x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Collaboration after the conflict

The director Goran Paskaljevic on the Serbian-Albanian movie The Honeymoons

The first Serbian-Albanian co-production, Honeymoons, about two young couples who become victims of racism and abuse, could be the first of many collaborations between the formerly warring neighbours, believes the film's director, Goran Paskaljevic. The film, which is being screened at MEIFF, follows one Serbian and one Albanian couple, whose stories never meet. Both wish to flee their homes for new lives in Italy, but each must attend a family wedding before leaving. What the young, forward-thinking couples discover, is that the wounds of the region's past have still not healed for many of the people they meet.

One of Eastern Europe's best-known directors, Paskaljevic has been making films for over 35 years, including The Powder Keg, Midwinter Night's Dream and The Optimists. As an outspoken opponent of the former Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, he was forced to flee his home, before returning at the beginning the millennium. "They called me a traitor in Serbia," he says. "I left and went to France because it became really dangerous for me."

Because of his criticism of the Serbian regime, Paskaljevic's films became popular in Albania and began to appear at film festivals in the country's capital, Tirana, something that was virtually unknown for a Serbian director. Even now, there are travel restrictions between the two countries and very little interaction between the neighbours. "When they showed my film, The Optimist, I went there and it was fantastic. They loved the film and there was a standing ovation," recalls Paskaljevic. "Then I met the two guys who organised the festival. We came to the idea of making a film together: one month later I had written the first screenplay."

In a region where it is almost impossible to get any film into production without government assistance, Paskaljevic managed to gain funding from both the Albanian Film Center and the Serbian Ministry of Culture, to make Honeymoons. "In Serbia they were more cautious, because it was the moment that Kosovo proclaimed independence. I was obliged to wait six months to let the situation calm down, but finally we got some support from them," he says.

With the funding arranged, Paskaljevic's next challenge was to take his Serbian film crew into the streets of Tirana, to work with Albanian actors and crew, before attempting the same thing in Belgrade. "I fell in love with the people over there," he says. "The biggest problem was how the crew would co-operate, but there was no fighting at all. I think there will be more co-productions in the future. We have to collaborate and if I find another good story, why not?"

However, Paskaljevic says that the language barrier made directing Albanian actors a challenge. He eventually learnt to communicate with the various cast members in a mixture of English, French, Macedonian and body language. Honeymoons had its world premiere at the 66th Venice Film Festival in September and also screened in Toronto later that month, before reaching MEIFF. The director adds that the film has garnered a different reaction at almost every screening.

"They were afraid in Italy, because it doesn't show the Italian border police very well, but the political left supported the film and it was discussed a lot in the newspapers." But Paskaljevic was surprised how warmly the film was received in Toronto. "I think it is because they are all immigrants there. When I did a question-and-answer session, I asked how many Serbs were in the screening and it was 40 or 50. Then I asked how many Albanians were there, and it was 20 or 30. I said, 'It's good that you can sit together and watch a film here-'"

Despite the deep divisions that remain in the Balkans, the director believes that the region's youth are keen to put ethnic violence and mistrust behind them. "The young generations in the Balkans don't care about the independence of Kosovo or the politics that created the situation," he says. Honeymoons will open in Serbia and Albania in the same week at the end of November and the director plans to have cast and crew members from each country attend both screenings.

"They will come to Belgrade and we will go to Tirana. I am a little worried about what the reaction will be like, but I hope the humanity in this film will win and overcome the trouble," Paskaljevic says.