Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 17 
4 Nov
2002

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Mirza Idrizovic's Miris dunja (The Scent of Quinces, 1982) BOSNIA
Lyric landscapes
and living hell

Film at the Out of Bosnia
season in London

Bosnian film is rather elusive. It can be hard to define as a coherent chapter in cinema history, and many possible candidates for inclusion are notoriously difficult to track down. Andrew James Horton views a retrospective of some of them.


It's probably fair to say that more people have heard of, for instance, Milan Kundera than of Jiří Menzel. Moreover, the name Lech Wałęsa is likely to be more recognisable than that of Andrzej Wajda. But while in most central European countries novelists and politicians have made an impact at least as great as that of film-makers, for Bosnia it is the film-makers who stand as their best known representatives. Double Palme d'Or-winner Emir Kusturica and Oscar-winner Danis Tanović, both born in Bosnia, are far more famous internationally than any other figure in public life.

Modern Bosnia, therefore, is very much a country that is forged in the global collective consciousness by images—by award-winning features, harrowing documentaries about war and its aftermath and archive television footage of a country descending into hell. But if the world knows about Bosnia through images, it doesn't necessarily mean that we have a high degree of familiarity with Bosnian moving image history as the Out of Bosnia season in London proved. The weekend of films—part of a larger festival run by the Bosnian Institute and encompassing theatre, literature, photography and art—contained many classic works that are rarely screened outside former Yugoslavia and gave a opportunity to mull over what exactly a "Bosnian film" is.

Red kitsch

Bato Cengic's Uloga moje porodice u svetskoj revoluciji (The Role of my Family in the World Revolution, 1971)The earliest film on show at Out of Bosnia was Bato Čengić's musical parody Uloga moje porodice u svetskoj revoluciji (The Role of my Family in the World Revolution, 1971). Taking place in the wake of the Second World War, Čengić's comedy charts an outwardly rather bourgeois family who have been harbouring a secret obsession with all things Communist during the Nazi occupation. When the Reds take over, the family are jubilant and eagerly support the cause. The daughter Leposava (translated as Juliet for the film's subtitles) falls in love with an earnest young Communist, while her brother joins his band and, dressed in a bold red ankle-length coat, goes about the country bringing socialism to all.

Their joy at the new political reality is mirrored in musical form, with cheesy easy-listening numbers with lyrics such as "Twinkle, twinkle little star, we'll be ruled by the USSR," and visually in the stylised poses that they adopt glorifying revolution as sexy in, for example, a sequence in which Leposava, dressed in a silky red nightdress and exuding confidence and beauty, holds a submachine gun while the camera lingers over her.

There seems to be no end to what Communism can do. Swiss-made chocolate appears in magic tricks, the dead are brought back to life, the blind are made to see and a dumb man has speech given to him—the first words he utters being "America and England will rise up and become proletarian paradises" (which is a cue for a song of that title).

But the gaiety doesn't last. We are shown a comrade being tortured before being executed in a quarry and Leposava is sexually assaulted by Russian soldiers and ultimately hangs herself. "This isn't the freedom I had imagined," says one of the comrades, expressing his disenchantment, while earlier in the film there are references to Hitler that indirectly draw parallels between the oppression of Communism and National Socialism.

The film, it is not surprising to say, was censored, and Čengić found it difficult to work in film over the following decade. Today, the film is almost completely unknown in the English-speaking world. Yet it stands as just as funny as other far more famous comic allegory of the workings of Communism, most famously Miloš Forman's Hoří, má panenko (The Fireman's Ball, 1966), and is just as incisive in the points it makes about the abuse of power as more serious directors, such as Miklós Jancsó. Particularly notable is the fact that the film doesn't dwell too heavily on accusing some third party of atrocities against an implicit first person (ie what they did to us). The real bite of the film is that it asks why did we believe in this and what have we created from the heady dreams of freedom we had?

