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Documentary Renaissance

Serbian director and producer Željko Mirković whose films include The 21st Second, Kosovo Diary, and I Will Marry the Whole Village, spoke to renowned documentary expert and festival programmer Rada Šešić (Jan Vrijman Fund, IDFA, Rotterdam IFF, Sarajevo IFF) about what makes a creative documentary appealing to funders and international audiences, about the Vedas and the power of activist films.


Documentary Renaissance: An Interview with Rada Šešić
By Željko Mirković, Optimistic Film


During my recent stay in Amsterdam, I met many documentary producers and directors. Whenever I told them that I was from Serbia and from Balkan, everyone would ask me the same question: "Do you know Rada Šešić?"
Rada is one of those true film devotees; she has been in the top of European documentary for a long time, a jury member at all major documentary festivals, and she also works for several documentary funds.

Rada Šešić lives in Utrecht. Before the war she lived in Bosnia, worked in Sarajevo as a film critic at the Radio Television, directed several shorts and docs during the 1980s and 1990s. In the Netherlands since 1993 where she teaches one trimester at University of Amsterdam, on Non-Western Cinema; film selector of South Asian films for IFF Rotterdam; selector for IDFA; member of the selection committee of the Hubert Bals Fund (IFFR) and the Jan Vrijman Fund (IDFA); adviser for the Dutch Fund STIFO; main selector of the Regional Docs at the Sarajevo Festival (SFF); programmer of the Kerala Festival India (IFFK); tutor at the following documentary training workshops: Film and Female in Kerala, at ZagrebDox, Riga Baltic Program, Docs in Europe-Bardonecchia and at Belgrade FDU. In the Netherlands she directed three films (Room without a View, 1997, Soske, 2001, In witte eenzaamheid, 2002)


Željko Mirković: More than ever before, documentary has recently approached motion picture in terms of popularity. What caused such expansion?

Rada Šešić: Yes, it’s fantastic. A documentary was awarded even at the Cannes festival which had always been meant for motion pictures. Documentaries have reached European cinemas, art-house cinemas, to tell the truth, but even that is very good. Films such as Carmen Meets Borat and Forever from the Netherlands or the new British film The English Surgeon spend several weeks in cinemas and they are talked about and polemicized. A couple of years ago, a film on euthanasia initiated and advanced a discussion on the subject at the parliament. A film can’t change the world, but the people who watch it can. That is why documentaries take more prominent role in the democratization process and changes within society, as well as in the process of making citizens aware of particular issues.

There’s also a renaissance of the form of documentaries. There are more and more places in the world, festivals, distributors and producers who don’t care about definitions of what is a motion picture and what is a documentary. The boundaries between these two are disappearing and what once was seen as a true element of documentarism, for example the observation and style of the film of truth where everyone awaits further development without the intervention of an author, gets more often a part of the structure of a motion picture. One such film is the very intriguing Macedonian-Dutch film Does it Hurt? – The First Balkan Dogma by Aneta Lesnikovska which was shown at the Rotterdam Festival in the prestigious competitive selection Tiger.

At the same time, documentary authors arrange reality more and more in order to express their sublime feeling of reality or to transfer their long-standing experience into a relatively short film runtime. One of the awarded films at the 2000 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) was exactly such a film. In The Sea That Thinks, Gert de Graaff uses an actor to express the true (personal) experience of a film director in the process of writing the script in which reality and fiction change places. I was in the Joris Ivens jury that year and my colleague Viktor Kossakovski and I were mesmerized by that part, so we persuaded the other jury members to give the film the first prize of the IDFA. After the presentation, Dutch critics were split into two groups: those who supported our decision and those who thought that this wasn’t a documentary at all and that it was sacrilegious to even show the film at a documentary festival in Amsterdam.

