MY SUMMER VACATION IN SERBIA
This article was originally serialized in Serbian national newspaper DANAS.
"The problem with Serbia," my friend Danilo told me, smiling over his beer, "is that here you know everything, but you can do nothing." I couldn't argue with him--six weeks before the fall of Milosevic, Danilo had only this to go on: he made short films, he read Noam Chomsky, he knew the names of obscure American comic-book writers, and last year his grade-school crush had her head blown off by a NATO bomb.
I was sitting in the courtyard of a derelict dormitory in the city of Subotica, the sole American guest of the Yugoslav Cheapo Film Festival, shortly before the fall of the last European communist government. As envoy of American culture, I'd taken it upon myself to wear a cowboy hat. It was five thirty in the morning and the moon was dropping. Danilo's brother, who plays bass in Danilo's melodic punk band, walked by and waved. Several girls sitting on the grass stared at him longingly. "He is magnet," Danilo said. "Luckily, he does not care so much."
For Danilo, puberty was just beginning when Yugoslavia began to fall to pieces. He watched Slovenians decide they didn't need Yugoslavia. Soon Croatians took the opportunity to become his arch-enemies. And Serbs were gripped, with the help of their media and their politicians, by a patriotic, flag-waving fever that presaged a horrific war. By the time he'd finished high school the world despised his people for the shelling of Sarajevo--an atrocity he hadn't witnessed, and without internet or international news in the dark days of the early 1990's, could hardly yet believe. Now finishing university, he accepted the world's hatred, he accepted NATO's bombs, as normal life. Once you are used to insanity, he told me, you can't imagine what you would do without it. His band's first CD, his lifelong dream come true, was released the day the bombings started, and the boxes never left the factory. He thought it was funny. With the internet, CNN, and his own country's "Pink! TV", he at last had access to enough lies on all sides to keep him amused. His passport gave him visa-free escape, if he could only afford it, to China and Cuba. Just about anywhere else on the planet was enemy territory. So he told me a joke. "In Yugoslavia, our past is a tragedy. Our present is a disaster. But thank God, we have no future."
* * *
In February of 1999, while still in film school, I received an email from a filmmaker in Yugoslavia. He introduced himself as Aleksandar Gubas and told me he'd read in the online magazine FilmThreat about my sixty-second movie "Culture," and wanted to see it. Having recently and very briefly been a publicity whore at Sundance, where "Culture" had premiered, I was intrigued by this request which didn't come from a pipsqueak agent in Los Angeles who would stop returning my calls any minute now. As far as Yugoslavia went, I loved Emir Kusturica's film "Underground," and gypsy trumpet music, and knew from NPR that Serbs were the villains of the war. I dropped a video of my short films at the post office. A week later I received an ecstatic email: Aleksandar and his mates adored "Culture" and wanted it to open their fledgling "Lo-Fi Video Festival" in Belgrade. I gave them my blessing.
Two days before the festival was due to begin, NATO began dropping bombs on Yugoslavia to support its humanitary mission in Kosovo. My penpal went underground. I received an email from a phantom address, obviously in Aleksandar's voice, labeled "War Diary Part 1" and signed "A.G."--the same initials as mine. He was writing to hundreds of faceless acquaintances around the world. He wrote about some things I knew about, like making films on no budget, or the way city girls look in springtime, and some things I didn't, like the way a missile pauses to think outside your window, hissing, before rerouting itself and slamming into a building down the street. The youth center which had been Low-Fi's lifeblood had been hijacked by the government. Inspired by the spartan and somewhat facetious rules by which I'd made "Culture"--one shot, one take, one minute--Aleksandar and his comrades produced a film during an air raid, called "No Justification". I was flattered; it went to my head. War seemed romantic.
Over the weeks, Aleksandar scrambled from computer to computer, telling his penpals about things that weren't on CNN: bombings make young people practice their cooking during the day; local television plays bootlegs of "Wag the Dog"; the Belgrade sun is the most beautiful sun in the world, thanks to oil-plant explosions; at night, anti-aircraft fireworks make all sex great sex. This was the first war in history where an average person could communicate so eloquently and so instantly with his enemies.
By summertime, Aleksandar had fled to Croatia in despair. His filmmaking collective, a tenuous web of friends, cameras and computers which he'd labored to bring together, had been scattered by bombs, fear, and police. Aleksandar's friend Milos Kukuric wrote to me: "Someday, maybe an American could come to our little country. But not now. It is terrible." And then he quoted a line from my film "Frog Crossing", which had been on the same videotape as "Culture" and had become the ironic mantra for his group of friends: "I feel your pain, brother."
