He spent a full 24 years as the director of the Yugoslav Cinematheque and largely deserves the credit for it having long been one of the five most important cinematheques in the world. He spent fully 45 years married to Vesna, who had his back all those years, but he wasn’t able to save her from the coronavirus last year. He dedicated the gold seal that he received this year to her. He’s proud of everything he did at the Cinematheque, but his greatest sense of pride is linked to him having spared this institution from the influence of political and financial malfeasance.
It was one morning in early 1995 that the then director of the Yugoslav Cinematheque, Rale Zelenović, was preparing to head to work. Serbia was closed on all sides, by blockades and sanctions, and there was no one from the world of film who would come to Belgrade, but Rale was thinking about what he could come up with to invite someone to come to the capital. And alongside that, it was in 1995 that the world commemorated the 100th anniversary of the creation of moving pictures. He explains the idea that he then came up with:
“To establish an award for a worthy world and domestic film artist, and for the name of the award to include the Yugoslav Cinematheque, and for it to be obligatory for the winner to come to Belgrade to receive their award. I thought it could be called the Golden Seal of the Yugoslav Cinematheque and that the first recipient would be Italian director Giuseppe De Santis. This famous representative of Italian neorealism wasn’t only the director of the film Bitter Rice, but also the film The Road a Year Long, which was created as an Italian-Yugoslav coproduction.
Apart from that, he was also married to a woman from Belgrade, Yugoslav actress Tamara Miletić. They both came to Belgrade, and thus Giuseppe Pepe De Santis became the world’s first film artist to possess the Golden Seal. After touring the Cinematheque, he said enthusiastically: ‘Now I know that only two cinematheques around the world preserve all my films, the one in Brussels and the one in Belgrade. The Italian National Cinematheque doesn’t even have all my films’.”
Thanks to this move and this first success, the country that nobody opened the door to subsequently welcomed Peter Bačo, Jiří Menzel, Liv Ullmann, Nikita Mikhalkov, Andrei Konchalovsky et al.
“Everyone who received the Golden Seal during the 1990s helped us a lot around the world, because they fixed the image of Serbia in a certain way, with their stories about the Cinematheque. For example, Wim Wenders told reporters that he was very sorry that he wasn’t a rich enough man to be able to invest 10 million dollars in the Yugoslav Cinematheque. Luc Besson came early one morning, and I listened to him speaking to someone on his mobile phone as we went from the new depot to the old one: ‘You can’t even imagine what’s happening to me here. I’m passing through tens of thousands of copies of films. This is a unique experience in my life. I’m in movie paradise’.”
Twenty-six years have elapsed since that first award, and the Golden Seal of the Yugoslav Cinematheque was this year awarded to the person who conceived it: Radoslav ‘Rale’ Zelenović (73), alongside Vladimir Pogačić, the longest-serving director of this film archive, who spent 24 years at the helm. Upon receiving the Seal on 6th June, the Day of the Cinematheque, in the Yugoslav Cinematheque’s Makavejev Hall, he gave a touching speech as he dedicated the award to his wife Vesna, who departed from this world a year ago:
“Of the 50 years of my working life, only one person accompanied me for 45 years. As she is no longer among us, I dedicate this to her,” said Zelenović, referring to his wife who passed away at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Heading through the depots of the Cinematheque, Luc Besson told someone on his mobile phone: I’m in movie paradise
“I received the award with lots of mixed feelings. It’s a good thing that I didn’t receive it posthumously. I felt great excitement when I said that I was dedicating the award to Vesna, to whom I was married for 45 years. She had my back for all those years. And I didn’t manage to save her during those seven days, which is how long it took from her getting sick to her departure. Vesna lived her life with incredible ease, acting as if she would live forever. I still can’t believe she’s gone. There is our son, Đorđe, who cares and is there at any moment if I need him, but when I wake up in the morning, I still don’t believe that we won’t drink coffee together.”
Rale was really destined to dedicate half a century of his life to film. That’s because he was born in Kosovska Mitrovica, where he lived with his parents in two offices of a cinema in the town of Kosovo Polje. That’s where he spent the first 20 years of his life. He came to Belgrade in 1968 and immediately started working in the amateur film club of Belgrade’s Dom Omladine Youth Centre. He graduated in Serbo-Croatian language and literature at the Belgrade Faculty of Philology in 1971. He served as the editor of the Dom Omladine film programme during its most glorious days, in the ‘70s, when this building’s cinema was recording 300,000 visitors annually. He spent the period from 1979 to 1992 at Television Belgrade, spending those 13 years as the editor of the TV Belgrade Film Programme.
