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Croatian Cinema Unravels The Legacy of War
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Croatian Cinema Unravels The Legacy of War

Picture of Caroline Circlaeys
Updated: 11 January 2017
The Croatian film industry struggled through the turmoil of the break-up of Yugoslavia and the ensuing conflicts of the 1990s, but it is now being resurrected by a few pioneering filmmakers eager to champion the history of Croatia and interpret the legacy of conflict that has beset their country.

As with most states within the former Yugoslavia, the film industry in Croatia was jeopardised by the violent conflicts of the 1990s and seemed bound to disappear. But endowed with an old tradition of experimental films and renowned internationally for its animated movies, the film industry did not fade away and was kept alive in the form of the Zagreb Academy for Performing Arts.

Despite the transitional economy, a new film industry has risen from the ashes and has caught the attention of international festivals, accumulating both prizes and acclaim. Here are some of the landmark films.

The Melon Route (2006)

In Branko Schmidt’s film the war is over but the legacy of it lives on, paving the way for local mafias to take control. To survive, Mirco, a former Bosniak warrior, works for them as a smuggler. Humanly and socially disorientated by the war, he begins his journey of redemption when his makeshift boat transporting illegal Chinese immigrants sinks. He survives but he is not alone; a young Chinese girl, the only witness, survives with him. Tracked down by the mafia, he decides to protect her.

Slightly Manichean, using the stereotype of the Eastern Europe bandit, this dark film swings between poetry and raw reality. The film is deeply symbolic: despair and hope are embodied by the duet between Mirco and the girl, who are like two sides of the same coin. The subtle choice from the director to not subtitle the dialogue in Chinese puts the spectator in the shoes of the hero, who is confused and unable to communicate with his charge. He cannot understand a word she says but he can read the distress in her eyes. The film seems to suggest that nobody can escape unscathed from a war; Mirco is as lost as she is and will never adjust to civilian life. Visual storytelling meticulously triumphs over words, granting the film a universal poignancy.

The Blacks (2009)

A ceasefire is proclaimed in Croatia: ‘The Blacks’, a military group in charge of the dirty work has to be dissolved. They decide to complete their last mission which is to rescue a soldier. The film opens up with a climactic scene and slowly rewinds to disclose the circumstances that led them to this absurd expedition. Alluding to atrocities they committed during the war, the soldiers are forced to ask themselves ‘how will they live with this blood on their hands?’ ‘What if the enemy they were looking for was among them?’

The Blacks is an ambitious film, which dares to break through the dominant self-perception of Croats as being the only victims of the war. This anti-nationalist psychological war drama denounces the crimes of their own army. The directors create the haunting mood of the film through silences and blanks, which would normally be suppressed in post-production, coupled with grainy pictures, rare dialogue and long shots; they contribute to the stifling context of guilt and create a suggestion of post-war trauma.

How the War Started on My Island (1996)

‘Aleksa, come back home! I cooked pasta for you’ is a surprising cue for a film addressing such a violent conflict. Director Vinko Bresan dared to make a black comedy at a time when the outcome of the war was still unclear. Croatia had just seceded but Yugoslavia has maintained military barracks. On one of the Croatian Dalmatian islands, locals organise a music and dance festival to force the threatening commander and his soldiers to surrender peacefully. ‘Aleksa, come back home! I cooked pasta for you’, which the wife of the major screams, has now become an idiomatic expression in Croatia. This credible political satire is nicely paced and suspenseful and it succeeded in making Croatia laugh despite the bleakness of recent history.

War Reporter (Ratni Reporter) (2011)

Documentaries dealing with the war in Croatia are numerous but Silvestar Kolbas innovates by adding his autobiographic content, delivering his personal account of the war. His documentary becomes a diary, compiling a collection of archives of clips recounting wartime through his voice over.

This testimony ignores facts and offers us the other side of the story: seeing the war through the eyes and mind of a three dimensional human being rather than through cold history. It reflects the impact of war on people’s lives, how it disrupted their future. This renowned cameraman for national Croatian TV creates a highly moving portrait of the effect of war on individuals, showing how his dreams were stolen by a war that meant nothing to him.