The language of flowers

Sesic-&-Bozilova-kontrastRada Sesic & Martichka Bozhilova

RS: When I was asked by Vibeke to participate in this interesting talking platform of DOX, I thought, the best partner to discuss the regional documentary scene would be you Martichka, not only because we work together now at the Docu Rough Cut Boutique at Sarajevo Film Festival and at the Balkan Documentary Centre’s project – Discoveries but also because you started as a documentary producer from zero and proved that to be a producer devoted to only creative docs projects is possible, even on the Balkans. Your vision showed us that it does make sense even in the countries like our, where broadcasters don’t support or show many (or any) creative documentaries, to insist on becoming a creative producer. There is also one more bright example, a Croatian production – Factum, headed by the film director Nenad Puhovski that is also very successfully pioneering in the documentary production in our region. In Romania, there are other fantastic committed directors/producers who are devoted for a long time already to only documentary films – Alexandru Solomon and Florin Iepan. All of you have paved the path to other documentary companies that appeared in the last decade in the region showing that such a challenge is possible to sustain even in the postwar and transitional economies.

MB: Yes, when we started only a handful of production companies from the region were active and present on the international market. In this difficult process we became certain that a networking and support institution is needed in order for the new generation of Balkan documentary filmmakers to be able to collaborate internationally and get out on the market. Our region became internationally known at the time for some of the finest films – The Great Communist Bank Robbery By Alexandru Solomon (Romania), Children of the Decree by Florin Iepan (Romania) and Georgi and the Butterflies by Andrey Paounov (Bulgaria). These films set the beginning of a new way of treating and rethinking reality and convincingly demonstrated high cinematographic level, observational style, sense of humour, as well as braveness in the author’s point of view.

RS: Maybe it is good to recall the time before, especially for DOX’s younger audience. They might not know that in all socialist countries, we had only one single producer – the State. It was commissioning, making, censoring and screening all films, including documentaries. After the changes, there was a huge gap and confusion – what does it mean to be an independent producer, especially without money? So, the transition from the previous regime of socialism, then having this long difficult period, and the huge crisis in all aspects left a mark on the film scene as well. That was a dramatic period also, I mean especially for ex Yugoslavian new states, not to mention a horrible war and all the problems that came out from it. One jumps from one to another political system and you can’t change your way of thinking overnight, and you can’t understand another way of organizing things in a film field also, in the cinema field. So I think that this region really needs special support. At the time, many of these fine films were produced with the help of Jan Vrijman Fund of IDFA, but I was amazed that once the countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary became a part of the European Union, there was no special program that would be filling a gap as something in-between, to educate people and give them special help to reach the production level of the rest of Europe. Not to mention the countries that are outside the EU and have fewer and fewer places to go and apply for production.

Our problem is the fact that there are no cinemas, the cinemas have been destroyed

MB: Exactly,The Balkan Documentary Centre started out of this thinking. It was created as a cross-border initiative five years ago in Sofia, Bulgaria. The main point behind its establisment was to unify filmmakers in the region and open them up to the international market. The key impact of the main training program of the Balkan Documentary Centre called ‘BDC Discoveries’ is through increasing the level of professionalism to bring Balkan documentary projects to a new standard of international co-productions and success on the European market. The long-term impact of ‘BDC Discoveries’ is an increased awareness of critical issues provoked through quality documentary projects. Another gain is the emerging of the awareness of how strong projects can be created on a regional level, by demonstrating the similarities of local issues and ways of tackling them together.

RS: My motivation to suggest the Docu Rough Cut Boutique at The Sarajevo Festival was coming out from the same need. I watch some hundred films from the region every year for our documentary competition and I see – there are so many talented filmmakers, so many wonderful, relevant stories, amazing characters, such a passion and devotion, yet, these films don’t travel abroad often. Why is that? What is missing? Both of us actually thought at the same time that some platform that would give a hand to those who are almost reaching the goal, is a necessary one. And I think by having these three editions of Docu Rough Cut Boutique so far, we proved that things are going in the right direction, and each year we have at least one or two successful projects, successful films later on. Filmmakers also feel that they are entering the professional world of Europe by understanding how to produce a film, how to promote a film later on, and how to get in touch with the right consultants for a specific story or structure and so on. So, things are moving but they are moving so slowly and I don’t know…

