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Editorial 85–96 Black Wave polemics: rhetoric

as aesthetic

Articles Interview

5–16 Eastern European cinema: old 97–107 Conversation with Yvette Biró:
and new approaches interviews conducted in Paris,
EWA MAZIERSKA 5 July 2008, and New York
17–28 Slovak bohemians: revolution, City, 1 November 2008
counterculture and the end of CATHERINE PORTUGES
the Sixties in Juraj Jakubisko’s
109–113 Polish Postcommunist Cinema:
29–42 Coming to terms with the past: From Pavement Level, Ewa
post-1989 strategies in German Mazierska (2007)
film culture
114–118 Czech and Slovak Cinema:
Theme and Tradition, Peter
43–56 ‘Cinema of normalization’: Hames (2009)
changes of stylistic model in
119–126 Karlovy Vary International Film
post-Yugoslav cinema after the
Festival 2009: a remarkable
showcase of contemporary
57–70 Re-cognizing the post-Soviet
condition: the documentary Industry Document
turn in contemporary art in the
Baltic States 127–130 The Hungarian tax credit system
HARRY WEEKS and the 20% rebate scheme
71–84 Revolution, cinema, painting:
creative recycling of images
in the films of Tom Gotovac
(Antonio Lauer)

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SEEC 1 (1) p. 3–4 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Eastern European Cinema

Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Editorial. English language. doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.3/2


Principal Editor

A very warm welcome to the first issue of Studies in Eastern European Cinema!
It is the aim of the editors that the journal will fill a gap in the scholarly and
intellectual landscape of cinema studies about Eastern Europe. For some
time, actually for too long, there has been no regularly appearing English-
language journal devoted to the cinema of the region. This has stood in
sharp contrast to the number of excellent publications, monographs, edited
collections, conferences and symposia, etc. devoted to Eastern European
cinema which have proliferated since the collapse of the Berlin Wall some 20
years ago (unfortunately we will just miss the anniversary of this momen-
tous event).
The team that worked together on bringing this new ‘creation’ to life
thought long and hard about the scope of the journal and discussed this with
a number of prominent scholars in the field. The consensus that emerged
was for a publication that would be reasonably well defined but as inclu-
sive as possible. The editors therefore decided that the journal, at least in the
politico-geographical sense, would embrace the following: Latvia, Lithuania,
Estonia, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria,
the states of the former Yugoslavia, Albania and Ukraine. Obviously there are
many issues here about labels and definitions – what should the region now
be called, and is there in fact a region at all? An editorial of this nature is
not really the place to go into these complexities and Associate Editor Ewa
Mazierska has written an opening article discussing and developing a number
of these issues in more depth and where she also looks at new developments
in scholarship about the region’s cinema. Whatever problems there may be
with calling the area covered by the scope of the journal ‘Eastern Europe’, we
nevertheless decided to adopt this term, primarily because of that sense of
inclusiveness that we see as so important.

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John Cunningham

The former state of East Germany posed a problem and after discussion we
decided to include it in our remit and we are pleased to have, in our first issue,
an article by Ib Bondebjerg on representations of East Germany in some recent
films from the unified Germany. In addition we have articles about aspects of
cinema from the Baltic States, Slovakia, Yugoslavia and elsewhere and, again,
emphasizing our desire for inclusiveness we include articles on directors work-
ing in video and look forward to receiving contributions from scholars (and
practitioners) on digital and mixed media productions. Historically, we have
articles that take us back to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia in the 1960s and
others that are firmly embedded in the present. The editors are particularly
pleased to include a lengthy interview with Hungarian scholar, critic, writer
and theoretician Yvette Biró, whose life’s work has embraced so much of what
this journal is designed to engage with.
As Principal Editor of this new venture, allow me to express my deep
thanks to my colleagues Ewa Mazierska (Associate Editor) and Michael
Goddard (Reviews Editor) and to all those who so willingly agreed to join
the editorial board and the advisory editorial board. Special thanks must
go to Catherine Portuges and Peter Hames without whose advice the jour-
nal would probably never have appeared. Thanks also to my colleague at
Sheffield Hallam University, Gerry Coubro, for his encouragement when I
first raised the idea with him. My apologies to anyone I have inadvertently
missed out. The gestation period of the journal has been around eighteen
months and, for me, has involved a learning curve, the steepness of which
has sometimes been quite alarming. So, my final acknowledgement must
go to Ravi Butalia, Alanna Donaldson and all the team at Intellect for their
patience, guidance and advice.

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SEEC 1 (1) pp. 5–16 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Eastern European Cinema

Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.5/1

Associate Editor, University of Central Lancashire, Preston

Eastern European
cinema: old and new

This opening article looks at the changing ways of conceptualizing Eastern Europe as postcommunism
a region, particularly since the political changes of 1989. This is discussed alongside Eastern European
the changes and emerging trends in more recent scholarship on Eastern European cinema
cinema. Central Europe
We decided to open the first issue of our new journal with an essay concerning
not the history of Eastern European film, but the history of its history, or more
precisely, recent developments in the histories of Eastern European cinemas.
It is uncharted territory for me both in the sense of having limited knowledge
about the respective histories and cinemas, and not having any strong opinion
about how film histories should be studied and compared. However, despite
these limitations I decided to embark on this subject because it needs to be
discussed as the study of history of cinema in itself is an important part of this
cinema. Equally, I hope that the gaps that I reveal in my article will allow oth-
ers to inform and correct me, as well as giving all of us some food for thought.
In particular, I want to discuss the impact of the transition from communism
to postcommunism on the discourses on Eastern European cinema(s) from
the period 1945–89 and the study of postcommunist cinema itself.

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Ewa Mazierska

My essay is based on studying academic books and articles, researching

other developments in Eastern European cinema, such as film festivals and
conferences, as well as opinions collected first through an informal and then a
more formal questionnaire which I e-mailed in 2008 and 2009 to about twenty
academics and Ph.D. students specializing in Eastern European cinema. I
tried to familiarize myself with publications on as many national cinemas as I
could reach in a limited amount of time and, equally, reach as many special-
ists as I could, including scholars from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary,
Ukraine and Estonia. However, due to the fact that I am Polish and know
films in Poland better than any other national cinema, for better or for worse,
my observations are biased towards that country.


My first question is what cinema are we to consider? The term ‘Eastern
European cinema’ is less used now than before 1989, being largely replaced by
‘East-Central/East Central European cinema’ or even ‘Central European cin-
ema’. I am myself, in common with the other two editors of Studies in Eastern
European Cinema, very attached to ‘Eastern European cinema’, but feel that
we are often perceived as old-fashioned and unsophisticated when using this
term. Of course, the contentious parts of the terms ‘Eastern European cinema’
and ‘East-Central European cinema’ is not ‘cinema’ but ‘Eastern European’
and ‘East-Central European’.
As some authors, including Paul Coates observe, the term competing
most successfully with ‘Eastern European’, ‘East Central’, did not enter cul-
tural discourses after the fall of communism, but has existed since the 1950s
and started to circulate, at least in Poland, in the mid-1980s (Coates 2000).
However, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the debate about ‘Central’
and ‘East Central’ Europe in relation to ‘Eastern Europe’ gathered pace. Marcel
Cornis-Pope and John Neubauer refer to a round-table discussion which took
place in June 1989 in Budapest, involving some of the leading writers from
the old ‘Eastern Europe’, such as H.C. Artmann, Péter Esterházy, Danilo Kiš,
György Konrád, Claudio Magris, Czesław Michnik and others. At this debate,
as they report, Czesław Miłosz defined Central Europe in his opening paper as
‘all the countries [including the Baltic states] that in August 1939 were the real
or hypothetical objects of a trade between the Soviet Union and Germany’,
but Artmann indignantly objected, claiming that the Baltic countries belonged
to Scandinavia and his country, Austria, was omitted, just because it was lucky
enough to regain independence in 1955. His response shifted the context
from 1939 to the post-war period, but the implications are clear: Artmann
meant that Austria was a Central European country and Miłosz had no right
to identify Central Europe with the Soviet-dominated countries of Eastern
Europe. To this, Claudio Magris remarked that Central Europe was not iden-
tical with the German historico-political designation of Mitteleuropa. The latter
connoted the ‘the encounter of German culture with the other cultures of
the same region, but its predominant implication was that of a German or
at best German-Hungarian supremacy in Central Europe’ (Cornis-Pope and
Naubauer 2002: 2).
The discussion described here, although unique due to the high profile
of its participants, was one of many which took place around that time. We
can derive from this that ‘East Central’ and ‘Central’ have different connota-
tions than ‘East’; these terms emphasize both the geographical and cultural

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Eastern European cinema: old and new approaches

closeness of some countries comprising the old Soviet bloc with the West,
especially Germany and, at the same time, their distance from the East, espe-
cially Russia.
If we focus on cinema, we can see that as a result of such shifts Polish,
Czech and Hungarian cinemas now tend to be grouped together with
German and Austrian cinema, rather than with Russian or even Romanian or
Albanian. Similarly, the shift drove a wedge between Russian cinema and that
of some more western old Soviet republics, such as those belonging to the
Baltic region and Ukraine.
Paul Coates investigates the meaning of ‘East Central’ by looking at the
films made before communism collapsed: Tadeusz Konwicki’s How Far From
Here – How Near/Jak daleko sta˛d, jak blisko (1972) and Krzysztof Zanussi’s
Imperative/Imperatyw (1982), by claiming that their authors attempted to
account for the new thinking about Poland as somehow stretching cultur-
ally beyond its political borders, both to the East and to the West. His essay
is thus, in a sense, an early intervention in the discussion of Polish cinema as
East Central European cinema or Central European cinema. After Coates, the
problems of redrawing the map was tackled by numerous authors, includ-
ing Dina Iordanova. In her book, Cinema of the Other Europe (2003), while
claiming that the Eastern bloc changed into East Central Europe, she opts
for ‘Other Europe’ rather than ‘East Central Europe’. It is worth noting that
this term, although avoiding controversy around ‘East European’ and ‘East
Central’, is by no means axiologically neutral, because it positions the cinema
of countries such as Poland and Hungary as Western Europe’s ‘other’, much
more than ‘East European’ and ‘East Central’, which attempts to situate these
cinemas in the European mainstream.
Coates and Iordanova’s work also aptly demonstrate that redrawing
national and regional boundaries affects not only our thinking about films
made after 1989, but is retrospectively applied to the films made before that
date. I can mention a number of other signs of such ‘backward projection’,
for example, the research done by Czech scholars on early Czech cinema
in the context of German–Austrian–Czech relations and, similarly, research
on early Polish cinema in the region of Wielkopolska, chiefly undertaken by
Małgorzata Hendrykowska, as an example to both resistance and assimilation
of Polish cinema to Prussian culture (see, for example, Hendrykowska 1996).
The move of ‘Eastern European cinema’ to ‘East Central’, ‘Central’ and
the ‘Other’ Europe also has institutional implications. It affects configurations
of university departments, networks and associations of scholars, directions
taken by existing journals and the setting up of new ones, programmes of
festivals, etc. As an example of this shift we can list the change in the name
of the Journal of Soviet Studies to Europe-Asia Studies or the initiatives result-
ing from the opportunities offered by the Visegrad fund, which encourages
seeking synergies between Polish, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian cultures,
including the cinemas of these countries and, consequently, playing down the
connections between these cinemas on the one hand and the rest of the old
Soviet bloc on the other.
It will be very difficult to assess how the aforementioned changes affected
the volume, character and quality of work done on the cinemas belonging to
the old Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, I asked my colleagues which national
cinema or geographical region, in their opinion, gained in visibility and status
and which lost as a result of redrawing the map. Those who responded claimed
that the shift proved unfortunate for those cinemas which previously had, after

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Ewa Mazierska

1. The closest to this Russia, a dominant position in Eastern Europe, namely Czech, Hungarian and
position is probably
Béla Tarr.
Polish, in this order. Czechs are happier than Poles and Hungarians to have
their cinema belonging to ‘East Central’ or ‘Central’ Europe, because even at
the time of Soviet occupation they regarded themselves as being at the heart
of this continent, both geographically and culturally. For Hungarian and espe-
cially Polish cinema, on the other hand, the shift marks the loss of a distinct
identity without acquiring a new one. This is because while the old Eastern
European cinema had its counterpart in Western cinema, ‘East Central’
European cinema does not have a specific ‘other’; on the contrary, it merges
with other cinemas and is overwhelmed by them, especially by the ‘Germanic
element’, in line with the predictions made at the literary conference previ-
ously mentioned.
This unfortunate position is compounded by the perception that the cin-
emas in German-speaking countries are flourishing, both as national institu-
tions, successfully addressing the current problems of their countries and their
histories, and as transnational cinema, dealing with pan-European and uni-
versal problems. An example of this success is the career of Michael Haneke
who appears to have conquered the place previously occupied by Krzysztof
Kieslowski, namely as a defender of pan-European values or even a spokes-
man for the whole of Europe. By contrast, the East part of Central Europe
does not have any obvious heir to Kieslowski.1
On the other hand, the cinema of countries that were previously thwarted
by their larger and culturally more self-assured neighbours, such as Romania
or Bulgaria, now attract greater attention than before communism collapsed.
The interest they attract can also be linked to the fact that they, together
with a number of cinemas of ex-Soviet republics, perfectly illustrate the idea
of ‘small cinemas’. In the last two decades or so this idea became fashion-
able largely due to postmodern interest in marginality, small narratives, local
cultures, as well as a sense of exhaustion experienced by so called First and
Second cinemas.
Of course, it is impossible to scientifically compare the loss of status expe-
rienced by the previously leading Eastern European cinemas with the gain
achieved by cinemas that were regarded as marginal. Nevertheless, I believe
that so far the loss of one group is not compensated for by the gain of another.
For example, while my new cohorts of students are less likely to know such
titles as Blonde in Love and Ashes and Diamonds than those whom I taught ten
years or so ago, it does not mean that they have heard of The Death of Mr
A good sign of this relative loss of status of Eastern European cinema
within European and world cinema is the list of directors included in some
recent international portmanteau films. For example, among the eighteen
directors involved in making Paris, je t’aime (2006), we do not find a single
director from Eastern Europe, although there is one from ‘Central Europe’ –
Tom Tykwer. Such an omission may be accidental or may result from some
East European directors deliberately excluding themselves from the project,
but even if so, it signifies the old Eastern bloc’s cultural marginalization within
the new Europe. I will argue that the term ‘Central Europe’ might be seen as
a way to confirm and perpetuate a marginalization, which the production of
films such as Paris, je t’aime is one of many signs. I therefore would like to
defend the term ‘Eastern European’ cinema, regarding it as more flexible and
inclusive than the phrases proposed recently, which were meant to replace it.
In particular, it is the only term that can inclusively embrace all the countries

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Eastern European cinema: old and new approaches

we cover in the journal. Moreover, it evokes the history of their previous, 2. However, it should
be mentioned that,
largely enforced cohabitation, which we hope to be an important aspect of contrary to expectations,
the material published in our journal, without preventing the authors to write histories of European or
about the present day of these countries and their respective cinemas. To put world cinema, written
in individual countries,
it differently, it is not the only way to talk about cinemas of countries such as such as Poland and
Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Estonia or Serbia, but it is a legitimate and pro- Czechoslovakia, during
ductive way. But what have been the dominant methods of researching this communist times, also
emphasized national
cinema? To this issue I will devote the second part of my study. specificity. I do not know
a single book written in
Polish that investigates
connections between
The break-up of the old Soviet bloc equalled the end of the enforced cohabita- Polish or Czechoslovak
or Polish and Romanian
tion of nations that often did not regard themselves as particularly close to each cinema.
other culturally and a chance to assert their autonomy, as demonstrated by
the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.
We might expect that such fragmentation would encourage and facilitate the
conveying of a national identity, at the expense of any international one.2
Indeed, following these break-ups, we see an ongoing debate not only about
how national the postcommunist cinemas in the respective new countries are,
but also how national they were previously. Such investigation brings some
surprising outcomes. For example, Bjorn Ingvoldstad, in an essay entitled ‘The
Paradox of Lithuanian Cinema’, argues that before the break-up of the Soviet
Union, Lithuania boasted cinema in many respects more national than after
it became a separate state. In particular, the mass Lithuanian audience was
more attuned to Soviet Lithuanian films than they are to Lithuanian films of
the last two decades or so (Ingvoldstad 2008). Bohdan Nebesio, in his discus-
sion of new Ukrainian films does not go as far as Ingvoldstad, but in a some-
what similar vein emphasizes the popularity of Soviet Ukrainian films among
Ukrainian audiences and the important role they played in asserting, preserv-
ing and developing Ukrainian national identity (Nebesio 2007). Similarly, Eva
Näripea draws attention to the complex relation between Soviet and Estonian
aspects in Soviet Estonian films of different periods (e.g. Näripea 2008). By
and large, the research of these scholars points paradoxically to the impos-
sibility of using national approaches when writing the histories of these cin-
emas and, consequently, the necessity to use a transnational perspective.
However, if we look at the histories of cinemas of countries which did
not undergo such dramatic transformation as Lithuania, Ukraine or Estonia,
then we observe that a transnational perspective hardly affects their histories,
at least the dominant discourses on them. Certainly this is the case of Polish
cinema. The recently published The History of Polish Cinema/Historia kina
polskiego, written by Tadeusz Lubelski (2009), regarded in Poland as the great-
est living authority on Polish cinema, practically excludes from his version
of the history of Polish cinema any films that lend themselves to transna-
tional treatment, such as international co-productions or the work of exiled
film-makers. Equally, he pays relatively little attention to foreign influences
on Polish films. Even more poignantly, Lubelski excludes from his discourse
the vast majority of works on Polish cinema written by émigré scholars.
For example, there is no mention of the two books about Wajda written by
Janina Falkowska or the distinct body of work about women in Polish cinema,
produced by Elżbieta Ostrowska, including the book Women in Polish Cinema
(2006), on which we collaborated. The histories of Polish cinema written by
Coates and Haltof are mentioned by Lubelski in his ‘Introduction’ and they

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Ewa Mazierska

are included in the bibliography, but he does not quote them. As for me,
two of my articles are mentioned, but only those that I published in Polish.
This does not mean that Lubelski is entirely oblivious to film studies outside
Poland. For example, in his bibliography, I found Bordwell and Thompson’s
book, Classical Hollywood Cinema.
The rule that governs Lubelski’s construction of the history of Polish cin-
ema largely applies to histories written in English. Marek Haltof in his Polish
National Cinema, true to its title, focuses on the Polishness of Polish cinema.
He only makes an exception for postcommunist films, describing them as
‘Polish films with an American accent’. Haltof welcomes this accent, writing
that he sees in them ‘a chance to rejuvenate Polish film – to make it well nar-
rated and absorbing for the viewer’ (Haltof 2002: 257). However, he does not
elaborate his thesis and, in particular, does not consider any problems result-
ing from adopting a foreign accent.
The national approach, although dominant in Polish film history, is not
exclusive. If we take into account the works of the youngest generation of film
historians, authors in their twenties and thirties, then we observe an opposite
approach. I want to mention here especially the critics gathered around the
journals Krytyka Polityczna and Panoptikum, as well as art historians, such as
Łukasz Ronduda and Kamila Wielebska, who show little interest in the nation-
alism of Polish national cinema epitomized by Andrzej Wajda. Instead, they
are preoccupied with that part of Polish cinema that lends itself to a transna-
tional approach, such as the films of Walerian Borowczyk, Andrzej Żuławski or
Wilhelm Sasnal and use such a perspective, even if they do not name it.
The tangible fruit of this new approach is an edited collection, Polish
New Wave: The History of a Phenomenon that Never Existed, edited by Łukasz
Ronduda and Barbara Piwowarska, published in 2008. The very fact that this
book is in Polish and English testifies to its international ambition. Equally
important is the fact that the impulse to recreate or create a Polish New Wave
(which, as its very title suggests, never existed ‘properly’ in Poland) was the
premiere of the film Summer Love (2006) by Piotr Uklan‘ski, a film labelled as
the first Polish western and featuring in one of the main parts Hollywood
actor, Val Kilmer. However, despite its approach, scope and address, Polish
New Wave is an example of a national approach in the sense of being writ-
ten exclusively by Polish authors living in Poland. This is despite the fact that
these authors have their equivalents in young scholars working abroad, such
as Daniel Bird, Dorota Ostrowska or Joanna Rydzewska, who also attempt
‘othering’ Polish cinema by focusing on film-makers such as Borowczyk,
Zuławski or Pawlikowski.


Apart from signs of internationalizing discourses on national cinemas, I
observe several additional changes. The methods of researching East European
cinema became more heterogeneous and interdisciplinary and, at the same
time, more theorized and rigorous. The sharp division between film historians
and theoreticians (with the latter usually occupying a superior position) has
now practically disappeared. Historians use theory to a greater extent than
in the past and ‘pure’ theoreticians are almost extinct. Needless to say, this
development reflects the changes in western film studies and humanities at
large, often described as the end or death of theory.


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Eastern European cinema: old and new approaches

I will identify a number of theoretical strands that affect the new writ- 3. This can also be partly
explained by the fact
ing. Two of them are feminism and queer theory. This is related to the that the first generation of
fact that after 1989 gender studies were established in numerous academic film historians were often
departments across Eastern Europe (see, for example, Jagielski and Morstin- trained as historians of
Popławska 2009); and the new (however relative) freedom enjoyed by sexual
minorities resulted in their desire to study their previously hidden history. A
third strand is post-Freudian psychoanalysis, especially in the version offered
by Slavoj Žižek, who might be the most quoted author by those writing about
Polish cinema and who himself epitomizes the trend of mixing theory with
history. I will also list attempts to adjust colonial or postcolonial theory to the
study of Eastern European cinema. My colleagues also mentioned the influ-
ence of Deleuze. Certainly Deleuze is now included in film studies in Poland
and we can list serious attempts by Polish scholars to introduce his thought to
Polish readers (see, for example, Jakubowska 2003), but I do not see studies
on Polish cinema in any sense transformed by Deleuzian theories, not least
because his main works, devoted to cinema, Cinéma 1 and Cinéma 2, with an
exception of small fragments, were not translated into Polish (or, indeed, into
other languages spoken in the countries covered by our journal).
Historians of Eastern Europe have tended to stress the relationship between
cinema and literature (which was partly a consequence of their focus on cin-
ema as high art and a vehicle through which something else, such as history
or politics is transmitted), examples being the histories of Czechoslovak and
Polish cinema written respectively by Peter Hames (2005) and Paul Coates
(2005).3 Post-1989 I observe greater interest in the relationship between cin-
ema and visual arts, of which a study by Jonathan Owen on surrealism and
the Czech New Wave is a good example (see Owen 2008). A second tendency
is epitomized by the best book on Polish cinema, in my opinion, published in
the last decade in Poland, Faces in the Crowd/Twarze w tłumie (Kurz 2005). In
this book, which focuses on famous personalities of the 1960s, Iwona Kurz
discusses the multi-layered relations between Polish cinema of the 1960s, the
celebrity culture of the time and various aspects of Polish modernism. Kurz’s
book, thanks to her focus on the role of actor-stars, is also a marker of a new
trend in studies on Polish cinema, namely, moving away from the tyranny of
the ‘auteur-director’ approach towards recognition of the role of other cre-
ators of cinema. Other examples of this trend include the work of Elżbieta
Ostrowska and Michael Goddard on the Polish female stars, Krystyna Janda
and Katarzyna Figura (Ostrowska 2005; Goddard 2008), and the highly origi-
nal study of Polish film music by Iwona Sowin‘ska (2006).
The focus on Polish communist cinema as a form of popular cinema is
also discernible in Cinema of Things Found/Kino rzeczy znalezionych, written by a
veteran of Polish film criticism, Rafał Marszałek (2006). This tendency has its
equivalent in the work of historians of other national cinemas, for example in
John Cunningham’s study of Hungarian football films as an important area of
Hungarian post-war cinema (Cunningham 2003: 183–88). A similar phenom-
enon can be identified in Polish cinema, but neither Coates, Haltof nor, for
that matter, Lubelski, note it in their monographs.
Another interesting example of the study of cinema as a form of popular
culture, existing in a complex relation with other types of entertainment is
offered by Petra Hanáková (2008). In her essay on Czech comedies of the
1970s and 1980s where she proposes a re-evaluation of Czech films from the
period of normalization as both a testimony to Czech self-colonization or
infection with the ‘Western virus’ and a manifestation of the specifically Czech


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Ewa Mazierska

inclination towards diversity and hybridization. Finally, Dina Iordanova in her

numerous publications draws attention to the existence of a vibrant popular
culture in Eastern Europe, of which film was one of many manifestations.
While the collapse of communism was not a necessary condition to dis-
cover the popular aspect of communist cinema, it certainly facilitated it. The
reason was that first, before 1989, popular cinema was treated with contempt,
either as an opium for the masses, manufactured by second-rate film-makers
obedient to the regime or as an inferior type of resistance towards the com-
munist rule. Second, the fall of communism created specific conditions that
allowed a nostalgic detachment from the past. Although this yearning for
the communist past, explored most famously in the book by Charity Scribner
(2003), faded with the passage of time and nowadays the vast majority of citi-
zens of Eastern Europe are glad that communism collapsed, it put its distinc-
tive mark on the way the communist period is perceived. Third, the fact that
box office success matters so much in contemporary cinema invites a com-
parison of the old and new films from the same perspective. I predict that the
more time that passes, the more respected popular Eastern European cinema
will become as an object of academic study.
Another new trend in researching Eastern European cinema is moving
away from the domination of history towards exploration of space. A sign
of this interest are the various studies devoted specifically to socialist cities,
estates, buildings, etc., as well as geographic regions. Examples are Michael
Goddard’s essay (2009) on cinematic Łódz‘; Izabela Kalinowska’s work (2005)
on the representation of housing estates (‘blokowiska’) in the work of young
Polish film-makers; and my own discussion of cities such as Warsaw, Berlin
and Moscow, included in From Moscow to Madrid, co-written with Laura
Rascaroli (2003); Elżbieta Ostrowska’s study (2004) of the topography of
Andrzej Wajda’s cinema, Paul Coates’s analysis (2008) of the ideology of coun-
tryside, city and Europe in Polish postcommunist film; and Dina Iordanova’s
discussion (2003) of the city–village dialectic in Eastern European cinema at
large. However, what I find more significant than these studies is the attempt
to explore genres or paradigms, specific to Eastern European cinema, using
spacial discourse. I will mention here the work of Eva Näripea, who in her
work on Estonian short films draws an insightful parallel between the tourist
gaze and a socialist realistic mode of representation (see Näripea 2008, 2009).
I very much hope that this type of research will grow, as it not only allows the
gaps in our knowledge of Eastern European cinemas to be filled, but also has
wider potential for introducing new methods of studying cinema at large.


Whilst the previous parts of my article concerned changes to the map of
Eastern European cinemas, I would like to devote the last part to changes
in its calendar, namely, to the question of whether postcommunist cinema is
treated as radically different from that of communist cinema or, to use Mikhail
Bakhtin’s terminology, is regarded as a separate chronotope?
Of course, this question, like others, is not easy to answer, for at least two
reasons. The first difficulty results from the subjectivity of the very term ‘radi-
cal change’. What for one observer is a radical difference, for another is only
a mild shift, which can be explained by the simple passage of time. A second
difficulty results from the fact that, unlike the cinema of the communist period,


SEEC 1.1_2_art_Mazierska_005-016.indd 12 2/23/10 1:52:41 PM

Eastern European cinema: old and new approaches

which has been researched for over fifty years, postcommunist cinema is not a 4. For example, when I
studied the literature for
closed chapter and new research is still under way. This, however, means that my book on masculinities
few studies have been published so far and those that were attempted to cap- in Polish, Czech and
ture the moment, so to speak, rather than analyze it in any depth. However, Slovak cinema (2008), I
noted that the specificity
taking this into account, I will suggest that at first there was a sense that post- of East European men
communist cinema, being radically different from the communist one, requires was typically ignored.
new tools of investigation. By contrast, nowadays, postcommunist cinema is For example, in the
book, The Trouble With
more often perceived as an arena for the development or recycling of the old Men: Masculinities
paradigms, therefore it requires similar tools to those used in the studies of in European and
Hollywood Cinema
‘communist’ cinema. (Powrie et al. 2004),
The shift concerns rather a change of focus, placing greater emphasis on we do not find a single
areas that were previously neglected or underdeveloped in film history. Such chapter devoted to the
cinematic portrayal of
areas include documentary and animated film. This interest reflects greater men in East European
interest in these genres in Western cinema, and the successes of Eastern cinema. Similarly,
European film-makers making these types of films, for example Tomek publications devoted
to specific categories
Baginski’s BAFTA-awarded Fallen Art/Sztuka spadania (2004) and, conversely, of men, such as gay
the lack of spectacular successes of movies made in a traditional format. men, either openly or
conspicuously ignore the
The second observation concerns the fact that postcommunist cinema, existence of this category
more than communist cinema in communist times, is treated as an industry in Eastern Europe or
and its main product, a film, is seen as a commodity. Hence, authors writing pay it very little attention
(Dyer 1990; Murray
about this paradigm assume that it requires tools applied in economy or a 1998; Benshoff and
combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis. It also needs a broader Griffin 2004).
approach (political, social, cultural, economic) than was traditionally applied to
Eastern European cinema. Furthermore, it compels the researchers to apply the
previously mentioned transnational approach, most importantly seeing films
produced in a specific Eastern European country, such as Hungary or Poland,
competing for viewers even in the country of its production with films coming
from elsewhere (see, for example, Iordanova 2003: 143–62; Cunningham 2003:
142–59; Mazierska 2007: 25–40). Tacitly and sometimes openly these authors
also admit that cinema in Eastern Europe after 1989 lost its special status as a
provider of higher pleasures. Yet, there is little lament over the loss of status;
usually it is regarded as an inevitable consequence of the break-up of com-
munism. To put it differently, while historians of Eastern European cinema
(including myself) broadly accept that the film industry in Eastern Europe is
now or aspires to be a ‘culture industry’ in the sense given to this term by
Adorno and Horkheimer, they also reject the high-art, elitist perspective from
which these authors assessed mass-produced entertainment.


In conclusion, I will reiterate that new histories of Eastern European cinemas
are being created and I welcome them, for at least two reasons. First, because
they give us new perspectives on these cinemas. Second, because they allow
an opportunity to enter a productive dialogue with authors specializing in
histories of other regions. So far, however, this dialogue hardly takes place;
the study of transnational issues, such as genre, or sexuality within world or
European cinema or, indeed, transnational cinema itself, is conducted with
disregard to Eastern European cinema or, at best, this cinema receives only
token recognition.4
The question arises, how to ensure that we do not talk only to each other,
but also to the wider world. One way is, of course, to engage in wider debates;


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Ewa Mazierska

the other is producing research of quantity and quality that cannot be ignored
outside the circle of specialists of Eastern European cinema. I welcome both
strategies, while being aware that it is not easy to implement them. For exam-
ple, the fragmentation of academic disciplines, the unwillingness of many
scholars to move beyond one area of their research due to a perceived risk
of being regarded as ‘eclectic’, ‘journalistic’, lacking in a distinct specialism,
most likely deters both specialists in Eastern European cinema from ventur-
ing into other cinemas and vice versa. Equally, it is an obstacle to dialogue
within Eastern European cinema itself. Indeed, most colleagues engaged in
this cinema conduct research on only one national cinema. The second dif-
ficulty in reaching a wider audience is the fact that, as previously mentioned,
Eastern European cinema is now regarded as even less fashionable than it was
pre-1989. This has an impact on the employment policies of academic institu-
tions, as well as the priorities of publishing houses, which tend to stay away
from what is unknown, rather than trying to make the unknown known. In
this context, I regard Studies in Eastern European Cinema as a means to halt and
reverse the aforementioned negative trend, namely to make Eastern European
cinema an exciting area to study, both in itself and in relation to other fields.

Benshoff, Harry and Griffin, Sean (eds) (2004), Queer Cinema: The Film Reader,
London: Routledge.
Coates, Paul (2000), ‘Shifting Borders: Konwicki, Zanussi and the Ideology of
“East-Central Europe”’, Canadian Slavonic Papers, 1–2, pp. 87–98.
—— (2005), The Red and the White: The Cinema of People’s Poland, London:
Wallflower Press.
—— (2008), ‘Ideologie sacrum i profanum: “Europa” oraz “wies‘ ” i “miasto”
w kinie polskim po 1989 roku’, in Konrad Klejsa and Ewelina Nurczyn’ ska-
Fidelska (eds), Kino polskie: Reinterpretacje. Historia – Ideologia – Polityka,
Kraków: Rabid, pp. 287–95.
Cornis-Pope, Marcel and Neubauer, John (2002), Towards a History of Literary
Cultures in East-Central Europe: Theoretical Reflections, New York: American
Council of Learned Societies.
Cunningham, John (2003), Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House to Multiplex,
London: Wallflower.
Dyer, Richard (1990), Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film, London:
Goddard, Michael (2008), ‘“Figura” postkomunistycznego poża˛dania: Role
Katarzyny Figury, albo: jak polskie kino stawało sie˛ “popularne”’, in Konrad
Klejsa and Ewelina Nurczyn‘ska-Fidelska (eds), Kino polskie: Reinterpretacje.
Historia – Ideologia – Polityka, Kraków: Rabid, pp. 275–86.
—— (2009), ‘Unravelling HollyLodz: The Industrial and Cinematic Imaginary
of Lodz’, in Agnieszka Rasmus and Magdalena Cieslak (eds), Images of the
City, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, pp. 323–33.
Haltof, Marek (2002), Polish National Cinema, Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Hames, Peter (2005), The Czechoslovak New Wave, 2nd edn., London:
Wallflower Press.
Hanáková, Petra (2008), ‘“The Films We Are Ashamed of”: Czech Crazy
Comedy of the 1970s and 1980s’, Via Transversa: Lost Cinema of the Former
Eastern Bloc, Place and Location: Studies in Environmental Aesthetics and
Semiotics, 7, pp. 111–21.


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Hendrykowska, Małgorzata (1996), Film w Poznaniu i Wielkopolsce 1986–1996,

Poznan‘: Wydawnictwo Poznan‘skie.
Ingvoldstad, Bjorn (2008), ‘The Paradox of Lithuanian National Cinema’,
Via Transversa: Lost Cinema of the Former Eastern Bloc, Place and Location:
Studies in Environmental Aesthetics and Semiotics, 7, pp. 137–54.
Iordanova, Dina (2003), Cinema of the Other Europe, London: Wallflower Press.
Jagielski, Sebastian and Morstin-Popławska, Agnieszka (2009), Ciało i
seksualnos‘ c‘ w kinie polskim, Kraków: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu
Jakubowska, Małgorzata (2003), Teoria kina Gillesa Deleuze’a, Kraków: Rabid.
Kalinowska, Izabela (2005), ‘Generation 2000 and the Transformating
Landscape of New Polish Cinema’, Kinokultura, http://www.kinokultura.
com/specials/2/kalinowska.shtml. Accessed 27 February 2009.
Kurz, Iwona (2005), Twarze w tłumie: Wizerunki bohaterów wyobraz‘ ni zbiorowej
w kulturze polskiej lat 1955–1969, Izabelin: S‘wiat Literacki.
Lubelski, Tadeusz (2009), Historia kina polskiego: Twórcy, filmy, konteksty,
Katowice: Videograf II.
Marszałek, Rafał (2006), Kino rzeczy znalezionych, Gdan‘sk: Słowo/Obraz
Mazierska, Ewa (2007), Polish Postcommunist Cinema: From Pavement Level,
Oxford: Peter Lang.
Mazierska, Ewa and Ostrowska, Elżbieta (2006), Women in Polish Cinema,
Oxford: Berghahn.
Mazierska, Ewa and Rascaroli, Laura (2003), From Moscow to Madrid:
Postmodern Cities, European Cinema, London: I.B. Tauris.
Murray, Raymond (1998), Images in the Dark: An Encyclopaedia of Gay and
Lesbian Film and Video, London: Titan.
Näripea, Eva (2008), ‘A View from the Periphery: Spatial Discourse of the
Soviet Estonian Feature Film: The 1940s and the 1950s’, Via Transversa:
Lost Cinema of the Former Eastern Bloc, Place and Location: Studies in
Environmental Aesthetics and Semiotics, 7, pp. 193–210.
—— (2009), ‘Tourist Gaze as a Strategic Device of Architectural Representation:
Tallinn Old Town and Soviet Tourism Marketing in the 1960s and 1970s’,
paper presented at the international conference on film and architecture
CinemArchitecture, Porto, Portugal.
Nebesio, Bohdan Y. (2007), ‘The first five years with no plan: Building national
cinema in Ukraine, 1992–1997’, Canadian Review of Comparative Literature,
34: 3, pp. 265–97.
Ostrowska, Elżbieta (2004), ‘Landscape and lost time: Ethnoscape in the
work of Andrzej Wajda’, Kinoeye, 4: 5,
ostrowska05.php. Accessed 5 January 2009.
—— (2005), ‘Krystyna Janda: The Contradictions of Polish Stardom’, in Helena
Goscilo and Beth Holmgren (eds), Poles Apart: Women in Modern Polish Culture,
Indiana Slavic Studies, vol. 15, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Owen, Jonathan (2008), The Avant-Garde Tradition in Czech New Wave Cinema,
Ph.D. dissertation Manchester: University of Manchester.
Powrie, Phil, Davies, Ann and Babington, Bruce (eds) (2004), The Trouble With
Men: Masculinities in European and Hollywood Cinema, London: Wallflower
Ronduda, Łukasz and Piwowarska, Barbara (eds) (2008), Nowa Fala: Historia
zjawiska, którego nie było, Warszawa: Instytut Adama Mickiewicza, CSW
Zamek Ujazdowski.


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Ewa Mazierska

Scribner, Charity (2003), Requiem for Communism, Cambridge, MA: The MIT
Sowin‘ska, Iwona (2006), Polska muzyka filmowa 1945–1968, Katowice:
Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu S‘la˛skiego.

Mazierska, E. (2010), ‘Eastern European cinema: old and new approaches’,
Studies in Eastern European Cinema 1: 1, pp. 5–16, doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.5/1

Ewa Mazierska is Professor of Contemporary Cinema at the School of
Journalism, Media and Communication, University of Central Lancashire.
Her publications include Masculinities in Polish, Czech and Slovak Cinema
(Berghahn, 2008), Roman Polanski: The Cinema of a Cultural Traveller (I.B.
Tauris, 2007), Polish Postcommunist Cinema (Peter Lang, 2007) and with
Elzbieta Ostrowska, Women in Polish Cinema (Berghahn, 2006). Her most
recent book, on the films of Jerzy Skolimowski (for Berghahn), is due out
in 2010.
Contact: School of Journalism, Media and Communication, University of
Central Lancashire, Preston, Harris Building, PR1 2HE, UK.


SEEC 1.1_2_art_Mazierska_005-016.indd 16 2/16/10 11:23:21 AM

SEEC 1 (1) pp. 17–28 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Eastern European Cinema

Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.17/1


Slovak bohemians:
revolution, counterculture
and the end of the Sixties
in Juraj Jakubisko’s films

The Sixties films of Slovak New Wave director Juraj Jakubisko demonstrate how Juraj Jakubisko
one can adopt ‘revolutionary’ aesthetics without necessarily espousing actual Slovak New Wave
revolution. Deeply engaged with the ideas and motifs of surrealism and the Sixties
counterculture, Jakubisko is nonetheless radically critical of those movements. Above utopianism
all Jakubisko rejects Sixties-style, macro-level utopianism and modernist notions of revolution
historical progress. This essay focuses particularly closely on the 1969 film Birds, counterculture
Orphans and Fools, whose bohemian protagonists turn their backs on a world of
unchangeable horror and oppression and decide to become ‘fools’. This film explores,
and also problematizes, both the Sixties aspiration towards self-transformation or
alternative lifestyle practices and the countercultural valorization of madness. I will
suggest that Jakubisko is poised ambivalently here between a consuming negativity
and a nuanced critique of Sixties radicalism that preserves, in more limited and
personal terms, a sense of the utopian.

Juraj Jakubisko’s films of the Sixties are both expectant and elegiac, at once
charged with fresh, rude life and marked by a sense of finality and deathly
foreboding, not to mention copious violence. Representing one of the last


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Jonathan Owen

flowerings of Czechoslovakia’s prematurely aborted New Wave, as well as one

of that movement’s artistic peaks, these films typify the spirit of the Sixties at
its boldest even as they intimate the decade’s advancing end. A scene from
the 1969 Vtácˇkovia, siroty a blázni/Birds, Orphans and Fools, Jakubisko’s
richest and most seminal work, captures this ambivalence by virtue of its
double meaning: the film’s wild young protagonist Yorick urinates on a
pile of burning film while declaiming ‘The new wave!’ Does this moment
encapsulate the Sixties generation’s destruction and desecration of the
orthodoxies of its cultural and political predecessors? Or does the scene
allude rather to the coming destruction of the New Wave itself at the hands
of the Soviet-backed normalizers, the cancelling out of the Sixties’ great
cultural achievements, the death of Prague Spring liberal reformism and its
attendant promises? Both readings are apposite to the general character of these
films: Birds, Orphans and Fools, for instance, is a work of incendiary cinematic
radicalism, yet it also comprises a funeral pyre of New Left political
optimism, a work suffused with defeat and the anticipation of Czechoslovakia’s
imminent cultural conflagration.
Jakubisko’s early work might seem to be among the most typical
products of the late Sixties, partaking as it does of the uninhibitedly
experimental sensibility that characterizes much of the international cinema
of this time. Jakubisko was remarkable in fact for achieving his avant-garde
aesthetic in part through the appropriation of the ‘primitive’ forms of Slovak
folk culture, and for connecting with international trends while insisting on
the cultural ‘localism’ of his work. Yet while Birds, Orphans and Fools or the
earlier Zbehovia a pútnici/The Deserter and the Nomads (1968) may evoke the
same formally adventurous spirit as the contemporaneous works of Godard
or Rocha, their political positions are more grounded and sceptical – or more
cynical and despairing, depending on one’s sympathies for Sixties-style
idealism. Though deeply engaged with the ideas, motifs and preoccupations
of the hippie counterculture, the New Left and a then in-vogue surrealist
sensibility, Jakubisko’s early work is often deeply critical of these
movements. His colourful evocation of the revivified avant-gardism and
cultural-revolutionary fervour of the Sixties thus serves the sombre, ironized
dissection of that decade’s dreams. That dissection is nowhere so keen or
cruel as in the response to utopian ideas and the viability of liberatory political
change; it is with Jakubisko’s approach to these issues, an approach that gives
these films a strikingly ‘contemporary’ dimension, that this essay will mainly be
concerned. Jakubisko’s disillusioned negotiation of countercultural and surrealist
tropes could even be described as proto-postmodern, at least to the extent that
postmodernism is vigorously anti-utopian, dismissive of emancipatory ‘meta-
narratives’. Yet if postmodernism is frequently characterized in such terms, it
arguably also retains, in however modified or reduced a form, something of the
Sixties’ liberatory ideals. During the following discussion, I will pose the question
whether any hope of such a preservation mitigates Jakubisko’s bleak vision, or
whether the whole stock of Sixties dream-images must go up in smoke.


