REMARKS ON THE FILM PRETTY VILLAGE PRETTY FLAME
Directed by Sadjan Dragojevic, Serbia, 1996
by Peter Brooke
Although the Brecon Political and Theological Discussion Group is open to all sorts of people with all sorts of different axes to grind I think my own initiatives are all structured by the thought expressed at the end of my pamphlet Notes on the Role of Serbia in the Yugoslav Conflict to develop a spiritual/cultural opposition to the US/British Imperialist project. In the end this opposition will be Christian but the preparation and necessary ground for Christianity is tragedy. The Old Testament is a tragic book. It provides a view of the world in which sin and suffering are inescapable necessities and triumphs necessarily turn to disaster. It poses a problem in space and time which can only be resolved through an opening into Eternity which is what Christianity provides. But it is only through the acceptance of the tragic which might be called 'consciousness of sin' that we can achieve that opening into Eternity. Christianity without a real Consciousness of Sin pervading every aspect of our lives, internal and external, is a superficial and useless thing.
The tragic consciousness which I identify with consciousness of sin is something that can be achieved more easily by people that have suffered defeat and humiliation than by people who have mostly known victory. The history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been the history of the relentless and apparently irresistible advance of the power of what Churchill calls the 'English speaking peoples'. Those who identify with that process see the whole period as one of progress towards the establishment of a just and democratic society or right government or whatever, or the victory of good over evil. They have little chance of rising to the tragic and therefore the Christian view of the world. Within the United States and UK there are of course many subgroups who have experienced failure and defeat. It is among them that we would expect some possibility of finding this sense of the heights and depth, as well as the width, of human experience.
Pretty Village Pretty Flame has been accused of being Serb propaganda (I am referring in this essay to online reviews at Amazon.com and at the Internet Movies Database). This is because the central characters are Serb and we find ourselves, perhaps reluctantly, feeling sympathetic to them. They are certainly not heroes nor could they be described as 'good guys'. We see them engaged in an orgy of burning Muslim houses and villages. The central character, Milan, in a hospital in Belgrade, is filled with hatred and wants and eventually attempts to murder the terrified young Muslim in a neighbouring ward. 'Fork', the caricature Serb nationalist, with his long hair, beard and Second World War Chetnik hat, has all his bullets named for potential Muslim victims. The film achieves a quite remarkable trick of enabling or compelling us to sympathise with people who hate Muslims without obliging us, ourselves, to hate Muslims. The Muslims are not the bad guys. When Milan attempts to murder the Muslim in the hospital we don't lose our sympathy for him but we certainly hope he won't succeed and we feel desperately sympathetic towards the Muslim.
Insofar as the film provides any explanation for the Bosnian conflict which isn't very far it is broadly in line with the conventional (outside Serbia) anti-Serb view. Perhaps the closest the film has to a villain is the sinister Serb innkeeper, Slobodan (one hopes the choice of name is purely fortuitous), who sees the outbreak of war as an opportunity for collecting loot. Milan's hatred for Muslims and for his childhood friend Halil is prompted by Sloba telling him 'Halil's men' murdered his mother, but we learn at the end of the film that this was not true; and indeed Milan's reaction at the time (he tells Sloba 'I should have killed you when I had the chance') suggests he never quite believed him. Given that Milan had already crippled the Serb gang he found looting and burning Halil's garage it is quite easy to speculate that she might have been murdered by Serbs. We don't know. In a sense that is part of the film's message (and doubtless one of the reasons it is disliked by those who know it was all caused by the Serbs in general, and by Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic and Slobodan Milosevic in particular). We don't know who to blame. At the end of the film the blame is put on the ogre who lives in the Tunnel of Brotherhood and Unity.
Though we should note that Milan is already dressed in military gear and already committed to his little paramilitary gang before he learns of the murder of his mother so this is not in fact the explanation of his engagement in the conflict, which remains unexplained.
