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Lost Generations

Short documentaries that explore the fractured identities of post-war former-Yugoslavia

notes by Patrick Gamble

Lost Generations

The term “Lost Generation” was originally coined by American novelist Gertrude Stein, to describe the cynicism that defined the literary landscape in the aftermath of World War I. However, in recent years, it has also been used to describe those who grew up during the breakup of socialist Yugoslavia in 1991 [1] and the bloody conflicts that followed. As a result, many of the films that have emerged from the region have been preoccupied with the past and the following disillusionment.

Founded in 1995, as the city was entering the final year of a nearly four-year siege, The Sarajevo Film Festival has become a platform for films from the Balkans and South-eastern Europe. In one of UNESCO’s Cities of Film, cinema has played an important role in identity construction, something reflected in this year’s program which commemorated the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the Apollo wartime cinema. Housed in the basement of the Sarajevo Academy of Performing Arts, this makeshift theatre gave hope to those subjected to daily shelling and sniper attacks from Serb nationalist forces by screening movies smuggled into the city. The Apollo features briefly in Jean Gabriel Périot’s ‘Facing Darkness’, a feature-length documentary in which the French director weaves together a series of short films made during the siege by amateur filmmakers who felt compelled to record the events around them. A combination of reportage, documentary, and fiction, these films, which include Srdjan Vuletic's ‘I Burned My Legs’ and Dino Mustafic’s ‘The Trail of Life’, create a subjective portrait of the extreme psychological stress brought on by life during the siege. However, they also hint at the role cinema would play in shaping the region's historical and cultural memory once the conflict ended.

The second half of Périot’s film sees the French director interview these self-same filmmakers thirty years later to talk about how it feels to re-watch their films and discuss how the siege gave rise to a culture of creativity and resilience. These conversations—ranging from lighthearted reminiscing about the Apollo cinema and the parties that were held during the siege to worries about how the rise of fascism in Europe threatens the fragile peace in the Balkans—demonstrate how short films have the ability to distil complex feelings of hope, loss, and uncertainty into impactful narratives that resonate with wider audiences. This focus on the stories of a generation who figuratively (and in some cases literally) lost everything that once constituted their identity was a recurring theme of this year’s program, something best encapsulated by Bojan Stojčić’s ‘Hope Hotel Phantom’, a short documentary that explores the legacy of the Dayton Peace Accords.

Signed in 1995 at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, USA, the Dayton Peace Accords signalled the end of the Bosnian War and led to the creation of a new Bosnia and Herzegovina that consisted of two entities: a Croat-Muslim federation and Republika Srpska, governed by Bosnian Serbs. The agreement was widely heralded as a triumph of diplomacy over chaos, but over time, it became clear that the segregated political system it engineered had entrenched, rather than overcome, ethnic divisions. In recent years, the Dayton Peace Accords have become associated less with peace than with dysfunction, particularly for refugees like Stojčić who do not identify as one of these three constituent peoples (Bosniacs, Croats, or Serbs) and feel discriminated against in a country which no longer recognises them as citizens.

— ‘Facing Darkness’ (Jean Gabriel Périot, 2023)

Twenty-seven years after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, Stojčić decided to book a room in the Hope Hotel, where rival factions in the Bosnian War stayed during the negotiations. On his arrival at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the-then US Secretary of State Warren Christopher said,“I hope that someday Dayton, Ohio, will be remembered as the place where the killing was finally brought to a halt.” A midsize American town, perhaps best known as the birthplace of the Wright brothers, there’s nothing particularly distinctive about Dayton; certainly nothing that would rival the allure of the more iconic tourist attractions that the United States has to offer. In fact, the town feels deserted as Stojčić undertakes the short twenty-minute drive from the airport to the Hope Hotel, his journey broken up with archival news footage of the negotiations as Naked Eyes’ 1983 cover of ‘(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me’ plays on the radio. Stojčić often uses dry humour in his work to highlight the absurdity of the situation he, and others like him, have found themselves in, and it’s hard not to imagine the director grinning to himself behind the wheel as Pete Byrne sings, “I was born to love you, and I will never be free. You'll always be a part of me.”