The progression from Jakubisko’s debut feature Kristove roky/Christ’s Years
(1967) to its successor, The Deserter and the Nomads, virtually comprises
an individualized, accelerated summation of the Sixties New Waves’
trajectory as a whole. The first film is black-and-white, focused on individual


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Slovak bohemians

introspection, not lacking in a certain naturalistic offhandedness, while the

second is a work of blood-red baroque and ecstatic technique, straining after
allegory and a vision of universal horror. The Deserter also marks the emergence
of Jakubisko’s ‘mature’ style and signature themes: indeed the director’s mor-
dant humour and historical despair are at their shrillest and least measured in
this film. A harsh reproof to the stereotyped view of Slovakia as a land without
history, timeless and unchanging in its pastoral way of life, The Deserter is a film
saturated in the blood of world events (Steiner 1973: 18). The narrative
collapses the twentieth century into a series of global wars, leaping from one
catastrophe to the next as though propelled by the same energy as Jakubisko’s
dizzying camerawork. A story of two deserters from the Austro-Hungarian
armies during the First World War is followed by episodes dealing with,
respectively, the Soviet ‘liberation’ of Slovakia after the Second World War
and the aftermath of a future nuclear apocalypse. The pattern of historical
events as Jakubisko presents it would be cyclical and monotonous in its bru-
tality, were it not for the increase in the crop of victims at each stage. The
ever-greater scale and efficiency of violence is as much as can be offered in the
way of progress, notwithstanding that it may be some notion of ‘progress’ or
‘enlightenment’ that is to blame in the first place. Jakubisko’s evocation of a
post-apocalyptic world offers a cruel parody of the utopian climax of history,
the only survivors of this final war being the young nurse Nevěsta and the
hordes of terrified, half-mad old people who take shelter, naked or swaddled
in blankets, in underground shelters. The ascent of civilization is thus not only
humanity’s twilight but also its senile, infantilized decay. The world outside is
peaceful because everyone has been killed or driven underground, and pasto-
ral because civilization has destroyed itself.
The Deserter undoes itself as polemic by the sheer promiscuity of oppres-
sive forces, just as Jakubisko’s suggestion of an overwhelming and terminal
insanity makes it hard to see the bleak final scenes as simply cautionary. The
attribution of blame for the nuclear apocalypse to a specific side is immaterial
in Jakubisko’s eyes. The film is not without its benign figures, yet these are
only powerless, persecuted and martyred victims, lone innocents caught up
helplessly in the vortex of battle and revolution: Kálmán the gypsy deserter;
an egg-seller accused of espionage, young Dominika (who is nearly raped by
a Soviet soldier). In contrast to the Marxist, agit-prop trends in cinema that
were prominent during the late Sixties, The Deserter displays scant faith in
the existence of a progressive or liberatory historical agent. Martin, one of the
army deserters of the first episode, ferments Bolshevik-style revolution, yet his
brutal and degrading treatment of a couple of deposed landowners suggests
that such socialism will be at least as cruel as the old hierarchies. That the
actor playing Martin lends his leering, malevolent features to the Soviet cap-
tain of the second episode comprises a further disillusioned assertion of the
continuity between full-blown Stalinist tyranny and an initial, ‘pre-corrupted’
Bolshevism. As Dina Iordanova notes, both The Deserter and Birds, Orphans
and Fools have been interpreted as Jakubisko’s ‘reaction to the crushing of the
Prague Spring’ (Iordanova 2003: 58). Jakubisko had already begun shooting
The Deserter by the time of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, so one cannot
entirely attribute the film’s bleak view or its jaundiced eye on communism
to the events of August. These events may, however, have strengthened
and confirmed those views, reiterated as they are, with different degrees of
emphasis, in Jakubisko’s subsequent films. In a move that was unique among
Czechoslovak film-makers, Jakubisko worked footage of the invasion into


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Jonathan Owen

the finished film. Real images tear through the stylized world of The Deserter,
at once a traumatic impingement on the fictional construct and a means of
giving documentary reinforcement to the narrative’s despairing, even misan-
thropic vision. More than just a Czechoslovak tragedy, the invasion consti-
tutes a formidable emblem (and contributing cause) of the death of hopes for
a truly emancipatory socialism, an expression of the Sixties’ general loss of
optimism or ‘innocence’.
For Alex Callinicos and Terry Eagleton, the origins of postmodernism lie
precisely in the comprehensive ‘snuffing out’ of the Sixties’ ‘political dreams’
(among which the Prague Spring, in Perry Anderson’s words ‘the boldest of
all Communist reform experiments’, of course looms large (Anderson 1998:
91)). Postmodernism rejects the broad political utopianism so characteristic of
Sixties radical modernity as naïve at best, totalitarian at worst; its own hum-
bler sensibility can either be attacked for its frivolous quietism, complicity with
late-capitalist power and irresponsible abandonment of absolutes, or
applauded for its rejection of oppressive, totalizing ‘grand narratives’, defence of
particularity and commitment to localized political interventions. Clearly then,
The Deserter and the Nomads has certain affinities with postmodern political
attitudes (in whatever terms they are characterized), though the film’s attitude
equally evokes the ‘pre-modern’ peasant of the second section’s coda, who scoffs
at the idea of a quest for ‘happiness’. Jakubisko dismisses all possibility of glo-
bal emancipation or progress towards peace and justice, and if his film adopts
any teleology at all, it is only the downward spiral towards self-destruction.
The Deserter could even be linked with attacks on the crimes and failures of
modernity, or at least with critiques of scientific rationality’s tendency to serve,
rather than guard against, evil and irrational ends. One product of a machine-
dominated twentieth century has been the mechanization of human beings
themselves, a coolly machine-like and ultimately anonymous killing that for
Jakubisko is far more horrifying than the primitive sway of passions: ‘When
people kill each other out of hatred, it is terrible; it will be far more terrible
when they learn to murder mechanically.’ The gaunt, hulking figure of Death
has stalked and cavorted through the film’s first two episodes, but by the time
of the apocalyptic final story, he realizes he has no role to play. This indicates
at once how mythologies and ‘irrational’ beliefs have been vanquished – in a
triumph of reason that no one is now alive to enjoy – and how humanity has
usurped Death’s own supernatural powers: the mythological being is left to
look on at mankind’s now God-like capacity for mass annihilation.
The Deserter and the Nomads’ original Slovak title, Zbehovia a pútnici
(‘Deserters and Pilgrims’), could be seen to juxtapose the rejection of certain
values, ideologies or political configurations (desertion) with the embrace of
new values, faiths and destinations (pilgrimage). Yet the film’s ‘pilgrimages’
are ultimately forms of transient and partial escape, into revelry and song, love
and sex, and the shrines revealed betoken only modest respites. Carnivalesque
spaces of refuge prove all too porous to authority and intimations of violence:
moustachioed hussars and the ever-watchful military commanders throng
the merry dances of the wedding festivities, while Kálmán’s romantic idyll
with his lover Lila is obscurely troubled by the shadow of death. Reserves of
freedom and jouissance have been forced into the realm of cinematic form:
the film’s swirling, kaleidoscopic style compensates for the thuggish crowding
of the diegesis by repression and brutality. A final, particularly pitiful respite
is the would-be Eden created by Death and Nevěsta in the post-apocalyptic
episode. The pair instal themselves in a (naturally) deserted windmill, and


SEEC 1.1_2_art_Owen_017-028.indd 20 2/17/10 9:45:30 AM

Slovak bohemians

Nevěsta declares that she and Death have found ‘paradise’ without even look-
ing for it (the windmill itself, an obvious allusion to Cervantes’s Don Quixote,
stands as a lone, sad commemoration of pre-enlightenment romance, and
perhaps also as a reproof of the ‘quixotic’ futility of all attempts at utopian
social change). Yet this ‘paradise’, like the wider world of the final section,
constitutes a cruel inversion of the utopian: the windmill is plagued by bats,
just as Nevěsta falls prey to morbid thoughts and what appear to be religious
hallucinations. These scenes in effect comprise a grotesque, derisive represen-
tation of the Sixties counterculture, something that is made explicit by the fact
that Death dresses up in hippie apparel and is seen bopping and gyrating to
pop music: Sixties cultural upheaval as literal dance of death.


Such images adumbrate the more nuanced, sustained and sympathetic explo-
ration of Sixties-style utopianism and alternative living in Birds, Orphans and
Fools, and it is on account of this later film’s greater concentration on ideas
and forms of radicalism specific to its era, as well as the greater sophistica-
tion or complexity of its analysis, that it deserves a more detailed discussion
than I have given The Deserter and the Nomads. Yet if Birds is more enamoured
than The Deserter was of many of the Sixties’ articles of faith, it is equally far
from any promise of a libertarian paradise. The film’s folk-hippie furnishings
and avant-garde ambience are not the microcosm of a new world, only – and
at best – a refuge or enclave for another band of anxious ‘pilgrims’. Birds,
Orphans and Fools once again asserts the impasse of revolutionary ambitions,
with the vision of history so remorselessly hammered home in The Deserter
now being apparently enough of a given to become mere background, a pro-
fusion of gloomy aphorisms and absurdist, violent black-out scenes. This less
sprawling if equally wayward work is the story of Yorick, Marta and Andrej,
who form an initially idyllic Jules-et-Jim-style ménage à trois (though as Godard,
rather than Truffaut, might have imagined it). Orphaned literally and, thanks
to their sense of alienation and deracination, figuratively, these characters turn
their backs on a violent and senseless world and determine to become ‘fools’.
Indeed what are these apparent orphans if not the children of Death and
Nevěsta from Jakubisko’s previous film, born under the shadow of the atomic
bomb and at the foot of Quixote’s windmill?
One of the most obvious ways in which Birds, Orphans and Fools mani-
fests its greater affinities with a Sixties countercultural or New Left sensibility
is in its representation, and indeed its conception, of revolution. For a start this
film seems more sympathetically disposed than The Deserter to the very idea
of revolution, which is incarnated here in such uncontroversially noble and ‘lib-
eratory’ endeavours as the 1944 Slovak National Uprising and the First World
War-era drive for Czechoslovak independence. The sanctified figure of Milan
Štefánik, a Slovak general and politician instrumental (along with Masaryk and
Edvard Beneš) to the creation of the 1918 Czechoslovak state, is particularly
central, although the film’s attitude towards this Slovak national martyr is far
from conventionally reverent. A single reference to Mao could simply be jocular,
throwaway or ironic, but a certain sympathy for cultural revolution, Chinese- as
well as Haight Ashbury-style, would of course tie in with the film’s evocation
of the New Left and its debts to Godard (Birds, Orphans and Fools is in fact
Jakubisko’s most Godardian film and specifically recalls the very explicitly Mao-
preoccupied La Chinoise (1967)). Yet if revolutionaries are not excoriated here,


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as the Bolsheviks were in The Deserter, they are often imbued with a sense
of absurdity and impotence (and the horrific failures of Maoist revolution are
of course more than evident in retrospect): a gun-toting Slovak partisan runs
alongside Yorick’s car, apparently convinced that the fascists have not yet been
vanquished, and an incongruous band of guerrillas fall down ‘dead’ in a street
skirmish, only to get up again. On the other hand, such images could also be
seen as attesting to the commonality and continuity of revolutionary attempts
throughout history, the resilient throb of the emancipatory urge.
Yet it is that quintessentially Sixties ‘revolution’ in lifestyles that is explored
most fully throughout the film. That kind of revolution, like many of the
European New Waves themselves, was often portrayed in generational terms,
as an Oedipal rebellion by the young against social and cultural ‘fathers’: does
the protagonists’ symbolic ‘orphanhood’ result from a kind of patricide? In this
case the apparent polarization of the generations assumes perhaps a graver and
more substantial dimension than usual, as the trio’s alliance across national or
religious lines (Andrej is a Pole and Marta a Jew) is shown to mark a clear break
with the murderous nationalisms and ethnic squabbles of the older generation:
‘Our parents killed each other,’ remarks Yorick. As Peter Hames notes, in his fea-
ture debut Jakubisko was concerned to demonstrate that ‘the traditional Czech/
Slovak antagonisms were always linked to older people and not shared by his
own generation’ (Hames 2006: 213). In addition to these fraternal or interna-
tionalist attitudes, the characters adopt such ‘alternative’ values as ‘free love’,
play and casual creativity, and the abandonment of work or remunerative activ-
ity (one subtle sign that the idyll has come to its end is Andrej’s attainment of
paid employment as a photographer). They do not baulk at the more ‘frivolous’
or decorative trappings of the counterculture, as their weird apparel, halfway
between Slovak goatherd and Carnaby Street freak, suggests. A key facet of
Sixties radicalism was the link it established between politics and the spheres
of subjectivity and lifestyle, a link best expressed by the well-worn New Left/
feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’. In the words of Marianne DeKoven,
the Sixties’ ‘modernist politics of the self […] radiates out from the exemplary
subject to a potentially transformed society and culture’ (DeKoven 2004: 190).
DeKoven roots this politics in the ‘romantic tradition of adequation of trans-
formed self with transformed world’; that tradition is also clearly incarnated in
the surrealism of Breton, which famously synthesized the goals of imaginative
(self-)liberation and revolutionary political upheaval by juxtaposing the injunc-
tions of Marx (‘transform the world’) and Rimbaud (‘change life’) (DeKoven
2004: 190; Breton 1969: 241). Yet the so-called politics of the self comprises
a point of transition from the modern to the postmodern, shifting later (or,
according to DeKoven, during the Sixties themselves) ‘into a postmodern poli-
tics that coincides with and is contained by formations of subjectivity’ (DeKoven
2004: 190). As we shall see later, Jakubisko’s film can itself be seen to depict a
concern for subjectivity, for the cultivation of lifestyle and the imagination, that
subsumes political engagement or even provides a form of consolation for the
world’s horrors and the individual’s powerlessness within it. To this extent Yorick
and his friends make for decidedly demoralized hippie trailblazers and strangely
meek surrealist refuseniks.

The embrace of ‘foolishness’, the most radical aspect of the protagonists’
lifestyle experiment, connects back to a long tradition of the valorization


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of madness that runs through romanticism, various modernisms and avant-

gardes, and, perhaps most obviously of all, surrealism. The cultural iconog-
raphy of the preternaturally wise fool or mad person of course stretches even
further back in time, as Birds, Orphans and Fools’ allusive naming attests
(Yorick’s name, as well as being the diminutive of Jakubisko’s own name
Juraj, obviously refers to the dead jester in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, while in
one scene Yorick re-christens Marta ‘Sibyl’). As an ideal identity for the pro-
tagonists and an expression of otherness, madness is aligned throughout the
film with two other ubiquitous avant-garde avatars of irrationality, child-
hood and the feminine; the tropes are even combined, as with the mentally
handicapped children whom Yorick and Andrej seem to ‘adopt’ as so many
unambiguous mascots of privileged alterity. (It is worth noting, inciden-
tally, that Deleuze and Guattari link the notions of ‘becoming-child’ and
‘becoming-woman’ with the figure of the orphan, the three conditions all
representing degrees of ‘deterritorialization’ or ‘flight’; flight itself, both in
its avian form and in the more Deleuzian sense of escape or fleeing (fuite), is
also a key presence in this film (Deleuze and Guattari 1986: 78).) The view
of madness as something positive, a condition one should seek somehow
to emulate or even attain, was not only central to surrealism and the avant-
garde but was also part of the radical Sixties cultural and political landscape
that Jakubisko’s film evokes. That view was expressed most rigorously in
the writings of the British pioneer of anti-psychiatry, R.D. Laing: according
to Laing, madness may be ‘break-through’ as well as ‘breakdown’, ‘libera-
tion and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death’ (Laing 1967:
109–10). For the tradition of which Laing’s work partakes, madness, con-
ventionally defined, is associated with an innocent, authentic self, and thus
counterposed to the alienations or ‘devastations’ of socially acceptable iden-
tity. Mental illness is portrayed as a source of poetic wonder and visionary
revelation, and the madman upheld as a model for more calculated strikes
against convention and logic. We should note that madness, broadly speak-
ing, is also a constant point of reference in postmodernism, where it is again
valorized (of course in very different terms from modernism’s ‘innocence’
and ‘authenticity’) or at least tied somehow to the definition of a ‘revo-
lutionary’ model of desire: take Foucault’s ‘strong defence of the voice of
unreason’ in Folie et déraison/Madness and Civilisation (1961), or Deleuze
and Guattari’s schizoanalysis (Pegrum 2000: 131).
As the discussion of The Deserter and the Nomads has already suggested,
rationality is hardly an object of enthusiasm in Jakubisko’s work. ‘Civilized’
reason has proven incapable of defending against the outbreak of barbarism,
and the copious horrors of both The Deserter and Birds, Orphans and Fools are
at least in part attributable to particular forms, or applications, of rationality:
Yorick recalls that his parents were killed ‘by those who are said to be […]
sane’. (It could also be argued that the fascination of such avant-gardists as
Dubuffet with the art brut of the mentally ill, situated outside dominant cultural
traditions and defying the assumptions of modernity through its effusive irra-
tionalism, is analogous to Slovak surrealism’s appropriation of folk forms and
miraculous local tales, a tendency that Jakubisko himself of course embodies.)
Yet Birds is by no means an unambiguous celebration of ‘foolishness’, and the
film could even be seen to problematize or subvert those ideas about madness
on which the avant-garde and countercultural valorizations were founded.
Even the protagonists themselves might be seen to embrace and uphold
madness less because it is ‘revelatory of an innocent vision’ than because


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it promises the comfort of ignorance, indeed because it represents the very

denial of vision in its disturbing guise (Foster 2001: 3). Yorick, it is implied,
was himself raised in an institution for mentally handicapped children; as
Peter Hames points out, he envies these children ‘their happiness and igno-
rance of the true nature of the world’ (Hames 2006: 218). Jakubisko appears to
endorse such a view in the scene where the protagonists visit the institution,
by means of a sympathetic nurse who remarks, ‘These kids will never become
people.’ Presented in such terms, mental illness represents debility rather than
any special potency, the lack of insight or vision rather than their abundance.
Elsewhere Jakubisko has directly characterized the protagonists’ adopted fool-
ishness as a form of willed obliviousness towards the world, a means of taking
‘the load off [one’s] conscience’ (Jakubisko, in Liehm 1974: 359). The film also
implies how the language of madness functions better to secure one’s seclu-
sion from the world than as a means of changing it. Indeed, despite its having
been mobilized or emulated by movements with radical political aspirations,
that discourse is too hermetically private to work effectively as protest. In one
scene, Yorick’s incipiently senile old landlord plummets to earth wearing a
makeshift parachute that bears the slogan ‘The word is the weapon of the
powerless’: no less than the film’s instruments of flight, the would-be revolu-
tionary message of faux-delirium falls short of its purpose.
Admittedly, the reading I have given of the protagonists’ project belies the
complexities of the film and the characters’ confused or ambivalent impulses.
The submission to blinded vision or narcissistic obliviousness jostles with a con-
cern for compulsive observation, the intense need to explore and document the
world. Photography is a key motif: Andrej, a professional photographer, takes
pictures throughout the film, while Marta, addressing the camera directly, claims
that she is comprehensively ‘photographing’ the world’s evils with her eyes, in
an attempt to absorb and thereby eliminate them. This conceit could be seen
as metaphorically asserting the subversive power of representation and thus as
implying the political efficacy of an engagement with the world; it also suggests
that the protagonists’ self-induced madness might itself represent the instructive
‘absorption’ or imitation of the grotesque absurdities of society. Is Marta’s notion
not at the same time a comforting fantasy that obviates the need for real action?
Yet despite the film’s various ambiguities, the protagonists’ oscillation between
escapist and documentarist tendencies, it is undeniable that the film powerfully
articulates the feeling that escape, in whatever sense, is a feasible response to
a world of horror and systematic violence. The Sixties counterculture and the
surrealists yoked madness and ‘liberated’ subjectivity to political revolution and
an ebullient utopianism; in many ways Jakubisko’s film, or its protagonists, link
these things with a posture of despair or resignation. Given that history con-
stitutes little more than an irredeemable cycle of violence and oppression, how
can ‘foolishness’ be anything other than an indulgence, a retreat or distraction,
a minimal and marginal breach of the established system? Jakubisko ultimately
problematizes even some of these shrunken ambitions, casting doubt over the
possibility of a meaningful or sustained resistance to the prevailing logic.
Yorick’s rationale for his ‘project’ proves eloquent, striking and multi-

Everything which is subject to the law of eternal changes, to the law of

power, everything beside yourself, is vanity. So return into yourself. If
they have demolished your house, start to build it again – but in your
soul […] Build a house inside, live in it and you’ll find happiness. They


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Slovak bohemians

will call you a fool. But don’t pay attention, if you are fine. You are fine
because you are free. You are free because you are a fool.

Yorick’s description of the external world of history and politics as ‘vanity’,

an obvious echo of the Book of Ecclesiastes (Yorick wears a monk’s cowl
while making the speech), can be seen to proffer a vision of life as some-
thing absurd, senseless, cruel and mad; vanity is perhaps also what inheres
in the attempt to change that reality. In itself that vision might be a suf-
ficient injunction to will the world out of existence, yet the reference to
vanity has the additional, perhaps more properly Biblical meaning that the
exterior world is insubstantial, ephemeral and illusory. In contrast to the
world’s inessentiality, the self or ‘soul’ is substantial and real: at least those
houses built in the soul are less likely to be demolished than real houses.
The suggestion that we build such houses represents the insistence that we
should compensate for material deprivations and sufferings with the riches
of the inner life, and also implies that the surest barriers against the world
are internal rather than external. We attain freedom in foolishness either
because our dependence on the outer world for our happiness is relin-
quished, or because, as already suggested, that world now ceases to trouble
our consciousness. Madness, as a ‘drug for life’ (Jakubisko’s own descrip-
tion), is both hallucinogen and painkiller (Liehm 1974: 359).
These remarks, apparently supportive of a reorientation towards subjec-
tivity, lifestyle and even spiritual values, could be linked with postmodernism
and perhaps also New Age tendencies (the suggestion of an insubstantial or
illusory outer world seems particularly attuned to the latter). The turn towards
self-cultivation and spirituality is often and easily seen as ‘the fallen prog-
eny of the sixties’, the substitution of the failed attempt at the transformation
of the world with the transformation of the self (DeKoven 2004: 255). The
suggestion here of such a ‘return to the self’ is not presented in the pejo-
rative terms commonly used in regard to that phenomenon, although the
individualistic, or at least atomistic, character of Yorick’s retreat may seem a
step backwards from the more broadly communal pleasures of The Deserter
and the Nomads. Of course, what makes Yorick’s stance more daring than
many contemporary examples of self-transformation or ‘dropping out’ is that
this retreat is enacted not under a ‘permissive’ late capitalism that sanctions
an endless proliferation of lifestyle choices, but in an authoritarian society
where difference, not least of the idly introspective hippie variety, is quite
unwelcome. To that extent the protagonists’ project, escapist and founded
in political despair though it may be, is inevitably ‘subversive’ and politically
provocative; this will be affirmed when Yorick, for no good reason, is arrested
and thrown into prison. Moreover, while Yorick’s notion of building a house
in one’s soul might evoke, from a contemporary perspective, the hackneyed
language of New Age self-help, these sentiments were still fresh at the point
of the film’s making and in general the speech, like many of the protagonists’
escapades, retains an immense lyrical vitality.
If the self is to be a site for the building of houses, the real house in which
the film’s protagonists live all too readily offers a model of the inner self,
especially an imaginatively liberated self, a self as envisaged in the mind’s
eye of surrealist art: a rough-edged, folk-art approximation of Magritte or
Escher, this dream domain gives concrete form to an imagination believed to
represent sanctuary. Yet the very outlandishness of that house, whose razed
façades, smashed windows and protruding poles render its occupants forever


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Jonathan Owen

within reach of the outside, is itself problematic: while that sense of perme-
ability could be seen as alluding to that breakdown of boundaries between
self and other that is, for Laing, part of the experience of madness, it per-
haps also affirms the impossibility of erecting an absolute barrier between self
and world. Jakubisko’s oneiric, literally ‘unhomely’ architecture of openness
and interpenetration, clouding the distinction between inside and outside, could
further be seen as a subtle refusal of modernist binary structures that looks
back to the hybridities of Bakhtinian carnival as much as it anticipates post-
modernism’s ‘both/and’ sensibility (Pegrum 2000: 168). Jakubisko’s critique
of modernist or avant-garde idealizations of the mad ‘other’ is thus comple-
mented by his attack on the very binary oppositions that sustain the notion
of a pure otherness.
The futility of attempts to enact change within the wider political arena
is implicit in the film from the outset, yet the attempt to construct new life-
styles or values on an individual basis fails dramatically too. The protagonists’
ménage à trois, which derives from the embrace of free love as well as Yorick’s
commitment to ‘sharing’ Marta, ‘selflessly’, with his friend, is complicated by
Yorick’s jealousy. After Yorick is imprisoned Andrej and Marta revert to con-
ventional coupledom, and Andrej starts to have his photographs published.
If the attempt to change the world is utopian (in the pejorative sense of that
word), then the attempt to escape it is also implied to have a utopian dimen-
sion. Yorick remarks ruefully at one point that in attempting to flee the world,
he has really been fleeing himself. The world is inextricably a part of us; its
mores, values and desires are perhaps even fundamentally determining. The
film’s climactic murder, ironically given that it in part represents Yorick’s
reaction to the very failure of his ideals, suggests how the commitment to a
new mode of life has not vanquished an all too worldly capacity for violence.
Shortly before she and her unborn child are killed by Yorick, Marta rebukes
him for having ‘lost the courage to be mad’. Yet Yorick’s horrific reaction to
the failure of his project suggests something like an emergent psychosis, the
onset of a form of madness seldom emphasized among the surrealist or coun-
tercultural eulogies to irrational ‘inner voyages’ and the casting off of social
inhibitions. At the same time this violence evokes the dark excesses of the
counterculture itself at the heady turn of the Sixties (Marta’s horrific murder
recalls, inadvertently no doubt, the 1969 killing of Sharon Tate).

All his hopes dashed, poor Yorick finally enacts the ultimate escape from the
world. This grotesque suicide, which has Yorick attempting at once to stran-
gle, immolate and drown himself, evokes political martyrdoms both conscious
and retroactive: the self-immolation has obvious echoes of both Jan Palach’s
suicide-protest against the Warsaw Pact invasion and the iconic images of
burning Vietnamese monks, while a statue of Štefánik, attached to a rope
around Yorick’s neck, is used both to choke and sink him. The elaborately
ritualistic, referentially over-egged nature of the suicide suggests a commu-
nicative and thus purposeful act, even though the suicide itself comprises an
acknowledgement of failure and futility. Is this simply a narrative expression
of Jakubisko’s own perverse taste for surplus gestures, or is there something
strangely indicative of hope in that act? Might we consider the copious flames
and violent acts of Jakubisko’s films as less an expression of the death or
defeat of ideals than a show of undiminished, martyr-like resistance? Perhaps


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Slovak bohemians

that is taking things too far; nonetheless, I would suggest that Birds, Orphans
and Fools, whatever the savage and emphatic pessimism of its final develop-
ments, is not an entirely pessimistic or unremittingly bleak work. In the very
last moments of the film, birds are glimpsed flying over the river in which
Yorick drowned, a faintly hopeful rejoinder to the predominant imagery of
failed and fatal flight (trapped birds, Štefánik’s crashed plane). Turning full
circle, we should also take heed of the film’s cryptically suggestive (if not sib-
ylline) prologue, which invites us to laugh at the film’s tragic events, ‘as even
our heroes do to the very end’, and insists that ‘the world is nice, although
not completely’, ‘crazy and full of love, and just the opposite’. This is in effect
to suggest that progressive values, the liberatory qualities of love, joy and
‘craziness’, are real possibilities in this world, even if (as the prologue under-
statedly puts it) the reign of this raucous virtue will never be ‘complete’. There
exists then a shadow or double of the film we actually see, a version more
deserving of our laughter, where love and happiness, not murder and suicide,
finally triumph: does not the protagonists’ eternal exuberance already defy
the narrative imposed on them? ‘There is no end without a beginning’, the
prologue concludes. The utopianism of the Sixties, committed to large-scale
revolutionary transformation, may have expired with the decade itself, yet it
was destined for a kind of rebirth, as the ‘utopia limited’ (DeKoven) of post-
modernity, a matter of local interventions and alternative lifestyle practices. It
is in such terms that Jakubisko moots the salvation of Sixties ideals.
The possibility of a ‘utopia limited’ clearly preoccupied Jakubisko, as he
returned to the idea in his ‘subsequent’ film, Dovidenia v pekle, priatelia!/See You
in Hell, Friends! (begun in 1970, completed in 1990), and Sedím na konári a je mi
dobre/I’m Sitting on a Branch and I Feel Well (1989), his most unproblematically
affirmative portrait of self-exclusion. While the hippyish idyll of the former film
is less intrinsically troubled than that of Birds, the outer world, all homicidal
‘red’ nuns and war-whooping priests, proves more tyrannical and invasive.
That said, the film’s 1990-shot coda shows the now-aged bohemians escaping
from the oppressive ‘red ark’ in which they have been imprisoned, a clear alle-
gory of the fall of communism. Where Jakubisko’s late Sixties films were bleak
and cynical in their assessment of revolutionary ‘liberation’, he seems to see
something positive in this revolution, as is evidenced by the promise held out
here of a restitution of anarchic freedoms. Jakubisko’s own career, however, has
hardly benefited from the new conditions, with some of his recent work having
vulgarized familiar tropes and concerns (the playful nudity of Birds becomes the
coarse sexuality of Post coitum (2004)). Yet if this habitually frenzied film-maker
has lost his real urgency, his early films are still highly relevant: a veritable fun-
house of vivacious Sixties aesthetics, they nonetheless speak – in aggressive, yet
qualified, tones – to a contemporary sense of political impotence.

Anderson, P. (1998), The Origins of Postmodernity, London and New York:
Breton, A. (1969), Manifestoes of Surrealism (trans. Richard Seaver and Helen
R. Lane), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
DeKoven, M. (2004), Utopia Limited: The Sixties and the Emergence of the
Postmodern, Durham: NC: Duke University Press.
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1986), Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature (trans.
Dana Polan), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


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Jonathan Owen

Foster, H. (2001), ‘Blinded insights: on the modernist reception of the art of

the mentally ill’, October, 97, pp. 3–30.
Hames, P. (2006), The Czechoslovak New Wave, London: Wallflower Press.
Iordanova, D. (2003), Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of
East Central European Film, London and New York: Wallflower Press.
Jakubisko, Juraj (1968), Zbehovia a pútnici/The Deserter and the Nomads,
Bratislava: Československá Televízia Bratislava/Compagnia Cinematografica
—— (1969), Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni/Birds, Orphans and Fools, Bratislava:
Como Film/Studio Hraných Filmov Bratislava.
—— (1970/1990), Dovidenia v pekle, priatelia!/See You in Hell, Friends!,
Bratislava: Slovenská filmová tvorba Koliba/Studio Hraných Filmov
Laing, R.D. (1967), The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise,
Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Liehm, A. (1974), Closely Watched Films: The Czechoslovak Experience, White
Plains, NY: International Arts and Sciences Press.
Pegrum, M.A. (2000), Challenging Modernity: Dada Between Modern and
Postmodern, Oxford and New York: Berghahn Books.
Steiner, E. (1973), The Slovak Dilemma, Cambridge: Cambridge University

Owen, J. (2010), ‘Slovak bohemians: revolution, counterculture and the end
of the Sixties in Juraj Jakubisko’s films’, Studies in Eastern European Cinema
1: 1, pp. 17–28, doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.17/1

Jonathan Owen has just obtained his doctorate at the University of Manchester,
UK. His doctoral dissertation dealt with the influence of surrealism and
other avant-garde traditions on the Czech New Wave films of the 1960s. His
research interests include European (especially Central and East European)
cinema and the Czech avant-garde from the interwar period to the present.
Contact: 189 Chester Road, Macclesfield, Cheshire, SK11 8QA, UK.


SEEC 1.1_2_art_Owen_017-028.indd 28 2/17/10 9:45:30 AM

SEEC 1 (1) pp. 29–42 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Eastern European Cinema

Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.29/1

University of Copenhagen

Coming to terms with

the past: post-1989
strategies in German
film culture

This article deals with institutional changes and differences between the two German German film
film cultures before and after 1989 during the unification process. But the main focus GDR
is on different genres and strategies in films dealing with the East German past and the post-communism
unified post-1989 Germany, and with directors with an East German background and film genres
directors with a West German background. The article looks into three specific generic ostalgie
strategies: the historical transition drama; the realist strategy and the comedy strategy
and the very different ways they treat the past; the transition and the present.

In the GDR (German Democratic Republic), film culture was shaped as a direct
part of the state system, and the official goal of centralized film production
through the DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft/German Film Company,
formed in 1946) was to enlist Germany’s ‘positive cultural legacy’ in the making
of a socialist society (Hake 2008). In the FRG (Federal Republic of Germany),
film culture was integrated into the western model. Before 1989, of course, the
Cold War influenced film culture in Germany immensely: in the FRG, there was


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Ib Bondebjerg

a partial ban on films from the GDR, while in the GDR several films were made
to portray the decadent West. At the same time, cinema production in the GDR
and the FRG shared a common cultural heritage in the German cinema clas-
sics and both called upon this heritage extensively. However, despite periods
of relative freedom in GDR cinema production, the powerful Hauptverwaltung
Film/State Film Administration heavily enforced the concept of socialist realism
but very few of the DEFA films were really popular, and the film sector was
dependent on foreign imports – including imports from the FRG.
Before 1989, DEFA was responsible for the production of more than 700
films, many of which must be considered part of classic German film cul-
ture. The integration of the GDR into the FRG also meant the integration of
many creative GDR film people into the film and media culture of the united
Germany. But the transformation and integration after 1989 has been a compli-
cated process on many levels, and coming to terms with the communist past,
the Cold War and the divided Germany is an ongoing process in the post-1989
German film culture. In parts of the former GDR, we even see a certain retro-
wave of nostalgic longing for the good old days. German film culture has been
faced with a confrontation with the past, a ‘complex and contradictory culture of
remembrance, retrospection and nostalgia’ (Hake 2008: 190), but also of critical
self-reflection. Even though the ‘Ossies’ got rid of an authoritarian regime and
the world was opened to them, they also lost a ‘homeland’ and for many years
westernization effectively made them second-class citizens in a new state where
many institutions and traditions simply vanished (Maier 1997).
In 2002, Jana Hensel (born in the GDR in 1976) hit German and inter-
national bestseller lists with her autobiography, Zonenkinder/After the Wall:
Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life that Came Next (Jana
Hensel, 2004 (US edition)), telling us in a humorous tone about everyday life
behind the wall. The feeling of freedom she expresses is mixed with a sense of
loss and nostalgia, and her observations on her state of mind during this tran-
sition strike an important theme in many post-1989 films. Maier (1997) quotes
Konrad Weiss, one of the successful East German film-makers of the later
period, to illustrate the mixed feelings that are similarly expressed in Hensel’s

My hopes are withering and my dreams are dying. I am being made into
an immigrant in my own land. I wanted to make a motherland out of
my land. […] a raw, garish, shirt-sleeved fatherland is bursting in on us.
It leaves us no way out, we can’t defend ourselves against it.
(Konrad Weiss 1990, quoted by Maier 1997: 286)


In late 1988 and early 1989, many signs pointed towards the collapse of com-
munism, but few had expected it to happen so fast. It was as if the whole
system just gave up. However, all the serious problems and conflicts that
existed before the collapse lingered on throughout the following decades. In
the former GDR, the expenditures required for integration were high and the
results of the merger had a long-lasting influence on social and cultural con-
ditions. In his book, Maier estimates that by 1995 the German public budget
deficit had gone up to more than 112 billion Deutsche marks, the equivalent


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of the money invested in the former GDR, in order to restructure and rebuild
the economy and society (Maier 1997: 299).
But despite this huge drain of the public budget and the establishment of
Treuhand with its mission of privatizing companies and institutions for the
new market economy, a huge economic and social decline in the former GDR
was the immediate result. Social life, work and everyday living conditions
worsened for the newly reunited Germans, while cultural barriers and resent-
ments between East and West increased. Those from the East reported feeling
like second-class citizens in a very rich consumer society, and were mostly
unable to acquire what they saw in the brightly lit shop windows. The rise of
the new left-wing party after 2000 in Germany (Die Linke/The Left) appeared
to be a return of communism in a modern form, thriving on the problems of
the imperfect integration. In Hensel’s memoirs, she notes how quickly con-
cepts and language changed, making it difficult for ‘ossies’ to communicate on
a simple everyday level (Hensel 2004: 12f):

After the wall, we soon forgot what everyday life in the GDR was like,
with all its unheroic moments and ordinary days. We repressed our
actual experiences and replaced them with a series of strange larger-
than-life anecdotes that didn’t really have anything to do with what
our lives had been like. The fact that we began exchanging such sto-
ries amongst ourselves shows how much we had internalized the West
German take on our history. We had forgotten how to tell our own life
stories in our own way, instead adopting an alien tone and perspective.
(Hensel 2004: 25)

The overall mental framework expressed by most of the post-1989 films from
the former GDR is thus characterized by the citizens’ widespread ambivalence
of wanting full integration in the new state, but at the same time feeling exiled
in their own new homeland. Maier puts it like this in his conclusion:

In 1989–90 most East Germans had no other wish than to be absorbed

into a larger community of Germans and economic success. But what
had they achieved? Their experience suggested to many that they had
not simply become full participants in a united Germany, but immi-
grants in their own territory, nursing selective memories of a past that
comforted merely, and sometimes only, by virtue of its being shared.
(Maier 1997: 327)


The building of the Berlin Wall in August 1962 coincides with the isolation of
GDR film culture from the rest of Germany. But despite this stronger ideolog-
ical and cultural control, the influence from the West remained strong. Pre-
1989 GDR cinema drew upon its German cultural heritage and in many ways
developed parallel trends such as modern realism with those in the FRG. The
European modernist and new wave cinemas of the 1960s were also important
influences on GDR cinema.
However, the more experimental, modernist works as well as those
deploying forms of realism that did not conform to the concept of socialist
realism faced severe problems in the GDR where every film had to be accepted


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by the party apparatus. The establishment of the Berlin Wall and the escala-
tion of the Cold War during the 1960s led to a brutal ideological attack on
some of the modernist tendencies in GDR film culture at the eleventh Central
Committee meeting of the SED (Socialist Unity Party) in December 1965. A
whole year’s production, twelve films in all, were rejected and DEFA director
Jochen Mückenberger was fired, while several film directors saw their careers
destroyed. The accusations from the SED were scepticism, nihilism, relativism
and subjectivism. According to both Hake and other film historians (Berghahn
2006, for instance) this SED meeting had a devastating effect on the whole
of GDR culture and made it much more difficult for the more modernist and
new realist trends to develop. Nevertheless, even after 1965, directors like
Joachim Kunert, Konrad Wolf and Heiner Carow continued to challenge the
official party line.
In light of the ideological and cultural agitation against many aspects
of GDR culture after unification, it is worth noticing that there are critically
acclaimed GDR films that belong to the modern classics of German film cul-
ture. In 1995, when German film critics and producers were asked to nomi-
nate the 100 best films of all time, 14 GDR films were nominated, among
them films by Wolfgang Staudte, Konrad Wolf, Frank Beyer, Gerhard Klein
and Heiner Carow (Berghahn 2006: 79–80). The list of nominated directors
and films demonstrates that the genres and traditions valued most by the crit-
ics were anti-fascist historical dramas belonging to the broader realist tradi-
tion, as well as a few heritage films based on literary classics.
The line between a very ideological socialist realism and a freer and less
heroic form of socialist narrative was always under negotiation in pre-1989
GDR film culture. In 1971, when Honecker launched the thesis of an already
fulfilled and established socialist society, this meant a certain liberation for
film-makers (Hake 2008: 140f). During this period, comedic and dramatic
genres dealing with everyday life were established, as were some of the most
interesting literary adaptations. But GDR film culture was increasingly in crisis
from the 1980s until the fall of the Wall, having lost contact with its main-
stream audience. Television and the growing influence of western cinema also
contributed to this crisis. Despite the Wall and cultural controls, it became
increasingly difficult to isolate the population from all aspects of the increas-
ingly globalized media culture.
In 1990, Treuhand took over the DEFA studios, selling them to French-
American Vivendi-Universal in 1992. This transformation of the old GDR film
studios marked the transition in Germany generally towards a much more
market-oriented cinema culture, while still maintaining a strong mix of pub-
lic and private funding. After 1992, Studio Babelsberg was transformed and
promoted as a new European centre for film production. Larger production
companies with both national and transnational film productions like Bernd
Eichinger’s Constantin Film and arthouse-oriented production companies like
X Filme Creative Pool founded in 1994 by Tom Tykwer and Wolfgang Becker
demonstrate the diversity and creative boost German cinema received after
1989. An increase in annual film production from around 60 in 1990 to close
to 130 today underscores the same trend.
In Germany, as global market forces immediately took over after 1989,
the transformation of the once heavily state-controlled institutional film cul-
ture did not create the same collapse and creative vacuum that other com-
munist countries experienced. The film culture of the new united Germany
became a vital cultural and ideological part of its coming to terms with the


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past, managing to create popular narratives that contributed to a more reflex-

ive understanding of the relation between past and present and the more
invisible remnants of the Wall in the minds of people, in everyday life and in
social and cultural divisions.


As a communist country, the GDR is a special case: this was where communism
was expected to show its cultural strength and superiority, and this was conse-
quently also where communism faced its final and most spectacular defeat. It
could therefore be expected that the fall of the Wall and the transition from a
divided to a united Germany would have a very strong place in post-1989 film
narratives. This is however, not quite the case. Rather, many directors, includ-
ing some born and raised in the GDR, seem to focus more on contemporary
everyday life and when touching upon the transition, they seem to favour a
more humorous or even slightly nostalgic or satirical point of view.
In Laurence McFalls’s interesting study, Communism’s Collapse, Democracy’s
Demise? The Cultural Context and Consequences of the East German Revolution
(1995), he points to the fact that, at least for the period after 1945, the political
system in the GDR seemed to offer a solution to post-fascist chaos. Despite
wide criticism and resistance towards the regime in the post-1961 GDR after the
building of the Berlin Wall, there has also been a certain popular support. This
is the logical explanation for ‘Ossie nostalgia’ and criticism of certain aspects of
the rough and competitive consumer society in the West. The fall of the Wall in
November 1989 was a historic moment of great importance, and documentary
footage from the event shows the immense joy and euphoria experienced on
both sides of the Wall. However, the complexities and difficulties of reunifica-
tion were tremendous and the whole transition and integration process raised
a number of social, cultural, ideological and economic problems.
An important peculiarity of German film in this period is that it has been
directors from the West that have made three of the most dramatic, historical
transition dramas, as well as some of the most serious and realistic attempts
to come to terms with the past. Margarethe von Trotta made one of the most
political and emotional transition dramas, Das Versprechen/The Promise (1994). In
this film, we follow the complicated love story of Conrad and Sophie from 1961
to 1989 while, at the same time, we are shown the contrasting development of
their lives in the GDR and West Germany. In the film, there is a breathtaking
and symbolic scene in which a man in a GDR couple, after having tried to stay
and live life in the GDR, suddenly loses patience and hope and stages a sym-
bolic protest. He is imprisoned and interrogated and eventually the Stasi expel
him and keep his wife. The sequences showing the authoritarian and inhuman
society of the GDR are made with a grim and shocking realism, but West Berlin
seen through his eyes does not look like a promising alternative either. The
graffiti-covered walls of the subways, the drunkards and drug addicts, the push-
ers and prostitutes, the gangster types attacking him or the beggars wanting
money become a distorted vision of capitalist consumerism and decadence. In
desperation, he crosses the Wall to get back to the GDR, but though he raises
his arms in surrender, he is shot dead by the GDR guards.
Von Trotta’s film combines a private life story with historical moments
in the transition from communism to its fall. The narrative is woven around
historical dates and events with clear social and symbolic character: the estab-
lishing of the Wall in 1961; the rebellion and Soviet invasion of Prague in


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1968; the 20-year anniversary of the Wall in 1981; and finally the fall of the
Wall in 1989. The film combines direct documentary footage from all these
events, with the fictional story constructed in such a way that the personal
relations, problems and stories clearly illustrate broader social and historical
problems. In this sense, the film is prototypical for the historical transition
drama: the fictional story illustrates and embodies the historical transition. In
the first part of the film, the young couple, Konrad and Sophie, try to escape
to the West before the Wall is completed, but whereas Sophie and some of
her friends make it, Konrad is surprised by soldiers and has to give himself up.
This cleavage begins the story of a very strange love affair marked by distance
and different lives lived out in the East and the West.
Konrad eventually becomes an important scientist supported by the sys-
tem. In 1968, the couple are able to meet in connection with a conference in
Prague where they make love passionately and plan a life together, only to
see everything being destroyed as the Prague Spring revolution is crushed. In
the last part of the film in 1989, on the night the Wall falls, Konrad is reunited
with his now grown-up son. A freeze-frame of him and Sophie in the crowd
seems to indicate a possible new life in the unified Germany. The portrait of
the GDR in Trotta’s film is a sharp, critical and political critique of a system
that employs systematic oppression of human beings and strategic manipula-
tion and surveillance. There is no nostalgic or positive representation of every-
day life outside the oppressive system, although some of the characters try to
make the best of it, doing what they can to go against the stream. But the film
also displays a rather low-key realism in the portrait of life on the other side of
the Wall, and there is no naïve belief in utopia in the new unified Germany.
The same must be said of the film by Volker Schlöndorff’s Die Stille nach
dem Schuss/The Legends of Rita (1999), a transition drama that focuses on the life
of a terrorist from the West working in both countries. ‘Politics today is war,’
says the terrorist Rita Vogt in a voice-over at the start of the film while she robs
a bank. The film is partly based on the real Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorist
Inge Viett’s story, but the film’s main plot focuses on terrorism in the West as
a political link to communism in the East. In this way, the film actually con-
textualizes social and political problems in both German states. In the first part
of the film, Schlöndorff explores terrorism in two ways, where violent actions
and killings in Germany, Beirut and France draw an image of terrorism as an
international network while, at the same time, the film demonstrates the cyni-
cal role played by the GDR in hiding and supporting Western terrorism.
Although this film is very critical in its rendering of the GDR system, it is
also a story that goes more directly into a portrait of life in the former GDR
with both its good and bad sides. Rita’s life in the GDR is, of course, a life
lived in an artificial bubble, and yet she is able to develop real friendships
and love relations. When the Berlin Wall comes down and she is exposed just
like all her RAF accomplices, she still seems to believe in communism. In the
last scene of the film, Rita tries to escape and is shot down. The film tries to
give a rather nuanced picture of the former GDR and even the life of a ter-
rorist, and it does not focus on the 1989 turning point as a major historical
shift – although it is mentioned and has direct implications for the way the
story unfolds in the end. There is no apology for either the GDR system or the
terrorism; rather, the film seems to simply try to approach a historical period
and everyday life with all its complexities.
The clearly most successful transition drama so far is, however, Florian
Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen/The Lives of Others (2006).


