Sunday, March 8, 2009

After the War: Life Post-Yugoslavia & an interview with a new documentary distributor: AMMAM

For those Americans of a certain age, there will always be a Yugoslavia. That's what we grew up understanding as the country, ruled by Marshall Tito, that was part of the Communist bloc. For some reason Yugoslavia was perceived by us to represent a kinder version of Communism -- perhaps because of Tito's sometimes seemingly looser control, or maybe the country's location: not buried as deep behind the Iron Curtain as was Romania or Poland, but bordering Greece, right across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. This, in any case, was our perspective. Then, from 1990 and for the next few years, we found out differently -- as ethnic tensions exploded into war, ethnic cleansing and mass murder.

"How could this happen? Why? Who are these people?" were a few of the questions being asked by Americans at the time. If we'd asked a "Yugoslavian," we might have learned that there were no real Yugoslavians: only Bosnians, Croatians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Serbians and Slovenes. Yugoslavia was a kind of catch-all name, in official use only since around October 1929. And yet, under the alternately open-handed and iron-fisted Tito, who ruled the location post-WWII until his death in 1980, these roiling ethnic groups managed to abide as Yugoslavians. All this is gone now, but an interesting compilation of nine short films (in total, they make up a roughly 2-1/2 hour program) called AFTER THE WAR: LIFE POST-YUGOSLAVIA is now here on DVD.

Available from a new distribution channel called AMMAM (an acronym for A Million Movies a Minute -- more about this below), the program is the usual grab-bag of ideas, quality and length that comes with most compilations. The films, made from 1998 through 2003, are all worthwhile, some of them much more than that, and they range in length from six to thirty-seven minutes. Here's a quick rundown of what you'll find in each:

In Cowboys in Kosovo (by Corinne van Egeraat, 24 min. Netherlands), the director visits a Kosovo family in which four brothers used to play Cowboys and Indians and love American movies. One of the four left for The Netherlands but is back home for a visit, during which the four remember, joke, and try to recapture the fun of those former days. The movie is charming, funny and often sweet -- but with the expected dark underside always just within reach.

An ode to the books of Sarajevo, now destroyed, House of Wisdom (by Roberto Forns-Broggi, 13 min. USA) mixes travelog with a tale of how the national library of Sarajevo was burned and its treasures decimated. It's sad, all right, but this film, in English, offers some very odd moments: Proust is mentioned, with his name mis-pronounced, and the narrator speaks of a writer's "stony" gaze -- during which the camera zeros in on the face of a metal statue.

The most interesting of the group, in many ways, is Images from the Corner (by Jasmila Zbanic, who gave us Grbvica: The Land of My Dreams) 32 min. Bosnia and Herzegovina). During the war, an acquaintance of Ms Zbanic was seriously wounded and a French photographer took pictures of her while she lay bleeding and desperately begging for help. These pictures of Bilja's wounds made him famous, so Zbanic searches for Bilja and reconstructs the moment when the photos became more important than her life. This is thought-provoking stuff and Zbanic asks us to consider how we might rid our children's lives of war images. I wish the important phone message here had been translated into subtitles, but the final clean and beautiful snow scene is worth waiting for.

The shortest piece, an animated interview with an 11 year old Bosnian immigrant to the United States, is A Conversation with Haris (by Sheila Sofian, 6 min. USA) which, via quick impressionistic strokes, Ms Sofian captures quite a lot. In an interview on the DVD extras, the filmmaker talks about her work, which uses some 4,300 individual paintings, during which one replaces the next and is thus destroyed -- all to make this sad and lovely little film. Talk about transitory art!

A mother searching for the remains of her murdered children makes up Red Rubber Boots (also by Jasmila Zbanic, 18 min. Bosnia and Herzegovina). Gathering all available information and then inspecting mass grave sites, she hope to find the red rubber boots her son wore the day he was abducted. Though made nearly a decade ago, this is the most upsetting and immediate of all the shorts on the program. Zbanic puts you in the mother's role, and you come away feeling pain you'll not likely forget.

For me the saddest of these documentaries is A Father, A Son, A Holy Ghost (by Zelimir Gvardiol, 19 min. Serbia) because it offers no hope for the future -- at all -- as it presents three family portraits involving a young war deserter; a teenager traumatized by the war and perhaps beyond help; and a newborn brought into this world of utter despair. This is the oldest of the documentaries (1998). Dare we hope that, for some of these characters, things have improved?

