Bos/Hrv/SrpShqipМакедонски 06 Apr 15 Cultural Guerrillas Strike Blow for Serbia’s Ruined Cinemas

The occupation of the Zvezda movie theatre by the Movement for the Occupation of Cinemas has put a spotlight back on the damage done by the privatization of a once mighty cinema network. 

Dimitrije Bukvic
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For almost five months, the Zvezda cinema in Belgrade has been open to visitors after a break of seven years during which this jewel of the city’s cinema network, along with 13 other public cinemas, became a ruin.

However, despite an enthusiastic start, the winter months saw only a trickle of regular visitors daily to the cinema to watch a repertoire, ranging from movie classics played from YouTube to movies by emerging filmmakers – all free of charge.

The newborn Zvezda, which until its privatization in 2007 was the headquarters of the Beograd Film cinema network, is unlike all the other cinemas operating in the city today. Often located in grandiose shopping malls, their movie schedules are shaped by purely commercial interests.

The difference lies not solely in the alternative repertoire, or the appearance of the devastated building, built in 1903, however. Visitors find here a specific atmosphere, which some see as a symbol of civic and cultural reawakening in Serbia.

Since the Movement for the Occupation of Cinemas, led by Mina Djukic, Luka Bursac and other young filmmakers took over the building in November, with the help of some 300 volunteers they have cleaned away the dust, the piles of trash and bodies of dead rats. Installations have been repaired as has as the leaking roof.

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In an interview with BIRN, they said their wish was not only to reintroduce some order to offices covered in mould, with paint peeling off walls and filled with broken chairs, computers, typewriters and rusty cinema equipment, but also to bring into focus the criminal nature of the cinema network’s privatization.

Djukic, 32, a filmmaker and one of the propagators of this movement, calls Zvezda a starting point for a struggle to restore such public spaces and give them a new cultural purpose.

Recalling the early motives for the occupation, she said that while looking for a suitable place to premiere her debut movie “Disobedient” (“Neposlusni”), she came across likeminded colleagues with whom she decided to launch tan action to shake up the cultural scene in Serbia and the region. 

“Many people advised us to give up the action, as it was not going to last long,” Djukic says, sitting in the re-adapted offices on the second floor of the building located just opposite Belgrade City Hall. Months ago, there was no more there than a closed door with a dirty sign written in Cyrillic, reading “Zvezda” – “Star”.

“On the other hand, we thought we shouldn’t just conduct empty pub talk about the tragedy of Belgrade cinemas closing down, but do something to awake the consciousness of people and engage them in the struggle,” she adds, explaining how she and Bursac drew their friends and acquaintances into a river of people united by the same motives.

Asked if their act was an intrusion into private property and was breaking the law, she said justice was sometimes more important than the law – recalling that when the state allowed the privatization of the 14 cinemas in 2007, these sites, many situated in valuable locations, turned into ruins.

The Beograd Film network was sold for 9 million euro to Nikola Djivanovic.

Five years later, the businessman was arrested and convicted of abuse of office, of illegally benefiting to the tune of around 4 million euro and of causing damage worth around 2 million euro to the state.

By that time all the cinemas once owned by Beograd Film were closed. After reaching a deal with the prosecution, Djivanovic spent two years in prison. 

The spirit of the cinema guerrillas spreads across Serbia
KULA - Inspired by the example of Zvezda, two similar citizens actions have taken place in Serbia following the Movement for the Occupation of Cinema’s liberation of the building in the centre of Belgrade.On November 30, in Kula, Vojvodina, which is the hometown of Mina Djukic, the Serbian premiere of her movie “Disobedient” took place. The projection took place in the Sloboda cinema that had been closed for years. In order to show “Disobedient” and revive the cinema for one day, a group of people led by Mina Djukic “occupied” this space. She told Beta news agency that the action in Kula had been “possible in a more legal way” than the action in Zvezda had been, because of the support of the local authorities and because there were “fewer problematic political and legal games” in Kula than in the case with Zvezda and Beograd Film.
VLADIMIRCI - After more than 15 years, on December 19, a group of young people from Vladimirci, near Sabac, organized the first projection in the cinema based in the local culture centre. In the days before the show, they cleaned up and put the projection hall in order. The action was supported by the local library, which has a formal jurisdiction over the cinema. While they hope that their action will prove the public interest exists in reviving this object and will attract investment from the local budget, the young activists meanwhile show movies at this space from time to time.

In the Zvezda cinema, which Djivanovic still owns, Djukic and her friends are making further plans for their movement.

She says they revolve around scrapping the privatization of the Beograd Film network, and keeping Zvezda as an alternative cinema with educational content.

