The building of RTS

The Early Days: “We tried to draw the line between the regime and the people”

Boris Trbic: What were the most important independent documentary films produced in the early years of the Milosevic rule?

Janko Baljak: The most important films were, without doubt, those produced by the independent Radio B92, which – during the first years of Milosevic’s rule and the populist movement in Serbia – mainly produced the work of a small number of directors. With the beginning of war [1991 – B.T.] and the introduction of sanctions [1992 – B.T.], many filmmakers understood the character of the regime and started working on low budget projects or left the country. The first film produced by B92 was the film, Secret File, by Vladimir Slavica. It was an ambitious film, whose purpose was to promote the B92 Radio. Dejan Kovacevic-Macak made Small Sadness. Both of them, just like you, left the country.

B.T: How did you start your co-operation with Free B92 Radio? (1) What was the role of this production house in establishing an alternative to the state controlled media-documentary film production?

J.B: The disintegration of Yugoslavia and the crisis that struck the Serbian society during the 1990s meant that the official film production ceased to exist. Documentary film, similar to all art in that period, shifted into a parallel world of low budget initiatives and independent productions. With the establishment of the Film Section of independent Radio B92, the radio programme which at the time already enjoyed cult status among the liberal public, the need of filmmakers to resist the official film propaganda had been finally institutionalised. In the period of sanctions, I started working on short stories about the gloomy everyday life in Serbian cities: The Alphabet of Sanctions, The Images of Sad Events, Belgrade Radio Groom, Journalist BrkicOne Against All, and others. These stories were produced for the foreign market, for closed projections in Belgrade opposition circles and for the audience in the more liberal cities in Serbia. There was no way that the wider audience could see these films. We named the whole thing: Taboo Serbia.

We lived in a paradox situation. The official propaganda was continually trumpeting the message that the whole world was conspiring against the Serbs to eliminate them from the face of the Earth. On the other hand, Serbs indeed were the bad guys in the Western media. In our films, we tried to draw the line between the regime and the people and to fight prejudices that were, at the time, a dominant model of thinking. Soon, we were joined by some of the directors of the old guard, Zelimir Zilnik (Tito for the Second Time Amongst the Serbs and Marble Ass) and Goran Markovic (Crazy People). For them, B92 was an oasis of normality during a time when Serbian film production was reduced from about 40 movies a year to almost nothing.

In this series, I also made three half hour documentaries about parallel lives of Kosovo’s Serbs and Albanians. We were the first Serbian film crew to walk into Albanian villages. We filmed illegal schools, universities, hospitals, theatres – a parallel life that boycotted the institutions of the Serbian state. We wanted to prove that the peaceful coexistence of Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo was still possible. It was the mid ’90s, the war was close by in Bosnia and we knew that it would come home to Serbia, sooner or later. Yet, once again, it turned out that films, books, and art cannot change people and stop evil. We [the independent filmmakers associated with B92 – ed.] tried to show Milosevic’s Serbia as morally and ethically degraded. That was best seen in my next film about the Belgrade underworld.

The Gangsters and the Filmmaker: Crime that Changed Serbia

B.T: At the time when our generation was growing up in Belgrade, and especially during the 1980s, it was commonly said that Belgrade was one of the safest European capitals. What changed during the 1990s and how did you come to an idea to make a film about the Belgrade underworld?

J.B: War and weapons that arrived in the capital, as well as a large number of refugees and all sorts of war syndromes, made Belgrade the “Chicago of the 90s”. Criminal chronicles became the dominant topic in the media. Again, everyone was recording the facts, but hardly anyone analysed the reasons for this kind of transformation. I decided to follow two Belgrade journalists, Aleksandar Knezevic and Vojislav Tufegdzic who decided to write a book, Crime that Changed Serbia, and make a film about this phenomenon.

