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October 29, 2007

"One Lucky Moment"

Reeler Roundtable: Catching up with three generations of Croatian filmmakers as national cinema takes NYC

Armin Omerovic and Marie Bäumer in Ognjen Svilicic's Armin, one of the featured titles in Lincoln Center's ongoing program of Croatian cinema (Photo: Maxima Film)

The past weekend saw the opening of Beyond Boundaries: The Emergence of Croatian Cinema, an unprecedented three-week series at Lincoln Center comprising selections from 50 years' worth of Soviet Bloc-era repression, Balkan conflict and the evolving democracy at the nation's doorstep. Filmmakers Krsto Papic (A Village Performance of Hamlet), Dejan Sorak (Two Players From the Bench) and Ognjen Svilicic (Armin) visited New York to present their work; while Papic's films have been distributed here over the years and the latter pair had previously screened in competition at the Tribeca Film Festival, their returns for the new survey afforded a rare opportunity to visit with representatives of three generations of a national cinema. The Reeler caught up with the trio late last week at Lincoln Center.

THE REELER: I was having another look at the program this morning and was kind of stunned by its scope. Have you seen any kind of Croatian cinema series like this elsewhere throughout your careers?

KRSTO PAPIC: We've had weeks of cinema somewhere, but no, never like this one. It's so important for us.

DEJAN SORAK: New York is a very happy place this month for Croatia. We became a member of the UN Security Council, and now Lincoln Center.

R: When the three of you look at the program, is there any particular standout or film that was particularly influential in your own work or that you're especially intrigued to see in this context?

OGNJEN SVILICIC: Well, I'm the youngest, so I look at it differently. I like Krsto's films; he was saying something about the heritage of Dalmatinska Zagora, which is a really special part of Croatia that you will never know if you go as a tourist. You'll just pass by.

KP: It's a Croatian Western.

OS: The wild west! And it's interesting for the audience in the United States to maybe know some genre films form Croatia. In the '70s, Dejan had a comedy Western. Face to Face (1963) could be compared to Glengarry Glen Ross or that kind of movie -- Mamet kind of stuff. You can see that in the early years, the filmmaking was on this level. H-8 (1958) is a movie from a great genre period. People are surprised that these kinds of movies were developed in Croatia.

DS: These films, it's like the Croatian NBA team. We have become sort of a regional moviemaking superpower. A few years ago, excellent Croatian films were the exception. Now they're the rule.

R: But even in Yugoslavia, filmmakers had far more latitude to explore ideas and themes than those in other portions of the Soviet bloc, didn't they?

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KP: It's very tricky, but it's true. We had more freedom to make movies. There are different kinds of communism: You have the communism of the Soviets; you have the communism of Pol Pot; you have the communism of Castro. But (Yugoslavian president Marshal) Tito's communism was light. He was a skillful dancer between West and East -- Russia and the United States, NATO and the Warsaw Pact. From time to time, when he was more permissive, we had more freedom to do what we were feeling. When he was more pro-Russian, it was a hard time -- not because of him, but because hard-liners took positions on the scene.

R: Dejan, didn't you also make films under that regime earlier in your career?

DS: I didn't have experiences like Krsto; he made films during this very hard period called Croatian Spring, and he felt the hard hand of censorship. But the pressure was in the air all the time. In those times, the state paid for the films but they wanted to have a sort of control. It was a humorous paradox: We had a sign to go along with the censors before movies played in theaters, but our censors were doctors, movie critics -- nice people. But then there were "artistic councils" -- policemen and real censors -- and you could not go and make a film without the consent of these commissions.

KP: You couldn't even to go to film festivals -- Cannes, Venice, Berlin -- if you didn't have permission from the Federal Commission for Foreign Festivals. Handcuffs (1969) was forbidden for Cannes. I got an invitation, but they said, "No -- you cannot go."

R: A Village Performance of Hamlet was also very subversive for its time.

(L-R) Filmmakers Krsto Papic, Dejan Sorak and Ognjen Svilicic (Photo: STV)

KP: That was blocked almost two years. The [director] for the Berlin Film Festival came to Zagreb to see the film, and he put a condition down to the commission: "We will not accept any Croatian films if you don't give us permission to show Hamlet." So Hamlet went to Berlin.

R: The shadow of the last decade's war looms in contemporary Croatian cinema. You're three generations of filmmakers, essentially; how does that influence the work you do now, especially compared to past trials?

DS: The first years of the war and the first years after the war, all of us filmmakers felt like we should give our own contributions to freedom and independence. But we are much better when we are not rebellious, so this period resulted in some not-so-good films. It was not a government pressure to make patriotic films; the pressure was in our souls. Now we're liberated form any kind of pressure, and that's very important. We're living a golden era of Croatian cinema. The government is paying and not asking the questions. Our only obstacles to doing great cinema is our own talent. And we have money -- not much, but enough -- for our films.

OS: Every country has one lucky moment for cinema; maybe it was the New Wave for France, or whatever. And this is a really important time for Croatian movies. The first thing you asked was about working behind the Iron Curtain, even though Yugoslavia was never behind the Iron Curtain. It's a matter of politics. The second question was about making films during the war. That was the second part of Croatia's cinema; you can refer to one or the other political situation. And if we meet here in 10 years, hopefully the question will be, "What kinds of genres do you have?" There's always the question about the relationship between artists and politics. But you don't ask David Fincher what's his relationship to Bush politics. In the same way, we are trying to do work that is more important than our political relationships. There will always be leftovers from the war, but these are surfaces. The movies are about human characters.

R: Of course, but when we think of a "national cinema," we don't really think of places like the US or France or wherever. For better or worse, things like combat, tension and politics are key themes in conceptions of most national cinemas.

OS: Part of the question, though, was always what style we were in. We were always connected to something.

KP: The situation now is one of transition. We were a one-party system; now we have democracy. But democracy is new. Our society is full of problems -- many problems -- but I think this is a good situation because many filmmakers are free to do what they want. The majority of the population has nothing, and our filmmakers are very skillfully using this situation to make relevant films about our problems.

R: So how do each of you plan to push that artistically in your upcoming films?

DS: Well, Krsto is a member of the commission that reads the scripts and makes decisions about the future of the cinema. There's no government or no officials; just a filmmaker and a script. And that's a very good situation. After Two Players From the Bench, Krsto gave me the money for my next film --

KP:
Or the Minister of Culture did. I'm just an adviser helping my friends.

R: You're a good friend to have.

OS: It's a small community of filmmakers; it's good that the state gives us just enough money so that we don't argue. And it seems hard, sometimes, to recognize the good times. This may not happen again for 10 years. You never know.



Comments (1)

It's wonderful that the larger institutions around town are highlighting Croatian Cinema. But it's important to remember the hard work of the Doors Art Foundation, which has systematically shown and supported Croatian films, month in and month out, for several years now.

Ray Privett

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