The Rise and Fall of Serbian Pop Cinema

By Dimitrije Vojnov (Belgrade)

© Dimitrije Vojnov, 2007

Serbian cinema became known in international circles primarily because of the artistic accomplishments of certain filmmakers and their success at film festivals. Precisely these works were the first ones to represent Serbian cinema in theaters abroad. In the context of the international cinema market once, when Serbian pop cinema was part of the bigger Yugoslav film industry, it was well known for its WWII action films done in the style of adventures or westerns. Usually they were distributed in the west in shortened, exploitation, “grindhouse” variants, with emphasis on the action and with reduced dramatic and political detail. Behind the Iron Curtain, they were seen as examples of very liberal mainstream cinema. There, Serbian populist comedies were also very popular. Eastern audiences were not used to such an anarchic approach to everyday life in a socialist country, so they were perceived as exotic and courageous. Unfortunately, it seems that the Serbian filmmakers never managed to fully take advantage of the potential of the eastern markets.

However today, in theaters around the world, Serbian films are present only in the works of Emir Kusturica and afew other directors such as Srdjan Dragojević, Srdan Golubović, Srdjan Koljević or Uroš Stojanović, whose films have managed to reach foreign theaters as western co-productions. However, apart from films by Kusturica, in foreign markets there is practically no demand for Serbian cinema. This shows that Serbian cinema has not been able to formulate an aesthetics which could be fresh and interesting to a foreign audience. For an impoverished industry such as the Serbian cinema, perhaps it is unrealistic to expect a larger presence in theaters around the world. However, it is a fact that the Serbian film industry acquired regional leadership precisely through its ability to make films which communicate with a wide audience.

Serbian film remains atypical in the world market as one of the few industries outside Hollywood—like the Indian for example—which dominates box office on its own turf. Sometimes the tastes of the international festivals and the Serbian audience overlap, and then the foreign audience can see the films which are also shown in theaters in Serbia. Sometimes this is not the case. That’s why it is important to analyze different aspects of Serbian pop film and to theoretically sift through some titles which, apart from reviews upon release, typically are not subjected to any deeper critical thought.

Successful Themes

Apart from the tradition of box-office success, which helped it dominate over imported films, Yugoslav cinema had another specific tradition. In spite of the critics’ general resistance to commercial and populist films as carriers of bad taste and compromise, in spite of the fact that among the Yugoslav box office hits one could find various examples of populist kitsch, it also often happened that quality films with high artistic ambitions scored well at the box office. Moreover, at one moment in 1978, the classic work of Lordan Zafranović, Occupation in 26 pictures (Okupacija u 26 slika), managed to reach the status of the number one box office hit in the history of socialist Yugoslavia. This is a formidable achievement for a film with a specific Viscontian aesthetics that dealt with brutal events from World War II and the fascist occupation of Dubrovnik.

occupation
tight skin

Occupation in 26 pictures was replaced on the “best ever” box office list of the socialist Yugoslavia a few years later, by a par excellence Serbian populist comedy Tight Skin (Tesna koža, 1982). Since the latter film stayed on top of that list until the break-up of socialist Yugoslavia, it will be remembered as the most-watched Yugoslav film. However, that symbol of cinema populism conceals a considerably more complex picture of the Yugoslav film market, where, occasionally, films with high artistic ambitions managed to achieve a lasting presence.

tear and sistersThe beginning of the 1990s, the time of wars and crisis, provoked a specific reaction in Serbian filmmakers. Many thought that such a time of crisis should produce movies that pay a tribute to it. One of the most commercial directors in the history of the socialist Yugoslavia, Zoran Čalić, notorious for his populist comedies where he often used parody, the traditions of youth cinema and a Rabelaisian treatment of the clash between village and town, at the beginning of the war shot his first serious melodrama with a war theme: The Tear and Her Sisters (Suza i njene sestre). It was one of the few misses he made and surely the biggest flop of his career.

Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Lepa sela lepo gore, 1996)—number one in the Serbian box office in 1996—by Srdjan Dragojević can be seen as the key Serbian film of the 1990s. With the black humor of the most successful Yugoslav art house films, with technical perfection and elements of spectacle which rivaled earlier partisan films, it tells the story of growing up and of the civil war in socialist Yugoslavia. This film had pointed political overtones and it is interesting that in Serbia, it was mostly perceived as anti-Serbian, while in the region it was considered a pro-Serbian film which, by default, should have had disastrous effect on the box office receipts. Yet, the film proved to be a big hit in Serbian movie theatres. In the former Yugoslavia and the region, it managed to transcend all the barriers politics imposed on communication via cinema.

village flameIt seems that the energy of Dragojević’s film, expressed through powerful mise-en-scene, casting based on actors’ personalities, humor, and iconic points that do not burden the basic narrative—together worked against the perception of the movie as a political statement. Moreover, Pretty Village, Pretty Flame has became part of the iconography precisely among those who were its subjects, even those that were strongly criticized, such as nationalists, naïve provincial yokels, drug addicts and petty criminals. It seems that Pretty Village, Pretty Flame in the end did not become an instrument of ideology even though it carried that function as well. It was experienced as an energetic portrayal of traumatic events, with energy that was absorbed without an ideological bent.

Wounds (Rane, 1998) by Srdjan Dragojević, was an equally energetic story. It dealt with the consequences of the wars in Serbia itself, and with the growing up of young delinquents. Dragojević’s film was simolar to French movies of the time, such as Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995) and Assassin(s) (1997), with equal success at festivals and box office, but with the additional criticism of Slobodan Milošević’s regime. Precisely because of the clash with the regime, this film did not manage to reach the desired attendance as its advertising was halted, but it can still be considered on all accounts a Serbian blockbuster. Again, the energetic treatment of the subject matter that contained a criticism of a certain milieu—in this case the criminal underworld—was very attractive to the audience. Again, Dragojević’s film did not function as an ideological instrument, but became some kind of code of conduct among young delinquents just like Coppola’s The Godfather was for Italian Mafia or De Palma’s Scarface for young Afro-American gangsters.

4th manThe Fourth Man (Četvrti Čovek, 2007) by Dejan Zečević was a thriller which strongly rested on titles such as The Bourne Identity, Se7en, Angel Heart and Memento. In a structural sense these films can be seen as a matrix, par excellence, for commercial cinema. Based on such concepts of dramaturgy, Zečević turned the Serbian secret services, organized crime, tycoons and war crimes into his themes. Despite adopting the idioms of American mainstream cinema, this film was a success at the box office precisely because of the elements of reality it brought into the genre mechanism. Moreover, both the audience and the critics recognized this as a key element in the reception of this film, even though Zečević’s procedure and previous opus, strictly tied to genre, suggest that his primary concern was to create a Serbian variant of a genre film.

We can thus conclude that with these three hit films the reception of the political content turned out to be the opposite of the authors’ intentions, just as the energy of the expression of genre defied the author’s control. We can also conclude that the audience preferred the traditional, authentic Yugoslav genres (black comedy, partisan films), over the traditions of Hollywood formulas. Moreover, some influences of European and independent cinema, after integration into Serbian cinema, communicated with audiences. Similarly, a critical view of real life and political engagement turned out to be more effective when placed in the background than when they were among the prime concerns of the authors.

The Imaginary Present

not angelsWe Are Not Angels (Mi nismo andjeli, 1992) [1] by Srdjan Dragojević was a film which takes place in the hyper-stylized reality of Belgrade with stylistic postulates laid down by earlier films of Goran Gajić, the television works of Milutin Petrović, the video clips of Yugoslav post-punk bands and the whole counter-culture, which, in the last days of socialism had strong incursions into the mainstream. In 1992, conditions were ripe for that counter-cultural design of a “swinging” Belgrade found in music videos and student films of the 1980s to become understandable to the widest audiences.

Apart from very rich stylization on all levels of cinematic expression, the dramatic matrix of the film is actually simple and universally comprehensive. We Are Not Angels is a teenage comedy about unwanted pregnancy, a frequent motif in youth cinema, also a trigger for one of the most lasting franchises of Yugoslav cinema, the so-called Žika’s Dynasty (Žikina dinastija, 1985). In its synthesis of clear and fresh stylization, in the charismatic leading roles of Nikola Kojo and Branka Katić, in its functional use of music of the then teenage retro-pop group The Vampires (Vampiri), in the fresh slang which was on that occasion introduced, and in his skilful balancing between the tradition of American pop culture and the Serbian milieu—Dragojević created a mainstream film of the highest artistic and commercial value. In the best way, it integrated the already existing traditions of youth cinema and merged them with avant-garde solutions which traditionally refresh mainstream film.

