Lordan Zafranović claims that these few sentences above are sufficient to present him. And he is one of the most important film artists of Yugoslavia. His most successful feature film was Occupation in 26 paintings, then The Fall of Italy, Evening Bells etc., while his anthologies include his documentary films Jasenovac: The Cruellest Death Camp of All and The Decline of the Century: Testament L.Z.
He completed his studies at Prague’s famous FAMA film academy, in the class of Oscar-winner Elmar Klos, where he learned how to make films for viewers: “It was necessary to make a film for a viewer who bought a ticket, came to the cinema and after two hours left the theatre saying they’d got more than they paid for. They taught me that film is art, entertainment and a product. Today it’s as though nobody learns that. Today it’s like films are made for relatives and friends.
“When I made films that the public liked, I was celebrated and raised to the heavens. When I made films that certain politicians didn’t like, I was also unsuitable, and the people who admired me until yesterday pretended not to see me on the street.”
It was often said of him, and is still said today, that he is constantly jumping out of the line, to which he replies that for the powerless called critics, in the absence of true observations and knowledge of what he is doing, it was helpful to say that Zafranović is a controversial director.
When we were doing Occupation in 26 paintings, we wanted to highlight the possible evil that permanently threatens these areas; to make it clear to us what happens between neighbours and friends when evil times come. We lived in the land of Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, while Moscow, Rome and Mecca were far away
His most successful film, Occupation in 26 Paintings, won the 1978 award as the best film at the then Yugoslav Film Festival in Pula. It was screened in 30 countries around the world and was the most watched film in the then Czechoslovakia. The action takes place in Dubrovnik at the beginning of World War II and involves three young men – a Croat, an Italian and a Jew. The war challenges their friendship and breaks it, while the director reveals and condemns all the horrors of fascism:
“When we were doing Occupation in 26 paintings, we wanted to highlight the possible evil that permanently threatens these areas; to make it clear to us what happens between neighbours and friends when evil times come. We lived in the land of Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, while Moscow, Rome and Mecca were far away. We were directed towards one another, yet again, when the wars began, we were mutually killing each other. I thought that with the film Occupation in 26 pictures we could at least have a little impact on people to remember and not start wars, but that obviously did not have any effect, as the wars of the ‘90s were equally bloody. I was interested in evil in people, primarily the evil in me, in my family, and then the evil in the nation.”
Zafranović says that he has spent the last few years preparing a new film, one that he says could be the film of his life. He says for CorD that everything he’s done was actually preparing him to make a film that he really cares about, which will be called Karuzo. Karuzo was a fictional character who was called that way because he sang like a famous Italian singer, and at the centre of the story is his fate, but alongside him is also the gallery of characters of Dalmatia, which no longer exists, but which is authentic and was something special with its colouring. He is still seeking the money to film it, but when he was last rejected at a competition in Croatia they told me they did not have the money for his wide frames! And since Lordan is also a Czech citizen, he also applied in the Czech Republic and received the money for preparations.
This director is a great fighter who has got used to the misfortunes he has faced. The toughest for him to take is that his films were erased from Croatia and that his name became synonymous with something that inflicts evil on its own people, because he highlighted things that should not be pointed out:
“My name became synonymous with something that needs to be removed. When I emigrated and no longer had any contact with Zagreb, my films were simply prevented from appearing at any festival, at any film event anywhere outside Croatia, while naturally they couldn’t be shown anywhere in Croatia either. Thus for fifteen years in the world I was a man without films, without my own biography, and I had around eighty films, both feature-length and short works.
When I started returning to Croatia after 2000, I sought from Jadran Film, in whose production I had done all my films, to make me VHS tapes on which my films would be recorded. They promised me that I would get it and when it arrived, everything they recorded for me was underexposed; all the films were dark and unusable. That was done by a producer who made money on my films. When I went Jadran Film and made a fuss about such a procedure, the man who transferred my films to VHS cassette told me that he was told to do that by the director of Jadran Film. I took him by the arm and led him to the director, who denied it. The employee plucked up his courage in response to this, he must have been close to retirement, and said: “You’re lying, director, you ordered me to do it like that!”
There was no need for any kind of ban from above; there were enough censorship in the heads of those little people who did what they thought they had to, even though it was often the case that no one asked them to do so.”
