Dubrovnik International Film Festival in LA Times Article
Scenes of life after wartime; A festival is part of the social
reconstruction in a still-haunted land.
Times Staff Writer
8 August 2004
Los Angeles Times
As sites for film festival press conferences go, it would be hard to
improve on the East West Beach Club. Beautifully situated on the shockingly
blue Adriatic Sea, it has a postcard view of this city's 15th and 16th
century walls. Likely the best preserved vintage fortification system in
the world, these battlements look very much like something Jack Warner
might have ordered up for an action-adventure epic.
The Dubrovnik International Film Festival used the club for the opening
press conference of its second year. The Croatian media, both local and
national, had shown up in force.
The festival itself had gotten considerable coverage in Croatia for its
2003 debut, with press headlines like the irrepressible "Cannes is Dead,
Long Live Dubrovnik!" The second year under founder and festival director
Ziggy Mrkich was shaping up to be just as potent, including the local
premier of Croatian director Vinko Bresan's riveting, controversial
"Witnesses," perhaps the best film to deal with the war in what everyone
now calls simply "ex-Yugoslavia."
But at its midpoint press conference something had gone wrong. The
techno-pop was on the speaker system, the bottles of mineral water were
close at hand, and the guest of honor, top Croatian director Krsto Papic,
was there. Only one thing was unnervingly absent: the press itself. And
Papic thought he knew why.
He has been making films for nearly 40 years, even directing Orson Welles
as J.P. Morgan in 1980's "The Secret of Nikola Tesla." Papic's latest film,
"Infections," was having its national premier at Dubrovnik and showing as
well was his classic 1970 work "Lisice" (Handcuffs), considered as good a
film as any made inside the former Soviet bloc.
A thoughtful, articulate man who spent a year at USC on a Fulbright
fellowship, Papic said the lack of press had to do with the kind of
materialistic society he feared Croatia, a new country admitted to the U.N.
in 1992, was becoming. His press conference was without press, the director
explained, because of the lure of a rival media event, complete with
entertainment and a lavish buffet, being held just 20 minutes outside of
"The president of Croatia is coming today to open a new luxury hotel,"
Papic explained, as much in resignation as in despair. "The film festival
is not the event, the whole spirit of the town is in that opening. This is
our society, this is a real picture of us.
"I call my generation 'Lost in Transition,' " Papic went on, with a
conscious nod to the Sofia Coppola film. "During communism, we were
dreaming of democracy. Then it came, but it is a false democracy in my
"Everything that is bad in Western society came. We don't have a middle
class, we have a small group of very rich, and 90% of the people are hardly
surviving. What kind of society, what kind of democracy is this?"
The director gestures again to the uncrowded room. "This is your chance to
picture the essence of a country in transition. The reality is going on in
front of you." A pause, followed by a wry "We are lost."
Behind the scenes
I had come to Dubrovnik to get a look at a young film festival, to find out
how one of these events goes about getting started, and I did. But I also
found out something more.
The Dubrovnik event turned out to be an unexpected opportunity to examine a
film culture and a society still coming to terms with a devastating
catastrophe a decade-plus after the fact. It was a way to observe the
political and human aftershocks of war in a place that never expected to be
under fire, and to see how those tremors affected both the kinds of films
being made and how they are received.
To look up at the delightful green hills gently dotted with cypress trees
that ring the city is to feel as Dubrovnik's residents did in 1991: that it
would be unimaginable for the war that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia to
touch down in this nonstrategic location, beautiful enough to be the image
of choice for guidebook covers and one of only three cities in Europe to be
designated World Heritage Sites by the U.N.
Yet the war did arrive here, and with a force that stunned the inhabitants.