The Bosnian conflict followed the declaration of Bosnian independence, opposed almost unanimously by the Orthodox, Serb, population of Bosnia. The majority that supported independence was in fact misleading. Croats voted for it as a means of sabotaging the alternative that Bosnia should remain part of the Yugoslav federation which, after the secessions of Croatia and Slovenia, was now dominated by the Serbs. But their real ambition or the ambition of the most politically active elements among them was to remove the Croat parts of Bosnia and attach them to Croatia. The Muslim-Serb war was quickly followed by a Muslim-Croat war. The presence of the Muslims was the sole demographic basis for considering Bosnia as a distinct political entity but, though they were the largest group, they were not in themselves a majority (and they were in fact divided among themselves with a small but significant minority wanting a deal with the Serbs).
The declaration of independence once made, however, Bosnia was recognized by the United Nations and, however reluctantly, by Serbia. Serbia thereby became a 'foreign' country to the Bosnian Serbs. Although this political background is not treated in the film the obvious theme of the fissure between Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Muslim is accompanied by another less obvious theme of the fissure between Bosnian Serb and Serbian Serb. The film opens with a dedication to 'the film industry of a country that no longer exists'. The country in question is of course Yugoslavia. Does the dedication suggest regret? It is immediately followed by the parody propaganda newsreel on the inauguration of the project of the Tunnel of Brotherhood and Unity, which suggests that the director has a poor opinion of that film industry (though it did produce the films of Dusan Makavejev The Switchboard Operator, Man is not a Bird, WR: Mysteries of the Orgasm among others). The sequence implies that the seed of the future conflict was already present in the Brotherhood and Unity of Tito's Yugoslavia. Tito looms over the film but it is difficult to say if he is regarded with contempt or with nostalgic affection. He symbolises an era when Muslims and Serbs weren't killing each other. Yet there is a suggestion that that was an era of hypocrisy and that somehow it gave rise to the civil war that followed.
The contradiction is explored most thoroughly in the confrontation between the thief, Velja, and the professional soldier, Gvozden. Gvozden is a Tito loyalist who walked 350 km to be present at Tito's funeral (he announces this to the great amusement of his companions). In the film he 'represents' the Yugoslav army. By the time of the events shown in the film the Yugoslav army had been reduced to a Serb/Montenegrin army because of the defections of the other peoples Croats, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims and Albanians, many of them intent on forming their own nationalist militias. Gvozden is referring to this when he calls his Muslim opposite number, Captain Muslimovic, a 'deserter'. Muslimovic is, he tells us, his own 'godfather'. The godfather is normally responsible for ensuring the religious formation of the godchild and Orthodox Serbs take that role very seriously. Having a Muslim as a godfather places Gvozden firmly in the atheist, partisan, Communist camp. When the Bosnian conflict broke out the Yugoslavian (or Serbian/Montenegrin) army was obliged by pressure from the 'international community' to withdraw. A new Bosnian Serb 'army' was rapidly cobbled together, partly out of elements of the retiring 'Yugoslav' army. An online reviewer complains that the film confuses the two armies Velja for example joins the one and ends up in the other. The question is a delicate one since insistence that the Bosnian Serb army was in fact organised from Belgrade is an important part of the case that has been brought against S.Milosevic. But there was indeed, necessarily, a great deal of confusion. Gvozden could easily see his participation in a Bosnian Serb militia as a continuation of his service in the Yugoslav army and he could see Muslimovic's participation in a Bosnian Muslim militia (though this was now part of, or allied with, the army of the Bosnian state) as a 'desertion'.
It emerges, however, that in the Yugoslav army proper both Gvozden and Muslimovic were low ranking soldiers. It is in the newly created Bosnian Serb and Muslim armies that they achieve officer class. The actor playing Gvozden is, as it happens, the perfect army officer type but his authority is not taken very seriously by his comrades.
If Gvozden is the most 'respectable' member of the group, Velja is the most disreputable, though his reason for engaging is chivalrous (he substitutes for his wimpish brother who had been called up just as he was about to start his studies in archaeology). It also suggests that he has no particular commitment to the cause whatever the cause might happen to be. Gvozden despises him as a professional thief and eventually this provokes an angry response to the effect that the whole Yugoslav establishment had been based on fraud and theft. The villages they had burnt had been based on theft, he says, otherwise they would not have burnt so easily. Yugoslav prosperity was based on borrowed US dollars. The war was what happened when the debt was called in.