A combination of things pregnant and poised, yet seemingly frozen in time, we observe Stojčić as he wanders around the eerily empty corridors and vacant conference rooms that were once occupied by the people who would shape his future. Haunted not by ghosts but of futures lost, we observe Stojčić as if he were caught in some form of purgatory: running to nowhere on a treadmill in a deserted gym, watching Rambo 3 in his hotel room, or sitting alone at the bar, nursing a beer as a baseball game plays in the background. Meanwhile, quotes about the logistics involved in organising such a monumental event from Dave Myers, the then president of the hotel’s parent company, are read out by an AI-generated voice which adds an odd sense of detachment to an already unnerving atmosphere. Suspended in this liminal space, which once held the promise of a brighter future, Stojčić not only depicts himself as an isolated figure trapped in an increasingly homogeneous world but as a tangible embodiment of those who were written out of Bosnian society by the Dayton Peace Accords.

Sara Jurinčić’s ‘Valerija’ [top image]—winner of the Heart of Sarajevo award for Best Short Documentary—was another film that instigated a playful dialogue between the past and the present. Dedicated to her grandmother, who taught her “how to be brave,” and narrated using the poetry of Olja Savičević Ivančević (a self-proclaimed representative of Croatia’s new ‘lost generation’ of writers), Jurinčić takes her audience on a pilgrimage to the Croatian island where her grandmother is buried. In a world seemingly devoid of men, an ancient tradition on the isle allows women to choose the image that will represent them on their headstones. Jurinčić’s film artfully explores the cognitive dissonance from honouring the past by perpetuating traditional gender norms, combining ancestral history with cultural traditions.

At once tactile and elusive, the film opens with a series of close-ups of old photographs in which the eyes of deceased women have been cut out and removed for us to look through. Loaded with symbolic meaning, these images are accompanied by a reading of Savičević’s poem ‘Vijek’, in which animal representations of the author’s mother and grandmother return home to eat her fear. On the ferry to the island, we only manage to see glimpses of Jurinčić and her mother. Shot through a series of disorienting angles and fragmented perspectives, the film lets us see either the backs of their heads as they stare out to sea or the shadows they cast against the ship’s hull. Female artists have often turned to self-portraiture to subvert the male gaze, and Jurinčić’s refusal to show her own face until she reaches the island takes on greater meaning as the film progresses.

As the result of several years of research into her ancestry and the rituals handed down by the women in her family, Jurinčić’s film asks us to lean in and listen to what these silent portraits might have to say. In the graveyard, an animated sequence progresses through multiple monochrome portraits of the women buried there; their unblinking eyes gaze hypnotically at the camera as a millipede slowly crawls across a headstone. It’s a chilling reminder of the ephemeral nature of life and the gradual erosion of memories. Following this sequence, we observe Jurinčić and her mother as they tend to Valerija’s grave. They remove the dead flowers and sweep away the dried leaves and petals that have fallen onto the ground before scraping the melted wax off the gravestone deposited by candles that have long burned out. Then, using water collected from the nearby chapel, they scrub the grave and polish the gilded letters that depict her grandmother’s name and the dates she was born and died. These scenes are interspersed with images of other domestic tasks, such as the shelling of peas, picking figs, and preparing nuts. These actions could be seen as a loving act of communion between three generations of women or an example of how cultural traditions such as these only act to perpetuate traditional gender roles, with Jurinčić situating the viewer between these polarising beliefs to prompt a deeper examination into the complicated interplay between tradition and personal agency.

Highlighting the potential for cultural traditions to coexist with the aspirations of a changing world, the film ends with a remarkable sequence in which images of these portraits are projected onto Jurinčić’’s body. The likeness of these deceased women appear across the director’s arms and hair, as if they were seeping through the pores of her skin, whilst opera singer Dunja Vejzović performs a haunting rendition of the traditional island folk song “Ovo je naše najbolje” (This is Our Best). The sequence concludes with Jurinčić placing her hands over her face, blocking out her features and allowing the frozen visage of the deceased to assume full control of her body. Blurring the boundaries between the living and the dead, it's an eerie yet oddly comforting moment that recalls the famous mirror scene in Ingmar Bergman's ‘Persona’ (1969), with Jurinčić sacrificing her identity to better commune with her ancestors.

— ‘Fran and Verka; Or a Usual day in an Abandoned Village’ (Sovran Nrecaj, 2023)

In Kosovo, the term 'Lost Generation' has taken on a more literal meaning, as centuries of national struggles have resulted in widespread depopulation and a haunting landscape littered with ghost villages. Throughout the Yugoslav Wars, huge numbers of Albanian Kosovans were ousted from their homes by Slobodan Milosevic's brutal ethnic cleansing and the violence that flared up in 1998 when the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) came out in open rebellion against Serbian rule. However, it wasn’t just Albanian Kosovans who abandoned their homes, and ethnic Serbs also fled the region. Some left to seek better living standards after the transition to a free market economy resulted in the closure of multiple state-owned factories, while the fear of revenge attacks drove others away.

