Balkan filmmakers find action at doorstep
By the end of the Serbian film "Bure Baruta" ("Powder Keg"), all the main characters have been killed off.
Mane, a musician who has returned to Belgrade to claim a lost love, is hit over the head with a shovel and drowns in the Danube River. Sveta, a middle-aged father, kills his best friend, then blows himself up with a hand grenade. Andreja, a frustrated youth, steals a city bus but is pummeled to death by the driver.
Though absurd in its black humor, "Powder Keg," which premired in October in Belgrade, is perhaps the most telling artistic take on the former Yugoslavia, of which Serbia is the dominant republic. It was written by a Macedonian, Dejan Dukovski, but could take place anywhere in the Balkans.
Not only does the film delve into the subconscious of the Serbs, but it has broad implications about the Balkans - where one war is still simmering in Kosovo and others seem to be waiting around the corner.
"Our emotions are thin and our nerves are raw," says Jasmina Lekic, a Belgrade film critic. "We don't have the strength to control ourselves because we have lost so much in recent years. We lost our country, we lost our money, we lost the war [in Bosnia]. That's what this film is about."
Furthermore, "Powder Keg" is a triumph of director Goran Paskaljevic, who made the film despite criticism from Serbian nationalists and without government funding.
When Mr. Paskaljevic, who lives in Paris, said in an interview with an Italian newspaper that Serbs had "lost their souls," he was called a traitor by a nationalist writer in Belgrade. Others have said that the film paints a bad picture of Serbia and should not be promoted at home or abroad.
The film has since won the International Film Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival and has been nominated by Yugoslavia for Oscar consideration.
While other films related to the Bosnian war have been made, this is the first set in Serbia, the republic that escaped the fighting but is blamed for starting it. The implication - one rarely voiced in Belgrade - is that Serbs are guilty and must take responsibility for their own senseless violence.
"I have to repeat again that we are guilty ourselves," said Paskaljevic in an interview with the Belgrade newsmagazine Nin. "And if we are not aware that we have to bear part of that guilt, we will never come to the truth."
Nin, the largest circulation independent magazine in Yugoslavia, ran a photo from the film on its cover the week of Nov. 29, when NATO was still threatening airstrikes on Serbia for the war in the secessionist province of Kosovo and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was cracking down of the independent media.
"Our message was that this is an explosive situation," explains Nin editor Stevan Niksic. "We live in a powder keg."
A poor country that is still suffering from international economic sanctions, Yugoslavia has had remarkable success in its film industry. Another internationally acclaimed movie, "Black Cat, White Cat," debuted at the same time as "Powder Keg." The comedy about Gypsy life, filmed in Serbia, was directed by Bosnian-born Emir Kusturica, who has twice won the Cannes Film Festival award for best director. Both films were largely financed from abroad.
Serbia produces an average of five feature-length films a year, far more than many small countries. It has a strong film department at its main university, and two private film schools have recently opened.
"In our tradition we are taught that films should be about problems of our lives," explains Srdjan Karanovic, a film professor at Belgrade University. "Unfortunately, the past 10 years we have had exciting lives. When I wake up in the morning and turn on the radio I can think of at least three feature film ideas."