We Are Not Angels 2 (Mi nismo andjeli 2, 2005)—the box office leader in 2006—is an ambitious sequel, which, thanks to the first part, did very well at the box office. However, critics and audiences alike deemed it to be an exploitation of the fame of the outstanding first film, which did not measure up to its cult status. Objectively speaking, in many segments, the second film has qualities superior to the first one, and is more in sync with world trends then was the initial version. It is, however, obvious that in We Are Not Angels 2 the tradition of the American pop film prevailed over the traditions familiar to our cinema goers. Resistance to the sequel as a concept is surprising, bearing in mind that Yugoslav film, even before the Americans, accepted the concept of sequels as far back as the 1960s, with sequels of hits such as Captain Lesi (Kapetan Lesi) and Vesna. It is a fact that during the 1980s, there were several franchises in Yugoslav film. In the sequel, the stylized present, more akin to American suburbia than to Serbian reality, with a lot of radical scenes of social deviations, was not accepted, and the film was criticized because of its distance from realism, which is precisely the quality for which the original was acclaimed.

The third part of the successful series We Are Not Angels, though released only a year and a half after the second, was envisaged as a total resetting of the franchise. Even in the title itself, the accent was not on the title We Are Not Angels 3, but on the acronym A3, and the subtitle Rock’n’roll Strikes Back. The film was directed by Petar Pašić, a director with experience in the world of commercials and music videos, while Srdjan Dragojević appeared as producer and screenwriter.

not angelsThe audience and the critics largely perceived the film as an improvement over the second part, but one could say that its being part of a serial turned out to be a disadvantage. A3 was envisaged as a teenage comedy based on the matrix of the Prince and the Pauper fairy-tale, which at the end of the 1980s had several incarnations in the U.S where heroes switched bodies and therefore, age, sex, race and class. In A3 bodies and positions are switched between a young rock musician and a famous folk singer who, for success, sells his soul to the Devil. The abundance of musical numbers drawn from the milieu in which the movie took place, practically turned it into a non-diegetic musical. However, the critics showed an aversion to this approach, because they did not see the film as a musical, but as a conventional teenage comedy. The story is set in the hyper-stylized environment of the music industry where the rigid setting of parental home, the rock’n’roll alternative and the turbo-folk industry were stylized to the extreme. Still, inside that stylized universe, the film is still connected to reality, as well as the contemporary economic and political situation and the history of the region.

The resetting of the We Are Not Angels franchise was done in the same manner as with Nightmare on Elm Street, where, after the two initial films, Wes Craven passed the baton to younger directors and every new sequel, apart from Freddy Kruger, has had new young heroes. However, Serbian audiences did not accept that kind of franchise transformation and showed that it missed the earlier characters, which clearly explains the attitude of the Serbian audience towards the industry of film sequels. In the final score, A3 was second at the box office in 2006 in Serbia, immediately after Da Vinci Code (Ron Howard), and the most-watched Serbian film of that year. Even though it had just one sixth of the admissions of the second part, it can still be considered a solid scorer.

rageRage (Do koske, 1998) by Boban Skerlić was a stylized thriller set in a criminal milieu, which anticipates The Big Hit (Kirk Wong), a US production that, two years later in a similar hyper-stylization, tried to tell a very similar story. However, while The Big Hit did not do well at the American box office, Rage scored solidly in Serbia. It did so in spite of its stylization and the fact that the reality of the Serbian crime scene was considerably more exciting than this stylized interpretation, which attempted to embrace the design of Walter Hill’s The Warriors and some of the mythic themes of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction which were not justified by the realistic script of Srdja Andjelić.

