Between October 2 and 7, 2009, Serbian documentary film maker and director Goran Radovanović taught a short course based on six documentary and feature films with topics ranging from non-violent student resistance to the Milošević regime to rural elections and social change during the postcommunist transition. Radovanović screened five documentaries and his first feature film “The Ambulance” that premiered at the Montreal film festival in September 2009. The documentary films addressed different social and political themes and featured some rare footage, both by the film director and from Serbia’s film and television archives. Each screening was followed by a brief exposition and discussion with the film director. It is worth pointing out that none of Radovanović’s films could be shown on Serbian television prior to the downfall of the Milošević regime in October 2000.
The first film screened by Radovanović was “My Country-For Internal Use Only.” Its overarching theme is the manipulation of state-wide visual and newspaper media by the Milošević regime. The glaring contradiction between officials advertising Serbia’s “leap” into the twenty-first century world of mobile phone and computer technology is glaringly juxtaposed to scenes of Serbian refuges streaming on tractors from Croatia and Bosnia, a “love affair” between two well-dressed pensioners from erstwhile solidly middle-class backgrounds (now regular visitors to a soup kitchen in Belgrade), and some spectacular original shots of NATO’s bombing campaign over Serbia and Kosovo in Spring 1999.
In “Model House,” Radovanović documents the sad fate of Serbian refugees from Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Widely considered as the “villains” of the wars of Yugoslav succession, the Serbs are usually portrayed as aggressors rather than victims. As a result, the eight hundred thousand Serbian refugees have been largely out of site in the western press and media, though their plight was hardly any different from that of their Croatian, Bosnian Moslem, and Albanian counterparts. Worse still, because the Serbian regime boasted its“war victories,” the refugees represented a living reminder of its subsequent military defeats. In 1995, when some two-hundred thousand refugees fled to Serbia in the wake of the successful Croatian-Bosnian Moslem military offensive in a mere four days, the Milošević regime scattered them throughout Serbia in an effort to hide them from public view. Radovanović ‘s “Model House” tells their moving stories: a refugee woman cleaning a well-furnished apartment without possessing one of her own; a boy practicing karate moves, cigarette in mouth, clumsily boasting his early manhood amid the clutter of a refugee “model house.”
In “Otpor: The Fight to Save Serbia,” Radovanović tells the story of the student movement whose imaginative street performances did much to galvanize Serbian public opinion against the Milošević regime in 1999-2000. The special value of the documentary derives from the fact that the filming occurred in vivo, i.e. well before the political outcome was known. We see the designer of the movement’s symbol, the clenched fist symbolizing “resistance” (the translation of “otpor”), telling us how he designed it because he wanted to impress his girlfriend; a mother joining a daughter in street demonstrations; police beatings and student solidarity; and a mock cake consisting of territories that Milošević lost submitted as a birthday present to “our beloved President.”
In “Chicken Elections,” Radovanović tells the story of an old Serbianpeasant woman living alone in a decaying rural area, but now learning how to communicate with the outside world with the help of a cell phone. Her son (a policeman) and the country priest are her only visitors and caretakers. The death of the woman stands for the death of an old way of life, with documentary footage from the interwar period (1930s) serving as a reminder of a once vital world that is irretrievably lost. The policeman and the priest have more clients in the local taverna (called a kafana in Serbian), where idle jobless men hang out all day, than in their respective places of work.
In “The Casting: Pantyhose, Prostitution, and Sex Trafficking,” Radovanović produces a staged documentary, attracting both female and male clients for a “Euro-pantyhose” commercial. Young women volunteers include a girl who needs money for insulin, and an attractive high school student preferring a quick buck to long study, yet both come from “normal families” short of cash in a transitional society. The men are more comical: a cop willingly takes of his uniform to expose his “hairy vitality;” a former body-building athletic champion wins the “pantyhose race.” But the most disturbing parts of the film involve interviews with a real sex trafficker (a “good father” who buys toys for his son from the proceeds) and a Romanian woman “sold” in Kosovo and “saved” by a Bosnian Serb cop.
In “Second Circle,” Radovanović concentrates on the Roma population in Serbia. A Roma man livesin a “cave” under Belgrade’s main park (a former Ottoman and Austrian fortress) hunting pigeons and scavenging for food and living supplies in garbage dumps; others show knife scars and talk about their life “plans,” including a wedding. A Roma girl gets job offers rescinded when she reveals her ethnic identity. But the picture of the lack of integration into mainstream society and majority prejudice is partially alleviated by institutional tolerance (or negligence) for the Roma’s nomadic way of life.
Radovanović ended the course with his first feature film “The Ambulance.” It is a bleak portrait of Serbia in the immediate post-Milošević period, when political identity was in rapid flux and the economic devastation caused by regime mismanagement and criminal mafia undertakings, sanctions, and NATO bombing put society on the brink of collapse. However, as the film reveals, the collapse is as much moral as it is political-economic: a Partisan veteran and Milošević believer desperately tries to commit suicide by taking an overdose of medication and finally succeeds; his daughter—for many years a TV announcer of regime propaganda on the evening news—is treated as a “collaborator,” her son returning from school with a shaved head. But there is hope as well: a relationship between a wheelchair bound, computer-literate young woman and her neighbor who tries to master elementary software leads to a potentially redemptive friendship amidst the socio-political rubble. The movie is a highly allegorical successful “first,” whose moral and aesthetic complexity cannot be revealed in a few sentences.
A word is in order about the reception of the course, which attracted twenty students from various departments. The films were well attended and the discussions were lively. Radovanović provided the context for each film and explained his technique and personal and creative motivation. Professor Vujačić (Sociology) occasionally filled in the blanks with brief sketches of the broader social and political context. Student comments were overwhelmingly positive, and the final papers reflected the learning experience: by the end of the class, students knew not only much more about a talented filmmaker, but also about a face of Serbia that they had never encountered in western media accounts.