The Serb-Montenegrin-dominated Yugoslav army bombarded the city with more
than 2,000 shells from October 1991 through the following summer. More than
two-thirds of the old town's distinctive red-tiled roofs were hit, and
total damage, including the destruction of a 25,000-book library, has been
estimated at $10 million. According to Robin Harris' authoritative
"Dubrovnik: A History," 221 people died and the city's tourist industry was
Ten years and more down the line, those roofs have been replaced, the
damaged architectural treasures rebuilt. Croatia is running ads on European
TV touting itself as "the Mediterranean as it once was," and the tourists,
though not at pre-war levels, are returning to experience the city's
dazzling interplay of limestone and pure light and understand why George
Bernard Shaw said "those who seek Paradise on Earth should come to
But as much as people understandably want to put the war and its aftermath
behind them, they can't completely. Good and pleasant as life is now, with
hotels crowded, traces of the past are visible if you know where to look.
And if you care enough to ask, you can find memories of discord just below
the surface of people's minds, still roiling the placid waters of current
So, sharing window space with dolls in native costumes and souvenir
ashtrays in a shop just off the Stradum, the city's main street, is a book
called "Dubrovnik In War," with a surreal photo of the city in smoke and
flames on its cover. A video, "War In Dubrovnik," is available around the
corner. And a few streets away, upstairs in what used to be the old town's
hardware store, sits War Photo Limited, a gallery, possibly the first in
the world to be devoted to the photography of war.
Newly opened under the direction of Wade Goddard, himself a former war
photographer, the gallery's first exhibitions are devoted to searing images
of the war in ex-Yugoslavia. Showing in the gallery's small video theater,
doing double duty as an auxiliary film festival screening site, is a brief
documentary about the extremely hostile reaction these photographs got when
the show was on tour in Serbia. The reaction in Dubrovnik, while much
quieter, has also been intense.
"Most of the local people are happy to have something different, educators
especially are very grateful," says Goddard, a New Zealand native. But, he
adds, "there is always the odd comment about 'Why aren't there photos of
Croatian soldiers looking more heroic?' "
Then, Goddard says, there's the reaction of "the woman who runs the cafe
next door. She didn't want to look at any photos. Finally, she came, and
within five minutes she was crying. Some local people don't come because
it's too hard for them. The memories are too strong."
A festival takes shape
When 38-year-old festival founder Mrkich came to Dubrovnik four years ago
as part of a visit to nearby parents, she was taken by the spirit of the
city and the country's rebuilding process. "I was at that phase in my life
where I needed to take things into my own hands, to be in control," she
says. "I thought, 'This is so beautiful, the war's over, it's going to take
off. How could I do something here?' I came up with the idea of a film
While neighboring Serbia has 14 film festivals of various kinds, and
Bosnia's well-regarded Sarajevo Film Festival just celebrated its 10th
anniversary, Croatia has only four, including one in Pula, once
ex-Yugoslavia's biggest festival and a favorite of Marshal Tito, the
country's ruler and something of a movie buff.
Tito would stay on a nearby island and have features shuttled out to him
every night. "When the boat returned with the films," one director
remembers, "the projectionist would tell us 'he laughed' or 'he stopped the
projection.' Very often the films he loved became favorites at the
Though it didn't have a film event, what Dubrovnik did have is one of
Europe's foremost summer theater and music festivals, over half a century
old and so big it uses 30 venues for performances. "That made it a little
harder," Mrkich admits. "People would say, 'We already have a festival.'
And there are only so many local sponsors to go around." That made the
support of Dubrovnik's mayor, Dubravka Suica, essential, and she turned out
to have big-picture reasons of her own to be enthusiastic.
"This city lives exclusively on tourism, and the modern tourist wants
cultural events," Suica said. "We are strongly connected to culture,
culture is everything to us, we give 50% of our budget to theater, the
symphony orchestra, museums, galleries.
"We want to have festivals all year round. Americans were a big percentage
of tourists before the war. We want to attract them again."
Still, the mayor says Mrkich's role as catalyst was essential. "Nothing
would have happened here without Ziggy Mrkich," she says.
Mrkich was born in Australia of Croatian parents who moved back to the
country when she was 13. In 1995, Mrkich moved to Hollywood to get involved
in the film business. "It's a tough place for females, for Australians, to
work your way up the ladder," she says. "If you don't fit into the
cookie-cutter development executive thing, they don't want you." Then came
the film festival idea and an unexpected opportunity to be creative.
