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Szolnok Conference 04: Trans-Europa Express
Can a National Cinematography
Become an International Brand?
By Danko Jesic
In an epoch in which everything has become a good for selling,
in which money has become the motive and the fuse that sets everything,
including art, in motion, an interesting question arises: is it possible
for small Eastern European countries to present their cinematographies
as a national brand intended to be competitive on the world market?
To answer this question successfully, it
is necessary to discuss whether small countries as these can create their
own original brands at all? When it comes to Serbia, all ideas are fully
exploited and exhausted in the fields of agriculture, food industry and
small-scaled arts and crafts. In each Serbian house, you will first be
offered coffee, claiming all the time that what they are offering to
you is something specific for Serbia. Coffee is the synonym for an original
Serbian treat. A similar situation can be encountered in other areas
of living. Cultural influences are all mixed up to the point where it
is almost impossible to find and define a unique cultural identity.
However, there are certain peculiarities than
can be located and explained geographically. In today's time, the support
from the media is necessary and essential if something is to be presented
as one's own. The coffee that is prepared in Serbia (and that we call
Turkish coffee in our everyday speech) nevertheless represents an original
beverage, as the way in which the coffee is prepared is specific for
Serbia and a few surrounding countries. Washington D.C.'s White House
is made of marble brought from Croatia and Serbia — still it is a symbol
of The United States.
Rich countries are capable of making a
brand of their own out of anything, because they have the know-how, the
experience, the media and the audacity required to do so. This anecdote
will in a very graphic way portray a relation between the American and
Not long after NATO's bombing of Serbia, in
the summer of 1999, a group of American scientists came to Serbia to
study the effects of the bombing on the people. I had the honour and
the pleasure to be their guide and advisor during their three-week stay
in Serbia. This group of scientists consisted of twenty or so professors
from the Universities of Pittsburgh and Chicago: sociologists, historians,
psychologists, philosophers, political scientists and physicists, and
with them came an inevitable television-crew that recorded everything
that happened. They were curious about many things, and one of the first
questions was: "Which culture is the dominant one in Serbia?" My
answer was: "American pop-culture." At first, they thought
I was joking because there had only been ten days since the bombing had
stopped. I explained to them that ninety per cent of the population was
wearing jeans and drinking Coca-Cola, that over the years the crowds
in McDonald's restaurants haven't even begun to thin out, that the prevailing
music was American, that ninety per cent of the films in the theatres
was American, that the kids played basketball, and that they rapped and
dressed as if they were living in the heart of Harlem. Some films are
so popular that they are broadcasted on television almost every week,
with the result that The Godfather or Pulp Fiction are
viewed as national treasures. A film-lover from Belgrade even tried to
have films like The Godfather, Close Encounters of the Third
Kind, Jaws and Star Wars patented as his own.
He has, of course, been rejected.
The Americans left delighted with what
they had seen in Serbia, and I had, during their stay, conceded to give
a two-hour interview for the purposes of their research. We exchanged
e-mail addresses, together with promises to keep in touch. A month later
on an American website I ran into my own smiling face. I realized soon
that it was about a VHS-tape with the interview I gave to the Americans
in question. With the picture there was a text: "An incredible document
that will forever change your view on the events in Eastern Europe. Historical
analyses, political situation, a view on everyday life. This unique tape
is made by the professors of the Chicago University and our TV-station
and can be yours for only $ 12 plus delivery expenses. If you order two,
you'll get them for only $ 19,99."
Of course, they never answered my e-mails, but at that
instant I realised how American cultural imperialism works.
All jokes aside, the question before us is
whether we can talk at all about respective national cinematographies
now? Are they separated, hermetically sealed and nationally determined
productions or are they only segments of an enormous international cinematography?
Is it possible in today's time of the mass-media to remain untouched
by all those things that are happening and are being done out in the
world? Is it possible to say with certainty that an idea that has just
popped into our heads is really our own, or is it just something that
we have already seen and heard? What is purely American in films like Troy, Alexander
the Great, Dr Zhivago or Godzilla? The answer
is: money. Still, in today's time, many renowned American film companies
are not exclusively owned by American citizens, but by the Japanese,
the Europeans or multinational companies.
