A Conversation with Nenad Puhovski: Documentarism as a Personal and Social Mission 

By Diana Nenadić

© Diana Nenadić, 2011

puhovskiAn amateur film enthusiast in the 1960s, a student of theater and movie direction and a young author in the early 1970s, a teacher at the Academy of Dramatic Art in the late 1970s, a theater and television director and award-winning documentary filmmaker during the 1980s, since the mid-1990s a producer of his own Factum documentary film project, and, in the new millennium, founder of the ZagrebDox international documentary film festival and a course of graduate study in documentary filmmaking. There will be more to add because Nenad Puhovski, the filmmaker who has dominated Croatian documentary film production for the last fifteen years, has not yet accomplished everything he set out to do over the many decades he has spent focused on popularizing documentary film in a country of 4.5 million relatively poor people, who until recently preferred to close their eyes both to reality and to creatively shaped documentaries. For now what remains is an unresolved battle with Croatian Television, because state television has been ignoring independent production both in terms of funding and broadcasting, and the founding of an institute for documentaries. Even without this, Puhovski is one of the rare Croatian filmmakers, perhaps the only one, to commit himself to documentary film, although in his earlier days he did have an inclination for what we call fiction.

— Even as an amateur I started off with documentary film. I made my first film when I was fifteen and a student at the Fifth Gymnasium where we started a film club with the help of the Film Clubs’ Association (Kino Savez) and its head, Kruno Heidler. I remember going to see Comrade Tito as a representative of the amateur filmmakers, an event that was recorded on several rolls of 8 mm film. So there has always been interest in documentary film. As a student at the Academy in 1972 I made a film called Činča, the title being the protagonist’s nickname. My film had much in common, both in structure and its use of the vérité method, with Tomislav Radić’s full-length film Living Truth (Živa istina) which he made that same year. They each even have a nearly identical scene: in Radić’s movie Vjeran Zuppa, managing director of the &TD Theater, explains to actress Boždarka Frajt why she cannot join the repertory ensemble of the theater, while, in mine, Činča asks Professor Joško Juvančić to explain why she failed the entrance exam for the degree program in acting. Yet Radić had never heard of me nor had I heard of him. We were simply doing the same thing at the same time. He categorized his film as a feature, I called mine a documentary. Radić’s was screened that summer at the Pula festival of feature films, while mine was screened at the Belgrade festival of documentary and short films, from where I get a call from a dear professor of mine, himself a prominent filmmaker, and he tells me that if I allow him to move Činča into the “feature” category I will get the “gold medal.” I answered, “Professor, with all due respect, this is a documentary.”  “Oh, I know, but they all think this is the current craze, everyone in Zagreb is doing it. Hey, say the film is a feature and you get the gold!” “No,” I said, “I won’t.” And so it was that Činča remained a documentary, and I “only” got honorable mention.

cincaNow, cut to the future! Several years later, the Academy posted a job announcement for two teaching assistants, one to teach television, the other for acting. As I had already worked a lot in drama, I submitted my application for the drama teaching job as I had been assisting in the drama department as an “external.” Žiro Radić, on the other hand, applied for the television job. The Dean of the Academy called us in for a conversation with an unusual offer: Radić had done more work in drama, while I had worked more with television, so he proposed we switch our applications. And so it was that Radić ended up teaching drama, and I ended up teaching in the television and later the film department.  Life does make the weirdest films!

— How much were you helped by the fact that you started teaching at the Academy at a young age and managed to make a living. Did that allow you to go for film, documentary film no less? It is widely known that the documentary is only a stepping stone here to mainstream production of full-length feature films.