A year later, Milos wrote me that the Yugoslav Cheapo Film Festival in Subotica would show my films again if I came to Serbia. I managed to secure a visa from the Yugoslav Embassy in Canada (there were no Yugoslav diplomats in the U.S.). Milos wrote a letter of guarantee. I met a Serbian filmmaker in New York who, after asking me "why the hell would you want to go to Serbia?", warned me to be very, very careful--Serbs would be asking me about the bombings. Especially drunk Serbs. He warned me that no one in Yugoslavia believed they'd been bombed to save Kosovo Albanians. They might believe they were bombed because America wanted to conquer a new market for American capital, and Serbia stood in the way of the rest of the Balkans (witness NATO's destruction of the bridges in Novi Sad, which ended up blocking the Danube and strangulating the river-shipping industry downstream in Romania). They might believe that they were bombed out of revenge for the Serbian army's destruction of Sarajevo (a belated and misplaced American desire for righteous action, a winnable war). But saving Albanians? Come on, he said. Kosovo had been a civil disturbance with killing on both sides. If we'd wanted to stop ethnic cleansing, we would have been bombing Congo.
I collected three years of news coverage to read on the plane. Serbia was a horrible place in the world's eyes--even United Airlines told me, when I connected in London, that "United does not recognize the legitimacy of Yugoslav Air or the country of Serbia." I read reports of mass graves, always on page 1, and huge downsizing of the numbers of bodies, on page C17 a few days later. Murders and rapes of ethnic Albanians by Serbs or Milosevic's police were always on page 1, while similar killings or kidnappings of Serbs were reported deep inside the newspapers. I accepted that I would never know for sure what happened in Kosovo, but understood that there were killings on both sides--only one side wore a badge and was our government's enemy, and the other side wore a guerilla uniform. To my email-penpals in Belgrade, who already hated Milosevic for the wars he'd started and the press freedoms he'd trampled, Kosovo was as far away as northern Alaska is to most Americans.
When I arrived at Belgrade airport, the gangly Milos, who looks like an overgrown teenage film junkie in his glasses and his size 14 shoes, said, "I cannot believe you came. Didn't they tell you that Serbs are all mass murderers?" I told him: "Yes, they did."
Milos's comrade at Low-Fi drove us into noisy, ugly Belgrade. Serbs will often remind you that it was the other Yugos--not the supposedly evil Serbs--who kissed up to the Nazis, keeping their pretty cities, but losing their souls. Recently the Serbs had held onto their souls once again, though my friends questioned the logic of comparing Madeline Albright to Hermann Göring. Because these were the landmarks: the police headquarters, skeletal, bombed to hell; Hotel Yugoslavia, with a crater in the middle of it; the American Embassy, plastered in red white and blue graffiti (ADOLF CLINTON SUCK MY DICK) and boarded up at the windows. This was not Sarajevo; the bombings had been precise; most of the city looked oddly intact. Traffic was light. Gasoline was sold by black-market vendors on the sidewalks. "We like the bombed buildings," Milos said with a laugh. He pointed out a billboard which proclaimed Milosevic's wife's campaign to rebuild Serbia. These billboards were a joke; no one was rebuilding. But when someone discovered that the source of the billboard photo was an American contracting firm's website, the joke became so ridiculous that it was no longer funny.
We passed the National Television complex. In the parking lot, 15 cars were parked, each car exactly the same dark orange color, rusted and skeletal. It was amazing to me that destruction of this NATO bomb had been untouched for a year and a half, while 30 meters away, life functioned in the west wing of the complex. A memorial with fresh flowers stood by, with the names, occupations, and ages of the nineteen people who died. The oldest was 54. Most were in their twenties, like my friend's elementary-school classmate, who was an assistant video-technician and journalism major. The top of the memorial stone said only one word: WHY? I was ashamed when I realized I was crying.
Perhaps to make me feel better, Milos told me that the top-level editors had been warned about the NATO bombing, that the wife of the editor came at night and took her daughter out an hour before the bomb hit. Many in Belgrade believed that the editors wanted to martyr their staff to make NATO look bad. If it was their intention, it worked: nineteen low-level employees never came home from work that night. But enough of the building remained to transmit the atrocity on the airwaves the next day.
The elections which could unseat Milosevic were six weeks away, but no one in his right mind dared to hope that September 24 would bring a change. The opposition was in disarray. Black fists in stenciled spraypaint, the sign for Otpor!, the opposition group, decorated the walls of the town. This angry fist--a graphic stolen from a video game--seemed about as promising a symbol as an Anarchy "A" sprayed onto the World Bank.
The government was paying attention, however. Wearing an Otpor! T-shirt was enough to get you arrested. Milosevic's propagandists called this independent resistance the "Madlen Jugend", Albright's Hitler Youth. And for every illegal black fist on the walls, there were 500 legal posters for the Radical Party, an ultranationalist faction whose leader, a friend of Milosevic, had once suggested that anyone with Croat neighbors should attempt to bury those neighbors alive. Even without knowing who the people on these posters were, I felt that I was looking at killers. Milos said, "In Serbia, politicians know that being feared is better than being liked."
