Almost 50 years ago, another disease was ravaging Europe and called for enforced quarantine measures and mass vaccinations to save lives: Smallpox. The last epidemic in Europe occurred in spring 1972 in communist Yugoslavia. The docu feature project, “Another Spring” by Mladen Kovačević, pitched at this year’s Visions du Réel’s Industry platform, explores this other spring through uniquely preserved film archives, drawing parallels to the spring many experienced in 2020
Despite the film’s seemingly sinister tone from its old monochrome images and focus on a deadly disease, this is a story of hope and the wonders man can achieve if science is trusted and championed.
“Last year, in May 2020, it was exactly 40 years since smallpox was globally eradicated, and the anniversary went unnoticed since the world was paralyzed by the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kovačević told Variety. “Eradication of smallpox is, many believe, the greatest achievement of our civilization. More people died from smallpox than in wars and famine and all other horrific causes.”
Mladen Kovačević’s documentary was selected for the Swiss film festival’s Work in Progress industry program and presented to accredited members on April 17 (the festival ran mostly online on April 15-25).
The Serbian director, whose films often employ a naturalistic style and fuse realism with unconventional filming techniques, is a three-times Grand Prix winner at Beldocs. He has also merited the Spirit Award at Brooklyn FF and Best Doc Feature at AcampaDoc Panama. Kovačević’s’s “Merry Christmas, Yiwu” received the main award – The Heart of Sarajevo – at the 2020 Sarajevo Film Festival.
Horopter Film Production is producing “Another Spring,” which entered the festival’s VdR-Work in Progress competition looking for film curators, sales agents, post-production funds and co-producers. The film is expected to be released in Nov. 2021 and currently has 22% of its financing in place, for a total budget of €320,000 ($387,000).
The film’s unique aspect comes from its source material and archive footage: the filmmaker is assembling images scanned for the first time from 50-year-old film reels. These were mostly given by one source: Radio Television of Serbia, which inherited the huge archive from the Yugoslavian Television, yet all of the footage related to the smallpox epidemic was on yet-to-be-developed film.
“The archive footage was washed and cleaned, and scanned. It was a process of several months, and the images came back to life for the first time in almost 50 years. They were everything I imagined, and more. I knew we had the film we wanted to make,” the director said.
This is the second film that Kovačević has made using archive footage. He conceded this was probably his first project to have such a directly topical message and an educational element, due to the obvious thematic parallels to be drawn between the epidemic then and the pandemic now. The crisp black-and-white images from the film reels further convey this informative form, yet the documentary avoids becoming a trite historical piece of documentation. It is a film about history, yet one evidently made by a director interested in cinema and poetry.
“From the perspective of the current pandemic the educational role of this film is imposed, but that does not mean that the film will have a polemical or discursive approach. On the contrary, it will still be primarily a cinematic experience but, however unobtrusively implied, the message is burning through the screen,” Kovačević said.
The guiding voice both of the film and narrative is Prof. Dr. Zoran Radovanovic, who is over 80 today but remains a well-respected and known epidemiologist in the Balkan region. As a young doctor in 1969, Radovanovic went to India for research purposes and there received the obligatory smallpox vaccine. He returned to then-Yugoslavia, and when the smallpox outbreak burst through the region in 1972, he was the only epidemiologist in Yugoslavia with immunity, thereby becoming one of the leading figures to help eradicate the illness. Still today, the epidemiologist remains a well-trusted source on such diseases and is regularly invited by Serbian media to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professor Radovanovic reads through the film’s voice-over narration, which are treated as his own memories – a result of extensive interviews with the director.
“Radovanovic gave us amazing material to work with. Not just in terms of information, far from that, it’s a very personal intimate recounting of the events that defined his life, which happened to be of great historic importance,” Kovačević said.
Although smallpox and COVID-19 are very different types of diseases – the spread of COVID-19 was much quicker and more global, whereas smallpox existed for thousands of years, killing 500 million people in the 20th century alone – many parallels can be drawn in terms of ways to counter them. Wide-ranging restrictive measures and vaccines would help slow the spread of the disease and save millions of lives.
Rather than looking back at this period of history and remembering death and diseases, Kovačević uses this historical period to produce what he hopes is a “gripping medical thriller” that may teach us a lesson or two on our current climate.
“To eliminate the pandemic, it is clear that the entire world needs to be united,” the filmmaker said. “For example, it is as important to vaccinate African countries as it is to vaccinate Europe or America. But more than anything, people need to go back to trusting science.”