I was suspicious. Why would a hardened criminal appear in front of the camera to discuss his crimes? But, a miracle happened. Mainly because it was the right moment for such a film. Christian Golubovic, one of the most notorious figures of the Belgrade underworld was at the time at war with almost everyone. When he decided to give us an interview, all other criminals wanted to give their side of the story. The journalists completed their book, and I shot 32 hours of material for a half hour film. I worked for ten months and in that period three characters interviewed in the film lost their lives on the street. I almost completed the film when I found out about the death of one of them; I had to re-edit the ending. Today, six years after its completion, most of the main characters in the film have met a fate encapsulated in the original title of the film, hard to translate to other languages, See You in the Obituaries. After each of these real life episodes, the film regained its popularity.

B.T: This is a film about a generation that was growing up during wartime, a period of deterioration of all moral, social and economic values.

J.B: Young people felt the sharp social divisions created by war and sanctions. War profiteers became enormously rich overnight and formed the core of organised crime in Serbia. The middle class, the critical and dynamic motor of every Western society, had completely disappeared from the scene. The youngsters watched their parents work for ten or twenty German marks. Their ideals became money, guns, flashy cars and escort girls. Live quickly, die young and be a nice corpse. Their idols were the young untouchables, the bosses of powerful city gangs who attained the status of celebrities in local tabloids. They publicly argued and threatened each other and became more popular than sport stars, musicians or politicians. Their showdowns became more ruthless and their deaths more extreme. The regime did not even try to stop this because most of these guys were working for the regime as executioners. It was obvious that Milosevic’s regime worked hand in hand with the underworld.

B.T: What do you remember as the most valuable experience during the filming of this documentary? How did the general public perceive the film?

J.B: With gangsters and criminals as characters, unlike some other people, I always had perfect communication. They always kept their word and I never had any problems throughout the shoot or afterwards when the film was shown in public. We respected the agreement that nothing that was said during the shooting would be changed or interpreted in a different context. I was lucky, because the situation was often dangerous, especially during the mad rides through the city of Belgrade or tense confrontations between warring criminal factions. I often got carried away, trying to record authentic footage in these situations. In time, we established a relationship of confidence and every time I heard about the death of one of them, I couldn’t say I felt indifferent. The film was a sensation that year and won a Grand Prix at the National Festival of Documentary Films. It became a cult documentary and the most pirated doco in Serbia in which video piracy became a legal activity sometimes even perpetuated by state channels. There were even calls for Crime That Changed Serbia 2. Quotations from that film became part of everyday communication and inspiration for titles of newspaper articles. It was the first film shown in Croatia and Slovenia after the Yugoslav war. The State television in Serbia ignored the film, yet despite that, it received awards at a number of international documentary festivals and was shown on a number of TV channels across Europe. I always had to explain to viewers in the West that the main characters in the film are not impersonators but real criminals. They often found it difficult to comprehend this.

B.T: Australian audiences are familiar with the work of Srdjan Dragojevic (Pretty Village, Pretty Flame Wounds, shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival recently).

J.B: Dragojevic admitted to me that Crime That Changed Serbia served him as a model for Wounds, a film that follows the same topic. It is a film that looks at the position of young people in a society on the brink of collapse and during a time of the deterioration of moral values. This is the main reason he chose amateurs for his main roles. Unfortunately, one of the actors in this film died in the army barracks, during the last adventure of this regime in Kosovo. The circle of violence thus remained uninterrupted.

B.T: How did you come to the idea of making a film about a war criminal (Ethnically Clean, 1998)? Why would you want to make such a film?

J.B: I was astonished by the fact that Serbs, long before the establishment of the Hague Tribunal tried one Serb for war crimes against civilian population. The trial was held in the Republic of Serb Krayina (now Croatia) during war in that region. A Serb, Dusan Boljevic, killed 18 of his neighbours of Croatian and Hungarian nationality in 1991. He drank coffee with them and then killed them in cold blood. Fifty years earlier, Croatian Ustashi committed genocide against the Serbs in concentration camp Jasenovac. This was one of the most horrendous crimes of World War Two. I found it intriguing to follow this tragic spiral of violence.

Boljevic is an interesting cinematic character. He is an ex-legionnaire; he was a special police executioner, a psychopath in the real sense of the word. The whole story had a note of melodrama, because he met his wife, Jagoda, while serving a prison sentence in Sweden. Again, we started the film in one way and completed it under entirely different circumstances. Krayina does not exist any more, there are no Serbs in Croatia, and Boljevic is doing his time in Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia.

