Midwinter Night's Dream

November 19–28, 2004

Even before the 1990s, the Balkans was infamous for inter-ethnic tensions, and the word Balkanisation was a derogatory term to describe disintegration into squabbling factions unable to cooperate because they can’t countenance the idea of helping the other side. When Yugoslavia started to disintegrate in 1991, it seemed like the caricature had been lying dormant waiting to truly come into its own, as if somehow people from the region had suddenly got worried that the West wasn’t stereotyping them enough anymore.

Will southeastern Europe ever be able to live this down? Certainly in the world of film, international attention seems set to focus on the ethnic divisions and conflict and almost all the films from the region that have managed to be successful on the global stage – such as Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land (2001), Goran Paskaljevic’s Cabaret Balkan (Bure baruta, also known in English as The Powder Keg) (1998), Vinko Bresan’s How the War Started on My Island (Kako je poceo rat na mom otoku) (1996), Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995), Srdjan Dragojevic’s Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Lepa sela lepo gore) (1995) – have drawn heavily on preconceptions of the Balkans as wild, violent places with intractable ethnic problems that no outsider can understand. I could hardly argue that violence and hatred have not been explored by Balkan directors in their films. Nor could I say that these are works totally lacking in power. But there are many other themes as well, including accomplished works about emigration, social marginalisation and reconciliation with the past, not to mention works that deal with issues that preoccupy filmmakers everywhere, such as ordinary human relationships on a day-to-day level.

Presenting a more rounded view of this range of themes is the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which since 1994 – the height of the Yugoslav wars of secession – has organised a Balkan Survey sidebar, as well as highlighting regional films in other sections of the festival, including the international competition. Moreover, the festival has inaugurated its own Balkan Fund to help script development for regional film, and pitching for the second year’s round of money took place during the Festival. To top it all off, as this year is the tenth anniversary of the Survey, a round-table discussion was held on the state of the Balkan film industry, particularly the possibilities for international coproductions and collaboration. Given the forum Thessaloniki offers, perhaps it is no surprise that Romanian director Lucian Pintilie, best known for his The Oak (Balanta) (1992), has said, “In Thessaloniki, I had the feeling that the situation for cinema in the Balkans is getting better and better.” (1)

Bosnia bounces back

This year was a bumper year for Bosnian features. Admittedly, just two were on show, but both were of good quality, and until recently Bosnia was failing to make even one full-length film a year. So, some cause for excitement.

Days and Hours

Playing in competition was Pjer Zalica’s second feature Days and Hours (Kod amidze Idriza) (2004), his debut, Fuse (Gori vatra) (2003), having played in the Balkan Survey last year following on from picking up the Golden Leopard at Locarno. Days and Hours is a minor masterpiece of restraint. The film centres around a visit by Fuke to fix his aunt and uncle’s heater. Zalica painstakingly follows their smalltalk, as they discuss such issues as boiler parts, grandchildren and Fuke’s faltering love life. Between the lines, though, the mundane conversation hints at scars the protagonists conceal. Fuke’s love Samira has returned from New York and he struggles to piece together the relationship given their different perspectives on the last ten years. His uncle and aunt, meanwhile, lost their son, Emir, in the war, and are still haunted by his absence. But perhaps more painfully, they rarely see their grand-daughter as they cannot accept how their daughter-in-law has chosen to deal with Emir’s death – by remarrying. From this acute observational realism, the film bursts out with an almost fairy-tale ending, something that enabled Zalica to sum up the film at a post-screening Q&A by saying it was a story of people “who had every reason not to be happy but who made a conscious decision to be happy.”

Also from Bosnia, but this time playing in the Balkan Survey, was Srdjan Vuletic’s Summer in the Golden Valley (Ljeto u zlatnoj dolini) (2003). A more slapstick film, Summer in the Golden Valley follows a helpless 16 year-old as he is caught up in a scheme by a corrupt cop to make money off a kidnapping. It’s an amusing chronicle of the many difficulties affecting Sarajevo, not least apathy and boredom apparent in the glue-sniffing activities of the heroes. The film’s comic treatment of wife-beating, though, will raise eyebrows for non-Balkan viewers, even if they are surrounded by locals who find the female-slapping scenes hilarious. Less optimistic than Zalica’s work, Summer in the Golden Valley nevertheless has energy and vigour and also ultimately manages to find hope in desperate circumstances.