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This film was seen by seven million people in Europe – a high figure for a
European art film, and it won both an Oscar and the European Film Award.
Among the transition dramas, this film is a modern classic, one that most
directly seems to have captured the imagination of German and European
audiences. The way in which the film tells the story of the transition and life
in Germany, East and West, is combined with both the realism of art cinema
and the emotional and dramatic quality of a more broad mainstream drama.
On 15 May 2006, Donnersmarck visited the German film museum to present
his film and in his presentation he said:

I believe that in 1989 and the period immediately after that our relation
to the GDR and its history was rather tense. That is perhaps not the best
starting point for telling a film story. One needs a certain distance in
order not to pass a rushed judgement.
(Quoted from, my translation)

Donnersmarck, in the same presentation, tells that the opening of the Stasi
archives made it possible for him to talk to and investigate former Stasi opera-
tives as part of his year-long research for the film. The result of this research
is a film of psychological complexity and insight into everyday life in the
authoritarian society of the GDR, as well as the life of a particular Stasi agent.
Donnersmarck makes a broader point out of the portrait of this Stasi agent
who secretly rebels against the system, staging a plot to save a person and a
couple that ends up undermining his belief in the state:

Many people grew up with a belief in the GDR but had to realize sooner
or later that the reality of this SED state had nothing to do with the ini-
tial positive expectations. I believe that this created a passive resistance in
many people and led to the historically very unusual peaceful revolution.
(Quoted from, my translation)

Donnermarck’s film explores the operation of an authoritarian system by show-

ing the various ways people might try to adapt themselves to it – either by sub-
mitting and conforming or by trying to live a secret life within the authoritarian
system. The film shows the life of a Stasi agent who initially conforms to the
system but then changes when he is exposed, through his surveillance work,
to these ‘lives of others’ – an artistic and intellectual milieu very different from
his own. In this way, the film tells a universal human story of not just the GDR
but of all societies and authoritarian systems that employ this kind of intensive
surveillance. In his presentation of the film, Donnersmarck clearly states that
he is not interested in moral judgements or making some kind of a case: he is
merely telling a human story. Part of the explanation for the film’s enormous
success with the audience probably has to do with the fact that the film came
at a time when the temporal distance from 1989 had sufficiently diminished
the immediate tensions and resentments felt so keenly during the transition,
allowing the history of the GDR to become a more complex, human story.


In Leander Haussmann’s very successful film Sonnenalle/Sun Alley (1999) about
life in the GDR in the 1970s, the last words spoken in the film are from the
voice-over of the young main male character Micha. These words virtually turn


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life and culture in the former GDR into a distant fairy tale as the images of the
film show the gates and barriers opening onto an empty and deserted space:
‘Once upon a time there was a country. How was it to live there: it was the
greatest time of my life, for I was young and in love.’ Haussmann was born in
the GDR (1959), so, although the film is based on a novel by Tomas Brussig,
the satirical and humorous look upon life in the GDR also reflects the director’s
own experiences as a child and young man.
In German and international film literature, there has been some discussion
of the comic turn in films dealing with the GDR (see, for instance, Cooke 2005:
103f and Seán Allan, in Clark 2006: 105f). As Cooke remarks, the discussion
has been about the reasons for and consequences of the move away from real-
ism, social critique and the political. The comedic turn has been seen as a move
towards ‘ostalgie’ (East nostalgia) (Allan 2006), and, with the so-called Trabi
comedies of the 1990s (named after the GDR car the Trabant), this development
can be seen as a commercial use of the culture of the ‘exotic other’, the under-
developed, stupid and provincial character befuddled by the westernized culture.
But, first of all, the move away from realism and social critique is not complete,
as the success of Das Leben der Anderen proves. Second, the understanding of
comedy as a genre in some of these critical comments is too simplified. Third,
there is a much deeper socio-cognitive tendency at work here than noted in
most of the film comment.
As McFalls has documented in his interview-based study of GDR culture
before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is sociologically impossible to
conceive of the culture in the former GDR as just one of repression under
which the whole population submitted. Rather, it would be more accurate
to view it as a more complex and dual culture where people adapted them-
selves, finding ways to survive and developing a kind of everyday life beyond
the system’s clichés. The freedom after 1989 and the newly opened consumer
culture was greeted with great hope, but the reactions against the new soci-
ety soon led to a sense of ‘verfremdung’ or alienation, the feeling some had
of being unequal and out of tune with dominant values. Reactions have been
partly political, and partly a rediscovery of life in the GDR as more than com-
munist oppression. McFalls point to a dualism in life under communism,
a dualism of a perhaps more universal nature. There is official reality and
then there is everyday life grounded in universal human needs, passions and
What the new comedies actually do is combine a social and political-satirical
critique of communism as a system with a strong focus on the kind of life peo-
ple tried to live under the system’s surface, which are things people do all the
time in all societies, as much as the historical circumstances allow. Zerubavel,
in his book Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology (1999: 20),
has pointed to three levels of cognitive sociology which he identifies as the
study of cultural, social and mental structuring:

• Universal cognitive commonalities

• Cultural, historical and subcultural cognitive differences
• Personal cognitive idiosyncrasies

Comedies often reduce cultural differences to their more universal commo-

nalities: a Stasi officer, for instance, does not appear as a dangerous politi-
cal representative of a repressive system, but rather as a somewhat ridiculous
show-off and a person very much occupied with taking advantage for his own


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personal interests. But, at the same time, comedy builds on identification, on

the little man becoming the hero against all odds, in spite of the fact that we
also sometimes laugh at him. This means that comedies make us sympathize
with people in a particular subculture, even though we also have a certain
distance from them, because comedies generally have an ability to make the
universal and the culturally specific interact.
In his analysis of Sonnenallee and Good Bye, Lenin!, the film scholar Seán
Allan points to some of the same mechanisms at work in these GDR comedies:

By setting their ‘universal’ stories within specifically East German set-

tings, Sonnenallee and Goodbye, Lenin! open up a new perspective on the
East for audiences with little or no firsthand experience of the GDR. In
so doing, these films make an important contribution to the normaliza-
tion of German–German relations.
(Allan 2006: 124)

The portrait of everyday life in Sonnenallee/Sun Alley (Hausmann, 1999) is char-

acterized by elements of youth comedies known from most western film cul-
tures and, in that sense, the GDR reality is normalized. What young people
are interested in is love, music, friendship, partying and, in relation to this,
schools, parents and authorities are viewed as hindrances. The main character
Micha(el) is a fanatic about rock music and spends a lot of his time trying to
acquire music that is illegal and difficult to get hold of in the GDR. But he is
also (it seems) hopelessly in love with a beautiful girl who seems to care only
for a playboy who represents all the worst stereotypes of the West. The film
culminates with his love affair coming to fruition in a fabulous scene in which
they play rock music on a balcony while the whole street, including Stasi agents
and soldiers, rock with them. The film’s portrayal of everyday life in the GDR
confirms all we know: the shortage of consumer goods, the bureaucracy and
surveillance, the ridiculous ideological socialization and the group tyranny of
the youth organizations, etc. But the film also revitalizes the image of ordinary
GDR citizens, their ability to play around with the system, their creativity in
getting the best out of very little to make life work. In this film, life in the GDR
becomes more colourful and the almost carnivalesque energy running through
many of the scenes aligns the image of GDR youth with western youth.
The satire against the GDR system is friendly, but consistent in Sonnenallee,
but the focus is on how ordinary citizens survived and created their own forms
of life. In Goodbye, Lenin! (Becker, 1999) the political satire is more direct and
dominant, and the sheer fact that Alexander has to reinvent a way of life after
the Wall has fallen in order to protect his ailing mother who was a model GDR
citizen, gives the film a sharper, satirical edge than Sonnenallee. In the film,
everything from TV programmes, the communist scout movement, the ugly
GDR furniture and all sorts of GDR food and products have to be restored, and
this gives the audience of the film a chance to relate to and re-experience some-
thing that is already history. At the same time, the picture of Alex’s mother
also modifies the image of the engaged, political worker in the GDR as a face-
less and heartless bureaucrat. She becomes a sympathetic, idealistic figure,
although naïve in her fundamental belief in the party and the cause. But the
satire in the film is not just towards the GDR system. The West is also treated
with a satirical and critical distance, mostly through themes of open commer-
cialism and personal greed demonstrated by people taking advantage of the


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The very first sequences of Goodbye, Lenin! are private family films of eve-
ryday life in the GDR, where despite everything, children are happily play-
ing, and this entry through the perspective of the everyday life of the young
Alexander (the film’s voice-over narrator) is fundamental to the film. The tone
is comic and satirical for the most part. There are occasional elements of real-
ist drama, such as the sequences that depict a moment just before the fall of
the Wall where demonstrating GDR citizens are brutally suppressed and put
in jail. Nevertheless, satirical humour is the basic tone of the film. Next to the
film’s hybrid mixture of satire, comedy and realistic drama, the true quality of
the film rests in its detailing of everyday life in the GDR. The depiction of all
those ordinary moments spark memories and experiences, both in the audi-
ence with first-hand experience and in those members of the audience that
can relate to the historic everyday universe through these universal characters,
themes and relations.
The film, however, takes a surprising turn at the end when the mother
admits that she has been lying about her children’s father. He did not leave
them behind when he went to the West, as she had told them. Rather, he
had wanted his family to join him. Alex contacts him and, seeing his father,
realizes how alike family life in the East and West is and how childhood con-
ceptions can be out of tune with reality. The father comes to visit them and
Alex presents a powerful, comic finale for the fictitious newscast in which his
version of the fall of the Wall is played out. In this version, the GDR’s leader
himself decides to tear down the Wall, and in contrast to the wholesale den-
igration of the old ideology, this newscast suggests that some of the ideas
of socialism might just inspire the new Germany. The mother dies with a
happy feeling of having associated herself with something that mattered and,
through this careful deconstruction of the real story, the film reinstalls a sense
of pride about some parts of former GDR history and culture.


The cinema of Andreas Dresen is also a cinema of everyday life representing
new, post-1989 strategies in German film. The past, in fact, is only indirectly
present in his films, as traces in a contemporary reality dominated by social
problems and conflicts. But his films often take place in the now-transformed
parts of the former GDR. Andreas Dresen (born in the GDR in 1963) is one
of the more successful directors who made the transition from GDR film cul-
ture to post-unification German cinema. Dresen studied at the Konrad Wolf
Academy for Film and Television and started as a director just before the Berlin
Wall fell.
He is influenced by the realism of GDR cinema and he often focuses
on social differences and conflicts in contemporary German society but he
is not political and ideological in an outspoken way. The stories take place
in city milieus among ordinary people and the social critique or message is
indirectly present in the way plots and characters clash and develop. His
style demonstrates a documentary aesthetic in his earlier films, whereas
a move towards humour and comedy becomes stronger in his later films.
None of his films deal directly with the GDR past or the transition; how-
ever, they often take place in eastern parts of Germany and with typical East
German social types.
Dresen’s feature debut, Stilles Land/Silent Country (1992), set in the GDR
in 1989 before and after the Wall falls, is a film about a small-town theatre


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preparing to stage Waiting for Godot. The film clearly shows Dresen as a real-
ist, political director, but one with a sense for the absurdities and the humour
of everyday life. This is demonstrated in the way the theatre group and the
play become an image of the historical situation, while the lack of heroism,
ideology and grand narrative focuses on the ordinary subcurrents of history.
A sharper everyday social realism is obvious in Nachtgestalten/Night Characters
(1998), a multi-plot story about three main characters in Berlin and a decisive
24 hours in their lives. In the film, they try to break out or are forced out of
their normal ways of life while, at the same time, Berlin is not business-as-
usual because the Pope is visiting. We have the homeless Hanna and her boy-
friend Victor, trying to have just one decent night in a hotel for the 100 marks
she finds on the street; the older private business-type Hendrik, waiting for a
customer at the airport and getting stuck with an African boy whose relative
does not come and pick him up at the airport; and finally the farmer Jochen
looking for sex and finding the young prostitute and drug addict Patty whom
he naïvely wants to save but who ends up robbing him of all his money. The
characters thus represent typical characters in contemporary Germany, from
the outcasts and criminals to yuppies, from those coming to the big city from
the German heartland to those emigrating from far-off lands.
Compared with Stilles Land, Nachtgestalten has a rough ‘punk aesthetic’
depicting Berlin as a bluesy big-city environment influenced by a global, mul-
ticulturalism. In this sense, the film shows the swift transformation away from
the isolated, enclosed GDR culture in which Dresen grew up. But it is also
a film about the colourful and problematic confrontations between different
social and cultural subcultures seen through Dresen’s vision of the absurdity of
everyday life in a modern city universe. There are clear links to the American
tradition of multi-plot narratives, not least Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993)
and a later film like Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004). The film lacks any dimen-
sion of moral decay, despite the clear social critique of modern urban life in
modern Germany. It is rather a film with a certain bluesy mood and a poetry
of everyday life in which moments of human relationships oscillate between
confrontation, abuse, violence, care and even love and solidarity. The film thus
balances a sharp, lucid everyday realism with a critique of modern life that sud-
denly burst with hope and human expressions of fragility. This is perhaps most
clearly seen in the story of Jochen and the African boy, a story with broader
symbolic dimensions in relation to the global inequalities threatening the
modern, western welfare states.
The film may have gloomy aspects but, like the American films cited
above, we also see relationships developing between people that have ele-
ments of hope. One of the young punks suddenly shows sympathy for the
homeless lady who has been beaten, and the woman from the airport devel-
ops a relationship with the relative of the African boy. Despite the image of a
modern society with very little cohesion across the social and cultural borders
in the new Germany – the film lights a little candle of hope. However, the last
sequence of the film strikes a dystopian tone. The punks have stolen Jochen’s
car and drive it to the sea, in an expression of their longing for escape and
another life. Standing on top of the car, they set it on fire while listening to
heavy punk music, expressing their anger and discontentment. Suddenly the
music disappears and we get very close to the group of young people: the
very last shot is a silent young man, suddenly staring into the camera, silent
and serious looking. There seems to be a longing but also a social accusation
behind the dysfunctional everyday life we have witnessed.


SEEC_1.1_art_Bondebierg_029-042.indd 39 2/16/10 11:36:24 AM

Ib Bondebjerg


Dresen’s films on everyday life in the post-1989 era also include more clear-
cut comedies among ordinary people, discordant family life, love relations and
social problems in a new Germany where expectations do not quite live up to
the utopian feelings of 1989. Halbe Treppe/Half Stair Case (2002) takes place in
Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, in a typical post-1989 GDR neighbourhood. The film
tells the rather turbulent story of two couples, Uwe and Ellen and Chris and
Kathrin. It is a story about a midlife crisis, about dreams and hopes and what
became of them after marriage, kids and perhaps not the most exciting work
and living conditions. Everything is turned upside down when Chris and Ellen
fall in love and start a passionate affair. The subtitle of the film is Zwei Paare,
eine Affäre und 17 Hippies?/Two Couples, an Affair and 17 Hippies? and the film
lives up to this title with its semi-casual chaotic narrative of a transformed
East German life. The couples are not happy, the new consumer society is
not all they hoped it would be and their happiness together seems to have
vanished into routine. A symbolic scene in the film is the escape of Uwe and
Ellen’s bird from a small cage. When they run around in their sterile 1970s
high-tower flat, typical of both GDR and West Germany, the feeling of their
own imprisonment becomes obvious. But the film also presents social satire
in sequences showing dubious businessmen trying to develop the place into a
new industrial development zone.
A special element in the film are the ‘documentary’ sequences where the
fictive characters are interviewed and speak directly into the camera. The inter-
views thematize their lives, hopes and dreams and attempt to answer how it
is they got stuck somewhere on the road. It is characteristic that the film in
the end returns to its starting positions with Chris and Kathrin reunited – but
this time, with new experiences. Life goes on, although Ellen leaves Uwe for
good – a new kitchen is not enough for her. But as a sign of the opposite, the
escaped bird returns to its cage. In Dresen’s films about the everyday, life and
endings are often ambivalent.
Dresen’s German version of a romantic comedy, Sommer vorm Balkon/
Summer on the Balcony (2005) is a feel-good film dealing with two main char-
acters, Nike and Kathrin, for whom life in general and love life in particular is
certainly not happy, easy and glamorous. The film has lots of striking every-
day scenes between the girls on their balcony overlooking Berlin, in cafés or
on the job or looking for jobs. Side stories include Kathrin’s son and his young
love, and the stories of the elderly people in Nike’s care. The film also moves
between more serious, traumatic scenes and comedic scenes, but the overall
purpose of the film seems to paint an image of life in Berlin that is constantly
changing and under renewal. This is underlined by the fact that restoration
and new construction is a common visual trope in the film. The film is a uni-
versal feel-good comedy about everyday life taking place in the new Berlin.
Twenty years after reunification, references to 1989 and the time before and
after are quite distant, only indirectly present in the plot and the settings of
the film.

In 2006, the young German author Clemens Meyer (b. 1977) won a broad
German audience with his novel Als wir träumten/When we Dreamt about life as
child and young man in the former GDR and after 1989. It tells a harsh tale of a
young generation with shattered dreams in a unified Germany. The enormous


SEEC_1.1_art_Bondebierg_029-042.indd 40 2/16/10 11:36:24 AM

Coming to terms with the past

success of the novel proves – just as the enormous success of some of the films
on the transition and life before and after the Wall – that the wounds after
the collapse of communism are still not healed. There is a genuine need to
come to terms with the past as well as the traces of the past in the present. In
a broader perspective, this is not just true of Germany, but of post-communist
Europe as a whole. The ‘rude awakening’ for the former communist countries
that Jakubowicz talks about in his timely book from 2007 is long since over, but
the reconstructing of a new culture and society in a globalized and changing
world has only just begun.
The three main strategies in coming to terms with the past and the
present in this article represent very different forms of dealing with reality and
addressing the audience. The historical transition drama deals with social and
cultural transformation in a dynamic, historical perspective but combines a
direct political and social agenda with a more personal and emotional dimen-
sion linking macro- and micro-history. The satirical comedy tradition moves
away from the realist social and political critiques of the transition drama and
instead tries to distance itself from oppressive social systems by employing
satiric and comic distantiation, moving the lives of ordinary people to the cen-
tre. A universalizing effect is at work here since life in the GDR appears to be
based on some of the same basic human needs, rituals and actions as in the
rest of the world. In this way, comedic identification and alienating effects
work together to make us both laugh and understand a different culture and
system better. Deep down, we realize, the system is not so different from our
own. Contemporary everyday realism, on the other hand is, just like the tradi-
tional comedic tradition, much more focused on everyday life in the here and
now than in historical dimensions and explicit social critiques of a past society
and ideology. Dresen’s films often take place in GDR states or neighbour-
hoods, and though life expectations are not the most positive, his films not
only express despair and defeat, there is an underlying hope and belief in
German film culture as a whole has enjoyed a revival over the last ten
years, despite problems with the integration of the former GDR on all levels.
As Maier (1997) suggests disappointment and resentment are likely to prevail
for a long time yet. At least the rather diverse strategies of German film since
1989 offer forms of understanding and historical reflection that may, in the
long run, contribute to a deeper integration and unification.

Altman, Robert (1993), Short Cuts, Los Angeles: New Line Cinema.
Becker, Wolfgang (2003), Good-Bye Lenin!, Berlin: X Filme.
Beckett, Samuel (1952), En attandant Godot/Waiting for Godot, Paris: Edition
Berghan, Daniela (2006), ‘East German Cinema after Unification’, in Clarke,
David (ed., 2006): German Cinema Since Unification. London & New York:
Continuum, p. 79–105.
Clarke, David (ed.) (2006), German Cinema Since Unification, London and New
York: Continuum.
Cooke, Paul (2005), Representing East Germany Since Unification: From
Colonization to Nostalgia, Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers.
Donnersmarck, Florian von (2006), Das Leben der Anderen/The Lives of Others,
Berlin: Berg Productions.


SEEC_1.1_art_Bondebierg_029-042.indd 41 2/16/10 11:36:24 AM

Ib Bondebjerg

Dresen, Andreas (1992), Stilles Land/Silent Country, Berlin: Max Film.

—— (1999), Nachtgestalten/Night Characters, Berlin: Peter Rommel Productions.
—— (2002), Halbe Treppe/Half Stair Case, Berlin: Delphi Film.
—— (2004), Sommer vom Balkon/Summer on the Balcony, Berlin: Peter Rommel
Productions/X Filme.
Haggis, Paul (2004), Crash, Los Angeles: Lions Gate Films.
Hake, Sabrine (2008), German National Cinema, 2nd edn., London:
Hausmann, Leander (1999), Sonnenallee/Sun Alley, Berlin: Boje Buch Produktion.
Hensel, Jana (2004 [2002]), Zonenkinder/After the Wall: Confessions from an East
German Childhood and the Life that Came Next, New York: PublicAffairs.
Jakubowicz, Karol (2007), Rude Awakening: Social and Media Change in Central
and Eastern Europe, Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Jakubowicz, Karol and Sükösd, Miklós (eds) (2008), Finding the Right Place
on the Map: Central and Eastern European Change in a Global Perspective,
Bristol: Intellect Press.
Maier, Charles S. (1997), Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of
East Germany, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
McFalls, Laurence H. (1995), Communism’s Collapse, Democracy’s Demise: The
Cultural Context and Consequences of the East German Revolution, London:
Schlöndorff, Volker (2000), Stille nach dem Schuss/Silence after the Shot or The
Legends of Rita, Berlin: Babelsberg Film.
Trotta, Margaretha von (1995), Das Versprechen/The Promise, Berlin: Biskop
Zerubavel, Eviatar (1999), Social Mindscapes. An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology,
Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Weiss, Konrad, ‘Der Heimat Verlust schmetz,’ in Der Spiegel, no. 8, 19 February
1990, p. 27.

Bondebjerg, I. (2010), ‘Coming to terms with the past: post-1989 strategies in
German film culture’, Studies in Eastern European Cinema 1: 1, pp. 29–42,
doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.29/1

Ib Bondebjerg is Professor of Film and Media Studies at the Department of
Media, Cognition and Communication, University of Copenhagen, and the
Director of the Centre for Modern European Studies. He has published widely
on European film and media culture. His latest edited book in English is
Media, Democracy and European Culture (Intellect, 2008).
Contact: Department of Media, Cognition and Communication, University of
Copenhagen, Njalsgade 80, 2300 Copenhagen S, Denmark.


SEEC_1.1_art_Bondebierg_029-042.indd 42 2/23/10 1:51:06 PM

SEEC 1 (1) pp. 43–56 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Eastern European Cinema

Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.43/1

Film Critic and University of Split, Croatia

‘Cinema of
normalization’: changes
of stylistic model in post-
Yugoslav cinema after
the 1990s

The topic of this article is the change of stylistic dominant in the national cin- post-Yugoslav cinema
emas of post-Yugoslav countries after the year 2000 and the huge political changes normalization
in Croatia and Serbia. In all post-Yugoslav states this was a period of politi- self-Balkanization
cal, social and economic changes, which is usually named by a common denomi- Jasmila Žbanic’
nator: ‘normalization’. The objects of my analysis are three films coming from Srdan Golubovic’
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia. All these films: Grbavica /Esma’s Ognjen Sviličic’
Secret (Jasmila Žbanic’), Apsolutnih 100/Absolute 100 (Srdan Golubovic’) and
Armin (Ognjen Sviličic’) share many stylistic and thematic similarities. All three
films break, implicitly or explicitly, with the tradition of Yugoslav cinema of the
1990s and the notion of ‘Balkan cinema’, inherited by auteurs like Kusturica or
Dragojevic’. Some of them even include a metafilmic critique of that model. These
three films are examples of the broader stylistic shift, which is connected with
political and social changes. Therefore, the new stylistic dominant could be named
as ‘cinema of normalization’.


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Jurica Pavičic´

During the 1990s, a series of wars, bloodshed and material destruction strongly
influenced film practice in the former Yugoslav states, preventing their nor-
mal, transitional development. In most of the Yugoslav territories (including
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo), any kind of film industry
ceased to exist. In Croatia and Serbia, film production continued but under
unfavourable circumstances of the undemocratic or semi-democratic regimes.
At the same time, the 1990s were a decade of unparalleled success for the
post-Yugoslav film directors. During that decade, at least five post-Yugo-
slav films became huge arthouse hits and gained significant critical acclaim
and academic coverage to the extent that Dina Iordanova remarked that ‘in
European cinema at large, the 1990s will be remembered with the films about
the Balkan conflicts and traumas’ (Iordanova 2000: 15). Two of these films
won major festival prizes – Golden Lion for Macedonian film Pred doždot/
Before the Rain (Milčo Mančevski, 1993), and Golden Palm for Underground
(1995) by Bosnian-Serb director Emir Kusturica. At least, three other films
became very famous: Lepa sela lepo gore /Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996)
and Rane/Wounds (1998) by Srd–an Dragojevic’, and Bure baruta/Powder Keg
or Cabaret Balkan (1998) by Serbian director, veteran of the ‘Prague school’,
Goran Paskaljevic’.
Many critics noted stark stylistic, ideological and thematic similarities
between these films, and some other post-Yugoslav hits of the 1990s in
general. Almost all of these films dealt with political turmoils of the former
Yugoslavia: war, ethnic conflicts and outbursts of violence in everyday life.
While dealing with some obvious topics inevitably present in their social
surroundings, the directors of these films have made a whole series of
stylistic and thematic choices which unite them in a coherent poetic phe-
nomenon. Following the term proposed by Tomislav Longinovic’, this
stylistic phenomenon could be named the ‘cinema of self-Balkanisation’
(Longinovic’ 2005: 45).
As many critics observed, post-Yugoslav arthouse hits of the 1990s
have often exploited an exaggerated, grotesque and intentionally stere-
otyped representation of the Balkans. As Frederic Jameson comments in his
seminal essay, Balkan cinema ‘includes the external look of the foreigners, of
West, in the image thus presented. We are like this, and in fact, we’re even
worse then you thought we are, and we love it!’ (Jameson 2004: 235). We
can find such a self-conscious comment, an ‘external look’, in a famous
introductory scene of Paskaljevic’’s Powderkeg/Cabaret Balkan, when a club
entertainer, dressed as a drag queen, asks the audience: ‘Why do you
laugh? Because I’m different? Because I’m a freak? Well, then welcome!’
(Longinovic’ 2005: 43).
Films like Pretty Village, Pretty Flame; Wounds; or Underground present
the Balkans and its inhabitants as a sort of filmically attractive, cinematic
‘freak’. All these films emphasize the violence and ‘untamed’, ‘savage’
nature of the Balkans by staging stories full of unmotivated violence, hatred,
betrayal and cruel vengance. ‘Folklorist and exoticizing’, these films, as
German critic Bernd Buder writes, ‘introduce the picture of the Balkans as
a region in which people party, drink, and shoot, a picture based on profit-
able prejudices’ (Buder 2006, cited in Šošic’ 2009: 9). A typical character of
such a ‘self-Balkanisation’ film is the ‘Balkan Wild Man’ (Jameson 2004),
defined by Longinovic’ as a ‘global example of volatile masculinity gone
mad’ (Longinovic’ 2005: 38). Often represented by actors Miki Manojlovic’ or
Rade Šerbedžija/Sherbedgia, the Balkan wild man is a slave of his irrational


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‘Cinema of normalization’

passions, violent, drunk, misogynist, unable to control his violent impulses, 1. A typical example is the
character of Natalija
and – as the ultimate consequence – arsonist, rapist and murderer. Contrary (Mirjana Jokovic’) in
to the wild man, women in these films are submissive and passive, deprived Underground by Emir
of their own will and an object of lust. Or, as Serbian feminist critic Ana Kusturica, a submissive
object of lust brought
Jankovic’ Prljevic’ writes: to her own wedding
by force by her future
husband Marko (Miki
A frequently used narrative of Balkan weddings in domestic films dur-
Manojlovic’). .
ing the 1990s introduced a bride who takes the completely passive and
humiliating role on her own wedding (which is everything but her own)
within the hierarchy of power where someone else has a total authority
over her life and destiny.
(Jankovic’ Prljevic’ 2008: 32)1

Another typical mode of self-Balkanization is the choice of setting. Many

successful post-Yugoslav hits of the 1990s used pre-modern, rural setting of
the Balkan highlands (or heartland), a landscape barely touched by moder-
nity that easily fits into a stereotype image of ‘imaginary Balkans’, defined
by Maria Todorova. A typical example is the way in which Eastern Bosnia is
depicted in Dragojevic’’s Pretty Village, Pretty Flame. In his film, rural Bosnia
is a country of weird rednecks and fat women, in which local guys stumble
over the pig while playing basketball, and walk through the mud in white
dancing shoes. In Before the Rain by Mančevski, the Balkan heartland is not
ridiculed but romanticized – however selective, the colonial view is again
present: Macedonia is depicted as an idyllic passatist garden, a land of mead-
ows, orchards, pre-modern villages and monasteries. This ‘rusticalization’ is
also visible in later films by Kusturica: in Život je čudo/Life is a Miracle (2004),
and especially in Zavet/Promise Me This (2007) where a mountain village is
described as a place of authentic, pre-civilized harmony, the opposite of the
rotten, morally deviant city.
By making those deliberate choices, Balkan film directors of the hits of
the 1990s construct a ‘semi-mythical’ space (Halligan 2000: 78), and perpetuate
a cliché on the Balkans as a ‘mystic territory’ (Lončarevic’ 2008: 169). Such a
visualization often comes hand in hand with highly aestheticized, postcard-
pretty camerawork, emphasizing exotic otherness. If modernity appears in
such films, it usually appears in the form of a global metaphor, a symbol
of aborted, unsuccessful modernization. In Pretty Village, Pretty Flame such
is the case of an unfinished tunnel in which most of the plot takes place.
In Kusturica’s Life is a Miracle the plot again evolves around an unfinished
railroad and tunnel. In Underground the only productive activity in the film –
a clandestine arms factory – again functions as a metaphor of communist
deception and a useless effort to achieve anything through collective work
and modern economy.


Many of the popular Balkan films of the 1990s incited some fierce ideological
debates locally, and some of them internationally. Two most obvious exam-
ples were Pretty Village, Pretty Flame by Dragojevic’ and Underground by Emir
Kusturica. Dragojevic’’s film had been and still is the object of harsh criticism in
Bosnia and Herzegovina because of its presentation of war in Eastern Bosnia,
and Sarajevo critic and film director Faruk Lončarevic’ has recently stated that
this film is the ‘worst prostitution of film form since Triumph des Willen by


SEEC 1.1_2_art_Pavicic_043-056.indd 45 2/23/10 1:53:47 PM

Jurica Pavičic´

Leni Riefenstahl’ (Lončarevic’ 2008: 168). Palme d’Or winner Underground

became – due to the prize it had won – the object of an international political
debate which lasted eight months during the spring and summer of 1995 and
involved many German, American and French newspapers, several French
philosophers, Balkan specialists, plus Slavoj Žižek and Peter Handke. In both
cases, one side accused both films as being ‘(subtle) Serbian propaganda’
and a ‘flashy illustration of criminal clichés’ (Alain Finkielkraut), while others
defended the directors from a ‘sectarian moral’ imposed on ‘creative liberty’,
as Handke had written (Iordanova 2001: 127).
Whether these films were war propaganda or not, they share a common
ideological ground with other films of the ‘self-Balkanization’ label. In all
of them, the Balkans is ‘visualized as an exotic region trapped in an endless
cycle of ethnic conflict and crime’ (Samardžija 2007: 57). War and pillage in
the Balkans are ‘natural phenomena’ like ‘earthquakes’, as Kusturica put in
an interview (Iordanova 2001: 125–6). There is no exit, history is a perpet-
ual circle, ‘forever condemned to eternal and unsavory repetition’ (Živkovic’
2007: 54). Therefore, there is no catharsis or moral transformation. People
never change, they never learn or get better. During the 1990s, this kind of
‘historical fatalism’ was not ideologically innocent at all. As Andrew Horton
writes, the aim was to induce a ‘“there is no easy solution, let’s leave them
to shoot it out” type of response’ (Horton 2000: 38). The negative fascina-
tion with the ‘wild Balkans’, and glittery self-Balkanization aesthetics have
always implicitly included an isolationist message: don’t mess with us, we
are different.
Among the critics, artists and opinion-makers from the former Yugoslavia –
who have not identified themselves as being different, but who disagreed
with the isolationist agenda or simply disagreed with the status quo – the
films of self-Balkanization have often provoked and still provoke criticism and
fury. Among many reactions of this kind I quote a typical and recent one, by
Bosnian director Aida Begic’, director of film Snijeg/Snow (2008), awarded as
the best film in the Critic’s Week section in Cannes 2008. In a recent inter-
view, she said:

By watching Balkan cinema […] I don’t find many connections with my

views […] it’s often brutal and includes some elements which I call ‘bal-
kanoid’: from characters to setting, camerawork, storytelling, swearing
and so on. It has nothing to do with my upbringing, my ambient [sic]
and way I look into life. I don’t feel that kind of cinema as mine, and I’m
terrified by its approach which is not part of me.
(Kučuk Sorguč 2008: 11)

Begic’, like many others, feels that the self-Balkanization type of cinema
deviates from Balkan reality in a way that works well in a specific market
niche. The cinema of self-Balkanization has become a kind of arthouse-
circuit norm, an approved form of ‘authenticity’ opposed to a ‘westernized’,
‘unauthentic’ style. This self-exoticism of post-Yugoslav cinema has built a
market niche for itself. That market worked and works on the same prin-
ciple as a market of exotic souvenirs. People buy an imperfect, ‘authen-
tic’ local product believing that some humble ‘savages’ make it, without
realizing that these products are industrial products designed for a niche
market. At the same time, consumers – i.e. big festivals – buy allegedly


SEEC 1.1_2_art_Pavicic_043-056.indd 46 2/16/10 12:28:28 PM

‘Cinema of normalization’

‘authentic’ films that fit into a presumed framework of ‘local style’. In such 2. Visible in films like
Gipsy Magic (1997)
circumstances, there is no wonder why the cinema of self-Balkanization by Macedonian Stole
has become a popular and an imitable model for film-makers from Eastern Popov, In fiecare zi
Europe and Central Asia.2 dumnezeu ne saruta per
gura/Everyday God
Kisses us on the Mouth
(2001) by Romanian
2000S: POLITICAL AND CULTURAL CHANGES Sinisa Dragin, or Tulpan
(2008) by Kazakh
During the 2000s, the ideological landscape of the former Yugoslavia changed Sergey Dvortsevoy.
completely. In 2000, the elections in Croatia and Serbia removed previously 3. Probably the weirdest
semi-democratic and authoritarian regimes and post-Yugoslav countries example of such a
revived their previous economic and cultural communication, including eco- cooperation is the
Croatian TV serial
nomic exchange, tourism and cultural exchange. In the cultural sphere, the Zavjera/Conspiracy
first commodities that crossed borders were (unsurprisingly) lowbrow cul- (Roman Majetic’, 2007),
tural goods: Serbian folk music, Croatian confection pop, Bosnian sit-coms produced by company
AVA from Zagreb. This
and Croatian soap operas. Today, most of the soap operas are immediately ten-episode political
made for three local markets and include characters and actors from two or thriller tells the story of
members of the Croatian
three countries.3 A symbol of this new cultural market unity is probably Toše secret service (SOA) and
Proeski, the ‘Balkan Elvis’, a Macedonian pop-singer who sang in Croatian Serbian secret service
and whose sudden death in a car accident in October 2007 caused an outburst (BIA) who together hunt
a contract killer who
of teenage grief and public mourning in all post-Yugoslav countries. attempted to murder
At the same time, all post-Yugoslav countries started a process of political Croatian prime minister.
and economic reforms that is usually called by a blurry, seductive term ‘nor- 4. This is most visible in
malization’. The process of normalization included many aspects: the reform his film Zavet/ Promise
Me This (2007) which
of the judicial system, the prosecution of war criminals, adopting European is conceived as an
Union ‘acquis communautaire’ (EU legislation), the closure of shipyards, iron eulogy to traditional
mills and old industrial mammoths, reform of universities, introduction of tax moral values (obedience
to the elders, marriage,
numbers and VAT, pension reform, etc. In all post-Yugoslav countries this religion, traditional
process of normalization had an obvious, undisputed and almost eschatologi- economy) and opposite
to decayed city culture.
cal goal, that of joining the European Union. One side-effect of this eschato- In the film, the old
logical goal is supposed to be an evolution into a fully functional democracy grandfather salutes
and liberal market economy with their set of values and practices. in tears to a Russian
anthem on television,
In the period after the year 2000 there was an obvious shift not only in emphasizing values of
society in general but, not surprisingly, in cinema too. Economic, social and Orthodox solidarity and
ideological changes in the former Yugoslav countries influenced film content an anti-Western political
as much as film style. In the period in which all the post-Yugoslav societies
tried to prove and demonstrate ‘normality’ and reach the status of ‘normal’ (i.e.
European membership, or at least candidacy for membership), instead of being
‘different’, the rhetorical strategies typical of the cinema of self-Balkanization
had suddenly become counterproductive and unpopular. In former Yugoslavia,
no one wanted to be perceived as ‘different’ or a ‘freak’, so the rhetoric of ‘we-
are-like-this, and-in-fact-we-love-it’ has suddenly gone. Self-Balkanization
has ceased to be the stylistic dominant and it is now restricted to an exploita-
tion niche for (often foreign) audiences, or to the stylistic choice of the auteurs
who took explicit an anti-Western ideological stance, like Emir Kusturica.4
Instead of the previous stylistic dominant, in various post-Yugoslav coun-
tries a whole new group of films and film-makers have appeared who again
have much in common. Whether they are Bosnian, Croatian or Serbian, their
films deal with characters who try to cope with post-war reality. These charac-
ters live in a realistic, everyday, usually urban surrounding. They have to sur-
pass traumas and obstacles inherited by the past (usually, war). Characters in
these films take an active attitude to problems, engage themselves in problem-
solving, trying to sort out a better future for themselves. Most of these films,


SEEC 1.1_2_art_Pavicic_043-056.indd 47 2/16/10 12:28:28 PM

Jurica Pavičic´

therefore, revisit the essential principles of classic narrative style, applying a

type of active, problem-solving hero who is capable of transformation into a
post-war, transitional society. By doing this, these films implicitly illustrate or/
and discuss the values of liberal capitalism. Therefore, these films might be
called ‘films of normalization’.
In further chapters, I will analyse three films which (in my opinion) illus-
trate this stylistic change. These three films come from three different post-
Yugoslav countries: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia. Yet, they have
some common elements in setting, plot and style. All three of them radically
differ from the aesthetics of self-Balkanization. Some of them include some
implicit, metafilmic critique of the dominant, internationally recognized style
of post-Yugoslav cinema.

Grbavica/Esma’s Secret (2006) by Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanic’ is an interna-
tionally successful post-Yugoslav film of the 2000s. In February 2006, this film,
made by a first-time female director from Sarajevo, won the Golden Bear at the
Berlin Film Festival, continuing a string of festival successes for post-Yugoslav
films of the previous decade. However, in stylistic terms, Žbanic’’s film was not
a continuation but – on the contrary – a radical critique of self-Balkanization
cinema. Set in contemporary Sarajevo, Grbavica tells the story of Esma (Mirjana
Karanovic’), a Bosnian Muslim woman who had been raped during the war and
gave birth to a child. Her daughter, Sara (Luna Mijovic’), knows nothing about
her origin, and believes that her father had been a hero killed in war (šehid).
Esma ekes out a living as a low-paid waitress and when the school authorities
announce a school trip, Esma desperately needs to find money for Sara’s trip. If
Sara’s father had really been a šehid there would be no problem as children of
war heroes are entitled to benefits such as free travel. So, the routine of school
paperwork dismantles Esma’s patriarchal lie and forces the mother to confront
her child’s anger and to reveal the truth about her father.
In every aspect of its content or style, Grbavica is a deep negation of the
cinema of self-Balkanization. For a start, the film is deeply anti-exotic in its set-
ting in post-war Sarajevo, a gloomy winter city, a microcosmos of bars, betting
shops and decaying factories, Grbavica has nothing to do with the self-exoticiz-
ing prettiness of Kusturica or Mančevski. Grbavica (a district of Sarajevo) could
be easily mistaken for any degraded, post-industrial community from Dresden
to Donetsk or Northern England. The only ‘local colour’ we see in the film is
a mosque but this does not stand as a sign of identity or tradition that brings
comfort and self-confidence to the characters. The mosque that we see is a
newly built, flashy and ornate building in a Sarajevo socialist-style neighbour-
hood Otoka/Alipašino Polje. In the Sarajevo depicted in Grbavica, a winter-
grey city of dilapidated communal buildings, backyards and ruins, it stands out
as shamelessly nouveau riche among the surrounding poverty. We see it in a
scene when Esma’s future boyfriend Pelda meets with local mobsters. In such
a mise-en-scène, organized crime and the explosion of religion stand together
as two manifestations of the same society gone wrong. In Grbavica, ‘identity/
authenticity’ is a cheap ideological fabrication, the mother of all lies.
Unlike self-Balkanization films which over-saturate us with bloodbaths,
pillage and ruthlessness, Žbanic’ avoids any negative pornography and leaves
war, its perpetrators and violence off screen. Or, as Yvette Biro writes, Žbanic’
is ‘facing the unspeakable matters of human humiliation, naked to the bones –


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‘Cinema of normalization’

however, there is nothing to be seen here about the atrocity of violence’ (Biro
2007). In a sensitive reality of contemporary Bosnia and Herzegovina the direc-
tor’s decision to avoid any flashbacks to the past war and avoid any explicitly
Serb character in the film is an obvious ideological choice. She does not accuse,
ask for revenge nor cry for justice, she only observes the victims. These vic-
tims are by no mean idealized. In an interpretation by the great Serbian actress
Mirjana Karanovic’, Esma is an unlikeable, unremarkable and tacit woman who
could have otherwise been easily disliked, if we had not known her painful
past. Sara is a typical adolescent, a stubborn and often ungrateful brat who
projects her anger and generation conflict into a tired, overworked mother.
Neither of them are too good or too bad. Despite such a terrible secret between
them, both of them are convincing, vivid characters, the kind of people we find
in any working-class neighbourhood, of the West or the East.
After the testosterone machismo of Balkan cinema of the 1990s, Grbavica
surprises as a film with very few men. Two main characters are a mother and
a daughter, but without a father. The only important male character in the
film is Esma’s boyfriend-to-be, Pelda (Croatian actor Leon Lučev). Although
Pelda comes from a semi-criminal milieu, he is the complete opposite of typi-
cal Balkan machismo. Being shy and insecure, he is a much weaker charac-
ter than Esma. Pelda himself is also a captive of patriarchal duty; he intends
to emigrate but cannot as long as he does not identify the body of his dead
father. In a crucial scene when he discusses emigration options with Esma,
she asks him: ‘Who’s gonna recognize your babo (dad)?’ That is Pelda’s bur-
den of the past, if he left his father would remain without a proper burial, in a
basement of a forensic clinic.
While Pelda’s future is compromised because of his duty towards his
dead parent, Esma invents a dead parent to preserve the illusion of family.
Instead of an absent rapist father, the mother invents a patriarchal, fictional
father-hero. In a patriarchal, post-war society full of heroic mythology, that
fiction gives a shelter of acceptable ‘normality’ to Esma and Sara. But the
fictional patriarch cannot last forever. Once it is demasked, mother and
daughter stand one against the other, in a scene that resembles the final
duel of a classical western or thriller, and even includes a gun. Once the
mother tells Sara the truth, she abandons patriarchal fiction as a basis for
their future life. The two women no longer need an invented patriarchal
authority and, as Grbavica implies, if they do not need it, neither does soci-
ety. For Žbanic’, patriarchal authority and integrative national myths about a
heroic ancestry are simply lies, a burden which could and should be poured
down the sink.
Similar to the characters of the cinema of self-Balkanization, Žbanic’’s
characters are victims of history. Both Pelda and Esma are involuntary par-
ticipants in ‘mythical’, ‘endless circle’ of revenges and wars. They both seek
a better future but unsolved affairs with the past keep them away from social
goals. In Grbavica, however, we do not find fatalism. Unlike the heroes of
the cinema of the 1990s, the characters of Grbavica can change, can evolve,
learn and get better. They both seek and achieve something better through an
active confrontation with the burden of the past. Esma abandons a patriarchal
lie. Going through a psychotherapeutic treatment, she finally speaks about
the rape. Sara accepts her identity of ‘Chetnik bastard’ and she goes on the
school trip and in the last, beautiful shot of the film, we see kids in a school
bus chanting a merry song about Sarajevo, and in a reflection of the bus win-
dow – the ruin of a skyscraper devastated in war.


