Genre Films in Recent Serbian Cinema

By Dejan Ognjanović (Belgrade)

© Dejan Ognjanović, 2009

1. Background
To speak about genre in Serbian cinema is dubious for several reasons. Above all, it has not been either recognized or (re)valorized in Serbian cinema. Way back, in the days of socialist Yugoslavia, Serbian filmmakers dominated in the open application of genre models in their works in comparison to colleagues from other republics. However, the dominant Marxist aesthetics and ethics in the best case underestimated such films or regarded them with contempt, or, in the worst case, with open animosity. In Tito’s Yugoslavia genre was considered a western concoction which did not have anything to do with our society of self-management, the original economic concept of Yugoslavia. One of the most influential domestic theorists claimed that genre is inherently alien to our experience of the world and the values of our society. In the local setting, it can only exist as an intruder, as a foreign body violently incorporated in somebody else’s milieu, as argued, for example, by Severin Franić, a correspondent of the prestigious Bosnian film magazine Cineaste (Sineast) and the editor of a Serbian film magazine YU Film Today (YU Film Danas). According to this stance, genre cinema is, in our conditions, in the best case an expression of fashion, leading us down the wrong path, and in the worst case, a potentially dangerous ideological and aesthetic subversion.

swordBecause of such convictions, whole genres were almost automatically deemed “ideologically unsound.” Fantasy, in any form, was outlawed because of its distance from mimesis, which makes it too free to conceal unwanted messages through ambivalent images and metaphors. Fantasy was also unwanted because, if based on authentic domestic folk and fairy tales, it could damage the fragile balance of the “brotherhood and unity” doctrine. They could remind one of the past in which Yugoslav peoples did not live under the one unifying (neo)-mythology of socialism but in accordance with beliefs that corresponded to their respective, authentic national identities. As a result the only true Serbian fantasy film to this day was produced way back in 1950—The Miraculous Swordudotvorni mač, Vojislav Nanović).

Science fiction did not have a solid enough base within the local cultural climate. But it could also dangerously suggest the future (or an alternative present) in which the dictatorship of the proletariat and communism did not exist at all, or had a different shape, which might disrupt the unifying image of a sacrosanct ideology. More sinister forms of fantasy were also undesirable because there was no place for horror within the parameters of the bright present and the rosy future of Tito’s social engineers. In a society where “rocking the boat” was extremely dangerous, any genre based on fear and shock was unwelcome.[1] A similar reasoning applied to thrillers, which might deal with crime, perversion, and corruption in a society that exclusively portrayed itself in totally utopian terms.

Due to such circumstances, as well as the specific social and economic situation unfavorable to the development of a large film industry—a genre cinema industry in a serious sense—three dominant genres within Yugoslav cinema remained: comedy (most often family, rarely youth comedy), social drama and—the partisan film. The last was generated as a specific sub-genre of war cinema, in which World War II (the period establishing the new, communist Yugoslavia) was used as background for a specific mixture of naive ideology and generic stereotypes, which were used to “sell” the viewer this ideology more smoothly and less noticeably. In the case of partisan films, the simplification of historical events had been tolerated by genre reliance on foreign-made war and action movies. Some of their themes and motifs (special forces on mission, sacrifice for a higher cause, and so on) were more than suitable for glorifying periods and heroes which, in any case, became—through literature, music, even cartoon strips—the basis of a neo-mythology of the people’s war of liberation.

2. Front-line Fighters
As for the genres which could be considered “western” and therefore undesirable, their presence can be found in thrillers by Žika Mitrović from the 1960s or horror films by Djordje Kadijević from the early 1970s. However, these films were not given due attention (at the time when they were created) nor have they been re-valued later. Thus, they remained more or less isolated footnotes in the opus of their authors, not numerous enough or connected enough to form a current or trend. Therefore, there was no need to deal with genre films on a theoretical level until the beginning of the 1980s. A wave of younger filmmakers appeared at that time, filmmakers who were not ashamed to show their love and knowledge of (above all American) genre cinema.

