“In my country, there are no happy endings,” says Goran Paskaljevic, the acclaimed director of “Cabaret Balkan,” one of three Yugoslav movies hitting American shores with a sobering vengeance this season. Next week, Srdjan Dragojevic’s “The Wounds” opens in Boston, followed by the release of Emir Kusturica’s long-awaited “Black Cat, White Cat” in the Fall (after being pushed back several times by distributor-in-transition USA Films.) These are three very different movies by three very different Yugoslavian directors, offering a heavy dose of pain, parody, and cinematic achievement — humanizing the citizens of the troubled Balkan region that U.S.-lead NATO forces were bombing just two months ago.
A four-time visitor to Cannes with 11 features and more than 40 documentaries and shorts on his resume, Paskaljevic prefers to be called Yugoslavian rather than Serbian. The 52-year-old director may be the most vocal opponent of the Milosevic regime, though Dragojevic — who demonstrated against Belgrade’s government during the 88-day winter 1996 protest — could fall a close second. Kusturica, the most apolitical of the three, is quite a different story. Born a Bosnian Muslim in Sarajevo, Kusturica — famed director of the controversial “Underground” — has since been denounced for being pro-Serbian and doesn’t return to his home, though he does visit his son in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Because of his reluctance to talk politics, a separate interview with Kusturica dedicated to his trademark filmmaking style will appear in indieWIRE when the film opens in the fall. Still, speaking with all three directors one feels the impact of their ravaged homeland, and whether it be reflected as nostalgia, anger, or denial, there is a sense of loss that unites them.
“My country is going through the night and we don’t see hope,” Paskaljevic told indieWIRE at the Thessaloniki Film Festival last November, when asked about the despair in his latest film “Cabaret Balkan.” Formerly known as “The Powder Keg,” the movie interweaves several explosive stories over the course of a single night in Belgrade 1995. “When the film screened in Los Angeles,” says Paskaljevic, “many people loved the film but asked the same question, ‘Why is there no hope? Why is it so dark?’ Because life in my country is like that,” he answers. “I would be a liar if I put some artificial sense of hope on the end. We have the same shitty politicians in power, and we haven’t done anything about it. So maybe the hope in this film is that one of the characters shakes people up a bit and says, ‘Wake up.'”
The 36-year-old Dragojevic also wants to cause a stir with his film, “The Wounds,” a movie he says “will make ‘A Clockwork Orange‘ seem like a Disney production” about two Belgrade boy-criminals who grow up emulating the Mafia during the nation’s crisis between 1991 and 1996. It’s an equally brutal follow up to his previous feature, the powerful “Pretty Villages, Pretty Flames.”
“‘Pretty Village’ had some sort of catharsis in the end. That’s why it was extremely popular, because it produces a lot of tears and audiences can feel better,” Dragojevic told indieWIRE at the New Directors/New Films festival last March during the beginning of the bombing campaign against his country. “In the case of ‘The Wounds,’ I didn’t want catharsis at all. I wanted a stone in their throats after the screening, and that’s all. Probably because of my rage against the Serbian regime. Eight years I had to live in my country, with the hunger, poverty, criminality, cowardliness of the people, and losing any kind of hope.”
“‘The Wounds’ is a film that appeared too early,” says Dragojevic, “without any kind of historical distance — which we probably need. Already people don’t want to remember that period. My duty is to say, I won’t allow you to forget it, because something worse will happen, and unfortunately, it did happen,” he adds, referring to the war in Kosovo.
Because of Dragojevic’s aggressive stance, the Serbian government tried to limit exposure of “The Wounds,” forbidding publicity and creating what the director calls “a complete media blackout.” “We had to struggle against that, traveling from town to town with word of mouth publicity,” he says. And it worked. “The Wounds” was the biggest grossing Serbian film in Belgrade after the war and the first Serbian film to reach success in the neighboring republics of Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia. Paskaljevic’s film has seen even wider success, winning international critic’s prizes at the Venice Film Festival and the European Film Awards, and gaining distribution worldwide.
But it wasn’t easy to get there. Both directors faced a country with little film industry or financing infrastructure. “In Yugoslavia, you can’t make low-budget films,” says Dragojevic, “because there are no film facilities. They’ve all been destroyed because of the sanctions. So we had to rent equipment from Hungary and Bulgaria and go there for post-production. That’s why we can’t make very cheap films.” According to Dragojevic, “The Wounds” cost a little less than $800,000, comparatively small by U.S. indies standards, but consider the economy of Yugoslavia, which scored Europe’s highest ever inflation rate in 1993.
“In general, it’s a mess,” echoes Paskaljevic. “The government gives automatic help to any film that is ready to start production. So you know that you can get $70,000, but it means little. A normal film costs $1.2 to $1.5 million in Yugoslavia, so you can have five percent from the government and then after that, state television is obliged to give you another fifteen percent, but that’s it. The rest you have to find by yourself. So,” he continues, “you are obliged to make a [international] co-production, which is quite easy for me, because people know me. But for the young filmmakers, it is a catastrophe,” adds Paskaljevic. Witness Dragojevic’s frustration: “I am a little sick of searching for sponsorship, cheating the government, cheating the ministry of culture, cheating the official television — I cheated them twice — they’re just stupid.” In addition to the normal routes of financing, Paskaljevic also offers “war profiteers” as a potential source, but “they will want you to put their daughters or wives in the film,” he says.
Despite production challenges, both Paskaljevic and Dragojevic produced potent films about the disintegration of their country. And hitting the point home, Dragojevic says he cast his two 15-year-old actors from the streets. When the director first met Milan Maric, who plays Kraut, he showed up bleeding from a fight he had on the way to the audition, and Dusan Pekic who plays Pinki, attempted suicide with heroine when he was 14, and shot one of his pimp-father’s customers just six months before production. “A very problematic kid,” intones Dragojevic.
Neither filmmaker offers much hope about their own future in the Balkan region. Paskaljevic is presently location scouting in Mexico for his next film; Dragojevic is taking meetings in New York and Los Angeles, trying to get a new project off the ground here. As Dragojevic pessimistically says, “I will never make a film in my country while this regime is in power. Which means the next 20-30 years.” Only Paskaljevic offers the slightest thread of optimism: “I think hope can only come from the new generation.”
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