© Jurica Pavičić, 2011
In the last week of July 1991, the Croatian coastal city of Pula seemed to be an absolutely peaceful place. The city at the tip of the Istrian Peninsula was ready—as it always was at that time of year—for the annual Yugoslav film festival to begin. As every year in July, the city was plastered with film posters, the press center was already open, the catalogues printed, and the whole city was ready to welcome the most famous of the festival guests: Hollywood actor of Croatian origin, John Malkovich. Pula looked perfectly normal and calm.
But, circumstances that summer in Yugoslavia were far from normal and calm. In June, Slovenia, the northernmost Yugoslav federal unit, had proclaimed its independence, and the federal army had responded with a brief, six-day military campaign. Conflict in Croatia between the pro-independence government and parts of the Serbian minority had slowly progressed from local skirmishes to a full-scale war. On the very day the festival opened, six men died in an exchange of gunfire near the eastern Croatian town, Erdut, several cities were shelled by the federal army, Yugoslav People’s Army troops cut off the electricity supply for the southern Croatian cities, and nationalist extremists blew up shops of local merchants of the Serbian nationality in Osijek and Vinkovci. Under these circumstances, the very idea of a Yugoslav film festival seemed obviously bizarre. The festival board of directors was run at the time by two future political opponents: liberal film historian Ivo Škrabalo, and nationalist film director Antun Vrdoljak, already politically active in Franjo Tuđman’s Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica—HDZ). On the very first day of the festival, after the morning press screening, the board of the festival shut Pula 1991 down for good.
That day in July was not just the end of the Yugoslav film festival in Pula—the key event of film life in communist Yugoslavia—but in a certain way it was also a symbolic end of Yugoslavia itself. If federal communist Yugoslavia was largely the conceptual invention of bon vivant dictator Josip Broz Tito, cinema had always been Tito’s favorite toy and a privileged demonstration of his cultural prowess. Within Yugoslav communism, cinema and (especially) the partisan war epics played a role similar to the role of cathedrals in medieval Christianity. Cinema was considered the absolute essence of the Titoist spirit, and the Pula festival—geographically situated near Tito’s summer residence at Brioni islands—was the key social event in a Yugoslav, glittery and glamorous version of communist totalitarianism. That July 1991, the Yugoslav cinema finally died. After 45 years of successful history and 890 feature films, after five foreign film Oscar nominations, the first non-American Oscar for an animation short, after several awards in Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Oberhausen and Annecy, one of the most prestigious national cinemas in Eastern Europe dissolved overnight.
The post-Yugoslav secessions continued for the next decade, and in place of the former federal state we now have six or seven independent countries (the number depends on whether we count de facto independent Kosovo). Each of these countries meanwhile started its own national cinema. Some of the film historians—such as Slovak-American Natasa Durovicova or Bulgarian-British Dina Iordanova—are rather suspicious of the “proliferation of the new film historiographic entities to match the various, continuously redrawn state boundaries,” (Iordanova 2005: 235). Duroviceva mocks the publication of the book One Hundred Years of Slovakian Film History, claiming that none of that continuity existed “apart from Czechoslovakia” (Iordanova 2005: 235). In the specific Yugoslav case, the dilemma is hardly a dilemma. Due to the specific, Yugoslav form of federalism, each of the eight federal units had its own film studio and government film fund. Each of the local studios had an obligation to shoot films in the local language (including in Albanian in Kosovo), and build a local pool of skilled professionals. The Pula festival—as the central annual film event—always had included an element of competition between the federal states, and the distribution of prizes was always politically tricky and nationally sensitive. At the same time, the national studios were trying to hire the best directors and the most popular stars, wherever they came from, hoping for commercial success.
That kind of Yugoslav cinema—based on a meticulously polished balance between local/national and all-Yugoslav—died in July ‘91. Instead, new national cinemas emerged, each of them in their own specific cultural, ideological and economic circumstances. One of these was Croatian.