A hero city

If Uloga moje porodice u svetskoj revoluciji is stylistically a superb piss-take of the kitsch of socialism, then Hajrudin Šiba Krvavac's Valter brani Sarajevo (Walter Defends Sarajevo, 1972) is the real thing. The film belongs to a whole genre of "partisan films" that depicted the popular resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War occupation and borrowed from the conventions of the western, but also in this case there are heavy parallels with James Bond-style action adventures. Partisan films were popular with the Yugoslav regime as they had a powerful legitimising function, providing a useful mental prod to people to remind viewers what the alternative to Communism was.

Valter brani Sarajevo takes place against the German withdrawal from the Balkans towards the end of the war. The Nazis are desperate that their tank divisions in Greece be diverted to shore up the defence of the motherland. To get them safely back, they need petrol, and Sarajevo is an important refuelling post. Utmost secrecy is required as interference with the fuel supplies in Sarajevo will endanger the whole of the German war effort. There is one problem: a partisan resistance leader named Valter, who is so shadowy that not even his own people know anything about him, including what he looks like. The withdrawal is so critical that a top agent is sent to identify and eliminate Valter and the Sarajevo resistance movement.

With so little known about Valter, it is easy for the German agent to infiltrate the resistance movement and pretend that he is the resistance man. As betrayal follows betrayal nobody knows who is working for who, and least understood of all is the identity of a mysterious arrival who claims to be on the run from Mostar. Who could this dapper, clean-shaven man be?

It makes very little sense to talk about aesthetic merit when discussing films such as Valter brani Sarajevo. But in some senses they define a generation and provide it with an ironic sense of nostalgia (perhaps as The Man from UNCLE television programmes do for the children of the 1960s in the West). There were healthy doses of laughter at the film's cheesier moments and cheerful applause at the closing credits.

Hajrudin Siba Krvavac's Valter brani Sarajevo (Walter Defends Sarajevo, 1972)Its trash aesthetic aside, though, Valter brani Sarajevo is an interesting document as to how film works to validate social norms (in this case with a highly politicised content) on viewers. The melodrama is highly worked, as for example in the scene where the relatives of those killed in failed resistance raid come to reclaim the bodies of their loved ones, despite the risk of being gunned down themselves. You can laugh at the unfashionable suits, the unconvincing special effects or the well-worn plotline, but the film is a triumph of manipulation, right up to the closing line when the disgraced German commander looks out over Sarajevo and says he finally knows who Valter is: "You see this town—that is Valter." The real fun, though, is to come out of Valter brani Sarajevo and to look around and see how much of the same techniques are used today on both sides of the former Iron Curtain to justify socio-political attitudes, without us even stopping to think of them as propaganda.

Magic before Emir

Ivica Matic's Zena sa krajolikom (Woman in a Landscape, 1976)Ivica Matić's Žena sa krajolikom (Woman in a Landscape, 1976), the next film from the season to be made, starts with the arrival of a new forester in a small village. The locals soon start to notice that he doesn't quite fit in. He disconcerts them by refusing to be bribed so they can fell trees at will. But that's nothing compared to the shock of finding that he is persuading the local women to pose naked for him for his naive landscape paintings. The men, angry that the forester is "making whores" of the vilage women, break into his house and are able to identify which of their wives have sat for him. The self-taught artist comes in handy when one of the locals gets a young widow pregnant but doesn't want to claim responsibility. The two get married, but the forester has no interest in the woman as a wife and only wants to paint her naked, much to his new bride's fury. The morning after their wedding night, tragedy befalls the dilettante artist when he is gored to death by an ox and the film ends with the villagers reflecting on the strange life of this non-conformist.

Kusturica once declared that his own death would be easier to take if a copy of Žena sa krajolikom was buried with him. It's easy to see why it won his admiration, and the film's interest in inner freedom, its drifting, lyrical plotline and its allegorical style that seems ready to burst out into full-blown magic realism at any moment would seem to have been a direct influence on Kusturica.

Ivica Matic's Zena sa krajolikom (Woman in a Landscape, 1976)The allegorical elements are delicately counterpointed in the film language employed. The cinematography closely mimics the painter's view of the world, with frequent use of long lenses and the horizon high in the frame to reduce the sense of depth in the image—a reflection of Henri Rousseau-esque flatness of the artist's work. To accent the idealised nature of his vision, the film was shot in autumn, with the countryside marked by subdued tones, in sharp contrast to the sun-drenched images produced by the forester. The narrative too unfolds in a simple, uncluttered way that mirrors the purity of the painter's lines.

