Perhaps boosted by recent successes in Serbian film-making, Belgrade's film school gets over 100 applicants every year but of those it can only take on five. The number of film debuts in the country is even more depressing. Elke de Wit finds out about the school.
Serbia did not have a particularly easy ride in the 1990s, to say the least. Yet whatever political, social and milatary traumas there were, the decade was something of a success for Serbian film: the Bosnian-born Emir Kusturica won the Palme d'Or with Underground (1995), a tragi-comic history of Yugoslavia partially shot in Belgrade; Srđan Dragojević was lured away by a Hollywood deal, offered on the strength of his films Lepa sela, lepo gore (Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, 1995) and Rane (Wounds, 1998); and Goran Paskaljević's Bure baruta (The Powder Keg, 1998) made an explosive impact on both audiences and critics. With imports restricted because of sanctions and the state carefully controlling television output, independent Serbia cinema thrived.
Kusturica is now losing popularity in Serbia, Dragojević sits idle in Hollywood unable to persuade Miramax to back his projects, and Paskalejević's last internationally co-produced work borders on the derided genre of "Europudding." With thriving domestic interest in cinema still high and the big guns out of the running, does Serbia have the perfect conditions for fostering a new generation of feature film directors to take their places?
The 14th Trieste Film Festival of Alpe-Adria cinema this year offered the chance to audiences to find out about the state of young cinema from Serbia. As part of a regular side bar featuring a regional film school, the festival featured Belgrade's Faculty of Dramatic Arts (Fakultet Dramskich Umetnosti), part of the University of Arts (Univerzitet Umetnosti), founded in 1948. On show were a number of recent student shorts from the school (mostly vibrant and humourous plot-driven works with surprisingly few references to Serbia's recent troubled history), and there to present them were Nikola Lorencin, professor of documentary film and Ivan Petrović a current student of the school.
The Faculty of Dramatic Arts has nine graduate programmes that are spread over an impressive ten departments. Areas covered include drama, acting, theatre- and radio-directing, theatre-and radio-producing, film and TV directing, camera, sound design, editing, production, as well as theory and history. Since 1971, postgraduate studies covering film studies, theatre studies and production with new media have also been offered. The university is also home to a large film library and several screenings a week take place in one of the two in-house cinemas.
Lorencin was very proud of the courses the school had to offer, as "they prepare the students for all the processes of film-making". He added that, "at first our school's education was mostly theoretical, now students are required to be film-makers too, although in the first two years they still study the history and theory of film. When students make films every member of the crew is a student of this university, even the actors, even the old actors are ex-students. We try to make not just film-makers who know all about techniques, but directors who are intellectual, not just directors who make technically good films but those who think about film." At this point Petrović laughed; his short film Dry, a day in the life of a masseur, is witty and basic, more a joke about the inappropriate behaviour of erections than an intellectual exposition.
The largest two teaching departments are the theatre department and the film and television department. The latter is subdivided into directing, camera, sound, production, editing, script writing. Students from both departments often finding themselves working on common projects. I asked how many applied to get into the school each year and what the entrance procedure was. Lorencin explained:
Every year we have an entrance examination which is very difficult and takes about 10 days to 2 weeks. It has several stages that applicants must pass. There are usually over 100 applicants, as young people are very interested in entering the school. From these about 12 to 15 are taken to the final stage and of those only around five get into the school. The applicants are taught how to use a camera during the examination and they are expected to complete two camerawork exercises. The first is to make a short documentary film. For the second they are given a short treatment which they must film in 10 shots using three TV cameras, for example: "We are sitting in this lobby and the telephone is ringing. What happens next?"
In terms of how students in present-day Belgrade managed to finance themselves Lorencin added that "Only two or three students a year are completely supported financially by the Serbian Ministry of Culture, the others must pay for the first year, then if they pass all the examinations they are also supported by the state."
It seems that at present the Belgrade Film School students are almost exclusively Serbian; there is only one foreign student, a first year in the directing course from Pula, Croatia. In the summers before 1999 an international summer film-directing school, a type of masterclass, took place annually in Belgrade. Each year a different director was invited to take the lessons—István Szabó, Krzysztof Zanussi, Dušan Makavejev are among previous lecturers— and the students came from all over Europe. At the end of the course each student finished with a film. This school may once again take place this summer.
