Mliječni put is only the third truly Bosnian film since 1995, but this wry comedy about emigration has appealed across previously closed borders, as Andrew James Horton explains.
Bosnia, and particularly Sarajevo, has become something of a heroic icon in Western perceptions. Whereas Serbia and Croatia as states both have their names linked to specific ethnic groups, and thus, by dubious logic and an unfortunate set of former leaders, are intrinsically linked to the idea of mono-ethnicity, Bosnia and Herzegovina has emerged as some sort of exemplar of the idea of multi-culturalism. The patronage this has brought has been considerable, including an international film festival (that didn't exist a decade ago and is now more important than all the far older festivals in the former Yugoslavia) and vast amounts of aid.
But it hasn't brought a feature film industry. Since 1995, the end of the war that ravaged Bosnia, the country has produced only three feature films—the lowest cinematic output of any European country over that period. The most recent of these, Faruk Sokolović's Mliječni put (Milky Way, 2000), might be expected to pick up a certain amount of interest domestically for the novelty of seeing a Bosnian film. However, it not only succeeded in being the most popular film in Bosnia last year, it also has crossed previously closed cultural borders to win acclaim among Bosnia's neighbours.
Getting around the test
The film, set in post-war Sarajevo, focusses on two separate families who share the same dreams: emigrating. Mujo Hrle is a former biology professor who now makes a living by donning a fez and driving a horse-drawn trap through the streets of Sarajevo. Despite having stayed in Sarajevo throughout the war, he and his wife, Sena, see no future in the country and wish to move to New Zealand. However, they fail the "resettlement test" as they are both Muslims and priority is given to mixed marriages.
On the other side of town, Anna is similarly disenchanted with Sarajevo life, and has by chance hit on the same antipodean country to save her and her husband, Josip. They, however, are both Croats, and so fail the test for similar reasons as the Hrles do. But to the rescue comes Ale, a self-made entrepreneur who has obviously made a lot of enemies while making his fortune. In return for being saved from an attempt on his life, he introduces the couples and suggests they divorce their current spouse and swap to meet the resettlement test requirements.
This apparently simple plan soon stumbles across cultural and emotional differences. And that's before they have to present their paperwork at the airport.
Wanting to leave
Much of the film's popularity derives from its artful mix of gritty urban realism and absurd, occasionally slapstick comedy: it's an amusing film about a reality that isn't always humorous. Some of the characters are clearly exaggerated archetypes (particularly Ale, but also other roles such an obsessive Tito nostalgist), but the film has still been received in the region as being "how things really are." This is gone down particularly well since it is one of only a few post-Yugoslav films to focus on everyday reality; a far more common approach is to focus on extreme situations that might be symbolic of the state of society as a whole but are not generally representative.
Faruk Sokolović, speaking at a press conference at last month's Thessaloniki film festival, expressed a mild irritation at the media billing of Danis Tanović's No Man's Land (2001) as a "Bosnian" film. Brussels-based Tanović was indeed born in Bosnia, and the film is set there. But the film is actually a French/Italian/Belgian/British/Slovene co-production, with the shooting done in Italy and Slovenia. Mliječni put on the other hand was made in Bosnia by a Bosnian production company. The irony that No Man's Land will be Bosnia's official nomination for the Oscars is by no means lost on Sokolović.
Nothing from the state
If you consider the production history of Mliječni put, though, its easy to see why Tanović chose to make his film outside the country he was born in. Mliječni put was shot (on 35mm film) for the paltry sum of around DEM 600,000 (USD 270,000) and entirely without state subsidy. The money had to be raised from producer Mebius Film's own coffers, whose main source of income is commercial advertising and TV programmes; the city of Sarajevo, which contributed just over 10 percent of the budget; and a variety of public and private companies that gave sponsorship of services in kind. Exhibiting a canny knack for pulling together funding, Mebius was given the use of the city's trams and trolley buses for free for shooting and was then able to sell advertising space on the side of them to help fund the film.
