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Animation in Bosnia and Herzegovina: A Start and an Abrupt Stop

In the shadow of Zagreb, animation in Bosnia and Herzegovina never truly developed until soon before the war...only to be abruptly halted. Rada Sesic explains.

Before the war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was a lively and important center of film production. Although directors from Sarajevo had always depended on technical equipment from studios in Belgrade and Zagreb, they had made their own distinctive contribution to the national--that was Yugoslavian--film production, especially in documentaries and fiction filmmaking. Animation was never a strong point of the Bosnian cinema. One of the reasons was that the production was already established in studios in other Republics of Yugoslavia: first in Zagreb (Croatia) and, later on, in Belgrade (Serbia), then Skopje( Macedonia) and Ljubljana (Slovenia). A Limited History Still, in 1956, Zlatko Seselj, for the purposes of an advertising agency, made his first animated commercial. It was two minutes long, drawn on professional cels, shot on 35 mm negative and meant to be screened in a cinema. In the early Sixties, the same artist, along with a few other enthusiasts, started an animation studio in Sarajevo. It was part of the production company "Bosna Film." Their debut cartoon A House in the Flowers, made in 1962, was again directed by Seselj. He became a very important figure at that time, but he would also play a significant role in the attempt to revive the animation studio in Sarajevo, 20 years later. He made his first films together with caricaturist Adi Mulabegovic. Mainly, their films were very inventive commercials. Artistic animation began in the same year with A Shop Window by Vefik Hadzismajlovic. It was a puppet animation, which was not a very popular technique at that time, or even in later years or in other Yugoslavian centers of animation. The same director made a second animation two years later called Nocturne. However, after this work he completely abandoned animation and became known as a very sophisticated director of documentaries. During the recent war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995), he made a few films about life during the war and one about Sarajevo's chamber orchestra, which is especially highly acclaimed. Another director who made an attempt at animation in those days, but became famous by directing feature fiction films later on, was Hajrudin Siba Krvavac. Like Hadzismajlovic, he also made his debut in animation with puppets. The film was called Miss of the Green City. Today, this director is one of the most respected personalities in the history of Bosnian cinema, especially because of his fiction films about the Second World War. During the war in Bosnia, he didn't want to leave Sarajevo. Being a heart patient, he couldn't get proper medical treatment and died. The production of Bosnian animation lasted for only a few more years in Sarajevo. Most of these films were made in improvised studios in the kitchens of animators' homes. Bosnia and Herzegovina's cultural funds did not support animators at that time and did not provide working facilities or adequate equipment for shooting. Everything in socialist Yugoslavia was ruled by the communist party and was in the hands of the State, so no animator could do anything on his or her own. First of all, filmmakers were not rich enough to buy things, like a camera, editing table, film stock, or even cels and paper for drawing, for themselves. Second, it was not allowed to produce privately any cultural and public product like a film. Everything had to be produced, controlled and owned by the State. Automatically that also included State censorship, although this did not cause the problems in the field of animation as much as it did in the fiction or documentary genres. Animators almost always succeeded in finding a way to be smarter than the state officials! Namely, political messages and criticisms of the system were said indirectly or between the lines and were not visible in the films on first sight. As a result, State officials couldn't prove nor sue the animator over possible negative connotations as a comment on the society.

In the late Sixties, directors Slobodan Jovicic, Mehmed Fehimovic, Stanislav Busic and others, appeared and acted as animators for a very short time. Soon after that, most of them switched to documentaries and fiction films or went into production jobs. The studio "Bosna Film" economically crashed because of a very expensive feature film production about the Second World War. It forever closed its doors to any further filmmaking. The new studio "Sutjeska Film" then came to prominence. Unfortunately, the leading people there did not have any understanding for the enthusiasm of a young generation and their desperate endeavor to express their artistic needs in animation.

Goja, Munk, Lotrek. © Midhat Ajanovic.