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Jurica Pavičic´

5. The story of the film The decision of Jasmila Žbanic’ to portray active, problem-solving heroes
is loosely based on
that of the teenage
has obvious stylistic consequences. In terms of plotting, Grbavica is a very
actor Armin Omerovic’, ‘classical’ film. It has an orthodox three-act structure, a clear mid-point and
who auditioned for a strong, emotionally involving climax. The characters are neatly, precisely
a Croatian film Put
lubenica/Melon Route tuned in a way that every character has a scene which counter-balances his/
(Branko Schmidt, 2006) her most obvious fallacy or weakness. The directing style is unglamorous,
shot in northern Bosnia sober and minimalistic. As Biro writes, Žbanic’ ‘dares to keep it small’ (Biro
the year before. Sviličic’,
who was a screenwriter 2007). There is no ‘authenticity’ in Grbavica, in terms of some distinctive local
on that film, met school. Grbavica has much more in common with the cinema of Ken Loach or
Omerovic’ and
based Armin on his
Andrea Arnold, or British cinema of the 1980s, or some French new authors
experience – he even like Xavier Beauvois or Laurent Cantet, than with the Balkan-cinema niche. In
kept his name as the a society that needs an active attitude and an urge to change, Jasmila Žbanic’
name of the main
character. has chosen a stylistic mode that is based on a concept of a reluctant hero
6. It is not accidental that
who finally chooses to act. In these terms, Žbanic’’s Esma has more similari-
Armin plays and sings ties with the heroes of Hamlet or High Noon than with the typology of Balkan
a song by a famous characters. This leads to the choice of a classical narrative style that might
Bosnian singer of
sevdah songs, Halid be interpreted as ‘westernized’ and ‘colonial’. However, this kind of criticism
Bešlic’. Before the war, would be colonial itself, its deep ideological underpinning is the notion that
Bešlic’ was the biggest the people of the Balkans can be ‘themselves’ only if they submit to the West,
Bosnian folk star and
he is still popular all and self-represent themselves through static misery.
over ex-Yugoslavia.
The songs of Halid
Bešlic’, or his screen
cameos, appear in
many post-Yugoslav This colonial search for false ‘authenticity’ is the object of an explicit critique
films as a symbol of
regained normality or a in another key film of the cinema of normalization. This film is Armin, a
better past: for instance, Croatian-Bosnian family drama directed by Croatian director Ognjen Sviličic’.
in Kod amidže Idriza/ Premiered in the Forum programme of Berlinale 2007, Armin has had a rich
In Uncle Idriz House
(Pjer Žalica, 2004), or festival circuit life and has won several international awards, including the East
Karaula/Border Post of West awards in Karlovy Vary and the FIPRESCI prize in Palm Springs.
(Rajko Grlic’, 2006).
The main characters of Armin are two Bosnian men, father Ibro (Emir
Hadžihafizbegovic’), and son Armin (Armin Omerovic’). Father and son travel
from a small town in Western Bosnia to Zagreb (Croatia), where Armin is
supposed to attend an audition for a German co-production film.5 Father Ibro
believes that Armin could get the role because he plays the accordion well.
The father is childishly optimistic, too enthusiastic and full of initiative. On the
other hand, Armin is a clumsy, insecure adolescent and slightly ashamed of his
father. The two of them travel to Zagreb and to a cold, depressing modernist
hotel in a suburb. Here, they find a German film crew (Jens Münchow, Maria
Bäumer) and a likeable local secretary (Barbara Prpic’). Initially, the Germans
are not interested in auditioning Armin but, after the father’s persistent plead-
ing, they decide to hear Armin playing. Despite his stage fright Armin plays,
only to succumb to an epileptic attack. From the father’s point of view, this is
a catastrophe, but the Germans – who were rather disinterested in Armin’s
music – suddenly become very interested in his sickness. Presuming his epi-
lepsy is a result of the war, they offer the father and son a contract to shoot
a documentary about Armin. After a short conversation and some hesitation,
Ibro and Armin decline the offer and return home.
This key scene turns Armin into an obvious metafilmic commentary on cin-
ema colonialism. Ibro and Armin come to Zagreb both enthusiastic and will-
ing to share their culture and identity with the westerners.6 But, the westerners
turned out to be utterly uninterested in Bosnian music, talent and heritage
but very interested in an aspect of Armin’s destiny that fits into a colonizing


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‘Cinema of normalization’

pattern, that of misery, suffering and war. In a final scene, naïve and appar-
ently unintelligent Ibro realizes the manipulative mechanism and refuses the
offer. ‘In Armin’, director Sviličic’ explains, ‘by not wanting to be accepted only
through war, the characters refuse colonization’ (Šošic’ 2009: 67). ‘They refuse
the offer because they don’t want to take merit which they don’t have. They
were victims of war, but that doesn’t make their whole life’ (Šošic’ 2009: 37).
Through this scene, Sviličic’ implicitly criticizes the pact of self-exotication
offered to Balkan cinema by big festivals and co-production offices. At the
same time, he does not condemn ‘western villains’. The German film-makers
in Armin are generally good-willing and decent people who are unaware of
the manipulative mechanism in which they unconsciously participate.
Beside this aspect of metafilmic critique, Armin is another film about heroes
who actively seek for something better in post-war society. But Sviličic’ is far
more sceptical about the ideology of ‘normalization’, and its hidden premises.
In his film the character who embraces liberal, ‘just-do-it’ optimism is Ibro,
the father who sees no obstacles and who uncritically praises the West. An
interesting example of this is a scene that takes place on the night before the
audition, when Armin reads the screenplay for the first time. He remarks that
the screenplay is ‘stupid’, and his father answers that film ‘cannot be stupid,
since it’s a foreign one’. Ibro unapologetically believes in anything Western
and European, and fully embraces liberal myths of mobility, enterpreneurship
and meritocracy. Armin is younger, but far more realistic and mature, and
sometimes we have an impression that father and son inverted their social
roles and age in terms of mentality (Vojkovic’ 2008: 181).
A sceptical approach toward the West is also visible in Armin’s setting.
Excluding the very beginning and the ending of the film, Armin takes place in
Zagreb. In the mythology of Yugoslavia (especially its western parts), Zagreb
had and still has the role of a contact zone with modernity. Zagreb functions
as a kind of limbo, an in-between zone between the Balkans and the West.
Zagreb is a place through which modernity comes – it is a city of airplane
pioneers, the first radio station, first television programme and first artificial
insemination. Zagreb is still the part of ‘our’ world, but nevertheless the gate
to modernity, to the ‘Western Other’ (Vojkovic’ 2008: 179). Zagreb has the
same role in Sviličic’’s film: it is a western outpost in the Balkans, in this case
the outpost of the film co-production crew.
But the modernity and the West offered to Sviličic’’s heroes do not look
glamorous at all. In Armin, Zagreb looks like any gloomy city in the Soviet-
style bloc, grey and unattractive. A huge suburban hotel is nothing but a
depressing labyrinth of sad corridors, and most of the film takes place in poorly
lit, narrow spaces: elevators, corridors, toilets, hotel rooms. While spending a
night out in Zagreb, father and son go to McDonald’s – a sad and banal epit-
ome of ‘westernization’. The West that is offered to characters in Armin looks
very much like the West depicted in many European social films, like those of
the Dardenne brothers. It is the West similar to the one in which most of the
Eastern immigrants in Europe live – the basement floor of consumer society.

Both Grbavica and Armin share one crucial motif, the relation between chil-
dren and their parents. In both of these films, this motif is similarly reversed.
In both cases, children are more active and self-conscious than their par-
ents, and less ready to accept the status quo, whether emotional, social or


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Jurica Pavičic´

7. Excellent examples are ideological. Children who have to solve problems inherited by the elders is
the Bosnian film Ljeto u
zlatnoj dolini/Summer
one of the recurrent motifs of post-Yugoslav cinema of the 2000s.7 Present
in the Golden Valley everywhere, this motif is, not surprisingly, the most frequent one in post-
(Srd–an Vuletic’, 2003) Miloševic’ Serbian cinema. Reflecting the political changes, Serbian film-
and Croatian Ispod
crte/Below the Line makers after 2000 produced a whole series of films about young heroes who
(Petar Krelja, 2003). have to fight against obstacles inherited by the elders. In Nataša (Ljubiša
Samardžic’, 2001), a teenage girl tries to avenge her father, a victim of a
plot by mobsters and politicians. In Kordon/Cordon (2002) by the ‘Prague
School’ veteran Goran Markovic’, a student girl opposes her father, a police
commander, during the anti-regime demonstrations in the 1990s. We find
a specific variation of this motif in a thriller Apsolutnih 100 /Absolute 100
(2001) by Srdan Golubovic’.
Finished only a year after the fall of Miloševic’, Absolute 100 is another
film that represents younger Serbs as victims of the failure of older genera-
tions. In this case, the main hero is Saša Gordic’ (Vuk Kostic’), a junior national
champion in rifle shooting. The man who ruins his life is his elder brother,
Igor (Srd–an Todorovic’). Himself a former shooting champion, Igor joined the
Serbian army in the war as a sniper. He came back from the war severely
damaged and suffers from post-traumatic stress and, riddled by remorse, he
becomes a heroin addict. Since he owes money to his dealer Neške (Dragan
Petrovic’), he sells everything he owns, including the shooting range which
becomes the property of brutal, semi-criminal businessman Runda (Milorad
Mandic’). The shooting range is commercialized and young Saša has no place
to train, but the new owner Runda offers him training time if he serves him
as a shooting instructor for his hitmen. But Saša cannot stand the way Runda
humiliates his brother, so he refuses. Under the bed he finds his brother’s
sniper rifle and decides to use his skill to kill both the heroin dealer and the
new owner.
On a superfluous level, Absolute 100 seems to be a very conventional
revenge thriller, or, according to Serbian critic Velisavljevic’, a ‘revenge west-
ern’ (Velisavljevic’ 2008: 92). The main character Igor is a kind of Hawksian
male hero – an introvert, sober champion who speaks little, avoids women,
defies rational choices and follows his unwritten ethical guidelines. Bad guys
in the film are simply bad. While the shooting-range owner Runda is a gro-
tesque nouveau riche, the dealer Neške is a far more complex character. He
has married Igor’s former girlfriend and he remembers times when Igor was
a champion and when he himself was a loser, and sadistically enjoys the
reversal of fortune. This reversal is – it is implied, but quite clear – a conse-
quence of the war.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, genre films like Absolute 100 were
a significant proportion of Serbian film production. Several Serbian films,
like Do koske/Bones (Slobodan Skerlic’, 1996), 1 na 1/One on One ( Mladen
Matičevic’, 2002) used Hollywood genre tropes and dramatic devices and
transferred them into a Belgrade urban surrounding. But, most of these
films were simply a metafilmic game. This is particularly obvious in One
on One, a thriller that merges Serbian urban iconography with American
ghetto films. Many motives in Absolute 100 and One on One are similar or
the same: a young, tacit sportsman (in One to One – a basketball player),
local mobsters, a physically and morally ruined sport idol (in One on One –
the former basketball player Guru, now just a drunkard). Both films share
the same setting (New Belgrade), the same plot points (initial humiliation,
corrupting but tempting offer, final confrontation), and the same genre


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‘Cinema of normalization’

structure. But, the relation towards genre and social surrounding in these 8. It is worth mentioning
that some Serbian critics
two films is very different. consider this stylization
In Matičevic’’s basketball thriller, genre motives are domesticated as a ‘deviation’ from
into a social surrounding but the director’s main intention is to recycle the original screenplay
by Srdja And–elic’.
American genre mythology. His mobsters drive an American convertible Vojnov (2008) writes
car and are dressed like ghetto gangsters. They meet in a club which that ‘Matičevic’’s film
looks like the essence of urban subcultural decadence, it is full of styl- significantly changed
the realistic essence of
ized hyper-urban girls, the prostitutes wear radical chic and sport heavy And–elic’s screenplay
make-up, the only music we hear is drum’n’base. The criminal under- through directing and
production design’
ground looks and sounds cool and seems completely detached from (Vojnov 2008: 104).
social reality.8
9. Like in Ledina/Plain
In Absolute 100, Golubovic’ uses a similar genre, a similar main charac- (Ljubiša Samardžic’,
ter and motives, but turns them into something opposite – an acute social 2003), or Kad porastem
bic’u kengur/When
commentary. His mobsters are not just cultural tropes: they are an integra- I Grow Up I’ll Be a
tive part of the economy, people who now invest their dirty money and take Kangaroo (Radoslav
control of the infrastructure (shooting range). In Absolute 100, it is clear that Andric’, 2004).
the war is the cradle of a new power structure, a moment in time and space
where small-time local crooks gain power, wealth and political relevance.
These social observations are emphasized by Golubovic’’s restrained direct-
ing style. In One on One the directing style is more ‘intensified’ (in Bordwell’s
terms), full of unexpected cuts, unusual angles, shifts in visual style and film
stock. Golubovic’ directs more classically, with lots of relatively longer takes
and many close-ups that emphasize introspection and encourage identifica-
tion with characters.
Both films use the setting of New Belgrade, the part of Belgrade on the
western bank of the Sava river, a mega-city built in the communist period
for hundreds of thousands of settlers coming to the capital to work in indus-
try, the army or the state apparatus. In many Serbian films,9 New Belgrade
is used as an anti-city, a soulless agglomerate, a metaphor for the failure of
communism and society in general. In One on One, the character Guru refers
to New Belgrade as a ‘hell’, a ‘city with a million people but no church’, and
advises the main character to escape downtown as soon as he can. But, in
One on One director Matičevic’ depicts New Belgrade as the next of kin of
bad housing districts in North America: we see graffiti, basketball grounds
and a subterranean club. New Belgrade is just a ‘translation’ of the Bronx or
South Central, a mediator in the transfer of mythology. In Absolute 100, New
Belgrade is something else – it is practically the third main character. It is
omnipresent, always visible in dialogue scenes behind a character’s back. The
dominant visual motifs of the film are enormous: suffocating grey blocks that
cover the sky. Golubovic’’s characters are visually, literally and metaphorically
imprisoned in these blocks.
The main difference between Absolute 100 and other Serbian genre cin-
ema of the period – including One on One – is the relation towards social
imprisonment. In films like Bones or One on One, the characters fight for their
place within a hierarchy of power, never questioning outside borders. Saša
in Absolute 100 fights against the criminal and financial power forged in war.
Like the characters in Grbavica and Armin, he struggles against the heritage
of war in a way that questions social order and the hierarchy inherited by
the 1990s. Only, in his case the fight is not just a metaphoric fight, but literal
one – with arms – and the film itself represents this struggle through a genre
pattern. In Golubovic’’s case, genre is not just a transfer of mythemes, or, as
Ognjenovic’ comments, it is ‘not as an end for itself’, but ‘a powerful mean of


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Jurica Pavičic´

expression’ (Ognjenovic’ 2008: 78). In Absolute 100, genre becomes an analytic

device. For Golubovic’, Serbian genre-cinema with its metafilmic inspiration
and raw machismo is just a distant starting point; he takes genre from there
and brings it onto another ‘bank’ – the one which perfectly fits into a cinema
of normalization.


In terms of style, all three films, Grbavica, Armin and Absolute 100, have
some similarities. All three films are urban, set in grim cityscapes of three
post-Yugoslav capitals. All three are based on narrative simplicity, with a
three-act linear structure and a strong, cathartic climax. In Absolute 100 we
have an orthodox thriller, in Grbavica a drama with strong suspense and
clockwork-mechanism elements. All three directors use a minimalist direct-
ing style, deliberately avoiding (if not criticizing) opulence and the excess
of the Balkan style. All three films in fact question the same problem, the
problem of people damaged by war, who take an active stance and try to
find their place in ‘normalized’ capitalist society through everyday effort.
Answers to these questions are different in the three films as much as their
societies are different. In the Serbian film, the hero fights the power system
established in war, because this power structure disables any normaliza-
tion. Croatian director Sviličic’ more sceptically observes the bright future of
promised normalization, implicitly criticizing the Croatian colonial mentality
and cult of westernization. Bosnian director Žbanic’ chooses a cathartic, feel-
good finale as a remedy for her society which needs, but has not attained
post-war catharsis.
These three films are by no mean excentric exceptions, singled out from
the production of a whole decade. They clearly represent stylistic shifts vis-
ible in many successful post-Yugoslav film of the 2000s: among them, Ljeto u
zlatnoj dolini/Summer in a Golden Valley (Srd–an Vuletic’, 2003), Nataša (Ljubiša
Samardžic’, 2001), Kordon/Cordon (Goran Markovic’, 2002), Oprosti za kung
fu/Sorry for Kung Fu (Ognjen Sviličic’, 2004), Kod Amidže Idriza/At Uncle Idriz
House (Pjer Žalica, 2004), Što je Iva snimila 21. listopada 2003/What Iva Taped
on 21 October, 2003 (Tomislav Radic’, 2005), Snijeg/Snow (Aida Begic’, 2008) or
Kenjac/Donkey (Antonio Nuic’, 2009).
With all their differences – rooted in specific social surroundings – all
these films share some common ground. They are far more realistic, narrative-
driven and classical than the key films of the Balkan cinema of the 1990s. It
is wrong to understand this stylistic shift as westernization, or deviating from
an authentic local school. It is quite the opposite, by opting for a classic narra-
tive style these three authors, and many others from post-Yugoslav countries,
question cinematic colonialism. They are searching for the best stylistic tools
that could help them deal with a new, open society and characters who seek
their place within it.

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Samardžija, Z. (2007), ‘Bal-can-can’, Cineaste, 3: 32, New York.
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hrvatskom igranom filmu’, Zapis, Bilten HFS, 64–65, pp. 5–78.
Velisavljevic’, I. (2008), ‘How we loved America: the significance of Rock ‘n’
Roll and American movies in the Serbian film industry’, in M. Vučkovic’
(ed.), Introducing Youth: Self-Reflections on Serbian Cinema, Beograd: Film
Center Serbia, pp. 87–94.
Vojnov, D. (2008), ‘The rise and fall of Serbian pop cinema’, in M. Vučkovic’
(ed.), Introducing Youth: Self-Reflections on Serbian Cinema, Beograd: Film
Center Serbia, pp. 97–114.
Vojkovic’, S. (2008), Filmski medij kao transkulturalni spektakl: Hollywood, Europa,
Azija, Zagreb: Hrvatski filmski savez.
Živkovic’, M. (2007), ‘Cordon’, Cineaste, 3: 32, New York.


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Jurica Pavičic´

Pavičic´, J. (2010), ‘‘Cinema of normalization’: changes of stylistic model in
post-Yugoslav cinema after the 1990s’, Studies in Eastern European Cinema
1: 1, pp. 43–56, doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.43/1

Jurica Pavičic’ is a film critic, screenwriter and filmologist. He is a regular film
critic on the daily newspaper Jutarnji list. He teaches the history of cinema and
the history of Croatian cinema at the University of Split.
Contact: Kneza Višeslava 24, 21 000 Split, Croatia.


SEEC 1.1_2_art_Pavicic_043-056.indd 56 2/16/10 12:28:28 PM

SEEC 1 (1) pp. 57–70 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Eastern European Cinema

Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.57/1

University of Edinburgh

Re-cognizing the post-

Soviet condition: the
documentary turn in
contemporary art
in the Baltic States

Contemporary art in the Baltic States has recently undergone a ‘documentary turn’, post-Soviet condition
part of a global tendency towards the use of documentary aesthetics and formal Baltic States
structures in art. In the Baltic context, this has been the result of a desire amongst contemporary art
artists to both recognize and re-cognize the post-Soviet condition, a subject that was documentary
consciously avoided by most artists in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during the Goba
1990s. Re-cognition has involved an attempt to de-flatten and humanize the post- Norman
Soviet condition, which, although a valid framework for the theoretical discussion Žiura
of Eastern Europe, has a number of shortcomings. This re-cognitive tendency has
derived from a shift from ‘hot’ to ‘cold’ memory, the product of distance and detach-
ment from the Soviet past and the rise of a new generation of artists, who were not
active participants in the Soviet Baltic Republics. Artists have utilized documen-
tary, as well as ethnographic and pedagogical strategies in order to achieve this


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Harry Weeks

1. Although the terms On 11 February 2009, Latvian artist Katrīna Neiburga won the inaugural
‘post-communist’ and
‘post-socialist’ have been
Purvitis Award, bestowed in recognition of the most ‘outstanding achieve-
widely propagated ment in the visual arts’ by a Latvian. She was also nominated for the Ars
by theorists, I shall Fennica prize in 2008, an award won by the Estonian Mark Raidpere.
use the more specific
terminology of the Raidpere represented Estonia at the 2005 ‘Venice Biennale’, an honour that
‘post-Soviet’. This seems in 2009 has gone to Kristina Norman. Norman had previously exhibited as
a more accurate and part of the 2007 exhibition ‘New Wave: Estonian Artists of the 21st Century’,
particularized lexicon
with regard to the Baltic which ran soon before the ‘Biennale of Young Artists: Consequences and
States, due to Estonia, Proposals’ in Tallinn, another exhibition she was involved with. The ‘Biennale
Latvia and Lithuania’s
former status not as
of Young Artists’ also exhibited work by the Lithuanian Gintaras Didžiapetris,
satellite states of the who in 2008 exhibited at the Frac Lorraine gallery in Metz alongside fellow
Soviet Union, as was Lithuanian Deimantas Narkevičius. Narkevičius, together with Raidpere, was
the case with most of
Central and Eastern involved in ‘The Greenroom’, held at the CCS Bard Galleries in New York
Europe, but as Soviet State between 27 September 2008 and 1 February 2009, while Gediminas and
republics within the Nomeda Urbonai exhibited at Okwui Enwezor’s ‘Archive Fever’ show at the
borders of the USSR.
International Center of Photography, also in New York State, earlier in 2008.
The uniting factors between the artists entangled in this Baltic web of
affiliations, associations and achievements are both twofold and inextricably
linked. First, there has existed a willingness amongst artists in the Baltic States
in recent years to engage with questions of post-Sovietism.1 The aforemen-
tioned artists have all, to some degree, participated in this renewed interest
in focusing on subject matter, or utilizing materials, relating to the period of
Soviet occupation or its after-effects in the independent Baltic States. This
tendency demonstrates an acknowledgement of and participation in the dis-
course of a post-Soviet condition. Second, this engagement with the issue of
post-Sovietism has been facilitated by a documentary turn in contemporary
art in the Baltic States.
Edit András, while acknowledging that a standard definition of a post-
Soviet condition has stemmed from a supposed ‘trauma of victory’, proposes
a more appropriate definition in the form of a ‘phenomenon of accumulated
traumas […] that is, a kind of turbulence of unassimilated, unmourned ear-
lier traumas of the socialist past, overshadowed by new traumas of change,
originating in the odd, hybrid transition of the region’ (András 2008).
Demonstrated here is, first, the dual and complex nature of the post-Soviet
condition, rooted both in the socialist past and the capitalist present, and sec-
ond, the central importance of transition. Russian painter Eugeny Fiks also
highlights transition, in the form of the ‘turbulence of the 1990s and early
2000s’, as a formative factor of the post-Soviet condition (Fiks 2007). The final
facet of the post-Soviet condition is that of placelessness, a result of the post-
Soviet subject moving from one reality, socialism, to an antithetical and novel
other reality, capitalism. This sudden shift necessitated a transitional and
consolidatory period during which a place within this capitalist system could
be found. Vardan Azatyan compared the post-Soviet reality to an ‘unknown
place where every moment the post-Soviet man appears in a new and alien
situation for him’ (Azatyan 2004).
Recent literature on this subject has largely attempted to question the
characterization, validity and effect of this framework and its definition. Boris
Groys (2008) states in his article ‘Beyond Diversity’ that

Cultural Studies has […] some fundamental difficulties in describing and

theorizing the post-Communist condition. And, frankly, I do not believe
that a simple adjustment of the theoretical framework and vocabulary of


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Re-cognizing the post-Soviet condition

cultural studies to the realities of Eastern Europe – without reconsidera- 2. When using the term
‘documentary’ in this
tion of some of the discipline’s fundamental presuppositions – would article I wish to invoke
be sufficient to enable its discourse to describe and discuss the post- the phrase ‘aesthetics
Communist reality. and formal structures of
the documentary’. By
(Groys 2008: 149) doing so I am implying
that the documentary
turn in art does not
Groys’s demand for a reconfiguration of the framework for the discussion of entail a turn towards
post-Soviet culture has been echoed elsewhere, particularly by artists them- the documentary genre,
selves, either in their work or in writings. Fiks implores that ‘the post-Soviet rather a turn towards
an adoption of some of
artist must inject “post-communist”, “post-socialist” and “post-Soviet” with its aesthetic and formal
a new criticality. We must not forget that these terms are still open to nego- properties.
tiation’ (Fiks 2007). Indeed, the only concrete designation of these words is
a temporal one, locating them in reference to the previous political system.
Thus there is room for them to be expanded upon, questioned and critiqued.
One such criticism has been that by differentiating the analysis of Eastern
European culture from that of other geographies, the otherness and separa-
tion of Eastern Europe will continue and be deepened. This perceived restric-
tive aspect of a specifically post-Soviet framework for the discussion of art
from the region has resulted in a reticence, especially evident in the art of the
1990s in the Baltic States, to acknowledge or partake in debates relating to the
post-Soviet condition, which has, in more recent artworks from the region,
diminished significantly.
The second aspect of commonality the artists mentioned at the outset
share is the manner in which they have approached post-Soviet subjects and
the tactics used in the investigation of this post-Soviet condition. Baltic art-
ists have variously used found news footage, attempted to infiltrate and alter
the news themselves, created installations documenting political protests,
documented the contents of women’s handbags and created anthropological
documentary films dealing with subcommunities and minorities. These are
but a few of the examples of a documentary turn in Baltic art, characterized
by a widespread adoption of the aesthetics and formal structures of the docu-
mentary, and a willingness to locate, modify, utilize and create documents as
an integral constituent of the artistic process.2
The shift towards the documentary in the Baltic States can – and must – be
viewed within the wider contexts of a global documentary turn in art in recent
years. Two previously alluded-to exhibitions, ‘The Greenroom’ and ‘Archive
Fever’, as well as the recent incarnations of ‘Documenta’ and the 2005 show
‘The Need to Document’, embody the increased currency of the documen-
tary mode within the contemporary art environment. Importantly to the cur-
rent discussion, this documentary turn can be characterized by an increased
involvement by artists ‘not just in storytelling, but more specifically in history-
telling’ (Roelstraete 2008: 69).
There is an apparently obvious distinction between the story and the his-
tory, the former locating itself within the realm of the subjective, the latter
engaging with the objective. However, it has been argued extensively that the
documentary form, despite its propensity for history-telling and emphasis on
subduing the subjective, is by no means a purely objective mode. Indeed, his-
tory-telling itself cannot be conclusively equated to objectivity. Both history-
telling and the documentary rely on the document, a necessarily fragmentary
object, as their point of departure and, in order to tell a history, a process of
selection is required, thus eliminating the possibility for an entirely objective
relaying of history. This impossibility of true objectivity, when juxtaposed with


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Harry Weeks

3. Definition or the documentary tendency to subdue the subjective, is the root of great deal
characterization of
the nature of the
of criticism of the documentary mode and has been extensively discussed as
documentary mode has the fundamental problematic of the documentary form, both in art and other
also been attempted contexts.
by Michael Renov
(1993: 12–36) and Documentary theorist Bill Nichols provides perhaps the most useful guide-
Carl Plantinga (2005: lines for the examination of the documentary in the form of five adjectives
105–17). However, which inform the documentary mode in all its manifestations: ‘expository,
Plantinga’s theories of
the documentary as observational, poetic, participatory, reflexive and performative’ (Plantinga
‘indexical record’ and 2005: 105). This framework for the discussion of the documentary acknowl-
‘assertion’, and Renov’s
quartet of tendencies
edges the objective/subjective duality of documentary, placing performance
to record, persuade, on a par with exposition as one of the defining characteristics of the form.
analyse and express, Nichols’s characterization is pertinent throughout this article, and should be
both lack sufficient
acknowledgement of the kept in mind whenever the documentary form is mentioned.3
performative aspect of The two aspects of commonality amongst the aforementioned artists
the documentary, which in the Baltic States – a dialogue with the notion of a post-Soviet condition
seems especially relevant
in the contexts of the and a documentary turn – are fundamentally linked in current art practice in
films discussed here. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The tendency towards Soviet or post-Soviet
4. Taking the prefix ‘re-’ to history-telling has been facilitated by the documentary mode, the qualities –
indicate repetition and and indeed problematics – of which have been harnessed by artists in the
the stem deriving from
the Latin cognoscere, Baltic States. Thus the documentary turn in the Baltic field can be viewed
meaning ‘to know’, as a means, while what I wish to characterize as both a recognition and,
‘re-cognition’ suggests
an act of knowing
more importantly, a re-cognition of the post-Soviet condition has been the
once more, rather than end.4 This article will aim to demonstrate and analyse the documentary turn
simply realizing and and re-cognition of the post-Soviet condition by looking at recent documen-
acknowledging –
the two fundamental tary works by Kristina Norman, Kaspars Goba and Darius Žiura. Through
qualities of recognition. the examination of their work, I shall demonstrate two forms of re-cognition
One may further expand attempted by artists: de-flattening and ‘humanization’.5 I also wish to eluci-
on this more complex
definition by noting that date the nature of this particular Baltic documentary turn, by highlighting the
‘cognition’ denotes not use of ethnographic and pedagogical tactics in the works in question.
just knowing, but the
process of knowing, thus
‘re-cognition’ can be
a process.
One particularly prevalent current within art in the Baltic States since the
5. The term ‘de-flattening’
was originally formulated
turn of the twenty-first century has been a conscious concern with micro-
and defined by communities, minorities, diasporas and sub-groups, a tendency which has
Wu Hung (2007: heavily employed the documentary form’s ‘expository’ quality. This represents
259–61) in his paper
‘De-flattening “Regional” the first tactic of re-cognition that I wish to discuss, a de-flattening of the
Contemporary Art’. post-Soviet condition.
Post-socialist Europe – in particular those areas that were formerly Soviet
republics – has been subject to a number of both global and local circum-
stances which have led to the existence of such communities, the most nota-
ble of which has been the mass intra-USSR migration, which took place
during the years of Soviet occupation of the Baltic States. The 2000 census
in Estonia recorded an ethnic Russian population of 351,178, more than 25%
of the total population of the country (Eesti Statistiken 2008). And in Riga,
Russians outnumber Latvians by 43.5% to 41.5% (Central Statistical Bureau
of Latvia 2002). The imposition of borders upon a formerly unified political
entity cannot give rise to an ethnically singular nation state, as has been most
aptly demonstrated by the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. This
example also made clear the potential conflict and unease this can give rise to,
especially when one group is perceived to have been an aggressor or occupier
under a previous regime. This has also very much been the case in the Baltic


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Re-cognizing the post-Soviet condition

States, and has been the source of interest amongst artists in the region, most 6. More information on the
precise status of ‘non-
notably those working in the documentary mode. citizens’ in Latvia can
The Latvian documentary film-maker and artist Kaspars Goba and be found in Cabinet of
Estonian Kristina Norman are two such examples. Goba’s Seda: People of the Ministers of the Republic
of Latvia (1997).
Marsh (2004) (from here referred to simply as Seda) and Norman’s Pribalts
(2006) are both video works in a documentary mode observing subcommuni-
ties and minorities in post-Soviet Europe. Their focus on such subject mat-
ter represents a conscious and concerted effort to destabilize and de-flatten
perception of the post-Soviet condition through the exposition of anomalies,
contradictions and complexities hidden behind a veneer of supposed homo-
geneity and uniformity in Eastern Europe. The overt socio-political aspect of
the two films suggests that there is a pedagogical as well as a documentary
element present, the artists acting not simply as documenters, but as ‘inform-
ants’, intentionally locating their works within the field of knowledge produc-
tion (Verwoert 2008: 77).
Seda is an hour-long film, in which Goba documents the inhabitants of the
town of Seda in northern Latvia over the course of several months leading up
to the referendum on Latvian EU integration in 2004. Seda was constructed in
the 1950s by the USSR in the architectural style referred to by Goba as ‘Stalin’s
Classicism’. It was built to house workers on a newly established peat-mining
project, making use of the huge peat resources in the marshes that make up
the area around the Latvian–Estonian border. Workers were brought from
across the Soviet Union to live in the town and work on the marshes. Train
lines were built to connect this previously uninhabited and remote corner of
Latvia with the rest of the USSR; however, the sheer distance and difficulty
involved in reaching the town led to an isolated and independent community
emerging. The fall of Sovietism in the Baltic States between 1989 and 1991 led
to many inhabitants leaving, but some remained, and Seda is still populated
with a vast array of nationalities, ethnicities and cultures, only a small minority
being Latvian. Goba notes that the people of Seda refer to themselves as the
‘sixteenth republic of the USSR’. The town is a remnant of this bygone past,
most of the inhabitants being ‘non-citizens’, people of non-Latvian descent
living in Latvia but without full citizenship.6 They speak Russian, and only
at official ceremonies and national holidays are proceedings carried out in
Latvian by the mayor, who herself speaks Russian as her first language.
Goba notes that little has changed as a result of Latvian independence in
the manner in which everyday life is conducted. Not only have language and
culture been preserved but the technology and routine of work have remained
largely unaltered by the passing of the Soviet Union. The major change has
been the diminishing of funding and investment in infrastructure. A scene
late in the film shows a derailed train, with the tracks beneath it sinking into
the marsh, the sleepers long having rotted away. This is a town that has
been ‘willingly forgotten by the re-established independent state’ (Traumane
Kaspars Goba frames the film around the upcoming referendum on EU
integration, an event which most of the town, as ‘non-citizens’, are not per-
mitted to participate in. The general consensus though is one of trepida-
tion over entry into Europe. Many of the inhabitants relay their affiliation to
Russia, saying that they do not feel European, some saying that they do not
even feel Latvian. Goba himself grew up in the town, one of the few Latvians
in this enclave of Soviet diversity. He indeed begins the film by revealing this
personal connection to the subject matter. The film itself is professionally


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Harry Weeks

7. A detailed report produced, with a linear, chronological narrative, cinematic shots of marsh and
of the surrounding
circumstances and events
machinery and English narration. It intersperses interviews with the people of
of ‘Bronze Day’ can be the town with footage of everyday life.
found in Kaasik (2006). Norman’s Pribalts is altogether less slick and professional, shot on a hand-
held camera by the artist. The camerawork is shaky, the sound muffled and
the footage grainy, with no narration and little discernable narrative. Rather,
the film is structured thematically, dealing with concepts of European integra-
tion, citizenship, identity, migration, diaspora, language and culture. The film
documents Norman’s journey to find her old classmates from her time at a
Russian school in Tallinn during the late 1980s. Norman herself is half-Russian
and half-Estonian, thus exists in a state of ‘being fluent in both Russian and
Estonian and being part of both communities – and of neither at the same
time’ (Wiarda 2008: 125). The film was shot shortly before the ‘Bronze Day’
riots in Tallinn, in which Russian and Estonian youths clashed and looted over
the removal of a statue in the town centre commemorating Soviet soldiers
of the Second World War, and thus gained significant exposure in the after-
math of this event.7 Another of her works, Monolith (2007) focuses explicitly
on ‘Bronze Day’.
Most of the film is centred on Norman’s trip to Moscow to meet the actor
Seryozha Shchedrin, with whom she went to school. He left Tallinn to pursue
his acting career but states that his goal is to return to Tallinn as a star and
to reinvigorate the Estonian theatre scene. He discusses his lack of any need
to speak Estonian, indeed the only people she meets who have learned the
language and deploy it at all are those who work in Tallinn as lawyers and other
public jobs where it is required. Shchedrin also states that he feels Russian,
Estonian and European, and does not have any desire or need to close off his
identity with any more precise pigeon-holing. Others seem less sure of their
identity, while Norman herself, in her inquisitive and occasionally provocative
interrogatory style, seems particularly dislocated and unsure of her place.
Soon after her arrival in Moscow, Norman is caught in a underground
train accident in which one of the foundation posts of an under-construction
advertising hoarding is driven through the roof of the travelling train she is
on. The footage she shoots of the aftermath of the accident, in which there
no injuries, it should be pointed out, appears not only in Pribalts but was
also bought by the Russian TV networks for their news reports. Norman and
Shchedrin are interviewed on television and are utilized by the networks as
the ‘human faces’ of the incident. Norman then in turn uses this news footage
in her own film. She switches momentarily from interviewer to interviewee.
One of the primary aspects of the theoretical negotiation of the post-
Soviet condition has been a questioning of its flattening effect. In applying
one framework across the entire geopolitical space of Eastern Europe, think-
ing surrounding the subject serves to subdue and hide difference, variation
and exceptions. This flattening aspect can, in part, be viewed as the reason
behind the reluctance to engage in discussion of the post-Soviet condition by
artists in the Baltic States during the 1990s. The choice to focus on subcom-
munities which exist as anomalies within their Eastern European contexts can
be seen as an attempt at de-flattening the post-Soviet condition by introduc-
ing nuances that question the uniformity of post-Soviet Europe. This de-
flattening is the re-cognitive aspect of both Pribalts and Seda.
Pat Simpson, in her 2004 essay ‘Peripheralising Patriarchy: Gender and
Identity in Post-Soviet Art’, discussed notions of East and West in relation
to identity formation in contemporary art in Eastern Europe. Central to her


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Re-cognizing the post-Soviet condition

argument is the term ‘imagined geographies’, which she uses to describe

these geographical distinctions (Simpson 2004: 393). The Lithuanian poet
Tomas Venclova states that, ‘all of Central and Eastern Europe, seen from the
West, appeared grey and monolithic, an expanse bristling with missiles and
secret police, a monotonous wasteland, a great Nowhere’ (Venclova 2006).
This touches on a number of stereotypes of Eastern Europe, formed predomi-
nantly during the Cold War, and relating to the supposed backward, milita-
ristic and dour nature of ‘The East’. Of particular note here, however, is the
fact that these stereotypes are of the entire region, and there is no suggestion
of local variation. This single conception of an entire region demonstrates the
existence of a flattened Eastern Europe as an imagined geography that has
outlived the Cold War and its political East/West divide.
Norman’s presentation of conflicting and confused identities, as well as
the focus on linguistic and cultural differences between Estonia and Russia,
subverts any notion of a unified whole in Eastern Europe, which can be
treated with a singular framework for discussion and analysis. Likewise, in
Seda, Goba presents an alternative to the idea of a ‘New Europe’ willing to
ingratiate and integrate themselves into such bodies as the European Union,
by demonstrating the fear and reluctance in parts of Latvia to aligning them-
selves westwards, when the inhabitants of Seda feel far more affinity towards
their eastern neighbours. Thus, if the notion of a homogeneous, flat Eastern
European entity is false, then a similarly uniform post-Soviet condition is fun-
damentally flawed. Norman and Goba utilize the documentary as an exposi-
tory tool to assert the falsity of a flattened Eastern Europe and post-Soviet
condition, re-cognizing and de-flattening both concepts in the process.

Norman’s and Goba’s concerted efforts at a re-cognition of the post-Soviet
condition are achieved not simply through documentary means, but through
a pedagogical engagement of the viewer. Jan Verwoert has commented that
‘artists are treated as informants and one expects to learn through their art
things about the situation in their country of origin’ (Verwoert 2005: 77). The
exposition of the untold histories of the subcommunities in question, and
the resultant re-theorization of the post-Soviet condition exhibit this status
of the artist as informant in Pribalts and Seda. The Estonian writer and critic
Johannes Saar comments on the same point in a slightly more withering man-
ner: ‘the emphasis is on conceptual, critical and social art that would also be
internationally convertible. Sounds like a good business plan’ (Saar 2007: 4).
It would be my assertion, however, that international convertibility is not a
business plan, although there is a lively debate to the contrary, rather a tool to
facilitate a pedagogy within art. The audience of contemporary art is no longer
necessarily localized but globalized and as such there has emerged a ‘globally
comprehensible visual language’ of which the documentary is an established
component (Verwoert 2005: 77). Norman and Goba are not simply addressing
their own compatriots, or even others in the Baltic States or Eastern Europe,
their pedagogical efforts extend to this globalized audience.
Carles Guerra’s article ‘Negatives of Europe: Video Essays and Collective
Pedagogies’ discusses the work of Ursula Biemann and Angela Melitopoulos
within a pedagogical framework. His theorization of the subject seems emi-
nently relevant in the discussion of Norman and Goba as well. He states that
‘rather than merely narrating events, they [Biemann and Melitopoulos]


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Harry Weeks

8. Norman states that, generate knowledge about them in which information and opinion deliber-
‘here I see a difference
between the artist and
ately overlap’ (Guerra 2008: 146). While there is a far less overt expression of
the journalist. I am not opinion in Seda and Pribalts than the works discussed by Guerra, their funda-
claiming I get the truth. mental trait is knowledge generation through exposition. In the act of exhib-
I can play around with
reality as well. I can iting or screening their re-cognitions of the post-Soviet condition, they are
document it at a distance exposing the viewer to a previously unknown subject and untold history, and
and I can interfere’ thereby generating knowledge through what Guerra refers to as a ‘collective
(Norman, Ladõnskaja,
Muravskaja and Siib pedagogy’ (Guerra 2008: 145).
2008: 23). The overlap between information and opinion discussed by Guerra is an
area of complexity when discussing the documentary form. Guerra is dealing
with the video essay, a purposefully subjective medium. A more strict defini-
tion of the documentary, as stated previously, subdues the subjective and thus
suppresses the possibility for argument or opinion. The documentary form,
especially within an artistic context, is far more complex than this suggests,
and there is an invariable subjectivity amidst all documentary practice thanks
to human intervention in the documentary process; framing shots, editing,
interviews and even choosing subject matter are necessarily subjective inter-
ventions. As Pascale Cassagnau comments, ‘The concept of the documentary
[…] stands in relation to a point of view, an attitude’ (Cassagnau 2005: 167).
Thus while Norman and Goba may not present an argument in the same sense
as Melitpoulos and Biemann, there is certainly a point of view present. The
four interventions mentioned above are in evidence in Norman’s and Goba’s
works, especially in Pribalts, where Norman herself is as central a player in
her film as any, and it is in these interventions that the pedagogical agenda
of the artist is located. It is here that the artist can exert a subjectivity onto the
documentary and draw a pedagogical strand from the subject matter.8


Parallel – and inextricably linked – to the attempt among artists in the Baltic
States to de-flatten the notion of the post-Soviet condition, there has been a
widespread effort towards its ‘humanization’ (Enwezor 2008: 81). The flatten-
ing aspect of a pan-Eastern European discourse not only serves to disguise
cultural or national difference, but also individual difference. The specifics
of the individual are routinely overpowered by the sheer weight of theory
diagnosing a more macroscopic condition, resulting in a lack within theory
surrounding the post-Soviet condition of what Enwezor describes, in his dis-
cussion of identity politics, as ‘our sense of “humanity”’ (Enwezor 2008: 81).
One response amongst contemporary artists in the Baltic States has been to
adopt the lexicon and methodology of ethnography, leading to a recurrence of
the ‘artist as ethnographer’ paradigm (Foster 1995).
Darius Žiura’s film series Gustoniai (2003–07), like Goba’s Seda, is based
around the return of the artist to his home town. Gustoniai is a village in rural
Lithuania, and Žiura’s project of the same name sees the artist visiting every
two years to take 60 one-minute video portraits of the inhabitants of the vil-
lage. These portraits are still, posed and silent. The subjects are documented
outside their houses, or at work, or in the street, but always unmoving and
mute. A large proportion of those filmed are elderly, a result of the migration
of youths to the urban centres of Lithuania, and some of those people we see
in Gustoniai I (2003) reappear in Gustoniai II (2005) and Gustoniai III (2007)
visibly aged, but once again silent and still. Žiura’s treatment of the subject


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Re-cognizing the post-Soviet condition

in these films is absolutely dry and methodical, almost scientific and clinical
in the precise 60-second duration of each portrait. And by returning every
two years and performing the same ritual, the films seem more ethnographic
study than video artwork.
Hal Foster has popularized the theoretical location of ‘the artist as eth-
nographer’. In order for this paradigm to be applicable to the Baltic States,
some clarification must be made regarding the differentiation between the
fields of anthropology and ethnography. Tim Ingold notes in his paper enti-
tled ‘Anthropology is Not Ethnography’ that

it has become commonplace […] for writers […] to treat the two as vir-
tually equivalent, exchanging anthropology for ethnography more or
less on a whim, as the mood takes them, or even exploiting the sup-
posed synonymy as a stylistic device to avoid verbal repetition.
(Ingold 2008: 69)

Ingold proposes a disparity between the two based on objective and meth-
odology, a proposition I shall subscribe to here. First he asserts that ‘the
objective of anthropology is to seek a generous, comparative but nevertheless
critical understanding of human being and knowing in the one world we all
inhabit. The object of ethnography is to describe the lives of people other than
ourselves’ (Ingold 2008: 69). This discrepancy in objectives is based on inclu-
sivity. While anthropologists view themselves as a part of the subject of their
investigation, the ethnographer remains external from the subject. There is a
necessary process of othering intrinsic to ethnography, which is not present
in anthropology.
Second, the methodology of ethnography is based on the documentation
of ‘particular facts of past and present lives’ through ‘direct observation of
living people (Ingold 2008: 70). Anthropology may utilize this ethnographic
approach as a means towards its end, but the anthropologist seeks ‘general
propositions or theoretical statements’, moving from the ‘particular facts’ to
the ‘general, the general to the more general and ultimately to the universal’
(Ingold 2008: 70). Again, anthropology’s search for the universal encompasses
the anthropologist within his or her own propositions and statements.
In Žiura’s work there exists a strange contradiction of intimacy and dis-
tance. On the one hand, the fact that the artist returns every two years to take
new video footage and the same figures recur, two years older than their initial
appearance, creates a level of familiarity and association with the subjects. On
the other hand, however, there is an intense awareness of the medium once
again. The one-minute-long, silent and unmoving portraits appear forced and
unnatural, and the power relations between documenter and documented
become hugely apparent. Jan Verwoert states that ‘curiously, photographers
always remain alien to the site of the shot. Even if they happen to own it or
be in a familiar place, the act of taking the photograph turns them into visi-
tors’ (Verwoert 2008: 202). The simple presence of the camera creates a power
relationship in which whosoever is in possession of the camera also has the
potential to distribute and publish their documentation, whereas the docu-
mented has no power over the document.
In relation to Ingold’s first point, I wish to argue that the relations between
artist and subject – for example, Goba’s and Žiura’s use of their home towns –
demonstrate a degree of inclusivity, suggesting that these works are perhaps
more anthropological in character. However, this inherent othering quality of


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Harry Weeks

the lens precludes the possibility for total inclusivity. There is a power hier-
archy between documenter and documented, which overrides any relations
the artist may have to the subject. It is important to keep in mind the connec-
tion between artist and subject in these works however, as this represents a
shift from the almost colonial character of the ethnographic tendency Foster
discusses. He focuses on the Western artist generally finding a subject who
is both ‘the cultural and/or ethnic other’ and ‘socially oppressed, politically
transformative, and/or materially productive’ (Foster 1995: 302). In the work
of Žiura and Goba particularly the artist is acting as ethnographer of their
own community and their own condition. This represents an almost ‘self-
colonizing’ aspect of the works, which Chari and Verdery comment upon as
a potential path for the future of an ethnographic field devoid of postcolonial
associations. They state that ‘post-Cold War ethnography could build upon
work by “natives”, analysts of their own condition, on their own terms’ (Chari
and Verdery 2009: 29).
Ingold’s contrasting of the particularity of ethnography and the universal-
ity of anthropology also points one towards the use of the ethnographic as
a framework for the examination of these works. There is little attempt to
draw from the microcosmic studies of these artworks any grand narratives or
generalizations, indeed it is the particularity of the studies that introduce a
‘humanizing’ quality to the post-Soviet condition. Enwezor discusses the use
in contemporary art practice of ‘images that appeal to our sense of “human-
ity” or categorically reinvest the condition of the human with contingency’
(Enwezor 2008: 81). The lingering minute-long portrayals of the people of
Gustoniai, people who are otherwise invisible to the viewer of the work of art
in whichever international gallery it is exhibited in, allow the viewer to discern
the nuances of facial expression, nervous movements of the eyes and mouth
of the documented subjects. These indicators of ‘humanity’ are obscured by
the homogeneity and generalization of the post-Soviet condition, and this
exposition of hidden ‘humanity’ ‘invites viewers to invest interest and take on
responsibility’ (Verwoert 2008: 198).
Calzadilla and Marcus note that the ethnographic tendency in art differs
from the traditional field of ethnography in that ‘the outcome is not a work of
analysis or a representation, but a peculiar sort of chronotope’ (Calzadilla and
Marcus 2006: 97). Gustoniai, with its dry, unmediated presentation delivers
to the viewer this chronotope, a simple presentation of the people of a time
and space – the two words that comprise the Greek etymology of the word
‘chronotope’. The artist allows the viewer to analyse or to feel responsibility,
but does not engage in these activities himself.