The joys of Capitalism, which went mostly missing from the former Yugoslavia during the Communist regime (although I'm sure the big C's greed and sleaze were still present) seems to be slowly returning in It's Only Mine (also by Gvardiol, 16 min. Serbia). In Serbia, where massive police seizure of private property occurred, now -- sixty years later -- the original owners and their inheritors want their family homes back. You can sympathize with them, of course, but compared to the horrors we see elsewhere in this series, this piece comes off a tad lightweight.

I've previously seen films about families torn apart by political divisions, but Ravens (also by Mr. Gvardiol, 14 min. Serbia) is the first to confront the pro- and anti-Milosevic division. How this has ripped apart a particular family is made abundantly clear in this fascinating and disturbing documentary.

The final piece, I Don't Know Where, Or When, Or How (by Gvardiol again, 8 min. Serbia) gives us the country's elderly population, rest-home variety, via film and music. As bad as many of our own population has it over here, imagine what it must be like in a country so lately war-torn as the former Yugoslavia.

As soon as I finished this compilation, my immediate reaction was to wonder how it had come into being and subsequently found distribution here in the USA. Since a co-reviewer I know from Greencine -- Erin Donovan -- is involved with the company, AMMAM, that is distributing the film, I called her to find out more.

TrustMovies: How did you get involved with AMMAM -- A Million Movies a Minute and After the War: Life post-Yugoslavia?

Erin Donovan: I studied political economics at the Evergreen State College and realized about halfway through my senior year that I had zero interest in academia or moving to DC and working in or around government while Bush was president. I had by chance seen a documentary by the Media Education Foundation and applied for a research gig there. By some fluke I got hired and worked on the film version of Naomi Klein's amazing book No Logo. MEF also does all of its own development, production, post-production and marketing in-house so it was a truly amazing place to learn the process of documentary storytelling, beginning to end. I was hooked, it was like being a teenager again and discovering punk rock.

Then I moved to San Francisco and kept seeing these amazing short documentaries at film festivals and knowing that after the screening they would more or less fall off the face of the earth. There just aren't a lot of options available to film-makers after festivals, even though audiences I sit with are almost always extremely enthusiastic at shorts showcases.

I like to think of our compilations as being a mosaic approach to each subject matter. In the case of After the War: Life post-Yugoslavia, five very diverse film-makers explore an aspect of this war that affected them, it's a very different result than one film-maker trying to be all things to all people. It's also a gentler viewing experience for tough subject matter.

Funny: I didn't find it so gentle. It's all relative, I guess. But you're right about the short form not dragging you through it for such a lengthy period.

With After the War I really wanted to get a sense of what life is like for people in the fallout of a "good war". The people in the former Yugoslavia are safer and freer for now but it came at a horrific cost. There are some universal experiences of war: People have to piece their lives back together in a place with little to no infrastructure because that has been systematically demoralized. It's not the kind of human interest story that will get a lot of coverage when the narrative of the news coverage shifts to reconciliation.

(Ed's note: We could talk at length about this being a "good war,"
or whether the world might be better off with the Yugoslavia of two
decades past. To
start with, think of all the dead who'd still be alive --
like those children from the Red Rubber Boots episode.)

Will AMMAM be releasing other films?

Yes! Our next release will be a collection of animated documentaries and we're also working on compilations about agricultural subsidies, the working poor and alternative energy.

How are you distributing the film so far?

For After the War we're focusing on a few different audiences: documentary enthusiasts who are interested in seeing the form change, the Serb-Croatian community groups in the USA, veterans' groups and schools with Slavic research, and International Law programs.

When I was at the MEF (which distributes exclusively to academic institutions) I was very frustrated that this incredible catalog of films was only available to about 1% of the world--those with access to university libraries. But now, in these troubled times, those sales are keeping us afloat.

Ironic, no? Are you worried about the recent rash of independent distributors going out of business?

I'm extremely disheartened by the closing of companies like Tartan and New Yorker Films. I got into this because I love film and do not believe success is a finite thing. The more access the general public has to "off the beaten path" films, the better it is for all of us. I'm inspired by people at companies like Benten Films, Music Box Films and Shadow Distribution who are re-imagining a lot of the old formulas for distribution and doing amazing work.

What advice would you give new documentary film-makers?

Do whatever Sheila Nevins says, does or implies. She is our Oprah.

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