The New Croatian Documentary: Between the Political and the Personal

By Diana Nenadić

© Diana Nenadić, 2011

The “new age” formally began in Croatia in May 1990. The first multi-party elections since World War II rejected the single-party communist system and, not long thereafter, in a republic-wide referendum, the groundwork was laid for withdrawing Croatia from the multi-national Yugoslav federation, a country which failed to become a “melting pot” infringing instead on the freedom of its peoples and national cultures. As with intellectuals and other artists, filmmakers, particularly documentarians—in the closest contact with reality—believed they had finally gotten rid of their two greatest obstacles to free expression: a single-party system and a multi-national state that protected the interests of certain political elites rather than the nations that comprised it. In the now obsolete regime, which had been very interested in film (particularly as a means of ideological propaganda), this had meant unfinished projects, police confiscation of recorded material, the bunkering of films, bans on work, and fear of censorship. But then commenced a period which was one of the most difficult stretches for documentary filmmakers since the beginnings of organized cinematography in Croatia, yet documentarians fought for and won their piece of the pie and public acknowledgment. Instead of providing generous room for freedom and exploration, the early 1990s brought with them wartime aggression, and, instead of freedom of speech, there were new kinds of limitations and (self) censorship. At a moment when they should have been opening their eyes wide and pricking up their ears, the senses of the documentarians were deafened by Greater Serbian guns and nationalist rhetoric. Meanwhile the Croatian politics of the period, dominated by the presidential will of former Yugoslav general Franjo Tuđman, swiftly devised ways to further clip the wings of filmmakers: throughout the mid-1990s and up to the new millennium and the change of government, documentary film was given no state funding, although everyone knew full well that even with the new market-driven system, in this devastated and impoverished transitional country of four and a half million inhabitants, the film industry would not survive without state support. The true advent of a new day was therefore put off by nearly a decade. Until documentary production was brought back under the umbrella of government funding during the mandate of Minister of Culture Antun Vujić (2000-2003), those who were the most persistent and the most loyal to documentary film did their best to sustain at least some continuity of production and bring credibility back to this first and foundational film genre which even the most rigid dictatorships never give up on— precisely because images speak louder than words.

new timeIn other words, despite it all, documentary filmmakers went on filming, in anticipation of the day when they would be able to show how engaging reality can be, as demonstrated by the film A New, New Time (Novo, novo vrijeme). It predated the Croatian importation of Michael Moore’s full-length documentary provocations aimed at the American establishment. This full-length film, made by Rajko Grlić and Igor Mirković in 2001, was one of the first documentaries subsidized in part by the post-Tuđman government,[1] and one of the first documentaries in Croatian history which the people of Croatia paid to see at the ever-declining number of non-commercial movie theaters. At the same time this is a film which pioneered a move across mental “barbed wire” and went behind the scenes of the hitherto untouchable topic of high politics in order to expose the dynamics of the multi-party “marketplace” on the eve of and during the first presidential election after Tuđman’s death. At a moment when filmgoers were steering away from domestic movies, and the critics were not fond of them either, the reactions to the stripping bare of politicians using the up-close observation method (measurable in box office sales of about 27,000 tickets, fabulous for a film of this genre)[2] were unexpectedly encouraging. After that move (which was not merely nominal and symbolic!) there were similar strides into a new time, and in Croatian documentary filmmaking many things would never be the same.

At the start of the millennium, both cultural policy and filmgoers began to recognize the importance and potential of the documentary, and this mood spurred production. Government funding (channeled today through the Croatian Audiovisual Centre [Hrvatski audiovizualni centar]),[3] as well as funding from certain local (municipal) administrations, took a firmer hold in the years leading up to 2010, and this contributed to the emergence of producers who make documentaries either regularly or intermittently. Today there are some thirty of them. This is identical in number to the current record number of projects receiving government funding in a single year, though only in 2008, which was at least three times the size of the average annual quota in the 1980s and many times larger than that in the 1990s. When one adds to the number of subsidized projects the television, non-professional, student, and non-budget documentaries the total annual output may reach as many as a hundred short and full-length titles,[4] and today these can be distributed through a number of different channels. Aside from state television and the growing number of local, national, or international festivals with competition or special documentary programs (Split, Motovun, Zagreb Film Festival, Human Rights Film Festival, Bjelovar’s Docuart, Liburnia Film Festival, and others), the growing and increasingly popular ZagrebDox with a regional and international selection, the surviving non-commercial movie theaters are showing a rising interest in non-fictional film, including the first Zagreb movie theater specialized in documentaries, Doku-Kino Croatia. Because of all of this, the documentary “ base” is stronger than it ever has been in the history of Croatian cinema. Documentarians have recently been participating in international co-productions and pitching sessions, insuring a growing visibility for films on the world festival scene. In the regional context they are now prominently recognized, on the world scene they are increasingly recognizable, although they have still not reached the ratings of the 1960s, 1970s, and even 1980s, when Croatian documentaries, in tandem with or alternating with the Zagreb School of Animated Film, regularly won prizes at the Oberhausen festival, still an important venue where even now Croatian titles enter competitions though with greater difficulty. Currently Croatian documentaries enjoy more success at the influential Netherlands IDFA. Over the last ten years through the Jan Vrijman Fund this Amsterdam mega-festival of documentary film has financially supported, and then screened, eleven films which were either produced or co-produced by Croatian companies such as Factum, Croatian Film Clubs’ Association [Hrvatski filmski savez], Nukleus, Milva Film & Video, and others. In this regard Croatia has far outstripped the other members of the former Yugoslav federation.