MB: Yeah, it is a slow process, that is why these programs like Docu Rough Cut Boutique have to go on and improve every year, which we are trying to do. But other programs also have to be developed in the region and I hope that is the future. I would also like to mention the films from the previous two years that were part of the Rough Cut Boutique and were extremely successful; Family Meals by Dana Budisavljevic, a film that hit the box office in Croatia and was also extremely successful at many festivals…

RS: It is also relevant what this film brings up, especially in our region. The filmmaker is very brave to speak about the freedom of sexual orientation and to open herself up. It’s a remarkable film. But the film really needed a special treatment. And I feel that participating in the Documentary Rough Cut Boutique made a difference for this particular project.

MB: Yeah, and another example from the second year of the Documentary Rough Cut Boutique is Sofia’s Last Ambulance. It is a film that really explores new ways of the cinematic language. It is a real artistic achievement also pointing out a very serious and important social topic: public social care…

RS: And also, Ilian Metev, the director of Sofia’s Last Ambulance and the producer Siniša Juricic, became through this film known abroad. Okay, you were the first producer, I think, who was known for really being devoted to the creative and sophisticated documentary projects, and often people would say ‘Okay, so Martichka is producing this film’ – so we can trust and give them support. It was a kind of brand already. So now Siniša Juricic, is becoming the kind of producer who is also asked to produce films outside this region. People from other countries are now approaching him. So now is the opening time for our region, something really new and good is developing in this region, and something very promising.

MB: Yes, I completely agree with you. Because of the turbulence and complications in the region the profession of producer was very often neglected or misunderstood. But because of the efforts and good examples, and many of them throughout the years, now I can say that in nearly every Balkan country there are at least one or two good producers with great track records of documentary films. And you can easily co-produce on an international level; it is still not sufficient, but at least you can be sure that there is a certain professional level and you can expect a high quality from reliable producers in the region.

RS: Yeah, and also understanding that you can’t be making documentaries while you are just waiting to make a fiction film. I mean if you make documentaries you also have to be very devoted and patient and foresee that it is a long process. So I think that is the biggest misunderstanding that some people think – not only producers but also directors – ‘Okay, you are my friend, I will produce this film for you, and you will have five-six days of shooting, and we will make a documentary, it is fast and it doesn’t cost much money, we will only need a small crew, no problem, you just follow your main hero and then things will happen’. And then the film is there and it seems interesting but the festivals don’t want the film, they reject it. And then of course the frustration is building up – you can’t show your film abroad, outside the film’s country, outside the region, and outside of a specific audience.

MB: That’s why our platform Documentary Rough Cut Boutique, can be seen as the missing links, providing the education in working for the international market, and assisting young filmmakers in providing start-up resources and guidance. The activities of this kind have become a trampoline strengthening the new wave of young documentary makers in the Balkans, promoting authors with a fresh and bold approach.

They are like impressive miniatures that really hit you when you are in an audience

RS: These good upcoming films really deserve our commitment. And I would also like to express my respect for the initiative of the Restart that is devoted also to screening documentaries, not only making although they also produce. Some time ago, they also started Docu Kino and distribution of creative documentaries. This is the first company, in the whole Balkan region or at least on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, to realize that documentaries can be seen as a market product that can bring income. They try to sustain their profession, and show documentaries in different countries, try to promote really good films. It is pioneering work, but it is there, and what is nice is that these companies are now connecting with each other. Croatian Restart distribution collaborates with MakeDok from Macedonia, with Kosovo Doku Prizren that is an amazingly exciting festival and then you have Operation Kino from Bosnia and Herzegovina that is connecting with Romania and Bulgaria. This is initiative of the Sarajevo Film Festival and is done with the Transylvania Film Festival, and with the Sofia Film Festival. So they are screening fiction films in small, small places but there are also examples of screening documentaries in the region in many towns, cities. Because our problem is also the fact that there are no cinemas, the cinemas are destroyed. We have countries, like in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the whole generation during and immediately after the war, grew up without cinema experience.