One of the reasons for the resurgence of Bosnian film can be seen by looking closely at the credits of Days and Hours, Summer in the Golden Valley and Fuse. All three were produced by Ademir Kenovic, best known as the director of the first feature film to be shot on 35mm after the Dayton Peace Accords were signed, The Perfect Circle (Savrseni krug) (1997). Kenovic, aside from being an accomplished director in his own right, has good international contacts – The Perfect Circle was a French co-production that played at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, and he has since made another international co-production Secret Passage (UK/Luxembourg, 2004). Summer in the Golden Valley, therefore, has producers on board from France and the UK, while Fuse brought together partners from Austria, Turkey and France. (The ultra-low budget Days and Hours, even smaller in outlay than Zalica’s debut, is not an international co-production, though.)

Wasted opportunities

Darling of the Balkan festival circuit for this year is the Bulgarian film, Mila from Mars (Mila ot Mars) (2004), the debut of Sophia Zornitsa, which has already scooped the main prize at the 2004 Sarajevo Film Festival. Shot on digital video, the film is being billed as the first independent Bulgarian film, since it did not rely on state funding, the normal course for getting a feature made. Pregnant post-punkette Mila finally tires of Alex, a drug-dealer who pulled her out of an orphanage so she could be his live-in lover. Stowing away on a random truck, she ends up in an isolated border region of Bulgaria, populated only by a small ensemble of geriatrics who take the unlikely looking refugee under their wing. The film has won an enthusiastic following as it is a further move away from the auteur ethos that ruled Bulgarian film in the 1990s and towards audience-friendly films with youth appeal. It’s a major shift for the film industry, but there is still some way to go, and some people (myself included) feel that Mila from Mars is being rather overhyped.

The Pharoah

Sinisa Dragin also juxtaposes old age and youth in The Pharoah (Faraonul) (2004) from Romania. Once a dashing, intelligent and cosmopolitan architect, the Pharoah of the title has lost it all, being first exiled to Siberia and then resorting to roam the streets of Bucharest with a pair of bathroom scales weighing people to earn some change. The film examines his life in the manner of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) by using a contemporary journalist to try to uncover the life story of this tragic figure. But perhaps a better comparison would be to Andrzej Wajda’s Kane-inspired Man of Marble (Czlowiek z marmaru) (1976), since the film treats its central character as a metaphor for the history and moral course of the country. Dramatically and technically the film falls far short (particularly relative to Dragin’s assured debut, Everyday God Kisses Us on the Mouth [In fiecare zi Dumnezeu ne saruta pe gura] [2001]) and the essay-style format requires patience from the viewer. But in its intelligent use of themes to explore Romania’s recent past and its relation to its present – a mummified state of missed opportunities and wasted potential – it was one of the most thoughtful films of the Balkan Survey section this year.

Another film dripping in the thematic heavy dew of missed opportunities was Artan Minarolli’s Moonless Night (Nata pa hene) (2004). This Albanian film switches back and forth in time to connect a love story in the film’s present – 1991, the year of the collapse of the Communist regime and the start of a huge wave of illegal emigration to Italy – with a mysterious and possibly threatening love story in the past. Both tales revolve around attempts to emigrate and contrast youthful optimism with reality. Again, there are weighty issues being dealt with here, but Moonless Night never quite lives up to the nagging feeling that this film was trying to be an Albanian equivalent of Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996), with Communism and its collapse substituting for the Second World War. True, the painterly cinematography is there, but the film can’t stop itself from periodically slipping into matinee melodrama. Still, the closing sequences are visually arresting, and the ending conjures up an air of enigmatic drama that the rest of the film fails to match.

When I Grow Up I'll Be a Kangaroo

Radivoje Andric’s When I Grow Up I’ll Be a Kangaroo (Kad porastem bicu kengur) (2004), from Serbia and Montenegro, is a third film to dwell on wasted potential. But here the focus is exclusively contemporary. While the film doubtless deserves an award for its title, in all other respects this was the most disappointing Balkan film of the festival. Not so much that it was the worst, but that it is such a letdown when compared to Andric’s previous feature, Thunderbirds! (Munje!) (2001). Thunderbirds! is the story of two young Belgraders trying to put together Serbia’s first drum ‘n’ bass band, and is notable for the way that social and political commentary take a backseat to a comedy about the issues that affect young Yugoslavs (as they then were). His concentration on the Balkans’ own version of the slacker generation, disconnected from politics and civic activism, makes him something of a local version of US indie director Kevin Smith. When I Grow Up I’ll Be a Kangaroo tries to follow up on this, but a lacklustre plot and flat jokes fail Andric. Only in the final minutes of the film did the Thessaloniki audience do what they usually do with a Balkan comedy – roll around in their seats in fits of uncontrollable laughter.

