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Why Truth-Telling Culture is Essential in Serbia

Free Zone Film Festival | FreeZone

The wars in the former Yugoslavia are a topic that still intrigues artists around the Balkan region.

Theatre performances, films and books are just some of the tools that can contribute to dealing with the past – but some media, and the general public, seem to be interested in this topic only if these plays, movies and publications are about crimes committed by the ‘others’, not by their own people.

At two recent film festivals, Free Zone and the Auteur Film Festival, Belgrade audiences had the opportunity to see two extremely important films - Nebojsa Slijepcevic’s ‘Srbenka’ and Ognjen Glavonic’s ‘The Load’.

‘Srbenka’, a documentary that follows the rehearsals and premiere of Oliver Frljic’s play about Aleksandra Zec, a Croatian Serb girl who was murdered in Zagreb together with her parents in December 1991, and tells a story about the issue of nationality in modern Croatia had good reception in Serbia.

‘The Load’, which follows on from director Glavonic’s previous documentary ‘Depth II’, about the Serbian police’s secret operation to transport the corpses of Kosovo civilians killed in the war to Serbia, is about the driver of a truck who is transporting a certain ‘load’ during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

The film has been criticised as ‘anti-Serbian’, and in May this year, the police trade union demanded that president, prime minister and the government of Serbia prevent it from being shown at the film festival in Cannes, and Milica Djurdjevic from the far-right organization Zavetnici said that Culture Minister Vladan Vukosavljevic should be held responsible for financing such a project. It is not necessary to mention that none of them even watched the film.

This kind of response is not new in Serbia, as we saw at this year's Mirëdita, dobar dan! festival. The name of the festival derives from the Albanian and Serbian words for ‘Good day!’ Since 2014, it has been presenting works from Kosovo's cultural scene to Belgrade audiences, and aims to create cooperation between the Kosovo and Serbian social and cultural communities.

Right-wing parties and organisations were even bothered by the word ‘cooperation’, so the event had to be protected by the police because Serbian Radical Party supporters tried to attack the participants, while youth activists from of Dveri and Democratic Party of Serbia organised a rival event called Mirëdita, laku noc (Mirëdita, good night), which they said showed how Serbian cultural heritage was being "endangered by the Albanians".

So now it’s not just ‘our crimes’ that are an undesirable topic in Serbia – so are reconciliation and cooperation.

But if you are convicted war criminal in this country, you can have a publishing house and promote your writing at the Belgrade Book Fair. Or the Ministry of Defence can do it for you.

If you are a convicted war criminal sentenced to life imprisonment, you can even make an appearance on live television. But if you say that you want a society where all of this is not possible, then of course you are ‘anti-Serbian’.

Almost the whole of Glavonic’s film takes place in cab of the truck. We see how the driver (masterly played by Leon Lucev), struggles with himself in his mind about the load that he is transporting, as he hears a constant banging noise coming from the trailer, nagging at his conscience.

Like that noise, films like ‘The Load’ nag at that part of the public that has not faced the crimes of the past and does not want to.

And it is important. It is really important that we have art that nags at people’s consciences.

At one point in the film ‘Srbenka’, Oliver Frljic responds to a question about why he did not write a play about murdered children in the Croatian town of Vukovar by saying that he would only do it “where those who killed them are living”.

Or to quote Bertolt Brecht’s poem ‘Germany, Pale Mother’: “Let others speak of their shame, I speak of my own.”

And that’s the only way to do it.

The article first published at Balkaninsight.