Why, if Žena sa krajolikom is such a classic, is Kusturica internationally famous and Matić almost completely unknown? Kusturica arguably lucked out with his first Palme d'Or win, a victory that was to fuel his career and allow him to go on to make even more famous works. Matić, on the other hand, died at the age of 27, not only before he could build up a body of work sufficient in number to gain international attention but also before Žena sa krajolikom had been finalised. It wasn't until 1990 that the completed film, which is Matić's only feature, was shown at an international festival. Although the film won three awards at Montreal, this wasn't enough momentum to propel Matić's film to the international recognition it deserves.

The lost Bosnian

In some ways, it's rather ironic to include Kusturica in a retrospective of Bosnian films. While his birth in Sarajevo makes him eminently suitable for inclusion, his film Podzemlje—bila jednom jedna zemlja (Underground—Once Upon a Time There Was a Country, 1995) was partly made in Belgrade at a time when Serbs were holding Sarajevo under seige. Moreover, the film was perceived in some quarters to be propaganda for Slobodan Milošević, and high-ranking members of the Milošević government were invited to and attended the Yugoslav premiere.[1] Kusturica has always denied the accusations, but is now persona non grata in Sarajevo, and Bosnians speak of having "lost" him.

Emir Kusturica's Sjecas li se Dolly Bell? (Do You Remember Dolly Bell?, 1981)Out of Bosnia chose two Kusturica films from the days when his relationship with the town of his birth was much warmer: Sjećaš li se Dolly Bell? (Do You Remember Dolly Bell?, 1981) and Otac na službenom putu (When Father Was Away on Business, 1985). They are also two films that are less widely known from his big art house hits, such as Podzemlje, Dom za vešanje (Time of the Gypsies, 1989) and Crna mačka, bili macor (Black Cat, White Cat, 1998).

These early works are less rumbustious than his later allegorical pieces. Some would argue that they benefit from Kusturica being allowed to have much less free rein with his ego. The two films rely far more on observation, and try to find magic and poetism through that, rather than exercising them for their own sake. Yet between the two films there are plenty of perennial Kusturica themes, such as characters that are marginalised in society, rites of passage and larger-than-life father figures.

A more ambiguous war

Mirza Idrizovic's Miris dunja (The Scent of Quinces, 1982)A decade after Valter brani Sarajevo, Mirza Idrizović's Miris dunja (The Scent of Quinces, 1982). Like Krvavac's earlier film, Idrizović's is set in wartime Sarajevo, but there the similarities end. Miris dunja is the story of a distinguished muslim family and how its members react to the start of the Second World War. While one of the sons, Mustafa, revels in the power he gets in return for collaborating with the Nazis, the family is hiding a Jewish girl, Luna, in their attic. The father, on the other hand, despises the actions of Mustafa but is against offering refuge to Luna because of the dangers it involves.

Largely devoid of the action motifs or genre clichés that characterise Valter brani Sarajevo, Miris dunja is an attempt to explore the wartime experience in psychological terms. If the film fits into a genre, it is of classical tragedy more than it is a war film, with all the main protagonists—with the exception of Luna—meeting with death. The judgemental nature of earlier partisan films that divided the world in Manichean terms into good and evil is softened and instead there is a more complex examination of motives.

In a sense, this is a measure of the different political realities of the times in which Valter brani Sarajevo and Miris dunja were made. The former was made in the repressive period that followed the liberal 1960s. This was partly to clamp down on increasing nationalism in the republics and reassert centralised control—hence the film's concentration on the legitimising myths of socialist Yugoslavia. The latter was made after the death of Tito in 1980, a period in which there was more room for freer expression and questioning of the assumptions that underlaid the existence of Yugoslavia. Miris dunja doesn't necessarily challenge the socialist regime, but its psychologising approach and attempt to portray evil in terms of human weakness clearly mark it as separate from the propagandising war films that were made before Tito's death.