marathonfamilyThat trend made a grand entrance into Serbian cinema through the films of Slobodan Šijan. Who’s Singing Over There (Ko to tamo peva, 1980) which merged a comedy of characters with the set-up from Stagecoach (1939, John Ford) and an iconography more typical of an American western then of a Serbian setting (that is why the film was shot at the Deliblato sands [2]). The Marathon Family (Maratonci trče počasni krug, 1982) brought into Serbian cinema the rarely seen iconography of a pre-World War II (and, as such, pre-communist) Serbian provincial town, which is equally indebted to the American slapstick and crime films of the 1930s. Finally, in his generically most radical film, Strangler vs. Strangler (Davitelj protiv davitelja, 1984), Šijan boldly performs a sort of genre travesty, which is a "horror comedy," relying on the authentic background of the youth rock culture of 1980’s Belgrade as much as on the psycho-horrors of Alfred Hitchcock, Mario Bava and Richard Fleischer.

variolaAnother distinguished and acclaimed filmmaker looked to genre as an essential means of expression, at the same time that Šijan did. Goran Marković was among the first filmmakers who successfully merged the social engagement of auteur cinema with the style of genre cinema. His Variola Vera (1982), even though based on a true event about a small-pox epidemic in 1972 Belgrade, actually possesses the clear structure of catastrophe films (from the sub-genre of epidemic films) with a number of scenes directed in accordance with the conventions of horror (Ognjanović, “Goran Marković”). Even though the author’s intention clearly was to denounce a sick society, the presence of genre could not be ignored. But only after Marković’s films, a powerful cry was raised by critics against genre cinema, led by the above-mentioned Franić: Variola Vera is one of the first typically “American films in a Yugoslav manner.” That did not mean anything but a film which, in adopting the same basic criteria which made the American film industry thrive, above all in a dramatic and formal sense, is, as a result, impoverished, deprived of something human and authentic.... (Franić 1982).

Judgments like this testify to the animosity which this type of film had to expect in Serbia even after Tito’s death. This animosity was, like the quoted sentence shows, based on an assumed dichotomy between the so-called auteur and “genre” cinema. That dichotomy, according to its backers, was deemed insurmountable. It was believed that the presence of genre almost automatically turned the authentic, creative auteur into a vampire and reduced everything to clichés.

Similar attacks followed five years later, when Marković completed his purest genre film, Déjà Vu (Već vidjeno, a.k.a. Reflections, 1987). It was perceived a film of excess when it was released, since it generically belonged to horror. However, the undeniable qualities of the film, and the fact that it was made by a respectable director with many prizes, resulted in a solid reception by critics and audience alike. As an indication that the climate for genre films was somewhat changing is the fact that Déjà Vu won a number of awards at domestic festivals, including the Big Golden Arena (Velika Zlatna Arena) for best film at the National Film Festival in Pula, the Golden Arena for male supporting role, (Petar Božović) and female starring role (Anica Dobra). Its genre foundation was verified by the fact that it was the only domestic film that was cited in a prestigious foreign publication dedicated to horror. It was covered in the second edition of The Overlook Film Encyclopaedia: Horror (Hardy 1995: 412), and included in a list of the top hundred European horror films by the British Film Institute (Ognjanović, “Déjà vu”). At that time, at the end of the 1980s, it seemed that genre cinema was riding on the winds of fortune, which were suddenly replaced by the winds of war.

3. The Young Lions
In a list of titles, produced in the last days of socialist Yugoslavia, genre was most often half-present, in a sense that pure genre films were not made. In some cases, it was a question of an authentic appropriation of a genre in accordance with the director’s own aesthetics (Djordje Kadijević); in others, a more or less successful mix of genre and engaged cinema (Goran Marković); still, in others, generic concoctions and light fare (Slobodan Šijan). In any case, the directors’ ambitions have always been greater than simply making a genre film, and the above noted filmmakers often maintained a distance from the term “genre”—a distance that can be only partly explained as a way of seeking protection from expected criticism. Avoidance of genre cinema should be seen in light of the true ambitions of the filmmakers themselves. Goran Marković explicitly admitted it by saying: “What I’ve done was to misuse the elements of genre; I’ve never made a real genre film, primarily because I wasn’t capable of doing so, and but also because I didn’t have the need to explore the possibilities of one genre to its final conclusion.” [3]

4th manA few relevant directors of the younger generation, who do not feel they have to justify their means of expression built on genre cinema, appear in Serbian cinema in the 1990s. Moreover, in that period—marked by major social upheavals, civil war, economic sanctions, the NATO bombing campaign, etc.—we can find the first filmmakers who embraced genre cinema without shame. The most prominent among them were Srdjan Dragojević, Dejan Zečević and Stevan Filipović. Generally speaking, one could notice a gradation in the presence of genre in these three filmmakers: while Dragojević used genres as needed, standing with one foot in a genre, and with the other in so-called “festival” cinema, Zečević’s dedication to genre purity and consistency has very rarely shown any pretension towards arty style and engagement, traces of which are visible only in his latest film, The Fourth Man (Četvrti čovek). Filipović is the only one among the three, who boldly and without reserve is committed to creating unpretentious and entertaining mainstream cinema.

