Friday, February 28, 2003

Not Much of A Choice

Panel of top Croatian critics and film scholars, assembled by Hollywood movie magazine, has selected Ritam zločina (Ritam zlocina), directed by Zoran Tadić (Zoran Tadic) in 1981, as the best Croatian film of all times. The panel results clearly show that the Croatian cinema industry, like almost everything else, declined in the first decade of Croatian independence. Only one post-1990 film managed to enter top 10 – Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku (Kako je poceo rat na mom otoku), recently reviewed by me.

On the other hand, the panel results might be somewhat misleading. Panel members hardly had something of a choice. From its humble start in 1940s till today Croatian film industry barely managed to produce more than five feature films per year. And the quality of those film steadily declined, especially after 1970s and constitutional reforms that had allowed former Yugoslav republics to create their own cultural policies.

From 1970s on, Croatian filmmakers, although paying the lip service to prevalent Communist ideologies, were encouraged to make films that would be as different from those made in Serbia. In other words, Croatian films had to promote Croatian culture and its ties to Western Europe, as opposed to Serbia and its Oriental primitivism. So, the movie projects most likely to be financed by Croatian apparatchiks within "Self-Management Interest Associations" and other para-state entities were those based on 19th Century Croatian literature. Those films usually turned out to be artistically pretentious and utterly incomprehensible dramas and were highly unlikely to bring crowds to theatres, thus forcing Croatian filmmakers to depend exclusively on state subsidies. It is needless to say that this state of affairs hardly improved with the arrival of democracy – all subsequent governments, from Tudjman to Račan (Racan), maintained heavy grip on Croatian film industry.

This represents striking contrast to Serbia, where cinema industry traditionally relied on more crowd-pleasing genres like comedies, musicals and action. Those films were usually garbage but they nevertheless produced enough money to make film companies and authors more independent. Even more useful was their role in training many talents, especially actors, in the film-making skills. Anyone who compares average 1990s Croatian and 1990s Serbian film can see that the latter have much more convincing and natural film-like acting, while the former displays acting styles more suitable to the stage.

Another thing that strangles Croatian cinema is the small size of domestic market. In 1996 aforementioned Kako je počeo rat na mom otoku has managed to beat Independence Day on Croatian box-office, yet it wasn't enough for covering production cost. Even if Croatian filmmakers turn to commercial pieces, that won't make them independent from the state subsidies. The only solution seems to be making movies designed for broader markets - in other words, other republics of former Yugoslavia.

But this is the Rubicon Croatian filmmakers, still burdened by recent past and very unclear future, aren't yet ready to cross. Until that happens, future panellists won't have much of a choice.


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