Nineties: Being the Victim, Playing the Victim
During the 90s, Croatian cinema started its new life in quite an unfavorable environment. From ‘91 to ‘95, Croatia was at war, and its central and eastern regions were occupied by Serbian/Yugoslav military forces. The young state was firmly controlled by Tuđman’s HDZ party and dominated by exaggerated nationalism, the overblown influence of the Catholic church and the personal cult of President Tuđman himself. During the 90s, Croatia was a good example of the process typical for Eastern Europe, almost to the degree of caricature, described by Ravetto Biagoli as an “enormous amount of historical revisionism” where the “return to a nation state is more a product of imagination and dreams than a historical fact” (Ravetto Biagoli 2005: 182). The massive revisionism and renewed clerical conservatism in the Croatian case had been mixed with a justified feeling of helplessness and anger, typical for every community faced with outside aggression. Croats felt they were victims not only of Yugo-Serbian army attack, but also of western passivity and ignorance.
Such a mixture of feelings had its own cinematic expression in a specific type of cinema. During the nineties, this was ironically dubbed by its opponents “državotvorni film” (state-building cinema), but a more descriptive name for it could be the “cinema of self-victimization.” The first and most typical example of this model was A Time For. . . (Vrijeme za . . ., 1993), a war epic directed by Oja Kodar, painter and wife of many years of director Orson Welles.
In that film—as in most films of self-victimization—the Croatian war was described as a simplified binary showcase in which naïve, well-intentioned Croats were stabbed in the back by their Serbian neighbors. Characters are black and white to the point of caricature, and divided almost exclusively along ethnic lines. In films of self-victimization, even if a Croat displays moral weaknesses, he redeems these failing through a noble deed; if any Serb seems friendly and honest at the beginning, he will most probably turn out to be treacherous and wicked. Films of self-victimization often imitate classic war epics, because they include scenes of mass destruction, movements of the masses, battles, and pompous scenes with music and slow motion. Therefore, some critics and historians—including Ivo Škrabalo (1998: 441)—have compared these films with Tito’s partisan war epics, disregarding the vast difference between them. Tito’s communist partisan epics were the product of an ideology which considered itself historically victorious, successful and self-assured, so—analogously—the main characters of these films are active heroes who confront obstacles and fight back a mighty enemy. This is why the partisan genre could merge so smoothly with Hollywood, and many popular partisan films indeed recycled dramatic devices of Hollywood classics, particularly westerns (such as My Darling Clementine in Žika Mitrović’s Captain Leshi/ Kapetan Leši, or Rio Bravo in Nikola Tanhofer’s Double Circle (Dvostruki obruč; see, Pavičić 2008). Unlike partisan films, films of self-victimization refrain from dramatic use of an active hero, and any kind of violent response, revenge, or counterattack is either totally omitted or deferred with an open ending, which often includes a final freeze frame (as in Neven Hitrec’s film Madonna / Bogorodica, 1999).
Such a weird dramaturgical choice is no accident. As political philosopher Boris Buden writes, during the early 90s the previously dominant political message from Croatia to the West (“we are Europeans…we are like you”) shifted to a simple message: “we are victims”: “The identity of Croatia formed through a process of recognition was the identity of pure victimhood… Croatia was recognized after becoming a victim,” (Buden 1999: 81). In the Croatia of the 90s, being a victim had become too valuable a source of political capital to be compromised by the simple pleasure of action cinema. By introducing lame, passive and helpless anti-heroes, the films of self-victimization implicitly sent a political message to undifferentiated, abstract “Westerners”: we aren’t doing anything at all, we are just victims. These films, therefore, not only represent the predominant chauvinism of the period, they are also symptomatic of colonial, submissive passivity typical for the Croatian political tradition. This is probably the reason why these films were loathed by both sides in the ideological confrontation. The film community, critics, and intellectuals criticized them as trivial, nationalistic and shallow. War veterans, on the other hand, despised these same films because they felt that, instead of depicting them as heroes, the films showed them as mere sheep for the slaughter. In an ironic twist, the war veterans of the city of Dubrovnik organized a boycott in 1999 of the film Dubrovnik Twilight (Dubrovački suton)— produced by Tuđman’s son Stjepan (!)—because they felt it represented them as helpless cowards!