We were very surprised by fake documentaries, as well as mocumentary films, a sub-genre which shows how much we are subject to media manipulation. A Dutch author once shocked the audience at the IDFA with the fact that her film about a murder that had taken place in Surinam at the beginning of the 20th century, a murder she researched in the film and documented with paper clips and witnesses, was actually pure fiction. She disclosed that at a debate with the audience after the screening. On the other hand, some facts are so horrible that we’d rather think they are fake, made-up, performed. The Swedish film Necrobusiness was nominated for the Joris Ivens Award at the latest IDFA, even though the jury doubted whether it was a fiction or true story. The documentary was filmed in Poland and tells a terrible story of a city in which an owner of a funeral home pays ambulance drivers to delay and even to inject a deadly medicine into their patients’ veins so that he could have more clients. Everyone in the jury was convinced that the story was fake because it was too scary and unbelievable and it was easier to believe it was fictitious. The film crew had investigated and filmed the story a couple of years, so everything seemed very fictitious and many believed that it was fabricated. Unfortunately, it was a true documentary story.


You have been a member of the Jan Vrijman Fund (JVF) selection committee for years. The fund operates within the IDFA, one of the biggest documentary festivals in Europe. Is there a difference in themes chosen by authors nowadays and 10 years ago?

The fund has existed since 1988 and supported around 50 films each year, so it is impossible to make clear statistics now for those 500 or even 600 films that have come from various parts of the world, from countries in transition, countries with economic problems which lack both money and attention for documentary expression. Generally speaking, a large number of projects reflects, investigates, analyses and questions political situation in their authors’ countries. In Argentina, mothers look for their disappeared sons and husbands; in Africa, the apartheid and its consequences are still discussed, while here it is mainly about the consequences of the war. I remember a couple of purely intimate stories we’ve supported which have been executed in the form of a personal film diary and explored the relations between a mother and a daughter; then there is an impressive film Svyato by Kossakovski, about his son and his first encounter with a mirror, or Lakshmi and Me, an Indian film about the author herself and her relationship with a girl who cleans her house. Another interesting and important film is about the Arabic Barbie doll named Fulla which not only expresses Arabic husbands’ prejudices against women, sexuality, femininity, but also tells about the position of women in a macho society.

A lot of films in our region have also been financially supported, mostly those from Serbia, than Croatia, while much fewer films from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania have been helped because they simply don’t apply often. I remember a recent and intriguing film The Caviar Connection by Dragan Nikolić from Serbia and also a beautiful film La Strada from Croatia, by Damir Čučić; there is also a poetic Bosnian film Adio Kerida by Vesna Ljubić. Those films have been screened at the IDFA and that is a stepping stone to selling/distributing films or making contacts with European broadcasters and other financiers. For example, the ITVS Fund from San Francisco also supports creative feature documentaries and having us involved in a project means a lot to them when it comes to decision. The Sundance Fund is also willing to cooperate with the authors whose films have already been shown at the IDFA or supported by the JVF.


What ultimately decides whether a project will get support of the fund or not?

A strong, convincing story which the committee believe must be told. We sometimes opt for a story which is urgent and would lose its importance if it’s not recorded that moment. The authors’s visual approach is very important because behind every film, behind every story there’s an author and their cinematic signature that makes us love or hate some films, or in the worst case, some films leave us indifferent. The fund committee pays much attention to author’s motivation which is obligatory for the application; why is the story that important to the author, why they won’t be able to sleep if they don’t make the film, why do they think that the world should see their documentary, and why they should be financially supported? We don’t support a project because it has a strong theme, or forbidden theme, or a political story; we don’t expect that certain projects should come from this or that region. The fund helps free and creative artistic creation, behind which is a strong author’s personality, an artistic distinctiveness that simple doesn’t have enough funds in their environment to direct their own documentary.


Documentary has seriously entered the market and it’s represented best by a large number of subgenres (archive documentary, TV documentary, docudrama, etc.) One of these stands out in the market - a creative documentary. What are the defining elements of a creative documnetary?

It is difficult to say what a creative documentary is; perhaps it is better to say what it is not. It’s not television reportage, nor superficial coverage of an event, nor a historic account of a certain epoch, landscape, or a person. Every story is acceptable, but the author has to express their personal cinematic style, their personal visual approach, their thinking about a particular content they want to film. Ultimately, film is art and we expect art to touch us, shake us, make us think, ask questions, make us come back to it, change us as reflective beings. There is a text in Hindu Veda called Natya Veda which speaks about the role of art. It contains a tract on drama that can be applied to art in general. It says that every piece of art has to contain various Bhavas (feelings, moods) which will make a viewer experience Rasa (a state of mind), a complex experience of enjoyment (the experience may also be negative in the sense that you may experience fear, sorrow, anxiety). What is important is that Rasa works in such a way that a viewer mentally and spiritually absorbes the intensive experience of art.