His first job at that newsroom was to interview famous Swedish actor Erland Josephson, a favourite of filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. The following day, he encountered sports journalism legend Dragan Nikitović in the hallway of Television Belgrade, who told him: “I know that you arrived recently and I know that no one told you. Don’t flail your hands around while you talk with your interlocutor. If you can’t control them, hold a fountain pen in your hand.”
He arrived at the Cinematheque on 1st June 1992, remaining in that position until 24th February 2016. No head of a national institution has done more for his house than Rale did as the director of the Yugoslav Cinematheque. Testifying to that are verifiable statistics on this institution of culture that preserves more than 100,000 copies of films and is ranked among the world’s five most important institutions of this category. Diligent and cool, Rale never complained about how much he worked:
“The most terrible thing that happened to me in this job was the rocket attack on the depot of the Cinematheque, where there were 31 million metres of original material, negative film strips. And 90 per cent of what was there belonged to those who bombed that bunker – NATO countries. That attack destroyed 80,000 film storage boxes. And then the French Cinematheque sent a pile of boxes to help us. Its director, Michelle Aubert, visited us on two occasions, and we extracted from our archives a hand-painted French film from 1903 and gifted it to her. Every now and then, films are found in some film archive in Europe that are listed as ‘misplaced’ in their home country. And, as a rule, those films are only found in the Archives of the Yugoslav Cinematheque. And we gladly give them back. I didn’t see my job at the Cinematheque as a form of philately; to collect and possess and not give anyone else. However, even today, more than twenty years after the bombing, I would really love to see that mind, that head, which at one point ordered – ‘go and target the depot of the Cinematheque!’ Some diplomats later tried to justify that by telling me that we were located in the circle of a military compound. It is true that we are in Bubanj Potok, but the military facility was almost destroyed on the second day of bombing, and it was almost the end by the time we were hit.”
The Yugoslav Cinematheque is a national and world film and historical archive, the pride of Serbian culture, said famous German director Wim Wenders when he came to Belgrade to receive his Golden Seal, shaping his description by saying: “Under the Belgrade sky, a giant shadow of the history of film”.
It is interesting that Bernardo Bertolucci and Pedro Almodóvar were the only ones who didn’t come to Belgrade to receive their seals, but Bertolucci, the director of The Last Emperor, did send a public appeal as soon as the bombing began in 1999, writing:
“Stunned by the cacophony of war and in an effort to resist the waves of ignorance that are growing on both sides, I would like to remind strategists who plan the bombing on a daily basis of the importance of the Yugoslav Cinematheque. This is one of the three most important film archives in the world, an important segment of the memory of this century. To destroy memory, like that’s done by those who destroy the baptism records of hundreds of thousands of people, means destroying historical identity, both the future and the past.”
The most terrible thing that happened to me in this job was the rocket attack on the depot of the Cinematheque, where there were 31 million metres of original material, negative film strips. And 90 per cent of what was there belonged to those who bombed that bunker – NATO countries
It is because of this, but also because of everything he worked on and did over so many decades, that the cinematheque’s former director is still proud of what this archive represents around the world:
“The Yugoslav Cinematheque is one of the five most important members of the European and World Federation of Film Archives. And during that 1995, without mentioning the way we were then living, the European Union informed us that the European Federation of Film Archives had been created and included 12 members of the European Community, as many as there were at the time, and that the Yugoslav Cinematheque had also been included by invitation. I was honestly surprised, especially given that, to this day, my country still isn’t a member of the European Union. During the years of the worst sanctions, it never occurred to anyone to exclude us from the World Federation of Film Archives, where Vladimir Pogačić served as president for ten years.”
In this story about Rale’s life and work, it would impossible to overlook the credit he deserves for his work while he was editor of the Film Programme, when he broadcast a cycle entitled 50 Oscar-winning films, as well as the Missing Link cycle of the new European film, representing a hitherto unimaginable television film marathon lasting 36 hours. He was credited with showing Bertolucci’s controversial Last Tango in Paris on the small screen, at a time when it was banned from cinemas in many countries!
There is also an interesting story about the third winner of the Golden Seal, famous Czech director Jiří Menzel. At the moment it was decided that he would receive the Seal, Menzel had made many nasty statements about Serbia and its politics, but he still came to receive his Golden Seal:
“After many years, I somehow got sick and was hospitalised. I was told that Jiří Menzel was in Belgrade and wanted to see me. When we spoke on the phone, he stated that he’d unfortunately lost the Golden Seal he received from the Cinematheque while moving home and begged for us to give him another. A new Seal was made and we presented it to him when he came to Belgrade to direct at the National Theatre. We shook hands again, performed the ceremony, shot the same scene a second time.
