I met Serbian filmmaker Srdjan Dragojevic at the 1996 Montreal World Film Festival, the North American debut of his Pretty Village, Pretty Flame. This rousing The Wild Bunch-influenced Bosnian War battle film showed Dragojevic as a Tarantino-level talent with a hip, quick-cut modern sensibility which just might appeal to youth. Speedily at Montreal, he was rushed by a team of seductive young agents from William Morris, who took cel-phone orders from their LA office about signing him up.
I saw Dragojevic later in Europe, and this is what had happened: he went to LA and, with a little help from the Morris Agency, gates parted at the studios. He met top executives everywhere who, though they hadn't seen his movie (watch something with Serbian subtitles?), handed him piles of expensive scripts to consider for a Hollywood coming out. He read the screenplays, and was horrified at how terrible they were.
Instead, he went home to Belgrade and wrote and directed The Wounds. Cheers for Dragojevic: The Wounds--harsh, crudely violent, made in the festering belly of the Milosevic monster--is the most brilliant, courageous, uncompromising picture to date of upside-down daily life in Yugoslavia-turned-Serbia.
When The Wounds opened in Belgrade in May 1998, publicity was forbidden in the newspapers and television. But its enemies are not just the government: The Wounds is seen by many citizenry as vehemently anti-Serb, and Dragojevic, celebrated for Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, is regarded as a traitor. I saw The Wounds first at the 1998 Toronto Film Festival, in a theater filled up with excited Serb emigres now residing in Canada. Everyone cheered the well-known filmmaker when he introduced The Wounds, but few remained happy upon actually seeing it.
"As I edited the film in Athens, I saw every day the scenes from Kosovo," Dragojevic said, speaking after the screening. "It reminded me of when I was editing my first film, and saw every day scenes from Sarajevo. It will never stop. I don't believe we have any future under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic." A scattering of Serbs applauded; many, scowling, sat on their hands.
"You show only problems," a disgruntled Serb asked during the Q&A. "Is there any way you see some hope?"
"No," Dragojevic succinctly answered. And that was months before the full-scale war in Kosovo.
The Wounds follows six years, 1991-1996, in the turbulent, beyond-the-law lives of two Belgrade teenage pals, Pinki (Dusan Pekic) and Kraut (Milan Maric), who grow from wild neighborhood punks into Billy the Kid-on-cocaine torturers and killers. "We are Serbs," one of them states at the beginning, and that's certainly a plausible way to read the movie, that this demented Huck-and-Tom combo are fucked-up, Milosevic-era Serbia: Pinki is born on the day Tito dies, which, of course, is Day One of Yugoslavian anarchy. These boys casually hate faggots, Croats, Albanians; these boys casually screw whores, deal drugs, practice extortion, wave guns, murder people. And, heresy: their gangstermobile displays a huge Serbian Orthodox cross on the dashboard.
A typical anarchic scene, a snotty nose flicked at Serb nationalists: while government TV shows its version of the massacre at Vukovar, turning this genocide of Croats into a glorious occasion of Serbian "liberation," Pinki jerks off in the bathroom, coming at a pearly moment of Milosevic propoganda.
If The Wild Bunch informed Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (American westerns have always been enormous favorites in Yugoslavia: Ford, Hawks, etc.), Sam Peckinpah's lesser-known Ride the High Country is the film which propels the end of The Wounds. In Peckinpah's 1962 work, two oldtime gunslingers who have become estranged regain their friendship, and affirm their honor and integrity, be walking together into a final lethal battle with the bad guys. "Like the old days," they say. That's the line of Pinki and Kraut, 38s drawn; but "the old days" means the ravage of Belgrade, the rampage in Bosnia.