MB: Yeah, in Bulgaria it is also a very bad situation, like sixty-something screens altogether. In comparison to the past… I remember there were documentary cinemas during the previous communist regime and there was an educated audience and of course a documentary film tradition, which I don’t know if we will have time to mention but the documentary film tradition in the region doesn’t start from the democratic changes or after the Yugoslav War. We have very good examples of strong cinematic documentaries that were really breaking some stereotypes and some political boundaries, also during communism at the end of the 70s and the 80s. But now we have to start from scratch and we have to educate a brand new audience, and it is very challenging, especially in a situation in which the entire new generation doesn’t know what ‘cinema of flowers’ means. So it is very challenging, but at the same time, you mentioned some of the festival’s experiences… I want to say that there are great specialized documentary film festivals in the region that are run by very devoted, very good professionals that are dedicated to documentary films. I want to mention next to DokuFest in Prizren, Zagreb Dox and everything that Factum is doing in Croatia, also in Belgrade there are lot of festivals, documentary film festivals, which is amazing for one and the same city and all of them are very well attended. Of course the leader is Sarajevo International Film Festival because it is a premier status festival, and the competition that you are programming, Rada, is really high level and always very prestigious and sometimes even better than the competition for fiction films.

RS: (Giggling.)

MB: And there are other examples of documentary film festivals. They work as a network and there is a close connection between them, which of course makes the local documentary scene stronger.

RS: I just want to touch on one point; you spoke about tradition, and this is actually a very frustrating fact that our young people don’t know that we have these fantastic documentaries from before, because we don’t have many cinemas, and cinemas in the region aren’t screening documentaries, so they don’t have a chance to see them. And it is such a pity because, probably some DOX readers, people from the older generation will remember that makers from this region were winning all these awards in Leipzig, Krakow, Oberhausen that were at the time extremely politically conscious and important and even at Berlinale we had films in the 60s and 70s and so on. And at that time, of course all the countries were communist countries so there was this state censorship of course, but filmmakers found this fantastic so-called ‘language of flowers’, talking very critically about the regime and certain comrades in the society. But they did it through this kind of language of flowers in a very indirect, often very satirical, humorous way, and the whole audience always knew what it was about, they recognized it and were laughing and so on, but nobody could really blame them, because they didn’t say anything directly. And today’s generation, they don’t know about those films. They feel as if they are inventing things. Which is interesting, but it is also a pity because they should sort of continue with this fantastic tradition. What is kind of nice, and still present in the region, is the production of short documentaries. Because, for example, in the world, short-form documentaries are dying out, the form; I mean you have the Polish Film School which is still nurturing this form of short documentaries, Wajda School and so on. But, for example IDFA started a few years ago competition just for short documentaries, and it was abandoned after some years, there were not enough strong short films coming from different parts of the world, it was unsustainable.
But we have strong shorts in Sarajevo all the time, and I am thinking about starting a competition just for shorts, because there are so many fantastic films up to half an hour. There are those kind of lucid, sharp, often observational without words, films, some very political like the film A day on the River Drina by Ines Tanovic, a Bosnian film, or Croatian Imported Crows by Goran Devic, Real Man’s Film by Nebojsa Slijepcevic, or The Verdict by Djuro Gavran, Croatian. They are multi-awarded films. They are all very brave, they are fantastic, they are like miniature gems, impressive miniatures that really hit you when you are in an audience. They are really telling you much more than two hours of talking about the same subject. So I think this is very special for this region and we have to be proud and we have to try to keep it and not to abandon it, because this form is difficult to sell. It is very, very difficult to sell… Maybe there is also a possibility to have a platform for shorts that would start from this region, screen and produce also. So maybe that is something to think about for the future.

MB: Yes, of course. A lot of things related to documentaries in the region have to be improved, and definitely we have to fight for our place and space here, because it is a difficult situation to live in anyway. So there is a double responsibility for us as devoted documentarians not only to reflect on life in our films, but also to do our best in order to institutionalize and help documentary films happen in reality and to have their own place. I want to mention something we are doing at the moment, it is a pilot initiative; this is the so-called SEED project, The South Eastern Documentaries Project. It was launched for the first time in Leipzig last October. It is a promotional initiative from our countries, supported by local film funds that are aiming to promote and present documentary films in development in post-production, and also already-made documentary films in front of the international documentary film industry. And now we have our own catalogue and also promotional events in order to raise awareness, and to help the promotion of the films and of course mobilize the documentary film environment, and to get more attention on our filmmakers and our part of the world.