In 1998, a new director was introduced to the Serbian audience, one who would become a reference point in commercial cinema. Three Palms for Two Punks and a Babe (Tri palme za dve bitange i ribicu) was the first film of Radivoje Andrić. The principles of the American B-movie were used to define the aesthetics of low-budget comedy dealing with contemporary Serbian life in comic book fashion, growing out of the post-new wave aesthetics previously established by Srdjan Dragojević. In this film, the distance from realism is obvious not only in the comic book stylization of costumes and sets but also in the abandonment of the heroes’ moral dilemmas, the simplification of their motives and relations. These defined a very unpretentious style of expression which attracted audiences that year. A similar line would be pursued in 2002 when Dead Cold (Mrtav ladan) by Milorad “Debeli” Milinković (Fatty) was shot and screened with great success. The highly conceptualized paraphrase of Hitchcock’s Trouble with Harry here is treated in similar comic book manner.

dudesDudes! (Munje) by Radivoje Andrić—the box office leader in 2001—represented a continuation of the aesthetics initiated in Three Palms for Two Punks and a Babe; however this was a highly conceptualized story, set in one night, with considerably more coherent visual expression. Dudes! also carried a political message, as it was advertised as a film destined to start the era of post-Milošević cinema; it had strong support of the public and the media, especially Radio and Television B92, the station that had been pivotal in the resistance to the Milošević regime. The distance from reality was embodied in its stylized portrayal of nightlife, with comic book simplifications of characters and relationships. Again the author of the screenplay is Srdja Andjelić, and again we can say that the text itself, in its essence, is more realistic than the directorial approach.

When I Grow Up I’ll Be A Kangaroo (Kad porastem biću kengur), the next film by Radivoje Andrić, script by Miroslav Momčilović, was released in 2004. It was a Jarmush-type comedy composed of three interwoven stories about a Belgrade neighborhood. The solid commercial success of this film was probably due to Andrić’s reputation after Dudes!, but it illustrated how flexible were the criteria for what the Serbian audience considered commercial. In this film there is a mild romantic swerve and a relaxation of the relationships depicted in a milieu of marginal characters and losers, considerably more brutal in reality.

One on One (1 na 1, 2002) by Mladen Matičević is a Serbian variation of a ghetto film, also strongly stylized. Here, the apartment blocks of New Belgrade do not look like their specific Eastern European counterparts. They are depicted like a battleground from a Walter Hill movie,[2] his The Warriors and Trespass, where tough, street basketball is played, gangs drive around in Cadillacs the sounds of hip-hop reverberate. Even though such stylization is far from authentic, Matičević’s film rings true on emotional and ethical levels. The audience, together with the critics, supported the clearly western morality and asceticism of Matičević’s film which, through directing, costume and sets considerably changed the realistic starting point of Srdja Andjelić’s screenplay. (This also happened to Andjelić’s screenplay for Rage, which was also hyper-stylized, even though the text itself did not suggest it).

night musicFinally, A Little Night Music (Mala noćna muzika, 2002) by Dejan Zečević was a phenomenon completely apart. It was made in a very popular genre of the simplified and stylized gross-out comedy, a genre with which the domestic cinema had much success, especially in the work by Zoran Čalić, Dragoslav Lazić and Milan Jelić. But its quality did not match its commercial success. In his film, Zečević mostly referred to American models such as Peter and Bobby Farrelly. Bearing in mind that Serbian gross out comedy has its own tradition with its own boundaries, the end result is closer to Jelić’s sex farces. A Little Night Music was also shot on the model of low-budget cinema with large commercial ambitions which it fulfilled completely.

Imaginary History

black bomberThe Black Bomber (Crni bombarder) by Darko Bajić today stands as an example of “yesterday’s future.” It was a futuristic film from 1992 which talked about the future that in the meantime has happened, and was not as dystopian as this film suggested. However, in the narrative itself, Bajić uses a futuristic setting to describe events which had already happened, that is, he uses the imaginary future to interpret the past. The past that Bajić chooses as his subject is the city of Belgrade during the opposition and student protests of 1991, the riots and the demonstrations in which the independent media had a pivotal role. Stylistically, Bajić relies on the concept of set and costume design used in Streets of Fire (Walter Hill) and bases his characters on the trail of then-popular films of Allen Moyle, Times Square and Pump up the Volume which brought a specific anti-establishment charm into the American cinema of the time. Bajić’s trump cards were the stars, the most sought-after actors in Serbian film at the time, the use of appealing urban slang in dialogues, spectacular scenes of street fighting and the rock’n’roll soundtrack done by the most eminent musicians. A similar American film was made in 1997—Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow). Set in the days of millennial fever on the eve of New Year’s Day 2000, the latter film was really about the demonstrations by blacks after the beating of Rodney King.