We see that the globalization brings interest in so called little cultures and nations. It is often heard nowadays that a certain film has an international theme or international potential. What makes a documentary an international one?

An intriguing, unusual, and relevant story and the aprroach to the story. It means that a certain story is not told in a way that is clear only to local viewers. Universal elements have to be involved so that a viewer in Portugal, for example, can follow a story about the Balkans even if they are not fully informed about the situation here. Sometimes it’s impossible to make a film which is good for both sides, so producers, and especially editors in various national broadcasting companies investing in films, demand two, or even more versions.


Apart from lecturing at the University of Amsterdam and working for the Jan Vrijman Fund, you are also a selector at many festivals in the world and in the Balkans. Can you tell us something about those festivals and is there something that sets apart the West Balkan films from other films in their approach?

Having the opportunity to see a large number of high-quality, intriguing and inspiring documentaries as one of the selectors at the world’s biggest documentary festival, the IDFA in Amsterdam, gives me a great pleasure. Each year we get some 3,300 films to choose from. I mostly get films from Eastern and Southern Europe, so I see many films made in Balkan, as well as those from Southern Asia, mostly from India, and that is a part of the world whose cinematography excites me and inspires me the most. I have been dealing with Indian films for 20 years and I’m still equally curious and thrilled by a different film structure in motion pictures and by dedication in documentaries that exist only in that part of the world. Documentaries there are trying to change the world seriously and there are films that have cancelled some economic projects led by the World Bank and other big corporations. When a couple of authors in India make great, thorough, distressing documentaries about Coca-Cola taking away drinking water from an entire region, people in Coca-Cola have to consider it seriously and are forced to do something about it. If such films are broadcast on TV stations there, hundred million people will hear about the story and maybe boycott the product. Besides, some of the authors in India are very, very dedicated to their work, and they believe in the power of documentary and make films with a vision. Anand Patwardhan, the most famous Indian documentary filmmaker, has gone on a hunger strike with the heroes of his film, supporting the film’s ideas. Together with a famous actress, he has slept on the streets of Mumbai, protesting against a government’s decision until they have started to discus a certain social problem and done something about it.

The other big festival I work for as one of the programmers is the International Film Festival Rotterdam, one of the four festival giants in Europe, with a tradition that goes back almost 40 years, the attendance of 380,000 each year, and a reputation of a brave, provoking festival that chooses its programme in a very lucid manner, anticipating upcoming trends in a way. I am also a member of the Huber Bals Fund committee which helps motion pictures in various regions, including ours.

This means that I read around 100 film synopses/scenarios each year, both motion picture and documentary, and keep up with what’s happening in the region. So I’ve been connected with regional projects and I closely follow production, problems, new talent’s prospects, new film schools etc.

However, I get the most projects from the region, around 100 every year, as a selector of competition programme of the Sarajevo Film Festival (SFF). Here also, the documentary art expression is subject to the present moment. The most films from our region observe or reflect in a lucid manner our exciting everyday life, political events, economic situation, social tragedy. They also comment on times of war and after the war, try to communicate with the neighbours and, what’s even more interesting and what we have seen in the last couple of years, with the authors’ environments. Such is, for example film Three, by Goran Dević from Croatia, which in a very minimalist way gives the stories of three soldiers from three different armies: Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian. What do they think today, how do they feel, how do they see themselves and their actions during the war…? It’s a simple 30-minute-film which has brought up many questions, controversies, disapproval and demure. Sometimes authors simple make a poetic impression of the space or reflect on their privacy thus creating a timeless film that we watch with interest. Such films this year were a very meditative, poetic film Anybody by Timur Makarević and an impressionist The Split Watercolour by Boris Poljak.

However, documentaries mostly dissect society, the world around us, go one step further and question, provoke, make us discuss, think and bring home with us their basic themes even if we don’t agree with them. For example, this year there was much talk about Cooking History by Peter Kerekes, a Slovak/Czech/Austrian co-production, which in a very humorous and creative way invokes the times of war and political conflicts by means of dishes prepared for the armies by their cooks in that time so the soldiers could be strong, motivated and victory-orientated. Another wildly discussed film was a Serbian documentary Heated Blood by Marko Mamuzić, which won the award for the best film treating human rights. A Croatian film Happy Land by Goran Dević in which the author observes journeys of two politically significant groups of people (one group visits Bleiburg, the other the house in Kumrovec where Tito was born) was yet another topic of discussion.


