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14 Dec 15

Occupy: Serbian Activists Reviving Arthouse Cinema

A year after occupying Belgrade’s historic Zvezda movie theatre, a city arts group remains committed to offering film-goers alternative cinema.

Ivana Nikolic
BIRN Belgrade

 

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“This winter will be anything but easy. We will have to reduce the number of screenings because it is cold and we haven’t managed to fix the heating system,” Vladimir Gvojic, from the Movement for the Occupation of Cinemas, says as we enter the long dark hall of the once well-known Zvezda – or Star – cinema in downtown Belgrade.

The walls of the cold hallway are covered with film posters and articles written by the group’s members. On the left lies the former ticket office, which makes you think you are back in the 1970s, when this cinema was in its heyday.

“We fixed the leaking roof, tidied up the old open-air theatre, we painted the walls and finally arranged the movie screen,” the 24-year-old explains with evident pride as we climb the stairs leading to the movement’s office.

“But the main problem is the electricity and we need to fix it soon if we want to stay here for more years,” he adds.

Between 10 and 15,000 people have come to watch more than 600 films screened at the cinema since the group occupied the building on November 21, 2014, says Gvojic.

With the backing of several dozen filmmakers, producers, actors and film lovers, the group reopened the cinema with the aim of offering the public an alternative to movies screened at mainstream theatres.

“Manda [the Serbian actor Milorad Mandic] gave us four reflectors so we could illuminate the theatre,” Gvojic recalls, adding that another famous Serbian actor, Dragan Bjelogrlic, made the first cash donation on the day of the first screening.

On the first night, the group screened Disobedient, a film produced by Mina Djukic, one of the movement’s leaders. Gvojic recounts how around 50 of them slept in the theatre that night and then spent the next month and a half clearing away dust, piles of trash and bodies of dead rats.

Belgrade’s ‘dead cinemas’

“Mina said that she wanted the informal premiere of her film to be at one of Belgrade’s ‘dead’ cinemas. And it was,” Gvojic says, lighting a cigarette in the group’s office on the second floor of the building.

The Zvezda is far from the only ‘dead cinema’ in Belgrade. Along with 13 other public film theatres, Zvezda became a ruin following the privatisation of the Beograd Film Network in 2007. All 14 of the network’s cinema houses were sold for nine million euros to Nikola Djivanovic.

Five years later, the businessman was arrested and convicted of abuse of office, of illegally benefiting from the purchase to the tune of around four million euros and of causing damage worth around two million euros 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.

Gvojic – who admits his group is illegally occupying the building – says that they even had a Skype call with Djivanovic last year.

“It happened in front of the fully-packed cinema. He was laughing, saying that he doesn’t own the cinema. He turned out quite nice then, even if he didn’t say much,” Gvojic – who is an actor himself – explains.

“After our first 40 days in the cinema, he told us in an unofficial conversation [via Facebook] that he supports us and that he wishes us all the best. He said he didn’t expect we would stay that long in a cold theatre,” the actor says.

“But he was wrong,” he adds, looking proudly across the office packed with film posters, papers and coffee mugs, with a small smile on his face.

Lack of funds

“All sorts of people have come here during this time”, Gvojic says as we enter the huge and icy movie theatre. “I’ve seen pensioners, students and football fans.”

Still, money seems to be the group’s biggest problem. Apart from the funds each one of the 50 or so ‘occupiers’ have so far given, they rely mainly on online donations, which helped finance last summer’s reconstruction of the open air theatre. Screenings are all free of charge.

While private sponsorship is most welcome, Gvojic note the authorities have so far been reluctant to help with financing.

“So far, they told us they support us but no one pledged to help us financially even though we contacted Ivan Tasovac [Serbia’s culture minister] several times,” he says.

Despite all the difficulties they have been facing for more than a year now, Gvojic and his collaborators remain optimistic.

“I would like this to become a small film factory, a place where students or young artists could come and express themselves, to make movies. Something like a ‘Kino Club’,” he says.

“I would like to return here one day to watch a film,” Gvojic tells me, as we sit in the theatre staring at the blank movie screen.

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