This is the closest the film comes to presenting a political argument. Elsewhere fragments of the Serb case appear but not in such a way that they need to be taken seriously. The standard Serb argument is that the conflict in Sarajevo was provoked when Muslim gunmen opened fire on an Orthodox wedding. This is mentioned but only by Sloba, the sinister innkeeper. The general view that Serbs were being persecuted by Croat Fascists and Bosnian Muslim fundamentalists is evoked in the television programme that inspires 'Fork' and his brother in law to rally to the cause. But although the Serb media has often been accused of indulging in provocative propaganda at the time, this version is surely intended as a caricature. Nor can we take very seriously 'Fork''s passionate evocation of the days when the 'Krauts' and English were eating with their hands but the Serbs had discovered the fork. A wistful figure in a woollen hat on crutches wanders about the hospital singing Serb patriotic songs. When he urges the main characters to get well quickly so they can return to the front, they laugh at him.
But Velja's outburst, though it is obviously the self serving apologia of a thief, is different. We feel we should be taking it seriously and it is the most coherent explanation we get of the link between the opening sequence the celebration of the Tunnel of Brotherhood and Unity and the events of the film. Perhaps this is something that would not need to be explained to an audience of Serbs. The Serbs the largest population in Yugoslavia and spread over the whole territory had an interest in the political unity of the whole Yugoslav territory. But from the 1970s onwards, under the influence of the Slovene Edvard Kardelj, Tito pursued a policy of encouraging the increasing autonomy of the various 'republics' and 'autonomous provinces' (Kosovo and the Vojvodine, both integral parts of pre-war Serbia). In the Serb analysis this created a fissiparious tendency which eventually resulted in the conflicts of the 1990s. At the same time, and under the same leadership, Yugoslavia became hopelessly indebted to the West, anxious to encourage and to reward its isolation from the Soviet bloc. It became, as Velja argues, a jerrybuilt state living on borrowed time. With the fall of the Soviet Union the West no longer had any incentive to prop up a Communist state in the Balkans. The subsidies stopped, payment of the debts was demanded, and the whole house of cards collapsed.
Lying in the hospital, Milan confronts a doctor who tells him that as far as he is concerned there is no difference between Milan the Serb and his Muslim counterpart. That is of course a straightforward statement of medical ethics. But he adds 'You're in a foreign country now'. The Serbs who fought in Bosnia find themselves in a situation perhaps a little analogous to that of many American GIs returning from the Vietnam war. They are in a country that is indifferent if not hostile to them, represented by the bored nurses, their comrade Speedy's junky friends, and the peace demonstration taking place outside the hospital window. For a film that has been described as 'anti-war' the peace demonstration is shown in a very unfavourable light, notably when the cheerleader kicks away a beggars crutch before launching into a grotesque version of 'Give Peace a Chance'. If there is a point here, or indeed a point to the whole film, it is surely an expression of sympathy for the people caught up in wars of this kind civil wars with a great deal of voluntary, popular participation and for their feelings, even feelings of hatred, justified or nor justified, as against those who condemn them or call for peace in an abstract, sloganising manner that does nothing to address the real questions that are at issue.
The film, I believe, rises to the level of tragedy. It does this precisely because the border line between good and evil is so blurred as Solzhenitsyn has observed it runs through the centre of my own heart; recognizing my own evil in the characters of the fiction is an important part of the power of tragedy. And it refuses the simple but false resolution of the triumph of good over evil which, where it occurs, is always temporary and gives rise to further evils. Bleak and unredeemed as the film may be there is nonetheless a beauty in the very sympathy that has been aroused and this gives us the famous defining characteristic of tragedy according to Aristotle - catharsis, beautiful because it is an affirmation of our common, fallen, humanity. Beyond catharsis in the Christian view lies metanoia, the change in orientation of the spirit, but it may be doubted if film is an art that can ever be ever expected to rise as high as that.