The dual rise of art dealing with post-Soviet issues and utilizing documentary
forms and aesthetics has been a relatively swift and recent process. Of the
works discussed here as exemplars of the documentary turn the earliest dates
from 2003 and there is little artistic output in the Baltic States that conforms
to the assertions of this article previous to this. The most fundamental reason
for this turn towards the documentary can be located simply by looking at the
issues of memory and generation.
A recent issue of Third Text (2009), guest edited by Reuben Fowkes, insti-
gator of the SocialEast forum for discussion of Soviet and post-Soviet art,


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Re-cognizing the post-Soviet condition

dealt with the importance of memory in relation to this field. One current that 9. It should be pointed out
that age is by no means
recurs throughout the various articles in the journal was the notion of ‘genera- the exclusive determinant
tional difference’, and the effect age and experience has on memory and asso- for participation within
ciation with historical issues. At a rather simplistic level, but of great import a particular generation.
Experience and attitude
nonetheless, an artist who was 30 years old in 1995 would have lived under are the fundamental
Soviet rule for around 25 years thus would probably have studied and worked determinants, and there
in a socialist system. For someone who was 30 in 2005, this number is lowered is nothing preventing
artists of any age being
to 15 years, thus largely discounting the possibility of both work and extended considered part of a
study during the years of Soviet occupation (Arns and Wettengl 2006: 13). generation. The speed
of the transition from
This basic distinction serves as the most fundamental example of the effect of socialism to capitalism
generation in a transitional situation. One’s experience is informed partly by and the attendant
one’s age, and therefore memory and the manner in which the artist looks at changes this brought
with it does, however,
the issues of Sovietism and post-Sovietism are also informed thus.9 increase the significance
Fowkes asserts that this is also the case within academia, noting ‘the more of age in the context
dispassionate approach of younger researchers who find it easier to main- of the Baltic States in
comparison with most
tain a critical distance from the turbulent history of art during the Cold War’ other situations.
(Fowkes 2009: 3). It is this critical distance that has allowed the recognition
and re-cognition of post-Soviet subject matter in contemporary art practice as
well as theory. For artists who have lived for a substantial time under socialist
rule ‘the past represented […] a former present’ (Szczerski 2009: 87). Artists
for whom this is not the case can view the past in more detached terms as
simply a history to be told. Those artists of a later generation can thus main-
tain a ‘distance which is not about morality but about detachment in reflect-
ing, in seeing your “own” place’ (Milovac and Stipancic 2002: 45). The ‘own
place’ of these artists is one of a non-active involvement with Sovietism, and
from this emerges the willingness to engage with the subject matter without
the baggage of personal experience.
It is key to note that the unifying factors between artists collectively con-
stituting a generation are ‘common experiences and a shared social context
rather than […] any unifying aesthetic platforms’ (Epner 2007: 7). Thus, when
discussing the pool of artists who are currently operating within a documen-
tary tendency, it is inaccurate to group them in terms of their artistic idiom.
Instead their shared thematic and aesthetic agenda is the result of their ‘com-
mon experiences and shared social context’, which derive from their genera-
tion and thus their personal relationship to Sovietism. Kristina Norman’s own
personal history of socialism, as related in Pribalts, is not one founded on
state politics, rather it is based on her school days and the social implica-
tions of ‘Russianness’ in Estonia. Indeed the main focus of her film is not of
Russianness in Soviet-era Estonia but during the period after independence,
thus the subject matter is truly post-Soviet.
Hedvig Turai, in an article discussing statue parks in Hungary and
Lithuania (2009), relates these reminiscences of socialism in terms of a duality
of memory:

this living relationship to the past is hot. In contrast to this, cold mem-
ory is frozen, the past remembered in a cold way is closed, is not kept
open, not worked through […] hot memory raises emotions […] cold
memory is more neutral, more forgiving.
(Turai 2009: 99)

Time, and therefore distance, generation and experience, have diminished

the heat of memory in the Baltic States with regard to Soviet occupation. The


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Harry Weeks

immediate aftermath of independence may have been tempered with emo-

tional, hot memory or ‘living memory’, but this has over time given way to
the more neutral cold memory. It is the distance and detachment that cold
memory provides that has given rise to the re-cognition of the post-Soviet
condition in contemporary art in the Baltic States, and by extension, a docu-
mentary turn.

Thanks to Kai Kaljo, Anders Härm, Hanno Soans, Mark Raidpere, The
CCAE Tallinn (Johannes Saar and Andreas Trossek), Rael Artel, Anneli
Porri, Heie Treier, LCCA Riga (Ieva Astahovska, Elīna Hermansone), Eglė
Rakauskaitė, The CAIC Vilnius (Eglė Mikalajunaitė, Dovilė Tumpytė and Lolita
Jablonskienė), Tulips and Roses Gallery (Jonas), Elena Narbutaitė, Liudvikas
Buklys, Gallerie Jan Mot, GB Agency, CAC Vilnius (Valentinas Klimašauskas),
Jon Blackwood, Carla Easton, Kirsten Lloyd, Richard Williams and especially
Angela Dimitrakaki. Without their assistance, this project would not have
been possible.

András, E. (2008), ‘An agent still at work: The trauma of collective memory of
the socialist past’, Springerin, 3/08, Accessed
16 August 2009.
Arns, I. and Wettengl, K. (2006), Face the Unexpected: Media Art from Estonia,
Latvia and Lithuania, Dortmund: Revolver.
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Buck-Morss, S. (2006), ‘The Post-Soviet Condition’, in IRWIN (ed.), East Art
Map, London: The MIT Press, pp. 494–99.
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Legislation of Latvia,
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Anthropology’, in A. Schneider and C. Wright (eds), Contemporary Art
and Anthropology, Oxford: Berg, pp. 95–116.
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Postsocialism, and Ethnography after the Cold War’, Comparative Studies
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the Figure of “Truth” in Contemporary Art’, in M. Lind and H. Steyerl
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Epner, E. (2007), ‘A Dispersed Generation’, in A. Härm and H. Soans (eds),
New Wave: Essays, Tallinn: Tallinn Art Hall, pp. 7–8.


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Fiks, E. (2007), ‘Responsibilities of the Post-Soviet Artist’,

Accessed 12 August 2009.
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(eds), The Traffic in Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press,
pp. 302–09.
Fowkes, R. (2009), ‘Introduction’, Third Text, 23: 1, pp. 1–4.
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Other’, in B. Groys (ed.), Art Power, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,
pp. 149–64.
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Pedagogies’, in M. Lind and H. Steyerl (eds), The Greenroom: Reconsidering
the Documentary and Contemporary Art, New York: Sternberg Press,
pp. 145–64.
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Timezone 8.
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Academy, 154, pp. 69–92.
Kaasik, P. (2006), ‘Common grave for and a memorial to Red Army soldiers
on Tõnismägi, Tallinn’,
army_memorial.pdf. Accessed on 23 August 2009.
Milovac, T. and Stipancic, B. (2002), The Baltic Times: Contemporary Art from
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Zagreb: Museum of Contemporary Art.
Norman, K., Ladõnskaja, V., Muravskaja, T. and Siib, L. (2008), ‘I constantly
feel as if I am some sort of Michael Jackson’, Estonian Art, 1/2, p. 23.
Pearce, G. (2008), ‘Is It Art?’, in G. Pearce and C. McLaughlin (eds), Truth or
Dare: Art and Documentation, Bristol: Intellect, pp. 81–90.
Plantinga, C. (2005), ‘What a Documentary Is, After All’, The Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 63: 2, pp. 105–17.
Renov, M. (1993), ‘Toward a Poetics of Documentary’, in M. Renov (ed.),
Theorizing Documentary, New York: Routledge, pp. 12–36.
Roelstraete, D. (2008), ‘The Repeat Function: Deimantas Narkevič ius and
Memory’, in The Unanimous Life, Madrid: Reina Sofía, pp. 69–80.
Saar, J. (2007), ‘New Wave, Old Shores’, in A. Härm and H. Soans (eds), New
Wave: Essays, Tallinn: Tallinn Art Hall, pp. 3–5.
Simpson, P. (2004), ‘Peripheralising Patriarchy? Gender and Identity in
Post-Soviet Art: A View from the West’, Oxford Art Journal, 27: 3,
pp. 389–415.
Szczerski, A. (2009), ‘Why the PRL now? Translations of Memory in
Contemporary Polish Art’, Third Text, 23: 1, pp. 85–96.
Traumane, M. (2008), ‘Kaspars Goba: Don’t Worry, Be Curious!’, http://www. Accessed on 16 July 2009.
Turai, H. (2009), ‘Past Unmastered: Hot and Cold Memory in Hungary’, Third
Text, 23: 1, pp. 97–106.
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org/2006/06_1_04%20Venclova.htm. Accessed 20 April 2009.
Verwoert, J. (2005), ‘The Expanded Working Field of Documentary Practice’,
in V. Havránek, S. Schaschl-Cooper and B. Steinbrügge (eds), The Need to
Document, Zürich: JRP Ringier, pp. 77–83.
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Harry Weeks

Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art, New York: Sternberg

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Weeks, H. (2010), ‘Re-cognizing the post-Soviet condition: the documentary
turn in contemporary art in the Baltic States’, Studies in Eastern European
Cinema 1: 1, pp. 57–70, doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.57/1

Harry Weeks recently completed an M.Sc. by Research in History of Art at
the University of Edinburgh, achieving a distinction. The focus of his studies
was contemporary art in the Baltic States and his dissertation was entitled
‘Re-cognising the post-Soviet condition: the document in contemporary art in
the Baltic States’. He has just begun his Ph.D. study, also in Edinburgh, exam-
ining the transformation of community in contemporary art. He has presented
papers on Eastern European visual culture at conferences in Edinburgh and
St Andrews.
Contact: University of Edinburgh, History of Art, School of Arts, Culture
and Environment, Minto House, 20 Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JZ,


SEEC 1.1_2_art_Weeks_057-070.indd 70 2/16/10 12:34:29 PM

SEEC 1 (1) pp. 71–84 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Eastern European Cinema

Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.71/1

University of Zagreb

Revolution, cinema,
painting: creative
recycling of images
in the films of Tom
Gotovac (Antonio Lauer)

Tomislav/Tom Gotovac (Antonio Lauer), one of the leading Croatian conceptual Tomislav Gotovac
and multimedia artists, successfully recycles visual images in his recent films, experimental cinema
as demonstrated in the best works of his more recent opus. By using stills and editing
inserts from his own films and from films important for him or his art (e.g. conceptual art
films by George Stevens, Lazar Stojanovic’, the Vasiliev brothers), but also from images
famous paintings (by Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo) and popular songs, Gotovac’s genre
films (Tomislav Gotovac, Dead Man Walking, Proroci) transcend the borders
of cinema as much as his performances and exhibitions transcend borders of
every medium of artistic creation. However, certain general questions are raised
by such artistic procedure: broadly speaking, today’s conceptual art is institu-
tionalized in some sort of artistic ‘genre’ and Gotovac/Lauer seems to be a true
master of that genre.


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Nikica Gilic‘


based on a presentation
made at the conference Croatian conceptual artist Tomislav (Tom) Gotovac, the author of numerous
Representation’ (Szeged,
exhibitions and performances, is usually credited for being one of the most
Hungary, 2005). prominent authors of ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’ film in Croatia and one
2. Since the majority of its most radically modernist directors. Born in Sombor (Serbia/Yugoslavia)
of Croats declare in 1937, in 2005 Gotovac officially changed his name to Antonio Lauer, tem-
themselves as Roman
Catholics, HDZ, the
porarily using the middle initial ‘G’ (this name change is just one example of
anti-communist ruling his self-referential conceptual art).
party, built close ties with From the very beginning of his career in the early 1960s, Gotovac concen-
the Vatican (itself quite
willing to establish close trated on changing the definition of the artist prevalent in Yugoslav socialist
ties to all anti-communist society. Crossing the boundaries between several types of visual, audio-visual
governments). and performing arts, this pioneer of conceptual art in Zagreb has very often
used the imagery of ‘revolutionary’ (communist) ideology in order to chal-
lenge aesthetic and other social norms. In the 1990s, Gotovac’s films became
more frequently structured around recycling his previous artistic experience,
which often includes the political imagery of the past.
As art historian Ješa Denegri (2003: 268) points out, ‘film is crucial for
Gotovac’s work as a whole, […] he was […] primarily brought up and formed
on film […] film is not only a basic thread but [the] leading thread (of his
work)’. In the same article, Denegri also discusses the way in which Gotovac’s
cinematic influences (Hawks, Hitchcock, Dreyer, etc.) govern his work in the
medium of photography.
One might say that this thematic and stylistic shift corresponds nicely
with changes in Croatian society after the break-up of Yugoslavia. Croatia is
a country still in some sort of never-ending transition towards western-style
capitalism. Ever since the end of the war for independence, Croatian society
has become increasingly prone to recycling and constantly readdressing its
present and past values, ideas and imagery. Old Yugoslav (Croatian, Serbian,
Bosnian etc.) films are occasionally shown on national TV; in a Croatian
political journal communist dictator Josip Broz Tito was voted the most influ-
ential Croat in history; Tito’s monument in Kumrovec (his birthplace) was
blown up (which is again extensively covered by the media); and so forth.
Without resorting to simplistic and perennial cause-and-effect explanations
of art, it is interesting to note that images from Gotovac’s past – as seen in his
films – consist predominantly of politically charged imagery, very similar to
the imagery that is more and more present in the mainstream media as well.
However, right before this basically peaceful (transitional) period in
Croatian history, during the war fought against the Yugoslav People’s Army
(Jugoslavenska narodna armija – JNA), the manner in which Gotovac was
addressing political issues could hardly be considered challenging to the prev-
alent norms of the time. This war-time art is partly documented in the non-
paginated section of Tomislav Gotovac (Nenadic’ and Battista Ilic’ 2003), with
pictures from the 1992 performance Point Blank. In it, Gotovac paints words
on the wall that are crucial for a nationalist paradigm (which is, admittedly,
typical for most societies in wartime): the names of the towns and the villages
that were torched by the aggressor, as well as the name of Pope John Paul
II, who was considered a great friend of the newly independent country (see
also in Stipančic’ 1995: 76–78). Another example of Gotovac’s anti-communist
views is found in his interview with Ivica Župan (1991).2
Although he was still reshaping the dominant ideology in order to fit
his conceptual style, Gotovac’s anarchism seems to have perished together


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Revolution, cinema, painting

with the state in which his rebellion had begun. Later on, after having at
least partly adopted certain values of the dominant culture, with the war over
and cultural and other ties between parts of the former Yugoslavia emerging
again, Gotovac also started to pay increasing attention to his own personal
and artistic history, in some periods entirely inseparable from Serbian culture
and society.
Gotovac has managed to cleverly redefine communist symbolism and
ideology in the process, but it is useful to bear in mind that redefining
social heritage has also become a legitimate and quite frequent topic of
Croatian mainstream narrative cinema – see, for example, the films Maršal/
Marshal Tito’s Spirit (Brešan, 2000), Ne dao Bog vec’eg zla/God Forbid a
Greater Evil (Tribuson, 2002), Duga mračna noc’/Long Dark Night (Vrdoljak,
2004), Karaula/The Guard Post (Grlic’, 2006) and Ničiji sin/No One’s Son
(Ostojic’, 2008). So, if there is something original and therefore particularly
interesting in Gotovac’s films, it clearly must lie in the realm of style, not in
the realm of ideology or the realm of the social function of art. Naturally,
as is the case with all conceptual artists, the domain of style must include
references to the process of artistic creation and to the general questions of
the definition of art.
Has Gotovac, then, a self-proclaimed ‘anarchist’, somewhere along the
line gradually slipped from the artistic (and social) margins into the main-
stream? I would propose that he probably has; after all, he and his works
nowadays get invited to the most prominent art forums and festivals inside
and outside of Croatia – in Europe (Venice, Vienna) and beyond (New York,
Kyoto). The book encompassing his entire oeuvre (Nenadic’ and Battista Ilic’
2003) has been published by institutions crucial for archiving, studying and
displaying modernist and postmodernist art and cinema in Croatia. The
authors writing about Tom’s work in this book are Hrvoje Turkovic’, one of
the most prominent Croatian film scholars and critics, and Ješa Denegri, one
of the most prominent Serbian art historians (he was the curator of Gotovac’s
very first solo exhibition ‘Tomislav®’, held in Belgrade in 1976). However,
one could hardly say that canonizing a conceptual artist is strictly a Croatian
phenomenon. It is actually a global(izing) trend, with the influence of and
the attention given to the work/personality of Andy Warhol or Joseph Beuys
being indicative of the same trend of canonizing the revolutionary, of conven-
tionalizing (neo-)avant-garde styles and concepts both in Europe and in the
United States (and probably elsewhere, as well). Of course, the person (the
character, the masque) of the conceptual artist is inseparable from his work: it
is very often the material for his work.
Today, conceptual, radically modernist art has accumulated a rich mul-
timedia tradition that the contemporary artist can draw upon. One might
even say (especially but not exclusively when we analyse the conceptual style
within the boundaries of a single art medium such as film) that conceptual art
has become a fully-fledged genre. We can therefore put it in the context of
other genres, schools or styles in painting, theatre or film and say that concep-
tual art is genuinely recognized and accepted within the social institution of
art. The gestures of past revolutions and rebellions in art and society are still
remembered, but nowadays they are adopted and widely accepted by muse-
ums, film archives, critics, historians, universities and younger contemporary
artists (for successful attempts at writing the history of experimental film and
video see Rees (2002) and Comer (2009)). Not being revolutionary any longer,
the conceptual art is a multimedial genre.


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Nikica Gilic‘


Being to a great extent fixed on the visual beauty and the power of cinema from
the very start, Gotovac has created several visually very appealing films. However,
since he mostly worked under low-budget (or zero-budget) circumstances – and
since the rules of the beautiful in cinematography were among the general rules
he was intent on breaking – many of his films look like home movies. Some
sort of rule-breaking is, of course, a stylistic feature typical of modernist cin-
ema, even for mainstream feature-film modernism. The cinematographer Raoul
Coutard even claimed that, while filming Á Bout de souffle/Breathless (Godard,
1960), the director frequently consulted the script-woman about the correct
procedures for achieving classical continuity, only to do exactly the opposite of
what she would suggest (Bordwell and Thompson 2001: 370).
And yet, even Godard made many visually stunning films, including the
groundbreaking Á Bout de souffle, which uses natural lighting only, but never-
theless sometimes treats its heroes (particularly Jean Seberg) as photo models.
Naturally, visual beauty in Godard’s films is often ironically encoded. In addi-
tion to that, it seems instructive to point out that the visual style of Á Bout
de souffle, although different from the norms of French cinema of the 1950s,
nevertheless seems significantly less radical when compared with the ‘docu-
mentary’ style of some American feature films (e.g. The Naked City (Dassin,
1948)) or with the style of some of the well-known films made by Godard’s
compatriots Jean Renoir (Boudu sauvé des eaux/Boudu Saved from Drowning
(1932), Toni (1935)), Robert Bresson (Le Journal d’un cure de campagne/Diary of
a Country Priest (1951); Un condamné à mort s’échappé/A Man Escaped (1956))
and even Jacques Becker (Le Trou/The Hole (1959)). Some of the greatest revo-
lutionaries also possess a sophisticated aesthetic sense – Godard, for instance,
was an intelligent film critic and a keen observer of cinema (of Anthony
Mann’s westerns, for example). Bearing this in mind, it is interesting to note
that Gotovac is to some extent a unique figure in the circles of Croatian ‘radi-
cal’ art, because he proclaims love not only for Godard and ‘high modern-
ism’ but even more prominently for the classical narrative cinema of Howard
Hawks and George Stevens.
This article is not the right place to address the distinction between the
modern and the postmodern, but it seems interesting that Gotovac’s recent
films, made in an age where artists are, generally speaking, more interested
in recycling artistic images (and a bit less in changing society and challeng-
ing institutions), often display an increased interest in the visual. Gotovac’s
frequent usage of ‘ready-made’ or ‘found footage’, both as the theme and as
part of the structural pattern, is his most significant stylistic feature nowadays,
and I will be discussing some of the films from this period. For instance, a
very short film Osjec’aj devet/Feeling Nine (Gotovac, 2004) uses a powerful and
visually magnificent sequence of an extreme long shot, an inserted extreme
close-up and another extreme long shot from the considerably long feature
film Giant (George Stevens, 1956). Naturally, when placed outside its original
(narrative) environment, these high-budget shots have quite a different effect
and gain quite different meanings.
Some of these films use Gotovac’s previous works. His one-minute-long
work Tomislav Gotovac (Gotovac, 1996), for example, in its visual aspect con-
sists entirely of rhythmically edited shots of photos depicting his life, exhibi-
tions, performances and films. In addition to that, the repetition of the verse


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‘We got machines to do your work for you’ – extracted from a 1939 Billie
Holiday performance of ‘You’re just a no account’ (written by S. Cahn and
S. Chaplin) – serves as a multi-layered and, to a great extent, ironic comment
on the visual structure of this work. Appearing in isolation, this fragment of
lyrics seems to comment on the mechanical process of the film’s creation: the
editing (one of the most technical parts of the cinematic repertoire) is conspic-
uously rhythmical, and this is accentuated by a tempo too fast for the viewer
to grasp fully most of the visual content. This mechanical rhythm, therefore,
seems to be underscored by the words; furthermore, since the pictures shown
are not actually moving (they appear and just as rapidly disappear, but do not
move), the glimpses of their lifelessness seem to strengthen the mechanical
connotations contained in the cited Billie Holiday line.
In addition to that, the idea of a film encompassing the author’s life is
one of the very few things a viewer can grasp from the kinetically charged
sequence of images in Tomislav Gotovac. A self-referential slant is typical of
this theme and style of experimental cinema, and the name of this film is at
the same time the name of its author. The nostalgic feel of Holiday’s voice
(and of her music’s overall sound) therefore acquires an unexpected poign-
ancy, giving the musical clip the quality of a comment on the intensity of life
that the viewer nevertheless senses is being depicted by the film’s strange vis-
ual sequence. Naturally, this nostalgic quality becomes increasingly conspicu-
ous as the recording technology, the style of Holiday’s singing (and of the
accompanying music) become more and more historical as they age together
with the film that uses them.
Extreme even when compared to Gotovac’s earlier standards in the recy-
cling of images, this film creates a nostalgic mood typical of the mature, turn-
of-the-century Gotovac. That this maturity has coincided with general artistic
and social trends towards the postmodern and the culture of recycling is very
fortunate for Gotovac’s high reputation and continuingly excellent rapport
with new generations of artists and critics, but I do not believe it is essential
for the viewer’s pleasure or, dare I say it, aesthetic satisfaction.


Another prominent film that uses parts of the author’s previous works is Dead
Man Walking (Gotovac, 2002), but the levels of recycling in this conceptual
self-portrait are more complex, not merely because some of the recycled films
themselves contain already recycled fictional and documentary footage. Dead
Man Walking uses several of Gotovac’s previous films, such as his conceptual
porn Obiteljski film 1/Family Movie 1 (1971), as well as Ella (1965 or 1966),
Salt Peanuts (1970), Smrt/Death (1962), Broj 1/Number 1 (1962–72), and so on.
Tomislav Gotovac, a far shorter film already mentioned, a sort of conceptual
self-portrait, is used near the very beginning of Dead Man Walking, stressing
the autobiographical nature accentuated, naturally, by the title as well. Dead
Man Walking is the phrase used for a convict on death row, walking towards
his execution. Allegedly, in the moment of death, images of the dying person’s
entire life flash in front of their eyes, and images from Gotovac’s past make for
the bulk of the film. After all these images, Gotovac appears in the last shot of
the film (the only footage filmed exclusively for Dead Man Walking), only to
disappear in the dark.
In Dead Man Walking there are also scenes from famous examples of clas-
sical Hollywood cinema (e.g. A Place in the Sun (Stevens, 1951)) and Soviet


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Nikica Gilic‘

Figure 1: Dead Man Walking (Gotovac, 2002).

socialist realism (the Vasiliev brothers’ film Chapayev (1934)), while Gotovac’s
home-made porn is contrasted with an example of John Stagliano’s profes-
sional, ‘real’ porn. Extremely graphic sexual images are, naturally, placed at the
very beginning of Dead Man Walking, probably in order to attempt to stun
the audience, to whom pictures of activated genitals are just as common as
the pictures of muscular workers were to the mass audiences of socialist real-
ist art. Dead Man Walking’s closing credits place Stagliano’s film in 1999 (the
year in which the pornographer made several features), but only the Croatian
translation is listed (Buttmanov odmor); in English it would be something like
Buttman’s holiday/vacation. He made several films with ‘vacation’ in the title,
but they were before 1999 making the precise identification of this film quite
However, among the most significant films used in this complex work is
the controversial Plastični Isus/Plastic Jesus (Stojanovic’, 1971), one of key mas-
terpieces of Serbian experimental (avant-garde) cinema, which was shelved
by the socialist regime and shown publicly only on the eve of Yugoslavia’s
break-up. This stylistically highly radical film, often considered to be one of
the best works of Serbian political cinema, comparable to the internationally more
acclaimed WR: Misterije organizma/WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Makavejev,


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1971), stirred up emotions by using documentary footage depicting the trou- 3. Nevinost bez zaštite/
Innocence Unprotected
bled Balkan past and the turbulent (socialist and Yugoslav) present in the late (Makavejev, 1968) is
1960s and the early 1970s, while Tomislav Gotovac (at the time student at the structured around scenes
Belgrade theatre and film academy) played basically himself in the leading from an actual fiction film
made in Serbia during
role in the semi-fictional part of the film. World War II.
Since Plastični Isus is such a radical piece of work and since Gotovac
was even at that stage an accomplished conceptualist film-maker, at least in
socially marginal amateur and avant-garde circles (already having received
several prizes at festivals in Zagreb, Kragujevac and Ljubljana), it is no won-
der that some sources (admittedly, mostly Croatian ones) even go as far as
to cite Gotovac as the co-author of Plastični Isus, alongside director Lazar
Stojanovic’ (see, for instance, the filmography in Nenadic’ & Battista Ilic’ (2003:
305)). In this respect, it is probably pertinent to note that Ješa Denegri gen-
erally feels that Gotovac was very much able to perform a self-referential
conceptual art work within the boundaries of another artist’s film (Denegri
2003: 272). However, Gotovac’s more recent films (see also Hot Klab of Frans
or Salt Peanuts from 2007, another reworking of past images) show a great
resemblance to the classic films by Serbian experimental film-makers Lazar
Stojanovic’ and Dušan Makavejev, both of whom Gotovac had worked with in
various stages of his career.3
Naturally, as I have already pointed out, it would be inadequate to dis-
cuss Gotovac’s recycling of images without bearing in mind that some of
his films have already used parts of previously made films; Broj 1 (1962–72)
(re-used in Dead Man Walking), for instance, uses Gotovac’s first film, Smrt
(1962) – so when these recycled films get re-recycled for the second time, it
is very hard for the viewer (even if he is a long-time Gotovac fan) to keep
track of what scenes he has seen under what title in what movie. Starting
his career with conceptualist ideas (probably to a great extent intuited rather
than fully thought out), Gotovac also worked in the era in which film critics
and directors were widely embracing authorial politics (Wollen 1972;
Naremore 2004) of French nouvelle vague greats such as Truffaut, Chabrol
and Godard. If we simplify things a bit, we might be allowed to say that
these critics-turned-directors made for a radically modernist group of film
buffs with a penchant for classical Hollywood cinema, shared by Gotovac as
well. It is no wonder then that Gotovac has managed to become one of the
best examples of auteurism in Croatian cinema: in his work the boundaries
of a single film are becoming less and less significant, so that his entire oeuvre
becomes one giant piece of work.


Finally, probably the best among Gotovac’s more recent works, Proroci/The
Prophets (2004), seems particularly interesting in the context of any interme-
diary discussion. It uses the imagery and sounds of Mexican revolutionary
thought and movements, while these images and sounds are at the same time
central to the international popular idea of Mexico. Among these images are
those taken from Mexican painters: even if the spectator is not an expert in
the field of art history, most can be expected to recognize at least the images
of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (whom she portrayed next to herself in
many paintings). In the Rivera–Kahlo couple, Rivera is the muralist famous
for depicting history by using communist symbols and introducing murals to
international revolutionary and historical painting, while Kahlo is famous for


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4. Illustrative of the Mexican her meticulous painting of self-portraits in various formal combinations of
culture of death (and
similar to those used
expressionism, surrealism and the neo-folklorist grotesque.
by Gotovac) are, for Gotovac’s intriguing visual strategy includes portraits of Frida Kahlo,
instance, the popular Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky (Lenin and Trotsky as painted by
illustrations of José
Guadalupe Posada. Rivera), as well as populist drawings representing traditional Mexican culture
(e.g. the cult of death).4 The photos of actual, historical violence and death in
Mexico used in Proroci are equally powerful, and all this is contrasted with
and, again, ironically commented upon by the soundtrack of the film. The
sound is completely taken over by the joyous sounds of ‘La cucaracha’/’The
Cockroach’, the internationally popular song about Pancho Villa’s ‘revolution-
ary’ vehicle, a shabby car nick-named after the insect from the popular song.
Furthermore, one may also notice in Gotovac’s film an attempt to challenge
the dominant political and aesthetic norms in Croatia by stressing the revolu-
tionary side of Mexican art not only in theme, but also in the avant-garde form
of rhythmical cutting and intercutting (the rhythmical joining of the sounds
and the pictures) while Gotovac’s powerful symbolism follows the tradition
established by Sergei Eisenstein, the artist who is the closest thing to a father
that revolutionary cinema has.
One might also speak of Proroci as an artistic (elitist) strike back at popular
culture. For, in the Croatian as well as the international context, Gotovac’s film
will probably be viewed in the background of Julie Taymor’s influential biopic
Frida (2002), a film that has effectively canonized a traditional, narrative view
of Mexican art and Mexican history through the romantic story of two artists
(Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera) and the people in their lives (an ex-wife, sev-
eral friends, parents, sisters and numerous paramours). All this, naturally, fits
Gotovac’s image of the challenger of artistic and other social norms, no matter
what type of society he might be living and creating in, and no matter how
meaningful a challenge to the norm might be in a given context.
For instance, while making conceptual, constructivist and structural
art, Gotovac was one of the most fervent advocates of emotionally charged
classical American films (of George Stevens, John Ford and others), which
was, although not so unusual in the European context, actually quite a
reasonable choice for a provocative artist creating in a socialist country
where the cultural establishment preferred either socialist realism or nar-
rative modernism conveying ideas corresponding to the political left (e.g.
the feature films of Croatian directors Lordan Zafranovic’ and, to an extent,
Vatroslav Mimica). Classical narrative cinema was actually more subversive
and radical than modernist cinema in many stages of socialist Yugoslavia’s
Effective and rhythmically well organized, the imagery of Proroci includes
several shots showing nothing but a red surface, used in the structure of this
film both in its political and in its physical/bodily (and ‘bloody’) meaning.
However, everything that Gotovac does is paratextually (see Genette 1997)
marked by his own name and, as Hrvoje Turkovic’ (2003: 278) points out,
Gotovac’s films are not meant for the casual, uninformed observer. It seems
safe to agree with Turkovic’ when he proposes that the ideal recipient of
Gotovac’s work knows well the author’s strong inclination towards body art,
as well as his tendency to turn everything that he experiences into the topic
and material for his work. This body-art tendency started as early as 1962
(Denegri 2003: 269). Furthermore, the ideal recipient also knows Gotovac’s
political obsessions, his frequent allusions to and citations of communist and
revolutionary works/writing, et cetera, et cetera.


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This film thus strongly points to the bloody side of Mexican history, but 5. Mexican culture greatly
influenced the culture of
the allusion to Trotsky’s death is particularly intriguing in this self-referential socialist Yugoslavia in
aspect of fitting the film into Gotovac’s lifework, informed by the inclination the 1950s and 1960s.
to create structures irrespective of the borders of a single film, thus transform-
ing his entire multimedia oeuvre into a single piece of work. Although Proroci
uses only one image of a hand that we suppose belongs to Gotovac – and
only a few images of a pick, hammering at object(s) unseen – since this is a
Gotovac film, it can hardly be a mere coincidence that the cross-cutting con-
nects the image of the author’s fist and the portrait of Trotsky holding his fist
in the same combative clench. Naturally, with the editing proceeding in step
with the fast-paced rhythm of the song ‘La cucaracha’, this comparison must
be ironic. The image of the pick is followed by pictures of stabbing and dying,
while the last image of the film remains the photo of a dead man (presumably
a Mexican), lying in his own blood. Perceived with the knowledge of other
films by Gotovac, this allusion to Trotsky’s gruesome death can be seen as
yet another recapitulation of the author’s life and career, similar to Tomislav
Gotovac and Dead Man Walking, where the death-row convict from the title is
obviously Gotovac himself.
Finally, watching a film that alludes to Trotsky’s gruesome death, how can
one distinguish what has been learned in school or by reading a non-fictional
book from what has been learned from watching fictional and non-fictional
films and television programmes? Associative presentation founded on Sergei
Eisenstein’s historical concepts (Gilic’ 2005) is a complex issue, but it seems
obvious that Proroci plays on the general, popular knowledge about Trotsky,
which encompasses Frida, but is naturally more specific than the level of
knowledge necessary for understanding more-or-less conventional narrative
films (such as Frida). Taymor’s biopic is only one of the more recent visualiza-
tions of Trotsky’s death in Mexico, with Geoffrey Rush portraying the exiled
Bolshevik revolutionary on the silver screen, while, for instance, movie super-
star Richard Burton was wearing Trotsky’s shoes (and a beard to match) in
The Assassination of Trotsky (Losey, 1972) three decades earlier.
Naturally, the revolutionary imagery of Proroci is particularly interesting to
those of us who have spent at least part of our lives under a socialist regime.
I should therefore reiterate yet another point: Gotovac, formerly a prominent
opponent of socialism’s pressures on art, continues to use revolutionary (com-
munist) imagery in a new ‘transitional’ society. Knocking (and knocking, and
knocking) at the door of the ‘New’ Europe (the European Union), Croatia for a
time has attempted unsuccessfully to completely dismantle the imagery of the
socialist era but the spirit of the past still haunts its social, cultural and political
landscape. So, when Gotovac uses images from Croatia’s socialist past in Proroci
(e.g. Lenin, the colour red), although he recycles them through a Mexican her-
itage (or through the grand meta-narrative of Mexican history),5 it is the aura/
spectre of the socialist revolution that foregrounds the figures of artists nowa-
days being received and recycled in today’s consumerist society. Ironically, the
global financial crisis that began in 2008 suddenly revamped some of the ideas
of socialism and nationalization even in the most anti-communist centres of
world power (including the White House in Washington DC).
However, Frida Kahlo has become a brand (a commodity) in the man-
ner Gotovac will probably never become, regardless of the frequency of his
contacts with the mass media. On the other hand, these contacts are far too
frequent for us to believe Gotovac (or some critics) who claim that he has
remained an anarchist or that he is still at the margins of the art scene or


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Nikica Gilic‘

society (Jelic’ and Kiš 2003). Regardless of that, one may say that the images of
Mexican revolutionary art and history have received a far more satisfying artis-
tic makeover by Gotovac than by Julie Taymor. If the idea of conceptual art as
a genre is at least partly valid and convincing, I would propose that Gotovac is
one of its better representatives, a true Howard Hawks of radical art.

I would like to thank the kind people at Hrvatski filmski savez, particularly
Željko Radivoj and Vera Robic’-Škarica, for their help in getting hold of
Gotovac’s films. Also I would like to thank Professor Boris Senker (University
of Zagreb) for his help in securing the funds for my research as well as Peter,
the webmaster of the Unofficial Billie Holiday Website (http://www.ladyday.
net/) for his help in identifying the Billie Holiday song used in Tomislav
Gotovac (Gotovac, 1996).

Becker, J. (1959), Le Trou, Paris: Play art, Filmsonor and Titanus.
Berg, C. R. (2004), ‘Every Picture Tells a Story: José Guadalupe Posada’s
Protocinematic Graphic Art’, in T. Miller and R. Stam (eds), A Companion
to Film Theory. Malden, MA, Oxford and Carlton: Blackwell Publishing.
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Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin (2001), Film Art: An Introduction, 6th
edn., New York: McGraw Hill.
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—— (1956), Un condamné à mort s’échappé, Paris: W.N.E. Gaumont and
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de cinéma and Georges De Beauregard.
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—— (1962–72), Broj 1/Number 1, Zagreb and Belgrade.
—— (1965 or 1966), Ella, Zagreb: Kino-klub Zagreb.
—— (1970), Salt Peanuts, Belgrade: Akademija za kazalište, film radio
i televiziju.
—— (1971), Obiteljski film 1/Family Film No 1, Zagreb or Belgrade.
—— (1996), Tomislav Gotovac, Zagreb: Kino-klub Zagreb.
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—— (2004), Osjec’aj devet/Feeling Nine, Zagreb: Kino-klub Zagreb and

Hrvatski filmski savez.
—— (2004), Proroci/The Prophets, Zagreb: Kino-klub Zagreb and Hrvatski
filmski savez.
—— (2007), Hot Klab of Frans or Salt Peanuts/Hot Club of France or Salt
Peanuts, Belgrade.
Grlic’, R. (2006), Karaula/The Guard Post, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Skopje, Ljubljana,
Belgrade and London: Propeler, Refresh, Sektor film, Vertigo/Emotion,
Yodi and Film and Music Entertainment.
Internet Movie Data Base,
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margini’ (‘Tomislav Gotovac: Even after the Venice Bienalle I will still be
on the fringes’), in Jutarnji list, 8 March, pp. 59 and 61.
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vojni sud’ (‘Vuk Obradovic’ sent Lazar Stojanovic’ to court martial’),
Danas (online), Belgrade,
Accessed 10 June 2009.
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zavod Miroslav Krleža.
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Business, Sarajevo: Centar and Forum Sarajevo.
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Laurentiis, Shaftel & Cinetel.
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Avala film.
—— (1971), WR: Misterije organizma/WR: The Mystery of the Organism,
Belgrade and Munich: Neoplanta and Telepool.
Mandic’, J. (2005), ‘Hrvatskom kulturom drmaju kreteni (Tomislav Gotovac/
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6. In Nenadic’ & Battista Stagliano, J. (1999?), Buttman’s Vacation/Holiday?, s.l., s.n.

Ilic’ (2003: 319) this
article is erroneously
Stevens, G. (1951), A Place in the Sun, Hollywood: Paramount.
listed under the year —— (1956), Giant, Hollywood: Warner Bros.
2000. Stipančic’, B. (ed.) (1995), Words and Images/Riječi i slike, Zagreb: Soros Center
7. Gotovac’s filmography for Contemporary Arts and Open Society Institute, Croatia. (Bilingual
is mostly based on
two books (Nenadic’
and Battista Ilic’ 2003, Stojanovic’, L. (1971), Plastični Isus, Belgrade: Filmska radna zajednica Centar
Kragic’ and Gilic’ 2003) and Akademija za kazalište, film, radio i televiziju.
and two Internet sites
( Škrabalo, I. (1998), 101 godina filma u Hrvatskoj, 1896–1997/ 101 Years of Film
com, in Croatia, 1896–1997, Zagreb: Globus. (English summary: pp. 529–54).
hr). The films produced Taymor, J. (2002), Frida, New York: Miramax.
during the existence of
Yugoslavia are attributed Tribuson, S. (2002), Ne dao Bog vec’eg zla, Zagreb: Hrvatska radio-televizija
to the constituent unit and Maxima.
(republic) where they
were produced. Some
Turkovic’, Hrvoje (2001), ‘Pitanje ready madea: Nostalgična putovanja
of Gotovac’s films are Tomislava Gotovca njegovim povijesnim filmskim ljubavima’ (‘The ques-
home-made and do tion of ready-made: Tomislav Gotovac’s nostalgic journeys around his his-
not have that sort of
attribution due to the torical film loves’), in Vijenac, 10: 182, 22 January.6
fact that he lived both in —— (2003), ‘Tomislav Gotovac: observation as participation’, in D. Nenadic’
Croatia and in Serbia at and A. Battista Ilic’ (eds), Tomislav Gotovac: When I Open My Eyes in the
the time.
Morning I See a Movie/Tomislav Gotovac: Čim ujutro otvorim oči, vidim
film, Zagreb: Hrvatski filmski savez and Muzej suvremene umjetnosti,
pp. 277–79.
Vasiliev, S. and Vasiliev G. (1934), Chapayev, Moscow: Leninfilm.
Vrdoljak, A. (2004), Duga mračna noc’, Zagreb: Hrvatska radio-televizija and
Wollen, P. (1972), Znaci i značenje u filmu/Signs and Meaning in the Cinema
(trans. from English by Branko Vučičevic’), Belgrade: Institut za film.
Župan, I. (1991), Art-projekt Jugoslavija’ (‘Yugoslavia as an art-project’), in
Slobodna Dalmacija, Saturday, 5 October, pp. 29–30.



The majority of the films Gotovac directed before the 1990s are available on
a non-profit basis for a technical compensation at Hrvatski filmski savez,
Tuškanac 1, 10 000 Zagreb, Croatia (E-mail: The films he
made in the 1990s and onwards are mostly available at the same address for
a small compensation (Hrvatski filmski savez is a non-profit organization).
Information on the company’s production of Gotovac’s films can be seen
at The films are listed in date
order, starting with the most recent.
Abbreviations: Asst. – assistant, AKK Beograd – Akademski kino klub Beograd
(Academic cine-club, Belgrade), d – director, ed – editor, HFS – Hrvatski film-
ski savez (Croatian Film Clubs Association), KK Zagreb – Kino-klub Zagreb
(Zagreb Cine-club), p – producer, ph – photography, sc – screenplay. Director
on all productions is Tomislav Gotovac unless otherwise stated.