"As soon as it hatched in my brain it possessed me," Mrkich says. "It's
kept me going for the last four years, coming home after work and
researching, thinking, planning, reading. It's all I think about, all I
Everything about starting and running a festival, however, turned out to be
"harder than I anticipated," Mrkich says. Local would-be volunteers
"refused to understand the concept of volunteering" and demanded to be
paid. And getting sponsorships and raising money was especially difficult
because "American companies don't even know Croatia exists. Next year I'm
going to try Britain; Croatia is the No. 1 location where the British buy
European real estate."
Coming from a culture where "people like to sit in cafes," audiences
weren't always eager to get up and find seats in the festival's wonderfully
eclectic group of theaters, which include a stunningly-sited outdoor venue
with a 1950s-style rhomboid screen and baby blue trim, and the Marin Drzic,
an exquisite three-tiered theatrical house dating from 1864. Still, 2003's
first festival got good marks from the citizenry.
For the 2003 event, Mrkich had lined up the national premier of Woody
Allen's "Anything Else" for opening night, but the focus this year turned
out to be the Croatian connection, including the presentation of the 15th
annual Hartley-Merrill International Screenwriting Prize to a Croatian
writer, Iva Kapetanovic, another person who couldn't get the war out of her
mind and set her script in the once-besieged city of Vukovar.
Brenda Brkusic, a 23-year-old recent Chapman University graduate, came with
a personal documentary about her politically active father, "Freedom From
Despair." On a much lighter note was Zoran Budak's irresistible half-hour
doc, "Cooking for Hollywood," about how Croatian immigrant Toni Kalem
founded Tony's Food Service of Chatsworth, one of the movie business'
premier location caterers, and became the chef of choice for Clint Eastwood
("He adores Croatian food") and John Travolta.
The chance to see the veteran Papic's new film was one of the festival's
coups. The director himself, though, was more excited to have a big-screen
showing of his 1970 "Handcuffs," a Kafkaesque parable about paranoia and
power. Morally complex and psychologically acute, set in a remote area in
1948 on the day of a lively village wedding, it deals with the nature of
totalitarianism and its ability to cause poisonous breakdowns in society.
And it turns out to have a history as dramatic as what is on the screen.
Though "Handcuffs" was invited to be in Cannes' official competition in
1970, Yugoslavia's official film committee, taking it as an attack against
the current regime, refused to allow it to represent the country there.
"Handcuffs" was shown instead to great success at the Directors Fortnight,
and Papic, who considered his career in his homeland to be over, was
thinking about emigrating to France with his family when he got a call from
To the director's astonishment, this outcast film had won several prizes at
Pula, the key Yugoslavian festival, including the coveted Grand Prix. How
to explain this? Papic smiles: "Tito saw the film and he liked it." The
director shakes his head, still not quite believing it. "Tito, the only
free man in Yugoslavia."
If Papic represents, in his own words, a group in transition, 40-year-old
Vinko Bresan, once Papic's assistant, is part of what the younger director
calls "the new kids." An energetic man with an expressive face, Bresan is
perhaps the most accomplished filmmaker of his generation. But no one was
prepared for what he achieved in his latest film, the devastating
That was because Bresan, who wrote his first two films in collaboration
with his writer-father Ivo ("He can't say no or my mother will be angry"),
has been known exclusively as the creator of comedies. Sharp, satiric and
very funny comedies, but comedies nevertheless.
Evolution in style
Bresan's first film, the wonderfully titled "How the War Started on My
Island," became, except for James Cameron's "Titanic," Croatia's
top-grossing film of the last 20 years. He followed that with 1999's droll
and pointed "Marshal Tito's Spirit."
"I didn't want to make comedy for itself, I used humor as a way to tell the
story," the director explains. "When (former Croatian president Franjo)
Tudman was alive, what dominated cultural politics was a celebration of
everything. My resistance to this took the form of a carnivalization of
life. But those cultural politics disappeared after Tudman died. Now we
have a different social situation."
