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War's Over in Yugoslavia, but Box-Office Battles Have Begun

Balkans: Filmmakers' fixation with NATO campaign is drawing audiences--and critics.


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — For the price of a movie ticket, escapist options for people here include a perfect storm, three crime-fighting angels, a nutty professor and being bombed all over again by NATO.

It is hard to see why anyone who survived 78 traumatic days of airstrikes in 1999 would want to relive the experience in a theater, bringing back memories as well of a murderous decade that ended in October with the fall of President Slobodan Milosevic.

Yet Yugoslavia's feature film industry has done little else in the past year but turn out NATO war movies--five of them, with at least two more in production and who knows how many scripts being shopped around, said Aleksandar Kostic, one of the country's leading movie critics.

"I think they're just trying to find the topic that will sell," he said. "In a way, cinema people are reacting too fast for me because there is no distance. No one really knows what happened to us."

But Djordje Milosavljevic--creator of the recent "Sky Hook"--argues that subtlety can be a sharp weapon and believes that films like his have begun to cut through the national facade that Milosevic's propagandists had more than 10 years to build.

"We could say what we wanted to say but not directly," said the 31-year-old screenwriter, noting that producer-director Ljubisa Samardzic had his eyes on the box office and cut parts of the script that could have caused trouble with distributors. When Milosevic was in power, a few phone calls would have guaranteed that the movie bombed.

"We had a fear of being accused of treason. And the producer had a very simple fear of not being allowed to advertise in the state-run media," Milosavljevic said. "So it wasn't a problem with direct censorship but some kind of boycott by very powerful regime media who wouldn't speak about the movie."

Even as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombs sent fireballs into the night during the spring of 1999, he was already crafting a script by candlelight in his sixth-floor apartment. Soon after the last air raid siren fell silent, the director shouted, "Action!" on the set of "Sky Hook."

The most successful of the NATO war genre so far, "Sky Hook" is a new twist on the basketball buddy film. It tells of Serbian men who had lost all purpose until they teamed up, on a bet, to clear the rubble from their neighborhood basketball court. Then alliance warplanes blow it up again.

Shot for about $250,000, it is a big-budget movie by local standards and has sold almost 400,000 tickets at 120 theaters across the country, a huge commercial success here. Another 400,000 people have seen it in neighboring Croatia and Slovenia and at European festivals, where it has won several awards.

"Sky Hook" is Yugoslavia's entry in the foreign film category for the Academy Awards and is to be screened Jan. 24 for academy members in Los Angeles. The film's U.S. premiere will be Jan. 20 at the Palm Springs Film Festival.

The title comes from a shot in basketball, but it also appears in stenciled letters on the tail of a missile that the men discover in the rubble of their basketball court: "LET'S HAVE A BALL!" it reads. "SKY HOOK. NBA AIR FORCE!"

Like Hollywood movies, the National Basketball Assn. is a slice of Americana that Serbs craved even when they were under attack by U.S. warplanes. While the men in the movie are drinking beer and barbecuing during an air raid, one indignantly brings up former Lakers center Vlade Divac.

"Look what they're doing to us," the man says as bombs explode in the distance. "Don't they know that Divac is a Serb?"

"What are you saying?" his friend answers. "Wouldn't you bomb a country where Michael Jordan lives?"

"Yes," the man replies. "I would if I had something to bomb with."

To find his characters, Milosavljevic needed only to look outside his apartment block, where the emotional casualties of Milosevic's rule didn't let the air raids disturb their favorite pastime: drinking beer and working the grill. The bombed-out court also was real.

When the power went out at dusk during the bombings, Milosavljevic couldn't use his computer. So he continued to write his script in longhand by candlelight. Some nights, he saw the bombs and missiles exploding outside his window and kept working instead of heading for the bomb shelter.

"I had faith in NATO aviation," he said.

In the final script, the airstrikes are reduced to background noise. NATO is mentioned by name only once and Milosevic not at all. The audience recognizes him through a well-known code phrase repeated throughout the film, just as it is in everyday life: "the last 10 years."

Kosovo--the province of Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia, where the repression of ethnic Albanians during a war for independence led to NATO intervention--never comes up in the film. Milosavljevic believes that it will in future movies. But he said it is still too soon to confront such sensitive issues head on, as the public reaction to a short scene in "Sky Hook" made frightfully clear.

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