Hot klab of Frans or Salt Peanuts (2007), Serbia: Centar za kulturnu dekontamina-
ciju. (cast: Tomislav Gotovac, Lazar Stojanovic’, Juan-Carlos Ferro Duque.)
Performance Tapes (2007), Croatia: HFS.


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Revolution, cinema, painting

Cesar Frank – Wolf Wostell (2005), Croatia: HFS. (ph – Tomislav Gotovac, ed –
Željko Radivoj.)
Proroci/The Prophets, 2004; Croatia: KK Zagreb/HFS. (sc – Tomislav Gotovac,
ed – Željko Radivoj.)
Osjec’aj devet/Feeling Nine (2004), Croatia: KK Zagreb/HFS.
Dead Man Walking (2002), Croatia: HFS. (sc, ed – Tomislav Gotovac, asst. d &
asst. ed – Željko Radivoj, cast: Tomislav Gotovac. In archive footage: Vukica
Ðilas, Ljubiša Ristic’, Josip Broz Tito, Ante Pavelic’, Montgomery Clift.)
Trocki/Trotsky (2002), Croatia: HFS. (ed – Željko Radivoj.)
Identity Number (2001), Croatia: HFS, KK Zagreb. (ph – Vedran Šamanovic’.)
Praznik rada or Majsko jutro matorog fauna/Labour Day or A May Morning of
an aging Faun (2001), Croatia: KK Zagreb-SF. (co-d, Damir Čučic’ & Željko
Radivoj, ph – Ž. Radivoj.)
Glenn Miller 2000 (2000), Croatia: HFS. (ph – Vedran Šamanovic’, p – Vera
Sjec’anje na Hoagy Carmichaela/Remembering Hoagy Carmichael (2000), Croatia:
KK Zagreb-SF, HFS.
Glenn Miller ili kako je U.S.A. pobijedila Europu/Glenn Miller or How the USA
Defeated Europe (2000), Croatia: KK Zagreb-SF, HFS.
Mjesto pod suncem tri/A Place in the Sun 3 (2000), Croatia: KK Zagreb-SF, HFS.
Mjesto pod suncem dva/A Place in the Sun 2 (2000), Croatia: KK Zagreb-SF, HFS.
Mjesto pod suncem/A Place in the Sun (2000), Croatia: KK Zagreb-SF, HFS.
Osjec’aj sedam/Feeling Seven (2000), Croatia: KK Zagreb-SF, HFS.
Osjec’aj šest/Feeling Six (2000), Croatia: KK Zagreb-SF, HFS.
Osjec’aj pet/Feeling Five (2000), Croatia: KK Zagreb-SF, HFS.
Osjec’aj četiri/Feeling Four (2000), Croatia: KK Zagreb-SF, HFS.
Osjec’aj tri/Feeling Three (2000), Croatia: KK Zagreb-SF, HFS.
Osjec’aj dva/Feeling Two (2000), Croatia: KK Zagreb-SF, HFS.
Osjec’aj/Feeling (2000), Croatia: KK Zagreb-SF, HFS.
Straža na Rajni/The Watch on the Rhine (2000), Croatia: KK Zagreb-SF, HFS.
Tramvaj 406/Tram No 406 (2000), Croatia: KK Zagreb – SF, HFS. (co-d –
Vanja Valtrovic’, sc – Tomislav Gotovac, ph, ed – Tomislav Gotovac, Vanja
Tomislav Gotovac (1996), Croatia: Plavi film, Zagreb. (sc – Tomislav Gotovac.)
Julije Knifer (1982), Croatia. (sc – Tomislav Gotovac. ph – Julije Knifer.)
Glenn Miller I (Srednjoškolsko igralište)/Glenn Miller 1 (High School Playground)
(1977), Croatia: Centar za multimedijalna istraživanja SC Zagreb. (sc –
Tomislav Gotovac. co-d, ph – Ljubo Becic’.)
Obiteljski film 2/Family Movie 2 (1973). (sc, ed, p – Tomislav Gotovac. co-d, ph
– Slobodan Šijan.)
Plastični Isus/Plastic Jesus (1972), Serbia: Filmska radna zajednica Centar,
Akademija za pozorište, film, radio i televiziju, Beograd. (co-d, ed – Lazar
Stojanovic’. sc – L. Stojanovic’. Tomislav Gotovac. co-d, ph – Branko Perak.
cast: Tomislav Gotovac, Ljubiša Ristic’, Vukica Ðilas, Rusomir Bogdanovski,
Gojko Škaric’, Josip Broz Tito.)
Broj 1/Number 1 (1962–1972). (sc, ed – Tomislav Gotovac).
Obiteljski film 1/Family Movie 1 (1971), (sc, ph, ed – Tomislav Gotovac).
Sketches and Diaries (1967–1970). (p, ph, ed – Tomislav Gotovac.)
187 (1970), Serbia: Akademija za pozorište, film, radio i televiziju, Beograd.
(sc, ed – Tomislav Gotovac. cast: Rusomir Bogdanovski, Gojko Škaric’,
Danja Mirkovic’.)
M (1970), Croatia: KK Zagreb. (ph, ed, p – Tomislav Gotovac.)


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Nikica Gilic‘

Salt Peanuts (1970), Serbia: Akademija za pozorište, film, radio i televiziju,

Beograd. (sc, ed – Tomislav Gotovac. ph – Juan-Carlos Ferro Duque.)
Villen II (1969), Serbia: Akademija za pozorište, film, radio i televiziju, Beograd.
(sc, ed, p – Tomislav Gotovac. cast: Lazar Stojanovic’, Tomislav Gotovac.)
Peeping Tom (1969), Serbia: Akademija za pozorište, film, radio i televiziju,
Beograd. (sc – Tomislav Gotovac. cast: Juan-Carlos Ferro Duque, Zlata
Alamo (1969), Croatia: KK Zagreb. (sc, ed, ph – Tomislav Gotovac.)
T (1969), Croatia: KK Zagreb. (sc, ed, ph, p – Tomislav Gotovac.)
29 (1967), Croatia: KK Zagreb. (sc, ed, p – Tomislav Gotovac.)
Ella (1965 or 1966), Croatia, KK Zagreb. (p – Tomislav Gotovac.)
S (1966), Croatia: KK Zagreb. (p – Tomislav Gotovac. co-d, ph – And–elko
Kuda idemo, ne pitajte/Don’t ask where we’re going (1966), Croatia: KK Zagreb.
(sc, p – Tomislav Gotovac. co-d, ph – And–elko Habazin. cast: Ivo Lukas.)
Osjec’am se dobro/I Feel All Right (1966), Croatia: KK Zagreb. (sc, ed, p –
Tomislav Gotovac. co-d, ph – And–elko Habazin.)
Kružnica (Jutkjevič-Count)/The Circle (Yutkevich-Count) (1964), Serbia:
AKK Beograd. (sc – Tomislav Gotovac. co-d, p, ph, ed – Petar Blagojevic’-
Plavi jahač (Godard-Art)/Blue Rider (Godard-Art) (1964), Serbia: AKK Beograd.
(sc, ed, p – Tomislav Gotovac. co-p, ph – Petar Blagojevic’-Arand–elovic’.)
Pravac (Stevens-Duke)/Straight Line (Stevens-Duke) (1964), Serbia: AKK
Beograd. (sc, p – Tomislav Gotovac, co-p – Petar Blagojevic’-Arand–elovic’.)
Prije podne jednog Fauna/The Forenoon of a Faun (1963), (sc, ed, p – Tomislav
Smrt/Death (1962), Croatia: KK Zagreb. (sc, ed – Tomislav Gotovac. co-d, ph –
Vladimir Petek.)

Gilic’, N. (2010), ‘Revolution, cinema, painting: creative recycling of images
in the films of Tom Gotovac (Antonio Lauer)’, Studies in Eastern European
Cinema 1: 1, pp. 71–84, doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.71/1

Nikica Gilic’ (born in Split in 1973) received his Ph.D. in Film Studies at the
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (University of Zagreb). He is an
Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the same
faculty, where he is the Chair of Film Studies and teaches various courses
in film theory and film history. He has published two books: Uvod u teoriju
filmske priče/Introduction to the Theory of Narration in Film (2007) and Filmske
vrste i rodovi/Film Genres and Types (2007). He also co-edited Filmski leksikon/
Film Lexicon (2003) with Bruno Kragic’.
Contact: Filozofski fakultet-komparativna književnost, Ivana Lučic’a 3, 10000
Zagreb, Croatia.


SEEC 1.1_2_art_Gilić_071-084.indd 84 2/16/10 1:30:15 PM

SEEC 1 (1) pp. 85–96 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Eastern European Cinema

Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.85/1


Faculty of Dramatic Arts, Belgrade

Black Wave polemics:

rhetoric as aesthetic

The Yugoslav Black Wave film is polemical and rhetoric is one of its key aesthetic Yugoslav Black Wave
concerns – the Marxist rhetoric of a ruthless critique of all existing conditions. polemics
The polemical application of this rhetoric forms the basis of the Black Wave as a rhetoric
movement; the desired course of action was an engaging of the Socialist Federal aesthetics
Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) in a critical dialogue, for a more humane social- film
ism. Black Wave films of concern here present the symbol of political speechmak- Marxism
ing in this rhetorical/polemical context. They will be analysed with regards to
content, or rhetoric, in an attempt to elucidate the contemporary issues that were
important to some of the film-makers, also with regards to film language, or form.
These films include Mlad i zdrav kao ruža/Young and Healthy as a Rose (Jovan
Jovanovic’, 1971), WR: Misterije organizma/WR: Mysteries of the Organism
(Dušan Makavejev, 1971) and Neprijatelj/The Enemy (Živojin Pavlovic’, 1965).

The Yugoslav Black Wave film is a polemical film and rhetoric – the Methodical
Marxist rhetoric of a ruthless critique of all existing conditions – is one of its key
aesthetic concerns. The polemical application of this rhetoric forms the basis
of the Black Wave as a movement. Because cinema is the most powerful and
persuasive of all forms of mass media as well as the art form that inherently
encompasses other art forms, it becomes the ideal choice to lead one kineti-
cally (or kinaesthetically, a term coined by the Yugoslav film theorist Slavko
Vorkapich in 1998, specifically corresponding to the uniqueness of film art and


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Greg DeCuir, Jr.

its capability for rhythmic visual tempos) towards a course of action, which is
the general aim of persuasive rhetoric.
That desired course of action was a transformational critique of the
Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) in the hopes of realizing a
more productive society that practises an improved and humane form of
socialism. In the Black Wave era President Josip Broz Tito’s party apparatchiks
enforced a dominant ideological course that reinforced their own positions of
power and the privileges that came with it – often including cars, homes,
servants and other traditional bourgeois trappings of a ruling class. The ethi-
cal gap between those luxuries and the people it arrived at the expense of,
who were being fed the values of collectivity and sacrifice for common goals
while they often suffered for a stable means of subsistence, was exposed and
attacked by the Black Wave film-makers. For the films in question rhetoric
(through polemics as a method) is a means to an end, which justifies opting
for the descriptive term ‘Methodical Marxism’ as the theoretical background
and persuasion of the Black Wave. This also marks a point of divergence
with the term ‘Orthodox Marxism’ as it was used by the League of Yugoslav
Communists to uphold their dogmatic and flawed principles – the same prin-
ciples which were used to service the attack and ultimate dismantling of the
Black Wave.
The film-makers of the Black Wave can be thought of as ‘Orthodox’
Marxists only in the sense of the term as outlined by the Hungarian philoso-
pher György Lukács (1971). In his book History and Class Consciousness the
first chapter is titled ‘What is Orthodox Marxism?’ Here, he proceeds to lay
out his vision for the concept, which melds with the humanist Marxist outlook
of the Black Wave. This vision was characterized by a progressive revolution-
ary position through the critical method of Marx’s early writings (including
his letter to Arnold Ruge of 1843 and his essay ‘Contribution to the Critique
of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right”’ of 1844 – both written when Marx was in
his 20s). Lukács defined orthodoxy as fidelity to the Marxist method, not to
dogmas. Young Marx himself identified his method as a ‘ruthless criticism
of everything existing’ – ruthless in the sense that this critique ‘must not be
afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be’ (Tucker
1978: 13). It is this strategy that was adopted as the modus operandi of the
Black Wave film-makers.
Since Lukács felt that orthodoxy refers exclusively to method and the
method of early Marx is an incessant critique, his conception functions well
as a piercing methodological framework for engaging with the films of the
Black Wave – a framework that helps to illuminate the strategies of the Black
Wave film-makers and also the ends they were trying to achieve. However,
due to the flexibility of the idea of ‘Orthodox’ Marxism and its multiple, some-
times conflicting, connotations, it is perhaps necessary to forward the term
‘Methodical’ Marxism which can be applied and utilized for the purposes of
this study as something that will closely encapsulate the theme and spirit of
the brand of Marxism that the Black Wave film-makers practised while at the
same time evading confusion. Methodical Marxism can be defined simply as
Lukács’s elaboration on orthodoxy: anti-traditional, oppositional and critical.
This diverges from programmatic, optimistic and educational, which consti-
tuted the tenets of socialist realism as originally defined by Maxim Gorky in
his manifesto On Socialist Realism (originally 1934, reprinted in English 1977),
serving as the basis for classical Yugoslav cinematography as dictated in the
foundational programme written by Aleksandar Vučo (Goulding 1985: 9)


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Black Wave polemics: rhetoric as aesthetic

when he was placed in charge of the Committee for Cinematography upon its
formation in Yugoslavia in 1946.
For the purposes of further clarification ‘rhetoric’ as utilized in this study
refers to persuasive speech leading to a course of action – the classical defini-
tion of the term. Rhetoric will be equated with content, or ideology; the term
‘polemics’ on the other hand will refer to argumentative opposition, to be
equated with form (or method). Polemics serve as the medium that advances
rhetoric in the Black Wave film. These key terms are not interchangeable,
though they will be revealed to share a mutually dependent relationship
through the course of this analysis.
As polemicists, it must be remembered that the majority of the Black
Wave film-makers were practising film critics before they were practising
film-makers. This lends a solid base to understanding why polemics form
the foundation of the Black Wave film. No doubt inspired by Marx and his
dynamic rendering of his thoughts in a literary form, the page was a space
where young Yugoslav auteurs could work out their own formulaic concep-
tions about cinema. The Black Wave film-makers were also inspired by the
French New Wave; if Jean-Luc Godard is correct in stating that writing film
criticism is in essence a way of making films, then film criticism or theory
contains a persuasive rhetoric that is inherently implosive in this instance –
instead of leading an imagined community towards a course of action, it leads
the writer himself towards that very action (see Milne 1972). The audience
becomes a bystander in this process, or a witness to this methodical transfor-
mation. Since rhetoric is not rhetoric if it talks to itself as interior monologue,
the complementary step in this process is the act of making films, which redi-
rects the kinetic energy outwards towards the audience. In this sense writing
film criticism and making films really are two sides of the same coin.


The Black Wave films were the cinematic examples of a new ideology at work in
Yugoslavia in Methodical Marxist terms, exhibiting a modernist, nonconform-
ist style. These films were a concentrated eruption that lasted from roughly
1963 to 1972 within the broader all-encompassing division of Yugoslav New
Film, which constituted a new wave of young film directors who brought new
sensibilities to Yugoslav cinema. Many of the Black Wave films were quite
fatalistic and highly transgressive in relation to classical Yugoslav cinema and
Yugoslav society in general, thus earning them the nom maudit ‘black’.
The values of these films were called into question by the mainstream
press, particularly the newspaper Borba – the official publication of the League
of Yugoslav Communists, often featuring committee thinking in its film pages
which took the form of consensus discussion-style articles from ten or so crit-
ics who were all in agreement on a particular issue, no doubt representing
the party line. The reactionary attacks in the press culminated in a 1969 Borba
article entitled ‘The Black Wave in Our Cinema’ written by Vladimir Jovičic’,
which coined the very term ‘Black Wave’, identified films and film-makers to
be associated with it and effectively launched the counter-action against them.
This counter-action coincided with a general tightening up of progressive lib-
erties that had been allowed throughout the 1960s (among them New Film
and the Black Wave) in Yugoslavia in an attempt to present a positive image
of ‘socialism with a human face’ to the rest of the world. The counter-actions
were motivated in part by the Prague Spring in early 1968 and the Soviet


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Greg DeCuir, Jr.

intervention that was read as a potential threat of incursion as well as the

Belgrade student demonstrations in the summer of that year, which were seen
as a possible fomentation of a similar uprising. Revolution was in the air in the
1960s throughout the world and it was in the vested interests of those main-
taining positions of power to push back.
Black Wave films were created by the post-war generation that was con-
temporary with other groups that came to embody the new waves of their
respective national cinemas in the 1960s: the French and, more closely both
geographically and ideologically, the Polish and Czechs. Like the French, many
Black Wave film-makers got their start as film critics; many also circulated
around the Yugoslav Cinematheque (which Henri Langlois visited in 1954 to
programme a month-long series of screenings culled from the archives of the
Cinémathèque Française) and their local ciné-clubs where they made fiction,
non-fiction and experimental shorts. Like the Polish and Czechs many Black
Wave film-makers received a higher education at their national film school:
the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade (at that time called the Academy
of Theatre, Film, Radio and Television); some eventually became professors
there. The Black Wave film-makers were concerned with asserting authorial
independence and a subjective point of view in their work. This was a rejec-
tion of the ‘romantic’ socialist realist aesthetic that the Yugoslav film industry
was founded upon, which served heuristic and propagandistic purposes and
was designed to avoid abstract experimentation, as was clearly mandated in
Vučo’s programme (Goulding 1985: 9). The most vital issue for the Black Wave
film-makers was confronting the constructs and confines of the state and its
‘orthodox’ tendencies from the perspective of the new generation. Though
the Black Wave film-makers struggled against dogmatism they were not anti-
communists – they simply wanted a better socialism with equality and free-
dom for all.
Dušan Makavejev was born in 1932 in Belgrade, Serbia – later the capital of
Yugoslavia. Around the time he finished high school he became involved with
Belgrade Kino Club when it was established in 1950 (Babac 2001: 7), where
he programmed silent films and taught courses in cinema studies. Makavejev
also began making shorts at the club, his first effort a documentary completed
in 1953 entitled Jatagan mala/The Sword. He entered the Faculty of Philosophy
at the University of Belgrade where he graduated with a degree in psychol-
ogy in 1955. That same year Makavejev enrolled in the Academy of Theatre,
Film, Radio and Television as part of the directing group. Živojin Pavlovic’ was
born in 1933 in Šabac, Serbia. He moved to Belgrade as a young man and
began his studies in 1949 at the Academy of Applied Arts where he focused
on decorative painting. Upon graduating in 1959 he joined the Belgrade Kino
Club and also the Academic Kino Club where he began making his early film
shorts. Pavlovic’’s first production was an experimental film called Triptih o
materiji i smrti/Tryptych on Matter and Death (1960). Jovan Jovanovic’ was
born in Belgrade in 1940. He studied classical philosophy at the Faculty of
Philosophy in the University of Belgrade. Jovanovic’ enrolled at the Academy
of Theatre, Film, Radio and Television as part of the directing group in 1961,
where his professor was the Black Wave film-maker Aleksandar Petrovic’. In
1964 for a class exercise he completed a socially-critical documentary film enti-
tled Studentski grad/Students City, among his first directing efforts.
One of the strategies utilized by these and other Black Wave film-makers
to achieve a transformation in the audience from passive viewers/citizens to
active agents of change is the use of the political speech. This is the most


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Black Wave polemics: rhetoric as aesthetic

concrete and immediate symbol of rhetoric – its most basic channel of expres-
sion. Pavlovic’ opens his 1958 essay ‘U traganju za pravim simbolom/The
Search for Direct Symbols’ (Franic’ 2002: 163) with a quotation from Albert
Camus (1991) from his philosophical essay ‘Le Mythe de Sisyphe/The Myth
of Sisyphus’: ‘A symbol always transcends the one who makes use of it and
makes him say in reality more than he is aware of expressing.’ The transcend-
ent power of the political speech as a symbol is utilized by the Black Wave
film-makers to give their rhetoric more of a charge and to express the theme,
or logic, of their Methodical Marxist outlook, best described by Camus in the
closing lines of the same essay: ‘The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a
man’s heart’ (Camus 1991: 123).
This struggle of opinions was designed to produce a ruthless critique of
the system that structured Yugoslavia, which was an exposé on contemporary
reality, necessary if society was to be improved and a better life crafted for all –
especially those who were not ‘red bourgeoisie’, as the ruling party function-
aries were commonly labelled by the oppositional mindset. The Black Wave
film-making system was bait for constructive critical action on the part of the
masses to challenge the apparatchiks. This baiting was recognized for what it
was by the party functionaries, which is why many of the Black Wave films
and film-makers were attacked and persecuted – because they offered a rhet-
oric of revolution and a rejection of the status quo. After his debut film Mlad
i zdrav kao ruža/Young and Healthy as a Rose (1971) was denied a theatrical
release because it was deemed to be a provocative film that went against the
system, Jovanovic’ was unable to direct another feature-length film for thirteen
years. Makavejev fled the country after his film WR: Misterije organizma/WR:
Mysteries of the Organism (1971) was held back from general release. Pavlovic’
had the notoriety of his first feature-length film, the omnibus work Grad/The
City (1963), being the only one in the history of Yugoslav cinema to suffer an
official court-ordered ban; he also was removed from his job as a professor of
film directing at the Academy of Theatre, Film, Radio and Television in 1973.
If the logic of political speeches in Black Wave films was something
they held in common, their content (or subject) differed. Black Wave films
expressed varying topics but with a similar thematic structure (and differing
formal constructs). Films of particular concern in this study present the sym-
bol of political speechmaking in this rhetorical/polemical context. We can now
turn to an analysis of the films; first, in the area of content, or rhetoric, in an
attempt to elucidate the contemporary issues that were important to the film-
makers in question; after that, film language, or form, to understand how style
supports substance.


Young and Healthy as a Rose (an old Serbian expression meaning someone
who is vigorous and prosperous) tells the story of a wayward criminal and
his life on the streets of Belgrade, concluding with a speech that is deliv-
ered as a direct camera address. This speech is aimed at the audience beyond
the film frame, allowing for a very immediate (and reflexive) presentation.
Stevan (Dragan Nikolic’), the protagonist of the film, grabs a microphone and
comments briefly on the ending of the film which he has just enacted and
which we have just witnessed. He calls the ending a very ‘just’ conclusion,
in which the gangster (Stevan himself) meets his demise in a hail of police
bullets in classical Hollywood fashion. With satirical irony he also mentions


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Greg DeCuir, Jr.

the exciting though educational aspects of the film, which he says is how his
father would describe it, further linking to the hegemonic and patriarchal
Hollywood tradition (and its production code during the classical era, which
mandated social justice that was often realized in an educational, didactic
manner) while also criticizing the corresponding Yugoslav tradition. He next
refers directly to gangsters in classical films and how it is common for them
to die there, though something that is not always the case in real life. Finally,
he calls into question the convention of the happy ending in cinema and
leaves the viewer with one final thought: ‘I am your future.’ This is a warning
from the new generation to the old.
Young and Healthy as a Rose becomes an outwardly polemical film at this
and other points. It presents a picture of restless youth who are eager to
dominate society, to sweep away the conventions and morals of their father’s
generation. The final statement of the film is that youth will indeed be served.
Youth as a concept represents something beautiful, like a rose, while everything
old in the film represents authority, conformity – something to be rebelled
against, to be corrected. The rhetoric of youth is a rhetoric of survival of the
fittest, which often means the youngest and the healthiest. The revolutionary
message is clear as well as the matching revolutionary form – following from
that, the counter-revolutionary action of the older generation in suppressing
the film, which was held back from general release, as was WR: Mysteries of the
Organism that same year.
Near the opening of the second act in the film WR: Mysteries of the
Organism the protagonist Milena (played by the actress Milena Dravic’, an
attempt to blur the boundary between documentary and fiction through the
use of her real name) delivers an impassioned speech from her apartment
building balcony addressed to her neighbours. Her primary subject is sexual
liberation, which she equates to revolutionary activity and potential. She is
a proponent of free love and a Reichian (the ‘WR’ in the title of the film has
a dual significance: the Austrian-born sexual psychiatrist and psychoanalyst
Wilhelm Reich and also the phrase ‘world revolution’) of the opinion that
abstinence is counter-revolutionary. Milena briefly polemicizes against trust-
ing the press, among other things, saying there can be no conflict between
socialism and physical love. Picking up where the film Young and Healthy as a
Rose left off she also argues that frustrating the youth sexually will force them
to resort to other illicit thrills such as burglary, violence, alcoholism and politi-
cal riots. This statement evokes the orgy of violence seen at the conclusion of
Young and Healthy as a Rose when angry youths invade Hotel Yugoslavia, turn
it into a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, then engage in a wild shoot-
out with police forces. Her reference to political riots recalls the Belgrade stu-
dent movements against institutional corruption in 1968 and also the Prague
Spring, thus grounding her rhetoric in a concrete analysis of history.
The sexual revolution is equated with a free world erased of crime and
other ills of society – in short, with paradise. Sexual repression is linked
with destructive fascist regimes; those who cannot freely achieve an orgasm
search for a dangerously powerful surrogate – power itself. Thus, she argues,
the attraction of unfulfilled souls to politics and their mad grab for personal,
public, ideological and practical wealth. Milena’s speech ends with the neigh-
bours embracing hands and collectively singing about life not being worth
a thing without love. Though this spontaneous eruption into song truncates
her speech, the theme of the song supports Milena’s rhetoric of sexual release
(also functioning as an example of such a release). Therefore, her success as a


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Black Wave polemics: rhetoric as aesthetic

polemicist is confirmed and her power (or potency) as a rhetorician consum-

mated. She has sparked her audience kinetically toward a course of action.
In the following section we will analyse how Makavejev likewise attempts to
spark his viewing audience using a very unique filmic language.
The film Neprijatelj/The Enemy (Pavlovic’, 1965) is based on the 1846
novella The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It presents a practical plea for
help in the ironic guise of a political speech. The rhetoric is one of solidar-
ity; the polemics, a call to kinetic action. The film opens with the protagonist
Slobodan Antic’ (Bata Živojinovic’) standing on top of a supply truck calling
out to his co-workers for support in completing a task. The name Slobodan
translates into English as ‘free’ which, when considered against his slavish
dedication to work, is deeply ironic. He needs help unloading the large spools
of printing paper for the press that he works for, but his pleas fall on deaf
ears. In fact, his pleas are met with humour and derision. When Slobodan
changes tactics, asking what happens if it rains or snows, his co-workers fail
to see any urgency in this new message. Instead, it is every man for himself,
especially after hours. This rhetoric of solidarity is resisted on all fronts, even
as the exiting factory workers momentarily crowd around the truck to watch
Slobodan plead helplessly. This is not a passive audience – they border on the
antagonistic in their taunting attacks. Their excuses for not wanting to help
range from having kids at home to take care of to wondering who will pay for
the overtime if they stop to assist. The revolutionary rhetoric that produces
a logic of collectivity is met with opposition through a conflicting rhetoric of
individual (bourgeois) concerns. Slobodan comments on this when he men-
tions that the book they are printing must be a false one, being that it comes
from a ‘revolutionary press’. This explicit criticism of (self-managing) social-
ism and the mythic ideology of the valiant worker is forwarded very strongly
here in this opening pre-credit sequence.
The reception of this speech is frustrated and blunted on a second, ironic
level. Union members exiting a meeting see the commotion surrounding
Slobodan from a distance and write it off as some anti-state political speech.
Their indifference to what they see as hackneyed rhetoric and weak polem-
ics indicates the fact that speeches of this type were common at the time
and nothing to be considered too seriously. Of course, this indifference also
implies an indifference to dogmatic socialist ideology. One of the union mem-
bers even says to Slobodan, ‘All you do is talk and talk. Who’s gonna pay for
overtime?’ Again, revolutionary rhetoric does not outweigh capitalist aspira-
tions. This could be a commentary on the inadequacy of rhetoric or it could
be a commentary on the inadequacy of the people to make accurate value
judgements based on rhetoric. In fact, the inherent critical commentary here
hits on both points equally, which produces the second layer of irony – what
the union members hastily and mistakenly ignore and mislabel really is an
anti-state political speech. As depicted in the film there is no unity, no broth-
erhood and no honour in work. The revolution is flawed and so is socialism.
This speech is in line with the basic polemical structure of the Black Wave in
general, which agitates critically against a dogmatic ideology, society and film
form. We have been concerned with the first two up until this point; what fol-
lows is an analysis of the language of this rhetoric as film aesthetics.
After the opening sequence in The Enemy, the credit sequence begins and
depicts Slobodan struggling to unload the huge paper spools off of the truck
by himself – at one point slicing his hand open accidentally as a result of the
difficulty. Continuing with the theme of individual struggle versus solidarity


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Greg DeCuir, Jr.

initially presented as a dialectical opposition of logic, the first shot of the film
post-credits depicts the factory porter reading a newspaper entitled Jedinstvo,
which translates to ‘Unity’. However, furthering the rhetorical critique of this
ideology, the porter is situated in the frame alone. Not only that, he is placed
in a frame within the frame, as the glass box he works in isolates him from his
fellow workers and the rest of the society he is supposed to share ‘unity and
brotherhood’ with. That unity and brotherhood is depicted as a questionable
ideal in the opening sequence. Slobodan is consistently placed in a one-shot,
as those he delivers his speech to are gathered together in various wide shots.
The classical shot-reverse-shot pattern that the sequence utilizes thus has
rhetorical implications, reinforcing the theme presented polemically through
film language (content precedes and conditions form).
The mise-en-scène of this sequence appropriates the traditional/classical
form of a political speech – though this is something of an anti-speech, an
ironic presentation of a speech. Slobodan is standing on the bed of his truck
amidst the large spools of paper he has to unload. At this early stage of the film
he is physically associated with the printing press he works for – one can even
say he is symbiotically joined with this press. First appearing among the large
paper spools as if he is aligned with them, in a later scene he is merged with
the machinery of the press before he steps from behind its totally obscuring
view when the factory director calls out his name. Slobodan is one with the
machine – the blood on his injured hand that he pays no mind to is, to him, as
ink is to the press.
Slobodan stands above his audience when speaking to them and they must
look up to regard him. He inhabits a position of authority – though in real-
ity he has no authority and no persuasive rhetorical ability, which is another
ironic juxtaposition. This initial irony creates a subsequent level of irony when
the union members mistake his pleas for a political speech. Mise-en-scène, or
film language, creates the conditions of this logic. In Pavlovic’’s written film
theory he stated that ‘dimension is found in artwork through expressiveness’,
which is evidenced in the symbolic visual expressiveness marking this par-
ticular scene; he also wrote that this expressiveness as ‘raw and unfinished
pictures have the strongest associative ability, and towards that, the strongest
destructive power’ (Pavlovic’ 1969a: 67). A revolutionary destructiveness is an
ideal to be achieved in Pavlovic’ian cinema. By the crude and raw presentation
of the aesthetics of the political speech, an association, or belief, in those aes-
thetics ignites their ironic destruction (or deconstruction) in meaning as well.
Milena’s rhetoric in WR: Mysteries of the Organism also appropriates the
form of a political speech, this time with the matching content devoid of any
irony. The apartment building she lives in has four levels with an atrium that
grants visual access to each floor. Milena lives on the third and delivers her
speech from there, leaning over the railing so that all of her neighbours can
see and hear her. As her rhetoric becomes increasingly fiery a crowd begins
to grow on all of the levels, cheering her on when they hear points they
agree with.
Much like the speech in The Enemy, Milena inhabits a higher physical plane
than most of her audience – save for the ones residing on her floor and above it.
As a result, a great deal of the audience must gaze upwards to regard her. The
camera consistently frames her from below on the ground level in an upward
axis, sometimes in a level shot from the same floor – but never from above in a
high-angle shot. This mise-en-scène serves to empower Milena, as is the norm in
cinematic language when low-angle shots create an aggrandizing effect when


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Black Wave polemics: rhetoric as aesthetic

looking upwards at their subjects. This empowering position of authority adds

visual potency to her polemics and her persuasive rhetoric realizes its intended
effect of leading the audience kinetically towards a course of action. At a certain
point in the scene Milena is framed in a close-up and delivers her speech as a
direct camera address. This reinforces the point that her true intended audi-
ences are those of us residing beyond the film frame, who must ultimately be
affected by her critical challenge.
Milena clothes herself in symbols of power and authority by delivering this
speech while dressed in an army jacket, army cap emblazoned with a Partisan
red star and boots – a uniform which she borrows from a Yugoslav National
Army soldier who is affecting his own sexual revolution in the bedroom of her
roommate. The fact that Milena wears no trousers, only a nightgown, visu-
ally fuses the revolutionary sexual content of her rhetoric to the appropriate
revolutionary garb of power. Again, film language has been utilized to make
content all the more expressive and dimensional.
A reflexive film language not only kinaesthetically cements the course of
action that the audience is stirred to but also furthers the rhetoric in a cinematic
manner. This is achieved by Makavejev’s editing method in WR: Mysteries of
the Organism, which goes by the name ‘Serbian cutting’. Serbian cutting as a
theoretical conception was created by the Black Wave screenwriter and film
critic Branko Vučic’evic’ in his book Paper Movies (1998). Its original intention
was humorous. Vučic’evic’ (who worked on two films with Makavejev) felt that
if Serbs are fond of slaughtering people, there must be a method of film cut-
ting that corresponds. This method was elaborated on and defined as ‘using
existing material, as in archive footage, to substitute as original footage within
a scene in a film’ (Vučic’evic’ 1998). To this end the usual (though not only)
form of Serbian cutting is an interjection of illustrative documentary material
into the dramaturgy of a fiction film as a surrogate, producing an ideological
effect through dialectical alternation.
The audience of neighbours locks hands and begins dancing up the stairs
and across the floors while singing the praises of sex and that life without love
is nothing, finally reaching Milena and absorbing her into their train of theory
and practice. When Milena forms the final link in the human chain of solidar-
ity while approaching the camera she suddenly reaches out and grasps the
hand of the cameraman, thus absorbing the viewer, as the camera can be seen
to reflect our point of view. This moment stands as a concrete example of how
Black Wave film-makers attempted to aim polemics directly at an audience in
an effective manner to bring about revolutionary action. The Black Wave film
literally reaches out to the viewer, fracturing the screen’s fourth wall in an
attempt to build bridges.
After this initial reflexive pull at the audience Makavejev cuts in a rhe-
torical pattern that creates another reflexive pull – the next shot arrives as
a result of a match cut in action and image but comprised of a huge dis-
junction in space and time. We are immediately shuttled to Peking’s Red
Square in China and a huge demonstration in support of Chairman Mao.
On the exact same axis of the previous shot, walking in the same screen
direction along an elevated floor beside a balcony, are Mao and a few party
officials. This documentary footage plays under the continued sound of the
Serbian chanting, creating a dialectical opposition. The fiction film is given a
documentary correlative in reality as we witness the massive Chinese crowd
surging forward with their little red books held high. Makavejev delivers a
critical underscoring and warning to his previous attempt to ignite a course


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Greg DeCuir, Jr.

of action: what starts as a spark can quickly grow into an unchecked rev-
olutionary inferno with misguided principles and disastrous outcomes (as
was the case with Mao’s Cultural Revolution). The power of Serbian cut-
ting as a practice, as cinematic rhetoric, is expressed here. The alternation
between fictional footage and documentary actuality footage produces a
third logic that is greater than the sum of its parts, yet is able to maintain
a continuity of form through discontinuity. This is radical montage cinema,
dialectical materialist cinema, and if we are now utilizing a formalist theo-
retical approach to gain an understanding and gauge the effectiveness of
Makavejev’s and others’ methods in film language, it is because, as the lit-
erary critic Northrop Frye (1957) has stated, ‘We cannot judge a quality of
style by choice of subject-matter. The real difference is rather in the concep-
tion of the sentence.’
In Young and Healthy as a Rose the visual conventions of the political
speech are abandoned entirely. What we are left with instead is a complete
appropriation of the documentary form to forward rhetoric. This is another
reflexive moment that fractures the dramatic unity of the film and the seam-
less representation that it adheres to in a (post-)classical manner. The fractur-
ing is indebted to the filmic criticism that is part of the polemical approach of
the Black Wave film. In fact, the protagonist Stevan even engages in a bit of
film criticism himself by rendering an analysis of the dramaturgy that he has
That this analysis is offered in a documentary presentation, a represen-
tation of reality is thus used to give extra weight to the rhetoric in question.
Stevan holds a microphone much like a television news reporter, delivering his
speech in a direct camera address; he is framed in a loose, handheld manner
that recalls the conventions of cinéma-vérité, or direct cinema. Television jour-
nalism is also hinted at, particularly a contemporary Yugoslav news magazine
programme called Aktuelnosti/Actuality. This scene plays out while Stevan and
his friends from the film sit at a café on the streets of Belgrade. Reality has bled
over into the film – to the point where that is all that remains, drama being
entirely wiped clean from the screen. This is highlighted by the fact that in the
previous shot Stevan is stumbling towards his doom after being hit by gunfire –
but he does not fall or die. Instead he enters a wide ray of sunlight that causes
a large lens flare that obscures him, immediately followed by a cut to a young
and healthy Stevan sitting at a café with his friends. This is not quite a cin-
ematic resurrection, as he did not reach the moment of death in the previous
shot, but it is a renewal.
The politics of that renewal is Stevan’s final statement, ‘I am your future.’
The implication is clear: this form of rhetoric, these youths, will inherit the
nation and the world. Also, these directionless youths reflect the cycle of futility
and deceit (while also being victimized by it) that would eventually bring down
the entire country of Yugoslavia. If rhetoric is an aesthetic and style is the man,
rhetoric evolves over time. It changes as it grows. What was once young and
healthy can become old and dangerous. So this final comment is loaded with
significance. The revolutionary youths of Young and Healthy as a Rose in the
early 1970s became the politicians and party functionaries that presided over
the wars of secession in the former Yugoslavia. The youths broke with the tra-
ditions of their fathers, the traditions of unity and brotherhood – but not in a
way that was consistent with their original Marxist humanist ideal. This disas-
trous break is augured in Jovanovic’’s film, which ultimately proves to be very
uncanny in its prediction of the future.


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Black Wave polemics: rhetoric as aesthetic

The climax of the film features the unruly youths inhabiting the symbolic
Hotel Yugoslavia by force, by the barrel of a gun. They destroy themselves in
a wild firefight with the authorities that explodes into all-out war. Polemical
rhetoric is politics and politics is war without guns. War is politics with guns.
The rhetoric presented in Young and Healthy as a Rose animates itself and
comes to life, through a documentary aesthetic and through the course of
time in reality.

Babac, Marko (2001), Kino-klub ‘Beograd’/Belgrade Kino Club, Belgrade, Serbia:
Jugoslovenska kinoteka.
Camus, Albert (1991), The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays, New York:
Vintage Books.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor (2008), The Double, Stilwell, KS: Publishing.
Franic’, Severin M. (ed.) (2002), Svod–enje računa: jugoslovenska filmska misao
1896–1996/Final Account: Yugoslav Film Thought 1896–1996, Belgrade,
Serbia: Ne & Bo/Yu Film danas.
Frye, Northrop (1957), Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press.
Gorky, Maxim (1977), Soviet Writers’ Congress 1934, London: Lawrence and
Goulding, Daniel J. (1985), Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience,
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Jovanovic’, Jovan (1964), Studentski grad/Students City, SFRY: Academy of
Theatre, Film, Radio and Television.
—— (1971), Mlad i zdrav kao ruža/Young and Healthy as a Rose, SFRY: Dunav
Lukács, György (1971 [orig. in German 1922]), History and Class Consciousness,
London: The Merlin Press Ltd.
Makavejev, Dušan (1953), Jatagan mala/Little Sword, SFRY: Kino klub Beograd.
—— (1971), WR: Misterije organizma/WR: Mysteries of the Organism, SFRY:
Neoplanta Film.
Milne, Tom (ed.) (1972), Godard on Godard, New York: Da Capo Press.
Pavlovic’, Živojin (1960), Triptih o materiji i smrti/Tryptych on Matter and
Death, SFRY: Akademski kino klub.
—— (1965), Neprijatelj/The Enemy, SFRY: Viba Film.
—— (1969a), Ðavolji film/Devil Film, Belgrade, Serbia: Institut za film.
Pavlovic’, Živojin, Babac, Marko and Rakonjac, Kokan (1963), Grad/The City,
SFRY: Sutjeska Film.
Tucker, Robert C. (ed.) (1978), The Marx-Engels Reader, Revised Edition, New
York and London: W.W. Norton and Co.
Vorkapich, Slavko (1998), On True Cinema, Belgrade, Serbia: Faculty of
Dramatic Arts.
Vuc’ievic’, Branko (1998), Paper Movies, Belgrade and Zagreb, Serbia and
Croatia: Arkzin and B 92.

DeCuir, Jr., G. (2010), ‘Black Wave polemics: rhetoric as aesthetic’, Studies in
Eastern European Cinema 1: 1, pp. 85–96, doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.85/1


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Greg DeCuir, Jr.

