Putting a 'Flame' to Serbia's Soul

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A provocative movie that challenges stereotypes about the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been playing to packed theaters across rump Yugoslavia, with audiences encountering disturbing scenes of Serb complicity that few in this country were willing to acknowledge during the war.

The Serbian film "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame" presents a poignant antiwar message in the story of a young Bosnian Serb soldier who becomes trapped with half a dozen other Serb fighters in an abandoned tunnel after a bloody binge of burning and looting in Muslim villages.

His best friend, a Muslim, is among those laying siege to the hideaway during an emotional 10-day standoff. The tale is woven around the tragic--yet somehow inevitable--unraveling of their innocent childhood bond that typifies multiethnic Bosnia before the 42-month war but that the film ridicules as fatefully flawed.

"Serbs have never seen this subject treated so boldly," said Branislava Andjelkovic, an art historian at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Belgrade. "The images do not necessarily come as a surprise, but they come right at the moment when everyone is questioning what was actually going on during the war."

In Serbia, which together with tiny Montenegro constitutes rump Yugoslavia, the movie has become the biggest hit in 20 years, attracting about 600,000 viewers despite some unenthusiastic reviews in the state-run media. Film critic Slobodan Arandjelovic, writing in the pro-government Politika Express, dismissed the movie as "naive and amateurish" and as intended to "exploit the topicality of war and pile up the money."

"Pretty Village, Pretty Flame"--the title was inspired by the World War I writings of French novelist Louis Ferdinand Celine--is also being shown this month at film festivals across Europe and the United States. It is scheduled to be shown twice at the American Film Institute Film Fest in Los Angeles today, at 2:10 and 7:10 p.m. at Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

The film's Belgrade director, 33-year-old Srdjan Dragojevic, has been in New York and Los Angeles shopping for an American distributor--a hard sell because of the film's unconventional and decidedly noncommercial nature. A spokesman for Cobra Film Department, Dragojevic's Belgrade film company, said a deal has been struck with the French firm UGC for distribution outside the United States, but no U.S. distributor has agreed to Cobra's demand to be paid up front and to guarantee wide American distribution.

"Some smaller distributors have approached us, but we are hoping the film does really well in the film festivals here and one of the larger distributors gets interested," said Cassian Elwes of the William Morris Agency, which is marketing the movie in the United States. "The movie is an indictment of war and killing, which is pretty amazing since it is coming from Serbia."

Even some of the film's biggest fans say they understand the reluctance of U.S. distributors to gamble on the film. The story is not always an easy read for those unfamiliar with the historic and political backdrop to the Bosnian war; and like many good war movies, it is forever jumping in place and time, skirting from moments of hilarity to anguish in a split second.

"I am very concerned about whether the film can work in America or anywhere else abroad," said Goran Gocic, an independent Belgrade film critic who praises the film as "an exceptional triumph" of Balkan filmmaking. "It is a local movie above everything else, and for that reason it does very well with local audiences."

Dragojevic, the director, has called the film a "social phenomenon" that provides a form of psychotherapy and catharsis for its Serbian audiences, who have received mostly sanitized versions of events in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina from the official news media.

Actor and producer Dragan Bjelogrlic, who plays the central character of Milan, described the production as "brave" for taking on conventional wisdom among Serbs, who are not accustomed to unflattering self-portraits, especially by their own filmmakers.

"In Serbian politics and what you see in our media, it appears as if the war never happened," said Bjelogrlic, 33. "This movie for the first time shows that there was a lot to this war--that it really was--and that it has left scars on all of us."

Based on a true story reported in 1992 by a Belgrade journalist, the $2-million production was filmed last year, in both Serbia and Republika Srpska--the Serb-held territory in Bosnia-Herzegovina--before the Dayton, Ohio, meeting that led to a U.S.-brokered peace agreement for Bosnia-Herzegovina. After initial enthusiasm about the film from Bosnian Serb authorities, support for the production abruptly ended when some top officials found the scenes of burning and looting decidedly anti-Serb.

Authorities in the Bosnian Serb town of Visegrad allowed the film crews to remain, nonetheless. Bjelogrlic said officials saw the production as a boost for the town--which was also the scene of Nobel laureate Ivo Andric's book "The Bridge Over the Drina"--while local Bosnian Serb soldiers said it reflected reality.

"We had an interesting encounter, where a doctor, who was a refugee from Sarajevo, came to the shooting and said, 'How can you film scenes of Serbs burning villages?' " Bjelogrlic said. "We turned to some boys in uniform who were standing nearby and asked, 'Were you burning villages?' They said, 'Yes.' And we said, 'Why shouldn't we shoot the same, then?' And they said, 'You should. Shoot.' "

Like most everything about the film, it is simplistic to conclude the production is anti-Serb because it includes the sensational burning scenes. While they clearly break taboos in Serbia, the scenes do not constitute a searing indictment of Serb players in the war. Indeed, despite the burning and looting, the soldiers who become trapped in the tunnel--among them a junkie, a thief, a professor and a Communist partisan-- quickly gain the audience's sympathy, as their private stories show their ordinariness and inability to control their own destinies.

The real villain in the film is made clear in a pair of scenes that frame the action. The movie opens with a 1971 newsreel of Communist-era authorities opening the tunnel, named the "Brotherhood and Unity Tunnel," on a road in Bosnia. It ends with a news clip from 1999, when the war-damaged tunnel--renamed "The Tunnel of Peace"--is reopened by European and United Nations officials.

In flashbacks throughout the film, Milan and Halil, the childhood friends, play near the tunnel but never go inside, saying they fear an ogre that lurks in its shadows. It is that ogre--described by Bjelogrlic as a Bosnia "built upon false foundations" of unity--that the filmmakers warn could be unleashed again.

"It is a Serbian film made from a Serbian point of view, but on the other hand it shows that everyone in the war went through the same vicious circle that we have come to know in the Balkans," said Gocic, the film critic. "History repeats itself from time to time, and individuals seem to have no choice. The evil heritage of the ogre in the tunnel lies inside everyone who lives in Bosnia."

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