July 20, 1996 Vreme News Digest Agency No 250

Interview Srdjan Dragojevic

Shame, Anger, and Then - Nothing

by Teofil Pancic & Ana Uzelac

It was through his first film "We're No Angels" that Srdjan Dragojevic (33) achieved his popularity with the public and among film critics. In spite the film's artistic and commercial success, the young film director had to wait four years before making his second. Although "Nice Villages Burn Nicely" also turned out to be a blockbuster, the opinion among the public and among critics is not unanimous. For that reason, a large part of our conversation with Mr. Dragojevic was devoted to various controversies surrounding the first Serbian film dealing with the issue of the Bosnian war

Vreme: If we take it for granted that every piece of art stems from an inner need, what particular inner need does your film stem from?

Dragojevic: To be honest with you, this film was made following a weird combination of circumstances. I had two or three scripts, one of which was for a musical, which I preferred, and still prefer, to the one I actually made, but my friends found enough money for this one and persuaded me to do it. For a while, or rather until I started shooting the film, I struggled with the idea of having to make a film after a script which did not appeal to me from the beginning. In a sense, this film was extorted from me, and after all that happened, I am glad that was the case. I think that the film reveals my frustration and the effort required to tackle the topic and make a decent film. We started working on this film in early 1995, before the war was over, so I had to reckon with the possibility that someone will bash me up in the street or throw a grenade through my window. However, I said to myself: 'Go on, take the risk!'.

You say you did not like the script at first. Why?

The script had thirteen or fourteen different versions. In the first version it was simply a story about some people stuck in a tunnel. I must say that I found the idea of people struggling for survival in such a claustrophobic situation rather inspiring. However, as time went by, I realised that it would be a very simplistic way of telling the story of this war.

You said that at the time you considered it impossible to make a decent film about Bosnia? What is a decent film about Bosnia?

I would say that a decent film is the one you could show in Visegrad without being chased down the main street by 400 members of the audience after the screening, but instead hearing them say 'Dam it, he's right!'; or to hear a film critic from Sarajevo say 'It is a decent film, I think it could be screened in Sarajevo'.

What would you reply to the foreign journalists who remarked that the Muslim character, Halil, is portrayed as a stereotypical bad guy?

I believe in the power of preconceived ideas. It seems that whoever said that had an a priori conviction that a Serbian director will portray a Muslim in bad light. It is fascinating that preconceived ideas can be so strong that such opinion remains unchanged even after seeing the film. This film is not like Mancevski's "Before the Rain". "Before the Rain" is an ideal film for a Western spectator, enabling him to take his girlfriend to dinner after the film and discuss, over a glass of wine, how the world could be a better place, if only people tried harder. This is no such film.

In Kusturica's "Underground" the war was portrayed more or less as a brawl in a Balkan tavern, after which everyone embraces over the broken glass, and carries on as if nothing happened. How did you solve this problem?

One of our worse national traits is very short memory. Memory of an average Serb is on par with that of a caterpillar or a dandelion. Unfortunately, I believe that with a few toasters, microwaves and a slightly better living standards, America will succeed in bribing this nation into forgetting all that happened. However, in 20 years time we will once again be at each other's throats. The mechanism which functioned for the last fifty years will be put into operation again. While traveling through Eastern Herzegovina I learned, with horror, that after World War II new generations were told exactly which Muslim slaughtered their grandfather or great grandfather and which family he came from. I fear that in spite of all the toasters and microwaves, similar information about this war will be accessible to future generations and that once again people will wait for an opportunity to get at one another. Muslims and Croats had their moment with Hitler's army, Serbs had theirs with the JNA. God only knows who is next...

What exactly are you confronting the public with? With their own personal responsibility, with the collective responsibility of a state or nation or responsibility of all sides?

The film is a kind of litmus test: everyone is confronted by something he or she feared, for which he or she feels responsible in one way or another. I can not really answer this question since the film was not made for the 250,000 people who saw it but for myself and my mates, people who think along the lines of: "They took away five years of my life, I do not know what to do with myself any more; I am so desperate I even played that idiotic American 'Green Card lottery', my children are growing in an awful country surrounded by dreadful folk music..."

What exactly did you confront yourself with in the film, what are your fears, what do you feel responsible for?

I find it difficult to answer this question since I myself, like most others, had thoughts I feel ashamed of today. I often dug my head in the sand, tried to stay calm and let nothing upset me. I lived in my own inner world. Then I had an attack of anger, and wanted do change something but nothing happened. 1996 is the year in which, apart from some satisfaction because of the film, I can feel nothing but depression. Nothing is happening around us, and nothing will happen for many years.

Money for this film came from, amongst others, Serbian Radio Television. It looks like a risky compromise with an institution which played an entirely negative role in this war. How come that money from such a source was used to make a film which is supposed to play some cathartic role in society...

Well, money is money. There are only a couple of people in this country whose money I would refuse. Although in some cases intervention would be justifiable, Serbian Television did not even attempt to censor any part of the film. We are being attacked as supporters of the regime, which I think is foolish. In this country all that is even marginally alternative is automatically labeled "anti-regime", "opposition" etc. I think such reasoning is awfully simplistic. In any case, we even asked Voja Seselj for money. He told us he was broke. We also asked Djindjic to sponsor us, we offered the Democratic Party the role of the chief sponsor, with name and logo before all others. They promised us something at first, but then gave us nothing at all... We collected funds from a number of state firms, including Belgrade Public Transport. Although many disapproved of this, I think it is sometimes good to make a film as well buses and trams. We accepted money from the ministry of culture, and we are grateful to them, although the Minister failed to turn up at the opening night although she was invited. When I am making a film I can not think: "I'd take money from these, but not from the other ones because they are bastards". It is pointless to think that way if you want to make a film. If someone gives us money, its great as long as they do not try to censure me.