The Amateurs Keep Animating

In the two decades that followed, animation among professionals was absolutely neglected in Bosnia. Nevertheless, it remained very important and alive in nonprofessional cinema organizations. As a member of the Sarajevo city cinema club, "Rijeci mladih" (Words of Youngsters), Ivan Begic made a very distinctive cartoon. Sisters Sesic from the Academic cinema club made a puppet film Timotije, which became one of the most rewarded films in the history of Bosnian nonprofessional animation. Hasan Ibrahimpasic from Sarajevo, Aco Dimitrieski from Zenica, Petar Magazin from Konjic and a few others, have also been making important steps in the development of animation in Bosnia. Since, they were not burdened by the expectations of other people regarding their works, these young people could afford complete freedom, both artistically and ideologically. The average cost of a film made in a nonprofessional cinema club was equivalent to about U.S. $50, and money was supplied by the government organizations for the activities of youth. In the late Seventies one of the most persistent amateur animators of Bosnia made his presence known. As a member of the Academic cinema club, Midhat Ajanovic has made six short cartoons. Nonprofessionals tried out a number of different techniques using various materials, all animated in, maybe not a proper, but surely an interesting, way.

Obviously, many young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina were interested in animation, but the production companies hesitated to give a chance to any of them. In their opinion, animation was too expensive, took too much time and required skilled people who were, at that time, not available in Bosnia. Besides, Yugoslavia was at that time an undivided country and ambitious artists already had a place to go for developing their skills and ideas.

The Impact of Zagreb and Belgrade

Zagreb and Belgrade were cities where an animator from any part of the former Yugoslavia, if accepted, could go to work on animation. "Zagreb Film" in Croatia was from the Fifties, a very important place for animators. No one could compete with them. Filmmakers such as Dovnikovic, Dragic, Stalter, Marks, Jutrisa, Grgic and many others, were regularly making their cartoons and representing Yugoslavia at the festivals abroad. They were especially known by their new, reduced style of animation and, in a time of Disney domination, that was accepted as a revolutionary step. In 1962, Dusan Vukotic from Zagreb won an Oscar for his film Surrogate. This remains as the only Oscar in the history of Yugoslavian cinema. Since Yugoslavia was then one country, that was a success for all animators, no matter whether they lived in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia or Macedonia. Actually, the Oscar winner, Mr. Vukotic is Montenegrian (Montenegro is a part of today's new Yugoslavia), but lived and worked in Zagreb. Indeed, he still lived there at the time of his recent death. Dovnikovic and Dragic are Serbians, but they too always lived in Croatia. Dovnikovic still lives in Zagreb, while Dragic currently lives in Munich, Germany. In the following years, the success of "Zagreb Film" was joined by animators from Belgrade, Novi Sad and Skopje. In the capital of Macedonia, Skopje, a few artists started under the studio banner of "Vardar-film" animation. Darko Markovic, known as Dar-Mar, created numerous cartoons which were mainly commentary on political activity in Yugoslavia. His most ambitious work Kasa, won several prestigious awards. Another important director from Skopje was Boro Pjecinov who focused on object animation. Many others followed them. Films by Sarajevo directors were not contributing to Yugoslavian success at the festivals abroad. They were too insignificant in comparison to the works from other Yugoslavian studios. Plus, at that time, it was not even possible to send any work abroad. Every film was a sort of representation of the entire country and had to be chosen by State officials.

A New Start

As for the revival of professional film making in Bosnia, most of the credit goes to Zlatko Seselj, who was then, in the early Eighties, a retired man with a lot of experience and energy to start something new. Of course, it was not easy, because private production companies still didn't exist. All cultural production was, as before, financed by the State. State producers in Bosnia considered animation a waste of money. With the help of film directors Bakir Tanovic and Milutin Kosovac, Seselj gathered young people, who were either caricaturists, painters, architects or students, and started an animation studio in 1984. It was simply called, as in the old days, "Bosna."

I Am Telling You The Story. © Darko Predanic.