— It is true that my job at the Drama Academy gave me a certain degree of financial security, particularly in the 1990s when I was briefly completely cut off from the possibility of directing anywhere. So setting up Factum was supposed to allow people who had found themselves in a similar situation to be able to work and do so without the kind of compromises that would be necessary if they were working somewhere else. When I started off with my own production in Factum, I swore that I would not work only on my own films, that I would be primarily a producer, opening for others space for their work, and that only every tenth film would be under my direction. And there you go, there are currently about sixty movies in Factum production. I have directed four, and am currently working on the fifth. Beyond that, I deliberately focused on production but also making my own films about things that no one else wanted to “touch” before that, most of all films about war, war crimes, and similar themes. It was clear to me that, with the other risks that were quite quickly proving to be realistic, I had shot myself, as the Americans say, in the foot.

doxFirst of all, I antagonized a whole series of people, from those who were sincerely opposed to my positions on ideological grounds to those who saw with the films I was doing at the time that it was possible to do something that was needed and important and for which they did not have the courage. On the other hand, perhaps more pertinent to this conversation, I knew I was significantly limiting my maneuverability as an author. I had agreed to do something that was so thematically challenging that no one would think of analyzing whether it was good or bad, whether it was done one way or another, what sort of structure it had, and so forth. And besides, when someone you are interviewing wets himself while he is speaking of how he was tortured, aesthetics become secondary. So the decision to handicap myself was deliberate. It is only with my most recent film, Together (Zajedno), that I have come back to what I really find interesting, and, if I may say, gratifying. And so it is that the last twenty years of my work as an author have, in large part, been devoured by locusts. But, I am fine with that. I created Factum, gave my colleagues, especially younger people, a chance to work, broached some themes at a time when no one else in the entire region dared to, started ZagrebDox, raised a generation of young documentarians.... It has been worth it.

— That authors have stages in their work is something completely normal, something that makes the early films different from later ones. In your case, the 1990s seem to be a time for a turn toward politically engaged and provocative films, in which you took a firm stand on the new social situation in post-communism and the wartime and post-war conditions in the new state. How do you define and compare the “before” and “after,” in both the thematic and formal sense?

sutej— Before the 1990s I worked on two kinds of documentaries: films about art and films about social problems. Regarding the first group, it is important to say that I tried doing them differently than others do. At that point people were mostly making films on art history, looking at art from a historical perspective, a touch professorial, heavy on the narration and so forth; Radovan Ivančević was fantastic at that. Since I am not an art historian, and such films didn’t move me much, I decided that instead of making films “about” art, I would make films “from within” art, from my own feeling of the art. For example, in my film about Šutej [U potrazi za Šutejem/In Search for Šutej], which was showered with awards, I used stop-frame technique in animation of his mobiles, inspired by the story “Pale sam na svijetu” (Pale Alone in the World), about how these mobiles had a life of their own that was parallel to the life of people, and which we cannot see simply because of the different dimensions in which people live in relation to mobiles. In a film about Bućan [Bućan triptih/The Bućan Triptych], inspired by a phase when his posters had human faces, I had the posters speak. A film about painter Nives K. K. was in fact a collage of five different films and in the last one we animated drawings of a hand which Nives often drew on the margins of larger sketches. We did all that, my team, cameraman Enes Midžić, editor Maja Rodica, composer Igor Savin and I, using ordinary, classic film techniques, without the technological wonders that exist today. That was an intriguing film game that satisfied and pleased me at the level of pure film aesthetic.

bucan triptychBut as I was always socially sensitive, I also made films about social issues, with varied success. For instance a film I am very fond of, Dead Port (Mrtva luka), sat on a shelf at Zagreb Television for fifteen years because it was about an animal shelter near Zagreb, and the editor, in a classic case of switching the messenger and the message, accused me of what I was using the film to expose—the inhumane conditions under which the “wards” of this institution were kept. Then Marginal Images of Hunger (Rubne slike gladi), a film dealing with the problem of hunger in Croatia during the 1980s, a time of economic chaos when people’s salaries were quoted in the millions. But when the war broke out, I felt I no longer had a choice. Films about art would have to wait. And they are still waiting... After 2005 and in the context of social themes, I came back in a way to what I really liked doing—a combination of the social and the intimate. My most recent film, Together, is about people who are on the margins in a variety of ways, even handicapped, but want to live in partnerships with others. I have worked on it for four years and it has taken me back in a sense to the time and method of Činča... It seems to me, when I look at this from the outside, that the vérité style is what suits me. I hadn’t thought about it as a style, because it is normal for me to talk with a person in front of a camera about things, we converse, communicate, and I try to get something from them that this person might not say in another situation. I made use of this in the movies I made during the war as well, for example in Lora, talking with people who were tortured. I was fascinated by the possibility of conversation with people in front of a camera, when you see in their eyes that they want to say something, to communicate, to forget the camera...

