Goran Paskaljevic's Cabaret Balkan, the first film to depict the daily lives of Serbia's ordinary people in the late '90s, is one long howl of despair that's constantly turning into a teeth-baring, self-lacerating cackle. Shot entirely at night in Belgrade in the spring of 1998, the movie swings, in a loose La Ronde style, from confrontation to confrontation, from threat-filled anecdote to casual brutality. Civil war at a one-on-one level is the abiding metaphor, violence the currency, and gallows humor the glue.
Paskaljevic, a 51-year-old Serb, directed 30-odd documentaries before he began making fictional films in the mid '70s. His features, including Tango Argentino (1992) and Someone Else's America (1995), a magical realist tale of Brooklyn immigrants filmed on Hamburg sets, have often striven for the quotidian. Cabaret Balkan, which originated as The Powder Keg, a play by the young Macedonian playwright Dejan Dukovski, was, the director says, "a story I had to film." He and his wife Christine grafted on intimations of the coming Kosovo crisis and the hell it would wreak locally. He regrets his movie won't be known by its original title (a century-old sobriquet for the Balkans) in U.S. release, but sincerely hopes the upcoming Kevin Costner flick that's claimed it will be a good one.
Cabaret Balkan's powerhouse cast includes the central trio from Emir Kusturica's Underground: Lazar Ristovski as a boxer who murders his best friend and tries to rape a girl on a train, Miki Manojlovic as an optimistic man Paskaljevic's surrogate in the film returning home to reclaim a lost love, and Mirjana Jokovic as a sharpie on a hijacked bus who winds up in a gangster's lair. Veteran stars of Paskaljevic's Special Treatment (1980) also appear: Milena Dravic as a blinkered bus passenger and Ljuba Tadic as a conductor who provides an orchestral serenade for Manojlovic's forlorn wooing. "All the artists came to schmooze during the shooting," Jokovic recalled. "The atmosphere on the set was very different from that in the film. I think that's why we were able to go that far." (The Underground alumni were evidently unfazed by the feud between Kusturica and Paskaljevic, which the latter says is "a vanity affair" rather than a product of their political differences.)
Having also appeared in Boro Draskovic's Vukovar, the 31-year-old Manhattan-based Jokovic, who's been acting since age nine and appeared in last season's Electra on Broadway, has become the unwitting poster siren for recent Balkan cinema. When we met in an East Side restaurant, NATO was still bombing Belgrade and she was agitated. "I just spoke to my little sister there and she was crying," she said. "You think, 'What has she got to do with it?' I've lost all my respect for intellectuals in this business who think the bombing will do some good and that they have the right to fix your life." But she weaves a Kundera-like conundrum when she admits, "Oh, the things NATO achieved in Kosovo could never have been achieved without bombing not in 15 years. It's a double-edged sword."
Of the woman Jokovic plays in Cabaret Balkan, she observed, "She's tough enough to ride a bus on the streets of Belgrade at midnight, but I had the idea that she's slowly cracking. The film shows a turmoil of sustained pain that we weren't aware of at first but at some point started coming out in the most bizarre situations you could imagine. Serbs are a utopistic people, but the crucial thing about us is we have a lack of measure. All our need and passion for enjoying life to the full turned into bitterness when that was no longer possible."
"The characters are very much Balkan characters," said Paskaljevic during a recent promotional trip to New York, "and they come out of our excessive mentality. The night we show in the film isn't typical of every night in Belgrade, but a metaphor of what we have in our souls." What about the violence is that typical? "I don't think we're violent genetically no, no. But after the 100-day demonstration two and a half years ago, the opposition to Milosevic fell away partly because there was no support from the West and everyone became a little powder keg ready to explode." His movie reflects it: "I made a bit of a push toward expressionism. The actors would say, 'We can't act one foot from the camera lens.' I told them I wanted it to seem like they were between the screen and the audience."
Paskaljevic splits his time between Paris, where he lives with Christine, who's his third wife, and a son from a previous marriage, and Belgrade, where another son lives. "I lived in fear my seven-year-old would be killed during the bombing," he said. "I'm not afraid of bombs myself, but I'm afraid of the ultranationalists in Serbia because I've spoken out so much against the regime. Remember that scene at the end of the film where the mob is chasing the young guy for stealing gasoline? That's how I feel about Serbia now that we'll all be running to catch each other, like in the McCarthy era here."
Jokovic admitted there's a danger Cabaret Balkan will give American audiences the impression Serbs are a manic, ferocious, and self-immolating people. "But it depends whether you want to see a recipe movie or one that's courageous enough to show the kinds of emotions that are not supposed to be shown. I believe people aren't born with emotions like these, but that there's a certain costume that's brought to you, whatever nationality you are, that you have to wear. That can make you want to go out and explode. But we can all be someone else."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.