RS: That is absolutely fantastic, and I think Dok Leipzig is also preparing for next year’s festival focus on Balkan documentaries. So I think things are kind of moving forward, and I believe that having this SEED initiative, initiated by Oliver Sertic from Zagreb, is one way to raise awareness in Western Europe and the rest of the world about production here and at the same time I think we have to put special efforts into bringing documentaries of good quality to our own people in the region. Because documentaries are made to be seen and we just have to find a way, by connecting with one another, to make them travel, be seen. Because I do believe in the power of documentaries. Because I really believe that documentaries can make a difference, of course not directly but… You know, one can say: documentaries cannot change society but they have an impact on the audience. The audience is a society. They are people who think about how to develop society, how to vote next time etc. So I think it is very important to have documentaries screened in the region and I think the SEED initiative should go in two directions, one platform for abroad and one platform for the region to connect all these fantastic festivals and all these passionate professionals, and all these really devoted people somehow together and create a common interest, find a common point and see that it is in our own interests to act as one. I see that documentaries in this region have a special position, they are much more than a matter of cinematic expression, but an expression of life, and of a political situation and a social situation here. I think we also have a kind of special duty here.

MB: Mmmm.

RS: When you think about memories, you know like Patricio Guzman said: ‘Society without documentaries is like a family without a family album’. We have to make good documentaries and also important documentaries about several things. And screen them, because If they are made, but not screened, what is the point? So I think we have to sort of struggle to find, be very inventive in finding, a way to screen them.

MB. Today, we witness the positive results of a number of new companies, founded specifically for the production of documentary films, also in countries with low-production possibilities such as Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo, or Turkey. We witness more and more brave new filmmakers and innovative collaborations between the Balkans and the rest of the world.

RS: At the end, I just want to point out one thing that makes me very proud of belonging to this documentary scene – unlike in the Western part of the world, our makers don’t travel to other countries, let alone continents to looks for stories. They are concerned about their own people, they want to tell their stories, and I find that very remarkable. _

Directed by Dana Budisavljevic.
Croatia, 2012. 50 mins.

Directed by Ilian Metev.
Croatia, Bulgaria, Germany, 2012. 75 mins.

Directed by Ines Tanovic.
Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2011. 17 mins.

Directed by Goran Devic.
Croatia, 2004. 22 mins.

Directed by Duro Gavran.
Croatia, 2013. 11 mins.

Directed by Konstantinos Georgousis.
England, 2012. 36 mins.

Directed by Alexandru Solomon.
Romania, 2004. 75 mins.

Directed by Florin Iepan.
Germany, Romania, 2004. 52 mins.

Directed by Andrey Paounov.
Bulgaria, 2004. 60 mins.

Directed by Nebojša Slijepcevic.
Croatia, 2012. 12 mins.


Rada Sesic is filmmaker, lecturer, festival programmer and curator. Born in former Yugoslavia, based in The Netherlands, heads the documentary competition at the largest South East European festival SFF in Sarajevo. Collaborates with two biggest festivals in The Netherlands; IDFA- where she is on the viewing committee and IFFR Rotterdam, where she is program advisor for the South Asian cinema and selector for the Hubert Bals Fund. Was employed at the Master of Film at the NFTA Amsterdam. Curated independently several theme programs and retrospectives. As a director made documentaries and dance films, screened at major festivals and archived by MoMA. Specialized in South Asian cinema and cinema of the Balkans.

Martichka Bozhilova, producer, AGITPROP since 1999. She has degrees in law, art management and theology, and graduated from the European program for producers, EURODOC 2005. Her films have represented contemporary Bulgarian cinema at the top film festivals in the world: Cannes, Berlinale, Sundance, Toronto, Pusan, IDFA and others. In 2006 she received the International Trailblazer Award, launched by Robert Redford and the Sundance Channel at MIPDOC in Cannes for creativity, innovation, originality and breakthrough in documentary cinema. Director of Balkan Documentary Centre (BDC) which supports documentary filmmakers from the Balkans. Lecturer at various European workshops and events in the field of documentary cinema. Ambassador of the European Documentary Network (EDN) to Bulgaria. In 2012 Martichka was ranked 49th in the prestigious selection ‘100 Most Influential Women’ in the Bulgarian newspaper ‘Capital’ and among the top seven most influential Bulgarian visionaries in the creative sector, according to the business magazine Forbes.

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