It is a similar situation in Serbia and
other countries on the Balkans. Most of the films are financed by foreign
producers, and that makes it very hard to say what is authentically local
At the very beginning, during the writing of a
script, we have to adjust our ideas to the wishes of a foreign
producer who gives the money for the making of the movie. If he wishes
that all the actors in the movie be two meters' (six feet six inches)
tall and have green beards, so will it be. A number of newer Serbian
films look precisely like that. The audience is not capable of identifying
with the characters in Serbian movies, because, except for recognizable
names, they have certain traits that correspond with the wishes of
the producers and not with the real situation. The films that have
strong national characteristics, financed only with domestic money,
cannot find their way to the audience. Distributors refuse to show
them in the theatres, television-stations do not want to show them
either, critics ignore them, and producers mostly don't have the money
to send these films to international festivals.
In fact, for all films that don't come
from big American productions, the situation is similar. Do you believe
that in cinemas in Serbia no Bulgarian, Romanian, Albanian or Turkish
film has ever been shown? It sounds terrifying, but it is true. The films
from the region have sensibilities that are closer to ours. We understand
the problems of the central characters completely, and in some cases
we even understand the language perfectly, yet, these films never got
the chance to be seen by the Serbian audience.
Even the once so powerful French, Italian
and German films (with which my generation grew up — our heroes were
Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Franco Nero, Brigitte Bardot and Claudia
Cardinale), have lost the battle with the mighty men from Hollywood and
their representatives in Serbia. If some owner of a theatre in Serbia
should only think that instead of a third-rate American horror film he
should show an exquisite European, Balkan or Asian film, he would face
a danger of paying a substantial fine, of being banned from working,
physically attacked, and the least that could happen is to be boycotted
by distributors of American films. In that situation in Serbia, over
ninety-five per cent of the cinema repertoire is consisted of American
films, and the same percentage goes for television-stations and cable
broadcasting systems with additional hours of television programmes and
series, from absurdities like Jerry Springer and Oprah ,
to various reality shows and cartoons.
Each attempt of resistance to this invasion
is nipped in the bud. Something similar already happened even before
World War II, when in 1931 "The Law on the Regulation of Film Distribution",
which was supposed to create room in theatres for newly conceived domestic
films, was responded by the threat of a boycott by big American companies.
I remind you that the film production in Serbia was at the level of only
one feature film every three years!
During the years of the communist regime, domestic
films were considerably strengthened by administrative measures. For
a while even there existed a controlled distribution of foreign films,
inaccessible to internal audience out of ideological reasons, so that
domestic film production had been ample and well represented in cinemas,
and filmmakers were rich, respected and in various ways privileged people.
With the breakdown of communism, everyone found themselves on unfamiliar
ground. Directors now had to fight for a position, had to find the money
themselves and had to face the market value of films. Producers who used
to spend budget money like water — because the Ministry of Culture provided
abundantly - without any responsibility for the cost and result, now
had to find the money from other sources, some through unfavourable loans
or through selling their own property. Actors who used to be able to
afford a car or an apartment out of one pay check only, are now compelled
to host bingo- or quiz-shows on local television-stations, to tell off-colour
jokes on weddings or birthday parties to make ends meet.
With the change of the political situation, the
expectations and preferences of the audience have also changed. Young
generations that grew up on certain kinds of American films and television-series,
by watching MTV or Cartoon Network, want to see only certain similar
contents and don't have either the desire or the patience to see something
else. Unfortunately, domestic films are in that situation very much endangered,
and only the kind of domestic motion pictures that are cloned from American
matrixes are well received.
For an average twenty-year-old a black-and-white
film represents something that is not 'in', it is embarrassing to mention
it to his friends because they would ridicule him. It is even worse with
silent films. To motivate somebody to watch a film against which there
is a strong prejudice, you simply have to be cunning. I tried to persuade
my girlfriend, who 'hates' old movies, especially western, to watch Shane with
me. She has never seen it; I have seen it at least thirty-five times.
She wasn't interested although I exhausted almost every possibility of
persuasion. Then I changed the tactics; I told her that it was only a
western on the surface, and that the key issue lies in a very interesting
love triangle. Everything she has to do is to take aside the surroundings
and notice the flirt beneath the cowboy hats, and sense the human drama
in the smell of gunpowder. It worked. I think that therein lies the task
for a film critic — to focus an the average viewer's attention to the
emotions, to the story that forms the basis of everything; to convince
producers to make films that are worth seeing, and not to make only eye-candy
that the audience will spend their money to see.
It sounds like utopia, but it is not impossible.
