Days of (former?) Yugo Cinema

On the top floor in a non-air-conditioned room of New York Film Academy (100 East 17 th Street) from June 5 to June 9 there were Days of Croatian Cinema, a "festival of major achievements in film" - as it was spelled out by organizers.

Event was sponsored by the Croatian Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Films were provided by the Croatian State Archives/Kinotheque (Kinoteka), Croatia Film, Croatian Television, Jadran Film and Zagreb Film with participation of Cinematographic Workers Association. The event was made possible also due to the support (financial, I suppose) by the members of the Croatian-American community, AMA Croatica in New York, Consulate General in New York (that might be predominantly morally supportive) and Media Blitz.

Days of Croatian Cinema presented a retrospective of Croatian cinematography from 1954 to 1995. "Major Achievements" were represented through 26 films, 15 of which were animations from the Zagreb School of Animated Film. That, of course, makes sense given that ZSAF is the only part of Croatian cinematography that received international recognition (director Vukotic even won an Oscar once). None of Croatian film makers, graduates of Film Academy in Zagreb, ever won an international award. Even more sad, most of them never shot a feature movie. Now, with the shrunk market for their films (former Yugoslavia had more cinemas and moviegoers than Croatia alone), the future of Croatian cinematography looks rather bleak.

Therefore, out of 11 feature films showed at the festival, 6 of them were more than 25 years old. Two movies were by Antun Vrdoljak ("Mecava" and "Glembajevi"). He was the only author presented by two films, which perhaps reflects his high political standings in HDZ world (a former Minister of Information and a former Director of HTV) more than his directing talents. Of the 3 remaining selections, one did not arrive ("Hotel Sunja", by Ivo Salaj, 1995), which means, ironically, that there were no films at the festival produced in Croatia since Croatia gained independence and sovereignty. All the movies shown are actually products of former Yugoslav cinematography. They are of course a part of Croatian cultural heritage, because they are done by Croatian directors, with Croatian actors playing and they are produced by production houses which are and were headquartered in Croatia. Still, it leaves a bitter taste not to see anything done in the past 6 or 7 years, because it lets us wonder if there is Croatian cinematography any more, or it died with Yugoslavia?

This festival begs for an organization of the Alternative Days of Croatian Cinema which would be solely dedicated to present works of younger authors like Pezo, Nola, Trenc, Marinkovic, Dukic, just to name the some. Instead of "Hotel Sunja" the festival showed two documentaries by Neven Hitrec (a son of Hrvoje Hitrec, I presume; H.Hitrec has a pretty much the same political resume as A. Vrdoljak), yet those films were obviously not chosen to be shown. The first documentary, which talked about refugees from Vukovar trying to make ends meet in Zagreb, was very critical of Croatian government - first for abandonment of Vukovar, and then for abandonment of its people, displaced around Croatia. The second one was a rather bizarre account of mentally challenged' youth refugees, 22 of which died in exile unable to adapt to the new environment. Neven should have definitely tried to get those movies accepted for the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (they show this year a lot of movies about Bosnia and former Yugoslavia, yet all of them are done by emotionally suffering witnesses from the U.S. or Great Britain). There they'd be in better home than at this event.

Each day of the festival Ante Peterlic, a Croatian film professor, was present to answer questions. His ranting answers and pungent sense of humor added some cabaret atmosphere to the otherwise obscure, stifling, top floor room. Yet on the closing evening he yielded the microphone to Branko Lustig, an Oscar winning producer of the Schindller's List. Lustig worked for more than 30 years as a top producer at the largest Yugoslav film production company Jadran Film. Jadran Film was always headquartered in Zagreb and now is a Croatian company. Jadran Film and Lustig made name and money by co-producing Hollywood vast b-production of endless action movies. Jadran Film provided cheap locations and cheap, non-SAGed extras. Ten years ago Lustig left Yugoslavia to work as a producer in the U.S., and now he lives in Los Angeles.

At the event, although Lustig spoke English (with an accent), inevitably he was asked to comment on the latest political situation in his old homeland Croatia. Pushed to answer the question about the freedom of the press in Croatia (which was prompted by the latest crackdown on the independent press in Croatia), Lustig muttered that it should be obvious that country, that allowed certain newspapers to publish pictures of its President naked every week, has unimpeded freedom of the press. The reference was obviously to Feral Tribune. Just a few days after those words a trial begun in Zagreb against Viktor Ivancic and Marinko Culic of Feral Tribune. They are accused of libel against the President. So, Lustig's defense of the freedom of the press in Croatia becomes a little shaky now. Moreover, they are not on trial because of the Tudjman's naked pictures, but because they criticized Tudjman's proposal that the remains of Ustashe be reburied next to their Jewish, Serb and Rome victims in Jasenovac (promoting national reconciliation). Such a proposal should have Lustig, a producer of Schindller's List, and a Croatian Jew who obviously survived the Holocaust, at least morally engaged in the issue.

Immediately after profoundly defending young Croatian democracy, Lustig was forced to explain why then will no part of the new movie, he is producing for Spielberg's DreamWorks, be shot on locations in Croatia. Film PEACEMAKER is about a bunch of Serbian terrorists (sic!) who (with the little help of Slobo and his funds stashed away on Cyprus) obtain nuclear fuel from bad Russians, and smuggle it to the U.S. where they threaten to blow the U.N. building sky-high (and all American rednecks are screaming in joy, because they hate both the UN and New York; and Southern racists, the church burning guys, already openly sympathize with the Serb suffering - THIS is not the movie, this is reality).

Serbian terrorists are played by a Polac, a Romanian and a Croat (Rene Medvesek). Balkan is played by Macedonia, and Belgrade is played by Bratislava, Slovakia (it is also a city on Danube, what do Americans know anyway). The film of course has a happy end - after all, Spielberg is the executive producer. Nicole Kidman plays a beauty in the film. And the film is directed by Mimy Leder. This is her first big film (she did the Emergency Room TV series). Now, I understand why nothing is filmed in Serbia. First, security concerns, and then Serbs might be offended by the film's content. Nobody likes to be chosen for the bad guy role, and American cinematography works like that: first they were Indians, then the Germans, then Russians, Chinese, Arabs and now they are Serbs. Americans are always keeping the "officer and gentleman" roles for themselves, of course. It is their money, isn't it?

But why there will be no filming of Peacemaker in Croatia?! Lustig said that there were POLITICAL PROBLEMS. Opppss! Didn't he just say how Croatia is a democratic heaven on Earth? Yeah, he thought so. But OTHERS at DreamWorks (like Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen) did not share that opinion. Daily News wrote recently that State Department issued an advice suggesting to DreamWorks not to film either in Serbia OR in Croatia due to security concerns. Hello! Isn't Croatia the current most favorite American possession in the Balkans? Don't THEY run our military? So, what kind of security concerns may they have?

After Lustig's q&a part the festival concluded with a party in the foyer of the New York Film Academy. Certain youngish Croatian film directors (who live in New York working some dead-end jobs and trying to peddle around their scripts) stepped by to munch on some "prsut" and "sir" and drink some "gemischt", compliments of the Days of Croatian Cinema organizers.