Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

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17 Sept

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Karlovy Vary film festival posterKARLOVY VARY
truth between
the bombs
and bullets

Balkan war films at the
Karlovy Vary film festival

Balkan conflicts continue to inspire films. But do they all have something of substance to say about these specific wars or even wider issues, asks Andrew James Horton.

Before 1991, there weren't that many books on Yugoslavia in bookshops. Then, suddenly, great tomes on the collapse of Yugoslavia and the history that led to these events sprung up everywhere. The problem in finding information on the Balkan conflicts is now not one of locating material, but sifting through it to find out what is valuable and what is less so. Clearly, Balkan scholars around the world have found a lucrative way to top up their salaries.

The situation in feature film, however, is rather different. Although there are some notable exceptions (Michael Winterbottom being the most obvious example), few directors outside the region have chosen to explore the Balkan conflicts as a manifestation of human experience. That's not to say that those outside southeastern Europe have been starved of moving images of the crises, but rather these have been in the form of news and television documentaries. As harrowing as these may be and although they are often highly personalised, their primary function is the exploration of surface events and their immediate causes and effects, rather than underlying philosophical issues about the nature of war, the human condition and other such metaphysical questions.

An under-used universal symbol

Perhaps this lack of feature films from non-Balkan directors is slightly surprising, given that the international community has been directly involved in southeastern Europe, and the event is certainly etched into the collective consciousness of the West. Indeed, it could be said, in Europe certainly, that the Balkans has become a synecdochical image of total and bloody war to the generations too young to remember the Second World War or Vietnam, not to mention being a by-word for inter-ethnic tension.

As we might expect, directors born closer to the action have taken a more noticeable role in exploring the conflicts and political, social and moral concerns that arise from them. And amongst them there are films which have made considerable international impact: Emir Kusturica's hotly debated Podzemlje—bila jednom jedna zemlje (Underground—Once Upon a Time There Was a Country, 1995); Srđan Dragojević's searing Lepa selo lepo gore (Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, 1996); and Milčo Mančevski's warning to his fellow Macedonians, Pred doždot (Before the Rain, 1994).

The number of films reaching international audiences is relatively small, though, and outside of the festival context, it is almost impossible to see such films. Thus while the world has a rich array of written analysis on the experiences of the region, there is something of a paucity of artistic expressions of them.

It's hardly surprising then that the few feature films that have filtered through have attracted attention. Given the lack of filmic explorations of the conflict and its wider human themes, how much of a yardstick do we have to measure their interest? Are they interesting as films? Or are they just interesting as films about a particular, narrow set of events in one part of the world?

Between the lines

The main film to capture the public eye so far this year has been Danis Tanović's No Man's Land (2000), which shot to international attention when it won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes. With the film screening in Karlovy Vary, which traditionally has a strong showing of films from central, eastern and southeastern Europe, the question was whether the film would look so impressive presented alongside other Balkan war films.

Tanović himself was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina and shot news and documentary film footage in the first few years of the Bosnian war before emigrating to Brussels. The film, which was shot mainly in Slovenia, is a co-production between France, Italy, Belgium, Britain and Slovenia, and was made with the support of the European Commission's Eurimages fund.

Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land (2000)
A desperate bid for escape
The film largely takes place in a trench in the titular space between enemy lines, where the main characters are a Serb, Nino, and two Bosnians who find themselves trapped. Whilst one of the Bosnians, Čiki, has just a shoulder wound, his comrade is in rather more trouble, being unable to move as he has been booby-trapped by Serbs mistaking him for a dead body while he lay unconscious. Unsure of how to escape from their predicament, Čiki and Nino engage in an uneasy alliance marked by mutual mistrust.

Their respective commanding officers are also perplexed as how to resolve the situation, and independently both sides call in UNPROFOR. International politics and the presence of the media soon make a seemingly straightforward task infinitely more complex, and the film ends with a final confrontation between Čiki and Nino, while UNPROFOR cynically cover up the failure of their mission with a bare-faced lie and the media circus fail to take even the most elementary steps to check if what they say is true.