Beneath Her Window

From Slovenia, Metod Pevec’s Beneath Her Window (Pod njenim oknom) (2003) largely stood in line with the country’s thematic obsessions. The country’s limited film output has been filled in recent years with slow-moving contemporary dramas about individuals unable to connect with everyday reality and who find solace in drink, drugs and/or night club culture, and that’s a fair enough description of Pevec’s film. Where Beneath Her Window is different, though, is that it makes more of an attempt to make sure the lead character remains connected with the viewer, even while she becomes estranged from the reality around her. However, I was torn between liking the believable, strong and finely characterised female lead and being utterly dismayed that the film uses a cliché of post-Communist filmmaking that counts as one of the region’s worst (even if not its most prevalent), the woman who giddily falls in love with her stalker, abuser or rapist (this time, it’s a stalker). With such negative pictures of women around, no wonder gutsy Mila is doing so well.

Living up to expectations

And, of course, how could I forget the films that directly deal with violence as their primary theme…

Goran Paskaljevic’s Midwinter Night’s Dream (San zimske noci) (2004), presented in the Contemporary Masters section of the festival, is the story of a man, Lazar, who returns home from ten years in prison on a murder charge to find his home occupied by two Bosnian refugees, a single mother and her autistic daughter. It’s practically a sequel to his Cabaret Balkan. Both films feature actor Lazar Ristovski and Midwinter Night’s Dream has a sly reference to a pub called the Powder Keg (which, significantly, was where Lazar committed his murder and which in the film’s present has long since been knocked down). Just as Cabaret Balkan was a study of Serbia’s obsession with violence, Midwinter Night’s Dream analyses the country’s own autism and inability to deal with the past. The film will doubtlessly generate discussion at home and abroad for its frank admission of Serbia’s culpability in war crimes and its stark, grainily documentary portrayal of contemporary life in Serbia. Also notable is the use of a genuinely autistic girl to play the daughter (Paskaljevic insisted at a post-screening Q&A that autistic people must not be marginalised and must take part in all aspects of life and that should not exclude filmmaking). The film has already done well – it won a Special Jury Prize at San Sebastian and has already been picked up for distribution in a number of countries, including Greece – but next to Zalica’s Days and Hours it seems rather ungainly, full of over-theatricality and with plot elements thrown in for their political usefulness rather than their organic contribution to the story.

Witnesses

Meanwhile, Vinko Bresan’s Witnesses (Svjedoci) (2003) tries to do a similar job of exposing Croatia’s complicity in acts of violence. The film uses a Pulp Fiction-style narrative to obsessively re-examine the events surrounding the murder of a Serb living in Croatian territory during the war. The replaying of narratives through different eyes to deconstruct dogma of ideology is not a unique project, and Andrzej Munk used a similar structure to critique Stalinism in his seminal Man on the Tracks (Czlowiek na torze) (1957), which itself took its cue from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950). So, despite a brave moral stance from Bresan and author Jurica Pavicic (from whose novel Plaster Sheep the screenplay was adapted), the narrative style fails to sparkle with the originality it perhaps intended to, and the repetition of events tends to hold things back rather than create suspense.

Also firmly in this category is Svetozar Ristovski’s Mirage (Iluzija) (2004), from Macedonia/Austria, about a schoolboy poet who rejects intellectualism and shoots his Bosnian teacher, whom he blames for the bullying he receives from an ethnic Albanian boy whose position is protected by his policeman father. Allegedly, the film was inspired by Tarkovsky’s debut Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo) (1962), and although there are sincere attempts to deal with the problems of having a normal childhood within the framework of Macedonia’s historical and geopolitical woes, the film emerges as a rather nasty little tale whose anti-humanist message and petty nationalism negate any positive comparisons that could be made to the great Russian master.

