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April 1, 2002 2:00 AM
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WORLD CINEMA REPORT: Powder Kegs and Financial Ruin; Will Oscar Glory Give Boost to Balkan Cinema?

WORLD CINEMA REPORT: Powder Kegs and Financial Ruin; Will Oscar Glory Give Boost to Balkan Cinema?



by Anthony Kaufman




(indieWIRE: 04.01.02) -- Halle Berry wasn't the only Oscar winner to make history on March 24. Danis Tanovic, director of "No Man's Land," is the first director from the Balkans to ever win an Academy Award for best foreign language film. Tanovic's surprise victory (leaving Miramax favorite "Amelie" in the dust) could bring renewed life to a film industry -- and a people -- torn apart by civil strife and ethnic cleansing. Aside from the works of pre-war educated masters such as Emir Kusturica ("Underground"), Goran Paskaljevic ("The Powder Keg"), and Dusan Makavejev ("Mysteries of the Organism"), films from the former Yugoslavia have had a difficult time getting made and seen, but the young Tanovic may signal hope for a new generation of filmmakers. Hope, however, doesn't translate to dollars or infrastructure.


"We are not getting killed anymore," Tanovic bluntly told backstage press after his Oscar win, "but the thing is, Bosnia is on its knees." Tanovic also related some bleak statistics about his former film school. "When I started studying directing in Bosnia there were 360 candidates for four places, and last year, there were three candidates for five places, but 15,000 for the police academy," he said. "I just hope there will be more kids who will want to study film directing."


But the level of creative inspiration in the region seems in much better shape than the actual conditions for creating. "I think Tanovic's success has been a boon to local filmmakers," says Howard Feinstein, a journalist, Sarajevo Film Festival programmer and curator of "No Man's Land: The Splintering of Yugoslavia" (an upcoming series at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music from April 12 through 14). According to Feinstein, international organizations and producers are recognizing local filmmakers, kicking in money and support, and plan on making a major announcement soon. At the annual Sarajevo festival in August, the event has begun to develop training programs, workshops, and panels for emerging filmmakers. (This year, Mike Leigh will attend and tutor.)


In addition to Tanovic, whose poignant documentary work "Portraits of Artists in Sarajevo" (1994), "Dawn" (1996), and "Awakenings" (1998) will be on display at BAM next week, Feinstein feels that there is a wealth of untapped Balkan talent. "There are several wonderful scripts ready to go," he says, listing directors like Srdan Vuletic, whose award-winning narrative short "Hop, Skip and Jump" -- a tense, skillful story of life before, during, and after wartime -- will also be highlighted at the BAM series. (The scene in which young boys race back and forth across an alley, taunting the crosshairs of a sniper, is a near-perfect tale by itself.) There's also Pjer Zalica, maker of the brief, disturbing sniper portrait "A Man Called Boat," and Goran Radovanovic ("Second Circle," "Model House") and Jasmila Zbanic ("Red Rubber Boots"), two documentarians ready to turn to feature filmmaking.


Last year, the area also saw the arrival of Srdan Golubovic's feature "Absolute Hundred," which follows the troubled life of a championship marksman (winner of an audience award at the Thessaloniki Film Festival). And Yugoslav neighbor Albania has given rise to director Gjergj Xhuvani's Cannes favorite "Slogans," and Rotterdam 2002 and New Directors/New Films entry Fatmir Koci's "Tirana Year Zero." In addition, Berlin 2002 saw the premiere of "Boomerang," Dragan Marinkovic's post-war Serbian-set dark farce, which Variety called "a lively, if familiar looking, Balkan comedy."


Not exactly the most exuberant praise, but considering that there is virtually no local infrastructure or financing available, with money going first to building homes and repatriating refugees, it's a miracle films are getting made at all. "There is no lab in Bosnia and not one single working 35mm camera," says the Sarajevo-based Jasmila Zbanic, whose harrowing documentary "Red Rubber Boots" follows a woman searching for the body (and boots) of her four-year-old child amidst mass graves.


