Back in May of this year, I paid my first visit to Beldocs in Belgrade, Serbia, at the kind invitation of the festival's founder, Mladen Vusurovic. Reprinted here is my article on the festival for this season's DOX Magazine, out this month:
“Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted. If one’s own existence has no form, if its events do not come handily to mind and disclose their significance, we feel about ourselves as if we were reading a bad book. We can all of us judge the truth of this, for hardly any of us manage to avoid some periods when the main theme of our lives is obscured by details, when we involve ourselves with persons who are insufficiently characterized; and it is possibly true not only of individuals, but of nations.” --Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey Through Yugoslavia
When Mladen Vusurovic decided to create a film festival in Belgrade, Serbia in 2008, he consulted a community of filmmakers that comprised several generations, knowing that in the region in which he resides, over a span of just a decade (or less), life can look and feel completely different in all of its aspects. Suddenly there is war; and then, a tentative peace, a reconstitution of all the parts that comprise a culture that is still trying to find its true north. Yet the same ideological struggles go on and on and on. In more peaceful times, the artists in that place attempt to illustrate and provide meaning to those struggles. In deciding to create, what he calls “this cultural event,” Vusorovic and his colleagues offer a program of international documentary work, creating an opportunity where the seeds of dialogue about the universal human condition can somehow ameliorate the propensity of many of the Balkan region’s inhabitants to judge things solely on the basis of past injustices inflicted upon them.
This is a way of life in a place where the very moniker, Balkan, connotes the admixture of honey (bal) and blood (kan). “You can find honey here; but first, you have to bleed for it,” says a young musician in Ruggero De Virgiliis’ thoughtful and beautifully shot documentary, Balkan Curtains, which appeared as a selection in the festival’s Serbian Competition Program. This is the first year in the event’s four-year life span that there is, in fact, an official Serbian film competition, in preparation, one supposes, for “an all-out policy for the development of creative documentaries in the country,” according to Vusurovic.
This year’s overall program, while not as well seasoned in a curatorial regard as some of the other more established festivals in the region, was substantial enough to fill the theatres, and there is much promise for the growth of this annual event in years to come. A particularly wise programming choice, garnering an audience of close to 3,000 people, was to open the fest with Darko Bajic’s O, Gringo, a profile of Dejan Petkovic, a Serbian-born footballer who became a superstar in his adopted country of Brazil and is lauded as a local hero in his country of origin. The especially good news in all of this, of course, for those of us who are obstinately continuing to produce, make, support and fund cinematic nonfiction stories, is that there is another fascinating spot on the globe at which to exhibit our films and, in turn, see films that aren’t shown very much outside the region in which they are made.
Serbian independent cinema is still finding its way in this new landscape of post-traumatic, quasi-neo-Europeanized, EU nation status-vying confusion. For the majority of the population, most especially the creative echelon of society, there is a sense of being “trapped” in their own country. They don’t necessarily want to leave for good. But they are hungry to see the world, to have the freedom (at least in their minds) to be allowed to be a part of the rest of the world. This is why these major ad campaigns to induce people into thinking joining the EU will be the answer to everyone’s prayers have been so persuasive--and, somewhat, dispiriting since hardly anyone in the ex-Yugoslav states could begin to tell you why this is so important. I was, particularly, encouraged by a few selections coming from a fresh generation of filmmaker, and they weren't the ones coming out of any film school. Instead, the makers of films such as Balkan Diaries: Bulgaria by Goran Gocic; Boye: The First Real Female Sound by Brankica Draskovic; Awakening by Irena Fabri; I Will Marry the Whole Village by Zeljko Mirkovic; Mila Seeking Senida by Robert Zuber; and In Memory of Dragisa and Ivanka by Bane Milosevic, all tapped into stories both from within, and without, the usual points of reference. For most of the citizens of the Balkans (the “former children of Yugoslavia,” as one festival patron put it), there is nowhere to go except within. (Festival founder and film director, Mladen Vusurovic, pictured above.)
A copy of Mladen Djordjevic’s fiction film Life and Death of a Porno Gang (2009) was given to me by friend Zoran Gajin, a local arts journalist who hosts the website, Filmske Radosti. (Gajin has since relocated to Warsaw, Poland.) A wickedly clever and subversive film, Porno Gang is, as Djordjevic describes it, a sequel to his documentary film about the Serbian porn industry, Made in Serbia (2005). There is a scene where a man from Berlin says to a young filmmaker trying to do something radical with his life and career, “From time to time I’ve traveled around the Balkans, since 1991. Balkan is a great place—impressive juncture of cruelty and creativity.”
Igor Toholj, a filmmaker and teacher born in 1968, is the programmer of the Serbian competition program. He is very much preoccupied with this particular juncture that best represents the region in the sixteen films he chose to exhibit this year. Like most regional competition strands, the selections were all over the map ideologically, stylistically, and otherwise, some works preoccupied with parsing unsolvable episodes of the past, some paying homage to a lost Fatherland, some recreating new contexts for historical conflicts. The films range from very rough, deeply personal efforts from journalists “armed with miniscule digital cameras but huge enthusiasm,” such as the aforementioned Balkan Diaries, to films many years in development and polished to a high level of proficiency, such as Mila Turajlic’s Cinema Komunisto, a nostalgic and highly entertaining look at the major movie industry in the ex-Yugoslavia, mostly through the memories of Tito’s personal movie projectionist. This is one of the few nonfiction films from the region that has managed to make an international splash, appearing in competition this year at festivals such as New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival. (Still from Ruggero De Virgiliis' Balkan Curtains, pictured above.)
In today’s marketplace where documentary experts continue to espouse the essential ingredients one needs in order to break out into the international marketplace, the phrase “personal stories with universal appeal” is de rigueur. Which leads me back to the West quote at the beginning of this article. I cannot really decide if the fact that most of these Balkan stories are far from universal is a virtue, or not. If this universality is, in fact, a vital prerequisite for films that are trying to distinguish themselves on the international scene, then it is, indeed, a drawback right now. But, at this juncture in the region’s independent documentary industry, it is my opinion that it is a virtue, and here’s why: perhaps Balkan filmmakers do need to concentrate on telling Balkan stories that speak more to local audiences than international ones—in their own vernacular, providing sorely-needed context, cogency to the transformation the current Serbia (and the rest of the Balkan region) is undergoing, “disclosing its significance,” and “sufficiently characterizing” the people that live there.
This is really the best thing to which this, or any other, nascent regional fest can aspire, particularly since, in this case, there have been so many major interruptions to the country’s creative growth. Festivals like this one that continue to showcase the strongest, most vital and articulate documentary work from its own pool of talent provide a chance for healing, moving forward, resolution, understanding, etc. And by exhibiting some of the best of international cinema side by side this regional fare, new and innovative dialogues will emerge, creating opportunities for this isolation to eventually dissipate, perhaps.
Like many other cultural start-ups with lofty ambitions in the disenfranchised and still isolated Balkan region, the Beldocs fest must simultaneously react to, and participate in, the international marketplace. At the same time, there is an obligation to rebuild a new aesthetic (or refresh an old one, depending on whom you speak with) to better articulate the ways in which people are still enmeshed with a messy, war-torn recent past, and a future that not too many can describe or define with any confidence or clarity. The old is new again, and the new must reflect the past—East and West overlapping, integrating, enmeshed. It’s all utterly bewildering and extremely ripe with possibility. One comes away from an environment like this wanting very much to return as soon as possible.