On the third day of the Festival, students and guests saw the legendary Yugoslav film The Birch Tree by the Croatian director Ante Babaja, followed by a workshop with film historian and theorist and a member of this year’s Jury, Vlastimir Sudar.
Expert for the period of Yugoslav film when Babaja’s The Birch Tree was made, Sudar gave a historical context and described the cultural climate of the moment. Sudar associated this film with Aleksandar Petrović’s I Even Met Happy Gypsies, also out in 1967, and emphasized how creatively prolific and exciting this moment was in Yugoslav film culture. Both films competed at Pula Film Festival where Petrović won the Golden Arena and Babaja won the Bronze Arena. Unfortunately, as Sudar stated, Babaja’s film was in the shadows of I Even Met Happy Gypsies which, as a Palme d’Or winner, was very popular with the cinema audience – 200.000 people saw it in Zagreb with a population of 400.000 at the time.
Sudar described the historic and political influences leading to great films such as The Birch Tree and I Even Met Happy Gypsies. Linking the Soviet obsession with film and the subsequent growth of film in SFR Yugoslavia, Sudar cited Lenin’s famous statement about the value of the art of film as an imperative behind this obsession and added that Lenin’s tendency towards regionalism in the SSSR led to the development and popularization of ethnographic film. This ethnographic approach and regionalism gave rise to films such as Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, which served as direct inspiration to Babaja and Petrović for their films.
Vlastimir also offered a class analysis of Babaja’s film. Namely, apart from a personal fascination with specific communities, like the Croatian Zagorje where the film is set, small communities such as the one in The Birch Tree have clear cut and insurmountable class divides. The protagonist of the film, woodsman Marko, played by Velimir Bata Živojinović, Sudar describes as a figure of social mobility who breaks the sat class relations. However, the film does not take sides with the protagonist, represented as a consumer, a man forever unhappy with what he has, always wanting new things, which Sudar sees as the driving force of his inability to settle down and his insatiable obsession with women. Expressing disapproval of class divides and consumerism, Sudar sheds light on social dynamics behind the love story which is the centre of the film, also pointing out their political roots.