Television Time and War Themes

From the perspective of the years leading up to 2010, when the severe economic downturn cast a shadow over the film industry with predictable consequences for domestic production, the dividing line between the “new” (Tuđman) and the “new, new” (post-Tuđman) era is not so clearly defined that it could be encapsulated in a single film. The New, New Time and other similar production-intensive forays into the political and day-to-day commonplace are more likely to be a consequence or continuation of processes and phenomena that were visible or nascent during the 1990s in documentary film, experienced at that time as dissonant tones in an otherwise constrained and controlled mainstream.

Croatian Radio Television largely set the standards in terms of mainstream production, aesthetics, and world view in the first years of socio-political and cinematographic transition. At that time state television was the only producer of documentaries with stability in terms of funding and infrastructure, but it was also a controversial shaper of public opinion, particularly during the years of open hostilities by the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian paramilitary units in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (1991-1995). Until the mid-1990s those who had survived the demise of the socialist system were intermittently present on the documentary film scene. Among these were Jadran Film (which had invested a part of its capacities in documentary film from funds created by state investment after World War II), Zagreb Film (the famous Studio for Animated Film. In parallel to animated film they also cultivated educational and creative documentaries), Filmoteka 16and smaller regional production houses. The war also kept on their toes the amateurs who were gathered around the surviving film clubs and the Croatian Film Clubs’ Association, and spurred the involvement of independent authors and new, specialized producers in documenting the destruction wrought by the war and the human suffering from Osijek to Dubrovnik (Art film, Studio ZNG, and others).

But professional cinematographic production began to feel the impact of the demise of public funding in the second half of the decade, in which politically influential director Antun Vrdoljak[5]—author of the most expensive and controversial documentary project in the history of Croatian cinematography, a television series, both documentary and acted, on Josip Broz Tito (Tito, 2010)—played a decisive role. After successfully purging the “politically incorrect” staff and subject matter from Croatian Radio Television programs during the first (wartime) half of the 1990s, as commissioner for film within the Ministry of Culture in the second (postwar) half of the decade Vrdoljak eliminated the institution of competitions for and subsidy of documentary filmmaking, retaining only discretionary right as commissioner to support something now and then with government funding. Hence the ball was in the court of “filtered” state television, whose documentary program, closely affiliated with the information services, was in the service of government policies throughout this period, with the goal of a homogenization of the public around national history and culture, military objectives and strategies, the displaced persons crisis, and, more broadly, the suffering of the civilian population. Aside from its role as an articulation of information policy, Croatian Radio Television documentary production was most closed toward “unverified,” independent, out-of-house professionals. At the same time, most television authors, particularly the occasional documentarians recruited from among journalists, gave in far too readily to the pressures of propaganda rhetoric and the conventions of what is known as the sandwich structure (a series of statements—then illustrations—then statements, etc.), which were used to fill the closely watched programming minutes. Ethically and aesthetically articulate documentarians were exceptions to the rule, often shunted off to some of the second-tier educational, scientific, or cultural programs. But nevertheless, fortunately, there were a number of them, and thanks to this fact we can speak today of a sizeable corpus of early war documentary.

sidetrackPetar Krelja’s presence as an author was more than visible in this period. His filmography numbers more than two hundred titles today, among other things because even after 1990 he continued to work a great deal for Croatian Radio Television and (affiliated) independent (co)producers (Zagreb film, Filmoteka 16). Cultivating the high humanist and creative standards set by his socially engaged films from the late 1960s and in the 1970s, Krelja dedicated himself to the fates of victims behind the combat lines (On a Sidetrack / Na sporednom kolosijeku; Zoran Šipoš and His Jasna / Zoran Šipoš i njegova Jasna, 1992; Corn Road / Kukuruzni put; Suzana’s Smile / Suzanin osmijeh; The Third Christmas / Treći Božić, 1994, and others), and repeatedly to artists and ordinary people with creative hobbies. With an average of three documentaries per year, he was perceived during the first five years of Croatia’s independence as almost the only active professional from the “old guard,” although there were other documentarians who occasionally came out with films (such as Berislav Benažić, Zvonimir Berković, Eduard Galić, Branko Lentić, Miroslav Mikuljan, Edi Mudronja, Zlatko Sudović, Vladimir Tadej, Šime Šimatović, Bogdan Žižić, and others). The focus of most of the more experienced documentary filmmakers in the new circumstances skirted the actual events or entirely sidestepped them, pursuing a series of harmless or socially tried-and-true themes and more conventional approaches, most often making documentary portraits of artists or cultural-historical inventories with what were known as kultur films, a genre that was frequently used before the 1990s as well. Because of the circumstances at hand (the humanitarian crisis, political control of the electronic media, the authoritarian government) it was difficult to expect that authors would sharpen their critical spears and tangle with those aspects of reality subsumed in the wartime events. These began surfacing in the late 1990s: the unsanctioned murders of civilians of Serbian nationality, the involvement of Croatia in the war in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, war profiteering, criminal privatization of what had been publicly owned, the birth of the “nouveau riche,” the presence of the mafia and criminal activity in general. This earlier period was a time when a single, collective, i.e. national, identity, was privileged. Consequently, these types of problems as well as those concerning threats to human rights and individual identities, traumatized as people were by the recent events and totalitarian environment, could hardly break through onto the documentary film agenda. In documentary film as in everyday life, truth and the person/individual meant far less than political interests and the nation, in whose name through the ether flew words that had no place in a democratic, tolerant society. Hence Krelja’s “wartime” opus, zeroing in on the fates and emotions of individuals—who, after all, represented the most threatened crosssection of the population—shone as an exception, giving wartime documentary film a measure of universal humanity.

