When two fighting men crossed paths over the skies of Yugoslavia nobody could have guessed that it would set in motion a series of events that have seen two families becoming firm friends. By orchestrating emotional meetings between a Serbian baker and a former US airman and capturing them on film, Serbian documentary maker Željko Mirković has produced a film that is grounded in a message of reconciliation.
The Second Meeting, which will have pre-premiere screenings in Belgrade (21 September) and New York (October), is a film about the touching reunion and shared memories of a US F117A stealth pilot Dale Zelko and the Yugoslav missile colonel Zoltan Dani who shot him down over Yugoslavia on March 27, 1999. The plane crashed and everyone had a chance to see for themselves, and live. Thankfully, the pilot ejected and was successfully evacuated eight hours later.
At the time, live footage of the downed aircraft shook the world. That episode stuck in the mind of Mirković, who was moved to bring together these two former protagonists more than a decade after the attack and to film it for a documentary.
Filming was split over two parts, with the two men meeting in Serbia before their wives met for the first time in the US, in March. “When the men met in Serbia it was only their second meeting – the first time they met was on radar during the war,’ said Mirković. “But when they met it was incredible.
Former US pilot Dale Zelko – whose grandparents came from Yugoslavia – spoke of the mixed emotions he felt before making his trip to Serbia. “Leading up to my meeting with the man who shot me down, I was intensely excited with restless enthusiasm,’ he said. “But I was also filled with strong anxiety and reluctance as I was uncertain how I would ultimately be received in this country I had participated in warring against only 12 years before. After all, I was dropping bombs – and they were shooting missiles. Reassurance came when the man who shot me down sent word that this time I was invited and there would be no missiles!”
Families Meet to Share Memories
While the meetings were important for the two men, their wives played a significant role in the direction the film was to take, Mirković explained: “When Dale came to Serbia, he brought a present from his wife Lauren to Zoltan’s wife Irena. It was a quilt Lauren had made when she had heard that her husband would go to Serbia.
“In its centre the quilt has a star that is symbolic of several things: freedom, the star that shone above Dale as he was expecting the rescue team, the star that shone above Zoltan’s unit as they were defending the sky over Serbia, and also the star that is today a symbol of friendship. A friendship between these wives that started in such an unusual way.
“Lauren offered her friendship to Irena with the quilt named Many Roads Lead to Friendship. At that moment, it was crystal clear to me that the project must not end in Serbia, with Dale’s visit, but effort should be made to have the two wives meet each other in the USA.“
For the next year, Zeljko Mirković and Optimistic Film worked with Serbia’s Ministry of Culture, the American Embassy in Belgrade and cultural offices in Vojvodina to set the wheels in motion to move production to the United States. After five years of hard work and negotiations, filming has wrapped and Mirković is excited about what he has in the can.
An Impossible Mission For Serbian Director
“Many thought this was an imposibble mission spurred on by a dreamer’s idea,’ said Mirković. “But we have made a unique documentary that has touched everyone. The meeting of two former officers from this conflict is unprecedented and will carry a strong message of peace. It is a fascinating story to promote the human aspect of these important historic events and focus on shared values of both Serbs and Americans.“
Zoltan is clear in his mind that this meeting of the two families will resonate with many other people when they see the film. “The unusual meeting with Dale Zelko’s family will forever leave a mark on our lives,’ he said. “We met Dale in front of their lovely old-style wooden house. Dale’s four smiling children ran to meet us, followed by Dale and his wife Lauren. They all wore wide, friendly smiles, shouting words of welcome.
“Dale and I stopped for a moment, saluted each other military style and then shook hands and hugged. During that time, my wife Irena and Lauren greeted each other. From that moment on, the meeting was unbelievably positive and emotional. With each passing day, the relationship between our families got more and more close and meaningful. In the end, we concluded that we had many common stands on family, children and matters of daily life. We received a warm welcome and we felt comfortable at any given moment. The positive mark of the meeting will remain with us as long as we live.“
Women Give War Story New Dimension
It was in bringing together the two women that the story took on a new dimension. “These ladies were the positive energy in the lives of their husbands,’ said Mirković. “Their support kept Dale and Zoltan going during the hard times of war and the challenging moments after war ended. Dale’s wife obviously feared for the worst when her husband was shot down, and this was the first time she was able to confront that emotion face to face. But when both families eventually met in American, Dale and his family seemed to have been waiting for that moment so long that they opened up sincerely and unreservedly.”
Zoltan’s wife Irena was understandably anxious about meeting the American family and unsure of how her own family would be received in the US. Her fears were unfounded. “We spent unforgettable moments there,’ she said on her return to Serbia. “Moments I’ll gladly remember as long as I live. This meeting will inevitably mark my life. I’ll never be able to express enough gratitude to our hosts for the hospitality and love with which they received us.”
Dale’s wife Lauren was equally moved by the whole experience. “Hosting the Dani family was like welcoming old friends into our home. I felt such a connection and was thrilled to see our young children immediately comfortable as well. What a blessing to have had the opportunity through war to form a friendship of peace and understanding. We look forward to our next visit!”
Since their families met in America, the flame that was sparked thirteen years ago has been rekindled. “Our journey with the Dani and Mirkovic families, and with all the remarkable people along the way, continues to be wonderfully extraordinary and beautiful,’ said Dale. “It was delightful to have them with us in our home, and it could not have been more comfortable and natural to intertwine the Danis with our family. They are a perfect warmth and tenderness in our home and we did not want them to leave! I cannot describe how blessed we all feel to have these dear people in our lives. My family and I look so forward to our continuing life-journey with the good people of Serbia and of this miraculous world of ours.”
With filming finished, the work was only just beginning for Mirković, with 120 hours of recorded material, including video diaries kept by the two men for two years, that had to be shaped into a 90-minute cinema release and a five-part TV series to air later this year. The film will receive a pre-premiere screening in Belgrade on 21 September, with a New York screening to follow in October.
Mirković is an established filmmaker with 27 international awards to his name. His documentaries have been shown at more than 200 film festivals in USA, Europe and Asia, and this latest project is set to repeat his international success.