The pretension, ceremonialism and pomposity of Tuđman’s official culture was an easy target for derision: it is therefore no wonder that the most popular cultural product of the Croatian 90s was the political satire of the newspaper Feral Tribune, which ridiculed Tuđman and caricatured aspects of his ideology on a weekly basis. Hence it is hardly surprising that the most representative films of the Croatian 90s were comedies. The best and most popular examples are two late 90s comedies by director Vinko Brešan, How the War Started on My Island (Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku 1997), and Marshal (Maršal, or: Marshal Tito’s Spirit 1999). Both of them were huge successes, and the first—How the War Started on My Island—is still unsurpassed as a hit in the history of Croatia, seen by 346,000 moviegoers, one twelfth of the entire population. Both films enjoyed a solid international reception, winning prizes in the Forum sidebar program of the Berlinale. But, these lightweight comedies make sense primarily within Croatia’s social context, since Brešan’s comediographic model clearly and intentionally subverts nationalist political jargon and highbrow pretension.
How the War Started on My Island tells the story of the first days of the 1991 war on a small Dalmatian island. Local civilians demonstrate and march back and forth in front of the gate to a small military barracks to convince soldiers to surrender and leave the island. The commander at the barracks, Aleksa (Ljubomir Kerekeš), is a stubborn fanatic who has rigged the ammunition warehouse with a fuse and threatens to blow up the whole town. Self-appointed leaders of the local “crisis task force” send for Aleksa’s wife and mistress—both of whom are locals—believing they might be able to change his mind. The main “ingredients” in Brešan’s comedy appear to come straight out of nationalist propaganda: we have charming, genuine local Croats, their peaceful “resistance through culture” vs. a fanatic Serbian officer. But Brešan takes these ingredients and undermines them one by one. The local political leaders are funny, childishly shrewd, and totally incompetent. Both of them try to conceal their communist biographies and repeat new political slogans like parrots. Aleksa is presented as a menace, yet at the same time as sympathetic, since he is probably the only one in this charade who truly believes in anything. On a stage out in front of the barracks locals organize a program replete with crass music and pompous political speeches which regularly crosses over into mockery due to technical problems or comic incidents (such as a fight between Aleksa’s two women). Brešan stages the political discourse of the era only to undermine it as a mere charade and mockery. Instead of official propaganda depicting Serbs and Croats as longtime, essential enemies, Brešan’s films shows their lives as intertwined through friendship, marriage, sports, sex and food (in the most quoted line, Aleksa’s wife offers to make the dish of pasta sciutta for him if he will come out).
Released immediately after the war, How the War Started on My Island served as mass collective therapy for Croats, still traumatized by the war. At the same time, by showing imperfect, yet human and sympathetic Aleksa, Brešan humanized the figure of the enemy: by laughing at Aleksa, the Croatian audience stopped hating him. Brešan achieved a similar effect of forging a new political consensus in his next comedy, Marshal (1999). Again set on a Dalmatian island, the film tells a story about a small town where the locals regularly see the ghost of Josip Broz Tito. Initially reluctant, the locals—run by an unscrupulous mayor and hotel owner—see this as an opportunity for “nostalgia tourism” and spread gossip about paranormal events. Marshal was an obvious comment on the “ostalgie” trend all over Eastern Europe, which seems on the surface to be a political counterattack against capitalism, but at its core is just the opening of a new consumer niche within the market economy. By showing the satirical “invasion” of the old partisans on the islands, Brešan was preparing the audience emotionally for the coming political events. Tuđman died only a couple of weeks after the film’s release, ex-communists (the Social Democratic Party - SDP) won the election and for the first time overthrew the right-wing party, HDZ. Brešan’s Marshal was again a therapeutic exercise, a drama that prepared society for an “unnatural,” “incestuous” situation: the electoral victory of former communists in the new Croatian state.