At Milos's flat in the center of Belgrade, I met the only other foreign filmmaker going to the festival, a half-African half-Russian Frenchman who had met Milos in high school, when Milos was an exchange-student in Paris. Now we longlost friends and recently found acquaintances proceeded to drink tequila mixed with champagne. Soon others from Low-Fi showed up, including Rasa, a gregarious guy whom I liked instantly, reminding me of certain friends of mine in his love of liquor, his welcoming nature, and his habit of borrowing money. Rasa was organizing a "jam session" of underground-comicbook artists to run alongside the video festival. He had a longstanding crush on the woman who'd reunited Milos and the Frenchman, and when I passed out, Rasa and she were talking intensely, and giggling; when I awoke twenty minutes later, I noticed the absence of conversation, and then lip smacking noises on the cot six inches from mine. I was happy for them. I hoped I could have the same matchmaking powers for Milos, who'd warned me that the girl he loved was at the festival. I began to suspect I'd spend the next three weeks drunk.
Subotica is three hours north of Belgrade, near the Hungarian border, in the normally fertile region of Vojvodina. All the way north on the bus, I listened to Milos's worries about the girl in Subotica--would she leave her boyfriend or not?--and stared at mile after mile of corn and sunflowers so parched they looked as if they'd been doused in gasoline and briefly lit on fire. Vojvodina is rumored to have the capacity to feed all of Europe, but none of the young people in its cities, Novi Sad and Subotica, seem to care about agriculture. Serbia was a landlocked island that would neither feed nor be fed by Europe. The water distribution problem was the subject of jokes, as was the possibility of Vojvodina seceding from Yugoslavia, now that secession was so trendy.
We were greeted at the bus station by Stipan, a young guy with a long pony tail and thick glasses, who was the head of the festival. Everyone in town, from the ratty film geeks to the mafioso restaurant owners, knew him, liked him, wondered aloud if he actually might be truly insane--the future mayor, or the future village idiot. He was always smiling, cords and pens and little pieces of paper falling out of his pockets. Magically, he managed to accomplish more than he sabotaged.
We screeched around town in his car picking up other guests. To my eyes, the people in town looked like they might look in Chico, California--young white college kids in mismatched clothes--but from the way people stared at me, it was clear that I stood out as much as the Frenchman did. An American in a cowboy hat and a black guy from France, we joked that we were a NATO nightmare come to life. Stipan finally deposited us at a run-down school dormitory, where--other than a few hotel-bound Slovenians--all the festival guests would be staying.
Soon, close to two hundred Serbian filmmakers and film students arrived in the town, filling the dorm with cigarette smoke. They brought dozens and dozens of videotapes, which would be screened throughout the week at a local auditorium. Everybody knew about me: I was the American. I was a film student, like all of them, but I seemed to confuse everybody--was I twenty, was I thirty, was I famous, was I a fake? I rehearsed the conversation about the bombings that I'd practiced in New York. I was ready for it. I was ready to be drunk and not say anything stupid about humanitarian missions. I wanted to coach myself with A.G., but he was nowhere to be found.
We filed to a restaurant where the festivalgoers would be given lunch. Lunch--along with breakfast and dinner--consisted of meats and breads. The Serbs, it seemed to me, were a healthy and slender people, throwing into question my assumptions about getting your vegetables, which to a Serb means smoking a cigarette. I sat at a special foreigners' table, along with a few Slovenians, who were perhaps suffering from "Yugo nostalgia"--a term used to mock anyone who dared to long for the economically powerful, ethnically diverse Yugoslavia, ten years dead. The Slovenians could have passed for hipsters in Berlin or Los Angeles; they were at ease wherever they went; their old clothes were vintage, not castoffs. Their nostalgia seemed to be that of a successful older brother who has left his family behind--he visits them, he humors them and their pathetic ways, but he doesn't stay more than a few days. One of the Slovenians said to me loudly at a table full of Serbs: "We are giving them a taste of Western Europe." He kissed his girlfriend and smiled. Milos--my guide, my cellmate in the dormitory, and fast becoming a friend--rolled his eyes at me. Slovenians were quick to claim to be Western, he said later, because they made electronics instead of grain, because they got out of Yugoslavia before it got really ugly. But what European would buy a Slovenian alarm clock when he could buy a German one?
Milos was in a sour mood, anyway. I repeated to him, like a broken record, the closest approximation of wisdom I could come up with: "Tell her: Yes or No. If she says 'I don't know,' walk away. Once you forget her, she'll follow you." He put his face into his hands, mumbling, "I know this."
