Serbs are big on art. Yes, I’m reffering those “barbaric”, “ruthless”, “backward” heathen from the Balkans. They’re really big on art. I’m not saying that the average Serb can tell a Monet from a Manet (c’mon…) but they can certainly tell a Kubrick or Ridley Scott from a Michael Mann. We admire all forms of art yet, like in many Eastern European countries, cinematography and theatre are the front-runners among our favorites.
This evening, an article from wharf.co.uk about Serbian shorts being featured at the Canary Wharf Film Festival this year (September 3-7) triggered memories of all the stories I’ve heard about the golden days of film and theatre in Serbia. Buckle up and let me take you for a little ride through history.
Cue piano music and fade in: It’s late spring of 1896, just months after the first ever public unveiling of “moving pictures” in Paris, and Andre Carr, a representative of the Lumière brothers arrives in Belgrade from Lyon. He is welcomed by government officials and recieved by King Aleksandar Obrenović himself and the Queen Mother Natalija. Days later, on June 6th, a privileged group gathers at At the Golden Cross cafe on Belgrade’s Terazije for the first film projection of all time in South Eastern Europe. “Wow” didn’t even begin to cover it.
Months later, in March of 1897, Carr would make a second visit to Belgrade to make the first films in Belgrade, “The Kalemegdan Promenade”, “The Tramway Station at Terazije” and “Workers Coming out of the Tobacco Factory”, none of which were preserved. The first picture houses opened, spreading like wildfire among the masses, and projections even toured the smaller towns and villages regularly. The first audiences were hooked and many of those that went into the projection rooms came out wanting to be producers and directors. It was the miraculous conception of Serbian cinematography.
Theatre in Serbia not only wasn’t far behind, they were pioneering a movement. In 1861, the Serbian National Thatre was established in Novi Sad by Jovan Đorđević, an author (also wrote the national anthem for the Kingdom of Yugoslavia which, in a slighly modified form, is the anthem of the current Republic of Serbia), and remains one of Serbia’s most prominent theatres to this day. After a guest appearance of the ensemble in Belgrade in 1868, Đorđević was invited by knez (prince) Mihailo Obrenović to found the National Theatre in Belgrade. Both theatres have seen two World Wars and a decade of sanctions and have not only survived but have spawned numerous other theatres in the country and won over the hearts of audiences from around the world.
With an established crew of actors and directors from the theatres and the early introduction of the new technology of cinematography by Carr and the Lumières, the Serbian film industry was on a roll. Of course, with the establishment of a centralized government, censorship soon became an issue but not as much of one as in other countries. In fact, actors, ballet dancers, directors and other members of the theatre and film industry were deemed to be of the highest importance to the overall moral of the nation. According to the late Serbian opera singer and my voice coach at the Academy of the Arts in Belgrade, Divna Đoković, members of these two industries were included in the first category for receiving rations in the post WW II reconstruction period, a category otherwise reserved for hard laborers and miners. Again, Serbs are really big on art, whatever their political convictions.
The former Yugoslavia, with Belgrade as its official and film industry capital, became one of the most sought after locations for filming in Europe, offering fantastic scenery, some of the largest studios in the region and top notch professional crews. Over a period of several decades, one of the world’s largest film collections was gathered.The Yugoslav Film Archive was founded in Belgrade in 1949, first known as the Central Film Archive of Yugoslavia, and is one of the founders and among the most outstanding members of the International Federation of Film Archives. It also contains some of the oldest existing viable reels in Europe. Due to poor conditions, lack of financing, and inadequate storage space, many of these reels have been lost forever and the Archive struggles to preserve the remainder of this cinematographic treasure with little help. A recent blog post on Belgraded.com, however, tells of signs of a brighter future.
These days, a group of individuals from over 20 film and production companies in Serbia, with the help of the USAID Competitiveness Project, have formed an alliance to restore that former glory that was lost during the 90’s. On their site, simply named Film in Serbia, they remind us of the recent and growing international interest:
“In recent years, several high profile actors have shot films in Serbia. They include Oscar winners Adrien Brody, Christopher Walken and Rachel Weisz, Oscar nominees Bob Hoskins, Vincent Perez, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Huston and David Thornton, among others. Most recently, Ralph Fiennes has selected Belgrade as the location for his upcoming directorial debut, Coriolanus.”
Some films of epic proportions, both Serbian and international, have been either made here or with the involvement of the Serbian film industry. I feel that there are many more to come. I think I could even be so bold as to say that I even feel another golden age coming on. Time will tell, as it always does.