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Locarno’s First Look Highlights Growing Strength of Serbian Cinema

History, memory, and female-driven stories mark some of the main themes in the six Serbian films selected for Locarno’s First Look, a pix-in-post strand that represents one of the high points of the mid-summer festival on the shores of Lake Maggiore.

The competitive showcase this year highlights an industry that has become increasingly prolific in the past decade. Thanks in large part to an uptick in government funding, which has opened the door for more international collaborations, it’s also grown in scope and ambition. “The industry itself, in terms of production power, it’s growing,” said First Look project manager Markus Duffner. More importantly, he added, young Serbian producers are “rapidly growing in terms of international industry experience.”

As part of its partnership with Locarno, Film Center Serbia selected six projects – including five documentary features – with all but one in post-production. Four of the six films are helmed by female directors. As in years past, the First Look spotlight offers an important springboard into the international market: sales agents, distributors and festival programmers flock to this scenic Swiss town every summer.

The program’s track record suggests strong prospects for this year’s participants. Chilean director Alejandro Fernandez Almendras’ “To Kill a Man” was a Sundance World Cinema grand jury winner after launching at First Look, while “Parthenon,” a Lithuania-Ukraine-France co-production directed by Mantas Kvedaravicius, will have its premiere this year in Venice Critics’ Week. The impact in Locarno can be immediate: last year Portuguese director Vicente Alves do Ó’s “Sunburn” was acquired by The Open Reel during First Look, while Israeli helmer Elite Zexer’s “Sand Storm” was picked up by Beta Film in 2015 during the works-in-progress event.

Contemporary Serbian cinema is squarely on the international arthouse map, thanks to recent success stories such as Ognjen Glavonic’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight player “The Load,” and Mirjana Karanovic’s “A Good Wife,” which world premiered in Sundance. For that reason, Duffner stressed that First Look eschews well-known directors in order to focus on up-and-coming talents. “We really want to be a launching pad for those projects,” he said.

Three of the selected films this year reflect an industry looking beyond its borders. Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Srdjan Sarenac directs and produces “Prison Beauty Contest,” which follows the director of a women’s prison in Brazil who organizes a beauty contest to bring self-esteem back to the inmates. Currently in production, the film is shot on location in Pirajui, Brazil. Sarenac is producing through his company Novi Film, in co-production with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Udruzenje Novi Film and Croatia’s Provid.

“Telenovela: Greyscale in Color” is the feature documentary debut of Filip Martinovic. The autobiographical story explores the personal history of the Belgrade-born director, who was raised in Barcelona. His search for answers about his family’s past takes a strange turn when life events remind him of the plots of Spanish-language telenovelas. Martinovic and Nikola Savicevic are producing through their company Gula Gula Presenta.

Traveling further afield, “In Praise of Love,” by Tamara Drakulic, is set in the deserts of Mexico, where history and myth intertwine. Among the ruins of abandoned haciendas, where village teens perform a rendition of “Romeo and Juliet,” the documentary explores the repetitive life cycle of a dying village. Jelena Angelovski, of Monkey Production, is producing.

The international scope of such films is no coincidence; the recent surge in soft money from the Serbian government – which last year funded local film production to the tune of nearly €8 million ($9 million) – has made it easier for Serbian producers to find partners beyond the borders of the former Yugoslavia.

“The past few years, with [the former director of Film Center Serbia] Boban Jetvic, we had an amazing growth with the money that flowed to the national fund, the number of films, and the quality of the films,” said Vladimir Vasiljevic, of Belgrade-based EED Productions.

“For us, it’s a natural co-production to co-produce with ex-Yugoslavian countries. But when you get €600,000 ($670,000) from your country, then you can even co-produce with France, Germany, with the Nordic countries,” he continued. “More and more films are also getting support from [Creative Europe] Media and Eurimage. They are changing the style of the Serbian movie.”

Vasiljevic is in Locarno with “Celts,” directed by Milica Tomovic, about three generations who converge at a child’s costume birthday party in the midst of the former Yugoslavia’s painful breakup. Tomovic’s short film “Transition,” about a young woman who plans on leaving Serbia to have a sex change, world premiered in Locarno and had a strong festival career.

“It’s an emotional film for us,” said Vasiljevic, who noted that both he and Tomovic were children at the time of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. “‘Celts’ is not a film about the ‘90s and the war,” he said, describing the movie as “an emotional rewind of our childhood.” “It’s a story about family in Serbia.”

As with much of contemporary Balkan cinema, several projects participating in First Look also cast a strong inward gaze. “Speak So I Can See You,” by first-time feature director Marija Stojnic, is a creative documentary charting a turbulent year ahead of sweeping changes at Radio Belgrade, Serbia’s only remaining radio station broadcasting cultural, science, art and dramatic programming. A mix of documentary and fantasy, “Speak” has received support from the Doha Film Institute and Eurimages. Stojnic and Milos Ivanovic are producing through their company Bilboke.

Artist and filmmaker Marta Popivoda decided to explore a little-known chapter in European history with “Resisting Landscape,” a creative documentary portrait of Sonja Vujanovic, who was an anti-fascist fighter in the former Yugoslavia and a member of the Resistance movement in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The film was co-written by Popivoda and long-time collaborator Ana Vujanovic, who is also Sonja’s granddaughter.

The duo have spent a decade researching the life of a woman whose story is “not part of the dominant narrative” in Serbia, said Popivoda. “It’s very striking to hear how these women organized [in Auschwitz], and how they thought – even in such a horrible situation – that resistance is possible,” she added. “That’s why it’s very important to revisit this. One of the feelings that I want to evoke with this film is that resistance is always possible.”

The film, which is produced by the Theory at Work production company that Popivoda co-founded with Vujanovic and Dragana Jovovic, links Vujanovic’s struggle with the work of contemporary leftist activists and cultural workers in Belgrade to show “how this story resonates today for a new generation,” with far-right movements on the rise. Popivoda described the film as an effort at “reminding people that another kind of world is possible…even if it doesn’t look possible today.”

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