We were joined by two diminutive comic-book artists, a boy and a girl, both beady-eyed behind spectacles, wearing ratty brown punk-rock T-shirts. They looked like forest imps, but she had the advantage: she looked as if she'd tiptoed from behind a tree, and he looked as if he crawled from under a rock. They were a striking contrast to the bulk of the young people who walked the streets, the cologne-wearing Staten-Island-esque young men with short-cropped hair, new T-shirts, and tight muscles; the young women in white miniskirts, hair pulled back to show off their tanned necks and gold earrings. Those were the "normal" Serbs. I realized my friends, the filmmakers and artists, were the freaks.
In the afternoon, Milos and I took the bus to the lake outside town, where the water was a bright algae-green. Milos told me that there was an unexploded NATO bomb somewhere on the lake's floor. We dove off a dock where young kids learned to swim from their Speedo-clad fathers, and teenage girls tanned themselves and sneered at the boys who wanted to talk to them. Late in the day, we returned to the town square. (My favorite word in Serbian was the word for square: spelled "trg", it sounds like a child making some warfare sound effect.) Milos's friends were drinking at the outdoor tables, watching the bustle of a small city. I asked Milos where Aleksandar was and he said, "Somewhere." I sat down, disappointed. A lively young woman kissed Milos on the cheek and then shook my hand, staring me deep in the eyes and smiling. This was Milos's love, and the coordinator of festival events. I said to him, "You've got troubles."
Every night over four long hours of ragged, energetic Serbian short videos were screened. Ana, a comic-book artist, attempted to translate into my ear while they were running. The films were about drinking, war, fairy tales, sex, New York City, dead chickens--anything a film student in Belgrade, with no hope of being telephoned by an agent's assistant in L.A., could think of. They were a far cry from the bombastic fantasy of Emir Kusturica's "Underground." No gypsy music here, just punk and techno. Many of the videos were too fast for Ana to translate, but some, like "Snow," in which my still-AWOL penpal Aleksandar made love to a snowbank, worked just fine. As did a sharp little bombing-era documentary, which mixed propaganda from CNN and Serbian TV while tracking two friends, one of whom flees the country while the other stays. I could feel the tension in the room, 250 people worried about hurting my feelings, as the video showed footage of a bearded Serbian talk-show host repeating over and over, "The only good American is a dead American."
That night, strangers applauded as I drank the famously lethal Serbian plum brandy. No one wanted to talk about politics. The closest anyone got was: "Okay, maybe American girls has pretty faces. But you must notice that Serbian girls has incredible bodies." His girlfriend, holding him up, let him fall on the cobblestones and then said to me, "Serbian men are not so handsome." Still on the ground, the guy shouted to me, "If our girls was nice, like Swedish girls, this country would be peaceful." I laughed and his girlfriend told me he was dead serious.
At some point in the evening I realized I'd lost everyone I knew. Sensing my nervousness, a morose guy named Jovan invited me to accompany him to the communist-era "people's bistro", a fixture at every train station, along with a long-haired couple wearing Iron Maiden T-shirts who seemed to be his friends, but kept laughing at him. Jovan seemed desperate to speak with me, but he spoke almost no English. We walked in silence to the train station. It was getting past four AM. Here was the glory of the communist era--a coffee for every worker, any time. We woke up the waiter in the kitchen. The ceilings were high and the arched columns were coated in pale grime which glowed green under the fluorescent lights. I was surprised to hear Turkish pop music--drum-machines, exaggerated emotional singing--being piped in from old crackling speakers. The Iron Maiden guy laughed amiably. "This is not Turkish music, it's 'turbofolk.' It's what Serbian idiots listen to. We cannot erase 500 years of Turk rule. We will never admit it, but Serbian culture is Turkish." This cultural crossbreeding reminded me of burek, the savory, greasy Turkish pastry I'd quickly become addicted to, and which was as Serbian as French fries are American.
Jovan, frustrated, barked at his friends in Serbian. The Iron Maiden girl said to me, "He wants to talk about politics." At last, I thought. I said, "Okay, let's talk." She groaned and said, "It is hopeless, what's the point of talking?" Jovan ignored her, locked eyes with me and began to speak in Serbian. The girl's boyfriend, off to the side, begrudgingly translated, telling me Serbia had two options: to remain isolated but free of capitalist poison, unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, or to let foreign troops put up the usual puppet government, like Macedonia at the worst, Hungary at the best. The latter would allow Serbs to live better, but would turn Serbia into McDonald's.
Romanians and Bulgarians admired Serbia for standing up to America, but they were crazy. Serbia was falling apart. People smiled and drank and read books, but if you asked them, they had no hope. Isolation had led to paranoia and turbofolk. Serbia would need fifty years to recover from a dozen years of Milosevic. A little money would do Serbia good. My interpreter said, "Jovan thinks we won't get drunk on Western products, the way Romania and Russia do, because Yugoslavia was never behind the iron curtain. But he's wrong--you ask any poor little girl living in an apartment block outside town, and she'd sell her body for a computer. And it will be worse if we let the West in. That's why we should get rid of Milosevic, but still remain isolated. But I have money, so I have the luxury of being idealistic. Jovan doesn't."
