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SARAJEVO 2018 Documentary Competition

Review: Occupied Cinema

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- In her debut feature-length documentary, Senka Domanović tells an insider’s story of a cinema occupation and a failed revolution

Review: Occupied Cinema

There is a strange paradox hidden in the term “occupation” being used for taking a closed, defunct cinema, renovating and opening it again for the public. The act itself, of breaking into and entering someone else's private property, is, of course, illegal, but not necessarily immoral, since the cause is noble, and places like these are often subject to corruption or some kind of financial speculation. There are plenty of examples in Europe, ranging from Rome's Cinema America to Sarajevo's Kriterion, but recently, the occupation of the Zvezda cinema in Belgrade caught the attention of both domestic and foreign media outlets, the general public and international public figures like politician Yanis Varoufakis, philosopher Alain Badiou and filmmaker Michel Gondry. Senka Domanović's debut feature-length documentary, Occupied Cinema [+see also:
trailer
interview: Senka Domanović
film profile
]
, which is having its international premiere in the Documentary Competition of the Sarajevo Film Festival, is an earnest and reasonably successful attempt to tell the complete story of the occupied/liberated Zvezda from the insiders' perspective.

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The background to the events is no secret. The bankrupt Beograd Film company, along with its 13 cinemas, was acquired by a shady firm. Some of them were repurposed, but most were simply closed. In November 2014, a group of film workers (among others, filmmakers Luka Bursać and Mina Đukić, and actress Hana Selimović) and public-space activists (Dobrica Veselinović being the most prominent) squatted Zvezda, thus making it the first reopened cinema in Belgrade and the only former Beograd Film-owned theatre still in operation, albeit only sporadically nowadays.

As is usually the case with such actions, the problems start piling up once the initial euphoria has worn off. Luckily, Domanović was there with Siniša Dugonjić, who operated the camera and recorded the sound on the spot, to film the events and the atmosphere. As the events progressed, her project turned into an attempt to offer a rational answer to what went wrong. But most of all, it is an account of a power struggle fuelled by creative and world-view differences, with a distinctive class angle to it. Basically, the film people wanted to keep the cinema as a place where they could show their work, while the activist members of the crew opted for a more open approach, making the cinema a place not only for cultural activities, but also for public debate, and formulating a strategy against the neo-liberal model of privatisation. Some were labelled middle-class and even bourgeois, while others were branded as NGOs (which is a kind of slur in Serbia). There was not much common ground: only one person (film scholar and activist Ivan Velisavljević) served as a mediator, while the smartest and most brutally honest remark in the film, highlighting the absurdity of the fight, came from a homeless person: “If you can use the space as you please, why can’t I do the same?” 

Style-wise, Occupied Cinema is a solid piece of work. The camerawork has a feeling of “right here, right now” to it, adding to the authenticity of the film. The title cards are well done, eloquent and informative. The editing by Mina Nenadović is more than competent, and the directorial decision not to do “talking heads“ interviews, but rather to let the subjects walk around the cinema while talking, works well, increasing the pace and the overall dynamism, and efficiently overcoming the artificiality of the four-chapter structure and the approach combining the footage from the time of the occupation and the “one year later” reflections by the people behind it. 

Occupied Cinema was produced by Serbia’s This&That Production and Croatia’s Nukleus Film.

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