Srdjan Dragojević started his career with the teenage comedy We Are Not Angels (Mi nismo andjeli, 1992), the last cult film made in Yugoslavia which broke apart that very year. With its stylized ambiance and a string of loony, eccentric characters, that teenage comedy represented a noticeable shift in comparison to the (very few) previous examples of that sub-genre in Serbian film.

In the following two Dragojević films genre elements were less consistently and “cleanly” applied. In Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Lepa sela lepo gore,1996) and Wounds (Rane, 1998) he opted for a more ambitious concept of engaged cinema which would deal with the reality of Serbia in the 1990s (the civil war in Bosnia, in Pretty Village, Pretty Flame; the criminalization of Milosević’s Serbia in Wounds).

pretty villageIt is precisely the elements of black war comedy that made Pretty Village, Pretty Flame acceptable to audiences, even though it dealt with a far from cheerful story inspired by real events. That movie, as well as other black comedies that abound in the Serbian film industry, can indicate some of the reasons why a “pure” genre is impossible in Serbia as well as unnecessary: the tragic historical circumstances in this region often lead to absurd situations which lay bare the very being of the people. It seems that the perfect genre for talking about “us, here” is neither tragedy nor comedy, but tragi-comedy.

syndromeSomething similar to that was expressed by Dejan Zečević in an interview: “I personally think that, in principle, horror is a western invention, a genre which definitely comes from the west, but I also think that here, the two genres which are most suitable to the atmosphere of our environment are either the absurd black comedy or horror” (Ognjanović, In Hills, Horrors). Zečević is the biggest exponent of genre in new Serbian cinema. His T. T. Syndrome (T. T. Sindrom, 2002) was certainly a noted and well-done example of Serbian horror from the “slasher” sub-genre. That movie mirrors a whole string of models, ranging from the early films of John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper to the horror-thrillers of Italian filmmakers like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci.

T. T. Syndrome was the first Serbian horror film whose creators did not feel the need to mask this unpopular genre with the presence of others, more popular with the Serbs (comedy, above all), or to claim literary classics as an alibi, or to present it as a vehicle for global metaphors. The film’s primary aim is to entertain, frighten and horrify its target audience in a way that is usually done with horror films made in the west. Unfortunately, its destiny at the Serbian box office has sent a warning message. Its failure to attract a wider audience (or win awards at domestic festivals) showed that the local cinemagoer is not too keen on pure horror, one without a mask of irony on the one hand, or drama, on the other. In spite of all that, T. T. Syndrome has been screened at numerous foreign festivals that cultivate genre cinema—Brussels, Sitges, Luxemburg, Neuchâtel, Ravenna, Trieste—but its obscure status at home did not help it launch a new stream in Serbian cinema.

eliotFor the Serbian audience, Zečević’s Buy me an Eliot (Kupi mi Eliota, 1997), an attempt at a highly stylized black crime-comedy with grotesque characters and situations in the spirit of the popular comic-strip, Alan Ford, was even more hermetic. If, from the fate of some of Zečević’s films, one can draw a lesson about the status of genre cinema in Serbia, it would be that here it has always been risky to stray too far from the recognizable milieu and everyday characters. A step away from a comedy of manners (which Šijan, at least in his earlier works, skillfully managed to merge with genre elements) and a step towards overt stylization, fetishizing and film-buff quotations often led to limiting communication with the audience. At best, these titles reached cult film status, which in the Serbian cultural sphere does not mean a lot.

That is why one shouldn’t be surprised by Zečević’s commercial, but also artistic success when he reached for a genre which addressed a larger target audience than did horror or exotic black comedies. His film The Fourth Manetvrti čovek, 2007) is a thriller set in the milieu of Serbia in transition, torn between the burden of the past (recent wars in the region) and an uncertain future (society in turmoil, torn between socialism and capitalism, east and west…). The story deals with a member of the Secret Service who wakes up wounded and suffering from amnesia. He then slowly gathers together the pieces of his identity through a jigsaw puzzle of mystery tied to the killing of his wife and son. For Zečević, this premise is yet another template for a homage to western models. However, one has to admit that his attempt to make a Serbian version of The Bourne Identity (2002) is, to say the least, interesting as an indicator of how the genre can be used for a relevant and authentic story based in the Serbian milieu and Serbian reality.

