From Iceland — The Optimistic Serb

The Optimistic Serb

The Reykjavík Grapevine met with the Serbian film director Goran Paskaljevic in a cosy downtown hotel in Reykjavík. The surroundings are a world away from his most recent films, a trilogy of sorts about Serbia during and after the war. The two latest ones are Midwinter Night’s Dream (San zimske noci) and The Optimists (Optimisti). The name of the third one, Bure baruta in Serbian, The Powder Keg and sometimes Cabaret Balkan in English.
“It was originally a theatre play written by Dejan Dukovski, a young Macedonian writer. I worked with him on the screenplay and we changed it a lot but the title always remained The Powder Keg and that was the title when it opened in Venice. Then Paramount Classics bought it to distribute in America and a couple of months later they called and said we couldn’t use that title because Kevin Costner had registered the title for a new film of his, that incidentally never happened. It was absurd, there were already articles and reviews about The Powder Keg in Variety and other places, but Costner didn’t want to give it up and we had to change the title. I hated Costner at that time,” he adds with a grin.
The Stepfather’s Cinematheque
Paskaljevic was born in Belgrade but at the age of two his parents separated and he moved to his grandparents’ home in Niš, in the south of what is now Serbia. As a teenager he returned to live in the capital. He had ambitions of becoming a writer and at the age of 15 wrote a book of poetry, but admits that reading the verses now he sees he didn’t have the talent for it.
“My grandmother was sick so I went back to Belgrade to live with my mother and my stepfather. My stepfather made the programs for the cinematheque. He had been a journalist earlier but had problems with the authorities so he ended up working there, but that suited him fine. He knew film history perfectly and it was his passion. I myself had no money and no friends in Belgrade so I went to the cinematheque all the time. He gave me a small job there, to collect the tickets at the entrance, and after collecting the tickets I went inside and watched the films. Some I watched five or six times. I watched the masterpieces of Jean Renoir and many other great masters. That’s where I fell in love with films and decided to become a director because I found that through films I could express myself much better than through literature. I remember De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (Ladri di bicicletti), I remember crying and being so moved by it. But I wonder if anyone in Iceland can relate to the title?” he adds. I assure him that even if it’s not a common profession here due to lack of bicycles we do have some thieves like that. “
After that I wanted to study film and my stepfather, being knowledgeable about the matter, told me about FAMU, the film school in Prague, is. But it was hard to get into. Out of between 100 and 150 applicants they choose maybe ten. But I got in.” For those readers who do not recognise FAMU, the school’s alumni also includes such distinguished filmmakers as Milos Forman, Paskaljevic’s fellow Serb Emir Kusturica, Icelandic director Börkur Gunnarsson and many more.
Autistic Nation
The second film of the trilogy, Midwinter Night’s Dream, is a very different from the others despite being part of the same trilogy. Not least because of Lazar’s speech, a tale of a soldier who has witnessed scenes so horrible in the Serbian-Croatian war, they have driven him mad. Mad and out of the army. When the film starts, ten years have passed and he is a changed man, out of prison, a gentle soul that for the twists of fate finds a woman and her autistic daughter in his home when he returns. The speech is Lazar’s dark night of the soul, and while nothing is really shown, the dialogue and Lazar Ristovski’s delivery of it is tense enough to make it an unforgettable cinematic experience.
But it is also a love story, a story of a man that finds a woman to love and a little girl to fight for. While dancing with Jovana, Marija’s autistic daughter, he desperately whispers into her ear: “Wake up, wake up!” But we feel it’s not only for her, it’s also for himself, and ultimately a desperate plea by Paskaljevic himself to his nation.
“When doing The Powder Keg I wanted to express the violence that surrounded us when Milosevic was in power. The war had just finished and he started to make aggressions in Kosovo. After Milosevic fell from power and was sent to Hague many of us that had immigrated returned. Most of us came back to our country full of hope, but it didn’t last. In 2003 the Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjic, was killed. He had sent Milosevic to the Hague and the war profiteers who had started to buy their way back into Serbia were responsible for the assassination. They are still there. When Djindjic, who was also a very dear friend of mine, was killed I started to lose hope. How can you live freely in this country if they kill the Prime Minister in the street? I felt that as a society we are going through a kind of autism, metaphorically speaking. Then I started thinking about real autism and went to the hospital and met this little girl and fell absolutely in love (Jovana Mitic, who plays the autistic girl in the film), she’s adorable. Then I met her parents and spent a couple of months with them and then decided to do the film.”