Greg DeCuir, Jr. is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade
where he is writing a dissertation on the history of Yugoslav cinema. He holds
a BA in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and an MA in Cinematic
Arts from the University of Southern California. Mr DeCuir works as an
adjunct professor in the Faculty of Media and Communications at Singidunum
University (Belgrade) and as an independent documentary film-maker.
Contact: Faculty of Dramatic Arts, Bulevar umetnosti 20, 11070, Novi Beograd,


SEEC 1.1_2_art_DeCuir_085-96.indd 96 2/17/10 8:46:15 AM

SEEC 1 (1) pp. 97–107 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Eastern European Cinema

Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Miscellaneous. English language. doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.97/7


University of Massachusetts Amherst

Conversation with
Yvette Biró: interviews
conducted in Paris,
5 July 2008, and
New York City,
1 November 2008
Essayist, theorist, screenwriter and Professor Emerita at New York University’s
Kanbar Institute of Film and Television, Tisch School of the Arts Graduate
Division, Yvette Biró has inspired viewers, students, film scholars, film-makers
and readers throughout the world. Her books and essays, translated into French,
Chinese, Czech, German, Greek and Slovenian, among other languages, include
Turbulence and Flow in Film: The Rhythmic Design (2008); The Metamorphosis of
the Image (2003); To Dress a Nude: Exercises in Imagination (1998, first published
in French as Habiller un nu – de l’imagination au scénario (La FEMIS, 1996),
and in Hungarian as Egy akt felöltöztetése (Osiris Kiadó, 1996)); Festina Lente: In


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Catherine Portuges

Praise of Slowness (1997); The Seventh Art (1997); The Order of Disorder (1993);
Filmkultura 65/67 (collected essays) (1991); Profane Mythology: The Savage Mind
of the Cinema (1982); Miklós Jancsó (1977); The Dramatic Structure of Film (1968);
and The Language of Film (1964).
These magisterial texts, at once complex and devoid of jargon, traverse
disciplinary boundaries from philosophy and literature to art history, aesthet-
ics, music and film culture. Whether foregrounding Kiarostami or Kieslowski,
Agnès Varda or Gus Van Sant, Wim Wenders, Béla Tarr or Wong Kar-wai,
they argue in favour of an international cinema of resistance, of silence, of
contemplation and reverie.
In her native Hungary and in international co-productions, Yvette Biró has
collaborated with major directors including Zoltán Fábri (Late Season/Utószezon,
1966); Twenty Hours/Husz Óra (1965, Grand Prix, Moscow International
Festival); Károly Makk, Márta Mészáros, Agnieszka Holland, George Sluizer
(The Stone Raft (2002), based on the novel by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago),
and Miklós Jancsó (Winter Wind/Téli sirokkó (1969)); The Confrontation/Fényes
szelek (1968); Agnus Dei (1970); Red Psalm/Még kér a nép (1972, Grand Prix du
Jury, Cannes); Thomas Harlan (Wundkanal: Execution for Four Voices (1984),
Reader Jury Prize, Berlin Film Festival); and Sudhir Mishra (Twist with Destiny/
Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2003), India/France). Biró’s screenwriting collabo-
ration with Kornél Mundruczó includes Delta (2007, Grand Prize Golden Reel
and Gene Moskowitz Foreign Critics Award, 39th Hungarian Film Week;
FIPRESCI Prize, Cannes Film Festival (2008); Johanna (2005, Best Director,
Hungarian Film Critics Award); and Pleasant Days/Szép Napok (2002, Silver
Leopard, Locarno).
Now residing in Paris, Yvette Biró has been visiting professor at Stanford
and Berkeley, and at universities in Budapest, Paris and Jerusalem; she fre-
quently conducts master classes in screenwriting in the United States, Canada,
Europe, Africa and Asia. The recipient of numerous awards and distinctions
in each of the fields in which she has worked, she served as vice-president of
FIPRESCI from 1970 to 1977. After twenty years of exile, she was awarded the
Béla Balázs Prize for Life Achievement in Cinematography in 1995.
CP: Your most recent book, Turbulence and Flow in Film, focuses on temporality
as a primary element of film-making, on the ways in which rhythm endows cin-
ema with its particular power through the flux and progression of images and the
pacing of narrative. What did you wish to express that also is reflected in Delta?
There seems to be an intimate link between these extremes or polarities. I’m espe-
cially interested in the connections between your generation and that of younger
film-makers today.
YB: There are two major questions here, both deserve an answer. For the
first – the sense of time and rhythm in contemporary film-making – my
intention came out almost as a cry against the hysterical speed of action
films. I wanted to remind us of the values of human emotions, contradic-
tions, complexities, calling attention to the calm and patience we need for
a deeper understanding. In Delta, we consciously emphasized these often-
neglected features.
Regarding the generation gap, yes, I dare say that there is a huge difference
between mine and the contemporary one. My generation grew up with the
excitement and pleasure of the discovery of the New Wave, of Antonioni, the
Czech films of the 1960s, with the great challenge to classical storytelling, and
tried to find a freer approach in terms of style, mise-en-scène, subject matter,


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Conversation with Yvette Biró

performance – in fact, what film as an art has to contribute to contemporary

culture. That period was the peak of modern film history, and my generation
was inebriated by it. In Eastern Europe, it was further coloured by a social and
moral urge to refuse a kind of official orthodox conception of film, to try to be
at once personal while at the same time touching upon the most intense dis-
satisfaction and anxiety of a whole society and its ruling order.
We called this refusal ‘democratic opposition’ and raised our voices against
the prevailing repression and limitation of free speech. In Filmkultura, a jour-
nal I founded and edited, we tried to touch upon those taboo issues, to talk
about the needs and pain and restrictions of personal and public life, risk-
ing the punishments that followed. Once it was no longer the artists’ subver-
sive and audacious task to promulgate the goals of democracy, film-making
lost something of its earlier fantastic power and opportunity to be the lead-
ing art that it had been during those years. It became something more com-
mon, closer to entertainment, which is not a bad thing or something to blame.
Regrettably, however, the sense of a higher inspiration is very rare as a kind
of primary need.
There is no longer an everyday battlefield in the arena of film-making.
Political struggle is no longer the privilege of the artistic endeavour.
Something has been achieved, but something has also been lost. The excep-
tional role of film in the 1960s and 1970s worldwide is no longer prevalent.
But, on the other hand, you still have to find your audience and understand
how to address them with issues they’re concerned with, even though not
necessarily on a daily basis, and sadly too often this can mean a loss of qual-
ity. It is understandable that film-makers today have to meet the needs of
their own public, but it shouldn’t have to mean giving up taste and mean-
ing. I’ve always believed that film has the right to play on different registers,
some deliberately more ambitious than others. Making a good comedy is
demanding and not easy.
Moviegoers today are mostly very young, and there’s no reason to under-
estimate their needs, even though they’re so attracted to popular entertain-
ment. There is still room for intriguing enterprises, not only the cheap or the
vulgar. Technology, of course, has changed the whole structure of the role of
film in society, and its potential is far from being exhausted. The surprising
and the imaginative should and will find new genres and forms.
CP: You’ve been collaborating with Kornél Mundruczo since 2001 on several film
projects (Pleasant Days/Szép Napok (2002); Johanna (2005); Delta (2008)).
You’ve also been instrumental in launching and encouraging the film-making
careers of many younger directors such as Marcell Iványi, whose short subject
Wind/Szél (Hungary, 1996) won the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film at the Cannes
Film Festival. Ivanyi has said that you create an ideal setting for writing through
your charismatic energy.
YB: When I first saw Kornél’s diploma film, Aphta/Day after Day (2000), a
short subject (which won several international awards), I was surprised by
the ‘nothingness’ of the story and the subtle richness of the fine observations,
so characteristic of today’s marginalized adolescents (all non-professionals,
of course), with their unspoken desires, confusion and painful restlessness.
The film was almost silent, the experience was expressed only in gestures
and physical movements. Our ongoing dialogue started at that time, about
seven years ago. When he started to prepare his feature film, he asked me to
collaborate on it as well, first as a mentor and then as a consultant on Pleasant


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Catherine Portuges

Days, and as a co-author on Johanna. For Delta, we decided to share the writ-
ing process and the elaboration of the idea. The drama, the tragic, sudden
death of the original lead actor, Lajos Bertók, during the first half of the pro-
duction process obviously affected us, and we immediately understood that if
ever we wanted to recommence it, we had to radically depart from the more
classical Electra story of Euripides, with its murder of the father that has to be
avenged. Simplifying the plot entailed, of course a radical change of tone and
style. We were striving for excessive simplicity. Not so incidentally, I had just
published an essay, ‘The Fullness of Minimalism’, in Rouge (no. 9, 2006) which
very much preoccupied not only me but also influenced both of us in the work
on the film.
CP: You have said that Mundruczó was the most brilliant participant in a workshop
you conducted at the Hungarian Film Academy. Your discussion of his Diploma
film, Aphta – his first prize-winning short film – began the substantial dialogue
that endures today in your close collaboration. How would describe his creative
process and your working relationship?
YB: We start our ‘reaming’ process by thinking about interesting human char-
acters who have a destiny, a path they have to follow. We try to imagine their
behaviour, movements and motivations, sometimes even writing a whole CV
of their origins, relationships. At first we don’t set up formal plots. I believe
it is very important that, coming from the world of theatre, Kornél has had
extensive acting experience. He instinctively senses the inner dynamics of
action; he pays attention to the emotions and passions as they work ‘under-
neath’ at each moment. He looks for the most telling gesture as it embodies the
latent turmoil of the characters. What is concealed and startling has to come
through the smallest sign. Our discussions revolve around these aspects, and
the final meaning has to spring out of this palpable vision, when suddenly a
kind of model takes shape, in a distinct design, a living structure, a recogniz-
able ‘topos’.
One of our perhaps distant but nonetheless important inspirations in Delta
was the Heinrich von Kleist novella, The Earthquake in Chile/Das Erdbeben
in Chili (1878) with its cruel and unexpected ending when, after the relief
of exoneration, a terribly evil indictment occurs. As in classical drama the
denouement carries out a tragic destiny. Which also means that in our revised
story the ‘moral’ has changed: instead of a justified revenge, we wanted to
focus on the injury caused by a suddenly ravaging intolerance.

CP: In Mundruczó’s artistic development, which film-makers would you say have
been most influential thus far?

YB: There have been two basic masters: Bresson and Ozu, although Fassbinder
is of substantial importance to him as well.
Absolute de-dramatization was the major principle of Bresson. In our
collaboration on Delta, we wanted to emphasize that, as in Mouchette (1967,
based on the novel of Georges Bernanos), the dramatic conflict and the condi-
tions that lead the girl to suicide are never dramatized, only touched upon.
The viewer has to put together the allusions, the bits of information, and
when we arrive at the ending, the death becomes the inevitable yet somehow
unexpected solution.

CP: The primal, poetic tragedy of Delta follows the unwelcome return of a prodigal
son, his incestuous relationship with his sister, and their attempt to build themselves


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Conversation with Yvette Biró

a house in the middle of a river, far away from everybody else, to celebrate their
freedom. What was the point of departure for making Delta?
YB: Kornél first discovered the landscape (the Romanian Danube delta) and felt
deeply that it called for a film. He made two short film études of its stillness and
dangerous beauty, its non-idyllic yet more mysterious nature. Since distances
there are so vast that people cannot easily communicate, that landscape evokes
solitude, even threat. Everything is so isolated and far away, which makes you
feel a sense of non-belonging. Buying timber takes almost a full day, which is
why the girl has to sleep in their father’s once-abandoned shack for the first
time. But we only understand this from a short sentence. These are subtleties –
nothing is really spelt out. There is rape here, too, as in Mouchette, but it remains
deliberately so much in the background that the spectator has to feel it from the
distance, without lingering on the terrible action.
CP: What were your reasons for bringing Bresson’s work to Kornél’s attention in
making this film?
YB: I felt that Bresson would be indispensable to the process of absorbing the
film. For the purity – it’s so shining, it’s more dramatic than anything else,
more than huge confrontations or expressions of fury or turbulence. In their
unadorned simplicity, actions and events are almost sacred. In Mouchette the
whole narrative is like a flow, which inspired the title of my book, Turbulence
and Flow in Film: the Rhythmic Design. And the turbulence that lies just below
the surface throughout creates a feeling of foreboding. I think that also in
Delta the ambiance is constantly menacing, although not explicitly so. We feel
the stepfather’s hostility, his harshness, but little is shown directly.

CP: Were you inspired by other film-makers as well?

YB: We ‘studied’ A Story of Floating Weeds (1959) and others by Yasujiro Ozu,
in which the events are about everyday life, the conflicts beneath, without
any special emphasis. Nothing theatrical, again, it’s the lack of strong dra-
matic accents, the flow that we were so fond of. Since we had the water – the
Danube – the stream of images seemed natural. But by the end, the develop-
ment had to become much more fragmented, creating a different tone and
rhythm. This aspect was already in the script, but to realize it was a bit more
complex. It’s my custom never to go to the shoot; it is and has always been
Kornél’s work. With Miklós Jancsó, I did go on location because everything
was created on the spot, through camera movement. Here, on the other hand,
I followed it through e-mail and by telephone. I might be partly responsible
for the specific approach and mood, but he’s the director and has to be given,
with my great pleasure and confidence, this freedom.
We discussed to what extent the expected evenness, the steady current (a
defining characteristic of Bresson’s and Ozu’s film-making) could be accept-
able to a wider public who might find it boring, hoping this smoothness
would be rewarding, and that the visual part would be so sensuous, caress-
ing, particularly with its troubling undertone, that the film would be engag-
ing. The camera moves as the water flows, tenderly. On the other hand, so
much of the film’s time is dedicated to the physical work of building the
house that it brings about another aspect of the couple’s life – it becomes
the tie that binds them together. No reason to deny the symbolic nature
of this house-building – creating a free, independent home is the dream of
people longing for liberty.


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Catherine Portuges

CP: How did you work out the structure of the dialogue, then?

YB: The dialogue is a work of progressive reduction – at the beginning it was

much more written, and we constantly minimized it. He said: I think I’ll cut
this part, and I said, do it. I can see the gesture, the composition of the mise-
en-scène, so there’s no reason to discuss it. Cut it, cut it! When we got to the
editing, a lot was eliminated, because we realized that, by itself, the scene was
strong enough without comment or verbal explanation.

CP: How is this way of working different from other experiences you’ve had with

YB: It is different, because it is not very common to have this kind of close
exchange. My other relatively recent experience was the Jose Saramago story,
The Stone Raft (1996), in which I had a more initiating role. I discovered the
book, wrote the screenplay out of passionate love, without a director in mind,
and the master writer gave me full permission for everything. It was not easy
to find the appropriate director, but in the end George Sluizer, a successful
and intelligent person, faithfully followed the unusual, poetic story.

CP: Can you talk a bit more about how you and Kornél work together as screen-
writer and director?

We discuss a lot and we discover from our long, long conversations what
seems to be authentic, memorable. It’s an eternal dialogue that elucidates on
both sides things that weren’t strong, or clear enough, before. Usually he has
a more or less vague dream. But by discussing and questioning, then chang-
ing, restarting, omitting, we go recurrently all along the knots and decisive
moments. The power of the ambience, the hidden emotions have to prevail.
We work according to the inevitable rule: first building up, expanding the fab-
ric and later cutting it away, peeling it off. So it’s not a one-way process. He
needs a partner to discuss, to explain and imagine what he wants, and to
listen to the impact. If I say no, that doesn’t work, we’ll find another solution.
And then he asks: can you tell me in one sentence what it’s all about, the kind
of core, the substance that sums it up? Tell me – and since I can feel it and I’m
used to expressing myself in words, I can do that! It helps define the focus of
the scene.

CP: In your teaching at NYU and the many master classes in screenwriting and
workshops and seminars you’re invited to give around the world, what concerns,
fears and aspirations expressed by your students are particularly striking? What
kinds of questions do they ask about your own work in cinema, such as your col-
laboration with Jancsó and Mészáros? And how does your workshop teaching differ
from your classes at NYU?

YB: I’d rarely talk about my personal inspirations or approaches. My only

piece of advice in this matter could be: listen to your worries, the experi-
ences that bother you, to the ‘pain’ and/or pleasure that doesn’t let you
sleep peacefully… And then in class I usually say: forget everything you’ve
ever known, read, were taught about film-making. I don’t believe in iron-
clad dramatic principles, I want to hear what you’re thinking, imagining,
dreaming… What do you want to let me feel, what should I experience. And
then I can help to clarify it, to define to what extent the little story serves
the inner idea. We continue in a dialogue, I listen and discuss, since each


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Conversation with Yvette Biró

one needs a different structure, style, tone. I try to follow this inner dream
and stand by in the shaping of it – I’m not teaching. I’m listening and then
weaving and shaping the piece. Are you aware, I will ask, of the impact
of what you’re doing? Is it precisely what you originally wanted? All the
changes happen in this ‘dialogical’ way. Ambitious students understand it
and like it, I hope that they’ve gained something through this method and
therefore may come back to me over and over.

CP: You’ve obviously had a profound and lasting impact on film culture for many
years. Would you say that you have a particular method or approach to working
with your film-making colleagues?

YB: I like to listen, discuss and read, so over the years I have found some
kindred souls, directors, writers, thinkers with whom I feel close, in different
fields, including psychiatrists, neurologists – not exclusively among film peo-
ple, since I’ve never practised only a single profession. In addition to screen-
writing, I’ve written critical essays and books, and taught in many settings.
I’ve always combined them, each has helped the other, and I’m sure that
without teaching I wouldn’t be so sharp and open, impolite and direct. With
the critical essays, I am always affected by the sensual power and impact of
the film – it is the emotional force of the movie that excites me, more than the
plot. At NYU we have to follow the work with our students to the bitter end,
from inception to the finished piece. I am happy to do so and am very familiar
with each step and stage.

CP: Are there, in your view, significant comparisons to be made between the process
of film-making and the art of teaching? How might you characterize your greatest
pleasures in each mode?

YB: To put my finger on something which affected, touched me. This is a

procedure, a process, you attempt to name a complex entity in a meaning-
ful sentence, a specific idea or vision, to define something that has been so
unfathomably vague. What intrigues me is how to seize the particular secret
of a given work. I want to go for that special feature, the quality that character-
izes the director’s or student’s talent, or even a general topic that could make
a work unique and significant. That’s why I like to write reviews and critical
essays as well. In some cases, it comes down to a single image or metaphor.
I’m a ‘film person’ – but hopefully not imprisoned by that category. Painting,
literature or music may offer a better way of summarizing the substance. For
me, referring to musical terms and compositional elements can be very pro-
ductive. Godard says, in a beautiful sentence, that to change from a close-up
to a long shot is like going in music from flat to sharp – that’s a terrifically fine
remark. He’s right that in film if you are aware of these chances and subtle-
ties, your work will be extremely sensible and varied.

CP: In Turbulence in Flow in Film you say that Béla Tarr uses only two lenses,
two frame scales – the extreme close-up for the face, and the wide shot that contextu-
alizes the environment and distances character. Both are associated with long takes,
allowing ‘the elimination of all concrete and realistic descriptions’, as you suggest.
What is the significance of this focus for you?

YB: Little has been written about the role of rhythm in film, though I believe
that it provides the spirit and ambiance of the work: patience and outburst are
deeply interrelated. In the book, I tried to suggest that there is no turbulence


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Catherine Portuges

without flow, and vice versa – to feel and understand this alternation is the
heart of a film. Turbulence is an unexpected accumulation of invisible, grow-
ing energies, but it is a consequence, a result of deeply streaming forces. I’m
clearly in favour of ‘slow films’. I do believe that we must rediscover the power
of peacefulness and calm that rises to the surface, as in Delta. It’s the secret
of the dynamics of energy. I adore Bergman, the great master of this psychic
realm of unexpected outbursts of hatred and repression, which come out for
reasons not logically related to the moment, but from far away. What is the
unconscious, after all, if not repression? The lack of awareness, lack of under-
standing, of acceptance, the falsifying and covering up which after a while will
come out – that’s turbulence. It doesn’t necessarily conform to direct inten-
tions or sentiments; it may even seem unjust, as in Delta. It’s not a logical
decision but irrepressible passion, emotion – in the end, experienced only

CP: And what of the meaning of ‘flow’, in your conceptualization?

It’s our need to live life, to enjoy it, to pay attention, to be patient, to be calm,
to wait, to wait, to wait. In cinema as in life we have to wait, following ongoing
events for something that will definitely happen, there is no seamless unfold-
ing of events. Therefore it is expectation that creates real suspense. The more
you can wait and look forward to the next moment that hasn’t yet arrived,
the more suspense can grow. Hitchcock does this consciously in a cunning
way – playing with delaying techniques. All elements can be present to delay
the denouement.
Acceleration in modern life has become so aggressive and violent that we
have no time for our pain or pleasure, events follow each other so quickly, we
want to do everything at once, make love, go to the movies, watch TV – the
rhythm of daily life is quite dizzying. It’s a tragedy that makes me want to say:
slow down, stop, to become truer and richer in experience.

CP: Your life and career have always been in some sense grounded in several cul-
tures and languages at once. What would you say are some of the effects of that
multicultural experience with regard to your concerns and inspirations today?

YB: I’m trying to talk about art, as a person who came from Eastern Europe
and fortunately succeeded in moving around in the larger world. I studied in
Budapest and began my career there. When I realized I couldn’t fully accom-
plish what I wanted there, circumstances brought me to America where I
found a totally different world. I enjoyed the freedom and enormous energy
that I deeply respect and admire; I found that classical American films had
great power, and that they were different from what we in Eastern Europe
had imagined. On the other hand, I remained very deeply rooted in European
ideas and culture, especially French culture, having spent many years going
back and forth. Clearly, the major master film-makers of those days marked
my ambitions and taste even today. I was fortunate to be able to benefit
from both European and American visual cultures, never claiming or pre-
tending that I could be an American artist, which I’m not. But I’ve learned
and absorbed a great deal from living and teaching in the United States and
especially meeting so many wonderful young people. And, since the world
has become globalized, it’s been fantastic to be in the midst of these cultural
influences, including those from Japan, Korea and Hong Kong, which are so
important to me.


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Conversation with Yvette Biró

CP: So would you say that your artistic and intellectual life has bridged these cul-

YB: I have the fortune or perhaps misfortune of not being rooted in a single
culture, having instead lived in many different ones, which has brought me
a broad experience as an artist. I could never state that I belong to any of
them in particular. As a result, I became a wanderer, enjoying all these new
influences, trying to use them in my own way. I’ve worked in Rome, Paris,
Jerusalem, Germany, Finland, Istanbul and in India – in many, many places.
My curiosity and openness didn’t allow me the option of landing in any one
place, nor of claiming that there is one single, particular well-defined idea of
the art of film.

CP: In what ways, then, does being a wanderer have an impact on your experience
as a film-maker?

YB: Although there is still of course national film production everywhere, over
the last few years it seems to me that the ‘wandering camera’ has become
far more frequent. My students go to study and work in Prague, Budapest,
Berlin, Beijing, as I do. Because of its mobility – film, after all, was born as a
mobile art – it has become ten thousand times more open to travel. I think
this is another reason why the boundaries between fiction and documentary
are called into question so much today. To discover what’s new, anywhere – in
Turkey, in Taiwan – is a fantastic contribution not just to culture but to our
lives, to our attitudes. How do we approach things, how do we shape our
lives, our children’s lives? What should our world become tomorrow? I have
no grand answers to any of this … what’s exciting in drama and film is that
you can focus on a small, personal issue. By developing it, you reach out to
something larger, more general.
You know, for me, Delta is a story about the terrible consequences of the
refusal of difference, a story of rejection of the other. Intolerance happens all
over the world. One cannot talk about it enough, or show its horrifying impact
enough. Irrational hatred, envy and destructiveness are the most intolerable
phenomena – their frequency and savagery have become the most scandalous
banality of our time.
CP: You seem to have a special affinity with and profound understanding of younger
people – your students and film-makers. What do you find to be the source of this
sustained interest?
YB: Because they’re younger, they come from different circumstances and sen-
sibilities. I hope I can learn from them – I ‘exploit’ them! I try to understand
their different lives, their affinities, why they choose a story, for instance, what
the core of their passion is, and then eventually to help them articulate it.
When I came to NYU for the first time, I told them: I’m here to disturb you. I
want to shake you up – to have you become restless, excited, to think further
and more deeply, not simply do your homework. As you might imagine, this
kind of thing was not so popular – here I was, coming from Europe where
people are fond of irony, which is natural to me, but not necessarily to them!
Yet I really felt that was my mission here – to disturb students. We played
the game, ever more joyfully, and I hoped to help them find their own truth.
Instead of following rules I say: try to discover who you are – then you’ll have
a personal voice that will be unique whether you come from Slovakia or Hong
Kong or Turkey, so develop it.


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Catherine Portuges

Writing about a film-maker I love comes from the same passion as talk-
ing to a student who needs to bring out her own voice, just as I’m looking for
the heart or central metaphor of a book, film or piece of music. In my writing,
and in my own, unruly way, I may be emotional, biased, even rhetorical, but
hopefully more or less consistent. This may sound strange, given all I’ve said,
but I’m not patient, I’m not slow, I’m very fast, and maybe this explains my
longing for calm and slowness. A paradox? Of course! I believe that we can
stop time and in this way bring it closer to our needs and pleasure. I wanted
to argue that we can tame time, joyfully – defeat, in some way, the tyranny of
passing time.

Figure 1: Yvette Biro.


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Conversation with Yvette Biró

Catherine Portuges is Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of the
Interdepartmental Program in Film Studies at the University of Massachusetts
at Amherst. She is the author of Screen Memories: the Hungarian Cinema
of Márta Mészáros (l993) and co-editor, with Peter Hames, of Cinema in
Transition: Post-Socialist East Central Europe (Temple University Press, 2010).
She is guest editor of Kinokultura no. 7 (a special issue on Hungarian cinema)
(February 2008) A
specialist in European cinema and a frequent festival delegate and program-
mer, her recent essays have appeared in Projected Shadows: Psychoanalytic
Reflections on the Representation of Loss in European Cinema (Routledge, 2007),
Structures et Pouvoirs des Imaginaires (L’Harmattan, 2007), Caméra Politique:
Cinema et Stalinisme (Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2005), East European Cinemas
(Routledge, 2005), The Cinema of Central Europe (Wallflower, 2005), and The
Holocaust in Hungary: Sixty Years Later (Columbia, 2006).

Contact: University of Massachusetts Amherst, 129 Herter Annex, MA 01003,



SEEC 1.1_2_Int_portuges_097-108.indd 107 2/17/10 8:52:35 AM

Transnational Cinemas
ISSN 2040-3550 (2 issues | Volume 1, 2010)

Aims and Scope

Transnational Cinemas has emerged in response to a shift in global film cultures
and how we understand them. Dynamic new industrial and textual practices are
being established throughout the world and the academic community is responding.
Editors Our journal aims to break down traditional geographical divisions and welcomes
9jea\Y\]dY?YjrY submissions that reflect the changing nature of global filmmaking.
;dYm\aYEY_YddYf]k%:dYf[g Call for Papers
<]ZgjY`K`Yo Transnational Cinemas covers a vast and diverse range of film related subjects. It
\]ZgjY`&k`Yo8hgjl&Y[&mc provides a new and exciting forum for disseminating research. The editors are seeking
articles, interviews, visual essays, reports on film festivals and conferences. Articles
jml`&\gm_`lq8hgjl&Y[&mc should be up to 6,000 words in length and should be written in English, with all
quotations translated.

afl]dd][lbgmjfYdk ooo&afl]dd][lZggck&[ge

SEEC 1.1_2_Int_portuges_097-108.indd 108 2/17/10 8:52:35 AM

SEEC 1 (1) pp. 109–126 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Eastern European Cinema

Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.109/4



Polish Postcommunist Cinema: From Pavement Level, New Studies in
European Cinema, vol. 4, Ewa Mazierska, (2007), Oxford: Peter
Lang, 299 pp., ISBN 978–3039105298 (pbk), £35.00

Reviewed by Kamila Kuc, Birkbeck College, University of London

The United Kingdom rarely witnesses a flood of contemporary Polish films

and, exaggerating only slightly, common knowledge has it that the best of
Polish cinema ends with Krzysztof Kieślowki. Iconic figures such as Andrzej
Wajda or Roman Polański are widely recognized; interestingly, Wajda’s last
film to be distributed in the United Kingdom up until the recent Katyń (2008)
was Korczak (1990), while the majority of contemporary Polish cinema remains
unknown in the United Kingdom. There is a rare occasion to remedy this at
Kinoteka – London’s annual Polish film festival. With regard to critical lit-
erature, the past few years have witnessed a greater interest in the cinema of
Eastern Europe in general and Poland in particular and here Marek Haltof’s
book Polish National Cinema (2002) has been a key source; New Polish Cinema,
which he co-edited with Joanna Falkowska in 1999, has been out of print for
years now. Paul Coates’s The Red and White: Cinema of People’s Poland (2004)
and Dina Iordanova’s Cinema of the Other Europe (2003) contribute to a gen-
eral understanding of Polish cinema and East-Central European film indus-
tries for English speakers. In the past years much of the theoretical discourse
surrounding Polish cinema was unavailable, due to a lack of translations, and
only occasionally did Polish sources appear in English. Nowadays, there are
many more books on Polish cinema in English and while they provide insights
beneficial to Polish speakers, they often remain untranslated. Let’s hope this


SEEC 1.1 rev Kuc_109-126.indd 109 2/17/10 9:34:38 AM


will not be the case with Ewa Mazierska’s latest book, Polish Postcommunist
Cinema: From Pavement Level, which joins the pantheon with grace. The pub-
lication offers readers a detailed tour of contemporary Polish cinema and
the author’s in-depth knowledge, together with thorough research that has
apparently lasted ‘as long as postcommunist cinema itself’, all of which makes
this book a true gem. From page one it becomes clear that the book is writ-
ten by a specialist and Mazierska is indeed an established film scholar, having
published many articles and books on Polish and European cinema.
With regards to English publications on Polish cinema, a few thoughts
come to mind, particularly when juxtaposing Mazierska’s latest book and
Haltof’s Polish National Cinema. Haltof’s book is an overview of Polish film
from the silent era to the late 1990s and while Haltof demonstrates the most
characteristic elements of Polish cinema, hence the title, Mazierska goes a
step further displaying both its diversity and universality. Mazierska’s sur-
vey of Polish postcommunist cinema constituted a new field of exploration
for the author herself, as she states: ‘I am searching for the presence of
new subjects, ideas, styles and new influences’ (Mazierska 2007: 20). In her
attempt ‘to establish what is parochial and what is universal in Polish post-
communist films, what is only of local interest and what appeals to inter-
national audiences, as well as what ages quickly and what remains fresh’
(Mazierska 2007: 20), the author offers a detailed account of the subject
which still remains terra incognita in film studies. The truly valuable aspect
of the book is the author’s familiarity with the history and mechanics of the
Polish film industry. Mazierska explains changes that took place post-1989
in production, distribution and exhibition and analyses its impact on film-
makers. Haltof ends his book by saying: ‘contrary to many dark prognoses,
the current situation in the Polish film industry shows no signs of crisis’
(Haltof 2002: 261) and Mazierska’s Polish Postcommunist Cinema maintains
the same optimistic spirit.
The book is divided into three parts and begins with an overview of the
most important changes in the post-1989 Polish film industry. In Part 2, the
author discusses various genres: gangster films, heritage cinema, comedy, as
well as biographical films and proposes that they all belong to the movement
that she names the ‘New Cinema of Moral Concern’. Finally, in Part 3 we get
to encounter three auteurs: Marek Koterski, Jan Jakub Kolski and Jerzy Stuhr.
The book begins with a quote from Koterski, who states, rather provocatively:
‘There is no Polish School, no Moral Concern, hence – there is no Polish
cinema. Polish [postcommunist] cinema is not being compared to any other
national cinema, but to an international super-league, consisting of Lars von
Trier, Pedro Almodovar, Nanni Moretti and Mike Leigh. Should we compete
against such a team? Those who think so must be crazy!’ (Mazierska 2007:
20). Incidentally, some of these names crop up in Mazierska’s comparison but
the intention is quite the opposite – to show that Polish cinema can be equal
to those of other cinemas and throughout the book she provides convincing
reasons to think so.
As Mazierska explains at the beginning of her book, the transition from
a single-party system to a consolidated democracy was disastrous for many
areas of life and the film industry suffered huge criticism. Many critics and film-
makers attacked it asking, ‘What went wrong with Polish cinema?’ According
to Mazierska much of this critique lies in the nation’s attitude and tendency
‘to be self-critical’. I could find very little to argue with when she states that
hardly ever were Polish critics satisfied with the cinema of their own country,


SEEC 1.1 rev Kuc_109-126.indd 110 2/17/10 9:34:38 AM


with the exception of the Polish School. She suggests that this ongoing criti-
cism of their native cinema is a part of the Poles’ general disappointment with
the postcommunist order. I must also acknowledge Mazierska’s insightful
observation that many critics’ expectations have been unrealistic and, caught
between the need to follow the commercial Hollywood pattern, the European
auteur model or simply retain the notion of national cinema, Polish film-
makers have instead dispersed in many different directions, failing to meet all
those expectations. Her view of contemporary Polish cinema is far from grim,
however, and the author considers the variety of auteurs, themes and styles
its great strength. Such is the rationale behind the book: ‘to present the films
that were made in the period 1989–2005 in a way that will account for their
heterogeneity’ (Mazierska 2007: 15).
The book’s main thread and recurring theme is an assertion that there has
been a shift from the ‘meta’ to ‘small narratives’ and Mazierska argues that
many Polish film-makers after 1989 abandoned the representation of history
and instead, focused on small narratives, often in a diary-like form (Koterski,
Kolski, Łukasz Wyle˛załek, amongst others). In The Postmodernist Condition
Jean-Francois Lyotard proclaims the rejection of grand narratives in favour of
‘petits récits’. He sees the engagement with small rather than grand narratives
as a rather liberating act and this is an implication of Mazierska’s book. In the
case of Polish cinema the notion of meta-narratives goes even deeper, and as
the post-structuralists suggested, such narratives reinforce dominant ideolo-
gies. For many years Polish film-makers were under the influence of meta-
narratives, such as communism, and the notion of national cinema became
such. For Mazierska, Polish postcommunist cinema is much more diverse than
that and with small narratives comes a conviction that they are all valid and
there are no authoritarian value judgements. For Lyotard grand narratives dis-
miss naturally existing multiplicity and chaos in the universe, and Mazierska’s
appreciation of new themes, genres and styles in Polish cinema argues for
their acceptance in the postmodernist spirit.
Mazierska’s demonstration of the heterogeneity of Polish films is reflected
in her appreciation of different genres, with the most prominent being police/
gangster films. Gangster films dominated Polish cinema in the first half of
the 1990s, with Psy/Dogs (Pasikowski, 1992) as a prime example. The most
common view of Pasikowski’s films has always been that he simply imitates
Tarantino and Mazierska challenges such assumptions with steady evidence.
She argues that stylistically Dogs has little in common with American gangster
films: the pace of action is slow, the camera is static and there are far more
close-ups than action shots. She suggests that as a genre film Dogs is more
indebted to Polish cinema from the 1960s and films such as Prawo i Pie˛ ść/Law
and Fist (Hoffman, 1964), which imitated classical Hollywood cinema, rather
than Tarantino. The irony is that Tarantino himself finds the Hollywood clas-
sics his main inspiration. For Mazierska such connections between old and
new Polish cinema testify to the strength of Pasikowski’s films. Crucial to
Mazierska’s claim about the transition in Polish cinema is her discussion on
the way Pasikowski uses actors who were previously associated with Cinema
of Moral Anxiety. Bogusław Linda, who in the past played helpless victims of
socio-political conditions, for example in Przypadek/Blind Chance (Kieślowski,
1981) and Kobieta Samotna/A Woman Alone (Holland, 1981) appears here in
the role of gangster Franz Maurer, while Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, who is most
famous for his role as a corrupted professor in Krzysztof Zanussi’s Barwy
ochronne/Camouflage (1976), plays Maurer’s interrogator. To Mazierska this


SEEC 1.1 rev Kuc_109-126.indd 111 2/24/10 8:43:00 AM


‘sends a message that the political order in Poland might change after 1989
but not the political structures or people who take the advantage of the status
quo’ (Mazierska 2007: 46).
Mazierska also demonstrates that ‘small narratives’ feature strongly in
Polish postcommunist comedy. As she notices its rise after 1989, she argues
that the main reason for this is that they represent the working classes –
life from ‘the pavement level’. Comedy also constituted a powerful platform
for social criticism: after 1989 there are many more satirical comedies, which
ridicule politicians, media people and gangsters as in Rozmowy Kontrolowane/
Tapped Conversations (Che˛ ciński, 1991). Mazierska also notices the emer-
gence of a new type of comedy, around 2000, based on a ‘clash of elements
that are in deep disharmony with each other’ (Mazierska 2007: 114), as in
absurd theatre in Golasy/The Naked (Świetnicki, 2002), Ciało/Corpse (Konecki,
2003) and Łukasz Wylez ałek’s Darmozjad Polski/Polish Sponger (1997) and O
Dwóch Takich, co nic nie Ukradli/About Two Who Did Not Steal Anything (1999).
Similarly, biographical films reinforce the turn away from grand narratives.
For example, films like Moj Mikifor/My Nikifor (Krauze, 2004) demonstrate a
certain trend in Polish post-1989 cinema, with ‘the dislodging of grand nar-
ratives by smaller ones, the replacement of histories of the nations, classes
and generations by individual biographies, what can be described as a “bot-
tom up” approach to history and identity’ (Maizerska 2007: 17). She divides
postcommunist biopics into two groups: one which presents a famous Pole
and the other, which is of a particular interest to me, focuses on the lives
of tormented and marginalized artists such as Wojaczek (1999) and Angelus
(2001), both by Lech Majewski. Compared by Mazierska to Peter Greenaway,
Majewski worked on such productions as Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996)
and he is one of the most intriguing Polish directors, yet one who is often
ignored in critical discourse. His films tend to deal with outsiders who can-
not find their place in society. Wojaczek, for example, was made with a small
budget and depicts a few days in the life of one of the great Polish poets –
Rafał Wojaczek. The film concentrates on the poet’s relationship to himself
and, for the author, Wojaczek in Majewski’s film is ‘one of us – a symbol of
the era of postmodernism and communism’ (Mazierska 2007: 126). He sym-
bolizes many Poles who after 1989 were faced with a crisis of identity and
here Mazierska reaches for Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity to support
her view.
Mazierska argues that all the genres discussed in the book (the gangster
film, heritage cinema, comedy and biopics) belong to the New Cinema of
Moral Concern movement, within which such different films as Cześć Tereska/
Hello, Tereska (Gliński, 2000), Edi (Trzaskalski, 2002), Wesele/The Wedding
(Smarzowski, 2004) and Komornik/Bailiff (Falk, 2005) are all set in contem-
porary Poland, deal with social issues and depict an individual who is facing
difficult choices. These films share other common features, such as a deep
disappointment with reality (corruption, poverty) and the death of certain val-
ues and they are all shot within realist conventions. According to Mazierska,
this preoccupation with moral dilemmas and contemporary issues links these
films with the old Cinema of Moral Concern and directors such as Kieślowski,
Kijowski, Holland and Zanussi, to name a few. The main difference is that the
first generation of morally concerned film-makers often blamed the state for
not allowing the young generation to progress, while the new film-makers
criticize the state for neglect of its citizens. She notices that protagonists of the
New Cinema are more pessimistic and themes are darker.


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The author does not forget about women, and while in her previous
book co-written with Elzbieta Ostrowska Women in Polish Cinema (2006), the
authors concentrate on ideological themes and socio-political context, here
Mazierska discusses these films’ form and style. She demonstrates that since
the fall of communism, the Polish film industry has witnessed the growth of
female characters involved in the film business and many more films have
been based on books written by female writers. She exposes a whole gallery of
new names: Dorota Ke˛dzierzawska, Małgorzata Szumowska and Magdalena
Piekorz, whose films deal with family life, children and abortion, rather than
relationships between God, human beings and authority. Mazierska therefore
claims that women’s cinema seems much more intimate and, according to her,
Nic/Nothing (Ke˛dzierzawska, 1998), a film about abortion, ‘is the most radical
film defending woman’s right to abortion ever made in Poland’ )Mazierska
2007: 183). She observes that ‘whilst the specificity of women’s cinema made
by women is an austerity of style, women’s cinema produced by men revels in
emotional eloquence and visual prettiness’ (Mazierska 2007: 195).
It is the last part of the book that begs a few questions since the ration-
ale behind choosing these three auteurs: Koterski, Kolski and Stuhr, remains
unclear. Admittedly, all these film-makers are different from each other and
their work does reflect the proposed heterogeneity of Polish cinema: while
Kolski’s films are classified as ‘magical realism’ such as Jaśminum (2006),
Koterski’s ‘imaginary autobiographies’ as Mazierska calls them like Dzień
Świra/Day of the Wacko (2002), are comedies which criticize the contempo-
rary social order in Poland and Stuhr’s films, such as Duze Zwierze/Big Animal
(2000), are very intimate and driven by characters. However, the very struc-
ture of the book suggests an additional question: why aren’t there any female
names in the auteur section? Mazierska’s argument about the patriarchal
nature of Polish cinema, which re-appears throughout the book, could be
challenged further had there been at least one female Polish auteur singled
out in the last section.
On the whole, there is no doubt that Polish Postcommunist Cinema
achieves its aim. The author’s concentration on new films and film-makers
is not without a connection to wider Polish cinematic heritage and in that
it reflects the complexity and variety in Polish cinema. The concept of small
narratives allows the reader to further understand the shift that took place
in Polish cinema after the fall of communism. Mazierska’s background and
in-depth knowledge of Polish film and the industry is an asset that most film
historians can only dream of. The author’s expertise allows her to make strik-
ing comparisons and connections between old and new films and between
contemporary Polish cinema and cinemas of other countries. If at times cer-
tain connections she makes between film-makers, such as one between Jan
Jakub Kolski and Jean-Luc Godard appear slightly puzzling, one can see it as
a trait of Mazierska’s inquisitive mind. Another value of this publication is the
sheer number of film-makers and films discussed, which constitutes a great
field for future researchers and proves that there is still a lot to discover about
Polish cinema. The book confronts the reader with many previously unknown
names and encourages a long list of films ‘to see’. Additionally, those who
are not familiar with Poland’s history will find an index of the most important
dates in Polish history at the end of the book very useful. Written in an acces-
sible language, Polish Postcommunist Cinema is a great contribution to the field
of film studies and a Polish translation would also be of a great benefit to film
scholars and enthusiasts in Poland.


