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Scenes of life after wartime

A festival is part of the social reconstruction in a still-haunted land.

August 08, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Dubrovnik, Croatia — As sites for film festival press conferences go, it would be hard to improve on the East West Beach Club. Beautifully situated on the shockingly blue Adriatic Sea, it has a postcard view of this city's 15th and 16th century walls. Likely the best preserved vintage fortification system in the world, these battlements look very much like something Jack Warner might have ordered up for an action-adventure epic.

The Dubrovnik International Film Festival used the club for the opening press conference of its second year. The Croatian media, both local and national, had shown up in force.

The festival itself had gotten considerable coverage in Croatia for its 2003 debut, with press headlines like the irrepressible "Cannes is Dead, Long Live Dubrovnik!" The second year under founder and festival director Ziggy Mrkich was shaping up to be just as potent, including the local premier of Croatian director Vinko Bresan's riveting, controversial "Witnesses," perhaps the best film to deal with the war in what everyone now calls simply "ex-Yugoslavia."

But at its midpoint press conference something had gone wrong. The techno-pop was on the speaker system, the bottles of mineral water were close at hand, and the guest of honor, top Croatian director Krsto Papic, was there. Only one thing was unnervingly absent: the press itself. And Papic thought he knew why.

He has been making films for nearly 40 years, even directing Orson Welles as J.P. Morgan in 1980's "The Secret of Nikola Tesla." Papic's latest film, "Infections," was having its national premier at Dubrovnik and showing as well was his classic 1970 work "Lisice" (Handcuffs), considered as good a film as any made inside the former Soviet bloc.

A thoughtful, articulate man who spent a year at USC on a Fulbright fellowship, Papic said the lack of press had to do with the kind of materialistic society he feared Croatia, a new country admitted to the U.N. in 1992, was becoming. His press conference was without press, the director explained, because of the lure of a rival media event, complete with entertainment and a lavish buffet, being held just 20 minutes outside of town.

"The president of Croatia is coming today to open a new luxury hotel," Papic explained, as much in resignation as in despair. "The film festival is not the event, the whole spirit of the town is in that opening. This is our society, this is a real picture of us.

"I call my generation 'Lost in Transition,' " Papic went on, with a conscious nod to the Sofia Coppola film. "During communism, we were dreaming of democracy. Then it came, but it is a false democracy in my opinion.

"Everything that is bad in Western society came. We don't have a middle class, we have a small group of very rich, and 90% of the people are hardly surviving. What kind of society, what kind of democracy is this?"

The director gestures again to the uncrowded room. "This is your chance to picture the essence of a country in transition. The reality is going on in front of you." A pause, followed by a wry "We are lost."

Behind the scenes

I had come to Dubrovnik to get a look at a young film festival, to find out how one of these events goes about getting started, and I did. But I also found out something more.

The Dubrovnik event turned out to be an unexpected opportunity to examine a film culture and a society still coming to terms with a devastating catastrophe a decade-plus after the fact. It was a way to observe the political and human aftershocks of war in a place that never expected to be under fire, and to see how those tremors affected both the kinds of films being made and how they are received.

To look up at the delightful green hills gently dotted with cypress trees that ring the city is to feel as Dubrovnik's residents did in 1991: that it would be unimaginable for the war that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia to touch down in this nonstrategic location, beautiful enough to be the image of choice for guidebook covers and one of only three cities in Europe to be designated World Heritage Sites by the U.N.

Yet the war did arrive here, and with a force that stunned the inhabitants. The Serb-Montenegrin-dominated Yugoslav army bombarded the city with more than 2,000 shells from October 1991 through the following summer. More than two-thirds of the old town's distinctive red-tiled roofs were hit, and total damage, including the destruction of a 25,000-book library, has been estimated at $10 million. According to Robin Harris' authoritative "Dubrovnik: A History," 221 people died and the city's tourist industry was "destroyed."

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