Tito and I (Tito i ja, 1992) by Goran Marković is a comedy about the traditional “March to Tito’s Birthplace,” attended by the winners of the literary competition “Do I love Comrade Tito and Why,” held in elementary schools in Yugoslavia. The film was partially based on the director’s own childhood experiences, and it was released in 1992 riding on a wave of powerful demystification of Tito’s personality cult. Tito and I shows Tito’s rule through a series of events alternating between dark and dynamic, almost cheerful ones. They are accented by the rhythm of exotic music, and the story unfolds seen through the eyes of a boy reaching puberty, with abundance of his naive and shrewd comments. The film is a coming-of-age comedy, spiced up with political elements (recognizable in the region as well as on the international scene) and it became a big success in the region [3] as well as at foreign film festivals, winning awards in San Sebastian and getting a theatrical release in the US and France.

Premeditated Murder (Ubistvo s predumišljajem, 1995) by Gorčin Stojanović is a melodrama based on a novel by Slobodan Selenić, with two parallel story lines. One is set in the present and is about a love affair between a young Belgrade woman and a Serb from Croatia who was receiving medical treatment after being wounded in the war. The second story line is set in Belgrade after World War II and is about a love triangle with a brother and sister—the decadent offspring of a rich family which met its demise after the communists came to power—and a young communist policeman who was infamous in their circles. In Premeditated Murder, the historical context of post-war Belgrade is romanticized in the spirit of the then current revalorizing and rehabilitation of the so-called bourgeois spirit that, at that time was considered to have a great unrealized potential. This, mostly imaginary, historical milieu resonated well with the audience since it offered a picture of Serbia which had the potential to develop into a modern European state, that at the moment of the film’s release was an elitist sort of escapism.

Miroslav Lekić’s The Knife (Noz, 1999), was based on the novel of Vuk Drašković, one of the most popular leaders of the Serbian opposition. Even though it was a work of fiction, it was perceived as his ideological manifesto, since its subject was the suffering of the Serbian people—unacknowledged in communist times. Thus such an artistic interpretation of historical facts can be treated as a kind of ideological fiction. The film was initiated with the strong support of state institutions [4] run by Drasković’s party and his rich financiers. It was surely the most ambitious cinema spectacle in the last days of Milošević’s rule, and since it was an adaptation of a novel by an opposition leader, the fate of the movie was even more bizarre. Lekić’s directorial work did not manage to elevate to epic proportions this, in essence, simple melodrama about two babies switched at birth. Despite the large budget the film did not reach the expected monumentalism, yet it was a big box office hit nevertheless. Its commercial effect was boosted by the dramatic potential of the storyline, as well as the political context from which the film emerged and the engagement of the political forces in its promotion. Even though the influence of politics on Serbian cinema has already been elaborated, this is the first example after Tito’s death that one work was so closely tied to a political personality.

Barking at the Stars (Lajanje na zvezde, 1998) by Zdravko Šotra is an escapist adaptation of Milovan Vitezović’s popular novel about growing up in the 1960s, which, in 1998, scored exceptionally well at the box office. It was started as a TV movie only to grow into a cinema blockbuster and practically launched director Zdravko Šotra into cinema after his lengthy reign on the small screen. It was a classic nostalgic generation film whose escapist capacity was obvious, since it was a movie about the carefree 60s, filmed at the time when Milošević’s regime went into its final act with the beginning of the war in Kosovo. In Serbia, the 1960s were, of course, a very tense historical time, continuing a very painful post-World War II period but also foretelling the oncoming struggles in the political leadership and the student protests, as well as various pressures on artists. There was not a word about any of this in the film. Moreover, Šotra goes so far in turning “cool Yugoslavia” into a fetish so that in his movie his heroes in a stroll around Belgrade at one point even met the Nobel-prize winning author Ivo Andrić. One atypical detail in this film is that it is one of few films about growing up, in a nostalgic setting, where the director at the time the film takes place was actually older than his heroes.

