From Yugoslav to Serbian Cinema

By Vida T. Johnson (Tufts University)

© Vida T. Johnson, 2009

When I was asked by the editors of KinoKultura to prepare a special issue on “Serbian” cinema, I was assigned a bittersweet task. This was yet another reminder that Yugoslavia, the country of my birth and my childhood, which I remember so fondly and loved so deeply, was no more. Although I was born in Belgrade of a Serbian mother and a Russian father, I never considered myself either Serb or Russian, but Yugoslav, as did so many of my generation. Even though scholars, political observers and nationalists of all stripes may try to tell us that Yugoslavia was an artificial construct, the country was an important player from the end of WW II through at least the 1970s not only in the geo-political sphere, but in the cultural one as well. Nowhere was the idea and reality of “Yugoslavia” more fruitful than in its cinema. 

While the first home-grown Serbian feature film may have been made as early as 1906 (as one of the contributors points out), a full-fledged cinema industry, with its recognizable propaganda and nation-building functions, was only created after the end of WW II in Tito’s Socialist Federated Republic of Yugoslavia. (The pre-WWI Kingdom of Serbia had became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918 and had been renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929.) As in the Soviet Union, government support of the cinema industry, for all of its ability to censor, sometimes ferociously, the final “product”—the film—had a beneficial effect as well. Yugoslavia produced, especially in the 60s and 70s, but also in the 80s and 90s films and filmmakers who could compete on the world stage: Aleksandar Petrović, Dušan Makavejev, Goran Paskaljević and Emir Kusturica—to name just a few. And films that won awards at festivals, and sometimes world-wide acclaim, often had cast and crew representing the best talent in the various republics.

The bringing together of creative talent from all the republics of Yugoslavia in creating a “Yugoslav” cinema industry and a “Yugoslav” cultural identity in some ways parallels the development of “Soviet” cinema, particularly since the 1960s when raw talent from many of the Soviet republics came to Moscow to be educated in the State Film Institute (VGIK) and to acquire a “Soviet” cultural identity. (I will never forget Rashid Nugmanov, the talented and controversial young director of the Kazakh New Wave of the late 80s, saying at a film conference in either the very late 80s or early 90s that he considered himself a “Soviet” filmmaker. And that had nothing to do with politics, since his 1988 film The Needle (Igla) deconstructed Soviet experience and mythology.) However, Tito’s break with the Soviet Union in the late 40s and Yugoslavia’s politically “unaligned” status thereafter allowed Yugoslav filmmakers, unlike their Soviet counterparts, not only to work together, but to travel and to be educated abroad (creating the influential “Prague School”), and to be a part of the larger European artistic community. For the countries behind the Iron Curtain, Yugoslavia—and Yugoslav cinema in particular—represented creative freedom and a “window to the west.”

So what happened to “Yugoslav” cinema? And where is “Serbian” cinema in all this? Within post WW II Yugoslavia Serbia was the largest constituent republic, with the largest film audience, and largest film production. As Ana Janković Piljić points out in her article here, a healthy majority, some 549 out of a total of 890 films made in socialist Yugoslavia, were Serbian productions or co-productions. Nevertheless, the official country of production, the entries to foreign festival, the “national” designation for the films, was “Yugoslavia.” I am not sure that many outside of Yugoslavia knew in the 1980s that Rajko Grlić was a Croatian and Srdjan Karanović a Serbian filmmaker. The government’s now discredited and much ridiculed policy of “brotherhood and unity” of the different peoples of Yugoslavia really did take root within its film world (as it did in the Soviet Union), and its loss was keenly felt by filmmakers who, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, found themselves in separate, at times, warring countries. As some of the texts in this issue point out, recent Serbian films have seen a purposeful “reclaiming” of the Yugoslav cinematic heritage, bringing together, for example, famous actors from different republics, as, among others, Goran Marković does in his 2008 film The Tour (reviewed here).

So when did Yugoslavia stop being Yugoslavia? This is not an easy question to answer. The de-facto breakup took place in 1991, as most of us know, when, in turn, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia declared independence, followed in 1992 by international recognition of Bosnia and Hercegovina, leaving Serbia and Montenegro (and the autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo) in the “rump” state of Yugoslavia, renamed in 1992 from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The U.S., for example, insisted in the 1990s on calling the two remaining republics Serbia and Montenegro and not Yugoslavia, when the country officially called itself Yugoslavia until 2003, becoming first the Union of Serbia and Montenegro, and then in 2006, the independent state of Serbia. (I personally came across the Alice-in-Wonderland bureaucratic madness in the naming of my country when the U.S. passport office refused to give me a new passport in 1995 with country of birth as “Yugoslavia,” and insisted on “Serbia and Montenegro,” which I, in turn, refused to accept. So for ten years I carried an American passport that had only the city of Belgrade listed as my birthplace, with no country at all, which for me represented a real as well as symbolic erasure of Yugoslavia.)

