Considering its tumultuous history, both newer and older, the political regimes that came and went throughout years, wars, crises and breakdowns, one can argue that Serbia is a huge inspiration for documentary filmmakers.
If we add to this mix its complex but passionate people, traditions that make sense to other Balkan nations but no-one else, and the famous inat (to use the English expression “deliberately cutting off your nose to spite your face” or in more pleasant terms, “defiance that often times is unreasonable and detrimental” to the Serbs themselves), then it becomes clear why Serbia has been so artistically stimulating and challenging to filmmakers.
Countless articles and studies have been written about this country, and it has been the subject of various, more or less, bias media reports. However, it is fair to say that documentary film has captured the essence of Serbia the best. Documentary films carry certain responsibility because documentary filmmakers usually strive towards objective storytelling to the best of their abilities and oftentimes dive deeper into the subject matter than other media.
In choosing documentary films that most accurately and impartially portray Serbia, as well as Serbia in former Yugoslavia, we came across these four which are highly recommended and have received excellent reviews from the audience and critics alike. Some are tough to watch, even disturbing to a degree, but then again, so is the Serbian history and life in this often misunderstood country.
- Houston, We Have a Problem (Yugoslav Space Programme) (2016) – Director: Ziga Virc
Would it surprise you if we said that, back in the 1960s, Yugoslavia had such an advanced space programme that it had even Americans salivating after it? Some argue that this is just a myth and that no such thing existed, while some claim with a high degree of certainty that the Yugoslav scientists developed a space programme that John F. Kennedy was willing to pay top dollar for it. This documentary, made in a pseudo-comedic manner, tells a story or a myth, depending on how you look at it, which is quite entertaining to watch.
In late 1960, the CIA allegedly discovered that Tito began developing the Yugoslav space programme in secret. In March 1961, he sold the programme to the United States, and this information soon “reached” the Soviets. In return, Josip Broz Tito received the support of the White House, in addition to a huge sum of money.
With a help of a multitude of archival footage, the film’s director returns to the Cold War era, the space race and NASA’s landing on the Moon, and in an intriguing way, connects real and fictitious events leaving the viewers to decide what is reality and what fiction.
The documentary had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in 2016.
2. The Other Side of Everything (2017) – Director: Mila Turajlic
The latest film by the Serbian documentary filmmaker, Mila Turajlic received raving reviews and won a prestigious award at the IDFA, the largest documentary film festival in the world that takes place in Amsterdam.
The film The Other Side of Everything propels the Serbian documentary film into the sphere of complex and significant European co-productions.
The film starts with a story about a door in a Belgrade apartment, which has been locked for 70 years and has become a barrier that separates one family from its past. Through an intimate conversation with her mother about this political section in her apartment, the director is plotting a story about a divided house and a country haunted by the ghosts of the past. The Other Side of Everything is a chronicle of several generations of a family in Serbia that turns into a portrait of an activist at the time of great turmoil, questioning the responsibility of each generation to fight for their future.
The film had its world premiere Toronto International Film Festival 2017, is the winner of the IDFA Award for Best-Feature Length Documentary, a nominee for the LUX Prize of the European Parliament and was short-listed for the European Film Academy Award for Best Documentary.
3. The Weight of Chains (2010) – Director: Boris Malagurski
To this day, this remains one of the most important documentary films about the breakdown of Yugoslavia. Directed by Boris Malagurski, who made no secret of his bias towards Serbs, the film focuses on the economic side of the conflict and imperialist interests in the collapse of Yugoslavia.
The Weight of Chains is the Serbian-Canadian co-production that brazenly tries to find answers to questions that many do not dare to ask; the questions that concern one of the most violent armed conflicts since World War II. The film explains why Yugoslavia disintegrated and who really stood to gain from the civil war in the 1990s.
Presenting facts about living standards in this area before the war and recounting several stories from his own life, the director shows us a country that had a high living standard before the war: free health care and education, guaranteed right to employment, affordable public transport, reasonable living costs and literacy of over 90%.
The film also examines the real role that the United States, NATO and the EU played in the tragic break-up of Yugoslavia, in an engaging and critical way.
The Weight of Chains contains rare archival footage, as well as interviews with academics, diplomats, media personalities, numerous US officials, Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian intellectuals and journalists, as well as ordinary citizens of the former Yugoslav republics.
4. Cinema Komunisto (2014) – Director: Mira Turajlic
Another film by the celebrated Serbian documentary filmmaker, Mira Turajlic, Cinema Komunisto tells a story about the genesis of the film industry in post-WWII Yugoslavia and Tito’s particular interest in it.
As a big fan of film, Josip Broz Tito tried to create a tool out of the country’s film industry that would be used to celebrate and uphold “the glory of his young nation”. As a hero who emerged from the Second World War and the leader of a newly formed communist state, Tito was aware of the role played by the film industry in the Soviet Union which existed exclusively for the purpose of propaganda, the glory of the collective regime and the occupation of the individual’s consciousness in order to impose the ideology of social property, which everyone should nourish and voluntarily contribute to.
The documentary has a great narrative style and an enormous attention to detail. It contains interviews with many respectable and important names from the film world, such as Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Burton, and Kirk Douglas. One of the best segments of the film is an interview with Leka Konstantinović, Tito’s personal film operator, who talks about his thirty-year-long cooperation with the Marshal.