B.T: How did critics, media and the general public perceive the film?

J.B: This film also had its fans, and won the award for the best documentary film at the Yugoslav Festival of Short and Documentary Film, but people did not like it very much. Serbs did not like it because it spoke about Serbian crimes, Croats would have immediately accepted it if it was not for Jasenovac, and the international public did not like the story about Serbs who tried one of their compatriots because of crimes against other nationalities. The regime did not allow me to make contact with Boljevic, because he was an important witness of planned ethnic cleansing against people of other nationalities. I would like to make a sequel, now, under different circumstances, if Boljevic is still alive.

The Crime and the Agony: The Anatomy of Pain

B.T: How did you see the work of Radio Television Serbia (RTS) during the past thirteen years?

J.B: During the last thirteen years of Milosevic’s rule the tragic events followed one another. People became used to evil on their television screens and their memory became shorter. Because of new conflicts and wars they quickly forgot the old ones. After March 1999, war came home to Serbia. The bombs of NATO started hitting Serbian cities and one of them hit the building of RTS . The informative programme of RTS in the past decade was a weapon of Milosevic propaganda, a xenophobic machine fed and supported by the regime. NATO declared the building of RTS as one of its targets. In spite of the announcements of the possible missile attack, the journalists in news programmes of RTS were ‘courageously’ daring the planes to bomb the building because they ‘feared no one.’

B.T: What happened on the night when the building of RTS was destroyed by the NATO missile?

A family of one of the deceased

J.B: NATO destroyed the building of RTS, the biggest TV station in the Balkans on 23 April 1999 at 2.06 a.m. For the first time in the history of war, one media house was bombed. Sixteen people died, mainly technical crew, young and miserably paid people without connections to Milosevic’s propaganda machine. The ‘brave’ journalists remained alive, but the regime quickly proclaimed that the tragically killed were journalists. After the 72 days of war, I decided to make a film about the days when life in Belgrade was very cheap and life in national television almost worthless, which became known as The Anatomy Of Pain (2000).

B.T: How did you start your investigation?

J.B: I live about a hundred metres from the building of RTS and we felt awful during the bombing. We had a small baby and we didn’t go to the shelters. That night, we prepared to celebrate the first birthday of my eldest daughter, but after the NATO missile we couldn’t sleep, because of smoke caused by the burning cables in the building of the television. We received our guests the next day and I was frustrated because of the circumstances in which my daughter celebrated her first birthday. I really didn’t think about making a movie. After the ceasefire, I started thinking and realised that that night is indeed a metaphor for everything that happened to us. Out of all state and public institutions, only RTS had such a large number of civilian casualties. The victims’ families organised a small group asking only one question about the tragedy: WHY? This question became the main motto of their struggle and my film. Every encounter with the families of the victims was extremely painful. They kept reminding me of the mothers of missing victims of military junta in Argentina, three decades ago.

I spoke with some colleagues from RTS, but only a few wanted to appear in the film. Fear for one’s life was stronger than the sense of moral responsibility. It became obvious that sixteen people were sacrificed for ‘higher’ reasons, which were to serve as propaganda for the Milosevic regime. I collected a lot of material and completed the film without voice-over or music, using just words, images and sounds.

Both the producer and myself were surprised that the film was included in the official selection of the national documentary Festival, the Yugoslav Festival of Short and Documentary Film, financed by the state. The state sponsored media stopped reporting from the Festival to prevent the general public learning about the film. The Anatomy of Pain received a Grand Prix after a unanimous decision by the jury comprising three employees of Milosevic’s RTS. The audience cried during the film and applauded the film and the jury after the awards were announced. That night I felt that the fear in Serbia started to melt. In one of the interviews given immediately after the Festival, I expressed the belief that the film will soon be shown on RTS. This was perceived as a joke, yet, six months later, the film was shown on state television, just days after the peaceful revolution against Milosevic.

B.T: Were there any immediate threats to those involved in the production process, including yourself?