— The past is often idealized, especially at difficult moments, and we think that things used to be better, and then the current situation changes and again we think maybe it wasn’t so good back then because there wasn’t the freedom. On the other hand, it looks as if cinematography functioned better back in the day, perhaps by inertia, but it functioned. How do you relate to the period before 1990?

marginal images— First, I was never a member of any one group. As far as I’m concerned, as far as short and documentary films are concerned, there were only two places to go in Croatia, maybe three. One was Kinoklub Zagreb, a very strong center for alternative film, but simply too aesthetically radical for me. I did not believe in “anti-film,” which was very strong at the time. I was a member of the club, took courses, went to the club, hung out with the people, but that kind of experimental film which went ad absurdum in terms of karyokinesis, burning film, was not something that drew me.

The second circle, which evolved in a sense from the first and was much more interesting for me, was the Film Authors’ Studio(Filmski autorski studio) or FAS, also started by the Film Clubs’ Association and it worked to establish a different modality of production which would give younger authors a chance to venture into more professional terrain. However FAS collapsed when it tried to produce a film about the 1971 student strike at Zagreb University during the time known as the Croatian Spring. The fate of that film was simply the last nail in the FAS coffin, because it had already become clear that there was no support for such an independent production system. I always say that Factum tried to be the spiritual offspring of FAS, a place for people with different ideas to gather, although FAS had also been involved in quite a few feature films as well. I repaid my debt to FAS and the people who made the film about 1971 in a sense when I produced the documentary Poetry and Revolution (Poezija i revolucija) which was made from material that was filmed then and shelved for years.

The third place, very interesting at that time, was Zagreb Film. Kruno Quien, who, if you ask me, is one of the key figures though often forgotten, had a personality trait that I was particularly fond of. He liked to talk about film and do something that is called brainstorming today. I “stole” that, too, when I created Factum. So there were three sub-systems which I knew and respected. But personally I was always outside of them.

— But there is a fourth, Croatian Television, Zagreb Television.

dead port— Croatian Television was making better documentaries back then than they make now. Not because there was more freedom, but because authors were valued in a different way. And because they worked in a very simple, actually very socialist way and that was, if you’ll pardon my language, work until you screw up! So until you make a cardinal error you can do more or less whatever you want. In that sense things were easier. I made Dead Port on television, a documentary which I agreed on with Angelo Miladinov, known as a very open-minded man and someone who promoted young authors. When I received an honorarium that was 50% higher than what we had agreed, I worried that something bad would happen to the film. And, indeed, it ended up on the shelf, only to be “released” in 1991, which turned out to be appealing as an anecdote because it was “liberated” by Obrad Kosovac, a man whom many had experienced as a major censor. To cut the story short, I would say this: before 1990 the system functioned quite simply. There was a certain degree of freedom, but self-censorship was such that people knew full well what could not be done. From that time we have terrific socially engaged documentaries, but they were socially critical only up to a point, to the limit of what was allowed, and that was something that was built into socialism, something that one “drank in with one’s mother’s milk.” It was something known. Well, now, there are people who claim that limits are a healthy thing. I disagree. That is a story for little children. It seems to me that something else matters, which is that we still have taboo topics today.

