ENGLISH VERSION: Moscow Times: Brother's Keeper
Fresh from his wins at a Russian Orthodox film festival, Serbian director Ninoslav Randjelovic talks with Alexander Osipovich about his one-man crusade against ethnic violence in Kosovo.
The camera zooms in on a dark-haired little girl. As she smiles and fidgets, behaving like a typical fourth-grader, it is hard to believe that she is growing up in the midst of ethnic conflict. In fact, her village in Kosovo has been hit by a recent wave of kidnappings, killings and arsons, perpetrated by Albanian extremists. After school, she goes to play in the only place she feels safe -- the yard of the local Serbian Orthodox church.
"What do you want to do for your summer vacation?" asks a voice behind the camera.
"I want to go to Serbia to walk a little," she replies.
This exchange occurs in a documentary titled "The School of Our Discontent," made by Belgrade filmmaker and political activist Ninoslav Randjelovic. In the film, Randjelovic shows day-to-day life in a Kosovo elementary school, where students and teachers struggle to retain normality despite the rising tide of violence.
In May, "School" was named Best Television-Video Film at the 13th annual Zolotoi Vityaz -- or Golden Knight -- Film Festival, held this year in Irkutsk.
Recent violence in Kosovo against the province's Serbian minority has received relatively little Western attention in the shadow of the ongoing war in Iraq. In Russia, however, it has caused outrage and indignation among Orthodox believers who sympathize with the Orthodox Serbs. One of these believers is Nikolai Burlyayev, the founder and president of the Golden Vityaz Film Festival.
"I was in Kosovo two years ago and I saw this genocide against the Serbian people ... churches destroyed, graveyards destroyed," Burlyayev said in a recent interview. The experience convinced Burlyayev to dedicate this year's festival to the problems of Kosovo. He made this decision before the events of March 2004, when a two-day surge of violence killed 19 people, expelled 4,000 ethnic Serbs from their homes and destroyed 35 Orthodox churches and monasteries.
As a result, Serbian filmmakers were heavily represented at this year's Golden Vityaz Film Festival, and Kosovo was a burning issue for everyone in attendance. Unlike other Russian film festivals, the Golden Vityaz has an avowedly pro-Christian, pan-Slavic orientation. For example, the winner of this year's main prize was Mel Gibson's controversial film, "The Passion of the Christ." Burlyayev himself is best known for his role in the 1969 classic "Andrei Rublyov," directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, in which he played a young craftsman in medieval Russia commissioned to make his first bell. In 1992, he founded the Golden Vityaz festival to promote Christian values in Russian film. The jury that awarded "School" its prize included an Orthodox priest, as well as three filmmakers and a Serbian poet.
Yet despite these credentials, Randjelovic does not fit the profile of a Serbian nationalist. After spending many years in the United States, he returned to Belgrade in 1997 to participate in the first municipal government not controlled by former Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic's party. While working as the director of the Youth Cultural Center of Belgrade, he helped found Otpor, the student movement that spearheaded Milosevic's overthrow in 2000. Later, Otpor would receive hefty financial aid from Western governments -- but Randjelovic was a key supporter of Otpor before it started getting assistance from the West.
"At the very beginning, it was a genuine youth movement with some very unhappy kids," Randjelovic recalled. "And they really wanted to get the message across that this Belgrade regime had to go."
Randjelovic has never been trained as a documentary filmmaker; instead, his education was in theology and philosophy. He started taking footage of Kosovo in 1998, a year before a NATO bombing campaign put the province under United Nations control. Since then, Randjelovic has made 10 short documentaries about the changing situation in Kosovo.
Although he has always focused on the fate of ethnic Serbs, he has not ignored the fact that the Milosevic regime took brutal, repressive measures against the Albanian majority. This has earned him the enmity of Serbian nationalists. According to Randjelovic, Serbian nationalists dislike the fact that his films expose Milosevic's policies; they say that this is dangerous, since it excuses the crimes currently being committed against Kosovo's Serbs.
Randjelovic disagrees with this position. "In my view, this is a very stupid way of seeing things," he said. "It's a bad thing what Serbs did to Albanians, and it's a bad thing what Albanians are doing to Serbs."
One of the main messages of Randjelovic's films is that KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force that now polices Kosovo, has failed to protect the province's Serbian minority. In his most recent film, a short documentary titled "17-19 March 2004: Pogrom," he shows Orthodox churches destroyed by fire and vandalism in the recent wave of violence. The walls of many of the churches are marked with graffiti by the Kosovo Liberation Army, an Albanian militia. The KLA was once allied with Western forces. Today, according to Randjelovic, it operates freely in Kosovo without interference from KFOR.
"Kosovo is really a failure of the international community," Randjelovic said.
But while the 44-year-old filmmaker is sharply critical of KFOR, he reserves some of his fiercest criticism for another target -- the mass media. Randjelovic says that journalists have been largely silent about anti-Serbian violence in Kosovo. To demonstrate his point, he compares the KLA's destruction of Kosovo churches and monasteries with the Taliban's destruction of ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001. When the Buddhas were destroyed, Randjelovic said, there was an immense outcry in the Western media, but the destruction of Orthodox landmarks in Kosovo -- some of which were more than 600 years old -- was hardly noticed and caused little outrage.
Randjelovic's recent appearance at the Zolotoi Vityaz festival was part of a one-man roadshow that he has been taking around the world to raise awareness of the problems in Kosovo. Besides showing his films in Russia, he has also presented them in the United States, France and Hungary, and his footage has been broadcast on the BBC. Even so, he has received little support in Serbia itself. The Serbian Culture Ministry refused to pay for his trip to Irkutsk, and while "School" was screened at the film festival in Siberia, it was not selected for the Belgrade film festival.
Randjelovic suspects that his films are vexing for Belgrade politicians, who are trying to maintain good relations with the international community and have no incentive to draw added attention to Kosovo. With Serbia's presidential election scheduled for Sunday, Kosovo is often discussed by politicians, but the reality remains grim for people on the ground. Moreover, Randjelovic thinks this is unlikely to change. "My government isn't doing anything," he complained. "The Albanians can't control [the extremists], and the international community isn't doing anything either."
While Kosovo is a major theme in Randjelovic's work, the filmmaker has tackled other subjects too. He is currently working on a documentary about religious freedom, and has gathered footage from as far away as Cuba and Vietnam. In fact, during one of the most pivotal moments in Serbia's recent history -- the overthrow of Milosevic -- Randjelovic was in India, interviewing the Dalai Lama.
The topic of Milosevic came up during his conversation with the Buddhist leader. "He had a good way of looking at it," Randjelovic recalled. "He said, 'After Milosevic is taken down, if there is genuine freedom, you will see that people are very responsible about it. Because freedom is a spiritual thing. And it always goes with responsibility. If you see that they are not responsible -- then believe me, there is no freedom there.'"
Randjelovic paused, slowly tapping the ash off his cigarette. "And now, four years later, when they are totally irresponsible ... I see him as being right."
By Alexander Osipovich