It was not the usual kind of world premiere.
Serbian soldiers were posted across a line less than 100 yards away.
Only one small movie house was available in this war-zone village.
A studio projector had to be shipped in from Zagreb.
For security reasons, high government officials demurred.
But, 100 people dared to come to the world premiere of Croatian director Branko Schmidt’s movie “Vukovar--the Way Home,” one of a record 45 films submitted for consideration in the foreign-language category of this year’s Academy Awards. The five finalists will be announced Tuesday.
Never before have the 400 motion picture academy members eligible to judge films in the often embattled foreign-language category been so long in the dark as screenings stretched over the past three months.
While the former Yugoslavia once would send a single entry, this year five were submitted from Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, which like the Croatian entry has a movie titled “Vukovar,” a wartime story about the marriage of a Serb man and a Croat woman.
Two films came this year from the former Czechoslovakia, the Czech and Slovak republics. And two from the former U.S.S.R., Belarus and Russia.
“Clearly with the rise of new republics, there has been an escalation in national entries,” says Bruce Davis, the academy’s executive director, noting that 35 nations submitted films last year and 30 the year before.
“A few years ago, some new break-away republics tried to enter films but since they were still not recognized by the United Nations they were not eligible. They have to be recognized countries because the academy doesn’t make foreign policy. The works are nominated by resident committees of filmmakers without, we hope, government interference. Considering the conditions under which many of these films were made, it’s surprising that so many are here this year.”
So, why so many?
Some are entered in the hope of winning the international acclaim that comes with an Academy Award.
Others are nominated with the idea of possibly finding a distributor beyond their national borders, especially in the often lucrative United States market.
And some films are made and entered in order to spread the word about a cause, an issue or a problem such as a continuing, divisive war.
The 38-year-old Schmidt, a Croatian native who visited Los Angeles earlier this month, in many ways exemplifies all of those motivations.
He strongly believes that a nomination could bring attention to the 400,000 war refugees in Croatia, most particularly the 30,000 who fled the strategic Danube River city of Vukovar three years ago during and after the Serb siege. At the same time, he believes a nomination “might help my next project,” an idea he was able to present in a meeting with one studio official while also meeting with Croatian community members in Southern California to discuss his work.
“Vukovar the city,” he says, “is like our Stalingrad, a legend for our independence, surrounded by the Serbs for 100 days of fighting. The city fell Nov. 18 of 1991.”
During that war, Schmidt shot numerous documentaries for Croatian television. “It was very dangerous,” he said. “I don’t carry a weapon. I carry a camera.”
The opening sequences to his “Vukovar--The Way Home” use black-and-white footage of that city’s battle, its destroyed buildings and its uprooted civilians.
“I thought about making a film about Vukovar, but how can I make a film without Vukovar? Then I saw that many refugees had been placed in train cars on railroad sidings. These were their homes, their schools. Now there are five such stationary trains where the refugees live. They can go nowhere, so I thought there is my metaphor for Vukovar--a people who can go nowhere.
“If this film can make their suffering one day less, then I make a good job,” he said.
The film is about one family displaced from Vukovar, living with other refugees in train cars at an idled siding. The father, a former railroad engineer injured at the battle for Vukovar, dreams of returning--a dream he eventually passes to his son as he teaches him how to operate the engine.
To make his project, Schmidt was able to pool financing from Croatia’s Ministry of Culture and its state-run TV company while working with one of the country’s established film companies, Jadran.
The financing had an interesting twist as a co-production for TV and theaters. Schmidt, working with writer Pavao Pavlicic, produced four one-hour episodes for TV while taking the last two hours for his theatrical film that was shown in Croatian cinemas prior to the TV broadcasts.
The total cost of the project was $650,000, with about $500,000 of that going toward the feature. “It is cheap to make a film in Croatia,” Schmidt said.
In filming “Vukovar,” Schmidt hired established Croatian actors while enlisting refugees as extras. “I take them for the movie because if they work they feel better. They have a reason to live,” he said. “Many times we had to stop the shooting because some of the extras would start crying, telling me, ‘Yes, it was just like this.’
“Now they are back in their camps and I hope this film will help them find their homes again. While the war still goes on, I believe my film was made without hate. My parents were refugees from near Vukovar and my father died a refugee and for that reason the film is dedicated to him.”
What are his chances of getting an academy nomination? Schmidt, who has produced two previous feature films in Croatia, is realistic. “The judges decide that,” he said.
The nomination process in the foreign-language film category is long and challenging. Academy members eligible to nominate must see 80% of the films in their division. The screenings are in two flights. Each member is required to check in and out of the screenings and is given an evaluation sheet for each movie. About 300 of the 800 actually complete the required 80% of screenings.
Foreign entries are nominated by committees of film artists in each country. To qualify as a feature film the movie must run more than 40 minutes.
This year’s process has already kicked up some controversy with the academy’s executive committee excluding the Swiss entry, “Red,” because “key creative artists involved” were not from the submitting nation, Switzerland.
China failed to enter the commercially successful “To Live” this year in the foreign-language category, despite the film being eligible in 17 other categories, according to the academy’s Davis.
“If China didn’t want to enter, there’s nothing we can do. We rely on each country to pick and send. We can’t subpoena films because we don’t want to encroach into political areas.”
Politics, however, may be another reason for the multiple entries this year from the former Yugoslavia, where before the war the six republics all had active filmmaking communities.
“Each filmmaker,” Schmidt said, “thinks he has a good film, of course. But there are also political reasons for these films. We each want to tell our truth, our true stories. For me that message is never more war in this area. Never more ethnic cleansing, never more refugees.”