— The story about Factum and your production undertaking begins in the second half of the 1990s, just as your film Graham & I (Graham i ja) was coming out. From the early 1990s until then you were completely invisible. Why?

dead port— Up to 1990 I was working a lot in theater, on television and in film, all sorts of things. It was in the theater that I did the most subversive work, Orwell’s 1984 or Stoppard’s Travesties, for which there were quite a few problems and political reactions. And they were really brilliant performances! But in 1990 there was a split into those who were politically correct and those who were not, which was not, in my opinion, necessary. It was a fabrication. It was created, unfortunately, at least as far as culture was concerned, by the “creeps on our side,” culture people, and a few of my colleagues from the Academy. This was a time when it was key to prove one’s true faith, devotion to the idea of the Croatian state, regardless of the fact that at times this meant stomping on someone else’s work. For instance, in the fall of 1991 I made four films about the Homeland War: on wartime Dubrovnik, war reporters, wartime medicine in cooperation with the Ministry of Health, etc. I did what was the most normal thing in the world to do at that moment. I promoted the truth about what was happening in Croatia. Among these there was also a film about Vukovar which I made for the Vukovar Club, using amateur material which they got for me, while Pavao Pavličić wrote the text that went with it. And in the end, when Vukovar fell, I made a closing sequence to “Pie Jesu” from Lloyd Webber’s Requiem, and the premiere was only a few days later at the Zagreb Culture and Information Center. The film was then appropriated by the Ministry of Information and distributed in hundreds of copies all over the world. It was the first film about the war in Croatia which was screened at the Alpe-Adria festival in Trieste, and later at the World Congress of the United Nations on Human Rights in Vienna, etc. But within the country this film did not exist. I was under pressure at the time not only because I was given “friendly advice” to leave the country, but because my family was openly threatened. I had to leave the country for two years. And so ... these films of mine were not screened at the Days of Croatian Film festival, they aren’t in a single survey of the films from the period, they aren’t at the Kinoteka [Croatian Film Archive]... that part of my biography simply does not exist. People in the field clearly knew of them, but as if it didn’t agree with them that I was the one who made them. . . . When I came back, I started from zero, or rather at less than zero, soon I was proclaimed to be an opponent of the Croatian state who had never done anything for Croatia, among other things because these films simply did not exist. It did not occur to me, of course, to pound my chest and shout.

— Maybe you could have continued doing films about artists, as some other documentary filmmakers did during the nineties?

— Sure, but that isn’t what I wanted to do. I felt these weren’t times for that. During the 1990s I was supposed to decide what to do in a situation when the only work that could be done was what I didn’t want to do. You know, there hasn’t been a generation for a very long time in this part of the world that has been able to live out life without going through a war. I thought and think that I owe my children and grandchildren a chance at that. And work was needed. I did what I know—movies. The only source of funding which imposed no conditions was the Soros Open Society Institute. Factum (first as a part of the Center for Dramatic Art) was started in parallel to the Grožnjan summer school, some of the films were begun there, some in Zagreb and from then until now some sixty films have come out of it which have been signed by authors of all the generations, from Čejen Černić, who worked with us when she was only eighteen, to Branko Ivanda who finished the 1971 film on the Croatian Spring at Factum.

— Your return as an author to the documentary filmmaking scene in 1998 with the film Graham & I, also Factum’s first production, was quite tempestuous. The film was not included in the Days of Croatian Film competition, you protested vociferously, and the commentaries were controversial. You speak in the first person singular in the film, which was unusual here. Was that perhaps one of the taboos you mentioned and the reason why the film was not understood?

graham and i— The movie is about Graham Bamford, an Englishman who took his life on the lawn in front of the British Parliament in protest over the war in Bosnia, particularly the Ahmići massacre. Since Graham and I belonged in a sense to the same generation, and I didn’t want to make a journalistic, factographic film but wanted to bring the story closer to the region for which he killed himself, I decided to tell parallel stories about him and myself, feeling that this could give the film a new quality. I was careful to keep my story smaller, more modest, etc. All the materials from my story were visually reduced, “framed” within the shot, while those from the story about Graham were presented in full format. The critic at the newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija wrote that my insertion of myself alongside Graham was, in fact, war profiteering. It seems to me that this reaction shows they didn’t get the movie, what it says and the way it says it. I don’t think this is a brilliant film, but I do think it is good and raises questions to which, just then, we did not have ready answers.