One of the biggest problems the authors in this region face is distribution if films. More than 80% of documentaries made in the region are screened only at festivals and are neither sold to broadcasts nor distributed in specialized cinemas. Do you think it’s possible to find a solution to that?

The authors in this region often make so called “no budget” films, so they fight windmills like Don Quixote because, unfortunately, there’s not enough money for documentary films. That’s why I try very hard to bring to our programme in Sarajevo various financiers, foundations, workshop selectors and other organizations that will stimulate the talents in the region, whether by awarding them or select their films for a festival, not to quit before they try out all possible resources. Anyway, it’s getting better and our authors visited various workshops abroad in the last couple of years, developing their projects under the guidance of documentary professionals, looking for and finding funds, and that’s what matters most. Thus, projects like Sevdah by Marina Andree, which opened our programme this year, Cash & Marry by Atanas Georgiev and this year’s winner The Caviar Connection by Dragan Nikolić were developed at the Ex Oriente Film workshop. [Sevdah - Ex Oriente Film 2007; Cash & Marry - Ex Oriente Film 2006; The Caviar Connection - East Silver 2009, Ed. Note] That’s one of the ways for films to be bought and screened – through European broadcasts that have supported them. It’s still on a small scale, but things are getting better. There are two or three distributors in the region that are interested in documentaries. Federal TV in Bosnia and Herzegovina has a new documentary editor, a documentary filmmaker by profession, who is trying to establish a regular weekly slot. Oliver Sertić has started a documentary cinema in Zagreb, Croatia, which is fantastic news, and he has also started organized distribution of documentary in the region, so we should all wish him good luck. That initiative shows that people are interested in a good documentary and that it’s believed that domestic documentaries have got future ahead of them.


The Sarajevo Film Festival has been having a competitive documentary selection for eight years. What is the significance of this selection for the region? Are there any changes or improvements?

The SFF documentary competition is different because it is regional, has 14 countries - from Austria (since this year) and Hungary to Albania, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus (these last 3 countries have also been part since this year) including of course all states of the former Yugoslavia plus Romania and Bulgaria. Documentary films are not only seen as an expression of a filmmaker, or a visual artist - but also as a way of communicating with one another, understanding each other better, clarifying things to each other and to ourselves etc. That’s why our Q & A discussions after every film are rather complex, intriguing, interesting and important. What is also exceptional at the SFF is our DOCU CORNER where we all gather after our screenings and where we cultivate sort of a discussion corner. There, a group of youngsters from different parts of former Yugoslavia gather every single day during the festival and discusses, in a very civilized, democratic manner, their views on certain documentary films. They don’t discuss so much about cinematic values, they are more focused on and intrigued by political views of either director or characters in the film itself, the tone of the whole film, message that the film might give etc. These smart young people between 18 and 25 are part of the different initiatives for human rights in the region or some NGO groups. They come to the festival, spend a week together, get to know each other and have in-depth, inspiring discussions. They don’t quarrel; they don’t fight; they talk and express their personal views. And that is very valuable. It is really joy to listen to them and see these young, beautiful people who do believe that talking to each other and showing interest in each others views, can help to understand our neighbors and ourselves better and can bring peace and harmony.


From 2012, the European Union switches to HDTV and digital frequencies, and the same awaits the Balkans in 2015. How will this affect future development of documentary film?

Documentary will be more available. Five documentary festivals, including Leipzig and Jihlava, have started an archive and low-price distribution of documentary over the Internet and that initiative has already proved satisfactory. For a couple of euros, a documentary lover can watch or even download a film and save it in their private archive.


You know Serbian film well. Where is its place in Europe today and how do you see its future?