Jovan paused, checking to see if I'd understood, and then abruptly started shouting louder in Serbian. There was no third option. He was too tired and too poor to fight anymore. Suddenly Jovan switched to English and said: "We to be... slaves to America... good. Because this Serbia life is shit."
At this point in the conversation, the girl, who had been silent for twenty minutes, moaned horribly and put her forehead on the table. "I just want to go to Norway," she said.
"I guess that would be option three," I said. In Belgrade, I remembered, every foreign embassy was decorated with a rock-concert line of people, camping out for days on the sidewalk, in the hopes of getting a visa to somewhere, Toronto, St. Tropez, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, anywhere but here. No one blamed those who left. But once they left, they weren't really Serbs anymore.
Jovan gave up speaking. He was exhausted with the effort to communicate, but seemed calmer, feeling that he had succeeded. He silently guided me past a few policemen, out of the bistro, across the tracks under a deep blue crepuscular sky to an old single-car trolley, another remnant of communism, that still twittered along the tracks from town to town. I sensed in the purple velvet seats a momentary optimism. The trolley was dozing in the minutes before dawn. Soon the big train arrived. Jovan and his friends gave me their email addresses--they were leaving the festival early to return to Belgrade. I walked back to the dorm. In the rising light of the dormitory halls, I played soccer with a few guys using a stale piece of bread. Some of the comic book artists were already on the lawn, nursing their hangovers with a pen and paper, drawing stories of supernatural infants and bovine politicians. Every time I tried to make it to my room to sleep I was invited to look at a drawing, or learn karate, or talk about American films. I was still prepared to talk about the bombings, but no one asked.
By the time my films were presented--the third night of the five-day festival--I was a celebrity in the community. When I walked the town, I found it impossible to get fifty feet without some total stranger buying me a drink. He'd clap me on the back, call me by my name, insist that he pay. I was always a little sad and a little relieved when I managed to slip away. "You are a real filmmaker," my friend Ana explained, "but we are a joke." I protested, but Ana cut me off: "It's different for us: when I finish university, there is nothing I can do." There were tears in her eyes.
The amplifier was on the fritz in the auditorium, so the perpetually cheerful and perpetually panicked Stipan, festival boss and future mayor, jumped in his dilapidated little car and headed home to look for some wires. Milos looked at me, shaking his head, lamenting, "Stipan thinks he can do everything, so now we have this problem." Milos and I worked together to check the alignment of the video-beam projector, which was the instrument of choice, actual film being far beyond anyone's means. I was nervous about the delay and Milos assured me that waiting was part of the Serbian experience.
I went outside to collect myself. I wanted people to like my films. I wanted to know that they could play to this strange audience, to these people who could have hated me. A scruffy guy in his 30's with deep set eyes, a real Rasputin stare, introduced himself to me. "I am Aleksandar," he said. It took me a moment to realize that this was A.G., the war diary writer. He smiled at me. I smiled back. "It's good to meet you," I said, "I didn't know if you would be here." He said, "Serbia is a thorn in my skin, but I don't want to pull it out." He'd returned from Croatia, finding it pretty, and calm, and artistically uninspiring. Scientists could leave Serbia but artists couldn't. Aleksandar asked me if I wanted some burek. I said I was too nervous about my films and a drink would do me better.
He strolled like a philosopher, his hands clasped behind him. In the trg, hundreds of teenagers and old people were dressed in curly-toed shoes and woven gowns, for a festival of traditional Hungarian-Serb music and agriculture. It would have seemed touristic if I hadn't been the only tourist in town. I fought the urge to pull out my mini digital videocamera, which had already drawn jealous stares from filmmakers and people on the street. Finally Aleksandar said, "You can shoot," so I did for a few seconds before realizing the costumes meant nothing to me or him. We walked together silently through the throng. After so many lengthy email exchanges, I had to adjust instead to the pauses while we decided what to say to each other next.
We walked down a side street, where the traditional music echoed from the bandstand onto the walls of an apartment block. "Did I tell you," Aleksandar said, "I had a religious experience. A revelation." A teenage boy was throwing up against a wall while his miniskirted girlfriend watched us. "What did you discover?" I asked Aleksandar casually. He said: "I realized, there is a god. He created the universe. And then, He left." He continued walking, observing the birds, the fading twilight. His eyes took in the miniskirted girl once more and then looked away. "Where did He go?" I asked. "I don't know," Aleksandar said, smiling, and perfectly serious: "He just fucked off."