Of monsters and men

Bosnia is now most famous for war films, but not the war of Valter brani Sarajevo and Miris dunja. Documenting the war that followed the declaration of independence from Yugoslavia by Bosnia in October 1991 started during the fighting itself. Film stock was naturally scarce, so the main works from this period draw on video footage.

The largest scale film is MGM Sarajevo, covjek, bog, monstrum (MGM Sarajevo, Man, God, the Monster, 1994), a compendium of three different films shot on video that have been edited into one with the different strands intertwining. The film is credited to the SaGA group of directors, which included Ademir Kenović and Mirza Idrizović.

The most famous of the three individual films is Ademir Kenović and Ismet Arnautalić's Ispovjest monstruma (Confession of a Monster, 1993), a video of a young Bosnian, Borislav Herak, admitting his involvement in gang rapes and murder by Serbian forces. An obvious half-wit, its dubious whether he ever had the intelligence to question what he was ordered to do. There's no emotion in his voice and no sense of apology, but he acknowledges that he may be sentenced to death for his crimes and there is no plea that this is unjust.

The other two strands are more positive portrayals of Sarajevo's wartime existence. One shows Susan Sontag preparing for production of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in the late summer of 1993, one of many activities that made the besieged city a hub of cultural activity. The other documents the day-to-day, even mundane, reality of living in a war zone.

As a documentary produced during the war, MGM Sarajevo is a fascinating text about individual existence under extreme conditions. However, it has been criticised. Detractors point out that it was made under the auspices of the Bosnian government, implying the film has a propagandistic nature. In her book, Cinema of Flames, Dina Iordanova examines the moral implications of the "monster" part of the film. Iordanova claims that for the Bosnian government Borislav Herak was "a much-needed villain" and questions the practice of labelling Herak, who pleaded guilty, a monster, when so many more people in full control of their intelligence are at large and would plead not guilty.[2]

Bear witness!

The first feature film about the war to be shot on 35mm stock was Ademir Kenović's Savršeni krug (The Perfect Circle, 1995), a co-production with France that is dedicated to the people of Sarajevo. Kenović worked with poet and director Adulah Sidran, who had written the scripts for Kusturica's first two features, as well as collaborating on Kenović's own debut Kuduz (1989).

Ademir Kenovic's Savrseni krug (The Perfect Circle, 1995)The lead character of Savršeni krug is Hamza, a poet who is haunted by the desire to kill himself and seeks refuge in alcohol. His relationship with his wife and daughter is tense and distant, so when he encourages them to leave you have to wonder if it is to save them from the terrors of the siege of Sarajevo or to abdicate himself of the responsibilities of family life. Hamza's unwillingness to leave is not so much heroic as a feeble excuse to avoid life and, perhaps, to meet its end.

However, his now solitary existence is interrupted when two young war orphans, deaf and dumb Kerim and bed-wetting Adis, break into his house seeking shelter. The poet has no idea what to do with them, and initially helps them only so that he can get rid of the pair. As attempts to reunite the boys with some sort of family, however distant, are continually frustrated, Hamza has to stick by the boys and in doing so he refinds his desire to live life, a desire that is ultimately strengthened further by tragedy.

Kenović is clearly aware that his film plays an important role as witness. This concern is actually played out in the film itself, as the only survivor of the two boys is the mute Kerim. In his brother's death, Kerim's fate becomes linked to Hamza's poetry by means of the perfect circle of the title, which is both an exercise for the poet to loosen his wrist while writing and Kerim's adornment for Adis's simple cross. As the camera leaves Hamza and Adis in the graveyard, we can't help but wonder what course the former's writings will take. His experiences have shown him both the joys of life and the tragedy of death—both parts of the cycle of life. With his new-found strength, Hamza is now empowered to bear witness to the "perfect circle" of life and death, just as Kenović has felt compelled to do on behalf of the people of Sarajevo, who are in many ways "mute" to the international world.

Savršeni krug, therefore, aims to be as broad as possible in its view to comply with its role as witness, and with close examination you can sense that Kenović has a checklist of horrors of the siege that he wishes to show. The subtext seems to be that there is no room for individual interpretation or portraying microcosms of the war: As the first important text on the seige, Kenović is aiming to present the totality of experience.

