This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival.Clickhere to read all of the Academy’s work.
Stock characters of selfless, self-sacrificing mothers, countless silent and nude women, hysterical sisters, local floozies and urban shrews: The cinema of former Yugoslavia has been notoriously sexist, though the films themselves received notable critical acclaim and popular success during the existence of Yugoslav country.
The film criticism of the epoch rarely, if ever, tackled the representations of gender relations and identities. One reason for this (as film criticism itself has had a long and respectable tradition in the region) may be the tendency of the communist regime to view feminism as “bourgeois” and the personal which it concerned as a non-political matter. Feminism itself as a decidedly Western European movement was, at least in the form that we usually speak of, notably absent from the public discourse of the region until well into the eighties. European feminist film criticism, meanwhile, has deconstructed, reconstructed, reformed and redeveloped film theory without Yugoslav film criticism — or, for that matter, filmmakers — taking any notice.
Some notable scholars on popular culture in the Balkans have noted that there was no considerable difference between the ideologically “correct” films and the internationally renowned avant-garde movement, the Black Wave, which the state apparatus kept attacking, forbidding or preventing by withholding from it the necessary funding. Female bodies on film were, regardless of the popularity of the filmmakers with the ruling regime, infantilized, humiliated, raped, beaten, killed and maternalized. The rare representation of a “free” womanhood has been narratively punished by the collective male institutional order of patriarchal forces.
And yet, in the last few years, something unexpected has started to happen: in the countries where women were traditionally not present behind the camera and cast as a visual spectacle or a sexual commodity in front of it, more and more female and/or feminist film voices are starting to emerge. Some of them are: Teona Mitevska in Macedonia, Mirjana Vukomanović and Maja Miloš in Serbia, Hana Slak and Maja Weiss in Slovenia, Marija Perović in Montenegro and Aida Begić and Jasmila Žbanić in Bosnia. What is more, their films are often relevant, receiving significant international attention as well as being the recipients of numerous awards. Two years ago, for example, the Serbian “Clip” by Miloš stirred a lot of controversy for its sexually explicit content featuring teenage girls, but at the same time, snagged a couple of prestigious awards, like the Rotterdam Tiger for its sharp critique of our culture, encouraging the self-objectification of young women.
This year at the Locarno Film Festival, two of such films were presented in competition as well as the Piazza Grande screenings: “Love Island”, the newest film by Jasmila Žbanić, who in 2006 was awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlinale film festival for “Grbavica," an unflinching look at wartime rape, a fairly taboo topic, and the influence its consequences still hold in the lives of women and their families in post-war Bosnia; and “Cure: The Life of Another” by Andrea Štaka, a Golden Leopard winner for her debut feature, “The Fraulein," also in 2006, in which she examines the female relationships of three immigrants in Switzerland, each powerfully influenced by her sense of national belonging: Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian.
To an extent, both films provide an alternative to the directors’ previous work, which is especially obvious in the case of “Love Island”, a silly comedy about a Bosnian-French couple on vacation on a scenic Croatian island, falling into the clutches of the devilishly seductive Flora. Through having fun with national stereotypes, sometimes playing them straight, at other times subverting them, “Love Island” emerges as a rare piece of gay comedy in its environment. Similarly, “Cure: The Life of Another” explores an obsessive, sexually charged relationship between two young women, Linda and Eta, that may be also seen as a parable to discovering one’s own connection to femininity (whatever that might be). Both films resemble a large part of the post-war Bosnian cinema in that they seem to deal with the past and its seductive power that makes it difficult to ever leave it behind completely, or the state of perpetual entrapment within it, being ever defined by the losses suffered. On the other hand, the strategy of presenting gender relations and identities that defiy the objectifying masculine or even foreign gaze is distinctive, setting the films firmly apart from the majority of production of their home countries.
Both decidedly subversive of traditional values of the Balkans, or at least the way they are normally perceived, these films and their predecessors prompt the question: Why at this particular moment in time? Is it just a matter of progression or has the filmmakers’ situation in the countries of former Yugoslavia really changed? As far as legislation is concerned, there have been some changes in the past few years that may have made it easier for less well-known or less well-established filmmakers and producers to benefit from the national film funds. Still, a large number of filmmakers are forced to seek co-producers from abroad in order to fund their films at all, and in the past few years, these countries have been increasingly opened towards foreign co-productions. This might as well be playing a role in the topics the films deal with or the angles they are considered from; it seems like the stories most appealing to foreign audiences are the alternatives to the perceived nationalism and patriarchal culture of these countries. In other words, stories that have been taboo for a long time, but have now found their voice in the works of women directors in southeastern Europe.