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Hardly a decade ago the film industry in Serbia was in a state of crisis. The state-funded film center had failed to secure its annual budget for 2011. Production was in the doldrums. For a proud country with a rich cinematic legacy dating back to the glory days of the former Yugoslavia, alarm bells were ringing.

Fast-forward eight years and Belgrade is humming. In September alone, 18 foreign and domestic film and TV projects were in production around the Serbian capital. Two dozen local features were released this year, including eight from first-time fiction directors — a wave of young filmmakers breathing fresh life into the biz. Across this historic city sitting at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, hopes are high that the Serbian industry can become the linchpin for the wider Balkan region.

“It’s amazing. We’re really proud of that kind of progress,” says Gordan Matić, director of Film Center Serbia. “This is what
we are fighting for.”

The film center can take much of the credit for the turn-around. The past decade has seen a sharp uptick in the center’s budget, from just €1.5 million ($1.7 million) in 2015 to $9.6 million this year. Funding for the production and development of films has spiked dramatically, while the film center is implementing a range of initiatives to boost local efforts to rival Croatia as a regional production hotspot. The moves are paying off: This year admissions for domestic productions are expected to top 1 million for the second year running, while Serbian films such as Ognjen Glavonić’s 2018 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight selection “The Load” and Miroslav Terzić’s 2019 Berlin player “Stitches” have become fixtures on the international festival circuit.

Film Center Serbia will fete its 60th anniversary in December, with a gala bringing together luminaries from the
Serbian and Yugoslav film industries, as well as a host of filmmakers and dignitaries from around the world. The celebration will serve as a reminder of the pivotal place both the film center and cinema have played in the post-war history of this Balkan nation.

The film center was founded in 1959 as the Center for Professional Training of Filmmakers, in what was then known as Yugoslavia. It was renamed Film Center Serbia in 2004, more than a decade after the break-up of the former socialist republic. The institute was inaugurated at a time of feverish growth in the Yugoslav industry, spurred by a post-war production boom and the steady support of President Josip Broz Tito, a devoted cinephile who championed homegrown movies and bolstered efforts to open the country’s doors to foreign productions.

While Yugoslav cinema after Tito’s death in 1980 continued to produce iconic films from the likes of Srdjan Dragojević, Emir Kusturica and Goran Paskaljević, the country’s break-up in 1991 — and the ensuing decade of wars that devastated the Balkans — was a major blow for Serbian cinema. The clearest signs of a full-fledged revival only appeared in recent years, as the government renewed its support for the Film Center, leading to a surge in activity across the industry.
Boban Jevtić was the director of Film Center Serbia from 2015 until earlier this year. He credits the government with recognizing the value that the film and TV business brought to the country.

“I must say that they fully understood the possibility of the audiovisual industry, and what they could give,” Jevtić
says. “They really supported us in a very big way.”

Under Jevtić, the film center’s budget increased annually, while the government introduced a 25% cash rebate in 2016 that has brought a wave of foreign productions to Serbia. The industry also joined the Creative Europe Media, the European Film Agency Directors association and the European Women’s Audiovisual network, among others, opening the door for Serbian producers to strengthen ties with the European community.

For the recently appointed Matić, the goal is to build on that success. In the short term, the director is focused on developing scriptwriting talent in Serbia, growing the country’s crew base, and establishing production hubs outside of Belgrade. The film center and other industry bodies are also lobbying the government to overhaul outdated film legislation, calling for “a new law, new regulations, to make it easy for this new generation to tell stories,” Matić says.
Film Center Serbia is doing its part, issuing more than two dozen funding calls annually, in a range of categories including commercial films, documentaries, children’s films, minority co-productions and features from first-time directors.

“More and more young people are getting the opportunity to get support for their films,” says Snežana van Houwelingen, of This and That Prods., which produced debut director Mirjana Karanović’s 2016 Sundance competition title “A
Good Wife.”

The seeds of the past decade’s efforts are only beginning to blossom. In a few more years, “we’re going to see the results,” van Houwelingen says.