Balkan movie biz back on solid ground

Balkan movie biz back on solid ground

Cannes still riding the Romanian wave

Fifteen years after the Yugoslav War tore up the regional map, Balkan filmmakers are coming together again.

For the first time since the war ended in 1995, Balkan Cinema this year will be represented by one joint stand at the Marche du Film in Cannes. It's a clear sign of the growing cooperation among producers, directors and talent in the dozen-odd countries that make up the region.

"For the first time, we are realizing we have to stick together if we want to get our films made and get them seen," says producer Jelena Mitrovic of Serbian production company Film House Bas Celik. Her recent production, "Besa," from director Srdjan Karanovic tapped cash from Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia in addition to France and Hungary.

"I think it's great we finally have a stand together," she adds. "It's a natural consequence of what's happening here."

Fellow Serb producer Miroslav Mogorovic points to "Lost and Found," the 2005 omnibus feature that included shorts from Romania's Cristian Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"), Bosnia's Jasmila Zbanic ("On the Path") and Serbia's Stefan Arsenijevic ("Love and Other Crimes") as a milestone in the cross-border cooperation now standard in the region.

"Before then, Serbian films were financed in Serbia and made for the Serbian market," Mogorovic says. "Back then there was no established way of co-producing with your neighbors. But with that film, we saw a new generation of (Balkan) producers on the scene who were open to moving across borders, West or East, to find partners."

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An example is "Cirkus Colombia," a new feature from Bosnia's Danis Tanovic ("No Man's Land"), which Mogorovic is co-producing through Art & Popcorn, the Belgrade-based shingle he runs with Arsenijevic. "Cirkus" is set in Herzegovina just after the war. A man returns to his small village, flush with cash from his time abroad in Germany and eager to enact petty revenge on his ex-wife and neighbors. Budgeted at nearly KM3 million ($4 million), the Bosnian/Slovenia/Serbia co-production, which the Match Factory is selling internationally, would have been impossible to bankroll out of any one Balkan territory alone.

"This is a serious co-production -- we have the U.K, France, Germany and Belgium attached as well," Mogorovic says. "Our regional financiers now understand the necessity of co-productions. It's functioning really well."

On the international festival circuit, Romanian cinema still dominates discussions of Balkan filmmaking -- as evidenced by this year's Cannes lineup.

But art house distributors worldwide are looking beyond Bucharest and snatching up Balkan titles as diverse as Jasmila Zbanic's Bosnian religious relationship drama "On the Path," Stephan Komandarev's Bulgarian feel-good feature "The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner" and the experimental Greek drama "Dogtooth" from director Giorgos Lanthimos.

"There is a reason we are still overshadowed by the Romanians, and that's because Romanian films are just great; they are still in first place, we look up to them," says Ankica Juric Tilic of Croatian production house Kinorama. "But we have made great progress in the last two years."

Tilic points to the new Croatian Audiovisual Center, which last month increased its support for minority co-productions, allowing Croatian producers to raise up to 10% of a film's total budget from their territory. Previously, Croatian support was capped at about $80,000 for non-Croatian majority productions. Among the features set to benefit included Dejan Zecevic's war thriller "Enemy" and "Parade" from Srdjan Dragojevic ("St. George Shoots the Dragon").

It's a very different situation in neighboring Slovenia. The Slovenian Film Fund has cut funding for co-productions and introduced a rule requiring filmmakers to spend any government production subsidy in the same year they receive it.

"It's a disaster because it makes it almost impossible to plan," says Slovenian's Danijel Hocevar, whose credits include "World Is Big" and "Besa." "Slovenia is the richest of the Balkan countries and the one with the best infrastructure. But while the film support everywhere else is growing, ours is staying put and even going backward."

Slovenia aside, Balkan cinema as a whole is moving ahead, emerging from the long shadow cast by the region's best-known filmmaker: two-time Palme d'Or winner Emir Kusturica.

"This sort of 'Balkan folklore' cinema that stopped with Kusturica," Mitrovic says. "The festivals might still want that kind of film but nobody else -- in the region or on the international market -- is interested in that anymore."

"The Woman With the Broken Nose"
Instead, the bulk of new features from the region are modern, realistic dramas such as Bas Celik's "The Woman With a Broken Nose," starring Balkan-born Branka Katic ("Public Enemies"), which Aktis Films is selling in Cannes; M-Appeal's "Tilt," from Bulgarian helmer Viktor Chouchkov Jr.; or Tilic's upcoming "Forest Creatures," a low-budget action thriller from Croatian first-timer Ivan-Goran Vitez. The plot follows executives from a Zagreb marketing agency whose weekend team-building excursion turns into a fight for survival.

The biggest fight for Balkan producers, however, is not for financing or even international sales but rather for audiences back home. Twenty years of high-speed capitalism has devastated the art house market in the region. Formerly state-run cinemas have "turned into restaurants, coffee shops and bookmakers," Mitrovic says, replaced by multiplexes showing back-to-back Hollywood fare.

"We have a small market and our audience hates us," Kinorama's Juric Tilic quips. "We went through a decade of very lousy films in the 1990s, and we still haven't recovered from that; the local audience doesn't trust us yet, even though our films are doing well -- selling internationally and winning awards at festivals. It's getting better, but Balkan cinema, as an industry, still has a long way to go."