I’m not so sure that I know new Serbian film that well becacuse I don’t see many authors sending their short or documentary films to festivals. They either forget to do so or think that they don’t stand a chance if they have been rejected once. Which is a pity. But what I have seen in the past 20 years was an exciting and tough cinematography which, despite serious problems that are first of all financial and organizational, nevertheless lives, fights and manages to produce a couple of good films every year. I think that it’s not really a result of the organized cinematography, but a result of individual efforts of people who see film as something much bigger than a profession. Take, for example, Želimir Žilnik, an artist by nature; he makes even a motion picture with 10,000 euros, let alone documentary productions which he starts with friends almost from scratch. His film which speculates about whether to migrate or to stay in the country, Europe Next Door, radiates inner piece and poetics of Vojvodina, while there’s also anxiety throughout the film, a highly-strung atmosphere that coresponds with the main characters’ feelings. There’s an obvious progress in the approach to the content of documentary. Authors are treating certain themes more deeply, vigorously and bravely. For example, Heated Blood by Marko Mamuzić, which won the Human Rights Award at the SFF, is a very important film, not only by its political and social strength, but also by the fact that the author has managed to reach young people who talk openly. The film has an impressive archive; it follows certain turmoil, a certain political attitude in the society during a couple of years. It’s an intelligent, very well edited and actually, calm, thought-out film about a very volatile and alarming situation in the society.

There are several interesting authors who are dedicated to documentary. Mamuzic, whose latest film The Lost Movie is an intriguing story about a destiny of a film, is one of them. Then there’s Dragan Nikolić, who systematically prepares each of his projects and thinks about, plans and works creatively on each of the phases essential to filmmaking, unlike some other authors who, despite having a good story, interesting characters, etc., don’t succeed in bringing their films to a close in a good manner. It’s fantastic that Serbia cultivates the form of short poetic film essay and haiku visual pearls about evryday life. Vlada Perović is one of the prominent representative of such form, while Momir Matović from Podgorica, a follower of Živko Nikolić, has been leading the way for years. The form, once explored by brilliant authors, such as Vlatko Gilić and Živko Nikolić,  has been somehow abandoned, but a couple of authors are still trying to communicate with viewers through it. Vlada Perović’s films are still very successful at festivals around the world and I know that Momir Matović is one of the few people from this region who have managed to sell their visual poems to a large number of broadcasting companies.

New Serbian documentary fuses the elements of motion pictures and documentarism very successfully, as may be seen in The Belgrade Phantom by Jovan Todorović, a film helped by the Jan Vrijman Fund and which will be shown at the IDFA in a few days. There you can see that the fund is a very open institution that accepts various definitions of documentarism and it doesn’t have a puritan attitude towards form. Last year, the world was thrilled by a brilliant and intriguing personal film How to Become a Hero by Mladen Maticević. The film was premiered at the IDFA and then launched into the world with a flourish, distributed by a Swiss company Firsthand Films. After that, he successfully presented his new projects at pitchings throughout Europe and aroused interest of European broadcasts. The fund has recently approved his latest film. The newest documentary by Zeljko Mirkovic I Will Marry the Whole Village is suppored by Jan Vrijman Fund and it will have premiere at IDFA this year. In any case, authors like Boris Mitić, whose last three films have been shown around the world and whose latest film Goodbye, How Are You? is still being screened and winning awards, making people laugh even though it’s a bitter-sweet film, Nikolić, Goran Radovanovic, Maticević, Stojković, Mamuzić, and of course, Željko Mirković have already entered the documentary world map and they know the documentary scene, which is necessary for financial support in making documentaries, especially those with bigger budget. What I think is lacking here is an organized strategy in filmmaking, financing, promotion and distribution. It should be said that the film fund can support that many documentary films this year and then to decide on the best projects, lead them, monitor them, promote them and strategically send them to festivals. It’s much more difficult for individuals. However, the Balkan Docs should start soon, a center that could help filmmakers in the region. The center will not be connected to any country in particular and will be led by professional experts.



Željko Mirković
is a Serbian documentary filmmaker and co-founder of the production company Optimistic Film. His filmography includes a number of awarded documentary films, such as From Nis to Serbia: It's Now or Never (2000); Nastasia (2001); My World (2003); The 21st Second (2008); I Will Marry the Whole Village (2009). His new documentary film The Long Road Through Balkan History (Serbia, Belgium 2010, 57 min) will screen at the ZagrebDox (Feb 28 - Mar 7). For more information, please click here.

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