Arts & Culture

Lens on politics: Life in Serbia, Kosovo

7 min read

Filmmaker’s impressionistic work on Serbia is well-received by critics, audiences

Impulse, activism, and perhaps a bit of naiveté. That’s what led Jeff Silva, a teaching assistant in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, to make his way to war-torn Belgrade just days after the NATO bombing campaign ended in June of 1999. He arrived in the city with little more than a video camera and a desire to see the situation firsthand. When he left three weeks later, Silva had hours of footage and a plan to produce a film that would capture the complexities of life in former Yugoslavia.

Nearly a decade on, the plan has finally become a finished product. The film, titled “Balkan Rhapsodies: Encounters, Observations and Afterthoughts on Serbia & Kosovo,” premiered in February at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The premiere was part of the 2008 Documentary Fortnight, an annual showcase of nonfiction film and video.

“Balkan Rhapsodies” is an experimental film composed of 78 episodes — each a brief interview, encounter, or observation — that intertwine to form a broader picture of life in Serbia and Kosovo. The footage is taken from Silva’s initial visit in 1999, as well as two subsequent visits — in 2000 and 2005.

Silva first became interested in Serbia in the spring of 1999, when he was working as a video producer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In March of that year, says Silva, NATO drafted a peace treaty known as the “Rambouillet Agreement” to support the autonomy of Kosovo. When the Serbian government deemed the Rambouillet peace treaty unacceptable, U.S.-led NATO forces began a bombing campaign. The event marked the start of what is now known as the Kosovo War.

“I had only a very general knowledge of the conflict, based on what I heard in the news,” Silva says. “And I have no ethnic or familial ties to the region.”

The news stories, however, “activated something” in Silva. He began to do research on the situation and ultimately decided he was not willing to support the NATO campaign. He engaged in a bit of local activism to protest United States involvement in the conflict, but when the bombing ended in June he was left with an unsettled feeling.

“I needed more information,” Silva says. “I was particularly amazed by how an entire country or ethnic group could be characterized as ‘evil’ or ‘bad,’ as was the case with the Serbians. I was curious to problematize that black-and-white notion, to see the situation with my own eyes and to speak with the people on the ground there.”

Silva was also struggling with his own sense of identity as an American.

“I was struck by what it means to shoulder the burden of everything America represents to the world,” he says. “I saw in Serbia an opportunity to represent my country in a way that was in contrast to the government, to meet ordinary people and to start a dialogue. This was a chance for me to go on a quasi-diplomatic mission.”

So he took matters into his own hands, purchasing a ticket to Greece with the loose plan of obtaining a visa from the Serbian Consul there.

“It was very naïve in some respects,” Silva recalls. “I didn’t speak the language or have any contacts in Serbia. … The decision was almost impulsive.”

Luckily for Silva, he managed to secure a visa — the first given to any American for entry after the conflict.

From Greece, Silva flew to Hungary. In Budapest he purchased a one-way bus ticket to Belgrade and waited for hours in line with several displaced families trying to return home. Silva recalls connecting with a young girl and her mother during the wait and on the bus ride.

“We spent a lot of time just talking about their experiences,” he says.

He would do more of the same over the next three weeks, meeting and interviewing people throughout the city. Silva recorded everything with a small digital video camera.

“I just immersed myself in the culture and the lives of the people who were there,” he says.

Upon returning to the United States, Silva did some editing of the material and then shelved the project, with the intent to complete it at a later date. In 2000 and 2005 he had the opportunity to return to the region, which reactivated his desire to finish the piece.

“The lapse in time gave me some emotional distance from the experiences of my travels, allowing me to interrogate the video material more satisfyingly,” Silva says. “In the aging process, certain themes became more relevant; others less so.”

The interval also fundamentally altered the way Silva chose to present the material. He had originally planned to make a more conventional journalistic documentary that would tell the “real story” of the ethnic conflicts and the involvement of NATO. After reflection, however, Silva realized such an approach would be antithetical to his footage and to his artistic style.

“Life is much more complicated than what is presented to us in history books and in the news,” he says. “I decided I didn’t want to make a polemical piece, because the material didn’t warrant it.”

Instead, Silva took what he calls a “poetic” approach, playing with the idea of fragmentation and arranging the short episodes in a nonlinear fashion.

“The footage spanned such a length of time that it was quite a fragmentary collection,” he says. “But I realized there was strength in each of the pieces, that they all had some meaning. The challenge for me was to try to make the collection of fragments greater than the sum of their parts.”

Silva elected to include 78 episodes because the NATO bombing lasted for a duration of 78 days.

“The bombing is what led me to Serbia in the first place,” he says, “so it felt apropos to use that number as a structural guideline.”

Music also had an important influence on the structure of the film. As he was editing, Silva listened to a lot of classical music — in particular, Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsodies.” The rhapsodies provided inspiration for Silva, and he used several of them in the film.

“A rhapsody uses a free-flowing episodic structure with a contrasted range of moods and themes,” Silva says, “so it was an appropriate musical form to complement the film.”

Furthermore, says Silva, the “nationalistic flavor” of Liszt’s music matched the film’s exploration of identity and nationalism.

“The synthesis of form and content — particularly in respect to music — was very important to me,” says Silva.

The completion of the project has been bittersweet for Silva.

“It’s an incredible experience to feel the burden coming off the shoulder, but there is also an emptiness attached,” he says. “The making of this film occupied such a large part of my life and now it is completed and living on its own out in the world.”

The reception of the film has already far exceeded Silva’s initial expectations.

“I wanted the film to create a dialogue and to engage with people,” he says. “At the MoMA screening there was just so much energy in the room. … It was amazing.”

Silva has plans to screen the film at festivals in Uruguay and Germany, as well as closer to home at the Harvard Film Archive in the fall. He also hopes to bring the film back to the Balkans at some point.

In the meantime, he is already at work on a sequel—tentatively titled “For the Price of Freedom.” The film features two former Kosovo residents who relocate to San Diego to build a new life, only to find that the challenges of material culture make it difficult to pursue the “American dream.”