There is something else at work which is par for the course here and which I have often experienced. When they want to get to you politically, then they say you are a bad, untalented director. This shuts you up, of course, because they put you a priori on the defensive. That is what happened when a preeminent intellectual, someone with a liberal orientation, was on a Croatian TV talk show and the conversation turned to a later film of mine, Lora, which takes as its theme the fact that there was a camp during the war in the city of Split where prisoners of war were tortured. At one point he said, “We won’t talk about this, the film is bad.” This is typifies the discourse, a way of talking about certain things. On the one hand the members of the association of defenders were publicly calling for me to be kicked out of the country and demonstrated in front of the television building because of the showing of the film, while on the other hand there are people from whom you’d expect an argumented position who simply fall back on: it’s a bad film. All this is happening in an environment in which intellectuals, and particularly my colleagues, generally keep their mouths shut. I would say that this silence is a constant in the environment in which I work. Whenever there has been trouble about movies on which I worked, none of my colleagues, intellectuals, film critics, theorists or authors, with the possible exception of two or three, ever once said: “Hey people, let’s discuss this!”

This was the most drastic in the case of the movie Operation Storm (Oluja nad Krajinom), directed for Factum by the late Božo Knežević. At one moment the film was even lambasted in the Croatian parliament. All of them spit on us, both those in positions and those in the opposition. Not only did not a single filmmaker step forward in our defense, at least in defense of the right for such a film to exist, but something happened which was far worse: Božo Knežević died in the way he died, in a car accident, a truck ran into his car. After that a film was made which was actually an open pamphlet against Knežević with the premise that since he wasn’t a Croat he had no right to make a movie about the Krajina. What happened next was interesting—the Council for the Days of Croatian Film, the central national festival of short and medium-length films, decided that (among other things) they would open the festival with this film. I wrote an email to a colleague, today a respected middle-generation director, and asked him that they not do this, because the man against whom the filmed pamphlet had been made was dead. I was for screening it, but not for opening the festival with it. I get the answer: Colleague, you are wrong, all films and all terms are the same to us. So the national festival opened with this film. I am not saying all this for my own sake, but because the situation in our film industry would be entirely different if filmmakers, other artists, and intellectuals would take a principled position and if they would have the courage to speak up, rise, stand for something. Do you remember what happened in the Netherlands when filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was killed? I have no need to be a revolutionary, I didn’t want to then, nor do I want to now. But I simply was brought to having to fight my own battles. And I fought them the best way I knew: how in the name of something I believed in, that a person must speak the truth. Unfortunately, until a few years ago I was absolutely the only one—not only in Croatia—in the entire region, who was doing that. In documentary film, of course.

— You drew a large number of your students into Factum production, a generation which was perhaps not as engaged in a political sense, but was defiant in terms of both the production of the time and their social surroundings. In that generation we mark the first successful attempts at making fake documentaries, of broaching the subjective perspective, for instance in the work of Zvonimir Jurić, and women directors, a playful, provocative approach to themes found with authors such as Matanić and Mirković, Korovljev, and others. Interesting that a year after your Graham, there were similar issues with Jurić’s Fortress (Tvrđa) which was not included in the Days of Croatian Film competition. This would seem to be due to a lack of willingness among filmgoers to embrace the new model of the documentary which resists the dogma of the “observational” documentary, which is seen as being more truthful because of its alleged impartial observational position.

