Bright Lights Film Journal

Yugoslavia in Focus: Observations from the 3rd Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival (2001)

Archival footage, dramatizations, and dark satire capture the dire end-of-century events in the former Yugoslavia

Film after film bombards the eye with images of destruction: buildings split open, their wire and plaster entrails hanging precariously amid the rubble, burnt villages, graveyards, rivers of people fleeing, squalid refugee shelters. The accompanying stories are no less harrowing than the pictures they describe. Such is the stuff of the 11 Yugoslav documentaries shown at the 3rd Thessaloniki Documentary Festival: Images of the 21st Century in March 2001.

The films, all produced within the last ten years by Radio B92, the independent media station in Serbia that was actively opposed to the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, explore the aftermath of the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991. Tragically, three wars, the 1999 NATO bombing campaign, and the threat of another war in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have provided Yugoslav doc makers with more than enough raw material for their projects.

Two potent reportage works examining Serbian culpability in the perpetration of war crimes were Janko Baljak’s Ethnically Clean (1998) and Anatomy of Pain(2000). Using archival footage and dramatization, Ethnically Clean describes the horrific story of Dusan Boljevic and his wife Jagoda. The Boljevics are Serbs, and during the war of 1991 they were living in the Croatian village of Bilje. After joining a nationalist Serb militia unit, the couple, within a two-month period, murdered 18 villagers of Croatian and Hungarian ethnicity. Three years after the killings, Dusan and Jagoda were put on trial. It was the first time Serbs were tried for crimes against civilians in a Serbian Court.

In chilling detail, Ethnically Clean outlines the sheer brutality with which the Boljevics killed their neighbors. Images of the exhumation of the villagers’ bodies, and the Boljevics’ eerily serene expressions during the trial, are extremely disturbing and capture the sense of a world turned upside down by ethnic hatred. But the Boljevics are only a small part of the madness, said Baljak. “After Dusan was sentenced, the main bosses behind the ethnic cleansing stole the property of the dead and moved into their homes. These people, many of whom are involved in the Mafia, are still free. Dusan was just a weapon to carry out their ideas. That is what is really frightening, the big guys are still free.”

Focusing on casualties of the 1999 NATO bombing, Anatomy of Pain reviews the events surrounding the destruction of the Serb Radio and Television (RTS) headquarters on April 23rd while 16 employees were still in the building. There were no survivors, and the remains of two individuals have never been found. Through interviews with grief-stricken family members and coworkers, Baljak slowly unravels what appears to be a deliberate conspiracy by Serb authorities to use the employees as a “human shield.” The deaths were later exploited by state-run news outlets in their propaganda campaign against NATO. After the film was completed, the victims’ families petitioned the authorities for an investigation. Evidence for a trial is currently being gathered.

On the other end of the documentary filmmaking spectrum, Goran Radovanovic employs satire to illuminate the profound chaos Yugoslavia has been plunged into. Model House (2000) follows a Serbian cleaning woman who is a refugee from the Krajina region. Although she is grateful to be working, taking care of the homes of others reminds her of the home she lost during the war. Her narrative is juxtaposed with scenes from the NATO bombing, visuals of dingy refugee camps, excerpts from state television broadcasts spewing inane propaganda, and a voiceover of Milosevic intoning, among other things, “All must be sacrificed for the people, except the people.”

Displaying a kaleidoscope of images and formats, Radovanovic’s Second Circle(1997) depicts the lives of individuals surviving on the margins of society. We watch as a young woman responds to ads for housekeepers only to be turned down once the prospective employer learns she is a gypsy. By way of rejection they explain they are seeking someone “civilized.” In another story, a homeless man eats out of garbage cans while a voiceover taken from the Belgrade Health Ministry describes with a gourmand’s delight how to create a nutritional meal. Circle‘s tragicomic fusion makes the underlying reality of the situation that much more devastating.

Coming from a fiction filmmaking background, Radovanovic approaches the documentary form as simply another way to tell a story. As he noted at his press conference, “After the war there was no work in film, so I switched to cheaper formats and started making documentaries. For me, I simply want to show how truly neurotic life is in Serbia. I use different formats and collage-like elements in my work to try and describe how we are living now. Forty years of lies and manipulation by Tito, then ten years of these nationalist and global lies, and we are now left with a country that is a tragedy. At least when I manipulate the material in my films I am honest about it.”

Other notable screenings included Goran Markovic’s Belgrade Follies (1998), portraying the explosive four months of demonstrations in Belgrade against the Milosevic regime following the rigged elections of November 1996; and Ivan Markov’s The War Is Over (1998), a gimlet-eyed look at the lives of internal refugees after the Yugoslav wars, and how nothing seems to be changing for the better.

Despite the compelling nature and emotional immediacy of this program of docs, it was interesting to observe that none of them posed the bigger, and certainly more complicated, question of why the events in Yugoslavia could have taken place. Perhaps not enough time has elapsed since these tragedies have occurred, and the horror of the present situation is difficult enough to address. As Baljak noted during an interview, “I am trying to forgive and forget; it is the only way to start a normal life again. But first we must know ‘why’ this happened to us, and there are a lot of whys.”

The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival is held annually in March in Greece’s second-largest city. As a champion of new technologies, the festival promotes artists working in a variety of media, including digital video, computer-generated films for exhibition on the Internet, and mixed-media installations.