Imagining Yugoslavia: Films That Taught Me About My Heritage and its History

Identity and heritage are often troubling concepts. Yet they are complicated further when the place from which you originate no longer exists. As is the case with Yugoslavia and those no longer able to identify with the place which they had, at some point, called home. Yugoslavia, once a nation of multiple ethnicities, religions, and languages now stands as seven different independent states. Both of my parents, though originating from the ex-Yugoslav region, now reside in the UK after nearly a decade of conflict that led to Yugoslavia’s abolition. As a child of diaspora, I have often struggled with defining my relationship to my ‘country of origin.’ Although I was raised in London, I have spent a lot of time across the Balkans and have always yearned for a deeper knowledge of the culture and history. Part of this yearning has been satisfied by my love for Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav film. Film is ultimately a form of escapism, a way to imagine a particular context and the characters of the story being told. After my first experience watching a Yugoslav film, I decided that I would research and compile a film list in an attempt to watch as many movies as I could. In doing so, I began to engage with the history and politics of the region (as well as the personal stories of my family) in a very different way. Below are just some (of many) films that I believe provide a powerful insight into life in Yugoslavia at different stages of its history. 

Tito’s Yugoslavia:

The Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was established in 1946, following the Partisan resistance movement during World War Two. The country was ruled by Partisan leader Josip Broz Tito under a socialist system and constituted six different republics- Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia (along with provinces Vojvodina and Kosovo). Yugoslavia was both ethnically and religiously diverse, its citizens brought together by a shared commitment to ‘brotherhood and unity’. Overall public satisfaction with Tito’s efforts was high- particularly for his ability to maintain peace and relative prosperity across the region. Yet his rule was mostly undemocratic and his ability to maintain peace was often obtained through unethical means, an example being the establishment of forced labour camps.

Otac Na Sluzbenu Putu / ‘When Father Was Away on Business’ 

Emir Kusturica, 1985

‘When Father Was Away on Business’ is a 1985 Yugoslav film directed by Emir Kusturica. Released to international acclaim, it won the Palme d’Or at the 1985 Cannes film festival. The film is set during the ‘Informbiro’ period between 1948-1950, a time of unstable relations between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Rivaling conceptions of communism led to a Tito-Stalin split in 1948, confusing many staunch communists both within Tito’s cabinet and the wider Yugoslav population. This break-up led to the establishment of labour camps across Yugoslavia, intended for those who spoke against the Yugoslav regime and propagated pro-Stalin sentiment. ‘When Father Was Away on Business’ is centered on a family in Sarajevo- the capital of what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. The father is sent to a labour camp after being reported to the authorities by his brother-in-law for comments he made regarding a political cartoon. Yet the story is told by his six year-old son, Malik, who believes that his father has been ‘sent away on business.’ The centering of family instead of politics becomes a means to criticise this part of Yugoslav history without focusing too much on the history itself. As Kusturica puts it, ‘if emotion can be expressed correctly, then history, too, is being expressed.’[i]

Throughout my life, Yugoslavia has often been romanticised by those around me as an almost utopia, in which ‘everybody’ lived happily. ‘When Father Was Away On Business’ challenges this conception. In its exploration of state control and freedom of speech, the film provides a powerful insight into an element of Yugoslav history that is often overlooked. 

The Yugoslav Wars:

Following the death of Josip Broz Tito in 1980, the viability of the Yugoslav state was gravely undermined by political and economic crises, underlying ethnic tensions, and the rapid growth of competing nationalisms. The Yugoslav government had transitioned from a one-party political constitution into a pluralistic system within which each region was granted its own representation. Alternative regimes vied to replace Yugoslavia whilst many republics also began to call for independence, inaugurating nearly a decade of war in the region. A once united Yugoslavia gradually divided into seven independent nation-states. 

Nicija Zemlja / ‘No Man’s Land’ 

Danis Tanovic, 2001

‘No Man’s Land’ is a 2001 film by Danis Tanovic which won the Oscar for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ that same year. The film is set during the Bosnian War between 1992-1995 and depicts the story of two wounded soldiers from opposing sides of the front lines (Bosniak and Serb) stuck in a trench in ‘no man’s land’ together. Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) was the most diverse of the Yugoslav Republics and historically the most complex in terms of identities and the spatial makeup of these identities. BiH’s call for independence from Yugoslavia in 1992 led to a four-year brutal conflict between Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, and Bosniaks. The film is ultimately an exploration of competing narratives of the war from the perspectives of those involved. It demonstrates both foreign involvement in Bosnia and the final breakdown of the Yugoslav maxim ‘brotherhood and unity.’ The relationship portrayed between the two soldiers, Nino and Ciki, is extremely delicate. At times, they seem to be forming a friendship, finding commonalities in their experiences and humanity in one another. Yet the hatred is ever-present, symbolised by their guns which are almost constantly aimed at each other. The story of the two soldiers acts as a microcosm of the wider conflict, revealing different interpretations and responses to the war at individual levels. Responsibility for the conflict is presented more as a betrayal of humanity rather than one rooted in nationalistic and political affiliations. ‘No Man’s Land’ is a telling examination of the effects of armed conflict on compassion and morality. 