And, successful and savvy as these films were, Bresan says, "I didn't want
to do just childish comedies all my life." Enter "Witnesses."
"I felt obligated as a director to say something about the moral problems
of my society, and if I do that I have no right to use humor as a
disguise," Bresan says, explaining "Witnesses' " serious tone. "No one here
wants to think of the past, but unfortunately we are living in the past. We
are deeply in the past."
Adapted from a novel by Jurica Pavicic, this assured, confidently cinematic
and daring film is set in 1992 in an unnamed city near the front lines. A
trio of disgruntled Croatian soldiers decide to blow up the house of a
local Serb, a wealthy war profiteer they think is out of town. He isn't,
and ineptitude leads to the man's death and his daughter's kidnapping.
As both a detective and a journalist go against local sentiment and pursue
separate investigations into the incident, "Witnesses" ("Svjedoci" in
Croatian) looks into areas most societies would prefer to avoid examining.
What does armed conflict do to social order and individual responsibility?
How does the wartime emphasis on clannishness, compromise and a malleable
"what nobody saw never really happened" code of ethics impact national
morality? Is it possible, finally, to have a moral dilemma in an immoral
As if the subject matter weren't enough to make "Witnesses" stand out,
Bresan's decision about structure makes it even more compelling. His first
cut followed the conventional pattern of linear storytelling, but he and
co-screenwriter Pavicic found that "all the emotional levels we wanted to
show didn't happen."
So Bresan restructured the film by fragmenting it, by having the story told
and retold from the overlapping points of view of different central
characters, with each retelling adding key details and texture and the
whole truth only apparent at the close.
"Witnesses" won six awards at Pula, including best director for Bresan, and
was extremely well received at its international debut at the Berlin Film
But as far as the reaction at home went, Bresan says, "Berlin made it
worse. Every good reaction overseas is bad for me here." Finally, he says,
"two months ago, the Croatian party of the right, a powerful party, accused
me of being an enemy of the state, a traitor."
Don't misunderstand, Bresan says. "I am happy I can make this film here,
there are a lot of people who like it, nobody is beating me on the street,
I am not a lonely revolutionary."
For Bresan, the present looks promising. He has an agent at United Talent
who regularly sends him scripts, he is doing a short film for the Croatian
pavilion at EXPO 2005 in Japan, and "Witnesses" is in the hands of a top
But just under the surface of success for the director, as it is for many
Croatians, are concerns about that past, about the difference the war made
in their lives.
"From books, films, everyone thinks they know something about war," Bresan
explains, quiet but forceful. "But the one thing nobody prepared me for,
the worst change, was in the minds of people. It is how society treats the
value of humanity in a war situation. That's the reason why I made this
"In peace, if you are a good person, you are very valuable for society. In
a war situation, if you hate you are valuable. If you hate more, you are
more valuable. I lost a lot of friends during the war -- they hate too
much, I cannot have conversations with them. The state encourages that in
people's souls. After that, everything is possible.
"Holes in roofs are easy to fix," Vinko Bresan says, the carefully repaired
skyline of the old city glistening behind him. "People's souls are very
heavy to fix. Those kinds of shadows are still standing. The job for
intellectuals, for artists, is to fix that kind of thinking."
PHOTO: FOUNDER: Dubrovnik Film Fest's Ziggy Mrkich.;PHOTOGRAPHER: Patricia
Williams For The Times;PHOTO: 'This is your chance to picture the essence
of a country in transition.... We are lost.' -- Krsto Papic,
director;PHOTOGRAPHER: Patricia Williams For The Times;PHOTO: 'Holes in
roofs are easy to fix. People's souls are very heavy to fix.' -- Vinko
Bresan, director;PHOTOGRAPHER: Patricia Williams For The Times;PHOTO:
PICTURE PERFECT: The old-world charm of Dubrovnik's port serves as a scenic
backdrop for the city's film festival.;PHOTOGRAPHER: Patricia Williams For
Copyright 2004 The Los Angeles Times