zamfirovaZona Zamfirova (Zona Zamfirova, 2002) and Ivko’s Fete (Ivkova slava, 2005), also by Zdravko Šotra, were two mega-hits based on the well-known prose of Stevan Sremac, which construct an imaginary history of the transition from the 19th to the 20th century in Serbia. The late epoch of the rule of the Obrenović dynasty is presented as an idyllic, conservative milieu where the heroes are preoccupied with being witty, with their different idiosyncrasies and, of course, with love. Perhaps these two films were the most paradigmatic for a blockbuster formula in transitional Serbia. The works were released in 2002 and 2006 respectively, with hyper-stylized historical settings, dialogues in a practically incomprehensible archaic southern dialect, almost forgotten today, and a directorial style closer to outdated television formulas than to contemporary mainstream cinema.

However, these films not only animated the audience which did not regularly frequent movie theatres; they seem to be the first films to attract a certain type of viewer, especially older people. The archaic stylistic approach did not even deter the younger audience who showed exceptional affinity towards these movies, so we can confidently claim that these two films broke all existing conventions for successful commercial films. The author himself ascribed the success of his films to their escapist character: they were not tied to daily events and painful history but were located in an imaginary, care-free Serbia. Regarding the style, he explained the success of his directing procedure by saying that he, unlike his younger colleagues, tells stories with ease, without insisting on generic and ideological points.

The Robbery of the Third Reich (Pljačka Trećeg Rajha),another film by the prolific Zdravko Šotra, was a hit from 2004 but it did not reach the expected box office, so unusual considering the gigantic successes of Zona before and Ivko’s Fete after. The Robbery of the Third Reich was a comedy about con-men during World War II which follows the very successful formula of Balkan Express (Balkan ekspres, 1983) by Branko Baletić. Balkan Express was a box office hit, generated a sequel and a TV series, and dealt with the period of the Nazi occupation in a de-ideologized manner, using the endemic wittiness of the Serbian rogues in fighting against Nazism. Even though the film was more spectacular than Zona, and the heroes used standard Serbian language, it did not manage to reach the audience, and paradoxically, was dismissed precisely for all the technical inadequacies which were totally ignored in Zona. In this film, the occupation is shown as a comic-book story with Nazis as rigid and naive bad guys, while Serbs are shrewd and courageous rebels who regularly outwit them. One atypical element of stylization which may have cost this movie some attendance was having the Germans actually speak German. The fact is that in the tradition of war cinema, all film industries are at pains to form a policy on this, so there is an equal number of films where heroes speak their own respective languages and those where everyone speaks one language. Šotra chose the first principle and ended up with a film a third of which is in German with subtitles. Serbian audiences traditionally do not like such hybrids, and in the majority of the most popular films about World War II German dialogue is either reduced to minimum or Germans are shown as members of the German minority in Vojvodina and are therefore able to speak Serbian.

Goose Feather (Jesen stiže dunjo moja) by Ljubiša Samardžić released in 2004 was set in an imaginary Vojvodina, a region that has always been treated by the Serbian public as Serbia’s link to western European culture, since it had been a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and took over its architecture and institutions. Unlike Zona, which used southern stereotypes about forbidden love where nothing can separate the lovers, Goose Feather is about unrequited love, where a passionate Serb decides to leave his great love in order to marry a local heiress, moreover, an Austrian. Ipso facto, Goose Feather tried to be a melodrama of unrequited love with an abundance of elegiac elements, a high death rate among the characters and frequent slips into alcoholism and destruction. This concept of melodrama, quite the opposite of the unbridled joy of life in Šotra’s Zona, did manage to reach the audience. This was aided by the title which was taken from a traditional folk song previously immortalized by the most popular Yugoslav songwriter-performer Djordje Balašević.[5] The film also scored solid attendance, getting the nickname “northern Zona” and even managed to generate a sequel. The sequel, taking a cue from the trilogies Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis) and Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson) closed with an open ending which not only left the destinies of the heroes inconclusive, but additionally complicated them with a so-called cliff-hanger ending.