How did the Serbians react to being characterised as autistic? “It wasn’t easy, you know. At the premiere there was a big applause, but at the premiere you have your friends present, even if you also sell some tickets. And when we went outside a couple of people shouted at me: “Traitor! Traitor!” It wasn’t just that I made a metaphoric film about autism. It’s when Lazar delivers the speech about what happened to him in the war, why he left. It was the first time that a Serbian director or artist said: let’s admit it, we committed horrible crimes in the war. The story Lazar narrates is a true story. I had wanted to do something about the war and I interviewed people about it while preparing another movie, one that never got made. And I got this story from a man who had lost both his legs. While running away after deserting the army, having fled the scene described in the movie, he paused for a breath and stepped on a mine, losing both legs. They tell me, “It’s not true, how can you say that? What will the world think about us when they see the movie?” I reply: “What is the world thinking about what we have done?” So I’m always attacked for not showing Serbia the way they want us to show it.”
The Actor
The Serbian actor Lazar Ristovski plays a big role in all these films. Ristovski, most famous for his role in Emir Kusturica’s Underground, is a charismatic actor, possibly the most recognizable of Serbian actors, armed with a menacing glare and a kind heart. “He’s a very strong actor so you have to really hold him back sometimes. It probably worked better in Midwinter Night’s Dream, because he was so completely dedicated to that film and we spent a lot of time working with the actors. When you are in the presence of this girl (Jovana Mitic) you never know what she’s gonna do, so it’s a very special atmosphere. I knew how she was going to act from time to time because I started to know her very well and she had complete confidence in me but you cannot communicate with her. You can’t say do this or do that. You just have to put the camera on her and suppose what she is going to do and then catch these fantastic moments when she is completely spontaneous.”
It wasn’t easy for Ristovski either. “I actually said to Lazar: “Listen, you don’t have to meet the girl now, you’re going to meet her in front of the camera. And the scene when he enters the apartment and they meet for the first time is really authentic. And after that I was shooting some other scenes while I gave him seven days to know Jovana, the girl, better. It was hard work and a challenging experiment for him. In The Optimists I had to hold him back more, because he is so strong and I need to give all the other characters some space, there are some 45 actors in the film. So it’s always a fight with Lazar, because he’s strong and he can be even more strong then necessary and that has happened sometimes. But I think his best work is Midwinter’s Night Dream. He absolutely entered into the character and it was a fantastic period for us. It’s more than just a film, it was a human experience.”
Candid Optimism
His most recent film, The Optimists (Optimisti) opened this fall. It takes place in recent-day Serbia but much of the inspiration came from a 250-year-old French novel, Voltaire’s Candide. “I stated that I didn’t believe in fake optimism. We have elections in Serbia in December, and there and everywhere in the world, politicians are trumpeting fake optimism, everything must be positive. Filip David, a writer I often work with, told me that if I wanted to do something with that I should read Candide again. So I started to think about the theme. I read Candide and was completely amazed by how modern it was. That somebody in Serbia is ready to use it as an inspiration for a modern film, 250 years after it was written, that shows a really strong spirit for a book. Then I imagined the film with a hypnotist travelling to Serbia, helping depressed people to get out of their depression. But the script quickly became very complicated and with the first draft it would have been far too expensive. I was pretty downcast about it but then Vladimir, my son, told me to read his unfinished book. He had a lot of similar themes there, even a story called The Optimists. So I read his unfinished book of nine short stories and he really became a good writer, you know. Then I proposed to him that we’d make a screenplay together and make the film episodic, an omnibus that Ristovski later tied together playing different characters in each episode.”
The connection between literature and film is interesting in the Paskaljevic family. Goran’s father was a writer, he himself wanted to become a writer but became a director and for the son it was the other way around. “He did a couple of shorts and he couldn’t get the money for his first feature and I wasn’t sure he had a very good script. I told him that your first film must be something great. It doesn’t matter if you are 30 or 35 when doing your first film, don’t rush. You need to have a cheap project, but at the same time an excellent project. And then he started to write because he’s really a good writer, for me writing is… my father was a writer. And me and my son went through the father and son period when we didn’t speak for a year, it’s normal, you have to kill your father.” He lets out a hearty laugh, somewhere in there is that strange mix of affection and conflict that seems to characterise not only his films but his nation. “And then he came back to me and we worked together very closely on this script and he’s very proud of it, he’s fighting for the film even more than me.”
But while inspired by Candide, The Optimists is far from being an adaptation. It comprises five stories, the first and the last episode having the strongest ties to Voltaire’s novel. In the first story a hypnotist travels to a flooded town and tries to hypnotise the entire village from their depression, often paraphrasing the mantra of Candide’s tutor Pangloss: “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Then there is the final episode that features a bus full of people that are either blind, deaf, crippled or have some other affliction that faith healers see as a marketing opportunity. Travelling to a lake that is supposed to heal all their ills they are abandoned by their guide and go on foot, searching for the magical lake, finding a pool of mud. And they are happy in the mud, blissful even.”
In Toronto they asked his son Vladimir, the writer, how a young man could be so dark. The 31-year-old Vladimir told them: “Listen, in my generation, my friends, five percent were killed in the war and sometimes it feels all the rest moved abroad.” He echoes his father, who has stated that his films never have happy endings because they don’t have happy endings in his country. “You can not live in Serbia with all these troubles and not reflect on what’s going on.” It wasn’t always thus, he even made one comedy before the war when Serbia was still just one part of old Yugoslavia. But this war changed everybody, created new borders and a new kind of film.
