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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 Serbian culture.

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 about them.

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 picture?

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 picture.

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.'"

Danko Jesic
© FIPRESCI 2004

Lecture given at the Szolnok Conference Trans-Europa Express, Septemer 17-19, 2004.

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Szolnok 04

Hans-Günther Dicks
Danko Jesic
Angel Comas
Thomas Kurelec
Mariola Wiktor
Dana Duma
Daniela Bisogni
Tibor Hirsch
Balázs Varga