Situated in the south-east corner of Kosovo, not far from the Serbian and North Macedonian borders, Vërnakolla is an example of one of these ghost villages: an enclave of unfinished and abandoned homes whose empty streets provide the backdrop for Sovran Nrecaj’s ‘Fran and Verka; Or a Usual day in an Abandoned Village’. A calm and composed documentary about the last inhabitants of a dying community, Nrecaj first came across Fran and Verka while working on a project that sought to record “micro-histories” from Kosovo. He instantly felt compelled to tell their story, seeing in their struggle an example of the unbreakable bonds that tie us to the places we call home. Inspired by the films of Yugoslavian director Vlatko Gilic, whose short films like ‘In Continuo’ (1971) and ‘A Day More’ (1972) transformed images of ordinary life into allegorical portraits of human suffering, Nrecaj’s film forgoes any form of explanation, except for a brief title card that informs us that Vërnakollë was once a lively village where children played in the street and weddings lasted a week.

An important record of a disappearing community, softly and beautifully Nrecaj charts the course of an average day in Fran and Verka’s life. Nrecaj’s camera often focuses on the couple’s gnarled hands and wizened faces to divulge the contours of their lives and the extent to which this lifestyle has taken its toll on them. We observe the pair as they collect water from a nearby spring, saw branches to fuel the kitchen stove, and transport large bales of hay to feed their donkey. There’s a weariness to these proceedings and a volume to what’s not being said; the only sounds we hear are the meow of the feral cats that roam the couple’s yard and the sound of Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’ as it plays on the radio before it’s interrupted by a news report about the conflict in Ukraine.

Elsewhere, the religious trinkets that adorn the couple’s home suggest the belief they still carry in their hearts, but just like the faded visage of the Virgin Mary that hangs from their wall, it’s a hope that dwindles with every passing day. In one particularly poignant scene, we observe Verka as she leads her donkey to a large bucket of water, only for it to refuse to drink. It’s hard not to equate the donkey’s reluctance to quench its thirst as a metaphor for many's skepticism about returning to villages like Vërnakollë. Attempts have been made to rectify this issue. In 2005, the Ministry of Communities and Returns was established to address the country’s depopulation crisis by enticing people back to villages like this. However, like similar initiatives designed to improve the conditions in Kosovo, a lack of investment has severely hampered the project.

Whenever Nrecaj’s camera leaves the confines of Fran and Verka’s home, we’re presented with a wild and beautiful landscape that hums with a sense of absence and the finiteness of humankind. Framed by mountains and valleys where locals once scratched out a living, there’s no denying the sweep and grandeur of this landscape. Nrecaj’s camera often pauses patiently to absorb it, but it’s impossible to ignore the collapsed roofs and windowless facades of the homes that have been left vacant for generations. Reminiscent of the haunted spaces of Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ (1979), the village seems to exist simultaneously in the past and the immediate aftermath of devastation. This sense of loss is perhaps most acutely felt towards the end of the film, where we enter the village’s dilapidated church, a space where the community would once have met to pray and share stories. The sound of the wind, as it echoes through the empty nave, is suddenly disrupted by the non-diegetic sound of an old pipe organ playing J.S Bach’s Choral prelude, ‘I call to thee, Lord Jesus Christ’. Traditionally an introduction to the hymn about to be sung by the congregation, the silence that follows is heartbreaking. The scars on the landscape will eventually heal, and the memory of gunfire and bombing will pass, but the absence of human voices in this church feels irreparable.

A heartwarming depiction of a community on the brink of extinction, ‘Fran and Verka’ is rewarding partly because of its starkly beautiful imagery and compassion. The nagging sense that once this generation passes away, the village will too, is briefly forgotten the moment Fran returns home and is greeted by a laughing Verka. She has prepared a meal of roasted chicken, which the couple enjoy next to an improvised Christmas tree. It’s a rare moment of joy in the couple’s life, but one that provides them with a much-needed respite from their fight against oblivion.

Although these films differ in their approach, they’re unified by a desire to break free from the apathy commonly associated with lost generations and construct a new post-conflict identity that isn’t defined by the violence of the past.

[1] The break up of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began in 1991 when Slovenia declared independence. It was hastened by the start of the Yugoslav Wars, and formally collapsed on 27 April 1992 when the last two remaining republics (SR Serbia and SR Montenegro) proclaimed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.