Jovan Todorović: The Belgrade Phantom (Beogradski Fantom, 2009)
reviewed by Vlastimir Sudar © 2009
The Belgrade Phantom is a conventional concoction of documentary and fiction, attempting to unravel a factual event through talking head interviews and a fictionalized reconstruction of the affair being discussed. The interviewees are mainly real witnesses and participants in the actual events, a car theft and a series of spectacular joyrides, and they offer their testimonies to the camera. These accounts are then restaged by the filmmakers, with actors interpreting the bona fide participants in the fictionalized part of the film. These two types of footage, “the real” and “the reconstructed,” alternate throughout the film. The Phantom of the title is a young man who in September of 1979 stole a white Porsche, and embarked on a series of joyrides through Belgrade, quite literally driving hapless traffic policemen around the bend. It took Belgrade police around a week to get the perpetrator to crash the car, and they then arrested him only by pressing inadvertent informers to betray who and where he was. It turned out that the “Phantom” was already well known to the police as a regular joyrider, a young man obsessed with fast cars. He later died in a car crash, shortly after spending a two year sentence for this particular episode.
The filmmakers, however, construct a much larger backdrop to this daring, but still juvenile incident. To understand the wider significance of these joyrides, and probably uncover the main reason behind the making of this film, the authors reconstructed the Belgrade of the late seventies, in order to remind us of its political and historical context. 1979 was the final year of President Tito’s rule, and the events in the film take place alongside his last international appearance at the summit of the non-aligned countries in Havana, Cuba. In Tito’s absence, Belgrade is portrayed as a stereotypical capital city of the then socialist world: sleepy, slow paced, and redolent of what Jean Baudrillard later called East European “enforced idleness.” However, numerous interviewees insist on labeling the period as repressive and lacking in “freedom,” thus they, somewhat forcefully, attach political connotations to these extravagant joyrides depicted in the film.
In an atmosphere of regulated production and consumption that was so characteristic of the socialist states, where western goods were scarce in the shops or on the streets, driving a white Porsche acquired political significance. It is emphasized in the film that this white Porsche 911S Targa was the only one of its kind in town, and it was owned by a visiting foreign national of Serbian/Yugoslav origin. The protagonist steals the car, hides it in a secret location, and, every evening at the same time drives into town breaking the speed limit and even driving into oncoming traffic. His driving bravado culminates at the Slavija roundabout in the central part of the city, where each night a growing group of bored citizens gather to applaud the Phantom and laugh at the incompetence of their own police force. The fact that they do so throws into question the infamous oppressiveness of the forces of law and order in socialism, but the filmmakers seem to have made this point unwittingly. In a didactic fashion, the interviewees are trying to convince us of the heroic and liberating status of the white Porsche’s design and engine over the “pathetic” Yugoslav police cars—Zastava 101. These preceded the Yugo car, produced by the same factory in Serbia during socialism. In the spirit of some Yugoslav political cinema of the eighties, this film also celebrates western superiority of manufacturing and design over socialist utilitarian and, arguably, plain pragmatism. Hence the film equates political freedom with consumer society.
Such a statement could have indeed been understood as oppositional political thinking during the 1980s, the final decade of socialism, as in the films of Serbian directors such as Goran Marković and Slobodan Šijan, both of whom were deft in permeating their narratives with this point. However, reiterating these statements twenty years on can sound hollow. Implying that driving an expensive car can be equated with freedom against political repression creates two problems. Firstly, the filmmakers, perhaps again unintentionally, only manage to portray the former socialist, East European countries as places of—to go back to Baudrillard again—“deferred consumerism;” and I include Tito’s non-aligned Yugoslavia in this bunch deliberately! The fact that the filmmakers produced this fetishizing advertisement for Porsche of their own will and moreover with public funding, particularly in the year of a grave economic crisis blamed on excessive and unnecessary consumerism, makes one want to conclude that they made a gross mistake by not thinking through how and why this story is relevant today.
Secondly, the filmmakers thus elevate a joyride into a political act. This could be compared, hypothetically, to perhaps elevating the act of chewing gum into a political act too. Chewing gum was indeed described as an act of western decadence in some socialist countries, and perhaps may still be in North Korea or Iran, but it was also once perceived as subversive in some western countries, specifically in public places where teenagers indulged in such an action excessively. Chewing gum has since become standard behavior associated with the emergent consumer group of teenagers, and there is not much subversive or political left about it anymore. However, as joyriding and car theft still remains illegal everywhere, it is not convincing that this specific instance highlighted in the film held any further significance simply because it took place in socialist Belgrade whilst President Tito was away. And if this is a valid point, if these joyrides were truly specific to this time and political situation, then the filmmakers did not find an appropriate way to communicate this clearly.
Resorting to a semi-documentary approach is especially problematic as a number of interviewees, particularly the sociologists, psychologists, or similar schooled experts in the period are likened to “voices of God,” trying to persuade the viewers that these joyrides were revolutionary. Their opinions, however, cannot be questioned by the audience because they are never called into question by the filmmakers. Even the real life police officers chosen presumably to represent “the other” perspective, endorse the Phantom as a liberator and an “urban hero.” Together with the other participants, witnesses, the Phantom’s friends and acquaintances, they retell the whole affair as it was unfolding night after night. Their accounts are then illustrated with fictionalized reconstructions of the events. The revelation of the Phantom’s true identity is delayed to the final quarter of the film, but when an interviewee exposes his real name—Vlada Vasiljević—the point is as anticlimactic as if his name were John Smith in English. That the filmmakers did not know how to capitalize on building suspense around the Phantom’s real identity can perhaps be explained by the fact that both scriptwriters, Jovan Todorović (also the director) and Bogdan Petković (also the producer), are inexperienced debutantes. Nevertheless, these very young filmmakers, still in their twenties, have invested an enviable amount of energy into the project.