The New Century: New Heroes for a New Society
That election victory—on January 3, 2000—changed Croatia completely, and for the better. Although HDZ returned to power at 2004, and although nationalist feelings and the Catholic church still have a vast impact on Croatian society, Croatia has never slipped back into the grotesque socio-political model of the 90s. During the next decade, Croatian society started its own, delayed version of the transition, fighting with the “regular” obstacles typical for Central and Eastern Europe, from corruption to painful reforms, unemployment, ridiculous consumerism, the trivialization of the media. In the new social context, Croatian cinema for the first time in its history had no normative ideology or prescribed political pattern to follow, at least not one imposed domestically. On the other hand, there was also no audience to please. Interest for local films in Croatia has never been high. During the 90s, what interest was there diminished radically due to the devastating effect of the bad propaganda films. Croatian cinema entered the new century with no Central Committee listening, no godfather in a white uniform to please, but also with no audience to address. As has been the case in other East European countries (i.e. Romania), international festivals, and foreign specialty art houses became the main (if not only) target market for future films.
The new decade changed the landscape not only of Croatian cinema, but of post-Yugoslav cinema in general. During the 90s, the type of post-Yugoslav cinema that dominated festival and art circuits was films like those of Emir Kusturica, Srđan Dragojević (Pretty Village Pretty Flame / Lepa sela lepo gore), or Milčo Mančevski (Before the Rain / Pred doždot). Films of this poetic group usually represent the Balkans and ethnic conflict as a never-ending circle, an eternal chain of violence rooted deeply in local culture, beyond repair, and incomprehensible for outsiders. Besides, these films were representing the Balkans as an exotic, violent and picturesque Ruritania, an object of western fear and loathing, but were also attractive to the western gaze for “untamed” negative passions and alleged “authenticity.” Such a stylistic model therefore became very popular in the West, but at the same time it was criticized locally as politically regressive and colonial. Films of this group—especially those of Emir Kusturica—provoked a long theoretical and critical debate, since their opponents claimed that they culturalize (and, therefore, de-politicize) war, and send an isolationist message (more in Žižek 1996, Krasztev 2000, Jameson 2004).
With the new decade, the cards have been reshuffled. After the fall of the old war leaders, all the post-Yugoslav societies started the process of democratic consolidation, they all poised to “join Europe” and no one wanted to be “authentic” and/or “incomprehensible” any more. In such a political landscape, the old “Kusturica school” became unfashionable and locally unwelcome, opening a path to an entirely new type of post-Yugoslav cinema. This type, which emerged after 2000, is clearly represented by Bosnian Golden Bear winner Grbavica (2006) by Jasmila Žbanić. The Balkan screen was suddenly full of sober, minimalistic dramas set in unexotic urban settings, dealing with active, western-like heroes who actively seek to change their destiny and fight against the heritage of war. This new model of cinema—which might be called the “cinema of normalization,” or “cinema of consolidation” (see Pavičić, 2010) —was strongest in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, where it dominated in the first years of the new decade. In Croatian cinema, this new poetic model does not have a single obvious representative standing out as globally visible, in contrast to the situation in Bosnia. But most of the most successful Croatian films from the early 2000s could be interpreted through this stylistic change.
