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.
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.
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.