I asked Aleksandar how this revelation had changed his life, other than causing him to walk funny. He said, "Yes, this walk is new for me, but it is also serious: when you have no power over the world,"--and here I sensed he meant everything from politics to girls in short skirts--"you say 'mrmr', 'murmur.' It is way of calming." He unclasped his hands, and then clasped them again. He said, "To tell you the truth, I miss the bombings." He pronounced the word bom-bings. "Then, we had a purpose, a fight. We had some hope."
I knew without asking that Aleksandar's God was not the Orthodox Christian God who had become trendy in the early 1990's. Orthodoxy had been embraced, according to Milos, because young people liked cool-looking icons, churches without pews, and the idea of a pre-communist Serbian tradition. It was the Serb equivalent of the American swing-dancing revival. But the black-clad, long-haired priests were for the most part good, intelligent men, and it was priests who stood in the front lines during opposition protests, often protecting kids from police beatings. It was also priests who'd suggested that Serbs search their own souls to explain ten years of war, instead of blaming the Croats, the Bosnians, the Albanians, the Americans for what happened. This was not a popular suggestion, though Milos agreed with it. "Maybe everyone is to blame, but we must look at ourselves. This is not weakness. But I have lost friends for it."
Back at the screening, Stipan finally arrived with some cables to repair the amplifier. He apologized to me on behalf of his entire country. I told him not to worry. He was genuinely relieved and he smiled big and gave me a hug. By now the room was filled beyond capacity. A tall, burly man in a dark suit, clearly out of place in a roomful of grungy film students and comic-book artists, was taking photographs of me and the audience. Ana told me he was secret police, and to be careful what I said. The police had already complained to Stipan. "How dare you bring a foreigner and not register him with us?" they'd said to him. "Tell us, where in Europe would they allow a foreigner to come to town without telling the police first!" Stipan did not explain that registering with the police was not a pan-European custom. He was too busy worrying about losing his late-night music permit, or the use of the auditorium. (As it turned out, the following night, the local branch of Milosevic's party decided to hold a meeting in the cinema, forcing Stipan without warning to postpone his screenings by several hours.)
"Culture" started the show: sixty seconds, and without a word of dialogue, it seemed like a good way to please a foreign audience. It presented a view of America that would seem right to them--violent and ridiculous--and the film had started the chain of events that led me across the ocean. There was enthusiastic applause, and I stood in front of the audience, my heart racing, thrilled to be here after a year and a half of imagining it. "A lot's happened since I got an email out of the blue..." I said, looking at Aleksandar, who lay on his back by the projector, smiling at me. Three more light-hearted films of mine were smooth sailing, but I was terrified to begin my last film, which is about the death of my mother in a helicopter crash. I looked at Aleksandar. Though only a couple years older than me, he felt like a strange and kind uncle. This was the only film of the five that even he hadn't seen. It breaks all my own short films rules--long (22 minutes), full of dialogue, not very funny. After the credits, there were a few baffled stares along with faces wet with tears, which in this sadistic business, can be seen as success. I was relieved it was over.
During a brief Q&A afterwards, one young woman asked me if I was afraid to come to Serbia. I said my penpals had made me feel safe. What did I think of it? Someone else asked. I said, "The people here are friendly, intelligent, and they seem very happy. Then they tell you they have no hope." "You know our country very well--is it what you expected?" I said: "I was expecting people to ask me about the bombings."
Nobody said a word. It was hot in the room and there were three more hours of homemade videos to be seen, so I tried to wrap it up--I started to raise my fist in the air, making the Otpor! sign of resistance. Maybe it would increase my rock-star status, especially in front of the looming hulk of a secret police photographer. But as I raised my hand, I remembered that my government had dropped bombs on their heads. They had no obligation to ask me the reasons, nor to listen to my advice. I unclenched my hand, turned it into a wave, and thanked them for inviting me.
That night, when I tried to return to my dorm room, I found it locked. Milos was lying in bed with his love, naked, for the first time. Grinning with happiness for him, I headed out to the lawn to face the dawn with the sleepless comic book writers. A longhaired friend of mine named Sepi, who'd recently spent six months in New York, and met Jimmy Page while working as a busboy, explained to me: nobody understood the bombings or wanted to. In Belgrade, for ten years, you could feel the country dying, but you couldn't see it, unless you'd served in the army. For the people of Belgrade, far from the four fronts, the bombings had been the first vision of war. But now, a year after the jubilant street protests which Milosevic shrewdly ignored, nobody wanted to talk about bombings. "The three things that make a Balkan person," Sepi said, "are strong love, strong hate, and forgetting. Bombings? Ancient history. War with Croatia? What war? They like Serbian bands, we like Croatian bands!"