One of them is Here (Tu, 2003, Zrinko Ogresta), a mosaic drama which won the Karlovy Vary prize in 2004. This sad, elegantly subtle film follows five stories about five former war comrades who are coping with mundane lives in the banality of postwar Zagreb. Their present lives are totally unremarkable, but there is something invisible yet crucial about them: the war experience afflicted them, and inflicted deep, sad wounds. In Fine Dead Girls (Fine mrtve djevojke 2002, Dalibor Matanić) postwar urbanity is again depicted as the gloomy space of everyday struggle: in this film, two young lesbians struggle to cope with their hostile, intolerant neighborhood. In Melon Route (Put lubenica 2006, Branko Schmidt) an impoverished war veteran and drug addict saves a young Chinese woman, an illegal immigrant, and—in a bloody finale resembling Cronenberg’s History of Violence—wipes out the local smugglers and their rich boss. In Sorry for Kung Fu (Oprosti za kung fu (2004) by Ognjen Sviličić, a young village girl and returnee from Germany forces her patriarchal parents to accept her pregnancy without marriage, and her newborn Asian baby.
Probably the most typical example of this poetic model is Armin (2007), a film made by Ognjen Sviličić again, which premiered at the Berlinale 2007. The heroes of Armin are a father and son (Emir Hadžihafizbegović, Armin Omerović) who travel from Bosnia to Zagreb where young Armin is supposed to audition for a German movie coproduction. The father believes that Armin will be cast for the film because he plays the accordion so well. Once they get to Zagreb, they realize that the fine, decent German filmmakers have no interest in Armin’s accordion, but are all too interested in his epilepsy, a disease they believe (since they automatically apply a media pattern) to have been caused by war trauma. They talk to Armin and his father about making a documentary about them, but the Bosnians decline. They don’t want to be accepted through victimhood, if they can’t be accepted through their culture. By staging within the film the dilemma of the colonial gaze, Sviličić in Armin is implicitly criticizing the previous model of Balkan cinema, always ready to please the West by representing “Balkan freaks.” Or—as Sviličić said in an interview—the characters in Armin “refuse to be accepted only through war, and therefore refuse colonisation” (Šošić, 67).
Armin clearly represents the core of the new trend in Croatian (and regional) cinema. Instead of self-exoticizing, “films of normalization” offer sober realism, a minimalism, a return to classic narrative style, and heroes who actively search for their place within the new society, which is wide open for opportunity but offers no security. Such films implicitly comment on the new economic reality of the young capitalist society, in which their heroes depend on themselves and their problem-solving attitude.
Reflecting the Past
The reality of the young capitalist society, however, is not the only topic crucial for Croatian film in a new decade. A second, equally important topic was (and still is) the bleak heritage of recent history. While most of the cinema in the 90s gave comfort to society by offering to Croatian moviegoers an easily digestible representation of Croatia as a plain and simple victim (and the aggressor as a cartoonish, cardboard villain), the films of the new decade see history as something far more complex.
This process started in the 90s, primarily in literature. During late 90s, previously dominant postmodernist fiction was replaced by a new wave of “stvarnosna proza” (reality fiction) which treats social reality—including war, war crimes, drugs, domestic violence—with striking, rough naturalism. The new generation of writers—among them many journalists—offer an entirely different, unflattering representation of (post)war reality. The new literature has been criticized from two opposite directions: the postmodernists have attacked it as conservative, resorting to realist, non-experimental writing. Conservatives have been irritated by the “tabloid” topics of the new fiction and have criticized it for being negativistic, sensationalist and self-promoting. Nevertheless, the literature of reality fiction has gained in popularity which was initially far greater than the popularity of the filmmakers and films of those years. As a consequence, the filmmakers addressed this literature as its source. Dalibor Matanić made a screen adaptation of a grotesque, humorous, dark short story collection about the rural Croatian heartland Lika Cinema (Kino Lika) by Damir Karakaš. Kristijan Milić made a film based on a Bosnian war novel The Living and the Dead (Živi i mrtvi by Josip Mlakić. Rajko Grlić’s film Borderpost (Karaula)—the first to be co-produced by all the post-Yugoslav countries—was based on a humorist bestseller by writer Ante Tomić. Another novel of Tomić’s—What Is a Man Without a Moustache—was filmed by director Hrvoje Hribar, and that film became the biggest local hit of the decade (over 150,000 tickets sold). Goran Rušinović shot a screen version of the novel Buick Riviera by Miljenko Jergović. This film, shot in Fargo, North Dakota, tells the story of two men from Bosnia—a Muslim and a Serb—who meet in a small town in the American Midwest many years after the war, reviving the passive-aggressive relations between the two ethnic groups once again, far from home. This film won first prize at Sarajevo Film Festival in 2008.