— For a long time here—I have to say until Factum appeared—the existing dogma was that the documentary is something happening to someone else, it tells an objective story. This is, of course, nonsense. But that so-called objectivity is partially—let’s be honest again—the heritage of a more or less rigid social system such as socialism. We all hid behind objectivity then, behind a reality, which, in the end, became dogma. Of course this reality was very often counterfeit, especially in the early phases of socialism, with cheery workers and grinning miners. What is called observational documentary, fly on the wall, direct cinema or whatever you like, is something which came in very handy, both in an aesthetic and a political sense, for authors, we ourselves, to hide behind. So now, once you have been hiding for a long time, as any psychologist will tell you, you begin to believe that this is reality, and when you have to say “I,” you run up against a problem. There are many Croatian documentarians who have never tried to say “I” in a film of theirs.

Of course this has swung, in some instances, to the opposite extreme today, and anyone who has a home video shot ten years ago thinks he or she is an author and that something ought to be done with it. It is a fact that today the documentary is something which is in the first person, something very intimate, personal and which speaks of personal engagement. So Factum worked three circles of films. The first are films on social themes which no one else wanted to touch, mostly war crimes and similar topics. The second are autobiographical films which are made systematically, so that at this moment we have as many as four new autobiographical documentaries in production. The third is something which was always typical of Croatian cinematography until the 1990s, and those are films about people on the margins, outsiders. But after 1990, especially in the Tuđman era, there was a new push for uniformity—we are all Croats, we are all Catholics and all of us are Dinamo fans. And if someone isn’t, whose fault is that?! And it was at this moment that we started a series of films about small people on the margins with filmmakers such as Budisavljević, Matijević, Mirošničenko, Strašek, Tardozzi, and others and so we brought the focus back to something that Croatian documentary film has always favored.

— It seems as if in recent Croatian documentary film and at Factum there are many more women authors and directors than there are in domestic acted film. Why is this?

— One of the essential tenets of Factum’s philosophy is that we give voice to those who are a minority in society—whether in numbers, or influence. Therefore, as far as we are concerned, it would be completely normal for us to encourage women filmmakers to make documentaries and until now some fifteen of them have been working at Factum. As far as the others are concerned—I don’t know, but I believe we are getting back to the old theme of the documentary as less important so let the “kids and the ladies” have their fun! Factum’s The Boy Who Rushed (Dečko kojem se žurilo) by Biljana Čakić Veselič, Straight A’s! (Sve 5!) by Dana Budisavljević or Category: Optimist (Klasa optimist) by Lana Šarić, are definitely some of the most interesting Croatian documentaries.

— Factum was the first to produce feature-length documentaries even before Michael Moore’s films were shown in Croatian movie theaters, which is also important, and is something completely new here. It started with Poetry and Revolution...

— It started even earlier, with a film about the Bad Blue Boys, which was shown at the former Kinoteka in 1998. While it was on, the crush of filmgoers almost smashed glass on Kordunska St. That was the first time someone had faced off with Tuđman using a theme such as fans. The fans were constantly clashing with the authorities and they were the first to dare to voice their discontent with official politics. We made a simple but strong film and showed it for five days to a packed Kinoteka. We headed in that direction quite early, proceeded with New, New Time [by Rajko Grlić and Igor Mirković], my movie Together, we are working on Bezinović’s Blockade (Blokada) about events at the University, and we have just started work on the film Danke Deutschland by Miroslav Sikavica. This film takes a look at wartime music—from the song Danke Deutschland and all the way to all the band-aid bands, and all the naiveté and iconography produced between 1990 and 1995, on what happened later to the people who sang the songs, and so forth. The film speaks of those years from an entirely different, mildly ironic and mildly nostalgic, perspective.

— You said something already about how the first Factum films were budgeted. We know that before 2000 the documentary was not part of the system of financing of public funds. How did you manage to cobble together a budget for those first films?