Hell in Bosnia

In its early stages, with the two protagonists struggling to take each other prisoner and both being torn between the shared present experience that unites them and their war memories that divide them, No Man's Land seems to be pitching itself as a rather unconvincing Bosnian remake of John Boorman's Hell in the Pacific (1968), itself not an entirely successful film. As the plot thickens, though, it soon becomes apparent that Tanović is aiming at something different from Hell in the Pacific's exploration of what happens when two individuals from warring sides are forced to try and understand each other. Tanović is really building up to a critique of international involvment in the Bosnian war.

But it's here as well that Tanović really comes a cropper. With his war reportage years, Tanović is excellently equipped to conjure up life—and death—on the battlefield. Since this is not his focus, however, Tanović spends little time psychologising about Čiki and Nino or placing their actions in any wider form of context.

By looking at UNPROFOR and the media, Tanović hits upon that interminable problem that afflicts directors all over the world of not being able to portray characters from outside their social or cultural environment. To be honest, I have not much idea how Tanović has spent his time in Brussels, but the evidence of his film suggests that he has not spent much time observing the inner workings of international agencies. His international characters are cardboard cut-outs and it is clear they have been poorly directed. Simon Callow's acting as Soft, for example, is appalling.

No Man's Land is, therefore, not so much an observational work but a fantasy which works backwards from the incompetence that Bosnians observed and tries to imagine what might have caused UNPROFOR to behave in such a way. It's an entertaining stab at the problem, and perhaps it is cathartic for Bosnians, but it makes it a very unconvincing film under close scrutiny. In its lack of proper characterisation, No Man's Land comes over as Bosnia as imagined by Hollywood.

Yet the film will undoubtedly be popular in the short term. Bosnians will respond readily—and I think rightly so—to the stereotyped image of UNPROFOR incompetence, while international audiences will find the film assuages their white liberal guilt about the West cocking up in southeastern Europe. What remains to be seen is how the film will be viewed a few years down the line. My suspicion is that it will not age well, and generations to come will view it as an amusing but rather slight film that has little to say about the war either in its own right or in the context of wider human concerns.

Forging a new Serbia

Similar problems dogged Darko Bajić's Rat uživo (War Live, 2001), which received its international premiere when it appeared in competition at Karlovy Vary.

Darko Bajic's Rat uzivo (War Live, 2001)
Promo material for Rat uživo
Failing director Sergei (Dragan Bjelogrlić) is on the brink of seeing the production of his film rescued by a loud-mouthed, overweight American businessman, Harvey, who spends his time in Belgrade in a perpetual chase for booze and women, when he's not advertising sanitary towels to the Serbs. This prospective salvation is cruelly snatched away from him when the Americans start to bombard Belgrade and Harvey becomes hunted by the Serb secret police. Sergei concocts a convoluted plan to rescue his American backer and—more importantly—the loot in his now frozen bank account.

Harvey is persuaded to star in the film as an American who sides with Serbia in disgust at his country's aggression. Skillfully manipulating the media, Sergei outwits the regime's man on the case, Mileta. The secret service goon finds himself trapped in a Hobson's choice of letting the film go ahead or facing a backlash from the media. Sergei then tries the delicate task of creating an anti-war film disguised as a patriotic, "sophisticated melodrama." Mileta, totally distrustful of Sergei, has a few media tricks of his own, however, and Sergei realises he, his colleagues and his family all face a long time in a Milošević jail unless he can pull off a media stunt that makes his previous attempts pale into insignificance.

Billed as being "From the makers of Pretty Village, Pretty Flame" on its English-language publicity material, the film raises the expectation of being of a gritty, blackly humorous journey into the heart of the Serbian nation and its experience of war, realised through a complex narrative of parrallel narration across several time frames. What we get, however, is something rather different: a distinctly mono-layered, linear story, which relies on stock-in-trade clichés (the whole character of Harvey is particularly cringe-worthy) and whose humour is rather more slapstick than dark.