The dark subterranean reality of the previously idealized Homeland War became what was probably the central topic of Croatian national life after 2000. During this decade, faced with many war crimes trials, many real or alleged heroes of Croatian society turned out to be murderers or responsible for mass destruction, and the society as a whole had to face a painful dilemma: either to dig deep into this shameful undercurrent, or live in comfortable denial. Dealing with the recent past had become a central topic of Croatian journalism, literature and film. And—after a long, bitter decade of debates and polemics—Croatian cinema produced a film which offers an original cinematic visualization of this moral struggle. The title of this film is Blacks (Crnci 2009), it was directed in the peripheral Eastern Slavonian city of Osijek by two newcomers, Goran Dević and Zvonimir Jurić.
Blacks begins at dawn of an autumn day in the first year of war. The first part of the film follows a group of Croatian soldiers in black uniforms who are secretly traversing swamps on the Slavonian plains. Shot mainly in green and black, the film has a bucolic beauty, and shows taciturn, grim fathers, sons and brothers on a risky war mission. The visual approach of the film immediately stirs memories for the Croatian moviegoers, reminding viewers of wartime jingles on Croatian television, shots of a young but serious soldier hiding in bushes with Mark Knopfler’s Brothers in Arms as the music cover. In terms of atmosphere, the first act of Blacks reminds us of southern Gothic thrillers such as Deliverance or Southern Comfort. This first act—elliptical, enigmatic, shot in long shots—ends abruptly when the Blacks (the name of the squad) end up stranded in a minefield.
At that moment, Blacks unexpectedly changes setting and time. The rest of the film happens 24 hours earlier, when all the soldiers who later die are still alive, and instead of pastoral, beautiful exteriors, the film is isolated in the interior of an abandoned office building. The hero of the film, Novi (Krešimir Mikić), is a newcomer who has joined the Blacks. While waiting for equipment and weapons, he listens, watches, and learns the secrets of the isolated brotherhood. The Blacks defy the commands of their superiors, pillage abandoned shops, and arrest and torture townspeople in an underground basement. In the scene at the emotional climax of the film, Novi opens the basement doors, and one of the Blacks (himself a junkie, acted by Franjo Dijak) switches on the light: the brief panoramic shot shows piles of bloody clothes and bloodstains on the wall, visual signs of the executions which had taken place there. That brief shot is the visual climax of new Croatian cinema, it is a crystal reflection of a bitter past.
By changing the chronological sequence in the story, Jurić and Dević turn the cinematic machine against the viewer. The dramaturgy of the film represents the Homeland War first through its official version (bright, pastoral, heroic), and then, afterwards, through its underground version, claustrophobic, dark, Gothic and suffocating. In that way, the audience of Blacks passes through the same process of rude awakening that all of Croatian society passed between 2000 and 2010. The cinematic device in Dević’s and Jurić’s film re-enacts mutations of the national conscience.
Introducing a retrospective of classic Yugoslav cinema in Zagreb in 2010, Italian film critic and expert on (post)Yugoslav cinema Sergio Germani wrote that “Blacks by Dević and Jurić is the most important film produced in the new cinemas on the territories that used to be Yugoslav… That’s the film that from today’s point of view understands the greatness of the (black wave) films, whose bleakness was previously despised by the bureaucrats, and later by the fanatic nationalists. After two decades over determined by the recent war… The film Blacks with its utter blackness gives the final verdict” (Germani 2010: 33). We can only add: Blacks presents a final verdict not only for the whole grim historical era, but also for a marvelous decade, a decade in which Croatian cinema was resurrected from political mire and moral sleaze to reach the maturity of a modern European national cinema.
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