10 great films from the Balkans

Your 10-film introduction to the cinema of the former Yugoslavia, to celebrate the release on Blu-ray of Emir Kusturica’s Palme d’Or-winning epic Underground.

Michael Brooke

Underground (1995)

Underground (1995)

The cinema of that region currently known as “the former Yugoslavia” and, less helpfully, “the Balkans” (since that term technically encompasses a fair bit more of south-east Europe) isn’t anything like as accessible here as that created by Czechs, Hungarians and Poles, although this is (as ever) more to do with the vagaries of international distribution than any creative failings on the part of the filmmakers. On the contrary, any system that could produce talents on the order of Emir Kusturica, Dušan Makavejev, Goran Paskaljević, Aleksandar Petrović, Danis Tanović and Želimir Žilnik – along with the animated output of the Zagreb Film studio and movements such as the 1960s “black wave” – is clearly a formidable cultural force.

This month, the BFI releases Kusturica’s Palme d’Or-winning Underground on Blu-ray and DVD, in both the familiar cinema version and a much longer TV miniseries re-edited for Serbian television. The film spans the bombing of Belgrade by the Germans in 1941 to the terminal rupture of Yugoslavia half a century later, along the way taking in official deception, propaganda images versus reality (an accusation later levelled at Kusturica’s film as a whole) and the constant collision between various types of authority and the irrepressible free spirits of his characters. 

Although this list of 10 other films from Yugoslavia and its constituent parts has been dictated primarily by their availability in English-subtitled video form (hence the unfortunate but unavoidable bias towards the last 15 years), it’s striking to see that all of them offer a similarly complex reflection on aspects of the region’s history, and usually a despairing or darkly comic one. This may partly be a by-product of the tastes of international festivals, distributors and critics, but it’s worth noting that many of these films were big domestic hits as well.

I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1967)

Director Aleksandar Petrović

I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1967)

Winner of two Cannes prizes, a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, Aleksandar Petrović’s film had a huge impact in the late 1960s, but since then it has been almost completely forgotten – as indeed has Petrović himself. This is doubly unfortunate, as it reveals that he was a good two decades ahead of the more fêted Emir Kusturica and Tony Gatlif when it came to making raucous yet sympathetic films about south-east Europe’s vast Roma population.

The original title translates as ‘The Feather Buyer’ after the film’s protagonist, goosedown trader Bora (Bekim Fehmiu), who gets embroiled in a star-crossed romance with Tisa (Gordana Jovanović), whose guardian is Bora’s commercial rival. But the film’s impact comes less from its narrative than from its complex understanding of the relationships between the Roma and the outside world, especially the church (a nun and a priest are particularly well drawn) and what was then an unprecedentedly rich portrait of Roma culture. It badly needs restoration and revival, although the Serbian DVD import thankfully has English subtitles.

Innocence Unprotected (1968)

Director Dušan Makavejev

Innocence Unprotected (1968)

Numerous Makavejev films could be cited here, but this one seems particularly apposite given the way that it explicitly interrogates Serbian film history in the form of the country’s first talkie. Although the opening credits promise “a new production of a good old film”, this is almost entirely misleading, as the eponymous 1942 Innocence Unprotected turns out to be a galumphingly creaky and technically ropey melodrama that’s more unintentionally amusing than anything else. 

But Makavejev is fully aware of this, and his treatment is anything but a remake – wisely, since the original is beyond parody. Instead, he treats us to about two-thirds of the entire film (plus occasional hand-stencilled visual additions as though he was unable to resist the temptation to scrawl graffiti onto the print), augmented by ‘footnotes’ including vainglorious reminiscences by surviving cast and crew members (the standout being strongman-stuntman Dragoljub Aleksić) and newsreel flashbacks to the tumultuous mid-WWII historical backdrop – in the process transforming lightweight fluff into something far more intriguingly revealing. 