Whilst Aleksandar Berček puts in a fine performance as Mileta, most of the acting ranges from mediocre (Bjelogrlić) to dire (Daryl Haney as Harvey). Indeed, the character of Harvey again proves that Balkan directors have immense difficulty in creating realistic Western characters.

A film of its time

Rat uživo was scripted after the Belgrade bombings and shooting took place in spring 2000—months before the overthrow of the regime. The film wasn't distributed until after the revolution, though, and at a press conference the makers described how they feared they would be jailed as a result of the film's clear political stance: like other recent films released hot on the heels of the recent political changes, such as Ljubiša Samardžić's Nataša (Natasha, 2001), Rat uživo, aims, almost desperately, to illustrate the separation between the Serbian people and Milošević.

Whereas Nataša tries to illustrate the break with a series of new vs old motifs, Rat uživo is rather more subtle, in that it attempts to foster a new sense of Serbian patriotism outside of the context of the old regime: you can still love your country and not have to feel guilty about it. Harvey, in particular, plays up to the egos of Yugoslav audiences by showering praise on the Serb people. Aside from the stabs at her hubby's time in power, this is, perhaps, a film that Mira Marković should approve of in its creation of a positive image of the Serb people.

While the film is undoubtedly cheering for a domestic audience, international viewers are likely to be less satisfied. Most of the social and political background that Rat uživo sets out to prove is already universally accepted in the international community and the film's bad acting, embarrassing use of the film-within-a-film motif and nauseatingly self-congratulatory ending mean it is unlikely to be of interest in the future to anyone but social historians.

Ideological adventures on the front

Another film playing in competition that dealt with the experiences of a Balkan conflict (this time the war in Croatia) was Ibolya Fekete's Chico (2001), receiving its official world premiere at the festival. Described by Fekete as an "ideological adventure film," Chico is an attempt to explore a search for a set of beliefs in a world of fallible and temporary philosophies.

Ibolya Fekete's Chico (2001)
Eduardo Rózsa Flores:
Revolutionary sans frontières
Born in Bolivia to a Jewish Hungarian father who is a staunch Communist and raised as a Catholic, Eduardo Rózsa Flores's life is one of mixed identity and fervent ideology. The two lead him across the world, both fleeing and pursuing revolution as he searches for real Socialism. Driven out of Chile after the military uprising against Salvador Allende, he heads, via Sweden, to Hungary. He finds Kádár's brand of Socialism to be "not hard enough" and heads to Moscow to be trained in the KGB. Even here, he is disappointed: the trainee officers just want to get drunk and have little passion for the regime they are to enforce.

Booted out of the Hungarian secret service for following his ideology rather than the hierarchy of military command, Flores starts his hunt for something else to believe in. Taking up journalism he travels to Albania, which he finds to be similar to Latin America, and then goes on a spiritual journey to Jerusalem to find his faith—or rather one of them, given his dual Jewish/Catholic background.

As Flores tells us in his confessional narrative, it was in Croatia that "it all came together." Starting as a journalist, he soon finds he cannot remain neutral and takes up arms alongside the Croats to protect a Hungarian village. His commitment soon leads to a group of men gathering around him who share his ideals.

Just as Flores, now nicknamed Chico, feels he has found a niche in life for himself, it is whipped away from him. He loses the village he sought to protect and most of his men, whom he admits were only there because of him, are killed, bringing the film up to the narrative present in which Flores is reflecting on his ideological adventure.

A strong character

Chico avoids the major pitfalls that No Man's Land and Rat uživo fall into, presenting a convincing story which seeks to explore its subject matter tentatively rather than to be programmatic in its aims.

Doubtless, much of the gripping realism of the film comes from the central character, Flores, being based on a real-life person—a non-professional actor Fekete met while making her first film, Bolse vita (1996). Having written a script loosely based on Flores's life story, Fekete set about trying to find somebody to play the character: no mean task given the character has to speak Hungarian, Croatian and Spanish fluently. Eventually, she decided that the only person who had the qualities she wanted would be Flores himself. Thus, intriguingly, Flores plays a fictionalised version of his own self, something that he pulls off with remarkable success.