Kenović has had to tread a fine line between the documentary and the allegorical, the believability of, and identification with, an individual perspective and the need to represent the total experience, and the prerequisite of showing certain war experiences and the need for a plot that unfolds organically. It is, therefore, much to Kenović's credit that Savrseni krug is a film that ultimately works, and very well at that.

Emotionally, it is a bleak and compelling piece of story-telling. But as with MGM Sarajevo, Kenović tries to tell us that the insane horror is just one element of the war and out of the devastation can come a better understanding of life and a renewed strength. Like all good war films, Savrseni krug is about a lot more than just the war it tries so hard to bear witness to.

Balancing acts

Elmir Jukic Covjek koji je zamijenio kuca za tunel (The Man Who Exchanged his Home for a Tunnel, 2001) by As the war recedes into history, films about it are still being made. Now, there is less need to do the careful balancing of individual, narrative-based and broad allegorical elements that Kenović felt compelled to do. On the one hand, there are now many stories that depict the war through microcosms of experience, such as the short documentaries Čovjek koji je zamijenio kuca za tunel (The Man Who Exchanged his Home for a Tunnel, 2001) by Elmir Jukić and Jasmila Zbanić's Crvene gumene cizme (Red Rubber Boots, 2000). On the other hand, there was also one work shown at Out of Bosnia, Bato Čengić's Mona Lisa from Sarajevo (1999), that went completely the other way, eliminating personal narrative altogether to make a visual poem about the war experience.

Danis Tanović's No Man's Land (2001), though, has achieved its fame because, like Savršeni krug, it is a balance between realism and allegory. The film (which has been endlessly discussed in Kinoeye and other publications) was the undoubted high point of Out of Bosnia; testament to the fact that, despite being bombarded with images about the war from news media, there is still an international desire to try and find answers to what happened on a human level.

On a local level, No Man's Land illustrates the importance of film to Bosnia as a therapeutic element in rebuilding society—a source of hope, optimism and confidence in the international sphere. (The Sarajevo film festival fulfils the same function.) It is, therefore, rather ironic that many of the "Bosnian" films that have been made were filmed outside the country. Uloga moje porodice u svetskoj revoluciji, for example, was shot in Belgrade, while No Man's Land was shot in Slovenia and Italy for an international co-production that had no Bosnian finance. In these two examples, the town of birth would seem to be critical in determining what is "Bosnian." Yet at the same time, Bosnians are reluctant to embrace the 1990s work of Sarajevo-born Kusturica as being theirs. Birth clearly isn't everything.

If a good working definition of what constitutes Bosnian film is hard to put your finger on, then finding the actual films themselves is even trickier. Events such as Out of Bosnia are all too rare, and production of films in Bosnia itself is practically non-existent, with only one director Faruk Sokolović (curiously unrepresented in Out of Bosnia) being active in feature film production within the country itself.[3] There is no government support for feature film production, and producers have little or no experience in raising independent capital in a free-market environment. Given the importance that images have played in forging the world's perception of Bosnia, this is a very sad and sorry state of affairs.

Andrew James Horton

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Also of interest
About the author

Andrew James HortonAndrew James Horton is Editor-in-Chief of Kinoeye and was the founding Culture Editor of Central Europe Review, on whose advisory board he now sits. He also writes on central European culture for other journals and has edited the e-book The Celluloid Tinderbox..

Footnotes

1. For more on the controversy surrounding Podzemlje, see Andrew James Horton, "Critical Mush," Central Europe Review, Vol 2, No 14, 10 April 2000.return to text

2. Dina Iordanova, Cinema of Flames, (BFI Publishing: London), 2001, p 186-188. For a review of this book, see Alexei Monroe, "Screening the Balkans," Kinoeye, Vol 2, No 3, 4 February 2002.return to text

3. Tanović is based in Belgium and Kenović, after a gap of six years, produced his first fiction feature film since Savrseni krug this year. The film, Secret Passage (2002), was made by Delux, a Luxembourg-based production house, and shot in English.return to text

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