When Father Was Away on Business (1985)

Director Emir Kusturica

When Father Was Away on Business (1985)

If Time of the Gypsies (1989) and Underground (1995) are better known, it was Kusturica’s second feature that catapulted him to international fame, winning him a Cannes Palme d’Or and an Oscar nomination when he was barely into his thirties. Set in 1950 in the immediate wake of the split between Stalin and Tito, it vividly reconstructs the atmosphere of fear that descended upon Yugoslavia’s communists as they were forensically investigated by the security forces to the extent that even an innocent remark might prove life-changing.

The title refers to the excuse given to young Malik after he understandably enquires as to the whereabouts of his father (far from being “on business”, he’s been rounded up in reaction to a careless comment about a political cartoon, reported as a by-product of romantic revenge), and the film is largely told from Malik’s point of view as he struggles to learn about the complexities of the adult world. The film also offers a memorably rich portrait of Kusturica’s native Sarajevo, which at the time was one of Yugoslavia’s most multicultural cities, with Christians, Jews and Muslims co-existing and sometimes even co-conspiring.

Cabaret Balkan (1998)

Director Goran Paskaljević

Cabaret Balkan (1998)

The original title Powder Keg gives a better idea of the febrile atmosphere of mid-1990s Belgrade that veteran director Goran Paskaljević conjures up, a by-product of the complete collapse of any kind of moral authority in the dying years of the Milošević regime. In a manner similar to Short Cuts (1993) or Magnolia (1999), but far more despairingly nihilistic, various stories involving some 20 characters play out in parallel over a single night, sometimes ending with revenge-spurred violence in the absence of any other recourse to justice. 

Wider political points are made by the situations rather than directorial soapboxing – this is a place where young women carry grenades for protection and best friends are murdered after the realisation hits that life is essentially meaningless, and in any case far cheaper than practically everything else. The fact that it was an enormous domestic hit speaks volumes: it may not be pleasant viewing (understatement), but it undoubtedly touched many raw nerves.

No Man’s Land (2001)

Director Danis Tanović

No Man’s Land (2001)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001) was considered the strongest front-runner for best foreign film in living memory, so jaws dropped when the Oscar went to an obscure Bosnian film by a debutant director. But No Man’s Land was a worthy winner, as few films have more effectively illustrated and denounced the madness of the 1990s.

Films provoked by white-hot anger at real-life events can sometimes become unbalanced by passion, but Tanović made the sensible decision to turn it into a sickeningly funny black comedy for similar reasons to those which inspired Stanley Kubrick to turn a serious novel into Dr Strangelove (1963). This becomes particularly clear when the UN (aka “the Smurfs”) arrives to take charge of a situation that sees a man lying face down in no man’s land on a particularly deadly type of grenade: if he’s moved even a millimetre, it will go off. The situation rapidly becomes politicised, with a crusading journalist (Katrin Cartlidge) trying to get to the truth of the matter against any number of official obstructions, the latter personified by Simon Callow’s colonel, a man so tooth-grindingly useless that you want to reach into the screen and shake him.

Spare Parts (2004)

Director Damjan Kozole

Spare Parts (2004)

Damjan Kozole’s sobering drama looks at the highly lucrative but morally questionable business of people-smuggling from Croatia to Italy via the director’s native Slovenia – which, unlike most of its former Yugoslav neighbours, was fast-tracked for EU membership. Daringly, Kozole makes his protagonist Ludvik (Peter Musevski) not merely one of the traffickers, but someone who is fully aware of the likely fate of some of his cargo. For the film’s title is both metaphorical and literal, the latter referring to them unwittingly being the living hosts of organs needed for transplantation.

But Kozole creates a complex backstory for Ludvik that ultimately makes him, if not exactly sympathetic, at least convincingly rounded. At one point Ludvik reminds us that the last person who attempted to unite Europe was Adolf Hitler, demonstrating his and the film’s awareness that EU expansion will do nothing to alleviate a profoundly us-and-them situation, given that richer states will merely exploit the resources of the poorer ones in much the same way as before. 