By Sunday night I was feeling the amplified sadness of a 7th-grader leaving summer camp. Even the Slovenians wished it wouldn't end, and lamented that festivals in their upscale nation weren't pure like this. At dawn most of the guests would be boarding a train to Belgrade. I felt myself wanting to join the lives I was leaving--dancing, drinking, with a lightness of spirit that I always found enviable in Europeans, even these Europeans. At YuFest cafe, a young Hungarian-Serb fiddler, the Charlie Parker of the Balkan folk revival, wept and shouted as he tore his bow across the strings. Scrawled in black spraypaint across the square was a bit of Bono: "NOTHING LEFT, AND NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE." At the dorm, liquors were mixed in unsafe ways. I found myself hugging, and being hugged by, near strangers. Two hundred people had fallen in love with each other. The secret police photographer turned out to be a web designer publicizing the festival for free. For five days, these artists and students had been the masters of their own destiny.
Low-Fi screened my films twice more. One dark night in a park in Novi Sad, I was introduced to the crowd by an earnest young artist speaking so softly that standing next to her I couldn't hear what she said. The notoriously cold Novi Sad audience, there for a youth-techno party, had expected to see "Natural Born Killers"; they clapped politely and asked me no questions. Terrified of their silence, I climbed like a monkey from the scaffolding holding the projector and jumped into the grass behind the bandstand to escape. I plodded to the river's edge and stared out at the waste of a bridge which lay slumped in the Danube. To the amusement of the rest of the country, Novi Sad had compared itself to Guernica, all because of a few bombed bridges. Aleksandar, his hand placed gently on my shoulder, promised me Belgrade would be better. They'd emailed 30 people about this "independent American film maker." I would be competing with "The Patriot," which, to my amazement, was playing the big cinemas in Belgrade, complete with American-flag advertisements. But when we arrived the next day at the Belgrade screening, in a tiny room on the 7th floor of an apartment building, there were close to 150 people there, crowded into the unventilated room. People on the roof, jockeying for a view through the window. Milos gave me a hug. This was the past and the future of cinema--not a film streamed on the internet--but a sheet hanging from some scaffolding, a projector, and a hungry audience in the flesh.
The next day, Aleksandar got on the radio and talked enthusiastically about Low-Fi and a similar collective in Croatia; he was excited about the possibility for independent videomakers around the world to create a web of support, a microcinema. Halfway through the interview, the station manager shut off the power and began shouting at the host. "How dare you allow this man"--pointing at Aleksandar--"to mention a Croatian festival on Serbian radio?" He fired the interviewer and the technicians, some of whom had worked there for years, on the spot. So much for Balkan forgiveness-by-forgetting. Aleksandar later told me: "We have long way to go."
I would end up staying in Serbia another two weeks. I might have gone to the coast, but the border was solidifying between Serbia and Montenegro. Soon Yugoslavia will be a landlocked country. So I drank the smog and heat of Belgrade and took hot, crowded, turbofolk-blasting buses in the middle south, where my friends told me "someone could stab you." Most of the time I pretended to be Irish (with accent, or if I'd forgotten to start with one, I'd just mumble from then on). Near the town of Valjevo, the proprietor of an old mill kept laughing and putting his hand on my shoulder and saying in Serbian (my friend Sepi translated): "You have problems in Ireland--we have problems in Serbia!" The light was golden, and bulbous Bruegel haystacks squatted on the hillside. This was land where an oak tree shades the graves of six generations of the same family; this was the land that young people are fleeing for cities and suburbs, to work in factories. In France, this hamlet might be a quaint spot for tourists, if it hadn't already been razed to put up a shopping center. Here, it was, for now, just a mill. I smiled at the old man, whose grinning face was carved with beautiful deep wrinkles. He said to my friend, "Thank God he is not American." I was glad my passport wasn't visible.
Later, screeching around mountainous hairpin turns in a little Yugo, I heard this about my new homeland: "Ireland is no better, they've got Bono, that fucking Bosnian-ass-kisser." The driver accelerated, encouraged by his friends; I shouldn't have hitched a ride with three drunk men. The topic then changed to immigrants from China, whom Milosevic had invited to live in Belgrade. "I don't like Chinese people," the youngest of the three said to me. "Why?" I asked. He looked me in the eyes and declared, "They are not Serbs."
To protect me, Sepi bought me a traditional hat, associated with the Chetnik militia, and soon no one cared where I was from--if I wore the hat I was a friend of Serbia. At the Guca trumpet festival, a yearly celebration of the music that I'd first heard in Kusturica's film "Underground," the hat earned me dances, plum brandy, and free concerts where a whole band of Serbs or Gypsies would press their horns close to my head--or into the cleavage of the nearest female--and try to gloriously pop my eardrums. But with the end of the Cheapo Film Festival weeks before, much of the hope had left me. I wore my Festival T-shirt, which combined six images from the old Yugoslavian currency into a "Year-2000-dinar" bill, every day. On buses, on the street, Yugo-nostalgic people would smile wistfully at me when they saw the goofy face of the worker-hero on my T-shirt. I began to feel more and more of the despair that everyone talked about but no one showed me. I met junkies who said they were just being honest about their future. They envied me for leaving.
