Crossfire at the Balkans

in 27th Montreal World Film Festival

by Rafael Valle Munoz

Films coming from the Balkan region did not pass unnoticed in the irregular international feature-film competition of this 27th World Film Festival. Proof of this are the Grand Prize of the Americas –the event’s most important award- granted to The Cordon, the overrated film directed by Goran Markovic representing Serbia and Montenegro, and the honors received by Dusan Kovasevic’s The Professional, from the same country, which won the Best Screenplay and the Fipresci awards. We must also mention Antonio Mitrikeski’s Like a Bad Dream, a co-production between Macedonia and Croatia, which will surely be remembered as one of the worst movies shown at Montreal this year.

What all three films have in common is, unsurprisingly, that they deal with the political and social turmoil that has struck former Yugoslavia during the past decade. If we insist on finding coincidences, The Cordon and The Professional both display a cinematography that, within its understandable cathartic aspirations, indulges each time less in the use of allegoric formulas to expiate the traumas of the war and the political-ethnical divisions through the screen, and instead chooses to dissect reality from new trenches, digging in those unexplored –or less explored- spots of the recent past. With better or worse results, the three films also share the idea of a world in which the roles of victim and victimizer are imprecise to the point of becoming blurry, and where the deployment of the triumphs and defeats of history go further than the simple testimonial ambition, of the ideological trench, to speak to us about the misery and the greatness of the human spirit.

Within this context, the movie that survives best to what appears to be an unequal battle under crossfire of languages, styles and pretensions, is The Professional. The story shows Teja, a former political activist now comfortably installed in power, and Luka, the police agent that has followed his steps for two decades, and that now shows up to reveal to him the way in which their destinies have met once and again. The narration kicks off with a somber, disturbing tone, which then gives way to a tale that, though hilarious, does not lose its fierce look at the strength and frailty of ideals. With a rather theatrical mise-en-scène that more than once seems to follow the steps of No Man’s Land (2002) –the superb anti-war satire by Bosnian director Danis Tanovic-, The Professional puts a handful of charismatic characters to serve a screenplay of respectable filmic ambitions, with frequent flashbacks illustrating the course that the protagonists’ lives have taken: a man that traded in his social convictions for a good salary and a flourishing career, and the old police officer that still refuses to abandon the mission he has been assigned to in a world in vertiginous change.

As director of The Professional, Kovacevic shares with Emir Kusturica -with whom he co-wrote Underground (1995)- that style that has given the films from the former Yugoslavia its best results in the past decade, recurring -just like Tanovic in the abovementioned No Man’s Land- to farcical language and black humor for catalyzing the tragedy of the Balkans. From this point of view, the opposite route chosen for The Cordon by Goran Markovic –who curiously had written his 1995 black comedy The Tragic Burlesque- is as legitimate as it is respectable, and resulted in the World Film Festival most important award. Which were the reasons for this trophy? Probably the good idea that upholds the story: the wild night of a group of police officers in charge of repressing a massive civil protest against Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, which took place in the streets of Belgrade in 1997. With a dark, sometimes claustrophobic directing, sustained by documentary images of the street demonstrations, the movie digs into the feelings and contradictions of a group of men forced to accomplish their duty amongst the chaos, the weariness and the burden of their personal dramas: a policeman confronted to the ethnical dilemma of his Croatian origins, another whose son is seriously ill and another one who just wants to go home to try to follow the medical planning for conceiving a child. The presence of Vladimir, the squad chief that ends up torturing his only daughter’s fiancé, completes the idea of the frailty of parent-children bonds in a shattered country, although any hint of second readings is vanished into a redundant anecdote and limited to simple sensationalism in its increasing violence.

Nevertheless, The Cordon’s lack of subtleness seems insignificant compared to Like a Bad Dream. Based on Dejan Dukovski’s play Who the Fuck… Started All This, the film by Macedonian director Antonio Mitrikeski follows Setjan, a war veteran trying to rebuild his life in Amsterdam. There he runs into Ivan, a young man that has fled his home in some Eastern-European country to study Political Sciences. The former is haunted by the memory of his bloody past as a soldier and the latter wanders the streets of the Dutch capital obsessed by a transsexual, and under the influence of an anarchist American professor –Robert Englund, the same from the Nightmare on Elm Street saga (!!!). The erratic course of each character, it must be said, is in accordance with a movie that goes nowhere and that disguises a whimsical story –sometimes frankly ridiculous- with an exasperating air of reflexive, anti-war manifesto. Another nightmare played by Englund, but also an important film since it is a severe warning about the criteria followed by those choosing the movies for the weary official competition at the World Film Festival. That’s just how important the movies from the Balkans were at Montreal 2003.