There is a Sleeping Beauty out there, and a prolific international filmmaker is on a quest to awaken her with the kiss of his camera
If you are a documentary film buff, no introduction is needed – Zeljko Mirkovic’s name is synonymous with “top of the line productions”. For anyone else, he is the international director to watch with a more than impressive list of accomplishments to show for: From his first documentary in 2000 through today, his work has been featured at more than 200 international film festivals and broadcast on TV stations throughout Europe, USA and Asia. He has won well over 40 prestigious awards and prizes, and counting – in pretty much every discipline from scriptwriting and photography to directing and videography. And in fact, his best known documentary to date, “The Second Meeting”, was even a 2014 official Oscar runner in the Feature Documentary category.
We had the privilege of talking to the Serbian filmmaker who now lives, works and teaches in the United States. He kindly shared a few moments of his scarce time with us to tell us about his current film “The Promise”, which after its recent première in the U.S. is also already reaping laurels wherever it goes, and which will be screening in France in June.
From Serbia to Hollywood
But before we get into that, let’s zoom out and get the panorama of Zeljko’s path from humble beginnings as a film student in his then war-torn home country of Serbia to the lofty heights of American cinematographic glory.
While pursuing his studies in TV directing at the Belgrade Academy of Art in the mid to late 1990s, Zeljko realized his interest in documentaries early on. But he is the kind of guy who does things solidly, and so he first continued with advanced degrees in France and the UK before founding his own production company, Optimistic Film. Nomen est omen… he wants to tell true stories, but always with a positive theme of hope, peace, and a better tomorrow. “I actually call them documentary fairytales,” he says, “as I believe that we design our reality according to our energy and how we feel.”
And indeed, Zeljko’s signature style is to tell human interest stories in his documentaries in a feature film way. There is a coherent story line. You are introduced to the protagonists and their world, you learn where they come from, how they live, what makes them tick. Then the camera just follows along, unobtrusively, discreetly… it becomes your own eyes and ears as you sit among your new friends and observe how the story unfolds as paths cross, and lives intermingle … Documentaries become movies, set against the backdrop of reality.
Among all the terrific work Zeljko and his team have done, one film stands out, not only for the worldwide accolades it got – it was the one that made the Oscar selection – but also for the narrative.
The Second Meeting
Serbia, 1999, at the height of the Balkan conflict. American fighter pilot Dale Zelko overflies the town of Skorenovac near Belgrade in his stealth bomber when he is shot down by Serbian rocket colonel Zoltan Dani.
Dale is safely rescued and returns to Ohio and his young bride. He is as all-American as they come, living a peaceful rural Midwestern existence with his ever-expanding family of soon to be five kids. Occasionally he revels in the memories of bygone days as a pilot, and relives the trauma of his Mayday. In fact, he has Slovenian heritage – his grandparents immigrated to the States in their youth but to him this is material of family folklore rather than true cultural ties.
Meanwhile, Zoltan Dani became a national hero after taking down the F-117A. He is a salt-of-the-earth type, the guy you want for your neighbour because he has your back no matter what. After retiring from the army, he is solicited by powerful Eastern governments to work for them, backed by multi-million dollar offers. There are not many opportunities in this impoverished part of the world, neither for him nor his children. He has to take a decision…. Which way will it go?
Twelve years later. Dale has the opportunity to come back to Serbia and meet the officer who attacked his plane. Who are these two men from such different cultures, and so different in character and personality… the brash American and the low-key Serb? What do they have in common, what separates them? Can the two former enemies find common ground, or even become friends? Can the Serbian forgive a man who tried to attack his country? Can the American forget that the man across from him tried to kill him? A human story of a unique encounter unfolds…
It is an immensely relatable story. These two are not glamorous movie stars but down-to-earth, ordinary family men who just did their job, which by pure chance directly affected the both of them. Had they met at a pub for the first time instead of on radar, they would have been friends 12 years sooner. Human values and personal connections are stronger than war, and transcend manmade borders – that is the key takeaway. And the awards that rained down on The Second Meeting after its 2013 première, the raves it earned in the international press, and its run as an Oscar candidate are ample proof of just how welcome a message of peace, tolerance and friendship, even under difficult circumstances, is.
— Review on IMDB
Contrasting cultures, and how to bridge them, is a recurring theme in Zeljko Mirkovic’s documentaries. The one he just released and has since already won six prestigious awards for, is no exception even though circumstances are more benign.
A century ago Rogljevo was a prosperous village in the far eastern corners of Serbia, where the Danube river has carved out a canyon through the Carpathian mountains. The sunkissed area produced remarkable wines which were found at exhibitions in Bordeaux and Paris. But today this region is poor and deserted. The Socialist regime that held former Yugoslavia in its grip for decades, and two brutal wars in the 1990s all but destroyed the fertile area and its wine production. The young generation has long since left for greener pastures, leaving the old ones to fend for themselves until the village gradually sinks into complete oblivion.