Mentalities during the Yugoslav Wars:

During the years of dissolution, Yugoslav citizens across the region suffered various hardships. Many regions experienced armed conflict first hand and thus extensive societal destruction and loss of life. Large populations of ex-Yugoslavs were displaced, with many seeking refuge in the West. International sanctions against the Yugoslav state and widespread economic crises across the region took its toll on the livelihoods of the Yugoslav people. A combination of these factors proved highly strenuous for Yugoslav society, greatly impacting the mindsets of those experiencing this new reality. A rise in nationalism and violence and the deterioration of mental health are just some of the outcomes of the conflict that were felt at individual levels. 

Bure Baruta / ‘Cabaret Balkan’ 

Goran Paskaljevic, 1998

‘Cabaret Balkan’ was released in 1998 and directed by Goran Paskaljevic. The film depicts a series of interlocking stories based on a winter night in Belgrade during the late 90s. Under their leader Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia had waged numerous wars with its former Yugoslav neighbours (Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo.) Although there had been no armed conflict in Serbia itself, Serbian society was impaired by international sanctions, high rates of inflation, and a rise in corruption and mafia-led operations. Western governments were far from aligned with the Serbian nationalist movement and saw Serbia as particularly belligerent. This incited a NATO-led bombing campaign of the region in 1999. ‘Cabaret Balkan’ captures the atmosphere of Belgrade at the time and the effects that violence had on the mentalities of its residents. The film represents a complete breakdown of social values, morality, law, and order. This is immediately evident – the film opens with the words of a taxi driver: ‘this is a goddamn lousy country, why would anyone want to come back?’ The overarching message is one of violence, brutality, and darkness in which all of the characters (despite what their intentions may be) appear doomed. In particular, the men in the film seem entirely consumed by violence, be that towards the female characters or towards each other. Although the violence may not seem overtly political, it is portrayed as a product of the overwhelming violence suffocating Serbian society at the time. So while the viewer may find it difficult to sympathise with the nature of these characters, it is instead the wider societal context that evokes such a response. 

Post-Conflict / Contemporary Context:

The years after 2000 brought relative stability across the region and a rigorous transition from communism to market-orientated economics. Since then; the post-Yugoslav political landscape has been founded on a convergence of European integration, neoliberalism, and globalisation. The newly independent nation-states are now democracies based on mainly neoliberal principles, faced with processing and confronting the ramifications of nearly a decade of conflict. Although in many respects progress has been made across the region, tensions subsist within discourses surrounding the wars. The demolition of Yugoslavia has called for the establishment of a new sense of national identity for many ex-Yugoslavs. This has transgressed to those who left the region and to the generations that followed. 

 Take Me Somewhere Nice 

Ena Sendijarević, 2019

‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’ is a film by Ena Sendijarević, released in 2019. What makes this film unique within the post-Yugoslav film space is its focus on second-generation immigrants. The film follows Alma, a young woman born and raised in the Netherlands, who travels to Bosnia and Herzegovina (the birthplace of her parents) to visit her sick father. Her journey from Sarajevo to Mostar, accompanied by her cousin Emir and his best friend Denis, forms the basis of the movie. The displacement of populations during the Yugoslav wars created a large international diaspora (mainly in the West) and gave birth to an even larger community of second-generation immigrants. I often find that my own lived experience as a second-generation immigrant is full of complexities and contradictions. ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’ explores the dichotomies present in such an identity; that of birthplace and country of origin, east, and west, and even masculinity and femininity. Alma’s character illustrates this idea of duality and the ensuing struggles with identity, being neither ‘organically’ Dutch nor ‘fully’ Bosnian. Part of this is Alma’s attempt to assert her sexuality within a different social context to that which she is accustomed to- one in which Dutch girls are understood as ‘easy.’ As Alma moves closer to an acceptance of the cultural complexities of the country, the film speaks to new possibilities surrounding identity and belonging. This is a film for the new generation of Yugoslav diaspora, told through stylism and humour (down to the 4:3 ratio used to reflect an Instagram filter.) The story told in ‘Take Me Somewhere Nice’ is one that I, and I am sure many others in a similar position, had been waiting for.

[i] Emir Kusturica talks about “When Father Was Away on Business” (1985). 2015. [film] J. Corceiro. DailyMotion.

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Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)