Getting seen

The frustration for European cinema generally is that it is almost invisible. Europe makes more films than America and yet they garner far, far fewer admissions in total. So, although directors will inevitably complain that getting the money to make a film is the main problem, the true bottleneck occurs elsewhere – in distribution and exhibition. If only more films could be presented to a larger audience, there is a chance that some money might be made. Which in turn might make investors more willing to put money into film or sponsors more convinced that supporting a film will increase their profile.

There are huge impediments to reaching this Holy Grail, though, in Europe generally and in the Balkans specifically. In most Balkan countries (Slovenia is the exception), the distribution and exhibition sectors are very underdeveloped. Cinemas are often still in state hands, and distributors are reluctant to carry local releases (in Albania a law is used to force cinemas to carry local films and in Macedonia local producers have to pay distributors to screen their films). Even where cinemas have been privatised, the result is not always positive, and in Romania some cinema owners are selling off their holdings, as they occupy valuable downtown locations, despite the fact that such divestitures contradict the conditions of the original privatisation.

Moonless Night

There’s no doubt that audiences have a thirst for local films. Although interest in domestic productions nosedived in the 1990s, the pendulum is now swinging back. Pjer Zalica, for example, told me about a screening of Fuse in a small Bosnian town which was attended by more than double its usual number of residents. In fact, he expressed regret at not having taken a camera with him when he toured the country with the film to record the fanatical response that a successful local film elicited from Bosnian audiences. Similarly, Artan Minarolli still seemed to be reeling with surprise when he told me about the positive response Moonless Night had in Albania. He told me that at a press conference to mark the film’s release: “Everyone was there […] They were all very interested in the film.” Only in Serbia does interest in local film seem to be waning, down from a high in the 1990s, when the country was internationally isolated, television was under state control and digital piracy was less prevalent. Overall, the country is now losing around half a million cinema admissions a year, according to Belgrade-based producer Maksa Catovic.

Fanfare for the Common Market

Still, even with an active and functioning distribution and exhibition network and audience interest, Balkan countries are too small to produce profitable films on the back of domestic distribution alone (in fact, even American films would have difficulty in making money without international markets). Balkan nations have only a few million inhabitants apiece (Romania, with 23 million, is relatively large). Compare that with nearby Turkey, with a population of 70 million (not to mention the 3 million Turks living in Germany, who enable Turkish productions to attract German distributors and co-producers). Yet intra-regional distribution has been minimal up to now. During the Communist years, Albania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Greece all had different geopolitical alignments, and cultural ties between any of them were minimal (Bulgaria and Romania were in the same bloc, but nevertheless the relationship was not without antagonisms). Since 1989, the unified market of Yugoslavia has been brutally broken up. The region, therefore, suffered from a severely fractured trading in audiovisual products in the 1990s. The grand task is to try and find a way of reconnecting those linkages, or in many cases creating them from scratch. If some kind of common audiovisual market can be created in the Balkans, with films able to do business across borders, the cinema industry will be well on its way to recovery.

But can it really be done?

Mila from Mars

This year, a major development in distribution was Mila from Mars. Mirsad Purivatra, director of the Sarajevo International Film Festival, was able to convince a Bosnian producer to invest in the film, which at that stage had been shot and edited but not transferred to 35mm. With a 35mm print, the film was able to enter the competition at Sarajevo, which it won. The Bosnian producer, who was given distribution rights for the former Yugoslavia, was then able to sell the film to various television stations on the basis that it was the winner of the festival. The end result was that a Bosnian producer was able to make a profit by investing hard money (as opposed to services) in a Bulgarian film. It’s this sort of possibility that has filmmakers in the region salivating. (Also worth noting is that the transfer for Paskaljevic’s Midwinter Night’s Dream was paid for by a Spanish producer.)

Indeed, whereas once the co-production was first seen mainly as a means of shooting abroad and then as a way for cash-strapped producers to tap into other countries’ film budgets, it is now seen increasingly as a means of expanding distribution markets. No coincidence, then, that the Balkan Survey celebrated its tenth anniversary with a round-table discussion on co-production possibilities.

Battling bootlegs and costs

Meanwhile, producers are still looking for other original ways to crack the region’s seemingly intractable distribution problems. One of the biggest headaches for producers has been piracy. Particularly successful (especially in Serbia) has been the DivX format, which can be played on a home computer without the need for a DVD drive. A pirated disc can be purchased for just a couple of euros in most countries, whereas a trip to the cinema is about three euros and an original DVD 15 to 20 euros. Frequently, the pirated product will hit the market long before the original (although the bootleggers hold off on local productions for a month or two after the release in Serbia). Despite anti-piracy measures, bootlegging has become worse, partly as home computer penetration has increased dramatically over the past few years.