— My wife began working in the education section of the Soros Institute when we came back from England in 1994. I spent time over there, I talked with people, got involved in the work of the Culture Committee, so I got to know Diane Weyermann who is working today for Participant Media, an exceptionally important American production house which connects the commercial documentary and social activism in a very interesting way. At the time she was in charge of the fine arts at Soros. In conversation with her I mentioned that something ought to be done about documentaries, and she answered that Soros was not interested in film because he felt film was commercial and shouldn’t be supported. I said that I agreed, but not when documentaries were in question. Out of this conversation, though not, of course out of this conversation alone, we got to the fact that: first, Soros began gradually to fund documentaries, and second and more important, the Soros Documentary Fund was created with time which became one of the most important documentary funds for socially engaged film. So a possibility was created to begin using some sort of minimal funds for documentaries and I tapped into that. I should say that the sums were very small, but also—contrary to what my colleagues often say—no one ever asked for anything in return. It is important to say something else here: I have not produced a single film to this day which has had a budget over 50,000 Euros. Not a one! So we are truly working with low and non-budget. At the moment, for instance, we are making three films with no budget, no money.

— How frustrating is that?

— There is a real danger here. The way we have learned to work is: you pick up a camera and go shoot. This kind of production within the system of European co-productions, pitching, seeking international funds and co-productions, is becoming a dinosaur, something that is dying out. I am sorry to see it go. Of course I am well aware that we will have to enter the system and adapt to it. But, on the other hand, I think one should leave open the possibility that some kids be handed 5000 kunas [$ 1000], a camera, and montage to make a film and see what they make of it. In co-production with Restart we are currently working on a full-length documentary on the student blockade. They covered the costs of filming, we provide post-production support. We didn’t get a kuna from anyone, not from the city or the Croatian Audiovisual Centre and this is a full-length documentary, which would cost 500,000 Euros or more anywhere in Europe. But the crux of the whole story is something different. Here we come to my favorite subject, Croatian Television. What there should be within the whole system is support, partnership, with Croatian Television. Film funds or institutes do not necessarily need to be partners for documentary film, but public television must be that partner. What is fantastic is the fact that not a single one of the sixty films we have made was done in cooperation with Croatian Radio Television.

— How many of them have been shown by Croatian Television?

— About fifteen, perhaps as many as twenty, have been broadcast on television, but television did not come forward with money for any of the sixty films. It would be logical that in this situation I would go to Croatian TV and say: listen, people, you have no way of following this subject for two years, give us a little money and we’ll do it, and together we’ll make something. No! No way! If there is something frustrating, then it is the fact that the institution whose job it is, among other things, to support independent production, is not doing so in the case of documentary production. And they are spending five times as much as everyone else combined on documentary film in Croatia, with results at zero or near that.

— This is not only frustrating for Factum, but for all the other independent producers, and there are a number of them. You have mentioned several: Restart, Nukleus, the Croatian Film Club’s Association, etc. How do you explain this blossoming of the independent scene? And how much of a role in all of this outside of film industry have civil society associations played which are louder and more active than ever?

— At one moment we were essentially the only one, and then with time, as the situation relaxed and as we tore down some of the taboos, a generation appeared that was not impressed by the past, and then the ranks of independent producers swelled. I will say something which no one likes to hear: per capita there are too many producers in Croatia. Just look at the last page of the catalogue for Days of Croatian Film—dozens and dozens of them! I am of the opinion that a producer needs more than just a bank account, a producer is something much, much more important, and that is what I have always tried to be: the person who develops projects, talks, helps, jumps in, who has the essential technical wherewithal to get something going even with no funding. I think that everything is far too particularized. There are too many little producers who make one film a year or maybe two in three years. Our average is four to five films a year, we’ve been doing that for fifteen years now, and right now we have a dozen projects at various phases of production. But this is a moment, essentially a healthy situation, which will, I believe, lead with time to some sort of consolidation, a merging of the smaller producers.

— You launched graduate study in documentary film direction at the Academy of Dramatic Art. Do you think this will more firmly bond certain directors to documentary film, since here it has mostly been nothing but a transition or stepping stone to feature production?