While this studio was busy with the administrative problems of starting a production, a journalist and already known caricaturist and cartoonist, Midhat Ajanovic, made at his kitchen table, his animation debut. The company Forum financed his two minute cartoon A Hero. The film was screened in cinemas before Emir Kusturica's feature film, When the Father is Away?, which was produced by the same company. Both films were Forum's debut in the field of production. This is one of the rare examples of animation films, especially from Bosnia, being screened in a cinema. One year later, in 1985, "Bosna" started its production. The beginning was extremely good. Nedzad Begovic, previously an amateur film maker, made his first professional animation called EKG. It was very simple but revealed a brilliant idea. All phases of human life were suggested in the film by sound, while on the screen just one tiny line danced as a symbol of physical, as well as spiritual, life. This film has won three international and two national awards and announced the Bosnian studio as a very promising one. After this film, Begovic made several more (Two he-goats, Homo duplex, Insomnia, Amoeba), and then gave up animation for fiction film production. Still, his importance in animation remains, especially because of his desire to experiment. He tried different styles of drawing and various ways of animating these drawings, in addition to testing ways of connecting sounds and images. During the war, he did not leave Sarajevo. He made a few documentaries, started a career as a visual artist and worked as an assistant director in feature fiction production. In 1985, Midhat Ajanovic joined the production company "Bosna," and made Post Scriptum, his second professional film. In the next five years he made cartoons like: Rain, The Message, Champion, Goja, Munk, Lotrek, Ikar and Voyeur. The last film was made on the eve of the war and disintegration of Yugoslavia. At that time, private production companies made their appearance in Yugoslavia, and this film was financed by a new producer called, Atalanta. As a caricaturist for daily newspapers, Ajanovic was very politically involved and almost all of his films reflected current issues in Yugoslavian society. Using quite a minimalist graphic style when shaping his figures and simple animation movements, Ajanovic artistically emphasizes important questions of everyday life. After spending two years in Sarajevo during the war, he left his home city. Today he lives in Sweden were he continues creating comics, but has given up animation almost completely in order to create scripts and write novels about the war.

The third person who has made a big impact on Bosnian animation is Darko Predanic (Deus ex machina and Et cetera in 1975, Acerban in 1982), an architect who started as a nonprofessional. Later, he continued at the "Bosna" studio as a full-time professional animator and made some very impressive cartoons (Graphite XXI, I Am Telling You The Story, Per Aspera Ad Astra). The main characteristics of his style were: very rich, colorful designs, complex stories and a harmony between image, rhythm of editing, and sound. His stories would draw viewers into a surrealistic world of rather futuristic, cold, alienated, urban beings. Predanic won a major award at the national festival of short films in Belgrade. Soon after that, as an employee at Television Sarajevo, he began experimenting with computer animation. Unfortunately, his work was also interrupted by the war in the former Yugoslavia. He fled from Sarajevo, and now lives in London trying to start computer animating again.

A famous painter from Sarajevo, Mersad Berber, tried with the help of a film director from "Zagreb Film," to animate his drawings. This was extremely complex in regards to technique because the animation was of oversized drawings. This expensive project named Tempo Secondo, was neither successfully done or delightfully received. However, it did open a new page in the style of Bosnian animation. Another young person from Sarajevo who devoted himself to animation was Drasko Turcinovic, an architect who worked on other animators' films beside his regular job. A few years before the war started he began his own project. It was a difficult one and required a lot of time, knowledge and experience. After two years of permanent work, he managed to finish drawing. At that time, the war was already going on. Turcinovic spent more then three years in the besieged Sarajevo and finally fled to The Netherlands where he took refuge. There, he was able to finish his film. Under the title The 8th Day, this film was screened at the International Film Festival in Utrecht in 1996 and at some other international festivals as a Dutch representative. Another film could be finished if the painter and animator Nevenka Sesic Fiser, having fled the city, could get her film's thousands of cels and drawings out of Sarajevo. She was one of the founders of the "Bosna" animation studio, and due to production difficulties her ambitious animation film Rhythm of Passing By couldn't be finished. Executed in the paint on cel technique, this film, directed with her collaborator Nenad Fiser, related her views on the development of civilizations throughout history, applying characteristic artistic expressions and styles of different cultures and eras. Today, living in The Netherlands, she works with Amsterdam's renowned director Monique Renault. After struggling to start animation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, young artists found their own ways to learn and practice this demanding craft. After having work selected for the festival in Annecy (Goja, Munk, Lotrek by Ajanovic), other festivals in the former Yugoslavia and being accepted as members of ASIFA, animators from Sarajevo were brutally interrupted by the war. The animation studio is probably one of the last things to be rebuilt in Sarajevo, a city that was severely damaged. Rada Sesic is a film critic and director, who lived in Sarajevo, former Yugoslavia. In the beginning of the war she fled to the Netherlands where she writes for film magazines. Recently she finished the short film, Room Without A View.