On the margins of production at the same time a (counter) revolution of a new, depoliticized and ironic post-modern generation was smoldering. The revolution was primarily aesthetic in nature. A breath of fresh air had blown in at the start of the 1990s from the Zagreb Academy of Dramatic Art, whose student production, thanks to the newly founded national review/festival Days of Croatian Film had reached a broader audience by the second year of the war. A generation came onto the scene from whom, as formulated by young director Lukas Nola, “. . . the war had been stolen”;[6] but it became clear that they had a more sober and engaged attitude about the war and reality than did television journalists and the on-duty watch dogs. The new relationship implied avoiding the pathetic rhetoric of victimhood, homeland homilies and spoken commentaries which had been the recognizable features of television production, sometimes taken to the limits of tastelessness.

hotel sunjaOf the young Academy students who were prevented from going to the front with film crews and equipment, the first to shine was Ivan Salaj. After his macabre observations on the proximity of life and death (the hospital obstetrics ward on the second floor and the hospital morgue in the basement) in his student film Second Floor, Basement (Drugi kat, podrum, 1991), Salaj attracted attention in Hotel Sunja (1992) with vérité confessions by defenders in the field, recorded during breaks between war operations. Jelena Rajković of the same generation defied television conventions with a distanced and stylized note on the inoperative presence of highly organized blue helmets (UN units) in chaotic Croatia during the Homeland War (Blue Helmet, 1992/1993). Rajković (1969-1997), who died far too young, went on to grapple with the surfacing of PTSD among war veterans, first in a fictional treatment (Wish You Could Hear / Noć za slušanje, 1995), and then in the reconstruction documentary Radio Krapina (Krapina, poslijepodne, 1997), addressing an event that is anticipated in her senior film project. Some recent Academy graduates contributed to the documentary inventory of events happening behind the front lines, such as Neven Hitrec in Hall (Dvorana, 1993) who observed with tact and compassion the lives of patients displaced from an institution for the mentally handicapped and accommodated in a gymnastics hall, or Goran Dukić in Special Guests (Posebni gosti, 1992), with a similar approach to refugees from war-devastated rural areas placed in an orderly Adriatic hotel.

boy who rushedOut of a need to promote the “truth about the war” by documenting destruction or honoring victims, among whom were a large number of cameramen who were killed on the job, emerged a series of hybrid-genre documents/films  and poeticized reporting war vignettes (such as Mozart 1991 by Krasimir Gančev, 1992). The war provided a wealth of documentary themes even for the first years of the new millennium, when war-related material, and particularly psychological and spiritual consequences, could be observed from a distance. Associated with lived experience, this necessary distance in time brought with it a series of emotionally mature, formally inventive and cognitively powerful films using very varied styles, such as the confessional The Boy Who Rushed (Dečko kojem se žurilo, 2001) by Biljana Čakić-Veselič—on a search of many years for a brother who had disappeared; Das Lied Ist Aus by Ivan Faktor (2002) —a noir essay on the absurdities of war in the border town of Osijek, its sound track taken from M by Fritz Lang, or Bad Blue Boys (Panj pun olova, 2007) by Branko Schmidt—disturbing observations on the infatuation of veterans with weapons even after the war is over.

The Distance Generation

With the new generation whom the current events mentally damaged and physically undid, there is a general sense of a need for distance and a move away from normative representation, not only of the war, but also of other less extreme manifestations of the new reality. State television, as the only producer and screener of documentaries during most of the 1990s, was prepared to tolerate this only in part, while more agile independent producers able or willing to support this need for distance were nowhere to be found until the later years of the war decade. Hence the young authors were left to try to air their conceptualization of the creative documentary on targeted, educational, cultural, and other programs of state television. Only a few in the wartime and early postwar years broke through to the documentary program of Croatian Radio Television and succeeded in preserving creative autonomy while working with it.