There was even a possibility that the Srpska Republic might sponsor the film. At first they were willing to participate with a sum of money but after a while there was a complete U-turn. Nikola Koljevic clamed the film was anti-Serbian and its shooting is not in their interest. They even tried to confiscate the tapes but failed. It is interesting that one of their generals, General Subotic, read the script and approved of the film it in spite of the fact that it does not portray the Serbian side as "partisans" which is what they would prefer. It seems that sometimes soldiers are smarter than politicians.

You said that your film has been attacked as pro-regime. However, while watching the film, one is constantly under the impression that Mother of the Nation is hiding in some corner suggesting that: "We are all guilty, we all started it". Some scenes in the film follow this idea. For example when the boy is seen writing "Serbia as far as Tokyo", and later in the film Dragan Bjelogrlic sees the sign "Bosnia as far as Tokyo" on the wall of the house in which his mother was killed. This never happened.

Its true, but other, worse things, did happen. This is even witty, thus showing them in a good light. I am kidding. The point was to show that people fighting the war are very similar. On both sides there were witty urban people writing graffiti on the walls. I do not see this as an attempt to share the blame. While writing the script I had the idea to portray all Muslims only as shadows, silhouettes or voices, and thus not deal with the other side at all. I mean we saw how Croats made films about this war presenting Serbs as Frankensteins, which is pointless and silly. I think it is important to deal with this side, our crimes, our heroic deeds that took place, our sins. What do I care about others. Let Croats and Muslims make films about themselves. In fact I am proud that it is us who were the first to make a film which does not portray their own side in good light. Someone malicious called this the "traditional Serbian masochism". However, if there is anything positive left in us, this is it, even if someone wishes to call it masochism.

But now everyone, from politicians to the man in the street, is denying responsibility for this war ...

It is difficult to take someone else's point of view. For example, I have lived most of my life in the city, and was shocked by the idea that in Herzegovina people know exactly towards which family or household to direct their vengeance. I was astonished when I realised that, except in large towns, Bosnia had very little brotherhood and unity and that they lived in very separate communities with little interaction: Serbs had their villages, Muslims had their own.

On the other hand, your film talks about the opposite case. At the beginning of the film we see two country lads, a Serb and a Muslim, who are best friends.

Its true, such things did happen. Still, I find it difficult to abandon my own point of view, some kind of personal idealism. There were such cases of friendship but they were few. Especially in the countryside: Serb and Muslim friends? Forget it, it never happened. So, for fifty years we have been cradled into believing the lie about brotherhood and unity. The only thing that could ever ensue from such a lie is reality, which is most bizarre. In the end, I am sure we could have linked up and stayed together. It could have happened. All we needed was another ten years.

You yourself said that what we need is a moral renaissance. However such renaissance probably presupposes consciousness of our own guilt.

Of course, but this consciousness should not be equated with sending people to the Hague. We should say 'to hell with the Hague' and try our criminals here. That is the path to moral renaissance. The fact that we sometimes pushed into accepting stupidities such as the Hague tribunal is a different issue.

How did you look upon the pro- or anti-war activities of other artists in recent years? Or, if I may rephrase the question: in your film there is a scene where you are ridiculing activists from the peace movement by portraying them as a grotesque bunch of hypocrites, idiots and loafers. Was that really necessary? What purpose did this scene serve?

The scene would have been even more mocking had we been able to hire two or three poodles, but they were too expensive so peace activists were left empty handed. The scene also deals with the current 180 degree U-turn which the media are imposing on the people. On the other hand, I never really liked that handful of pacifists. Those well dressed ladies in fur-coats protesting against the war in Bosnia seemed quite pathetic and tragi-comic. I know for sure that one such lady received DM 2,000 from a foreign fund, at the time when people here earned DM 5 per month. To be paid for a pacifist activity is pointless. It is also interesting to remember that these people were singing anti-war songs in front of hospitals where people fucked up by the war are recovering.

Like most fellow artists, you have often been asked to take sides and accept a more active political role. Unlike many, you obviously have no need for such a role. Is there a particular philosophy behind this?

I think that in my moral corps there are some contradictory attitudes: some are communist, others are right wing, punk or democratic. I think artists should stay away from politics. Look at wretched Vuk Draskovic who has been struggling in the world of politics for the past five or six years. One often wonders, what does he need all that for? I doubt if right now artists would be capable either of toppling or leading a regime. The Checks are having a great time because an author suits them. What we need is a businessman or a boxer, preferably middle to heavy weight. Besides, the generation of people currently in power and in opposition is well aware of the benefits of going with the flow and knows exactly how stay in place and satisfy its needs.

Did Mr. Koljevic, who judged the film to be anti-Serbian, in any way justify his judgment?

In one of its versions the film was supposed to end with two boys escaping together from the tunnel, away from the Ghost. They insisted that the boys can "run away together but must do so in different directions", although technically this would have been difficult to carry out. They insisted on it because such ending would demonstrate that "we must all follow our own path, and that we have nothing more to do with the other side". There were other weird demands such as to have access to all filmed material. I am glad we managed somehow to retain our independence, as otherwise we would either have had censorship or I would have given up and said "There, why don't you edit the film yourselves!". In the end, luck turned out to be on our side.