Belgrade Unspools Despite War

After two years of lights out because of the war in former Yugoslavia, Belgrade’s 23-year-old film festival, FEST 95, raised its curtain again Jan. 28-Feb. 5. New management led by filmmaker Emir Kusturica, chairman of the festival council, and critic Nenad Dukic, the program director, vowed to unspool films under the sign of peace.

Though he was in the middle of film editing, Kusturica lent not only his name, but his time, to revitalize the moribund event.

Starved for cultural activities during these years of war, Belgrade audiences turned out for the fest en masse. Ticket sales were brisk at the 3,700-seat Sava Center auditorium. An estimated 5,000 viewers a day brought in circa $280,000, accounting for most of the fest’s budget.

Dukic put together a solid, non-competitive best-of-fests program, featuring an eight-film spotlight on new Chinese cinema. On opening night an SRO audience applauded the Spanish “Dias Contados” by Basque helmer Imanol Uribe. Fest closed with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors: Blue.”

“This used to be a big festival for local distributors, who showcased their upcoming U.S. releases,” said Dukic, who had to explain to disappointed auds why 30% of the program was no longer composed of Yank films. This year, the majors were absent due to the commercial embargo in force against Serbia and Montenegro.

Yet around town, the titles of U.S.-made films like “Stargate” flashed from Belgrade marquees. “Pulp Fiction” was the top-grossing film of 1994 with 50,000 admissions, while “Tombstone” was not far behind. French films like “Queen Margot” and “The Visitors” were hits, along with the Spanish “Kika.”

“Before the Rain,” the British-French-Macedonian co-prod that won a Gold Lion in Venice for its condemnation of fraternal strife in the Balkans, came out to critics’ raves but only 15,000 viewers thus far. It is still in theaters.

Local distributors were loathe to explain how such films slipped around the embargo. One source, who asked not to be quoted, estimated that 90% of the films on commercial screens have out-flanked the sanctions in one way or another. Though the U.S. majors are absent, films from indies like Miramax, Majestic, Summit, Carolco and Polygram are making it into theaters.

All the majors have closed their offices in Belgrade, and most of Serbia’s top pre-war distribs have thrown in the towel for the interim. In Serbia and Montenegro, 80% of all film theaters have been closed down since 1990.

Present in Belgrade for the fest were Nikita Mikhalkov and Klaus Maria Brandauer, both honored with retros and career awards. Yanks attending Fest 95 included producer Frederick Marx with the basketball docu “Hoop Dreams” and Harvey Keitel, who has become a popular star here due to the large number of imported indie films which feature him.

Highlights from the Yugoslav section of the fest were two brief excerpts of works-in-progress. Kusturica’s Cannes-bound “Once Upon a Time There Was a Country” tackles the history of Yugoslavia since World War II in a three-hour black comedy.

Passing through Belgrade during the fest was another emigre director, Goran Pascaljevic. He’s putting the finishing touches on “Someone Else’s America,” a Euro co-prod about two Brooklyn immigrants which, like Kusturica’s film, is Cannes-bound.

“Any cultural event like this festival is a step back from war and chaos,” noted Pascaljevic, summing up the prevailing opinion among the opposition. “It’s like breathing again.”