bad blue boysVinko Brešan, for instance, one of the most successful Croatian directors today, did not address the war until 1996 when his debut feature How the War Started on My Island (Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku) came out, but with the socially sensitive Lunch Together (Zajednički ručak, 1993) he covered a sample of the retired population which, at the time he was documenting meals for the poor at a Zagreb soup kitchen (and later), was one of the greatest examples of collateral damage of the transition brought on by the war and the changes in the economy. Afterwards, in the style of his later bitter-sweet features, he played with the “victims” of the endless Croatian judicial waiting room in the television piece The Corridor (Hodnik, 1994). Just as with his feature films, in The Corridor Brešan allowed humor, performance and playfulness to mingle with real situations and people, while steering clear of politics and politicization, an approach that was welcomed as something new. Moreover, it could be said that by making this poetic choice he oriented a significant portion of the subsequent television and independent documentary production toward irony, the grotesque, playfulness in performance and fabulation. These traits help one recognize a directorial signature and the directors of the younger and middle generation, who seek the bizarre in people, nature, and/or society, whether working on television or as independents: Branko Ištvančić (The Cormorant Scarecrow / Plašitelji kormorana, 1998), Tomislav Mršić (Rio Bravo/Machinist / Rio Bravar, 2002), Hrvoje Hribar (There Once Was / Bil jedon, 2002), Lijljana Šišmanović (The Last Bay of the Pannonian Sea / Posljednji zaljev Panonskoga mora, 2003), Dražen Žarković (Office Window / Šalter, 2000; From Dawn till Dusk / Od jutra do mraka, 2005), the former trio Matanić-Rukavina-Tomić (Bag; Good Luck / Sretno, 1999) and Goran Dević (Imported Crows / Uvozne vrane, 2004; Happy Country / Sretna zemlja, 2009).

At the time when Croatia Radio Television began to relax its nation-building autism, Brešan would be followed in his march on the propaganda machine of state broadcasting by his colleagues of the same generation “assigned” to various television programs, given the chance to make relatively “painless” and harmless but creatively worked documentaries from the top list of the 1990s. Among them were a carefully structured and stylistically refined ethnographic essay on lace-making by Vlatka Vorkapić called Lace-Making Designs (Pogačica, ročelica, mendulica, 1997) and Grandpa, Batek, Granny (Dedek, batek, bakica, 1998), filmed for the television department of folk music and folk customs; a poetic-anthropological observation of life on Mount Velebit in Mirila by Zadar video artist Vlado Zrnić (1997), or the ethnographic films of  Branko Ištvančić, a productive and traditionally themed filmmaker, particularly The Cormorant Scarecrow, a humorous depiction of people of an unusual “occupation”—shooing birds away from the Pannonian fish-breeding farms. Jelena Rajković used the training ground of television for practice, making a costumed documentary and acted construct The Zagorje Region, Castles (Zagorje, dvorci, 1997) and a subversive reconstruction (Radio Krapina). However, the Academy was not the only place to launch future documentarians.  For instance, Damir Čučić, who worked on film editing for state television, made a debut threesome of socially engaged films which takes as its theme depression and hopelessness among workers who have lost their jobs in Četvrta smjena (The Fourth Shift) or among the people of Split, the Croatian “case city,” in Sea over Split (More nad Splitom, 1999). That same year he articulated a remarkably tactful and sensitive approach to the existential tragedy of a Vukovar veteran, who, after nearly his whole family is killed, finds the strength for a new beginning as a displaced person, to which he testifies in the independently produced Creatures in the Pictures (Bića sa slika), one of the best Croatian documentaries of the 1990s.

While advanced students and graduates of the Drama Academy fought for their first professional projects under the existing conditions, the beginnings of a “new” documentary were continuing to germinate among the new generations of students. Students were allowed to work with increasing ease, innovation, in different styles. They even (ab)used the production impoverishment and freedom creatively, showing that a documentarian needn’t necessarily be “objective” and serious, that seriousness and playfulness can go hand-in-hand, that “fiction” is sometimes missing from “faction,” and that the “truth-based” approach to reality does not exclude a subjective position or personal “style.” Although the social and cinematographic environment were hardly encouraging, Drama Academy students and their mentors were the ones who, in fact, created the new mood that began to be felt just at the time when the greatest restrictions were being imposed on the documentary mainstream, as early as 1996.

Those years, for instance, two student films were made which appear on critics’ lists in the survey Croatian Cinema Chronicle (Hrvatski filmski ljetopis, 2003) of the best documentaries following Croatian independence. The first is Mother’s Name: Orange (Ime majke: Naranča, 1995) by Jasna Zastavniković, an example of a fake documentary or “mockumentary,” a genre which in Croatian documentary film, as focused as it had been on “serious” or (socially) tried-and-true themes, had not until then asserted its civil rights. The second one, The Sky below Osijek (Nebo ispod Osijeka, 1995) by Zvonimir Jurić, offers a subjective and pessimistic view of the postwar city of Osijek from the perspective of members of the disillusioned younger generation. Both films question the previously ruling dogma of “objectivity” of documentary representation, and mark the very beginning of a new wave of thematically and stylistically divergent documentary work. The somewhat later omnibus Metropolis (Metropola, 1997) by student trio D. Matanić, T. Rukavina, S. Tomić could be understood as a sort of documentary manifesto of the new generation that was looking at the postwar reality of the Croatian metropolis and its demi-monde without flinching or prettifying. Similarly, Duel (Dvoboj, 1998) by Zrinka Katarina Matijević, done in the direct film style, could be viewed as a manifestation of documentary skill in almost banal everyday situations (a verbal duel between a mother and her little son over a meal), a film style which, like the minimalist form in general, had completely disappeared from professional production, owing to the expansion of television minutage. The Grand Prix at Days of Croatian Film for Duel in 1999 was yet another confirmation of the uninventiveness of the professional documentary, which lost in competition with this film, and which until the late 1990s was still fending off challenges from the politically and spritually entangled postwar reality, and from aesthetic and world-view provocations of the “young filmmakers,” even when they were not reaching for dangerous themes.