Low-Fi was frozen. Their new videocamera, smuggled in by Milos's aunt, was a lemon and Sony wasn't responding to repair requests. Pleas to Apple Computers for a remaindered video-editing system, which could be used by several hundred artists, were ignored. To these companies, Serbia was not on the map yet. And it wouldn't be until it gave itself up. Back in New York City, I wrote from my apartment one night, "I wish I could help. I feel like I'm a long way away." And Milos wrote back, "You ARE a long way away." I wondered if I'd understood anything there at all.
The last night of the Yugoslav Cheapo Film Festival, I'd been standing in a dark hallway with a beer in one hand and the cough-syrup-inspired Pelinkovac in the other, when one guest, a colleague of the festival's resident DJs, took me aside and told me he'd been waiting to talk to me all week. "Forget the bombing, nobody cares. Forget these fake people, their so-called films. They have no talent. They say they like you," he said, "but they don't--they just wish they had what you have. To tell you the truth, I hate everybody in this whole fucking place." His Holden Caulfield stance became more and more irate until finally a sweetheart named Masa mentioned to him that he was welcome to leave the country any time. She put her arm around me and said, "You don't have to talk to head-cases."
The angry young man went to the bathroom, pulled a broken sink from the wall, and smashed it on the tile floor. Meanwhile, upstairs, a few partiers turned a moment too late as their pet kitten, a black Belgrade stray smuggled to Subotica on the train, waltzed off the ledge and fell to the pavement four stories below. One guy grabbed me in a panic--"You must help our cat!" and careened into my room, where Milos was trying to sleep off his love--she had changed her mind again--on a cot much too small for his grasshopper legs. I had no medicine. Milos put his pillow over his head as the pet owners attempted to scotch-tape the shaft of one of my disposable razors into a brace for their weeping cat, who watched me from the floor, blood dripping from her nostrils. And I remembered what Danilo had told me should be the motto of Serbia: "I will fail--I will be broken to pieces--but slowly."
Only four weeks after I left, my friends took to the streets with many thousands of others, shouting at their president to respect the election results and step down, or better yet, shoot himself. Milosevic had been beaten. No one knew what chaos would come next. I wished I was in Belgrade with my friends, but I was an idiot if I thought this was my battle. Serbia might soon be free; or Serbia would be sold to the West; or neither. But the possibility was there that someday Low-Fi might be able to afford to buy videotapes to make their movies. I got an email from Aleksandar and stared at the computer screen, stunned. Aleksandar was no longer the cynical man who wrote 6000-word email tomes about powerlessness; he'd changed into a giddy teenager, with enough manic hope in him--at least for this fleeting moment--to believe in his own strength, to believe Serbia might have a future. There's nothing wrong with manic hope, I thought: all hope is manic hope. Aleksandar scrawled just four words into the ether: "WE'VE BLOWN HIM AWAY!!!!"
The morning after the contested U.S. presidential election, I headed back to the Balkans. I thought maybe my friends had something to teach an American. One of my films was playing in Slovenia, but the pretty city of Ljubljana felt sober and I didn't, so I soon found myself on a night bus to Serbia. My friends in Belgrade were stunned to see me, but they seemed happy. Low-Fi had found its first paying gig, making some commercials for the new national arts council. They asked if they could use a clip from my film "Culture" in one of their seven spots. I asked if I could see some concrete evidence of the instant revolution. Milos and Kaca--who was now living with him--took me to see the national television building.
The old NATO crater remained, but now the other side of the complex looked artsy in its own way--triangular bits of different colored glass were embedded into the cement in a mosaic. The fire was so hot that the sidewalk softened and let broken glass sink in to form a mosaic. Airconditioners hovered above the street, melted. Apparently, the cops upstairs fired rubber bullets at the crowd on October 4, and the crowd, displeased with this behavior, set the building on fire, got the editors downstairs, and beat two of them nearly to death. They were angry about unnecessary deaths in the building during the NATO war; they were angry about being lied to for a decade. I was impressed with the Serb mob--instead of looting stores, they'd attacked the National TV along with just a few other choice Belgrade buildings, like the Parliament and the Police Headquarters. Target-bombing, just like NATO.
Life goes on at the "liberated" television station, and my friends hope the news on TV will be better now--more promising, more hopeful, more honest. Milos, Kaca and I stared at this strange sight, a television complex with one building destroyed by a foreign bomb, another destroyed by a mob, and, in the center, a third building carrying on its daily routine. Finally Kaca said, "I don't suppose Americans will be attacking CNN? Or anyone else because of a stolen election?"
I said, "I'll keep you posted."
"Well," she said, "if you need peacekeeping troops, just let us know. We'll be glad to help."