— An article appeared over the last few days [July 2010] in all the Croatian newspapers about the catastrophe of Croatian film, because not a single (feature) movie was included in the selection of the Sarajevo Festival. It is a fact that four documentary and three short feature films were included in the festival selection, but these were ignored in all the fuss. Unfortunately this manifests an obsession with feature film, which can be laid at the feet of film critics, as if that were the only genre of film worth its salt. This is insulting to all those people who have chosen documentary film as their calling. Small environments, poor environments, they always take a position like that. On the Zagreb streets you will see a far larger percentage of BMWs than in Frankfurt. It is typical for the small and poor that they want to parade how rich they are. So we think documentary film is not good enough to show the wealth of our talent and our intelligence, and feature film is what we need, it has to cost 10 millions somethings, etc. I disagree, I have never thought that way and I have been battling for a very long time for acknowledgment of the legitimacy and equality of documentary film. Graduate study on documentary film is also a facet of this battle, as is ZagrebDox, which, if I might paraphrase, is an expression of Factum by other means. Interestingly no one who has taken the entrance examination for the masters’ in documentary filmmaking so far studied film direction for their undergraduate degree; these are people from other circles: producers, amateurs, cameramen, journalists...

— Perhaps this is good and healthy for the documentary...

— I am pleased about it, but still it shows that people who come to study direction at the Academy come only for feature film and dream of becoming “rich and famous”... What I find interesting is that in the history of the Drama Academy, from my Činča and on, more documentary films have been given awards at festivals than feature films have. However the pressure of the Academy, the pressure of the world in which we live, the pressure of colleagues, is such that only feature film is worth working on. Everything else is a stepping stone to it. As if someone were to tell Satie that everything he composed for the piano was really just a stepping stone to the symphony he never wrote!

— Unlike the traditional media, such as the dying breed of newspapers, the Internet is becoming a new form of communication with great possibilities, such as the possibility of more intimate conversations, where people who have something to say open up to a broad audience, but through a conversation with one person, or they parody social situations as Michael Moore did. This is terribly important and has a powerful influence on the whole social and artistic situation. For this inside situation, which is obviously moving with a completely new and great energy, do you see something similar going on in Croatia as well? Do you see a place where it would be possible, outside of festivals, to support and sustain contact with the public?

— In Croatia there is a widely held belief that we have too many festivals. There are more than 40 in this country of 4.5 million inhabitants. However the fact is that festivals here are a form of alternative distribution. They have the role that art-house cinemas should be playing. People don’t feel like going out just to go to the movies. They can watch a movie at home. They go on family outings which include movies, shopping, dinner, and so forth, or as a festive event when they see a lot of films and run into interesting people. At ZagrebDox, which exclusively screens documentaries, we had an audience of 25,000 people this year, a respectable number indeed in a city the size of Zagreb. People come to see films, and very important for us is the fact that people of all ages come—young, middle-aged and old, grandmothers and grandfathers, and not just students who are a specific sort of audience. People have had it with false Hollywood reality, they are interested in what is really going on. A movie theater dedicated to documentary film, Doku-kino, is now up and running in Zagreb, and at movie theaters such as Tuškanac and Europa they are showing more and more documentary films, simply because they have all realized that this matters. These last few days I have had three or four offers for Internet distribution and cable television. I am having serious discussions about this because documentaries can be watched on the Internet as well. That works well as a medium for documentary film, because a large screen, Dolby Surround, etc. are not conditio sine qua non as they are for many acted films. I am a member of the European Film Academy and this year we will view online a third of the films we are voting on. This is something unstoppable. Whether I like it or not is another question. At this moment in Croatia we have no portal which would only be for documentaries, but that will come with time. It is a necessity. I think that we are quite close in these matters to what is going on in the world though, of course, with much less money, but there is a real interest. I repeat that 25,000 attended ZagrebDox, and we are a festival without a big party. I am very optimistic as to audience reception, their hunger for quality documentaries, their interest. I think that this is very, very OK. 

Translated by Ellen Elias Bursać


Updated: 17 Apr 11