J.B: My family did not have direct threats, however, a lot of ugly things happened in the city. The building in which the film was shown was painted with black swastikas, the billboards with the photos from the film were covered with symbols of NATO, the state media accused as the NATO mercenaries and a member of the jury from RTS lost his job…

B.T: The showing of the Anatomy of Pain on RTS was seen as poignant and revealing, a sort of purgation, catharsis. How did you feel at the time?

J.B: I felt satisfaction, but also disgust. Those who were employed at RTS, who were previously carrying out Milosevic’s propaganda, suddenly started backslapping me trying to jump the fence and cross over to the other side. You need a strong stomach to watch this continuing exodus to the winning side.

B.T: You have been working on a sequel to the Anatomy of Pain. What is it about? What kind of relationships have you established with the immediate families, relatives and friends of the victims?

J.B: The Anatomy of Pain was more than a professional experience for me. During several months of work on the film, I developed a special relationship with the families of the tragically killed, a relationship that went far deeper and more complex than anything professional. We felt that we were part of a collective struggle for justice and truth and stood together against the fear that surrounded us. Some people see me as part of their family, conceived by fate in April 1999.

After a year of various investigations, the families of victims began a court case against the key people of RTS. The sequel, Anatomy of Pain 2, focuses on events of the 5th of October (the day Milosevic was overthrown). The evil made a full circle, returning to the building of RTS, the place where it all began. During the popular revolt on the 5th of October (due to Milosevic’s electoral fraud), thousands of people burned the buildings of Federal Parliament and RTS. And, so, on 5th of October 2000, the building of RTS was burning again, but for different reasons than only a year ago. People will never forget the attempt to lynch the key people of RTS in front of the building. How did the families see that day and all days preceding it? Did they believe that everything would happen so fast? Is the feeling of pain still stronger than a sense of satisfaction that the regime has fallen? Is satisfaction possible at all? How far is the day when the culprits will be tried? In the sequel, I interview the old and some new characters. Especially the young ones, who lost their sisters, brothers, fathers, and now speak about the spirit of change. There were families who contacted me to tell their side of the story. There were people from RTS, too, who were silent, but now felt the need to say something. I invited them to give their version of events over the national TV. Under the new circumstances we will try again to get in contact with the other side. They may decide to say something in their defence. Some of them who were almost lynched in front of the RTS building may have an interesting story to tell.

The second part of this documentary opens a number of questions: What is revenge, is it human and where are its boundaries? Does hatred always beget hatred? Where are the boundaries of fear, tolerance and humiliation? Are the employees who decided to remain silent, accessories in this brutal murder committed 18 months ago? Is there any chance for redemption or is it too late? The sequel ends with the beginning of the trial. The Anatomy of Pain 3 will be entirely focused on the trial, events in the courtroom and around it.

B.T: Finally, the honeymoon of democracy in Serbia, is, some say, already over. Serbian independent documentary cinema is facing two major challenges, the transition to market economy and the critique of the new democratic system. How do you see your future in the years to come?

J.B: I hope that the market economy will marginalise the mediocre filmmakers created by the former regime’s ‘negative selection’ (2). I also hope that the transition will affirm the real people and talents. With democratic changes, the documentarists are facing a number of crucial themes in relation to the events during the past decade. For me, the most fundamental question is the question of personal responsibility for everything that has happened in Serbia in the past thirteen years. I am not talking about the collective guilt because I do not recognise guilt as such. What happened to the country and the people who had a chance to be the model of democratic changes after the break up of communism in the East? Why did we choose the path of dictatorship, misery and isolation, becoming the hostages of a mad dictator and his sick wife? Why was the resistance not more vigorous and intense and why did the agony last so long? Those are the questions that interest me the most, the themes that I will have to explore before any other theme.

Endnotes

  1. Before bombing, the radio was called B92 Radio. After the ban (during bombing) it was renamed Free B92 Radio.
  2. ‘Negative selection’, a term widely used in Eastern Europe, referred to the selection of obedient apparatchiks in the communist regime.

About The Author

Boris Trbic teaches Scriptwriting at Swinburne University of Technology (TAFE) and Screen Language at RMIT University (TAFE) in Melbourne. He is a reviewer on 3RRR’s Film Buffs’ Forecast, and writes screenplays, short fiction and occasional pieces about oriental carpets.