He then said that he’d been left feeling shocked when he first came to our Archive. He saw the Czech film collection and said: ‘Well, you have all the most important Czech films. Where did you get them from? I don’t know all the ways we answered him, including the fact that we have close to 180 Czech films, but he then called our great friend, Vladimir Opela, the then director of the Czech Cinematheque, and told him what he had seen. And that wonderful man answered him: “I know, I sent that to them in 1968 [during the time of the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia], estimating that this was the safest place for those films to be preserved.”
If bringing prominent filmmakers was a real accomplishment during those times, it was sometimes an even greater success to bring a local politician and explain to him what the Cinematheque was.
“One minister, who was terribly honest, said to me as we drove from the depot to the city, in a completely stunned state, ‘I’m sorry, I thought it was two rooms with some tapes’.”
After the depot was bombed in 1999, Rale and his associates exerted enormous effort to ensure that the Yugoslav Cinematheque received a completely new depot that adheres to the most modern conditions for preserving film; the new Centre for the Digitisation of Archival Material was opened, which means that you place a cloth over a copy and get a new film. The Japanese Government donated an edit suite table to the Cinematheque, that nothing cannot pass through; the instruments received audio tone heads that can read every sound from the first tone head, from 1927, to the present day, and can memorise subtitles. And finally, the Yugoslav Cinematheque received a new building encompassing nearly 5,000 square metres:
“From an institution that was on the verge of collapse, we made an institution of European and world proportions. What we did represents the top realisation of the original principles of film archiving, as stated by Eva Orbanz, the then president of the international organisation of film archives. Everything that was collected over generations is available to our public and the world. Will someone who comes and sees that we preserve one of the few surviving cameras of the Lumière brothers think of us a little differently? I’m sure they will. The Cinematheque is one huge album, and we are guardians of memories. That’s what I was throughout all the years that I worked, and I’m proud that this house was protected from the influence of political and financial malfeasance.”
The good spirit guarding Rale’s office at the Cinematheque was the film Casablanca, starring the famous Humphrey Bogart. Two framed stills from that film hung on one wall, while in the central spot, behind the director’s back, hung a huge picture of brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière:
“The first job I did when I arrived at the Cinematheque in 1992 was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the shooting of Casablanca. We organised a party at the Sava Centre, it cost us an arm and a leg, but we sold seven thousand tickets. It was an unforgettable event. According to all polls, that film is still ranked as one of the ten best films in the history of cinematography.
Nothing similar exists or has been invented in human civilisation that can embody life and spare it from oblivion like moving pictures
Rale talks about film intimately. He likes to talk about it as a document in time, which is why he says that the last century was actually the century of documentary film:
“What is the film Love and Fashion today, with the divine Beba Lončar, the inimitable song of Đuzo Stojiljković and other artists?” This is a document about a Belgrade that does not exist, about the busiest street in a capital city without cars, with Beba Lončar on a Vespa, about petticoats… Nothing similar exists or has been invented in human civilisation that can embody life and spare it from oblivion like moving pictures. Where will you be able to watch The Great Dictator in Serbia today other than at the Cinematheque?”
Rale cites for us another detail from the time when he fought, together with people from the City Assembly and the Ministry of Culture, for the Cinematheque to gain a new building:
“The then director of the Federal Directorate for Property said, with undisguised disdain, ‘What is the Cinematheque? Every city in America has four larger cinematheques than ours’. It took me a while to figure out that he was talking about video rental clubs! And some other powerful people had already envisaged that building as being a centre for branded sports goods. They couldn’t imagine that so many square-metres would go to something they hadn’t heard of!”
When it comes to Rale’s biography, we mustn’t overlook the International Film Festival in Palić. He participated in its founding back in 1992 and remains its director to this day. He rounded off his career with the forming of the SANU Audiovisual Archive and Centre for Digitization, of which he was among the founders and the first administrator.
At the end of the story of this unusual man to whom Yugoslav and Serbian culture owe so much, Radoslav ‘Rale’ Zelenović reveals to us that he applied for the Faculty of Dramatic Arts four times… And he didn’t pass the entrance exam. And his son Đorđe also failed to pass this exam twice:
“Fortunately, neither he nor I gave up.” Đorđe has been working at the Yugoslav Cinematheque for years, and his work preserves the memory of his father at this archive.
During the many decades of his working life, Rale received numerous awards, including the most important ones – the Sretenje Order, the Vuk Award, the French Order in the rank of Knight of Culture and Literature … But he still can’t believe that the state of Serbia hasn’t awarded this cultural institution with some of the orders it grants every year, at least in 2019, when the 70th anniversary of the Yugoslav Cinematheque was commemorated.