Ivan Petrović gave a quick breakdown of what exercises he had been expected to complete as part of his directing course:
In the first year, we did two short films and in the second two documentary films, one a report, one a portrait. In year three, there were three short exercises—a one shot scene that lasts a couple of minutes, a love scene without touching and talking, and a fight scene—plus a short film and a documentary. Those students learning TV directing have to make a short commercial or campaign. A few years ago during the presidential elections in Serbia, there were a large number of hopefuls, because it was easy to become a candidate. As in most political contests, there was a comedy candidate. A young professor from the academy made a deal with him that the students would make a campaign film for him, so that is what they did. It might not be something that we should be proud of [laughs].
Lorencin quickly interjected that although this examination work had been a bit of a joke, it had been very professionally executed and that every clip made by the individual students for the campaign reel had been very good. I asked Petrović what students were required to do in their final year and whether they had the opportunity to produce a full length feature as is often the case in other European countries. In particular I was interested to know what facilities, technical and financial, the students had the possibility of accessing. This question resulted in an interchange between the professor and his student. The former seemed to be to a certain extent defending the status quo, as it was better than in previous years, whereas the latter seemed quite prepared to give an insight into the negative aspects of the way things are:
Petrović: In the fourth year there are six subjects , mostly theoretical ones, such as media studies. We do not need to produce films during the year, but we have one finished film at the end of the year. We prepare for the diploma work, we have classes, but there are no exercises.
Lorencin: Often students make an omnibus with 3 stories. During the last 20 years about 6/7 omnibuses were made which were presented in the cinema theatres in the regular programmes and on TV. In fact even now the students have their own programmes on cable TV.
Petrović: In theory students can make a full length feature at the end of their course, but practically this is very difficult as we don't even have a film laboratory in the country, everything is made mostly on dv and there is very little money. The purpose of the graduation film is to have a coherent scenario complete with a concept, full script, story board etc, the length of the film can be around 30 minutes. Now the school has maybe two or three non-linear systems, computers with video cards, but at the beginning of my studies there were none, so we approached some media houses and begged them to give us some editing time. There is only one lab in the country that develops 16mm stock, but the quality is quite poor; it's OK for students, but...
Lorencin: Once upon a time in Belgrade alone there were four or five film laboratories, but now it's just one lab – a military lab, and they can do it, but when the students work on film mostly the material is developed in Sofia, Bulgaria. This generation of students has passed very fast through many changes of film technology. From celluloid to video, then came magnetic tapes, now it's dv, computers, and lots of other technology. During all these developments we were always very poor, very poor and the students are even now running around borrowing equipment and time outside the school from media companies to create their ideas, their scripts. We can give some, some support money to their productions and some technology but never all they need. Only since last year have things been going much better.
The faculty has a very very small budget for these exercises. And the students must use their own initiative to find the money and technical support to finish the film. For example they can work with a TV station to prepare their project.
Petrović: But national television is in a very bad state; there is not much work.
Lorencin: Everyone who has a diploma from our school can work at many of the TV stations and private productions companies, but graduates often just want to make features so they are just constantly in a state of waiting.
Petrović: In Belgrade there is also one private university art academy that is recognised by the state but if you have a diploma from our university you can find a job easier but not if you want to work on feature films. For features the situation is terrible! Maybe every two years one student has an opportunity to make his first feature and that's because the country is poor and Yugoslavia produces less than 10 films annually.
Moving on from the conflict
Although to my mind the selection of short films from the school did not show a preoccupation with war themes, I asked Lorencin and Petrović whether in general they felt that the war still influenced young film-makers in some way. Lorecin replied:
In every one of the short films there was something that refers in some way to the war, sometimes very small references and very personal experiences. But I think that the young are not only "tired" of this period of life, of wars, but that they want to do something positive with this experience Although I do think that we must live with thinking about wars. Nothing is so OK that we can say "I will forget what passed and how I lived two years ago, five years ago," but we have to live on.
People always say that we make films with war subjects. It is normal because we have lived it for ten years, but we do not do it as much as Bosnian directors because they suffered much more—so maybe it's understandable. Many students in my year made films about many subjects, not just war. In my second year I made a film about a "Serbian Superhero"—it was a grotesque. I am trying to avoid war themes now, pursuing other ideas.
Petrović is currently working for TV B92 in Belgrade, where he directs documentaries. Simultaneously he is preparing for his diploma, which will consist of an animated series of films (ten films, each ten minutes long). Although in the long term he would like to establish himself as a director outside of Serbia, he is looking forward to making a name for himself within his own country first. If the talent on display at the Trieste Film Festival is representative of the talent in Serbia, then this is a cinematic landscape with excellent potential and well able to continue and develop from the legacy of the previous, rich decade.
Elke de Wit
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