Zbanic says there are three main reasons for the ongoing crisis for filmmakers in Bosnia: poverty; a government system that demands financiers pay an extra 30 percent state tax on funds that go to films ("This is insane, isn't it?," says Zbanic); and a lack of support from the Bosnian state. According to Zbanic, the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995 ensured that the Sarajevo city government -- which doesn't have the money or the power to sign international production pacts -- handles the film industry, consequently tying the hands of filmmakers. Says Zbanic, "In order to make the state in charge of the films, we have to change the Dayton peace agreement!"


The situation for Serbian filmmakers isn't much better. "The state structures are bankrupt and their very survival depends on foreign donations," says Belgrade-based director Goran Radovanovic. Defunct institutions like the Avala Film Studio and the Belgrade Film Laboratory, which made some 20 Serbian films annually, according to Radovanovic, no longer exist. "Today in Serbia one or two films are made annually, but the 35mm camera is usually rented from Germany, the negatives are developed in Bulgaria, sound is edited in Portugal, and copies are made in Hungary," he says.


For an industry that had been based on a communist model of state funding, and according to Radovanovic, one that was required to "obey party directives," the current challenge is opening up production to private, foreign financiers. Radovanovic explains, "For the first time there's a growing awareness that national film production cannot survive without integration into a broader European framework. Lamentably, Serbia is quite far from achieving it."


Like most filmmakers working in poverty-stricken countries, Radovanovic relies on support from outside producers for his survival. His feature project, "Model House," about the plight of Serbian refugees, was set for backing from Dutch company First Floor Features. However, Radovanovic points out that "right after the contract was signed, NATO bombing came and the producer backed out. Currently I'm looking for a new partner."


In Sarajevo, Zbanic also remains persistent. "We do not wait -- as older filmmakers -- for the government to give us money," she says. "We try international co-productions, foreign producers, festivals, and we do make films."


"No Man's Land," for example, had at least five production companies on board from the U.K., Italy, Belgium, France, and Slovenia, not to mention additional support from the Eurimages fund, and Belgian TV and cultural organizations. Emir Kusturica recently turned to French giant Studio Canal for three new films: the first, "Hungry Heart," is slated to shoot in Belgrade this year.


Aside from the broken local economy, Feinstein wonders whether filmmakers have less of a compelling reason to make movies now that the war is over. During the siege of Sarajevo, says Feinstein, "Filmmakers were shooting with video cameras, making works without electricity and water: there was more of an incentive then, the sense that they had to do something."


Currently, Radovanovich says ethnic tensions are virtually non-existent (though Zbanic says she stills feels unsafe in nearby Serb-controlled areas), but he says, "what does exist, like a specific unexploded bomb, is an enormous dissatisfaction due to nearly unbearable economic conditions." And it is these conditions, not bullets or battlefields, that are serving as new inspiration for local filmmakers. "Now that the wars are over, we have a society close to collapse," says Radovanovich. "This is also an interminable source of stories and absurdities."


Likewise, Zbanic, who has made several new works since 2000's "Red Rubber Boots," and started a theater company, aptly titled Theatre of Good Nourishment, says, "There is a sense of urgency to create films now more then ever. In my case, I believe I have a necessary distance from the war and tragedy and I am able to work more deeply on my emotions."


"During the war there were obvious conflicts and it was too much black and white," she continues. "Now, conflicts are more inside, more sophisticated." In the years since the violence has subsided, Zbanik has increasingly discovered another aspect of her storytelling. "I think I am able to find more humor in stories and in life. That was difficult before," she says.


Whether "No Man's Land" will open the doors for new works from the Zbaniks and Radovanovics of the region remains to be seen. At the very least, the Oscar triumph has opened the door for more opportunities to see "No Man's Land" itself: last Friday, United Artists booked 13 new venues for the film, from Dayton, Ohio (home of the Peace Accords) to Albuquerque to Philadelphia. But Balkan films traditionally haven't done well in the U.S. "We have found wall after wall of audience resistance," UA chief Bingham Ray told indieWIRE recently about the film's success in the marketplace. "We've been met with modest results, even in the most sophisticated of cities."


"I don't think it's considered sexy," laments Feinstein of the U.S. attitude toward Balkan cinema. However, he thinks that after September 11, people's attitudes towards foreign cultures may be changing. "It can't help but make us a little more aware of our place in the world community; because of the attack, I think it will increase our interest in how other conflicts have affected the world," he says. "At least, I hope so."

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