply, ‘everyone is guilty.’”2

Three decades after the dismantling of Yugoslavia, a pressing question has resurfaced. At a time when new nationalisms are again on the horizon (or already firmly ensconced in power), what tactics do documentary cineastes employ in an effort to fight back? Against the equivocations of historical revisionism, how might nonfiction be energised in a struggle for justice, emancipation, and equality? With what formal means are artists and film workers tethering themselves to an aesthetic of truth? And why, most pointedly, are some of the most electrifying endeavours in this respect coming from the ex-socialist Balkans? Filmmakers such as Nika Autor, Selma Doborac, Ognjen Glavonić, Jelena Maksimović, and Želimir Žilnik have all intervened into this narrative in important ways; observational images, cinéma vérité, newsreel reporting, re-enactment, essayism, and (unscripted) fictionalisation are only a few forms and formats that post-1991 documentarists in the region are activating with force. 

It is the hypothesis of this dossier that the spaces of former Yugoslavia (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia) offer fertile ground for 21st-century cinema studies. In an area where ideological mystification has never relinquished its deadly grip, documentary images play a privileged role, tasked and entrusted as they are with offering adequate, just depictions of our world. Precisely due to their experiences with virulent ethnonationalism and an assortment of obfuscatory political techniques, ex-socialist filmmakers and artists have offered viewers of contemporary nonfiction much to think through. Fiction, fabulation, fabrication, as well as the interstices of fact, (post-)truth, and extrafilmic reality are precisely the thorny issues that today’s documentary landscape is engaged in; they are also issues that ex-Yugoslavia has been occupied with for years. To elaborate and try to understand documentary after Yugoslavia within an historical, transnational scope: that is one aim and objective of this dossier.

The ways in which our dozen authors have opted to approach these subjects are intricate and diverse. In his explication of recent “political landscape films” (published here for the first time in English), Pavle Levi uses the tools of ideology critique and Serge Daney to propose nothing short of a new image politics after Yugoslavia.3 Taking one such landscape film as his starting point, Nikola Matevski investigates Ognjen Glavnonić Depth Two (Dubina dva, 2016) in light of Godard, Duras, Straub-Huillet, Jean-Daniel Pollet, and Malevich; in all these works, absence and elision serve as the throughline. Nikola Radić, for his part, tackles Centar (Ivan Marković, 2018) and Dom boraca (Home of the Resistance, 2018) through the lens of ruin and ruination – an architectural interest also shared by Dina Pokrajac. The modernist design of filmed ex-socialist structures, writes Pokrajac, “still communicates a past idea of the future, while the materials reveal their current state of suspended, indefinitely prolonged revolution.” As a state of abeyance, of fluid in-betweenness, is also how Brenda Hollweg and Marianna Christofides narrate their encounter with the Balkans, and it is how Zoran Samardžija identifies Serbia’s recent toggling between romanticised nostalgia (for the old times of Tito) and authoritarian illiberalism.

Form, as these articles incisively argue, is inextricable from politics; the aesthetic devices that filmmakers choose to employ (or to omit) have consequences in life outside cinema. Ana Vujanović makes this point explicit in her reflective analysis of Landscapes of Resistance (Pejzaži otpora, 2021), a film on which she worked with director Marta Popivoda. Taking a closer look at found footage, and the opus of videomaking duo Doplgenger in particular, Miljana Niković offers us a history of what she calls ‘filmed documents’ as seen in ex-Yugoslavia post-’91. Sanjin Pejković’s scope is similarly ambitious, tracing historical representations of the SFRY in a range of fiction features and documentary. Animation, meanwhile, is Anastasiia Gushchina’s central interest, discussing A Kosovo Fairytale (Anna-Sofia Nylund, Samantha Nell, Mark Middlewick, 2009) in view of indexicality and wartime trauma. Kumjana Novakova and Guillermo Carreras-Candi’s Disturbed Earth (2021) is the topic of Dijana Jelača’s paper, which thoughtfully engages issues of visibility, erasure, and culpability in a post-Srebrenica world. Finally, highlighting one of Slovenia’s most adventurous recent directors, Andrej Šprah dissects the essayistic art and craft of Matjaž Ivanišin – in what is this dossier’s second translation.

These and numerous other concerns make an appearance in the webpages that follow. Many names – important artists, filmmakers, thinkers – and ideas stay unmentioned, leaving further work to be done in the future. Nonetheless, one hopes that the attentive reader will discern in these texts not just a useful supplement to existing scholarship, but also an argument (albeit a preliminary, tentative one) for the importance and inexhaustible grit of recent nonfiction from the ex-Yugoslav region. Whether this dossier comes to the reader as a first encounter – as a snapshot, a trailer, or indeed an imperfect primer on an understudied discourse – or as an added piece in an already intricate puzzle, the hope is that something of value will be identified by all. If one’s only impression after reading is that of excitement over a rich, conflicted, and ungeneralisable cinema, then our mission will have been accomplished.


  1. Fanon’s expression appears in The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963), trans. Constance Farrington, p. 199. As Fanon elaborates, “the collective struggle presupposes collective responsibility at the base and collegiate responsibility at the top. Yes, everybody will have to be compromised in the fight for the common good. No one has clean hands; there are no innocents and no onlookers. We all have dirty hands; we are all soiling them in the swamps of our country and in the terrifying emptiness of our brains. Every onlooker is either a coward or a traitor.”
  2. Pavle Levi, Jolted Images: Unbound Analytic (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017), p. 123.
  3. Levi’s article – “Pejzaži u kadru, ljudi u odsustvu” – originally appeared online in Peščanik in 2021 and later turned into the basis for his short book Minijature: O politici filmske slike (Zagreb: Multimedijalni institut, 2021); here, we thank Levi for his translation and adaptation, and the previous publishers for being able to include this.

About The Author

Nace Zavrl is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, writing a dissertation on nonfiction filmmaking after Yugoslavia. Previously, he studied at King’s College London and at Goldsmiths, University of London. Nace has written on film and experimental media for Afterimage, Senses of Cinema, the Moving Image Review and Art Journal, and NECSUS, as well as for Radio Študent, KINO!, and Ekran. He is the editor of The Resistance-Image: Militant Documentary on the Battlefields of May ’68, published by the Slovenian Cinematheque.

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