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Ironically, No Man's Land is being described by the Western media as a low—or even a micro-budget film, when it was shot for USD 1.7 million—more than six times the cost of Sokolović's film. Tiny as the budget for Mliječni put may seem, though, it is actually comparatively large. The second film to be shot in Bosnia since 1995—and Faruk Sokolović's first feature—the tragic war romance Tunel (Tunnel, 1999) was shot on digital video for DEM 400,000 (USD 180,000).
If Mliječni put can take the moral high ground in claiming to be truly Bosnian, its effectiveness as a film outside of the country has not been diminished. The film has been distributed in both Yugoslavia and Croatia and there are TV deals for six 20-minute episodes to be screened on national TV stations in place or being set up in these countries too, making it the first local film to be so widely distributed since the start of the wars of succession.
In addition to benefiting from the universality of the theme of emigration and negation of the homeland, Mliječni put has managed to achieve its regional success by drawing on a stellar cast of much-loved actors from all over the former Yugoslavia. Playing Ale, for example, is Serbian actor Dragan Bjelogrlić, who will be recognisable to international audiences from his lead role in Srđan Dragojević's Lepa selo lepo gore (Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, 1996), while Ivo Gregurević has appeared in numerous Croatian films, including Vinko Brešan's Maršal (Marshal Tito's Spirit, 1999). Naturally, there are also plenty of Bosnian actors, including Davor Janjić who has appeared in, among other things, Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo (1997). Such a mixed cast is starting to become more usual, but, as Faruk Sokolović was keen to point out at Thessaloniki, Mliječni put broke new ground in this.
Having a strong cast, though, is not enough to guarantee success in other Yugoslav states. As Šuhreta Sokolović, Mliječni put's producer, explained to Kinoeye at Thessaloniki, "distribution is one of the biggest problems for the development of film in the Balkans." Distribution patterns have been disrupted by the Yugoslav wars of succession, and the film industries of neighbouring republics by and large function separately. Even in Srpska Republika, the mainly Serb part of the Republic of Bosnia, there is a different distribution network to the principally Muslim and Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the republic's other half. Indeed, Mliječni put is the first regional film to receive distribution in both the Federation and Srpska Republika.
The problems of distribution
Even in Sarajevo, there is only one cinema which shows European film (usually short seasons of classics rather than contemporary films). Audiences instead prefer American films, a trend that Faruk Sokolović denounced as being very damaging at the press conference, saying that "these films do not provide a positive energy to the public." As seems to increasingly be the case globally, the main way to see non-Hollywood films in Sarajevo is not through theatrical distribution but through the city's international film festival. All of which makes life more difficult for small production companies such as Mebius.
Although Mliječni put has been widely distributed in the context of the current environment, Šuhreta Sokolović is still not confident about the process of international distribution. To overcome the uncertainties of the process, Mebius is now looking to international co-production deals to overcome the hurdles involved with distributing in foreign companies. The company's next venture will involve a Croatian co-producer who will handle distribution in that country.
Both of the Sokolovićs are pessimistic about the possibilities of wider distribution deals, however. "As a production company we are beginners," explains Šuhreta Sokolović, "We have experience with TV, but this film is our second feature, and we don't have the contacts, to be honest. We think we are too young to make something to go outside of this Balkan region." Faruk Sokolović, though, sees it as much a matter of money as of experience: "Usually it's a question of money, because for promotion you need a budget equal to that for shooting the film. If you lack money, then there is no distribution."
The director could well have pointed out that without money there is no shooting either. Mebius is currently trying to put the finance together for his next project, entitled "Dolce vita." Based on the success of Mliječni put, the British Council has expressed an interest in putting in twenty percent of the money. The snag is that this funding is under the condition that the Bosnian government matches it Deutschmark for Deutschmark. How long, then, will we have to wait for Bosnia's fourth film since the end of the war?
Andrew James Horton
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This article was made possible through the support of the Leverhulme Trust.