Another element in the film's convincing nature is Fekete's unusual ability to direct actors of a different nationality speaking in their own tongue. This rare talent was evident in Bolse vita, which included believeable and rounded portrayals of Russian and British characters: no cardboard cut-outs here. Fekete consolidates on her characterisation of Chico by telling his story in a non-linear manner, thus being able to mix in all the multiple and often contradictory influences in his life while at the same time escaping from the dull "biopic" feel that could have resulted from a more straightforward narrative approach. Despite all the temporal jumps in the story, Chico is a surprisingly absorbing film to watch and Fekete is careful to never lose the viewer.

I can't say that I saw all, or even a majority, of the films in competition, but I found nothing in Fekete's directing acheivements to contradict the award for Best Director she picked up. Similarly, it is hard to argue with the Ecumenical Jury, who awarded Chico their prize.

Taking sides

The film is not without its controversies, however. Chico's inclination to hardline views may draw the condemnation of some, particularly since Fekete clearly has no intention of making him an "anti-hero." It's possible that some will object to his involvement in the secret services; more likely to cause offence, however, is Chico's pro-Croat stance, as it is combined with no balancing perspective of the Serb point of view. Indeed, the few portrayals of Serbs there are negative and there is no hint at attrocities committed by Croats.

The film's defenders will doubtlessly point out that filmic arguments about who committed what attrocity when are futile, and that Chico is wise to avoid such spats and stick to a tale of how hardline opinions form in the hunt for meaning in life. Personally, I can see the validity in this argument but also feel that Fekete, without compromising the film, could have avoided some of the critical flak she will get by a relatively simple inclusion of acknowledgement that the Croatians were not angels and the Serbs had their own reasons for adopting a radical position.

Ibolya Fekete
Ibolya Fekete
Fekete, though, has her own war story to tell in that she visited Sarajevo during the seige and Vukovar shortly after Serb forces left the flattened town. I met Fekete at the festival and, after our conversation was interrupted by a rather insistant Serb who gave Fekete a ticket to see Rat uživo so she could understand a different perspective, she admitted to me that while she fully acknowledged that both sides had committed attrocities, she found it hard to get over the fact that the Serbs had been the first to open fire. I thought this was a rather simplistic stance for the creator of a film of such richness—but then I wasn't there at Vukovar or Sarajevo.

Despite my reservations about Fekete's unwillingness to show even an indication of the Serb's version of events, I still feel that Chico is a film of significance. If people want to take offence at its one-sidedness, that is their loss, for the film ultimately transcends these issues of who was on what side. As the Ecumenical Jury pointed out in the commendation, the film shows "in a novel way that some wars are inevitable and some revolutions are just, and that individuals are drawn into the logic of these events, willingly or unwillingly" and also illustrates the "spiritual dimension of human existence which remains, while ideologies come and go."

It will be interesting to see how Chico, along with No Man's Land and Rat uživo, are viewed in the future. Certainly if you look at the Second World War, over 50 years after its end, film (and indeed literature) are still finding new ways to conceptualise it: for example, the recent focus on the atomised nature of the war experience in, say, Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998) and the shift of focus on the Jewish experience from passive victims of the Holocaust to active resisters, as exemplified by Claude Lanzmann's Sobibor, 14 octobre 1943, 16 heures (2001).

Based on this continual evolution, the way the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s are portrayed are likely to change for some time to come, and perhaps Fekete's more partisan approach will not seem so strange once the raw wounds have healed a little. In fact, of the three films discussed, I would predict that Chico has by far the longest shelf life and will still make rewarding viewing in years to come, precisely because it probes deep in its exploration of specific mentalities and events without limiting its ability to represent wider aspects of human experience across the globe.

Andrew James Horton

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About the author

Andrew James HortonAndrew James Horton is Editor-in-Chief of Kinoeye and Culture Editor of Central Europe Review. He also writes on central European culture for other journals and edited the e-book The Celluloid Tinderbox: Yugoslav screen reflections of a turbulent decade.

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