This troubled production started in 2006, and it is exemplary of the current lack of fundings and resources that hamstring the Serbian film industry. This is reflected in the scenes of the Phantom’s chases with the police through Belgrade, which come across as very low-budget, rather than Hollywood, to which the authors appear to have aspired. The Internet Movie Database ruthlessly lists numerous mistakes related to the reconstruction of the period, and with the expressive young actor Milutin Milošević in the main role, who does not utter a word throughout the film, this becomes an enervating experience to watch. But the most frustrating problem is the lack of coherent, or even ambiguous, view of the past. While the interviewees in the film rush to condemn the period, the director claimed in an interview elsewhere that those days were “romantic”. Whether one wants to trust the story or its teller is beside the point here, as both come across as equally confused.
This confusion though points towards another aspect of this film. As film theory has already shown, the films that reconstruct the past reveal more about the conditions of the ever evolving present in which they were made, rather than about the history they are describing. This film also speaks volumes about contemporary Belgrade, Serbia, and some of its filmmakers and intelligentsia, rather than about the now long gone seventies with their lulled down social and economic security, and underdeveloped consumerism. This film was directed by a young director, Jovan Todorović, who was trained at the well known Belgrade’s film school (FDU) and taught there by the same eighties filmmakers mentioned above, such as Slobodan Šijan. Šijan also briefly portrayed the Belgrade Phantom incident in his Strangler versus Strangler (Davitelj protiv davitelja) in 1984. This suggests that on one level, and in regards to some filmmakers, little has changed in Serbia in terms of filmmaking styles, or creative thinking, ever since then.
In the seminal anthology on the state of East European filmmaking Before the Wall Came Down: Soviet and East European Filmmakers Working in the West (edited by Graham Petrie and Ruth Dwyer), Gerald Peary wrote in 1989 about this school’s peculiar loyalty to Hollywood and its values, regardless of the fact that many of its teachers had at that time never been in the US at all. While Šijan actually spent some time in the States, Peary singles out Nebojša Pajkić as an example of someone who had not, but who was aggressively pro-American, while both of them were, curiously, politically pro-Ronald Reagan! The results of the training provided by such academics are still in evidence in Serbia, as there are groups of young filmmakers that are blindly loyal to genre, particularly Hollywood style, films. As an example, The Belgrade Phantom is promoted in press releases as an action film. A whole spate of recent films have attempted to mimic the recent Hollywood productions and genres with varying results; see particularly the films made by Dejan Zečević: T.T. Syndrome (T.T. Sindrom, 2002) and The Fourth Man (Četvrti čovek, 2007); and Srdan Golubović: Absolute Hundred (Apsolutnih sto, 2001) and The Trap (Klopka, 2007), and others. And some of their authors still maintain that such filmmaking has political meaning. Just as The Belgrade Phantom, they are obsessed with “urban heroes,” who are, for some inexplicable reason, perceived in Belgrade (and often throughout the Balkans) as morally righteous and immune to the degrading state of the nation that followed the years of strife, wars, and economic transition to capitalism. Although it would be difficult to prove empirically that all that is “urban” must be good, this belief is oddly still very common amongst some of the intellectual elites not just in Serbia, but across ex-Yugoslavia.
So just like in the eighties, a number of filmmakers from the FDU continue to repeat the mantra of “salvation” in “urban,” and “western,” values (in whichever way they perceive or understand these values), in the same manner that once their communist opponents preached their manifesto. Intellectually hidden within this bubble, they can only produce films as bland as The Belgrade Phantom, which cannot provide a nuanced and complex portrait of a truly significant year, and period, in Socialist Yugoslavia’s history. This film did not manage either to criticize or romanticize the era. It did not show how to engage, or what to do with the past, but that maybe, it only wanted to run away from it… in a white Porsche. As long as this is their aspiration, such local filmmakers are not only farther from themselves, but also from the world to which they want to belong to.
Vlastimir Sudar, Goldsmiths College, University of London
The Belgrade Phantom (Serbia, Bulgaria, Hungary; 2009)
Color, 82 mins
Director: Jovan B. Todorović
Script: Jovan B. Todorović, Bogdan Petković, Kosta Peševski
Producer: Jovan B. Todorović, Bogdan Petković, Dimitar Gochev, István Juhász
Production Company: Emote Productions, Beograd
Cinematography: András Nagy
Editor: Milena Petrović
Art Direction: Maja Matić, Ivana Stefanović
Costume: Biljana Grgur, Olga Marković
Music: Nemanja Mosurović
Main Cast: Milutin Milošević, Marko Živić, Nada Macanković, Cvijeta Mesić, Radoslav Milenković, Andrej Šepetkovski
Jovan Todorović: The Belgrade Phantom (Beogradski Fantom, 2009)
reviewed by Vlastimir Sudar © 2009