Black Gruja and the Stone of Wisdom (Crni Gruja i kamen mudrosti, 2007) by Marko Marinković is the cinema version of the popular TV series which has had two successful seasons on Serbian television. The concept of the series, even the title itself was a clear play on words on the title of a well-known British series The Black Adder, very popular in socialist Yugoslavia. Black Gruja and the Stone of Wisdom is an attempt to deal with Serbian history in a similar manner and to demystify and to parody the period of liberation from the Turks, beginning in the early 19th century. However, the film itself did not offer a coherent reinterpretation of history but dragged the whole story into verbal improvisation, Rabelaisian excess, commenting on present-day political events and introducing a string of disillusioning details. The result is a film practically bereft of noticeable ideological potential, with a very confused stand on history and moreover, badly crafted. Its success at the box-office [6] can only be explained by the popularity of the television series which made it recognizable and attractive to the audience.

What is typical of countries in transition is their attitude to history. In transitional states history is considerably less predictable than the future since the transition is usually preceded by regimes which used history to canonize their own positions. In Serbian cinema however the revision of history did not enjoy any particular success in film if it was based solely on history. On the other hand, comedies set within historical contexts were successful. With the end of the Milošević rule, escapist stories were especially popular, set in an idyllic milieu of Serbia under the Obrenović dynasty in the late 19th century.

Flops

Even though a “flop” means that a film did not manage to realize its potential and to convert it to box office, which puts into doubt its influence on the audience, we should try to survey examples which claimed the idioms of pop cinema without reaching the desired results.

The concept of She Likes Red Star (Ona voli zvezdu, 2001) by Marko Marinković was that of an escapist youth sport film about a young man who was a talented biologist and a good soccer player, with a prospect of playing for The Red Star, the most popular Serbian soccer club. The film takes place in an idyllic present, with simplified relationships and pushy morality based on rules of good upbringing, fair-play, and science. The fate of the project was similar to the fate of the trilogy Goal which FIFA, Adidas and Disney envisaged as a series of theatrical films about a young soccer player. Only the first part ended up in movie theaters, while others were released directly on DVDs.

Almost an Ordinary Story (Skoro sasvim obična priča) by Miloš Petričić was an attempt to implement concepts of Hollywood romantic comedy in a Serbian setting, following the screenplays of Nora Ephron. Almost an Ordinary Story ended up as derivative, static, with dialogues which seemed as if they were copied from subtitles of some American romantic comedy and cinematography which looked more like a commercial then a feature film. Such drawbacks were the reason the movie failed to communicate with the Serbian audience, and had an unexpectedly low box office in spite being treated in the public forum as a novelty.

devils warriorThe Devil’s Warrior (Šejtanov ratnik, 2006) by Stevan Filipović can’t be treated as a flop if we keep in mind its total box office in the given circumstances and the status it obtained. However, because of the modest earnings, one cannot group it with the indisputable hits discussed above. Devil’s Warrior trails titles such as The Goonies (Richard Donner) and The Monster Squad (Fred Dekker). It tried to make a synthesis between teenage coming-of-age comedies and a plot with elements of horror. This type of horror is not seen in American output today even though during the 1980s, Hollywood was pivotal for these films. In its approach to characters and social circumstances, Devil’s Warrior took an honest stance, occasionally politically incorrect, with a lot of street-wise authenticity and charm. It was resting on urban esotery which is a characteristic of Serbian genre variants such as Strangler vs. Strangler (Davitelj protiv davitelja, 1984) by Slobodan Šijan. A very interesting segment of The Devil’s Warrior is an imaginary history of the Serbian people and state which is shown in flashbacks and refers to the history of the monster from the title. It is actually a paraphrase of the portrait of historical personalities from the work of our eminent art historian and director Djordje Kadijević of the TV film The Death of Karadjordje (Karadjordjeva smrt, 1983) and TV series Vuk Karadžić (1987).