When war criminal Andrija Artuković, an Ustasha politician and minister in the WWII fascist government of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), was deported to Croatia in 1986, Zafranović started filming the documentary Testament. Work on this film was accompanied by numerous problems, but Lordan did not give up. For instance, on the family estate in Maslinica on Šolta, Lordan and his brother, the excellent editor Andrija Zafranović (68), wanted to build two prefabricated houses and were given permission to build. When they had already laid the foundations, they were forbidden from continuing to work and dynamite was set that destroyed not only their foundations, but also the ruins of other houses around them:
“A month later they gave me permission to build, but since then I never went back to my hometown, until a few years ago. I was always followed by a lot of negative consequences due to what I did, and often also physical attacks. My parents were scandalised in Split, with neighbours throwing stones, smashed glass; my son was unable to enrol in the academy or in university, so I dragged him to Prague. That was a dangerous time for me. I secretly came to Croatia for the funeral of my father, and had to come to Croatia in secret to visit my mother.”
My name became synonymous with something that needs to be removed. When I emigrated and no longer had any contact with Zagreb, my films were simply prevented from appearing at any festival, at any film event anywhere outside Croatia, while naturally they couldn’t be shown anywhere in Croatia either
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Croatian politician Franjo Tuđman attacked Zafranović due to his previous documentary about the Ustasha death camp of Jasenovac, without even having seen the film. The then Croatian president accused the director of stating in his film about Jasenovac that a million people were killed in this camp, but the truth is that Zafranović never mentioned the number of victims anywhere in the film. Tuđman then devoted around a dozen pages in his book to writing about Zafranović as a prominent enemy of the Croatian people. The artist has repeatedly recounted this episode, but for CorD he says:
“His claim is senseless. If I did anything all my life, as a man and as a filmmaker, it was as a Croat to cleanse myself from that shadow of evil. When I edited the Testament in a studio in Paris, during the day I would watch that horrible archival footage from the time of the NDH and World War II, while in the evenings I would come home to my apartment and watch the news from my former Yugoslavia. I watched Croatian, Serbian and all other television channels, but the hardest thing was when I watched Croatian television. Those reports from the battlefield and everything that was said, that set design, black shirts, that NDH language, that same hatred, that was all starkly similar to the pictures from 1941. I wondered if it was possible for 1941 and 1991 to be so similar. I was watching 1941 in the archives and watching 1991 in Bosnia live. And I couldn’t believe it. After five decades, images were repeated like something already seen. I didn’t know what I was looking at in the morning in the archives, and what I was watching live in the evening.
At the time I was close to leaving behind everything I’d done until then and devoting myself to painting, which I studied before the academy. But I was unable to master the technique anymore; I no longer had the skills to do that.”
Then Lordan met writer Vidosav Stevanović in Paris, who gave him his book ‘The Island of the Balkans’ to read. Lordan did not put down the book day and night until he had read it, and then he decided that it would be his next film. The book depicted the war in Bosnia, with a strong anti-war message. They made a feature film script from the book, applied for and received money in the Czech Republic, where Lordan was the only foreigner to receive money from the state budget, went to Bitola, which was supposed to be Sarajevo and Banja Luka in the film, then The French producer made losses on the stock exchange and everything stopped:
“There was no longer an opportunity to make that film, which I’m very sorry about, because that was the best story about the last war. That film is simply lacking for me, as a hole in my antiwar opus. War is a terrible phenomenon that creates animals and beasts from humans, but also noble and great heroes.”
When he emigrated from Croatia, an article was published on two pages in Croatian magazine Globus, with one page showing the angels of war and the other showing the devils of the war, with large photographs. Zafranović was the devil of war, while the angel of war was Slobodan Praljak, who graduated in electrical engineering and worked as a director, and who during the war was a general major who eventually ended up as a prisoner in The Hague sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
When I edited the Testament in a studio in Paris, during the day I would watch that horrible archival footage from the time of the NDH and World War II, while in the evenings I would come home to my apartment and watch the news from my former Yugoslavia
When talking about cinema on the territory of the former Yugoslavia today, Zafranović does not fail to note that the role of the playwright has disappeared from film, that the screenwriters who existed in Yugoslav film have disappeared:
“I was fortunate to have worked with the best script writers, such as Mirko Kovač, Danilo Kiš, Bora Pekić, Ranko Munitić, and like Filip David still is. All of them were exceptional personalities, great creators who contributed to raising my ideas and giving them serious artistic dimensions.