“We have no intention of becoming the owners of the cinema,” she pointed out.

“We hope for some kind of a creative model for its functioning that will not hide private interests behind the illusion of cultural activities, and will not maintain the status quo,” she added, urging the authorities to accept that the harmful consequences of privatizing the network is their responsibility.

Occupation echoes around Europe:

The flair with which the movement has opposed the destruction of public spaces and promoted alternative cultural spaces has inspired artists, NGOs and ordinary people all over Serbia, as well as beyond. Those that BIRN talked to see the movement as the beginning of a wider civic re-awakening, which is what the “occupiers” believe their mission to be.

Media across the region reported on the Belgrade cinema “guerrillas” and on their demand for the privatization of Beograd Film to be annulled. The French philosopher Alain Badieu visited the occupiers in mid-January, while Alexis Tsipras, the current Greek Prime Minister, came to Zvezda last December, just before winning the Greek general elections.

Srecko Horvat, the Croatian philosopher and sociologist, wrote about Zvezda in an article written for the New York Times, while Michel Gondry, the Oscar-winning director from France, has made a short animated movie as homage to the movement.

Many protagonists of the independent cultural scene, filmmakers as well as domestic and foreign thinkers, support the movement and the way it has “liberated” Zvezda from decay and oblivion.

The Timeline: Cultural initiatives dealing with Serbian public spaces
- Belgrade, January 2011 – BIGZ – An artistic colony founded in the old building of the BIGZ publishing house in Belgrade at the beginning of 21st century was turned into a cultural centre when the owners started renting out offices in order to slow down the deterioration of the site. However, the renters, mostly young artists mostly left the building in 2014 when their contracts were cancelled due to the construction of a luxury hotel in the vicinity of BIGZ.
- Belgrade, April 2011 – Inex Film - A group of activists established an alternative cultural centre in the abandoned building of Inex film, located in the Belgrade district of Karaburma. After cleaning up the building the members of the movement Expedition Inex Film started organizing various cultural events, which continue to this day.
- Novi Sad, December 2011 - Community Centre – Around 200 people entered the abandoned military barracks in Novi Sad, demanding that the Ministry of Defence let them turn it into a public space for cultural, sporting and educational activities. However, on January 13, police and soldiers entered the barracks and ordered occupants to move out, which they did.
- Belgrade – 2011 to 2013 – Beograd Film - A citizens initiative on several occasions organized protests and performances in front of cinemas that were once part of the Beograd Film network, reminding the public and the authorities that all 14 cinemas have closed down since privatization.
- Belgrade – 2015 – Magacin (The Warehouse) – Early this year, the Association “The Independent Cultural Scene” continued negotiations with the city authorities on adapting the warehouse near Belgrade railway station to stage cultural events. Although the building was declared a public cultural space back in 2007, it has never been put into practice owing to procedural issues.

Djokica Jovanovic, a lecturer at Belgrade University specializing in the sociology of culture, says the occupation represents an “act of practicing freedom.

“The space of the cinema after privatization ended in the dark, as did many other public spaces. There was no other way. People brought in flashlights and brooms, cleaned the mess up and started enjoying the idea of beauty, art and freedom,” Jovanovic told BIRN.

He feels that the Movement for the Occupation of Cinemas represents a broader longing in society to be freed from “the clutches of an absolutistic authority, embodied in the structure of politicians, tycoons and clergy.

“This structure is suspending freedom by privatizing all public resources, from culture to industry,” he added.

Filmmaker Srdjan Dragojevic who is also an MP of the Socialist Party, which, which is part of the government, matches that thought. He recalls that the Beograd Film cinema network once consisted of a chain of 14 cinemas.

“Zvezda is the initial spark that pushed the whole thing forward. But I would not be happy to see the wool pulled over the eyes of the public and a rotten compromise made solely around Zvezda while the other 13 cinemas are allowed to sink into oblivion,” Dragojevic told BIRN.

The events in Zvezda have become an inspiration for youngsters in other towns and cities, and many of them have come to him for advice on how to re-establish a “devastated cultural centre or a cinema that in meantime has become a betting shop, night club or a ruin”, he remarked.

Darka Radosavljevic, from the NGO Remont, praises the way that forgotten public spaces have again come under the public spotlight, adding that its represents a continuation of a trend towards establishing alternative cultural centres in Belgrade and beyond.

“Quality cultural initiatives have mostly been organized outside of the institutional framework in past years, but the authorities and political structures do not have the capacity to adapt to these changes,” Radosavljevic observed.

She hopes more focal points such as Zvezda will be established in future years, “and that politicians will acknowledge that their perceptions significantly differ from the real needs of the citizens”.

