As Festival Director of the Australia's annual celebration of Serbian film culture, Peter Kozlina has witnessed the shifting narratives of a young nation's cinema for over a decade now. As he recalls the developing themes that his country's filmmakers have embraced over that time, the instability of his homeland and determination of its people is plainly evident in its film output.
“First of all, there were films dealing with the war in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia. Then there were films mainly dealing with refugees, the difficult times they experienced escaping from these war torn regions and then starting a new life in Serbia,” recounts Kozlina, as he prepares for the 10th edition of the Serbian Film Festival. “Then as a result of challenging economic times in Serbia, we had films dealing with young people wanting to leave Serbia and start a perceived better life in the west.”
These themes reflect the war-ravaged region's introspection, stemming from the horrors of its recent history, though such storylines don't attract profit-hungry producers. “The volatile socio-political environment has meant a substantial reduction in funds available and a focus away from the entertainment industries, like film making,” observes Kozlina. “Economic sanctions had a crucial impact on a Serbian economy where survival was the main game.”
In 2010, he has noticed a greater scope in the seven films programmed, suggesting Serbian society has developed to the point where it shares more common concerns with the rest of the world. “This year we have films at the festival co-produced by the Serbian government and the governments of Albania, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and USA. Perhaps the common theme is that all these countries are in the same boat and experiencing similar challenges and trying to resolve them,” says Kozlina, who points to the Serbian and American lead characters in Darko Lungulov's Here and There as two desperate men “both wanting to make a 'quick buck'”
The funding that the already cash-strapped Serbian government provides for the industry is meagre compared to the subsidies offered by most Western governments, but it is the lifeblood that keeps the indigenous film culture alive. Kozlina, who maintains strong ties with the industry from his Australian base, sympathises with his countrymen. “I heard the expression a few weeks ago from a Serbian film director that 'it would be virtually impossible to make a movie without Government funding'. There are still no taxation incentives for commercial investment in films; accordingly, there is a very limited commercial sector.”
The state of affairs has begun to change, with foreign investment on the increase, but it is a slow process. “The working Serbian film producer/director has to have a lot of patience,” observes Kozlina. “There are still less than twenty new movies produced each year in Serbia.”
That fact of life for the Serbian industry only intensifies the responsibility of programming the films that comprise the Serbian Film Festival, which begins its 21 day national tour in Sydney this week. Kozlina is mindful of the broad aims of the Festival at all times. “The festival objectives are to encourage, promote and exhibit Serbian art forms, including the visual arts, by inviting the Australian public from all backgrounds to sample and participate in our events,” he says.
His experience as the Festival Director has led to such eclectic 2010 choices as Srdjan Karanovic's Besa (pictured), an Albanian co-production that examines class division and faith at the beginning of World War 1 ('Besa' is an Albanian tradition meaning 'word of honour' and the film has been chosen as Serbia's entry for the 2011 Foreign Oscar); Srdjan Koljevic's existential drama Woman With a Broken Nose, which recently won the Golden Eye at the Zurich Film Festival; the portmanteau film Some Other Stories, featuring the works of five female directors from the former Yugoslavia exploring issues related to pregnancy; and Goran Paskaljevic's Honeymoons, a film that Time Out New York called “a tragic, humane drama” and which scored the audience award at the 2009 Thessaloniki Film Festival. (One notable omission is SrÄ‘an SpasojeviÄ‡'s notorious horror effort, A Serbian Film – which Kozlina gave due consideration but passed on. “We were not tempted to show or support A Serbian Film. It was our view that our audience would not support such a movie.”)
Support from the local Serbian community is certainly assured, with Kozlina having secured the presence of much-loved actor/writer Radoš BajiÄ‡, the star and director of the opening-night film, The Village is Burning and So On..., a sweetly traditional story adapted from its small-screen incarnation, where it became the most successful Serbian television series of all time.