Culture and the arts in Serbia could suffer through lack of government support and a background of corruption, two of the nation’s foremost filmmakers have said. Esteemed actress Mirjana Karanović and controversial director Stevan Filipović are known across the Balkans for their strongly held opinions and an unflinching desire to express what others choose to ignore.
It takes more than bricks and mortar to build a nation and the value of art in building a more confident and rounded society should not be underestimated, Mirjana told Wild Rooster. “You can change everything outside: buildings, technology and fashion,’ she said. “You can build highways, even change how nature looks, but it is very difficult to change people inside. It is so hard to change their habits, change their ideas.
“Art changes people very slowly but art does change people. I very strongly believe in this. In my country, so many politicians believe that art is completely unnecessary, that we waste money on culture. But that is a very shortsighted view.”
Stevan is clear in his opinion on why Serbia’s film industry is suffering: “As usual, local cartels run the show, headed by people who are more interested in getting money from national funds than in the films they make,’ he said.
Stevan (Skinning/Šišanje) and Mirjana (Grbavica/Esma’s Story) have both seen how art can play an important role by highlighting ignored issues within a community and by holding the establishment to account. “You don’t know what effect it will have in the moment when it happens, you really don’t,’ said Mirjana. “You even think that it doesn’t help, because you do not see the results immediately. It is a very slow process. But you can see it maybe in a few years, after a decade or maybe more.
“You can have an effect of thousands of people who watch a movie but maybe just few dozen really change after watching it. What is important is if those few dozen spread their beliefs to another few dozen in their own environment. That’s how it goes, really slowly, spreading like a positive virus.”
As artists, Stevan and Mirjana have become known for not being afraid to voice their refreshingly forthright and often-provocative opinions. Now these two important commentators on Serbian culture have come together on A Good Wife, a film project that they hope will encourage Serbians to confront some important questions. For this collaboration, they have drawn from interviews with people involved in the conviction of members of Serbian paramilitary unit, The Scorpions, to present a story of guilt, denial and personal responsibility.
Mirjana first whipped up certain elements in Serbia for her talked-about role in Grbavica/Esma’s Story, from Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić. The film, about a Bosnian woman who had been raped by a Serbian soldier, won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as awards at festivals in Belgium, Spain and Kazakhstan.
Mirjana is undaunted by the controversy that can be expected for this latest project. “I don’t care about my reputation,’ she said. “I really don’t care. I know that some people will attack me heavily and some people will love me more than ever but I don’t do things for them. I do things because I have to do them, because this is my way to be on this planet. It is something bigger than me. I have a responsibility to my life. This is what I do. This is who I am. I said to myself, ‘You are who you are, so get on with it.”
In 2008, Mirjana won the Osvajanje slobode (Winning Freedom) Award, which is presented to women whose work promotes and affirms the principles of human rights, rule of law, democracy and tolerance in society. She feels strongly that Serbia has an urgent need to face its past. “I think it is not possible to really move on without first being able to honestly address all the important questions,’ she said. “I don’t know what is going on in Serbia. I just know that this has to be done. There is no other way. If we postpone this, it is going to be harder and harder for the next generation.
“But I am afraid that postponing issues is becoming a custom in the Balkans,’ she said. “We easily forget our mistakes from history. Then also we don’t appreciate our achievements. So we are stuck in a situation where we don’t know who we are.”
Inept & Crude
The newly installed government does not help matters, according to these two social commentators. Both are highly critical of Serbia’s new president, Tomislav Nikolić, a man whose background as one of Milosević’s leading henchmen and ally of accused war criminal Vojislav Šešelj cannot be discounted with claims that the leopard has changed his spots. Past allegiances already overshadow his new presidency in the eyes of Stevan and many others.
“Tomislav Nikolic is an inept, crude person, with neither vision nor sufficient education to do anything good for this county,’ said Stevan. “For decades he was the right hand of one of the craziest nationalist leaders, Vojislav Šešelj, currently imprisoned in The Hague. In that position he did and said the most vile things. The tragedy of Serbia, but also of the international community, is that all of this can be so easily forgotten.”
A future within the European Union is essential for Serbia, Stevan said, and the country should not be forced off course by the posturing and manoeuvres of its new leader. “I think the EU is doing Serbia a favour of playing the role of an adult in this relationship, and forcing our corrupt and incompetent politicians to actually do some good things,’ he said. “I cannot even imagine our future outside the EU. Or maybe I can, but it is not a bright one.”
While former President Boris Tadić attracted mixed reactions at home, despite – and, indeed, partially due to him – cultivating a better reputation abroad, the election of the former ultra nationalist Tomislav Nikolić, – ominously nicknamed Toma the Gravedigger – is not a change for the better, said Mirjana. “I think that Tadić is responsible for the government we have now,’ she said. “I blame the people from the Democratic Party because they did not do their job. They did a terrible job for everybody.
Votes for Change
“In this election, people voted for change, but they also voted for anybody who was different. The result is we have a worse situation. I don’t think this will be a change for the better. I think it will be a disaster. The politicians are all really similar. From the outside, the old government do not look like the new government but inside they are almost the same. And I am really angry.
“This process of changing system, economically and politically, it is not helping because this stage of distributing the power has been a great battle between politicians and tycoons for the best positions. I think they like the situation when most of the people are confused, afraid and insecure, because in this atmosphere you can have power over them.
“It is very, very bad in my country but I cannot think too much about it. I do not have power to change anything. I want to do my work and influence people through that. I do not want to waste my time on politicians who do not deserve my time or my interests.
“That is why I am going to do my job, my performance in theatre and in films. This is the only way I can change something. All I can do is speak through the performances in my films. That is the best I can do.”
Serbian Cinema In Poor Shape
With art and culture playing such a valuable role in any society, it is disappointing that neither Mirjana nor Stevan can be too positive about the state of Serbian cinema: “No, of course not,’ said Mirjana. “This is Serbia. It has never been in a strong or healthy state. Of course, we have produced some great movies but not because of the cultural politics or some clever plan or vision. That was just because of the ambition of some talented people who don’t want to waste their lives waiting for better times.
“I still see some talented young people now but I don’t know if they have the ambition or strength to keep up this level of energy they had when they made their first movies, which were very interesting, like Clip or Tilva Roš. But I am really not very good about the prognosis.”
Stevan also retains a hint of optimism in a raft of young filmmakers. “The times are a-changing, with a lot of young authors grabbing the opportunity to use the affordable digital technology and make brave, poignant films, like Maja Milos’s Clip or Nikola Lezaic’s Tilva Roš,’ he said.
Despite an illustrious career on stage and screen, one ambition remains unfulfilled for Mirjana: She longs to visit England. “I have never been there, even though I love everything about England,’ she enthused. “I love English culture, literature, film, art. There are so many things in Britain that I like. What I also like is this mix that is going on now, with ex-colony inhabitants – Indians, Pakistanis and people who in the past were submissive – they now create British culture. It makes Britain very exciting. But, I am not blind to any bad things that might have happened, too.”