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Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition, Peter Hames (2009),
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 264 pp.,
ISBN 978 0 7486 2081 4 (hbk), £60.00

Reviewed by Jan Čulík, University of Glasgow

Peter Hames’s most recent work on Czech and Slovak cinema raises a number
of interesting methodological questions. How do you actually analyse the cin-
ematic history of two national cultures spanning over a century and several
political regimes, within the space of some 230 pages (the remaining part of
Peter Hames’s work being taken up by his bibliography)? As he says, ‘since
1918, Czech feature film production has numbered more than 2000 films
and Slovak production over 350’ (p. 13). How do you deal with this plethora
of material within a fairly slim volume, especially since no critical history of
Czech and Slovak cinema of the past century exists even in Czech or Slovak?
Peter Hames takes a highly personal approach and openly admits that
‘there are many subjects, areas and directors that have not been considered’
(p. 13). He bravely enters the jungle of Czech and Slovak film-making by
‘stalking it out’: he isolates a series of orientation points within the thick forest
and joins the dots. He has divided Czech and Slovak film-making into eleven
categories, each of which has a chapter of approximately twenty pages. Within
these chapters, Hames concentrates on a handful of films that have personally
fascinated him the most, although at the beginning and end of each chapter
there are shorter remarks on other films. The works that he discusses date
from the 1920s up to the present. Most attention is given to Czech and Slovak
cinema of the 1960s, a period to which the author has devoted considerable
attention in previous writing.
Some of the chapters in his book are thematic (History, Politics, the
Holocaust), others are genre-based (Comedy, Lyricism, Surrealism, the
Avant-garde). Some critics might dislike this as methodologically inconsist-
ent. Theoretically, you could have comedies dealing with historical themes,
politics or the holocaust, or lyrical, surrealist and/or avant-garde films on
these themes. But I would defend Peter Hames here, because it is extremely
difficult to create these categories. The material discussed simply dictates how
it should be divided. Some Czech or Slovak films defy categorization in any
case. For instance, can Černý Petr/Peter and Paula (1963), Forman’s study of
teenage fumbling and middle-age disorientation, or the short film adaptations
of Hrabal’s boisterous and eccentric texts that make up Perličky na dně/Pearls
of the Deep (1965) really be described as comedies? Is Menzel’s film Ostře sle-
dované vlaky/Closely Observed Trains (1966) also a comedy? The young pro-
tagonist of Ostře sledované vlaky grapples with his sexual problems, trying to
reach maturity, and when he ‘becomes a man’ he dies. Is that a comedic end-
ing? It is extremely difficult to put some of the films into chapters.
Each of Peter Hames’s eleven thematic or genre-based chapters starts
with a highly informed, succinct cultural, historical and/or political introduc-
tion. A brief outline of Czechoslovak history in the twentieth century is given
and background information on literary, artistic and cultural developments is


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provided. The author also defines, for instance, surrealism, what he means
by ‘lyrical’ or ‘political’ films, or how absurd cinema relates to the theatre of
the absurd. Then, in each chapter, Hames joins the series of dots, following
each of his thematic or genre-based ‘traditions’ throughout the history of
Czech and Slovak cinema. The discussion of the films, even those to which
he devotes most space, is fairly descriptive. He primarily sums up the narra-
tive of the film; if the work is visually original, he outlines the visual innova-
tions. Critical assessment of the meaning of the films is usually quite short,
as though the author deliberately refrained from any detailed debate on the
film’s meaning, not wishing to influence the viewer. Often Hames quotes the
views of the film directors or various critics. His monograph contains a number
of highly interesting pieces of background information, evidently obtained
from his interviews with film specialists in the Czech Republic. Regrettably,
the sources for this information are not always given; similarly, when Peter
Hames quotes from published video material (for instance the interview with
Miloš Forman from Pawlikowski’s 1990 BBC documentary Kids from FAMU),
this is not sourced either.
Peter Hames’s monograph only quotes references to secondary works
published in English although his bibliography at the end of the volume does
include some works in Czech and Slovak without quoting them. While giving
English references only may be motivated by the ‘educational’ approach of
Peter Hames’s study (he wants to provide the English-speaking reader with
further material to consult), English-language secondary literature on Czech
and Slovak cinema is limited and it is somewhat frustrating that the publica-
tion disregards the extensive critical discourse on Czech and Slovak cinema
that has been published in Czech and Slovak. Maybe it is a minor point, but
the monograph also contains a number of typographical errors in the printing
of Czech and Slovak names.
Sometimes Hames stuns the reader with a succinct, spot-on characteriza-
tion of a film or a literary phenomenon; for instance, the nature of the writing
by Bohumil Hrabal (p. 40) or the precise, brief characterization of Forman’s
Konkurs/Talent Competition (2003) (pp. 57–58). At other times, the reader feels
that more could have been said about individual films. The chapters remain a
mosaic of discrete elements: accounts of films are juxtaposed to one another
and there is practically no debate regarding the possible overall meaning of
films within each of the thematic and genre-based categories in a broader
Czech and Slovak cultural context. There is also no summarizing chapter.
While Peter Hames discusses an occasional remarkable film from the inter-
war period, the 1950s or the post-communist era, it is obvious that the 1960s
was by far the most important time in the history of Czech and Slovak film-
making. Uniquely, this was a period when film-makers could make highly
innovative and original films with a political message, aimed at subverting the
communist state which freely funded them. Apart from being political, these
films usually had a profound general ethical and philosophical meaning, relat-
ing to the essence of the human condition.
Film director and actor Jan Kačer went as far as to say at the new Festival
nad řekou (The River Festival) in Písek in August 2009 that the creative freedom
which he experienced in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s never existed before or
afterwards. And he was possibly right. The Czech and Slovak film-makers
of the 1960s had the luxury to experiment at leisure, the infrastructure of a
professional film studio was fully at their disposal and money was no object.
Many of the directors of the time produced mature, well-integrated, profound


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works, while the experimental journeys of some others remained somewhere

halfway. All these films are remarkable to watch. In this connection, Hames
points out ‘East and Central European political cinema in general, and Czech
and Slovak cinema in particular, was not held to be of interest by Western
exponents of film studies’ (pp. 75–76). ‘The worst sin of these films’, apart
from being paid for by the state, was that they ‘were perceived to be “art”
films, produced by an intellectual elite, engaging in self-indulgent expres-
sion and designed for consumption by similar elites’ (p. 76). In Peter Hames’s
view, western film specialists were ready to recognize only radically left-wing
cinema (including Third World cinema) on the one hand and commercial
western cinema on the other. The intrinsically different cinema of Central and
Eastern Europe didn’t fit either of these categories, he says. Yet films of the
Czech New Wave were circulated widely in the West and did receive often
enthusiastic critical response. In their attempts to emancipate their countries
from Soviet rule, the work of the Central and Eastern European film-makers
can surely be usefully seen now as a part of the postcolonial and post-imperialist
tradition, recording, as it does, the gradual disintegration of an empire.
Peter Hames doesn’t examine this in detail. As he points out, he is look-
ing at Czech and Slovak cinema as an interested outsider and although he has
an impressive knowledge of the Czech and Slovak cultural context, he discusses
the films in terms of what they mean to him rather than in terms of what role
they might be playing in the continual process of formation and re-formation
of the Czech and Slovak national identity. His approach is entirely legitimate:
the international reader of his monograph will also assume the view of external
observer, not necessarily interested in the internal political and cultural proc-
esses of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Yet a more sociological approach is
obviously possible. In that instance, it would be necessary to discuss even some
of the films made in the periods of oppression, such as the Nazi occupation,
Stalinism and normalization, which Peter Hames generally omits as uninterest-
ing. Cases in point are, for instance, some of the hybrids: the entertainment films
whose denouements have been turned into political propaganda. For example,
the thriller Těžký život dobrodruha/The Difficult Life of an Adventurer (1941), which,
at the end, suddenly argues that the state always knows best and the individual is
a feeble creature who comes to see this and admits the errors of his ways; or the
highly entertaining farce Jak utopit dr. Mráčka/How to Drown Dr. Mráček (1974)
about Czech vodníks, folklore water-goblins, who in this film interfere with life in
the modern Czechoslovak metropolis – the film at the end suddenly turns into
a diatribe against capitalism – or the blatantly neo-Stalinist TV series featuring
‘the Czech James Bond Major Zeman’, which is still so highly popular in the
post-communist era that commercial companies have been paying millions for
its DVD rights. Even works such as these have entered, in a complex way, the
process of creation of the Czech and Slovak national identity. Ethics and politics
have played a cultural role even at times of national oppression.
In this connection, it is interesting that Peter Hames mentions direc-
tor Otakar Vávra’s ‘chilling account of seventeenth-century witch-hunting’
Kladivo na čarodějnice/Witchhammer (1969), a parable of the Stalinist show-
trials, an openly anti-communist film, but doesn’t mention Vávra’s pseudo-
historical, propagandist epic two-part feature Dny zrady/The Days of Treason
(1974), which was made obediently to order for the neo-Stalinist authorities
in the post-1968 period of ‘normalization’. In the 1970s, Vávra made two
more such pseudo-historical films (Sokolovo (1974) and Osvobození Prahy/The
Liberation of Prague (1976)). Peter Hames does say that Vávra supported


SEEC 1.1 rev Kuc_109-126.indd 116 2/17/10 9:34:38 AM


communism and ‘did little to rock the boat’, but in his view he maintained ‘a
commitment to the country’s history and traditions’ (p. 16). Considering that
Dny zrady is a total distortion of the facts, the statement about Vávra’s com-
mitment to history doesn’t quite ring true. In an interview in Pawlikowski’s
BBC film Kids from FAMU Otakar Vávra admits that in his historical films from
the 1970s, he couldn’t ‘tell the full truth, so, in fact, what I said was a lie’.
Maybe at least a brief mention could have been made here of how people
like Vávra managed to produce, within a few years, films which communicate
totally opposing political messages.
It is highly commendable that Peter Hames’s work broadens the scope
of Czech cinema beyond the 1960s, discussing as it does a number of films
from the 1930s and even the 1920s. It was, indeed, important to mention the
impressive output of the ‘commercial director’ Martin Frič who made some 85
feature films before his death in 1968 and whose work, as Peter Hames rightly
says, was defined by ‘absolute professionalism’ (p. 6). But might not similar
homage have been paid to Karel Kachyňa, the director of more than 45 art-
house feature films, whose work was consistently of extremely high quality?
Kachyňa’s output from the 1960s is discussed only on an ad hoc basis in Peter
Hames’s book, his work from other periods being mentioned only briefly or
not at all. For instance, Kachyňa’s tour de force, a variation on the myth of
Sisyphus, Kráva/The Cow (1996), isn’t referred to at all. The 2008 summer film
school at Uherské Hradiště ran a highly interesting retrospective of feature
films from the late 1950s and early 1960s, written or even directed by the
Czech writer Pavel Kohout. Kohout’s name is mentioned only once (p. 102) in
Hames’s book, as a co-scriptwriter. Films like Jan Kadár and Elmar Klos’s Tři
přání/Three Wishes (1958), or Vojtěch Jasný’s 1962 Cannes Special Jury Prize
winner Až přijde kocour/The Cat (1963), which also played an important role in
the gradual emancipation of the Czech and Slovak film-makers from the late
1950s onwards, could possibly have been also mentioned. But of course, any
criticism of what should or shouldn’t have been included is unfair, since any
judgement in a necessarily selective publication will be subjective.
With this disclaimer, here are a few other thoughts which occurred to me
while reading Peter Hames’s book. When discussing Vláčil’s film Marketa
Lazarová (1967), which was inspired by a novel by Vladislav Vančura from
1931 (p. 23), it could have possibly been mentioned that Vláčil had successfully
managed to retain the original message of Vančura’s literary work: namely
that the lives of people in the Middle Ages, no matter how raw and brutal,
were much more ‘full-blooded’ than our twentieth-century degenerate mid-
dle-class existence. He only briefly mentions Jiří Krejčík’s film Božská Emma/
The Divine Emma (1979), a political parable about the life of the famous Czech
opera singer Emma Destinnová who, at the beginning of the First World
War, returned to Austria-Hungary from the United States, where she was
regarded as a celebrity, and was persecuted by the secret police and placed
under house arrest in Bohemia, yet still managed to sing for the nation. The
impact of this claustrophobic film about the power of the human spirit, made
under extreme political oppression two years after the creation of Charter 77,
was remarkable in the then Czechoslovakia and maybe a little more could
have been said about this. Jiří Brdečka’s spoof of a western, Limonádový Joe/
Lemonade Joe (1964), is a comedy that has indeed reached a cult status (p. 4),
but it could have perhaps been mentioned that, as with the afore-mentioned
entertainment–political ‘hybrids’, it ends with a political message, turning into
a criticism of manipulative capitalist business practices. As such, in this respect


SEEC 1.1 rev Kuc_109-126.indd 117 2/23/10 1:54:35 PM


it could be the film has more resonance today than in the 1960s, when a ‘biting
satire on capitalism’ would have been construed by the audiences as a con-
formist gesture made by the director to the authorities. When in Kachyňa and
Procházka’s Ucho/The Ear (1970, released in 1989) the main protagonist, the
deputy minister Ludvík, is promoted to government secretary, after a night of
horror when it transpires that all the rooms in his residence are tapped, so that
the secret police have a record of all his and his wife’s anti-regime statements,
I would argue that this is not a ‘final irony’, as Peter Hames states (p. 8). This
final twist to the story seems to me to be a logical outcome of the night of hor-
ror, because the regime only appoints compromised individuals into top posi-
tions, who can then be blackmailed at will. Similarly, when discussing Jasný’s
film Všichni dobří rodáci/All My Good Countrymen (1968), it seems that Peter
Hames analyses a key motif in the film in a very magnanimous, fair-minded,
‘western’ way. ‘Bertin, the postman, is shot by anti-Communists’, he states (p.
84). I am afraid that an East European mind would interpret this twist in the
story in a much more sinister way: it is hinted that the communist Bertin is in
fact shot by a secret-police agent provocateur, so that the authorities can gain
a pretext to arrest the village anti-communists on charges of terrorism.
Jan Hřebejk’s Musíme si pomáhat/Divided we Fall (2000), perhaps the best film
that this director has ever made, is indeed ‘about the adjustments likely to be
made under any form of tyranny’ (p. 110), but it possibly could also be construed
as a gesture of reconciliation after the fall of communism: the previous totalitar-
ian regimes were so horrifying that no one has the right to judge how people
behaved. ‘Bud’me lidmi – Let us be human’, says the main character Josef at the
end of the film and that is what seems to be the director’s appeal. Jireš’s Valerie
a týden divů/Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1969) is a wonderful example of
visual surrealism in world cinema, but it is quite difficult to see it as a criticism of
the repressive policies of the Communist Party (p. 175). It seems more pertinent,
as Jonathan Owen says, to see Valerie as a ‘lullaby for the time of defeat’, a hom-
age to the disappearing, ‘hippie’ world of freedom of the 1960s.
Peter Hames seems to be impressed by the ‘experimental’ output of Jan
Němec, the films that this director has made since his return to Czechoslovakia
from the United States in 1989, but in my opinion most of Němec’s out-
put from this time is somewhat uneven. After the traumatic experiences of
the 1968 Soviet invasion and a frustrated life in the United States where he
couldn’t make films, after his return to Czechoslovakia in 1989 Němec has
been looking for new means of expression. In fact, the message of his Noční
hovory s matkou/Late Night Talks with Mother (2000–03) seems to be that due
to his traumatic experiences of life in the twentieth century, he feels that he
has lost his power of communicating. It is extremely gratifying that Jan Němec
seems to have finally found himself in his latest venture, Holka Ferrari Dino/
The Ferrari Dino Girl (2009), a film about how he shot the first hours of the
Russian invasion in August 1968 and smuggled the footage to Austria. The
film was premiered at Festival nad řekou in Písek in August 2009 and it is, for
once, a mature, well integrated piece where Němec displays all the character-
istic features of his authorial style.
Peter Hames’s monograph is an extremely important publication, provid-
ing guidance to the interested reader through the rich history of Czech and
Slovak cinema. It will stimulate interest in the cinemas of East-Central Europe
in the English-speaking world, undoubtedly becoming a catalyst for heated
discussion, as this review has attempted to demonstrate.


SEEC 1.1 rev Kuc_109-126.indd 118 2/17/10 9:34:38 AM




Reviewed by Jan Čulík, University of Glasgow

and Emma Čulík, Academy of Dramatic Arts, St Petersburg

The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival takes place annually at the
beginning of July in this West Bohemian spa town, which looks like a richly
decorated wedding cake. It was once so famous for its waters that it attracted
visitors such as Goethe, Beethoven and Schiller, the Russian Tsar Peter the
Great, the Austrian Empress Maria Teresa and the English King Edward VII.
These days, Karlovy Vary has become a favourite haunt of novye russkie, the
Russian nouveaux riches and there are so many public signs in front of shops
and restaurants in Cyrillic that one questions whether one is still in the Czech
Republic or instead in Russia.
When the film festival starts, the Czech media has a field day. The festi-
val takes place at the beginning of the summer vacation period in the Czech
Republic, when nothing else is going on, and so Czech radio and television
become obsessed with the red carpet treatment given at Karlovy Vary to the
handful of international celebrities that arrive there. Worthy Czech citizens
then delight in getting scandalized by the ‘profligate’, ‘decadent’ parties,

Figure 1: A moment in the sun at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2009 (photo by Emma Čulík).


SEEC 1.1 rev Kuc_109-126.indd 119 2/23/10 1:54:36 PM


1. attended by Czech entrepreneurs and politicians during the film festival.
cz/aktualne/1485- Compared to other major European film festivals such as Cannes, Venice or
Berlin, the budget of Karlovy Vary is modest. In 2009, it cost some 5.5 million
2. These statistical euros to mount the festival and to show more than 220 films to some 12,000
details were pub-
lished in David Kasl,
enthusiastic cinema-goers.1 Compare this to the Cannes budget of 20 million
‘Byznysmeni, díky!’, euros, where 138 films were screened or to the Berlinale, which cost 22 mil-
Euro, 29 June 2009, lion euros and where 320 films were screened.2
p. 3. Czech cultural commentator Josef Chuchma rightly pointed out a cou-
3. Josef Chuchma, ‘Vary, ple of years ago that the media frenzy surrounding the Karlovy Vary celeb-
celebrity a spoutaný rities is meaningless.3 In Chuchma’s view, Karlovy Vary, of course, does
svět, Mladá fronta have a problem: if the media are to notice it, the festival needs to attract at
Dnes, 7 July 2007,
p. 10. least some film stars. But, in fact, says Chuchma, Karlovy Vary is an impov-
erished festival and when trying to attract international celebrities, it cannot
cz/aktualne/1304- compete with other festivals, which often pay the celebrities to attend. But
festivalovy-denik/. let’s forget the celebrities. The merit of Karlovy Vary lies in its two major

• This is a people´s festival, it caters for the enthusiastic cineaste.

• The selection of films Karlovy Vary presents is of an extraordinarily high

This is greatly appreciated by its large audience of mostly young backpackers,

many of whom sleep in cars parked throughout the spa or in tent cities espe-
cially created for the cinematic enthusiasts outside town, which are connected
to the festival halls by free public transport for the duration of the event.
Popular interest in the festival is also encouraged by an extremely demo-
cratic ticketing policy. A single pass for the duration of the whole ten days
of the festival costs only 1000 Czech crowns, some 33 pounds sterling. This
entitles the viewer to three films per day, or even up to five or six if you are
willing to queue. Thus, if the viewer sees about 40 films during the festival,
it will have cost less than a pound for each screening. One other democratic
regulation is quite remarkable: all ticket holders must assume their seats in
the screening halls five minutes before the beginning of each performance.
Failure to do so invalidates the ticket: all remaining empty seats are given to
the rank-and-file festival pass holders who are queuing outside. Thus almost
all screenings play to capacity audiences. The festival is very user friendly for
international visitors. It is bilingual – all films are subtitled in English and all
information is made available in both Czech and English, including the bilin-
gual Festival Daily newspaper.4
Over the past fifteen years, Karlovy Vary has developed into a global
showcase of the best of world cinema. The fact that Karlovy Vary cannot com-
pete with festivals such as Cannes or Venice actually works to its advantage.
While well-established western directors send their work mostly to the West
European film festivals, Karlovy Vary has become a venue for dynamic young
directors primarily from non-European cultural areas. Karlovy Vary is particu-
larly well known for featuring new talent from the East, including Asia. At a
film festival that screens more than 220 feature films it is clearly impossible
for a single individual to see all of them. Our account of this year’s Karlovy
Vary is thus obviously based on a few personal preferences. We have seen, in
all, about sixty feature films, most of them in the main categories of ‘Official
Competition’, ‘Official Selection – Out of Competition’ and the ‘East of the
West Competition’.


SEEC 1.1 rev Kuc_109-126.indd 120 2/17/10 1:55:51 PM


As ever, this year’s festival had a very strong representation of Russian

and South Korean cinema. The festival also ran a special thematic category
of work by Russian women directors, ‘A Female Take on Russia’. A remark-
able film by Russian director Valeria Gal Germanika Vse umrut, a ja ostanus’/
Everybody Dies but Me (2008) portrays with brutal honesty the teenage expe-
rience of young Russian girls. It is about three best friends, Vika, Katya and
Zhanna, who are in the ninth grade (that is, they are 15 years old) standing
on the brink of venturing into unknown territory. But the castles they have
built in the sky are dismantled brick by brick. Their exploration of the world
around them ends in disaster, primarily due to their extraordinarily callous
self-centredness. The film is, in effect a warning against the excessive individ-
ualism, which is so much a characteristic of life in post-communist countries.
Each of the girls betray the others, they steal their boys, abandon each other
in times of need, and refuse to stand by each other. They also systematically
alienate anyone in their lives who could help them – teachers, parents, fellow
students. ‘Everyone will die, but not me.’ The girls think they are invincible,
but this is very much not the case. The film, though fictional, is shot in a docu-
mentary style that shows the girls in very frank detail. Intimate close-ups have
an almost claustrophobic effect.
Another noteworthy film by a Russian woman director was Anna
Melikyan’s Mars (2004). Last year Melikyan made ripples all over Russia and
also in Karlovy Vary, with her film Rusalka/Mermaid (2007) about a girl from
a small town whose shattered dreams made her lose the power of speech.
Melikyan’s début about a provincial Russian town, Marks, was a light-hearted
and yet meaningful picture about the separateness of the Russian provinces,
but mostly about people’s dreams and search for meaning in a country that
has recently stripped itself of the ideology it lived within for the last seventy
years. The letter ‘K’ fell off the town’s neon sign, and Marks (Marx) became –
Mars. The ‘K’ has fallen off Russia too, and it has become Mars, a weird place
to live in. Melikyan is hopeful about possibilities in post-Soviet Russia, but not
naïve. People are disorientated, discombobulated – hence the dream-like filter
and the brightly coloured image quality. But things are changing. The whole
town is in scaffolding – things are being done. And Melikyan reassesses the
stereotypical symbols of her country. She light-heartedly makes Putin into a
sex symbol. The surrealist, almost Dadaist treatment of the various symbols
of communism (Marx, Lenin and others) is startling. Stalin would turn in his
Vassily Sigarev’s film Volchok/Wolfy (2009) received a special mention at
this year’s festival. Rationally, the viewer will accept this as a very good film,
although one’s emotional reactions tend to be more complex. Emotionally, the
film is a relentless assault on the viewer. Volchok is a study of absolute loneli-
ness, the story of a young girl, living in a Russian provincial town, who pines
for the love of her mother but the mother is disinterested in her, being utterly
selfish and frustrated that her life is not more successful, exciting and happy.
Her favourite question to the girl is ‘What do you want from me?’ And all she
does is terrorize the poor child, emotionally and physically, despite the girl’s
unwavering and loyal love for her. In the end the daughter ends up being hit
by a car while chasing after her mother. The horrific story is told beautifully,
laconically and poetically in its minimalism but it is a devastating film.
Kislorod/Oxygen (2009), a film by young Russian theatre director and play-
wright Ivan Vyrypaev, is exhilarating. Two years ago his beautiful first foray
into cinema Eyforiya/Euphoria (2006) was shown at Karlovy Vary to great


SEEC 1.1 rev Kuc_109-126.indd 121 2/17/10 9:34:42 AM


5. http://download. acclaim. Vyrypaev’s recounting of a desperate and lonely love triangle, which on stage would have been closed into a box, was opened up to the swooping
steppes in cinema. Vyrypaev’s plays, too, experiment with their constituent
parts. Kislorod is based on text. The language is basically colloquial and uses
simple words, but he plays with them carefully and wittily – to great effect.
Vyrypaev experiments with genre and form because he understands that each
of them is different and has its own specific characteristics. He introduced
his film in Karlovy Vary by saying that he ‘wanted to reduce words to music’.
There are ‘choruses’ in the film, where words are read with great attention to
how they sound. And the words seem simultaneously to hold no meaning
and great meaning. This works well to tell a story about a young man who
kills his wife, because when he was being told that one shouldn’t kill, he was
listening to his personal stereo and didn’t hear. And so he killed his wife and
ran off with a red-haired Muscovite. The story is told with each section pref-
aced by one of the Ten Commandments, an interpretation of it which is suit-
ably philosophical and which, at the same time, follows the cynical and jaded
logic of the young generation.
As usual, the South Korean films at Karlovy Vary were extremely hard-
hitting. South Korean actor Choi Min-Sik and activist for the independent
South Korean cinema pointed out that South Korean cinema is still extremely
varied, although it is now under American pressure. According to South
Korean law, film theatres in that country were bound until recently by the
so-called ‘screening quota’, according to which Korean films must be shown
for 146 days in each venue each year. This quota had led to an unprecedented
boom in South Korean cinema, but recently ‘the United States blackmailed
South Korea into reducing this quota to a half of what it used to be,’ says Choi
Min-Sik.5 The South Korean film Ddongpari/Breathless (2008) by Yang Ik-June
can be seen a humanist protest against the extreme harshness of today’s
world. It follows the lives of a group of debt collectors, young men who are
the only people in their society capable of earning large amounts of money
because they behave with incredible brutality and vulgarity to the people from
whom they collect the money. The film reveals a vicious circle of violence: the
cruelty of the aggressive young men derives from their childhood spent in
their families where they saw how their fathers tormented their mothers. At
the same time, the young men’s brutality hides a profound weakness and a
yearning for tenderness and affection.
Bong Joon-Ho’s film Madeo/Mother (2009) was perhaps the best South
Korean film of this year’s festival, confirming as ever that a good film can-
not be made without a well-written script. Mother is a thriller; at the same
time it is a remarkable study of unintended consequences. It is also a tour de
force performance by the actress Kim Hye-ja, who plays the loving mother
of a handsome, mentally retarded 27-year-old man. The son has an impaired
memory, so he doesn’t remember what happened just a few days or hours
ago. On the whole, he behaves like a 5-year-old, except when someone calls
him an idiot, when he reacts violently. The mother is extremely protective of
her son and when he is accused of the murder of a young girl, she sets out
to investigate the circumstances of the killing on her own because it seems
that the police had taken an easy option and simply arrested the first suspect
who happened to turn up. It is only in the course of the narrative that we
learn that it is the mother herself who is actually to blame for the invalid
status of her son and hence in fact also for the murder – and she commits
another murder in the process. In the course of her intrepid investigation, the


SEEC 1.1 rev Kuc_109-126.indd 122 2/17/10 9:34:42 AM


mother discovers disconcerting revelations forcing her to face up to major 6. For the words of
ethical dilemmas. this poem see http://
The only Iranian entry in Karlovy Vary this year, Bist/Twenty (2009), de/06b012herbsttag.
directed by Abdolreza Kahani, was a competent, though not terribly profound html.
social drama about life in a contemporary urban setting in Iran. Even though
strictly non-political, the film still provided a remarkable insight into the mores
of today’s Iranian society. Primarily, it showed how incredibly insecure is the
economic existence of most ordinary Iranians and how they have to behave
with extreme deference to their superiors who have absolute power over their
fate. The film is set in a small restaurant, whose owner, ageing ‘Mr Soleimani’,
announces to his employees that within twenty days he plans to close his
establishment: he is forced to do so for personal health reasons. This deci-
sion spells disaster for the workers at the restaurant, most of whom survive
economically only with great difficulty (some do not even have a place to live).
The film received a Special Jury Prize at Karlovy Vary this year (one suspects
that the decision was primarily political and was intended as an expression of
sympathy for the defeated Iranian revolution of June 2009).
West European films at Karlovy Vary usually feel somewhat conventional
and tired, in comparison with the incredible wave of energy coming from the
non-western countries but there have been a few exceptions to this rule this
year. One of these was a hilarious, yet serious and profound German comedy
Whisky with Vodka/Whisky mit Wodka (Dresen, 2009). It deals primarily with
often incestuous and comic interpersonal relations, but also with the prob-
lem of ageing, which eventually catches up with all of us. Whisky mit Wodka
is a comedy of manners that takes place on a film set. An aspiring German
film director is making a period piece about a real-life scandal from the 1920s
when an ageing gigolo apparently had a seaside affair simultaneously with
a young girl and her mother. The main role in the fictional film is played by
a 60-year-old alcoholic German celebrity actor (played excellently by Henry
Hübchen) who is extremely unreliable and uncooperative on the set. So the
producers decide that all the scenes of the film will be shot twice, once with
the celebrity actor and once, to be on the safe side, with a younger under-
study. Thus male vanity and rivalry explodes and it creates great comedy.
Hübchen’s Otto is very authentic and he is, indeed, an alcoholic womanizer,
well aware of his celebrity status. At the same time, he is an experienced and
cultured professional. However, towards the end of his life, under the shadow
of death he no longer cares and he decides just to suit himself. The ambiguity
of his personality comes out in a remarkable scene in a helicopter when the
actor is being transported somewhere in the company of a young, attractive
female production assistant. As the helicopter flies, we see the patchwork of
colours of the autumn landscape. ‘Someone should write a poem about this,’
says the young production assistant. ‘Someone already has,’ replies Otto who
starts reciting, by heart, the famous poem by Rainer Maria Rilke ‘Herbsttag’.6
The scene is truly magical. Although it is obvious that Otto does the extraordi-
nary performance manipulatively, in order to impress the girl, we still see that
he is a great artist. Andres Dresen received a prize for the direction of Whisky
mit Wodka at Karlovy Vary 2009.
But perhaps the most remarkable West European film at the festival was
the intricately mind-blowing structure of Davide Ferrario’s film Tutta colpa di
Giuda/Blame it all on Judas (2009). In it, a young theatre director, Irene Mirković
from Serbia, has become involved in a project to put on a play in a more leni-
ent ward of a Turin prison. On the suggestion of the prison’s priest, they start


SEEC 1.1 rev Kuc_109-126.indd 123 2/17/10 9:34:42 AM


7. For more, see http:// working on a production of the Passion, for Easter. The film was shot in a real prison in Turin. The director takes the prisoners on a journey of faith and art,
both of which are rather foreign to them. The main conflict lies at the centre of
8. David Kasl, ‘Tuhý boj the film, and is treated from many different angles, taking in almost every side
o premiéry’, Euro, 26
June 2009, p. 90.
of the problem. We have a very explicit verbal conflict between the director
and the priest on the subject. ‘Salvation lies in faith!’ ‘Religion is slavery!’ The
principal problem lies in the fact that art is questioning set values and faith
is taking these values to be true, though there can be no proof of their exist-
ence or truth. But this is not an anti-Christian film. Ferrario and all his char-
acters are extremely respectful of religion, and if they are not believers, they
are actively interested in it. Art can bring new insights, which not only give
us enlightenment but can help us to live, argues the film. What wins? Faith
doesn’t entirely win, because no one is converted, they do not reach salvation.
Art doesn’t win, as the play does not go on in the end. And so, does life win?
It doesn’t, either. At the end of the film, as the camera is panning over the
faces of the prisoners just as they are about to leave prison, the fiction breaks
down. We hear the voice of the director and the clapper girl. The real prison-
ers, who acted in the film, are not liberated. The film stops being a story, and
starts being an artistic, philosophical object.7
The Czech films at Karlovy Vary were relatively disappointing this year.
None of them made it into the official competition. ‘Czech film-makers feel
that it is necessary to include certain formulaic ingredients in their films so
that they would be attractive to viewers. They don’t make films because they
feel the need to say something but because they calculate that in their view a
film on a particular topic will be successful. While this works with the Czech
audiences, it doesn’t work with international audiences or with film festivals,’
says Eva Zaoralová, the programme director of the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.8
Yet Czech cinema should be able to produce interesting work. Economically,
it is a success story: some thirty new Czech feature films are now made annu-
ally, a fairly impressive record for a nation of 10 million inhabitants.
On the recommendation of Peter Hames we went to see Václav Marhoul’s
film Tobruk (2008). It was a pleasant surprise. Ostensibly, it deals with the pre-
dicament of a Czech military unit under British command in the Second World
War in Northern Africa, but actually the film is made on the basis of American
writer Stephen Crane’s classic realistic novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
and convincingly records the pressures that young men find themselves under
when in action during the war in the trenches. Marhoul concentrates on inter-
personal relations in the military unit and while the run up to the action may
feel a little monotonous, the depiction of horrors during fighting, when all the
individual characteristic features of the protagonists under stress stand out in
sharp relief, is quite convincing.
A Slovak film Pokoj v duši/Soul at Peace (2008), directed by Vladimír Balko,
was included in the official competition. The script was written by well-known
Czech scriptwriter Jiří Křižan and the film bears the hallmarks of Křižan’s
characteristic style. His narratives tend to assume an uncompromising ethical
stance, so much so that the conflicts depicted sometimes feel a little too black
and white. Pokoj v duši is the story of 40-year-old Slovak entrepreneur Tono,
who returns to his native village in the Slovak mountains after he has served
a prison term for fraud. The film argues that life in contemporary Slovakia
is based on corruption, double-dealing and Mafioso back-scratching. We
learn that Tono ended up in prison because his closest business partner had
reported him to the police using him as a scapegoat for his own fraudulent


SEEC 1.1 rev Kuc_109-126.indd 124 2/17/10 9:34:42 AM


business activities. When Tono, an honest man, comes back to the village, he
discovers that his community will not accept him unless he agrees to take part
in their criminal activities. There are barriers everywhere; he is not ‘one of us’.
His life falls apart and he commits suicide. Apparently, Slovak audiences have
found this film extremely authentic.
Vladimír Drha’s Czech film Anglické jahody/English Strawberries (2008)
seems interesting primarily from a sociological point of view. As anyone who
follows day-to-day Czech politics knows, the 1968 Warsaw Pact-led invasion
of Czechoslovakia remains to this day a deep trauma for the Czechs, and it
still profoundly influences Czech political decision-making. Yet, as time goes
on, the interpretation of the events of 1968 becomes more and more dis-
torted. Anglické jahody in this sense is a film about the Czech Republic now,
rather than about the events of more than forty years ago. Its highly subjective
account of the 1968 invasion casts an intriguing light on contemporary Czech
attitudes, or at least on the attitudes of the authors of this film. Anglické jahody
takes place in the small village of Davle, some 25 kilometres south of Prague,
over a few days from 21 August 1968 onwards, the day of the Soviet-led inva-
sion. A young local Czech boy, Tomáš Sinek, is supposed to travel to England
to pick strawberries on a farm there, but the trip never takes place because of
the invasion. The film records the reaction of the local population to the inva-
sion and, interestingly, contrasts it with the attitudes of some of the Russian
The film is extremely critical of the cowardliness and helplessness of the
Czechs, who have no ideals and are only capable of taking care of their own
personal interests. But even the members of the younger generation tend to
be cynical. But what is particularly intriguing is that the negative image of the
Czechs is contrasted strongly in this film with the positive image of at least
some of the Russian invaders. At least two of the Russian officers are shown
as very likeable human beings. Most importantly, the nihilism of the Czechs
is sharply contrasted with the attitudes of an extremely charismatic young
Russian soldier, Private Lebedev, who deserts from his unit and tries to defect
to the West. He hides in the Sineks’ summer cottage in the woods, where he
is discovered by Tomáš and Táňa and tries to enlist their help. Father Sinek
refuses to help him point blank; the young Czech couple gives him assistance
half-heartedly and it soon becomes obvious that the Russian soldier, who
constantly quotes Yesenin, is a much more attractive male character than the
young Tomáš. At least, unlike the Czechs, he has a goal which he, romanti-
cally, pursues. The Czechs have no such goals in life, implies the film. After Jan
Svěrák’s Kolya (1996), which for the first time featured a charismatic Russian
character, a 5-year-old boy, this is the second Czech film that compares the
Russians to the Czechs favourably and finds the Czechs wanting.
A major controversy was caused by the screening of Lars von Trier’s
Antichrist (2009). In the beautiful prologue to the film, shot in slow motion,
while a moving aria by Handel is sung by a female voice, a toddler boy
releases himself from his pen, climbs up a table and falls out of the window
to his death while his parents are making love. As a result of the death, the
mother of the dead child falls into a deep depression; the father of the child,
a psychologist, is trying to cure her. We saw this film during its only screen-
ing at the festival on Wednesday 8 July at 22:30 in the large festival audito-
rium, sitting in the proverbial Row 8, reserved for journalists, and when we
looked around during the screening of the drastic scenes in the final parts of
the film, we saw what we had never seen before: everyone was covering their


SEEC 1.1 rev Kuc_109-126.indd 125 2/17/10 9:34:42 AM


9. ibid. eyes with their hands. The film provoked a ferocious debate. Eva Zaoralová
said that the main festival programmer Karel Och wanted to exclude the film
from screening at Karlovy Vary. It was apparently only shown there because
a Czech distribution company had purchased it for the Czech Republic.9 It is
possible to understand von Trier’s explanation that he was suffering from a
deep depression when making this film and that the drastic images that he
included in the film pursued him relentlessly. That of course raises the ques-
tion of the role of art, is it supposed to serve as a prophylactic remedy for an
author who is suffering from an illness, or is a work of art to reveal something
new? Von Trier’s Antichrist seems to be an eloquent example of the decadence
of contemporary western society which often has no longer anything to say
and the only thing it can do is to shock the viewer by excessive or violent
images without meaning.
But in spite of the shock of Antichrist – or maybe also because of it – taken
all in all Karlovy Vary 2009 was a wonderful, even though exhausting, experi-
ence. We would thoroughly recommend it to anyone. Naturally, the Karlovy
Vary International Film Festival is primarily an event of major cultural impor-
tance for the Czech Republic. It is the only forum where Czech cineastes can
acquaint themselves with important recent developments in international cin-
ema. Most of the films shown in Karlovy Vary will never be given a theatrical
release in the Czech Republic. From the point of view of the distributors, this
country of a mere 10 million inhabitants is too small to justify this from the
commercial point of view. Yet from the international point of view, Karlovy
Vary is extremely significant as a showcase for the work of young directors
from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Karlovy Vary is now attended
by representatives from many other international festivals, in particular from
the United States, who hunt for new talent there. At the same time, as the
programming director Eva Zaoralová testifies, the Karlovy Vary programming
team now closely collaborates with many other international events on the
festival circuit.


SEEC 1.1 rev Kuc_109-126.indd 126 2/17/10 9:34:42 AM

SEEC 1 (1) pp. 127–130 Intellect Limited 2010

Studies in Eastern European Cinema

Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Miscellaneous. English language. doi: 10.1386/seec.1.1.127/7


Principal Editor

The Hungarian tax credit

system and the 20%
rebate scheme
Occasionally Studies in Eastern European Cinema will publish documents relat-
ing to the film industry of the region. We do this in the firm belief that knowl-
edge of the industry, its procedures, structures, technology, etc. is an essential
component in developing a fuller understanding of the cinematic experience
and all that might entail. The first contribution is an outline of the Hungarian
tax credit system and rebate scheme. This is one of the most comprehensive
pieces of film legislation to have been passed in Eastern Europe since 1989
and, so far, seems to be proving very beneficial to the Hungarian industry
on a number of fronts. The text that follows is an abridged version of a brief-
ing document issued by abacus-consult kft (Budapest) and Tenon media
(London). It was distributed at a reception at the Hungarian Cultural Centre
in London during the ‘Check the Gate’ Hungarian Film Festival in June 2009.
SEEC is very grateful to both abacus-consult kft and Tenon media for permis-
sion to reprint this document.


SEEC 1.1_ind_Cunningham_127-130.indd 127 2/17/10 9:35:31 AM

John Cunningham

• Indirect state subsidy through a tax certificate issued by the National Film
office (NFO).
• Non-recourse, non-repayable and non-recoupable cash rebate, based on
the Hungarian eligible production expenditure provided by local corporate
tax payers’ ‘sponsors’.


• Applicant must be a Hungarian company or a Hungarian branch of an EU
company registered by the NFO.
• Applicant must be the film’s producer, co-producer or production service
provider who is responsible for and actively involved in the production of
the film throughout.


• Feature films; animation; documentary; experimental; TV film; mini-series.
Films with highly violent or pornographic content are excluded. Also
excluded are TV sitcoms; reality shows; daily soaps.
• Films registered after 1 January 2008 need to pass a cultural test with a
minimum of 16 points out of 32 in the following categories:
• Cultural content: 8 points.
• Cultural contributions/hubs/practitioners: 24 points.

• 20 cents of every Euro of eligible Hungarian and non-Hungarian spend,
which is worth 25 cents of every Euro of eligible Hungarian spend.
• Definition of eligible HU spend: Production expenditure as per the film’s
registered budget/spent by applicant(s)/accounted separately in the books
of the applicant(s)/paid to Hungarian tax-registered sub-contractors (both
companies and individuals). Definition of non-HU spend: Same as above
with the exception that it can be paid to any foreign (non-Hungarian)
entities. It is capped at 25% of the eligible HU spend.
• Excluded costs:
a) Costs of copyright and acquisition of underlying rights costs above 4%
of the budget.
b) Producers’ fee above 4% of the budget.
c) Marketing and publicity costs above 5m HUF or 2% of the budget.
d) Travel costs without a Hungarian destination.
e) Costs of services performed by foreign tax-registered entities – includ-
ing non-Hungarian cast and crew – above 25% of eligible HU spend
(transferred services bought from foreign entities need to be deducted
from eligible HU spend).
• Third-country location shooting: any cost incurred abroad counts providing
it fulfils the requirements for definition of eligible HU and non-HU spend.


• The film needs to be registered at the NFO. Application for the regis-
tration needs to include script, budget, production schedule, crew list,
co-production agreement or PSA agreement with the sponsor, ledger of


SEEC 1.1_ind_Cunningham_127-130.indd 128 2/17/10 9:35:31 AM

The Hungarian tax credit system and the 20% rebate scheme

the separate account from the book(s) of the applicant(s). To register the
film 100% financing of the local split budget needs to be proved.
• Upon completion of the production or after having finished a certain
part of the production an application for a tax certificate to be filed to the
NFO. The application needs to include the ledgers and other related lists
obtained from the books of the applicant(s) and the supporting documents
(e.g. contracts, bank statements).
• After the NFO has concluded the audit of the submitted documentation,
the final amount of eligible HU and non-HU spend plus the amount of
the 20% rebate is quoted. The NFO issues the tax certificate with the equal
amount of quoted rebate.
• Upon receiving the tax certificate the sponsor transfers the fund to the


A: Cultural criteria
(a–h scores one point each)
a) The storyline/underlying material of the motion picture is based on an
event, which is part of the Hungarian/European culture, history, mythol-
ogy, religions.
b) The motion picture is based on a character, personality belonging to the
Hungarian or European culture, history, society, religions.
c) The motion picture is based on Hungarian/European traditions/customs.
d) The story of the motion picture is in a European setting, has European
landmarks, locations, architecture or cultural environment.
e) The storyline or underlying material is based on a literary work or on an
adaptation of other artwork (products of fine or applied arts, music, etc.).
f) The storyline or underlying material of the motion picture is centred on
a current actual cultural, sociological or political issue for Hungarian or
European society.
g) The motion picture reflects an important Hungarian or European value
such as cultural diversity, solidarity, equality, protection of minorities or
human rights, tolerance, environmental protection, respect for traditions
of culture or family.
h) The motion picture reflects the Hungarian and European culture and

B: Industrial criteria
i) The film product is a motion picture that creates value as a result of its
genre (4 points).
j) The creators of the motion picture include Hungarian citizens or citizens
of another EEA country (European Economic Area), or those non-EEA
citizens who have received an international film festival award (6 points
maximum from points i–xii, listed immediately below):
i. Director
ii. Producer
iii. Director of photography
iv. Script writer
v. Leading/secondary actor/actress
vi. Composer


SEEC 1.1_ind_Cunningham_127-130.indd 129 2/17/10 9:35:32 AM

John Cunningham

vii. Art director/production designer

viii. Costume designer
ix. Editor
x. Make-up designer
xi. Line producer or production manager
xii. Post-production supervisor (audio/VFX/DI)
k) Final version of the film in any EEA language (4 points).
l) At least 51% of the contributors to the motion picture – not falling under
the scope of point j) – are the citizens of an EEA country, or the motion
picture is a co-production that does not qualify as a European co-production
(4 points).
m) The location of the shooting is in Hungary (3 points).
n) Use of Hungary’s cultural resources, i.e. pre- or post-production in
Hungary (3 points).

Total points for sections A and B: 32


SEEC 1.1_ind_Cunningham_127-130.indd 130 2/17/10 9:35:32 AM

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Any extension of this limit must be agreed in advance
Intellect’s style for quotations embedded into a paragraph
with the editor.
is single quote marks, with double quote marks used for
METADATA a second quotation contained within the first. All long
Contributors must check that each of the following quotations (over 40 words) should be ‘displayed’ – i.e.
have been supplied correctly: set into a separate indented paragraph with an addi-
• Article Title tional one-line space above and below, and without
• Author’s Name quote marks at the beginning or end. Please note that
• Author’s postal and email address (the postal for quotations within the text, the punctuation should
address does not have to be included in the final follow the bracketed reference. For a displayed quota-
article, but is needed for correspondence purposes) tion the bracketed reference appears after the full stop.
• Author’s Biography of 50–100 words All omissions in a quotation are indicated thus: [...] Note
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• Keywords (six to eight, listed one per line, in lower please ensure that you indicate whether the emphasis is
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NOTES This is a peer-reviewed journal. Strict anonymity is
Notes may be used for comments and additional infor- accorded to both authors and referees.
mation only. In general, if something is worth saying,
it is worth saying in the text itself. A note will divert REFERENCES
the reader’s attention away from your argument. If you All references in the text should be according to the
think a note is necessary, make it as brief and to the Harvard system, e.g. (Bordwell 1989: 9). Please do not
point as possible. Use Microsoft Word’s note-making group films together under a separate Filmography
facility and ensure that your notes are endnotes, not heading. Instead, incorporate all films into the main
footnotes. Place note calls outside the punctuation, i.e. body of references and list them alphabetically by direc-
after the comma or the full stop. The note call must be tor. The same rule applies to television programmes/
in superscripted Arabic(1, 2, 3).


SEEC_1.1_Notes for contributor_131-132.indd 131 2/17/10 9:36:08 AM

music/new media: identify the director/composer and of Britain’, Ph.D. thesis, Chelmsford: Anglia Ruskin
list alphabetically with books, journals and papers. University.
Please note in particular: Rodgers, Richard and Hammerstein II, Oscar (n.d.),
• ‘Anon.’ for items for which you do not have an Carousel: A Musical Play (vocal score ed. Dr Albert
author (because all items must be referenced with an Sirmay), Williamson Music.
author within the text) Roussel, R. ([1914] 1996), Locus Solus, Paris: Gallimard.
• A blank line is entered between references Stroöter-Bender, J. (1995), L’Art contemporain dans
• Year date of publication in brackets les pays du ‘Tiers Monde’ (trans. O. Barlet), Paris:
• Commas, not full stops, between parts of each L’Harmattan.
reference UNDESA (United Nations Department of Economic and
• Absence of ‘in’ after the title of a chapter if the refer- Social Affairs) (2005), 6th Global Forum on Reinventing
ence relates to an article in a journal or newspaper. Government: Towards Participatory and Transparent
• Name of translator of a book within brackets after Governance, Seoul, Republic of Korea, 24–27 May,
title and preceded by ‘trans.’, not ‘transl.’ or ‘trans- United Nations: New York.
lated by’. Woolley, E. and Muncey, T. (in press), ‘Demons or dia-
• Absence of ‘no.’ for the journal number, a colon monds: a study to ascertain the range of attitudes
between journal volume and number. present in health professionals to children with con-
• ‘pp.’ before page extents. duct disorder’, Journal of Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing.
The following samples indicate conventions for the most (Accepted for publication December 2002).
common types of reference:
Anon (1931), Les films de la semaine, Tribune de Genéve, PERSONAL COMMUNICATIONS
28 January. Personal communications are what the informant said
Brown, J. (2005), ‘Evaluating surveys of transparent gov- directly to the author, e.g. ‘Pam loved the drums (per-
ernance’, in UNDESA (United Nations Department sonal communication)’. This needs no citation in the ref-
of Economic and Social Affairs), 6th Global Forum on erences list. Equally the use of personal communications
Reinventing Government: Towards Participatory and need not refer back to a named informant. However, a
Transparent Governance, Seoul, Republic of Korea, more formal research interview can be cited in the text
24–27 May, United Nations: New York. (Jamieson 12 August 2004 interview) and in the refer-
Denis, Claire (1987), Chocolat, Paris: Les Films du ences list.
Flitterman-Lewis, S. (1990), To Desire Differently: Website references are similar to other references. There
Feminism and the French Cinema, Urbana and Chicago: is no need to decipher any place of publication or a spe-
University of Chicago Press. cific publisher, but the reference must have an author,
Grande, M. (1998), ‘Les Images non-dérivées’, in O. Fahle, and the author must be referenced Harvard-style within
(ed.), Le Cinéma selon Gilles Deleuze, Paris: Presse de la the text. Unlike paper references, however, web pages
Sorbonne Nouvelle, pp. 284–302. can change, so there needs to be a date of access as well
Gibson, R., Nixon, P. and Ward, S. (eds) (2003), Political as the full web reference. In the list of references at the
Parties and the Internet: Net Gain?, London: Routledge. end of your article, the item should read something like
Gottfried, M. (1999), ‘Sleeve notes to “Gypsy”’, [Original this:
Broadway Cast Album] [CD], Columbia Broadway Bondebjerg, K. (2005), ‘Web Communication and the
Masterworks, SMK 60848. Public Sphere in a European Perspective’, http://www.
Hottel, R. (1999), ‘Including Ourselves: The Role of Female Accessed 15 February 2005.
Spectators in Agnès Varda’s Le bonheur and L’une chante,
l’autre pas’, Cinema Journal, 38: 2, pp. 52–72. SUBMISSION PROCEDURES
Johnson, C. (1998), ‘The Secret Diary of Catherine Articles submitted to this journal should be original
Johnson’, programme notes to Mamma Mia! [Original and not under consideration by any other publication.
West End Production], dir. Phyllida Lloyd. Contributions should be submitted electronically as an
Richmond, J. (2005), ‘Customer expectations in the email attachment. Please contact the journal’s editor
world of electronic banking: a case study of the Bank for further details.


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