Radical Nationalism
We continue to connect the dots between our two respective countries. “Serbia is a pretty aggressive country. The people are not happy. But there is something in their character that has been there for centuries I feel, the reaction that if somebody is successful they want to push him down to the same level everybody else is on. “How can this guy do better than us?” they think and do whatever they can to pull him down. Here it seems to be the opposite. If somebody is doing well, everybody is supportive.”
He continues: “I think jealousy and hate have in a way become an illness in Serbia because we are so poor and isolated now. We were much richer before but after all the conflicts the economy and the infrastructure has been destroyed. So the new generation just wants to go out. And we can hardly travel because getting a visa is an enormous problem. At four o’clock in the morning you’ll see people waiting in front of embassies just to be able to see their relatives. And even if those young people get the visas they don’t have the money to travel because the average salary is around 300 Euros. So it’s very hard for them. I read a study that stated that only about 20 percent of them, even less, had been abroad. Even counting neighbouring countries like Hungary. So we have a generation that has never travelled, that can not compare our way of life to anything else. It’s hard for them to see through all the propaganda.”
I ask him if this generation consider themselves more Serbian than the ones before them. “Yes, the nationalism is deeper now, that’s what scares me. Because they listen to the radio and the television all day telling them that we’re not guilty, that it was the western world that put us in this position. And they start to believe it. They are simply apathetic. They don’t vote, which scares me a lot. That’s why the radical party, which is aligned with Milosevic’s party and are ultranationalist, has around 35 percent support at the polls. Why? Because only 40 percent of the population is likely to vote. The others just say: “I don’t care, they are all the same.” This radical party and those ex-Milosevic forces still control the secret police to a large degree. And those that do go usually don’t return. Ten years ago a big wave of educated young people left the country, mostly for Canada, because they didn’t have any opportunities in Serbia. That’s great for the radical party because they deal very well with the uneducated people, they don’t need the educated people to wake the country up.” The time to wake up, to see the world and change their world, is now. Perhaps something Paskaljevic’s films can help with?
And then there is the unresolved conflict, a little place called Kosovo. “When The Powder Keg opened in Venice I was interviewed there and openly criticised the policy in Kosovo. I felt it was completely wrong and that Milosevic was leading us into a whole new war. For that they attacked me on the front pages of all the newspapers that were controlled by Milosevic at the time, they called me a traitor and said that if I was not in jail I should shoot myself if I had any honour. Some intellectuals were just shot like that in the streets after similar articles. So I stayed abroad for awhile, first in France and then I got the opportunity to make a film in Ireland.” The situation in Kosovo is still fragile. “We did horrible things in Kosovo, but after the bombing campaign, when they signed some sort of a peace treaty, the Albanians in Kosovo did horrible things to the Serbs also. But the Serbs are officially guilty so it will be problematic. It will create a big Albania on the map. They are against big Serbia, or Croatia, and they will give Kosovo independence and in 10, 20 years they’ll unite. But I think the hope for all Balkan countries is Europe, the EU. Once when all these borders, which belong to the 19th century, don’t matter anymore a lot of problems will be solved. Serbia without Kosovo is already strong enough to enter the EU. But it will need another generation. Maybe in 30, 40 years.”
He misses the old Yugoslavia and the freedom and prosperity they once had. “Serbia was a leader in the region, the whole of Yugoslavia. A beautiful country full of diversities, my generation was proud to be Yugoslavian, to be able to travel around both in the east and the west. We were never a hardline communist country. Tito was very clever, he held the country together without killing people. They put some people in jail and you were not completely free to do as you pleased but it’s not like now when war criminals are millionaires. You don’t need a political party in Serbia. If you have 100,000,000 Euros in the bank you are a very powerful man. You can buy power and bribe people.”
And it’s a hard cycle to break. “Those that go abroad are hard workers, good workers. I was amazed in Toronto when they told me that they had 80,000 Serbian expatriates, mostly young educated people. I met this girl who is a secretary. She has her diploma and is much more clever than any secretary I know, but she said: “Listen, it’s a big company, a film distribution company. If I do well I will progress very fast here. So she’s ready to do the work. If you’d ask her to be a secretary in Belgrade she’d never accept it because she knows that there she would stay a secretary forever. You must see some hope. But how can you have hope in Serbia if your salary is 300 Euros and you have to pay 400 Euros for an apartment? Most young people still live with their parents. I believe everybody in their twenties should leave their parents’ house, but they simply can not afford it.”
Despite all this, Goran Paskaljevic is quietly optimistic. He keeps on struggling, making honest films about his homeland, stories about all their contradictory traits, what is that but hope? Optimism even.

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