Political and Personal: Factum and the Facts

Nenad Puhovski had returned to the scene at this point and, as founder, director, and producer of the Factum documentary film project, set out to provoke discourse on the painful points and taboo themes of post-socialist Croatia. He came out of the documentary workshop at the Imaginary Academy (Imaginarna akademija) in Grožnjan, begun in 1995 with support from the Soros Open Society Institute. Factum appeared in 1997, at a moment when inaccessible and powerful Croatian Radio Television and the Academy of Dramatic Art, accessible but with modest production capabilities, were almost the only producers of documentary film in Croatia. At that point the only other relatively active independent producer was Gral Film (from 1993), making an average of one film a year in discontinuous production, broaching many sensitive topics (the exhumation of war victims, the de-mining of mined areas, the life of displaced persons, the life of refugees, and so forth), but Gral Film’s filmography is largely tied to the name of author and producer Tomislav Žaja, noted for his authored films, who frequently worked for state television as well. Puhovski decided to attract as large a number of authors as possible for production, so after his “inaugural” film Graham & I, a True Story (Graham i ja, 1998) which he directed himself, he provided opportunities for proven students (Podgorelec, Korovljev, Budisavljević, Jurić, Matijević-Veličan, Mirošničenko, Matanić, Rukavina, Tomić and others) and went on apprenticing promising documentarists to production into the years of the last decade (Danko Volarić, Goran Dević, Nikola Strašek, Igor Bezinović, and others).

Graham & I, self-reflexive, self-aware and radically subjective in its treatment of a politically motivated incident (the self-immolation of Graham Bamford of Britain in front of the British Parliament as a protest against the policies of the western powers toward the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina), caused controversial reactions, and suggested which direction Factum’s production would take. Its focus on the political, socio-critical, activist (in a humanistic sense), and creative (authorial) documentary assumed possible initial “misunderstandings” in the reception of Factum films. There were quite a few of them, because this is a production which opened new chapters in the Croatian documentary and, more broadly, in the perception of reality. Croatia was portrayed for the first time as a conflictual and fragmentary place composed of different social groups, entities and identities, and not as a monolithic, orderly community, while Factum, with its average annual output of five films, has imposed itself as a factory of various authorial approaches.

pavilionThe first essential chapter of Factum’s documentary production are films that are politically explicit in a way in which they had not been before that, nor could they have been, with the exception of films of overt ideological or nationalist propaganda. Factum dedicated itself to themes that had been swept under the rug by the majority of filmgoers, official policy, and even filmmakers, although international organizations such as Helsinki Watch had been addressing them. These were largely films on human rights issues, or, more explicitly, on the unsanctioned crimes that the Croatian side had perpetrated against Serbian civilians during and at the end of the Homeland War. Puhovski addresses them himself in Pavilion 22 (Paviljon 22, 2002) and Lora: Testimonies(Lora: svjedočanstva, 2004), Božidar Knežević does so in Operation Storm (Oluja nad Krajinom, 2001), as does Goran Dević somewhat later in the Sisak doc-noir I Have Nothing Nice to Say to You (Nemam ti šta reć lijepo, 2006). Political motivation or provocation is present in Factum’s early project BBB (1998) by Saša Podgorelac, a documentary about Dinamo soccer-club fans, whose subversive behavior in the 1990s was a litmus test for the mood of the public toward the authoritarian policies of President Tuđman. Less “noisy” but also politically motivated was A Life in Fresh Air (Život na svježem zraku, 2001) by Danko Volarić, a view of life and preparations for local elections in an ethnically mixed Croatian village after what was known as the “reintegration” of the occupied zones. Playful Pescenopolis (Peščenopolis, 2003) by Zrinka Matijević-Veličan can be seen as a carnevalization of Croatian democracy through “dramatization” of relations among residents of an outsider city-state and its ridiculous “chief,” situated in Peščenica, a Zagreb neighborhood. In Factum’s political “program,” there was space for both “old” and “new time.” “Then” and “now” were appealingly bridged by the three-part croquis, Drinking Water and Freedom III (Pitka voda i sloboda III, 1999), by Rajko Grlić—on the fate of a city fountain and plaque after the government which had placed them there changed, filmed at three different times over a span of 27 years, and by Poetry and the Revolution (Poezija i revolucija), Branko Ivanda (1971/2000), incorporating “liberated” material on the 1971 student strike which had been kept under lock and key for almost thirty years.