Esma’s Secret (2006)

Director Jasmila Žbanić

Esma’s Secret (2006)

Winner of the Berlin Golden Bear under its original title Grbavica, named after both the Sarajevo suburb in which it is set and the site of one of the most notorious Serbian “rape camps” during which thousands of women were systematically brutalised. Sara (Luna Mijović) has grown up believing that she’s the daughter of a shaheed, a deceased Bosnian mujahideen fighter, but as she enters her teens it becomes increasingly difficult for her mother Esma (Mirjana Karanović) to hide the truth, especially when Sara is required to prove her parentage in order to qualify for a discount on a school trip.

Jasmila Žbanić’s moving film is primarily a study of ordinary life immediately after extraordinary times: Esma has to do two jobs to make the most basic ends meet, one of her bosses is forced to rely on gambling, and both Esma and Sara begin relationships with people who lost parents to the war and are still living with the consequences. One of many seemingly casual asides reveals that only 11 out of 41 people are expected to attend Esma’s school reunion, the others being dead or long since departed.

A Serbian Film (2010)

Director Srđan Spasojević

A Serbian Film (2009)

Regardless of its much-contested artistic merits, there’s no question which film from the region has had the greatest international impact in recent years, with Srđan Spasojević’s notorious debut reaching audiences who normally wouldn’t have dreamt of seeing a film from Serbia but who were tantalised by the prospect of braving one of the most extreme horror films ever made.  

At base it’s blatant exploitation-film hucksterism: one of the film’s characters creates and markets extreme pornography for the international marketplace on the back of his country’s notoriety, and Spasojević is of course doing this himself: the title A Swiss Film, A Norwegian Film or (tellingly) A Croatian Film simply wouldn’t work in the same way. The first half has plenty of provocative ideas along similar lines, although these take a back seat to the film’s later atrocity exhibition, when most viewers are unlikely to be too concerned about the sociopolitical significance of necrophilia, baby rape and sexual violence so graphic that even the liberalised 21st-century BBFC felt legally obliged to remove four minutes.  

The Parade (2011)

Director Srđan Dragojević

The Parade (2013)

Since Srđan Dragojević first came to international attention with the Bosnian war drama Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996), it’s tempting to assume from the news that The Parade was inspired by the violence meted out to the participants in a gay pride parade in 2001 that this will be similarly gruelling fare. However, Dragojević sensibly decided that “politically incorrect comedy” was the most appropriate genre, and came up with a story about a homophobic gangster being given the job of protecting a parade with the aid of former enemies from various sides of the 1990s conflicts.

As with a fair amount of eastern European comedy, allowances have to be made: the satirical purpose behind some of the more outrageous stereotypes may be less clear to non-Serbian audiences. However, it’s often very funny indeed, something that doubtless helped propel it to unexpected box-office success at home, in the process achieving precisely the awareness-raising that Dragojević set out to achieve. That such a debate was necessary is illustrated by the opening credits, which establish that while the various parts of the former Yugoslavia have assorted terms of abuse for each other, one explicitly homophobic swearword works everywhere.

Cinema Komunisto (2011)

Director Mila Turajlić

Cinema Komunisto (2012)

This fascinating documentary provides a whistle-stop tour of the history of postwar Yugoslav cinema, deliberately shunning the international arthouse circuit (Petrović is mentioned once in passing, Makavejev not at all) in favour of populist local fare that rarely played elsewhere. Specific local genres included the ‘partisan film’, WWII-set dramas that were particular favourites of Tito, a huge film buff; his personal projectionist is one of the talking heads here.

Turajlić also tells the story of Yugoslavia’s ambitions to become a major cinema player by luring international producers with the promise of well-appointed studios and low production costs. The same facilities were used to make local films on a gargantuan scale, culminating in the war epics The Battle of Neretva (1969) and Sutjeska (1973), the last starring Richard Burton as Tito after the dictator lifted a ban on portrayals of himself on condition that he got to pick the actor. But it ends on a sombre note, with the revelation that much of the region’s film history is being left to rot, as there’s neither the money nor the political will to preserve it properly.

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