Toronto 2012: Goran Paskaljevic on Risking the Anger of Serb Nationalists

The Serbian master director debuted his latest work, "When Day Breaks," to an appreciative TIFF audience, only to face a verbal assault by harsh critics in the cinema lobby on his exit.

TORONTO - Serbia chose Goran Paskaljevic's When Day Breaks as its contender in the Oscar's foreign language competition.

But the Serbian director, who debuted his latest movie at the Toronto International Film Festival this week as part of its Masters program, aims at more than awards season glory.

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Paskaljevic wants the Serbian government to turn Belgrade’s Old Fairgrounds site, where a Second World War concentration camp for Jews and Gypsies once stood, into a proper memorial to Serbia’s troubled past and present.

“The film can be a foundation to push the authorities to recognize and do something with this fairground… and to make a memorial center,” Paskaljevic said Tuesday.

When Day Breaks, inspired by the real-life story of Paskaljevic’s best friend, portrays the character Misha Brankov as a retired music professor, played by Mustafa Nadarevic, who learns from the Jewish Museum in Belgrade that excavations at the city’s Old Fairgrounds unearthed an iron box.

And in the box is found contents that will change the professor’s life, not least because his name is not Brankov, but Weiss.

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The son of a Jewish musician, Isaac Weiss, the professor learns he was hidden as a youth from the Germans, just as his parents were taken into the Belgrade concentration camp, where they buried evidence of their son’s true identity.

Also in the lockbox is an unfinished musical composition that the professor feels he must complete and have a Gypsy orchestra perform as part of his journey of discovery.

Paskaljevic’s film about a recovered past and reconsidered identity has a simple message: “If you forget your past, you don’t have a future.”

And he received a stark reminder of that lesson Sunday when Paskaljevic’s first public screening of When Day Breaks was marred by a verbal assault after the Q&A session by Serbian nationalists in the cinema lobby.

“Why don’t you make a film about Serb victims, why Jewish victims? You are anti-Serbian,” the director recalls being told by the angry trio.

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Paskaljevic replied it was his film, he could express himself as he wished.

Besides, all war victims are victims, and human beings.

But instead, Paskaljevic was labeled a traitor by his Toronto accusers.

Despite that incident, the Serbian director remains excited about showing his film in Toronto, as he has previous work like Cabaret Balkan, The Optimists and Honeymoons, much of which similarly portrays marginalized people like Gypsies, the elderly and immigrants.

"The audience is so open. They buy tickets and they line up and they want to watch the movies,” Paskaljevic said of his appreciative Toronto audience.

The Toronto International Film Festival continues to September 16.