Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Serbian Cinema Craze

Serbs flock to the cinema to escape the harsh realities of the Milosevic regime.
By Goran Gocic

"I do watch a lot of Hollywood stuff, but I never miss a homegrown film," says Belgrade movie-goer Milica, one of the 300,000 strong audience for Family Treasure, this season's big screen sensation in Serbia.


Even before the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, when a population of 24 million lived in relative prosperity, a feature film which drew 300,000 people was considered a hit. Now, with the population shrunk to below 10 million, and the lowest GNP of any country in Europe, such audiences are little short of miraculous.


Yugoslavia is part of that shrinking list of countries including Iran, India and China where the term "domestic film industry" still has some meaning. Elsewhere, from Cape Town to Reyjkavik, the same ten films dominate the box office. In 1998 the box office top ten in Serbia included five domestic movies, a feat unmatched by countries with such long and rich cinematic traditions as France or Italy.


Some may wonder how a country so impoverished, still under the yoke of economic sanctions and beset by all kinds of other problems can produce up to ten films a year in the first place. And good ones, too. The continued survival of Yugoslav cinema is a story of triumph over adversity.


Yugoslavia has none of the protection which other successful domestic film industries enjoy. India and China do not allow Hollywood films to compete on equal terms with their own. France extracts a heavy levy from the GATT negotiations to protect her homegrown films against the onslaught of Hollywood majors. In Yugoslavia, US films are bought and shown without restrictions or quotas - yet most people still choose to watch domestic films.


Yugoslav cinema enjoys acclaim abroad as well as at home. Yugoslav directors cruise the festivals, frequently picking up awards. The pariah of Europe can still stick two fingers up at the international community with its cinematic triumphs. Successful films might be seen as an effective showcase for any regime, however unattractive. Not so in Yugoslavia - or at least, not anymore.


Until a few years ago, the film industry could count on some help from the state. In a practice common throughout Europe, Radio Television Serbia would buy the TV rights for feature films in advance, effectively acting as a co-producer. Lately, even that does not seem to happen. Already, the era of unpopular minister of culture Nada Popovic-Perisic and her pompous "year of culture" campaign seems like a golden age.


Many Yugoslav films are implicitly subversive, which might account both for their appeal abroad - and the end of state support. Goran Paskaljevic's film Cabaret Balkan got rave reviews both in Croatia and the US. Based on Dejan Dukovski's hit play Powder Keg, the film is a series of vignettes featuring characters who blow up, in some cases literally, under the pressure of daily life in Yugoslavia. A youth hijacks a bus full of passengers, best friends tell each other dark secrets, a woman is driven to suicide by her memories of the war. Srdjan Dragojevic's Wounds is a modern morality tale of three teenagers growing up during the war and becoming criminals.


Cabaret Balkan was harshly attacked in the state newspaper Politika and all trailers for Wounds were withdrawn from state TV. But while the Milosevic regime reaches for "soft" methods of suppression wherever possible, it has so far desisted from the kind of iron fist which it recently used against the independent media.


In any case, even the most radical films are only implicitly political and many domestic hits are as escapist as standard Hollywood fare. Alongside Cabaret Balkan and Wounds come comedies such as Family Treasure, Barking at the Stars and Three Palms for Two Punks and a Babe, whose success lies purely in their entertainment value.


So for now, the policy towards both cinema and theatre continues to be quite lax, despite the latter's penchant for stinging satire. Radio Index Theatre regularly stages parodies of the Milosevic family which make Spitting Image look tame by comparison. Outright bans and the arrest of artists have so far been avoided, although attempts were made recently to draft prominent theatre director Dusan Kovacevic into the army.


For now, the films continue to roll out, the audiences and international prizes continue to roll in. However, a regime that manages to destroy everything it touches, from the economy, to the opposition, the police, the media and the military - will eventually turn its attention to the cinema. But until then, the art scene is one of the few spheres still alive and kicking in this unfortunate country.


Goran Gocic is a regular IWPR contributor