With such economics, industry insiders can really only be sympathetic with those who engage in piracy: as Paskaljevic said to me, “I can understand that a couple that has to pay six euros to go, two of them, to see my film, they can buy three DivXs and stay at home and watch the new American hits”. (Paskaljevic also thinks that the police are uninterested in enforcing piracy laws, as while young people are at home watching films they’re not out on the streets committing crime.) So, rather than launch an all-out legal assault on sections of the film industry’s natural consumer base, the industry is fighting back by changing the economics of buying an original. Up until now print runs of DVDs in Serbia have been between 500 and 2000, but by upping the run to the tens of thousands the economies of scale can be used to bring the price down so it competes with pirated products. To generate the popular interest necessary in such mass printings, producers are teaming up with magazines. As Catovic explained to me, he can have a print run of 50,000 of which he will sell 35 to 40 thousand at a cost of 2.5 euros, but because of the quantities he will make more money. Already Pretty Village, Pretty Flame has been released in Serbia by this method, and Catovic intends to release more popular Serbian hits this way, including titles such as Kusturica’s Underground and Black Cat, White Cat (Crna macka, beli macor) (1998).

Another problem is the expense of having to pay for rights and prints of imported films that may not do particularly well outside of their domestic territory. The solution that Stefan Kitanov, Bulgarian producer and director of Sofia’s International Film Festival, has come up with is simple: if it’s expensive, don’t pay. He’s asking regional distributors to donate old (but still good quality) prints to him. He will pay for the films to be subtitled in Bulgarian and will screen them to the public (he also runs Sofia’s cinetheque) and, more importantly, to representatives of Bulgarian television. The hope is that he’ll be able to claw back the subtitling and transportation costs from the public screenings and be able to reward co-operative regional producers by bringing in Bulgarian TV sales for them. It’s early days in the scheme yet, but two major Serbian producers, Ljubisa Samardzic and Dragan Bjelogrlic, have already agreed to the project and Russian film studio Mosfilm are making noises of interest, too.

Not all good news

Of course, the film industry is governed by more than just distribution, and various people I spoke to at the festival had positive things to say about developments in financing (an unexpected increase in funding from the Bulgarian government, increased by a factor of over three, up to three million euros), production facilities (a new studio complex in Slovenia that is obliged by law to give free services to local productions), film law (new legislation in Serbia and Romania, which helps the industry across a range of issues) and the booming industry for servicing foreign productions (USD 200 million flows into Romania through its work on runaway productions, according to one estimate).

But there was also pessimism on these issues as well: can extra funds really make a difference without changes on the level of orders of magnitude? Do new laws go far enough? Can servicing runaway productions help the domestic industry or is it a parallel market with little connection between the two? And this was just the tip of the iceberg of grievances and concerns.

Summer in the Golden Valley

Moreover, none of the Balkan films presented this year can be considered outright masterpieces, although Days and Hours was clearly in a league of its own and others, such as Mila from Mars and Summer in the Golden Valley, are highly watchable and worth seeing. In contrast, of the five Russian films I saw at the festival (one in the international competition and four in the New Russian Cinema sidebar), only one was a dud and the others were either strong or very strong.

Things may seem more positive in Thessaloniki, but Balkan cinema still has some way to go before it can be a more convincing presence on the international festival circuit (an accomplishment which doesn’t even directly generate any money for producers). Global theatrical sales seems like another universe to most filmmaking professionals. And while everyone I spoke to in Thessaloniki seemed to have some optimism, it should be pointed out that they all either had completed a film successful enough to be shown in the Balkan Survey or they were a finalist in the application procedure to the Balkan Fund. Presumably, those Balkan directors and producers who were not invited to this year’s festival have some right to not share Pintilie’s optimism.

Read here Andrew James Horton’s reports on Balkan cinema at the Thessaloniki Festival in 2001 and 2002.

Endnotes

  1. Quoted on the film festival’s website: http://www.filmfestival.gr/film_festival/uk/programme_informative_2.htm, accessed December 2004.

About The Author

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