pescenopolisA second essential orientation of the new production house was an offshoot or continuation of the existing tradition of socially engaged film: testimonies about handicapped people, people on the margins and outsiders, the bizarre aspects of life and social abberations of all profiles in engaged and/or stylistically self-conscious documentaries. This series was begun by young authors and includes: a) short films in observational mode such as those by Zrinka Matijević-Veličan (Of Cows and People / O kravama i ljudima, 2000), Andrej Korovljev (Una Storia Polesana, 1999; The Years of Rust / Godine hrđe, 2000), Silvio Mirošničenko (Dreams from the Railway Station / Snovi na peronu djetinjstva, 2001);  b) playful, humoristic and stylistically coy films such as those by the trio Matanić-Rukavina-Tomić (Bag and Good Luck!, 1999); c) films in an interactive-confessional register by Aldo Tardozzi (Think Pink / Terra Roza, 1999), Igor Mirković (Orbanici Unplugged, 1999) and Dana Budisavljević (Straight A’s! / Sve pet!, 2004).

good morningThe third model inaugurated by Factum’s production and perhaps the one most significant for new Croatian documentary filmmaking is in the use of the subjective discourse of the documentary as self-portrait or autobiography, the sort of thing that only amateurs, avant-gardists and video artists had tried their hand at earlier, hence this model was on the margins of industry. The “center” generally preferred hiding behind “neutral” impersonal speech, or speech in the name of an imaginary “we” which was believed to guarantee “truth” and “objectivity.” The heretofore invisible or implied subjective “filter” of reality in the documentary suddenly became visible, and instead of presenting the predominant collective identity it pushed to the surface disparate, fragmentary, changeable, and insecure (post-modern) identities. In that sense Graham & I acted as a release mechanism for the trend of documentary self-inscription into history, memory, confession, personal jottings, self-examination, and seeking. One of the first to succeed at this form was Zvonimir Jurić, rounding out a three-part urban anti-symphony of his native city, started with the student piece The Sky below Osijek (1995), and continuing with the self-aware, metamedia-programmed films Jurić: Fortress / Jurić: Tvrđa, 2000) and Blacks Have Endured (Crnci su izdržali, a ja?, 2001). Biljana Čakić-Veselič sparked a collective catharsis with her documentary search for her brother who had gone missing in the war in The Boy Who Rushed (2001), at a time when there were still searches underway for Croatian defenders who had disappeared. In the process she earned for herself the flattering title of “Croatian Antigone.” Filmmaker Silvestar Kolbas then strode boldly into the realm of women’s experience, filming a journal of the artificial insemination and pregnancy of his wife and co-screenplay writer Nataša Kraljević (All About Eve / Sve o Evi, 2003), while dramaturge Lana Šarić felt the need to reconstruct a traumatic battle with serious illness in Category: Optimist (Klasa optimist, 2010). This trend itself a reflection of similar worldwide tendences in literature, the visual arts and film, was launched by Factum using genuine individual stories and preeminent directorial methods. The self-documentary suddenly became remarkably interesting for other producers, while authors from the alternative margin and particularly women authors continued to cultivate the subjective discourse they had inherited from the avant-garde. The list of filmmakers and audiovisual arts who support the “first person singular” is growing longer. Ivan Faktor (Željko Jerman, My Month / Željko Jerman, moj mjesec, 2005), Tanja Golić (Wait, Wait... Čekajte, čekajte, 2005), Tomislav Gotovac (Dead Man Walking, 2002; Cesar Franck—Wolf Vostell, 2005), Ana Hušman (House / Kuća, 2003), Kristina Leko (IDontRememberHisName, 2001), Tanja Miličić (Patchwork, 2003), Igor Mirković (HappyChild / Sretno dijete, 2003), Renata Poljak (Great Expectations / Velikaočekivanja, 2005), Ljiljana Šišmanović (Half Sister / Polusestra, 2006), Ksenija Turčić (Residency, 2002), Robert Zuber (An Accidental Son / Slučajni sin, 2008) and others. At a point when the trend had already taken off, the filmmakers were joined, camera in hand, by Ante Babaja, a long since “retired” eighty-year-old veteran of modernist film, with Good Morning (Dobro jutro, 2007) his testamentary self-portrait from an old-peoples’ home, with which he sums up and rounds out his opus. As the aesthetic pinnacle of the subjective and intimate documentary, Babaja’s film provided a synthesis bridging the most potent stylistic periods of the “old,” meditative-essayist (modernist) and “new” meta-medial (postmodern) documentary filmmaking.

Confessional Documentarism as Activism

From the signatures of self-documentarians one can also see a relatively symmetrical presence of men and women filmmakers, to which the gender structure of short-film authors in general is gradually catching up. Moreover, having begun their advance on cinematography in the 1990s, women documentarians (as well as other women filmmakers) have been many times more provocative, inventive, and open over the last twenty years than in the period prior to it, and at the Days of Croatian Film festival they have taken several Grand Prix and other awards (Jelena Rajković, Zrinka Matijević-Veličan, Biljana Čakić-Veselič; Vlatka Vorkapić, Ljiljana Šišmanović, Dana Budisavljević, Ivona Juka, Tanja Golić, Irena Škorić, and others). The growing cinematic presence of women’s and personal voices with “political” reverberations is comparable to the phenomenon of feminist, peace, gay and other forms of activism through civil society associations, which are all the more numerous and evident at the advent of the new millennium. In tandem with their appearance on the public scene, awareness is growing of Croatian society as disorderly and intolerant, a society which is not in a geographic or historical vacuum, but is, instead, part of an imperfect regional and transitional context.