In this respect, equally encouraging is The Trap (Klopka, 2007) by Srdan Golubović, where the thriller is recognized as an adequate genre for a story of Serbia in the jaws of crime and corruption. Both a domestic and a foreign viewer can identify with the characters and situations in that film, where genre serves as a shortcut to the archetypes of universal stories and human situations.[4] The moral dilemmas posed before the heroes of The Trap are familiar to everyone and have been dealt with in cinema often enough. It is, first and foremost, the spiraling into crime out of the best of intentions, in an attempt to save the life of a family member, or from desperation which is a product of both social circumstances and genre conventions.

A similar situation and the same genre—the thriller—can be found in an earlier Golubović film, The Absolute Hundred (Apsolutnih sto, 2001), a fine parable about the breakdown of human values in post-war Serbia. The plot concentrates on an athlete who, after he has won a gold medal at the world competition in rifle shooting, is recruited as a sharpshooter who becomes a killing machine in the war. An innocent man in a whirlpool of circumstances, which he cannot control and which, at the end, against his will and almost unnoticeably, turn him into an agent of the forces of evil and destruction is a motif that imbues these thrillers. It does so in a cinematically striking way, indirectly and without much preaching, but, very clearly, saying a lot about its time—in which many apparently good people were overnight turned into murderers.

devils warriorAt the opposite pole is Stevan Filipović, a young filmmaker who, so far, has shot only one film: The Devil’s Warriorejtanov ratnik, 2006). This is an unapologetic mélange of genres in which fantasy, teenage comedy and horror alternate. The energy and dedication emanating from this low-budget film manage to bring fresh air into a deadly-serious industry, among other things, by force of the film’s untarnished honesty. Unfortunately, the bad distribution and marketing of this film, among other factors, attracted too few people into the cinemas. Its destiny raises another important issue, and that is the meaning of pure genre, that is, mainstream cinema in a country where the theater network is practically decimated. Although this is a perfectly legitimate type of artistic expression, well received by critics and audiences alike, the destiny of a film not tailored to festivals and without a strong foreign crossover potential, presently remains uncertain in the Serbian film industry.

From everything already stated, one can conclude that the Serbian industry, with the breakdown of the society in which ideological, Marxist criticism and the corresponding way of thinking were dominant, has been released from the stigma of genre cinema as an inferior type of expression. Younger filmmakers grew up watching American films, but living in a cultural setting far from the American way of life and burdened by problems much different from those they saw on the screen. They managed, however, to recognize in genre motifs and actions the alphabet of a language that could be universal if thoughtfully merged with authentic sensibility. The roots of such methods were visible and are still valid in the films of Šijan and Marković from the 1980s. They bore fruit at the end of one, and the beginning of another century/millennium in the works of Dragojević, Zečević, Golubović and Filipović in the above-mentioned titles. This has demonstrated the untarnished validity of genre cinema, but only when it is used as a powerful means for expression and not as an end in itself.

Translated by Goran Gocić with Vida Johnson


Notes

1] When a TV film The Butterfly Woman (Leptirica) was broadcast in 1973, the press called its director Djordje Kadijević a “terrorist” who attacked the senses and nerves of the audience.

2] Deliblato sands (Deliblatska peščara), is the largest sandy terrain in Europe, conveniently situated in Serbia. [Translator’s note]

3] Goran Marković, Discussion at the panel dedicated to Serbian horror film, Dom Omladine, Belgrade, 9 April 2006.

4] See, for example, review of the film The Trap from Palm Springs Film Festival.


Works Cited

Franić, Severin, “Domestic Cinema in 1982: Standards are Reached, So What?” (“Domaci film ‘82: Standardi su osvojeni, pa sta?”), Sineast 57 (1982): 14–15.
Hardy, Phil (ed.), The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror, New York: The Overlook Press, 1995.
Ognjanović, Dejan, “Deja Vu (Već Vidjeno)”, in Steven Schneider (ed.), 100 European Horror Films, London: British Film Institute, 2007, pp. 63-64.
——, “Goran Markovic,” in Steven Schneider (ed.), 501 Movie Directors, Quintet 2007.
——, In Hills, Horrors: Serbian Horror Cinema (U brdima, horori: Srpski film strave), Niš: Niški Kulturni Centar, 2007, p. 164.

 

Updated: 09 Oct 09