In times when political divisions are mostly overruled and
out of date, when the boundaries are literally erased, we have to ask
ourselves what lies in store for us when it comes to filmmaking? Is the
future in a uniform style? It sounds logical if we take into consideration
that all around the world an identical technique is applied, that the
knowledge is being obtained from the same books worldwide, that the budgets
are very similar. A potential difference lies only in the script, but
the scripts are, as we know, mostly adapted to the taste of an average
viewer. If you wish to do something different, you will be condemned
to show your film in a theatre with only fifty seats, and probably never
make another film.
Thanks to the lack of fresh ideas, many
good films from the past are being recycled, but in a very banal and
trivial way. If you are old enough, or informed enough, you can easily
identify familiar details from the films you have seen sometime, whereas
that represents a 'novelty' for the rest of the audience. An analogue
situation can be found in other domains of art, music, for example, where
the creative trait is already lost, and the art comes down to endless
recycling and electronic combining of recurring chords.
Since the very beginnings of cinematography,
technological innovations were inevitable companions of the art of filmmaking.
Regardless whether they were visual or special effects, development of
image and sound quality, improving the way of recording and post-production,
these inventions always occur as the result of the efforts to make the
film by itself more attractive for the viewers.
The development of the film technology always
followed the aspiration of authors to tell interesting stories that carry
within themselves elements that deviate from reality. The need for story-telling
has led the producers to, by investing into innovation, literally give
more creative freedom to the authors, and bring more money to their respective
companies by making motion pictures with attractive screenplays. New
changes were also brought by the need for a quicker and cheaper production
process, so that we today have a situation where these two branches of
technical enhancements are united in order to make interesting products.
The technology intended to make expensive movies and the
technology intended to make low-cost films meet each other on a computer's
hard disc, making it an ideal tool in all the phases of film-making:
the script, the financial calculations, the generating of characters
and sets, the effects, the editing, the displaying.
Is film's future in 3D-generated characters moving
about in a virtual space? Will Charles Chaplin, forever young, with the
assistance of Harrison Ford, forever middle-aged, fight for the affection
of Marilyn Monroe in a computer generated motion picture? Will that movie
be filmed in Serbia and will we be able to say that it is a Serbian motion
The development of technology makes the
writer's job easier because he doesn't have to think about the limits
of the production, but is able to bring some of, up till now, inconceivable
things down to triviality. In the script for Crouching Tiger, Hidden
Dragon the scene where the masked thief jumps up onto the roof
to escape form his pursuers, which causes the audience to gasp, is described
with the sentence 'Masked figure jumps onto the roof'. Further explanation
is unnecessary. This kind of technological El Dorado Hollywood has turned
into creating 'automatic screenplay writers', people without real creativity,
who with the help of omni-potent programs for script-writing, with an
unlimited number of pre-written matrixes, by careful placing of several
attractive special effects, make films that we have usually seen in cinemas
in the past few years.
The accessibility to various sorts of
digital equipment for recording, the possibility of making a film with
the aid of the computer, incredible options in post-production, contribute
to the change of the art of film. It becomes more democratic, which is
not always an advantage, it exits the boundaries of professionalism,
and with the possibility of broadcasting via the Internet or in digitally
equipped theatres via satellite transmission, the film loses that collective
trait that always existed in the joy of making and watching a motion
That, of course, does not mean that the film does
not have a future. When television gained speed during the
fifties, everyone predicted the end of the film as a media. The appearance
of cheaper film-cameras triggered a genuine flood of amateur videos
and cine-clubs, which was announced as the twilight of the film. Popularization
of electronic and digital equipment seems to announce the same thing,
but if the quality of screenplays is taken into consideration, it won't
influence the development of film art on a larger scale. The fact that
in every sports' equipment store you can buy a cheap basket ball didn't
contribute to professional basketball being replaced by amateur basketball,
but contributed to forming a wider basis of amateurs who yearn to be
professionals, but don't have the knowledge or possibility for it.
Therefore, the making of films will remain in professionals' hands,
with the use of new technologies, and amateurs will, as the name implies,
find a new pastime, except those most persistent, who may one day,
by a stroke of good luck, even play in the big league.
To end this text, I will quote George
Lucas, who was answering a question about digitalization changing a lot
or not: "Digital technologies are as if I would say 'Which type
of camera should I use? Is it going to be Panavision or Arriflex? Should
I write on paper or on lap-top? It doesn't change anything. Digital technology
is as revolutionary as the adding of sound to the picture, or the colour
to film images. Neither more nor less than that.'"
Lecture given at the Szolnok Conference Trans-Europa Express,
Septemer 17-19, 2004.