facing the dayBy coming forward with debate and activism, Factum has, doubtless, spurred other filmmakers, particularly those of the younger generation, to gather around similar projects, and even state television can no longer behave autistically when faced with the social facts. The Factum example was followed after 2001 by Fade-In (first an association, and then, in 2008, a company), defined as a “platform for young people interested in socially engaged and artistic video.” Human rights, equality, youth culture, ecology and the individual are the thematic priorities for the new independent house whose authors/producers Nebojša Slijepčević and Hrvoje Mabić have begun the Direkt documentary series along with their educational and experimental films. The series of mosaic shows is conceptualized as representing various samples of the younger population, “marked” by a certain “problem” or problemmatic choice, such as minority (ethnic, national, etc.) identity, alternative sexual orientation, life in a dysfunctional family or with no parents, dependence on harmful substances or behaviors, an unusual life style and world view, and others. The realities captured by a dozen men and women authors in about a hundred episodes of Direkt filmed with a dynamic camera, using a combination of interview and observational methods, touch on all the essential problems of Croatian society, particularly daily life in the city. The series was also shown by Croatian television in the late evening time slot. Dana Budisavljević initiated a similar project called Changing the World (Mijenjam svijet) as producer and author at Hulahop, an additional place for young directors to gain experience (Saša Ban, Jurić, Matijević-Veličan, Zastavniković and others), expanding the space on television for (activist) confession.

facing the dayUnlike traditional “talking heads” who testify to or speak of themselves in drab television documentaries, the “independent” confessional subjects of the new Croatian documentary do this with more immediacy, in their own environment, movement or action, and the films are made all the more interesting by the authentic and eccentric life experience they convey, almost always paradigmatic of an outsider. Such films can be found in the notable recent production lines of almost all the key producers of documentary films, which would include the Academy of Dramatic Art with films World Heritage Site (Spomenik nulte kategorije) by Zvonimir Rumboldt, 1999; Wolf (Vuk) by Nikola Ivanda, 2000; I’ll Kill You (Ubil bum te) by Nikola Strašek, 2007, and Above Average (Natprosječan) by Igor Bezinović, 2008, Factum productions with films such as Three (Tri) by Goran Dević, 2008 and Together (Zajedno) by Nenad Puhovski, 2009, as well as Maxim Film with The Last Genuine Petrović (Posljednji autohtoni Petrović) by Damir Terešak, 2006 and The Sign on Kain (Znak na Kajinu, 2009) by Ljiljana Šišmanović and Tihana Kopsa, and 4 Film, with Facing the Day (Što sa sobom preko dana, 2006) by Ivona Juka, the Croatian Film Clubs’ Association with My Neighbor Tanja (Moja susjeda Tanja, 2006) by Petar Krelja, and the documentary program of Croatian Radio Television with Anxiety (Tjeskoba) by Damir Čučić, 2010. All these documentaries share a common feature of giving the right to a public voice, emotion, and a personal truth to people on the margins of society, outside the law, losers, rejects, those who have been written off. Speaking of themselves the subjects speak of the society in which they live. The immediate methods of cinema vérité and interview used with provocative subjects have become a dominant and powerful modus for contemporary Croatian documentary, just as, in the best years of “Yugoslav” documentary filmmaking in the 1960s and 1970s, the preeminent method was direct (observational) film.

Shifting the Borders: Between Para-Dox and Mega-Dox

happy childDocumentary essays and poetic-experimental-documentary hybrids date from roughly those years, 1960s and 1970s, with followers among the avant-garde and modernistically oriented authors ranging from Babaja, Tadić and Galić to Martinac, Gotovac, Mikuljan and Zafranović. In the new constellation of subsidized cinematography in the first years of the new millennium the possibility arose for perpetuating this tradition under professional conditions. The authors who first seized the opportunity were from the alternative and video-art enclave, which went into action with the first air raid sirens in the early 1990s, reacting with video-recordings to the aggressive hostilities launched against Croatia. As the war operations subsided and new producers surfaced (The Croatian Film Clubs’ Association, Milva Film & Video, Pangolin, and others) they began to integrate into the professional mainstream. Vlado Zrnić was dedicated at the time to visually poeticized meditations on the rudiments of (rural) life (Mirila, 1997, and the feature Day under the Sun / Dan pod suncem, 2000), Zdravko Mustać chose observational documentaries without narrative interventions or commentaries (Ludar, 1999; Purgatory / Purgatorij,2005), as did Damir Čučić, when he was “taking a break” from state television (The Forgotten / Zaboravljeni, 2001; La Strada, 2004; City Killer, 2007) and Boris Poljak (The Split Watercolor / Splitski akvarel, 2009), and both Poljak and Čučić were interested in experimental visually stylized observation and a poetic-experimental structuring of documentary material. Tomislav Gotovac bridged alternative (multimedia) and documentary praxis in a series of self-portrait films (Labor Day / Praznik rada, 2001; Cesar Franck - Wolf Vostell, 2005 and the found-footage self-portrait Dead Man Walking, 2002), as did Ivan Faktor, Željko Kipke and Nicole Hewitt (In Time, 2008), and women filmmakers with a feminist bent or self-reflexivity who document (their own or someone else’s) female experience such as Breda Beban and Rada Šešić working abroad, Renata Poljak, Krstina Leko, Ana Hušman, Vlasta Žanić, Martina Globočnik, Jelena Bračun, Ksenija Turčić and others. What the Amsterdam IDFA has termed the “paradocumentary,” a mixed-genre of experiment, document, fiction and/or animation, is one of the most vital documentary genres in Croatian cinematography, to which otherwise conventional authors sometimes flee, as do others outside the “alternative” circle. The paradocumentary genre has never relied on a large budget, it has lived outside the sway of ideological influence and control, and today it is supported by the joint efforts of art, media and film circles.