In terms of production, The Devil’s Warrior followed the DIY (“do-it-yourself”) philosophy—a fact that was abundantly used in the film’s advertising campaign. The insistence on its genesis outside of production clichés, in low-budget, often home-based conditions, connects it with Roger Corman’s concept of filming. It is inherent to that genre and an often used trump card, especially if one bears in mind that some filmmakers, such as Robert Rodriguez, built their whole careers pushing the DIY style. However, such formula, which made The Goonies and The Monster Squad movies for all times and the Blair Witch Project a worldwide hit, could not boost the attendance of The Devil’s Warrior in Serbia over a third of the figure needed for a Serbian blockbuster.[7] However, this film gained the reputation of a generational cult work, critics were receptive to it, and in the end, in the annals of Serbian film it will be remembered as a very successful debut.

At first glance, one can conclude that in the Serbian milieu the Hollywood pop matrix does not work and apparently this matrix does not manage to communicate with the Serbian audience. However, the situation is somewhat more complex and should not only include the attitude of the audience towards the matrix but the production's and crew's capacities to put certain clichés onto practice, as well. On the one hand, Serbian pop film organically rejects the Hollywood matrix in part because it possesses its own patterns, which are present, but have been insufficiently researched in order to become fully formulated and realized. On the other hand, the Hollywood matrix also implies the American way of life, the English language and a different kind of acting, all unavailable in Serbia.

It is important to point out that, in a genre sense, Hollywood and Serbian cinema have different perceptions of mainstream film. A few genres that are within the American mainstream are avant-garde in Serbia—thriller and horror are the best examples. Similarly, in Serbian cinema, technical perfectionism does not mean much to the audience since the critical mass, which makes the difference between blockbusters and flops is composed of viewers who are not regular movie-goers. They do not follow films on a regular basis and therefore cannot relate to the virtuosity of the production. Serbian pop film thus has its own rules, and thus, it is not surprising that it only occasionally overlaps with what is considered internationally relevant.

The Demise of the Serbian Pop Film

Apart from objective economic reasons that led to the crisis in Serbian film production, there are a number of aesthetic reasons why Serbian popular film has strayed in recent years and cannot regain the place it once had. One of the reasons is the large impact of television filmmakers on mainstream cinema, which brought a number of bad televisual influences to the big screen. Today, in the American mainstream one can say that television—in some segments superior to Hollywood productions—is responsible for the renaissance of cinema. In Serbian circumstances it is the opposite—television is inferior to film and brings it down to its own level.

woundsMoreover, films have become too local, and too few have managed to mobilize a demographic segment broad enough so that one could talk about a real box office hit whose energy is transmitted further. Clashes between urban- rural, pretentious-banal, high and low budget have split the audience. Since Srdjan Dragojević’s Wounds, Serbian film has not produced a title which gained unified support in all circles.

In fact, ever since 1998, Serbian cinema has managed to produce some very successful films but not real hits, if by hit we deem a film with enough energy to truly mobilize all segments of the audience. In earlier times, Serbian cinema had that ability to create a synthesis of communicative values, high box-office, ideological relevance, and quality in what were fundamental pop films and the basis of Serbian cinema’s domination in the region.  Until that synthesis is again attained, Serbian cinema will move even further away from its onetime status as an independent and sovereign cinema industry, and will come closer to the status of a colonized industry which only partially fulfils the needs of its audience.

Translated by Goran Gocić with Vida Johnson


Notes

1] The film was distributed in 1992 in irregular conditions and a part of distribution took place in 1993, so the enormous success of this film was established on video and television.

2] The presence of Walter Hill, as a permanent reference in this text is interesting. As far as Yugoslav cinema is concerned, he is one of the most respected filmmakers, and his influence in the region is probably bigger than anywhere in the world.

3] Tito and I, as well as We Are Not Angels, was released in 1992 and apart from theatres it was exploited heavily on video and television. Thanks to the latter, it gained a cult following.

4] Drašković’s political party Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) was in control of the Department of Culture of the City of Belgrade, which remained the second most relevant source of financing of Serbian cinema after the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Serbia.

5] Balašević was mentioned as a co-screenplay writer at early stages, only to withdraw from the project before the shooting commenced.

6] Black Gruja and the Stone of Wisdom was number one in 2007.

7] There is no strict definition of blockbuster in Serbia. However, internal criterion of the industry is that a blockbuster is a film which passes the 100 000 admittance mark.


Updated: 09 Oct 09