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Pretty Village, Pretty Flame

     Srdjan Dragojevic, born in 1963, is the only internationally "hot" film director to emerge from the Serbian-Croatian-Muslim war years. A Serb from Belgrade, Dragojevic generated an instant buzz when his Platoon-like Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, at the Coolidge Corner March 13-March 19, premiered in North America at the 1996 Montreal World Film Festival.

     I remember trying to converse with him there while, at the same time, he was being fawned upon by two thirsty female agents from William Morris. As one gushed about the movie, the other kept cellular-phone contact with their LA office. One of them told me that, pre-agent, she worked as a personal assistant for Miramax boss, Harvey Weinstein. Among her duties, she said, was cleaning out Harvey's blender.

     Dragojevic signed with William Morris. I saw him a few months later in Greece, when Pretty Village was in competition at the Thessaloniki Film Festival. He informed me that his agent (the ex-Miramax babe above) had flown him to LA, where he took meetings with every studio head. They courted him, and sent him away with armfuls of screenplays. He was amazed: all Hollywood scripts he read were execrable.

     Wisely, Dragojevic returned home to develop a film fit for ex-Yugoslavia. According to my ex-student Alex Lekic, a Serbian film freak living in Boston, "Dragojevic has finished shooting a film called Wounds. He's editing it in Greece, and it will be ready about May, and everyone says it's his best film yet. It's a chronicle of what happened to the spirit of Belgrade in the last few years, ending with the student demonstrations."

     Anyway, it's a mystery to me that Hollywood came running. What did they see in Pretty Village, Pretty Flame that makes sense for studios? Is it Dragojevic's boisterous, expressive, anarchic talent, which maybe could connect with young American viewers? It's certainly not his story (that confusing war in Bosnia again!), or his immensely complicated way of telling it.

     At the center of his War tale is a squad of Serbian soldiers pinned down in a Bosnian tunnel by a squad of Muslims. Among the Serbs are a Communist-Titoist career militarist, an anti-War professor, a lunatic Serb patriot who delivers berserk speeches about how Serbs were the first real people. While Germans and Americans ate pork with their fists, Serbs used a fork! There's also the movie's protagonist,Milan, who grew up in Bosnia with a Muslim best friend, Halil.

     Did studio bosses actually watch Pretty Village? Dragojevic slides between five (!) time schemes.

     Time one: 1982, Milan and Halil as boys watch as the tunnel above is erected by Titoists as a symbol of peace. Time two:1991, the first day of the war, when the two Bosnians, now young men, go their separate ways. Time three: the backstories of all the Serbs in the tunnel, what got them into the war. Time four: inside the tunnel. Time five:1992, the few Serb survivors of an eventual mauling in the "peace tunnel" lie wounded in a M*A*S*H-like Belgrade hospital.

     In the film's scariest scenes, Dragojevic placed his zealous, militarist characters in front of actual villages being tragically burned and savaged. For the first time in a Belgrade-produced film, Serbian atrocities actually were documented. But Muslims here are warmongers too. All sides are bloodthirsty, but all have their reasons, perhaps explaining while Pretty Village was embraced at home by both fringe rightists and old-time Communists, as well as being denounced by most nationalists.

     Pretty Village is rife with ideological ambiguities. Much like Oliver Stone recreating Vietnam, Dragojevic creates a crass, unsentimental, muscular guys' world (peaceniks stay clear!) on the way to his vivid condemnation of the Bosnian War.

(April, 1998)

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