“I was always aware of which films would cause me problems, but I did it because prior to that I made films that gave me the right to do what I want and slap in the eye. I did not do that as a beginner, but as an established author on the market. That means I had the right to do that. And I used that right. Of course, it would be crazy if I thought I didn’t know what the consequences would be. The consequences were sometimes smaller, and sometimes unpredictably large. I had to emigrate and my loved ones suffered, and I couldn’t have foreseen that. But, on the other hand, having fled Croatia, I had support among my cinematic colleagues everywhere. In Paris I was assisted by Culture Minister Jacques Lang, while all my colleagues helped me in Prague, just as they did in Slovenia, in Vienna … because we are one large family that understands each other well.
“Unfortunately, even today in Croatia when they want to humiliate me they call me Yugonostalgic, because, for God’s sake, that’s the biggest insult. I can respond to that by noting that in that former Yugoslavia we had an audience of 23-24 million people, and that our films had an enormous number of viewers. Films were made as coproductions between the republics, while there were numerous studios and common distribution channels. In that country I had an audience, then someone with some decree and war cancelled my audience. My generation was ready for big films, but it was unnaturally cut, the war cut us off. The regular cinematic pattern that we worked in accordance with disappeared, while some small film scenes were created that mostly rely on the director and perhaps his wife, who appears as a producer. Films are created in a kind of home workshop which cannot produce a major film.
“Today it is also still unclear to me why people from my branch behave as they do, saying that there is no trace of the empathy that once existed. For example, if an artist in that Socialist Yugoslavia had problems in their republic, they would go to another republic and work there. And vice versa. Remember that Žika Pavlović recorded her best films in Slovenia; that philosophical dissidents from Croatia and Bosnia found shelter in Belgrade … Today that solidarity no longer exists. But the language is the same, the problem is the same and the public is the same.”
After many years living and working in the Czech Republic, Zafranović also gained Czech citizenship, but also retained his Croatian identit rmer Yugoslavia. And that is still the same today. As a Czech director, he is entitled to apply for their state funds. He speaks about today’s image of Croatia, where he now comes more often, without bitterness, but with sorrow:
“The spiritual misery that gave birth to enmity and hatred during those twenty years is transmitted from generation to generation. It’s sad to see young people who aren’t even 20 years old shouting at a stadium “For home ready” and raising their hand in a sign of political salute. That’s simply incomprehensible. However, it is understandable when one sees how much propaganda there has been in the past twenty years of hatred, so that is a consequence of an entire set of policies that were implemented right after and even during the latest war in the Balkans.
“I’m not convinced in any great betterment, because that economic situation has impoverished the entire region of the former Yugoslavia; it has reached rock bottom, if not below the bottom. Something could be done there in art, because we speak the same language. And links should start in sport. However, if that doesn’t happen and hatred continues to spread, I don’t see a generation that will not suffer from that sickness. And sickness is difficult to cure, especially the sickness of a nation.
I was fortunate to have worked with the best script writers, such as Mirko Kovač, Danilo Kiš, Bora Pekić, Ranko Munitić, and like Filip David still is. All of them were exceptional personalities, great creators who contributed to raising my ideas and giving them serious artistic dimensions
“However, I have to be an optimist because I am a creator, because I have to create tomorrow. Through the art I deal with, I think everything is possible. You have to have one true road and choose a topic that is part of you and the truth about you. Try not to speak nonsense, but to say something that should remain after you for the generations, thinking of people who knew to transmit all these traumas we passed through. World War II, although we did not experience it, lives in us and is a part that goes dearly with us. When someone says, “We’re leaving behind the Ustashas and Chetniks, and dealing with the economy,” that is almost impossible. Simply, that is part of us and we must face it, but we can only face it with the truth, and not with lies.
“If you slap someone in the eye, it hurts. And bigger civilisations than the Balkan ones don’t open dirty things. As such, I deserved what I got from Croatia because I delivered a painful blow in the eye. The reactions grew stronger when the war started. There were considerations of who was who and which side they were on. I hope that some generation will realise that we did a noble job in which only love for a certain territory and people can bring forth criticism, and that is criticism of the total evil within one’s own being. Only one who loves can criticise everything that was negative, not only historically, but to this day.”
An unshakeable antifascist, from 2006 to 2012 Zafranović worked on a huge 13-episode series about Tito. That was an extensive research project and a lot of hard work, but the author is very happy to have made it:
“That’s not just a series about Tito, but rather a story about the life I went through. Whilst analysing Tito, I also analysed everything related to the country in which I lived and worked, so that job was very important for me, because I wanted to leave behind a thought and a trace for the generations that will come.”
This author does not cease to come up with ideas. Apart from the film Karuzo, which has been preparing for a long time, he would also like to make a documentary series of four episodes about Yugoslavia, in order to reveal how different ideologies and historical falsehoods were mixed up.