return of dead menAlong with student production, alternative production can be credited with keeping alive the short form, which was threatened first by the documentary being dropped from the preview cinema repertoire in the 1970s, and then by imposition of the strict 30-, 50- and 70-minute television time slots. But with the return of the documentary to movie theaters, where it used to be shown as an opener for feature films, it can now enjoy a much broader reception, with a large and perhaps even entertaining subject, and in full-length (or even longer) format. It is no surprise, therefore, that there are a growing number of full-length titles by Croatian documentarians following the world production trend. Documentaries are now longer than they used to be in the late 1990s. New, New Time was followed by a second box-office hit, Happy Child  (2003) by Igor Mirković, a nostalgic evocation of the late 1970s and early 1980s on the Croatian music and media scene, as well as the “rockumentaries” When Miki Says He’s Scared (Kad Miki kaže da se boji, 2005) by Ines Pletikos and The Rhythm of the Rock Tribe (Ritam rock plemena) by Bernardin Modrić, 2005, the farcical Pescenopolis by Zrinka Matijević-Veličan and Radio 101 Independence Day (Dan nezavisnosti radija 101) by Vinko Brešan, 2007. Aside from being sometimes involved with escapism and tabloidization of the public realm, full-length documentaries have also been used for dramatization of serious themes and hermetic approaches in films such as Babaja’s Good Morning, Kolbas’s All about Eve, Zrnić’s Day under the Sun, and Return of a Dead Man / Povratak mrtvog čovjeka by Petar Orešković and others. Faced with the lack of a screenplay development fund and the paucity of interest on the part of Croatian Radio Television for co-production with independent producers they often reached for help in broadcast minutage within or outside the region, but the cross-border traffic went in many directions. Factum’s New, New Time, Day under the Sun, and Together were funded by western sources (such as the Jan Vrijman Fund) as was Return of a Dead Man by Petar Orešković (2006) produced by Nukleus, a young production house which would expand the documentary horizon in the territory of the former Yugoslavia with its co-production efforts, and would take part with minority involvement in projects indirectly touching on the Croatian situation but led by authors from neighboring countries. An example is the film Cash and Marry (Plati i ženi, 2008), by Macedonian director Atans Georgiev, a humorous dramatization of the attempts of several young men from the Balkans to secure legal residency in Austria for a friend through marriage. Now, when Marina Andree Škop’s co-produced Sevdah is reverberating across the Croatian documentary screen (2009), and the gaze of Croatian producers is being drawn “far, far away,” to the Serbian Village without Women (Selo bez žena) by Srđan Šarenac, 2009, perhaps such films should be understood as the prototype of a new documentary for a “new, new time.” After some twenty years of seeking, a search still underway for an identity or identities in the wasteland of imperfect societies, an awakening from passivity, and a spread of documentary boundaries, our gaze today turns to the space beyond the borders, that very space of which politics and state cinematography wished to be rid some twenty years ago. In any case, documentary and “historical reality” are finding themselves faced with new challenges.

Translated by Ellen Elias Bursać


Notes

1] The commissioner for documentary film within the Ministry of Culture, who proposed subsidizing the film was Vinko Brešan.

2] See: Ivo Škrabalo, Hrvatska filmska povijest ukratko, 1896-2006 (A History of Croatian Film in Brief - 1896-2006), Zagreb: V.B.Z., Croatian Film Clubs’ Association, 2008: 226.

3] The Croatian Audiovisual Centre(HAVC) is a public institution established by the Government of the Republic of Croatia pursuant to the Law on Audiovisual Activities (NN 67/07) for systematic promotion of audiovisual creative work in the Republic of Croatia. The center prepares and runs the National Program for Promotion of Audiovisual Creative Work, spurring the management, organization and funding of preparation, development, production, distribution and presenting Croatian, European, and World audiovisual works. The Centre secures funds for its work and the implementation of the National Program from the state budget and from a part of the total annual gross income realized through audiovisual activity: Croatian Radio Television, national-level television broadcasters, regional-level television broadcasters, operators of the cable distribution network, operators in mobile and non-mobile telecommunication networks, providers of Internet access services, and the persons who publicly show audiovisual works.”

4] This information is based on a list of all documentary films submitted to the Days of Croatian Film festival for 2010, while the number of titles subsidized by HAVC in the previous production year was four times less.

5]  In the 1990s Vrdoljak was, among other things, the foremost film director of Croatian Radio Television, a representative to the Croatian Parliament, and vice-president of the Republic of Croatia.

6] This formulation is in part a commentary on the fact that Drama Academy students were not allowed to go off to the front with equipment to document the war.

Updated: 15 Apr 11