Balkan Insight / Judging Movies Reconnects Balkan’s Divided Postwar Young

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This article was published in Balkan Insight on January 28, 2019.

by Sonja Borgmann

Joining a pan-Balkan arthouse film jury proved a transformative experience for youngsters brought up to think of their peers in other former Yugoslav countries as strangers and enemies.

Before making their first trip to Kosovo for the DocuFest Film Festival this summer, Milorad Savanovic, 20, and Natalija Miljkovic, 18, two film students from Serbia, were worried.

They were not concerned about the extensive task of serving on the regional youth film jury – but their safety while doing so.

After the war between Serbia and Kosovo almost 20 years ago and the recent political tensions, they were unsure how they would be received.

But when Savanovic introduced himself to a local festivalgoer as Serbia, he found himself being offered a beer.

“It surprised me,” says Savanovic. “We are told that Albanians and people from Kosovo hate us.”

This film fanatic, who often totes a camera, instead felt welcomed. Despite all the messages he had been exposed to, he saw people across ethnic lines getting along.

While the politicians all over the post-war Balkans celebrate other people’s war criminals as their own national heroes, Savanovic and Miljkovic were gathering with ten other students from Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to analyze arthouse films at the region’s top festivals.

DocuFest in Kosovo, along with the Pancevo Film Festival, PAFF, in Serbia, and the Pravo Ljudski Film Festival in Bosnia and Herzegovina, had collaborated to bring them together

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Photo: Sonja Borgmann

A new project, “Rethinking Films,” was designed to connect and train passionate students in the Balkans in film literacy skills, while expanding their regional perspectives at the same time.

After each week of intensive film critiquing, the students were charged with determining which films they would present with the youth jury award.

As Savanovic and Miljkovic relaxed in Kosovo, they found themselves enjoying the international program they were judging.

But when they returned home, exhausted from this fun, Savanovic half-joked that his parents “were just glad to see I was alive”.

Miljkovic, a smiley high schooler with an orangey pixie-cut, says her friends were also “surprised” by her experience.

Over the next three months, Savanovic and Miljkovic would continue to travel across national borders to attend screenings and workshops with their international peers.

The parents of these youngsters had grown up in one country, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which from 1946 to 1991 consisted of six republics and two autonomous provinces.

When Yugoslavia broke apart in the 1990s, about a decade of violent wars cost over 100,000 lives and displaced millions of others.

As children, they grew up in what were now separate countries, meeting now for the first time.

“Young people now don’t travel as much as the generations before mine used to travel around ex-Yugoslavia or Yugoslavia, so the only experience they have had of other regions [comes] from newspapers and the media,” says Snezana Curuvija, 37, the project manager at PAFF who helped launch “Rethinking Films”.

But media coverage in the region remains heavily one-sided. According to the UK The Economist, the state of the region’s media, “which had often stirred up hatred” in the past, has barely improved since the wars ended.

Savanovic did not feel the media was telling him the full story. Through “Rethinking Films,” he wanted to see for himself what other people in the region were experiencing.

Eranda Bokshi, 21, a student on the film jury from Kosovo who recently began her own film-screening organization, also describes how the politicians, “raise this feeling of fear and of enemies and historical lies, to keep us distant”.

These one-sided narratives, which are reproduced in the newspapers and conversations in the Balkans, mean that the young continue to experience trauma from a war that they did not live through themselves, says Emina Zoletic, 33, a clinical psychologist who helped lead one of the jury’s workshops at Pravo Ljudski.

During her workshop, participants listened to one another as they discussed the stigmas surrounding mental illness, and cooperated to act out a psychodrama that re-envisioned the ending for the film they had just watched.

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Photo: Sonja Borgmann

The intra-regional collaboration they practiced during these workshops is not new to the region’s professional filmmakers.

The internationally acclaimed film director Aida Begic, 42, who grew up in Sarajevo, Bosnia, during the war, has often collaborated across borders on her films that deal with the consequences of war.

“From the beginning, after the war, you could see everybody together on the set – it was a good example of collaboration and possibilities,” Begic recounts, about the Balkan film scene.

Collaborating in film was not only natural, agreed Sarajevo film director Alen Drljevic, 50, but also healing.

In his award-winning film Men Don’t Cry, Drljevic shared the story of real workshops that bring together veterans from former Yugoslav countries to deal with their post-war traumas.

A war veteran himself, Drljevic began by attending such sessions for his film research. He ended up finding them personally cathartic.

“It’s not easy to sit with former enemies and talk and open yourself up, but I realized that I have so many unsolved things inside me”, he says. He has concluded that the only way forward is to create empathy between former enemies; otherwise, the wartime experience does not just disappear.

Bokshi agrees. Only two years old when the war in Kosovo ended in 1999, she still feels connected to the experience; it is at the heart of the discussions going on around her and in the potent memories that her parents share.

For her, just watching films about the war is a window into understanding the past.

“You understand why older people behave the way they do,” she explains, “then you can understand the age gap and the differences between us, and maybe why we have clashes.”

When her group reached Sarajevo, she was curious to see how people there had experienced the war, wondering if their similarly “tough past” would be equally present in the atmosphere as it was at home.

Instead, she found people enjoying themselves, sipping the same Turkish coffee she was familiar with, and inquisitive to speak with her.

At the same time, Miljkovic and Savanovic were drawing comparisons to Serbia.

“We realized more about Serbia than about [the] other countries,” Savanovic explains with an astonished laugh.

The experience made him think deeper about some of the entrenched ideas he was accustomed to in Serbia.

Despite their different backgrounds, the group found themselves easily agreeing on film selections, when stories successfully captured the human quality of their characters.

Savanovic described how he could relate to Minding the Gap, an acclaimed American documentary that the jury awarded.

“It’s not the same situation [as at home] but the problems and the causes and the emotions are the same for you,” he says.

This coming-of-age film exposes all sides of its main characters and includes both their most compassionate, and most brutal, actions.

Savanovic found it unique. “It’s not that common to see both sides of something,” he reflects.

Even if the students did not share the actors’ experiences, Miljkovic adds that, through watching the film, “you try to understand more people and why they do certain things and then you understand and think about why you do certain things”.

By the time the students reached the 13th Pravo Ljudski Film Festival in Sarajevo, they had screened over 40 short and feature-length films together, some of which they were still hotly debating.

At the theatre there, the group comfortably took their places on the velvet-red movie seats, snapping silly photos together, while they prepared themselves for another rigorous week of film analysis.

Stigma around mental illness was just one of the issues dealt with in the films the students learned to decode. Other themes included LGBTQ rights, racism and parent-children relationships.

“The films we watched were documentaries mostly, so most represented either the situations in their countries, or problems in their countries,” says Miljkovic who felt she learned a lot about contemporary issues that she did not often get to discuss.

Bokshi, however, feels somewhat disappointed by the issues still missing from the group’s discussions.

She had hoped to talk more about politics with her new peers, but instead felt a boundary outside the workshops that made such conversations hard to approach.

Despite this, Bokshi thinks “Rethinking Films” was still a significant start to dealing with the past. So does Miljkovic.

“It was an amazing experience and it kind of changed my mind about some things; I think I [now] have less prejudice,” says Miljkovic, especially concerning Kosovo.

Not all the students became best friends or completely changed their minds about everything in the region. But both Savanovic and Miljkovic feel strongly that they have built lasting relationships with some of the students they shared the experience with.

On their last day together, Miljkovic was sad to leave, but also had something to look forward to.

“We have already talked about seeing each other and going to each other’s towns to visit each other – and maybe someday we will all work with each other, because all of us want to do something with film,” she says, still excited.