And when did Yugoslav cinema end and Serbian cinema begin? I am acutely aware that what should follow is, by rights and in all fairness, a description of what happened in all the republics of the former Yugoslavia, but my assigned task here is Serbia. Hopefully there will be future issues of Kinokultura on Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian and other, now Balkan, cinemas. One thing is for certain: the country’s breakup had a deleterious effect on its cinema industry and often, unfortunately, on the quality of films subsequently produced—a story repeated all over the former eastern bloc countries and in the post-Soviet states: movie theaters closed, audiences shrank as did film production. As the largest of the studios and industries within Yugoslavia, Serbia fared better and began its revival sooner. It is perhaps the only country in the region where Serbian films had, along the usual western, read Hollywood, imports, good box office. Approximately a quarter of some million and a half viewers in 2007 went to see domestic films. Now around 15 films are annually produced in Serbia, far outpacing the production of any of the other former republics of Yugoslavia.

And despite the fact that officially films produced in Serbia continued to list the country of production as Yugoslavia until 2003, one could really say that Yugoslav cinema, as the world knew it, ended with the country’s breakup in 1991 when the collaboration that made it “Yugoslav” was no longer possible. Or at least it was to be a different Yugoslav cinema centered basically only in Serbia. But as several of our contributors have pointed out, after the traumas of the 90s, a so-called called “New Serbian Cinema” emerged at the beginning of this century and millennium.  It is, in fact, primarily to this “New Serbian Cinema” that this issue is devoted. 

What is not being raised in this discussion, and in this issue, is the whole question of the relevance of  the designation of a “national” cinema in a world where, increasingly, small countries can only co-produce films, often with a number of other countries, where funding comes from the European Union to whose membership so many of the former eastern bloc and former Yugoslav republics, now countries, seem to aspire, where the directors themselves live in many places and have many identities (Kusturica for example), and where casts and crews are multi-national, and even the films themselves multi-lingual. But this is not the case in Serbia. Right now, judging from the kinds of films made in Serbia today, and judging by what Serbian critics write about them, it seems very important to carve out a new national identity for Serbian cinema, to attempt to match the glory days of former Yugoslav cinema, and to “reclaim” the Serbian filmmakers’ rightful place within that cinema.

It is important to note at this point what this issue on Serbian cinema is NOT about. It is not about Yugoslav cinema before 1991 (even if produced in Serbia), and not about its major, highly acclaimed filmmakers, whether Serbian by nationality or not. The history of that cinema is well-known and there is a substantial extant literature on it in English beginning with Daniel J. Goulding’s expanded classic study, Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experiment, 1945-1991.  Much has been written aboutthe life and films of Emir Kusturica, arguably the most acclaimed recent filmmaker, certainly in terms of world-wide reputation and awards, and sheer notoriety, whose career spans the Yugoslav, Bosnian, and Serbian cinemas. Two books, again in English, deserve mention here: Dina Iordanova’s Emir Kusturica (2002) and Goran Gocić’s The Cinema of Emir Kusturica: Notes from the Underground (2001). The period of Yugoslavia’s breakup and the cinema of the 90s is covered by Dina Iordanova (again) in her 2001 study: Cinema of Flames: Balkan Film, Culture and the Media and most recently by Pavle Levi’s Disintegration in Frames:  Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema (2007). It is noteworthy that the cinemas in the region of the former Yugoslavia are now geographically reconfigured as part of “Balkan” cinema and not only designated as “post-Yugoslav.”

In preparing this issue I asked the well-known and highly respected film specialist Miroljub Vučković of Film Center Serbia, also the Program Director of FEST (the long-standing international film festival in Belgrade), to help find contributors in Belgrade. Ever energetic, Mr. Vučković in turn suggested that this was a rare opportunity to co-edit a dual language, English-Serbian, Film Center Serbia publication of younger Serbian scholars, critics and filmmakers reflecting upon recent Serbian cinema. He invited and selected the writers, while I worked on editing and revising the translations of some linguistically and theoretically very challenging Serbian texts. Introducing Youth: Self-Reflections on Serbian Cinema (Uvodjenje mladosti: Sami sebe naslikati) appeared at the very end of 2008, and the articles found here are versions of a number of those texts, further revised, at times shortened, with parts retranslated and re-edited by me. I am very grateful to Mr. Vučković for providing the Serbian voices from Belgrade, an eclectic group who discuss genre, the grotesque, social horror, popular cinema, postmodern auteurist cinema, the influence of American film, woman as “other” and Serbia as “other,” and the movement from the hard-hitting, often outrageous, dark comedies, the inheritors of the Black Wave to the recent so-called “rosy” wave of  lighter films for audiences hungry for escape from the trauma of war and bombing and the resulting political, economic and social instability of modern-day Serbia. I may not always agree with their interpretations, and I suspect that the “death of the patriarchal” in the “New Serbian Cinema” may be overstated, but I find the application of contemporary film theory an interesting phenomenon as young critics try to move away from both “socialist” and “realist” criticism.

The second part of this issue, containing the reviews of individual films, was commissioned by me from scholars and critics both “over here” and “over there”—in some cases I recommended a film, in others the reviewers made their own suggestions. The reviews are meant to complement the films that are discussed in the articles and to highlight the most recent production of 2008 and 2009, which was not covered in the articles. The aim was to present a wide spectrum of new Serbian films, rather than choose what might arguably be the best or best-known ones. I hope that, together, these articles and reviews offer, not only an overview of the state of contemporary Serbian cinema and society, but also new insights into individual films and filmmakers, many of whom are in fact, worthy continuators of the best traditions of Yugoslav cinema.


Updated: 09 Oct 09