Milica Pekic, president of the board of the Independent Cultural Scene, NKSS, an association comprising several dozen NGOs focusing on culture, said the cinema occupation movement fits the profile of other organizations across Europe and represents a sign of a reawakened civic consciousness, emancipating people and inspiring them to take responsibility for the wider social interest.

“Large numbers of organizations that deal with contemporary artistic production are making relevant and significant programmes for the scene and the audience, but they do not have the space to work or to exhibit,” Pekic explained. She sees the occupation of Zvezda as just one of a number of initiatives concerned with public spaces in Belgrade and across Serbia.

“It is a normal reaction of citizens to the suppression and marginalization of culture,” she concluded, recalling that privatization has effectively destroyed cinemas, while museums across Belgrade close and institutions are de-professionalized. 

Dobrica Veselinovic, from the NGO Ministry of Space, which aims to create as much as space possible for independent cultural activities, says the occupation of Zvezda is the fruit of a campaign that has lasted for years and which aims to warn people of the destructive consequences of the “criminal and savage” privatization of Beograd Film.

“The liberation of this cinema shows it is possible to turn round the negative trend of shutting down and of cultural collapse - and to point to deeper social problems at the same time,” he said. Zvezda is thus merely a symbol of a wider struggle.

“On one side, we have a great number of public spaces that are empty and abandoned for a long time, and on the other, a lot of organizations and individuals that need these spaces,” Veselinovic noted. “Unfortunately, there is no political will among the ruling elite to connect these two poles.”

The city authorities are less enthusiastic. They also paid a visit and initially gave the movement verbal support. But they have taken no concrete steps towards questioning the privatization of Beograd Film, or towards finding a new model for the running of the occupied cinema. The movement has been left with the “status quo”, or a “creative vacuum” in which they plan to function for as long as they can.

Freedom inside a bubble:

“We have no intention of becoming the owners of the cinema. We hope for some kind of a creative model for its functioning,” Mina Djukic says.

Back at the cinema, Djukic saysthat about a dozen young people at the core of the movement, including herself, keep daily and nightly watches, turning the devastated cinema into their second home, while several hundred others turn up and help when they can. 

“This action has turned a group of embittered individuals into a collective that opposes the treatment that culture receives in Serbia nowadays,” Djukic stated proudly, adding that while she supports others who wish to implement the Zvezda scenario in other cultural centres, they should not see it as a formula and should follow their own ideas.

“Among the members of the movement there is so much love, solidarity and care, with a complete dedication to our mutual mission – to defend Belgrade’s cinemas,” she said.

Audience of Zvezda:
- “I am 20 and I never saw a real cinema – only artificial ones, a part of the machinery. Here one can feel the movie atmosphere and watch classics that should be on everyone’s must-see list. Here we can really dedicate ourselves to watching movies. But, it’s cold, the conditions are terrible, and many people can’t put up with this. I would really like this to last for a long time and live to see better circumstances.” Dragana Batinic, 20, student of pedagogy

- “This is wonderful. I am here for the first time since 1996, and I signed the petition to cancel the privatization of Beograd Film. Other cinemas in town have no soul and are commercial, while this is something else. It is nice to watch old movies here. I support these young people with all my heart, but I feel that in life the outcomes are often imposed from outside. I would much prefer to see them succeed in their struggle than for this to be commercialized and turned into something completely different. Also, two parents with two children have to pay around 20 euro to go to a cinema, while this is free.” Ina Stankovic, 45

Djukic observed that while she and her comrades organize in shifts to guard the cinema, they contacted the owner businessmen, Djivanovic through social networks.

“He is an intelligent and a cynical man, sometimes witty. Our relationship is a clash of philosophies – we are here to make a statement and to introduce light into darkness, not to fight for square meters of offices,” she said.

She reveals that when the movement asked him to give them the space for free, he replied: “I will think about it”, never to reply again.

“It was New Year when he called us to say that we could peacefully go home to spend our holidays with our families and that nothing would happen to the cinema if we left it for one day. We did not listen to his advice,” Djukic told BIRN.

She said the movement, which has no established hierarchy, structure or financiers, will stay inside the cinema for as long as possible, trying to solve one problem at a time, investing their own money, or receiving informal donations from supporters. 

“We plan all the details about the functioning of the cinema together, and everybody has the freedom to suggest their ideas to others. We are also keeping our doors open for new members,” Djukic said.

The occupation of Zvezda is not coloured by a leftist or any other ideology and does not represent anarchy or licentiousness; it presents a way of cultural emancipation and civic awakening as well as repairing the damage caused by shady privatization, she concluded.

This article is funded under the Invisible Art project, supported by the Prince Claus Fund.

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