The area is imbued with its glorious past, and the old buildings, crumbling as they may be, proudly feature an architecture centering on an oenophile culture. Over 400 wine caves are clustered here. And one day, along come Cyrille Bongiraud and Estelle Germaine, an experienced winemaker couple from Burgundy. They happen upon Rogljevo in their quest of one of the last unexploited winegrowing regions in Europe and decide to buy property here and work the terrain.
Over the course of five years, they set out energetically and enthusiastically, eager to introduce their tried and proven Western European concepts of exploiting and marketing wine. Producing bio-wines maybe, oh and definitely pruning the vines… they are full of good ideas and advice, but these just make the locals shake their heads in incomprehension and indignation. Why would they need outsiders to tell them how to run things around here, after hundreds if not thousands of years of local experience? A wall of suspicion and mistrust goes up.
There are a few, however, who are willing to listen to the newcomers and give them a chance, especially after the French manage to have some of the Serbian wines featured on the wine list of a few fine Parisian restaurants. Baba, the feisty and respected village doyenne, takes matters in her own hands. She travels to France – leaving home for the first time in her life – to see for herself. Is her feedback going to change things back in the village?
Written by Zeljko Mirkovic and Dušan Gajić (who is also its producer), The Promise was first released in August 2016 and has since earned no less than six prestigious awards, with plenty more doubtlessly ahead. Wherever it goes, the documentary has critics, the media, and the audience enthralled. Apart from the luscious cinematography, the music is also quite remarkable, delivering the perfect acoustic illustration. After a series of screenings in the United States, The Promise will soon also be headed to Europe. Fittingly premiering in Belgrade on April 1st, it will also be screened in Paris at the mythical Le Palace theatre on June 2nd.
While the documentary could have been turned into a clash of cultures where the seemingly more successful one comes across as domineering, Zeljko Mirkovic stayed away from that. Instead, the key message here is quite the opposite – that there is not one but many “right ways” of doing things, and that respect and openness to different ideas is crucial to advance in one’s endeavor of whatever nature. But beyond that, The Promise is also a fervent plea to save a part of the world that deserves it.
“It is hard not to be gripped by this story, played out against the timeless bucolic beauty of the rural Serbian rural landscape and grounded in a sense of tradition and community. With its dreamy cinematography, endearing interviews and a gentle narrative style that veers towards the melancholic at times, this engaging tale has the power to capture the imagination and encourage support for a community that is struggling to fit its past into a future that has little time for such things” – Renowned British film critic Marcus Agar
Serbia is a bucolic, hilly, verdant region, comparable to some of the loveliest French or British landscapes. But decades of political mismanagement and two wars in the Nineties have been destroying it right in front of our very eyes, along with the people who still live there. “Serbia is a Sleeping Beauty”, Zeljko Mirkovic tells us, “and The Promise is a symbol for a place with great potential that goes unnoticed. It does take outside support to awaken the princess. We need to change the view on it – from the inside out and the outside in – otherwise we cannot realize the tremendous great opportunities the Balkans have.” What he likes particularly about this story, is that for all the rejection they experience, the French couple just doesn’t give up – on the contrary, they try to adapt, understand, respect, and fit in. It is about more than business – they really love the area, and they do want to both realize their own dream and help the village, the director adds. And he also wants The Promise to send a message to governments and economic bodies to give people the opportunity to become self-reliant entrepreneurs if and when they are so inclined.
Making documentaries is a time-consuming and complex process, especially when it covers several countries or even continents as his films do. “What you see on screen, may have taken several years to shoot and produce. You need the patience to build trust, and then you follow the story for a long time to make sure you capture all the different aspects,” Zeljko says. He is a rational thinker with a philosophical bend, and he adds that one of his most valuable insights was to understand “that as a society and as humanity, we cannot succeed separately, we can only succeed together.” A credo which runs through his body of work and his personal life.
A Dream of Our Future: Salam, Shalom, Peace
The filmmaker is a busy man. While completing his PhD, he also serves as a Professor of Film at Digital Media at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA. He loves teaching as a way of sharing and giving back. And he is already elbow-deep in his next documentary project. True to his core message of tolerance and bridging gaps, he revisits the meaning behind the words Salam, Shalom, and Peace, and their interpretation in the languages of the three monotheistic religions. If everyone wants to live in peace, what stops us? Zeljko Mirkovic and his co-author/producer Jerry Holsopple will tour the USA, Israel, Palestine, Italy, Saudi-Arabia, Iran, Russia and Egypt in search of answers. “This film will go to the Oscars again, and it will go all the way,” he says.
And of that we have absolutely no doubt.
All images courtesy Zeljko Mirkovic