CROATIAN FEMALE DOCUMENTARY, BETWEEN LOW TIDE AND TSUNAMI
At the time when ZagrebDox was initiated, in 2005, it would have been almost impossible to assemble and screen a retrospective of Croatian documentaries directed by women.
The reason for this is very simple: up until then, there were shamelessly few female documentary filmmakers present in the Croatian cinematic landscape – only a handful more that in the domestic fiction feature production – despite the fact that the first documentary (co)-directed by a female filmmaker appeared as early as 1931. This early travel-ethnographic film entitled Durmitor, until recently considered lost, was a collaborative work of ethnologist Marija Gušić Henenerg and her husband Branimir Gušić, passionate hikers who documented their exploration of the Montenegro cliffs of Durmitor.
From Durmitor many years will pass until the next (thus far) known title by a female author, the medium-length educational Kulturfilm entitled Jadran kroz vijekove (1948) by Melita Filipović. In the following period, a few female directors will appear in intervals of a decade or so. Towards the end of the 1950s, this was Marija Brtka, a painter from Serbia, who directed two short documentaries produced by Zagreb Film, about "learning" about the world and life through images on postage stamps (Windows to the World, Svijet maraka, 1958).
In the late 1960s, Milica Borojević (Duša naša zagorski je kraj, 1968; Buna, 1969, Korablja, 1975, etc.) and Ljiljana Jojić carved out a space for themselves, first at Kruno Heidler’s Film Authors’ Studio (FAS) and subsequently at Zagreb Film. The latter directed the only fiction feature film by a female director prior to the 1990s (Across the Blue Sea, 1979) and remained in documentary filmmaking longer than her colleagues, creating a more extensive filmography, consisting of ethnographic (Paške čipke, 1967; Saint George's Day, 1969), cultural (Vrata majstora Radovana, 1971) and commissioned documentaries.
While such non-fiction genres were dominant in the production of female authors up until the late 1970s, male directors of the time, such as Ante Babaja, Nikola Babić, Krešo Golik, Petar Krelja, Krsto Papić, Zlatko Sudović and Bogdan Žižić, were blazing a trail through European festivals such as Oberhausen, Locarno and others. However, one female director managed
to step out of the powerful male shadow. This was Ljubica Janković (later Janković-Lazarić), whose superb socially engaged cinéma vérité documentaries problematized topics that are as current, contentious and taboo today as they were at the time, such as abortion (AB, 1977), divorce (Proces, 1977), elderly homelessness (Dom, 1980), etc. After these first titles created at Zagreb Film, she will go on to collaborate with the Croatian Radiotelevision (HRT), where several other directors (such as Mira Wolf) and journalists/TV producers working at the public television were making documentaries within specialised programmes (educational, cultural, ethnographic, for children…).
Despite the fact that the short form was always slightly more permeable to female directors than feature film, men dominated even in this area, and it shall remain so until mid-1990s.
The first decade of Croatian independence was unlucky for the whole of documentary filmmaking since it the field was excluded from the system of public funding and constrained by events in the country. However, first signs of change begin to appear within independent "incubators" – the Academy of Dramatic Art, the Croatian Film Association and the Grožnjan Imaginary Academy, initiated in the late 1990s – while simultaneously, the public television opens its doors to new female authors. The first acclaimed works of Jelena Rajković, a young student of directing, also heralded the emergence of a new aesthetic (Blue Helmet, 1992; Krapina, poslijepodne, 1997; Zagorje, dvorci, 1998), however, the newcomer’s promising career was lamentably interrupted by her untimely death. After graduating in film and TV directing, Vlatka Vorkapić used the opportunity presented by the Croatian Radiotelevision, where a series of highly creative award-winning ethnographic documentaries were being made (Pogačica, ročelica, mendulica, 1996; Grandpa, Batek, Granny, 1998, etc.) during the second half of the 1990s.
Subsequently, the late 1990s saw the establishment of the Grožnjan Imaginary Academy, where Tatjana Božić (Circa Oasis, 1999), Maja Zrnić (Happy Oblivion, 1999), Zrinka Matijević and many others will soon attend workshops, paving the way towards professional film production of Factum and/or Fade In, established in the following years.
The symbolic turning point in correcting the gender imbalance came with the student observational documentary Duel (1998), directed by Zrinka Katarina Matijević, which won by a landslide at Croatian Film Days in 1999. Two years later, Biljana Čakić will repeat the same feat with The Boy Who Rushed (2001), two years after that Vlatka Vorkapić will triumph with Ana’s Poems (2003) and Tanja Miličić will steal the show with Patchwork (2003) in 2006. Ivona Juka will release a feature documentary about the male penitentiary Facing the Day (2006)… and the list continues.
The floodgates had opened and female authors started to emerge from the zone of invisibility, thus, at the end of the second decade of the third millennium, curating a retrospective of documentary films made by female directors might prove just as difficult as when the film category first came into being, but for entirely opposite reasons. According to the data of the Croatian Audiovisual Centre, which started compiling records in 2008 and does not detail independent projects, at least a hundred female directors have made documentary films.
Some of them indeed appeared only briefly, making a single documentary, whilst others had long gaps between documentary projects, in some cases making fiction or experimental films. Nevertheless, the titles, and, in some cases, mini-oeuvres created during the female millennial tsunami have completely transformed the genome of Croatian documentary cinema.
It seems unlikely that the gender equality quota will reach its target 50-50% quite so soon. But the trend does seems to be moving in that direction, in part aided by a series of advantages those rare few daring female documentary filmmakers of previous decades were not able to enjoy. The digitalization of technology, coupled with the democratization of the whole production and distribution paradigm, is crucial among these fortuitous circumstances, and it goes hand in hand with the introduction of the study programme of documentary filmmaking at the Academy of Dramatic Art. Another positive development is the creation of the Croatian Audiovisual Centre, which, in addition to production, supports a host of festivals, distribution programmes, activist platforms and, equally importantly – documentary filmmaking workshops from which a considerable number of new female authors have emerged (Restart, Pula Film Workshop, etc.).
Women have demonstrated that they are up to the task when it comes to different production challenges, illustrated by the fact that a quarter of the 80 or so feature-length documentaries from this period were made by women. They have also found quite creative means of expression, creating music documentaries (a specialty of Ines Pletikos), challenging observational documentaries (My Life Without Air, Bojana Burnać, 2017), cinéma vérité films (Facing the Day, I. Juka), doku-dramas (Peščenopolis, Z. Matijević, 2003), docu-fictional (pseudo)biographies of renowned female figures (Zagorka, B. Čakić, 2007; The Diary of Diana B., 2019) and docu-fictional reconstructions (Nun of Your Business, I. Marinić Kragić, 2020), hybrid or experimental (In Time, Nichole Hewitt, 2008) and animated documentaries (Chriss the Swiss Švicarke Anje Kofmel, 2018), activist and socially engaged films (Bosanoga, an Entirely Accidental Death, Morana Komljenović, 2011; Revolution Postponed, 2017), intimist (Gabriel, V. Vorkapić, 2010), as well as highly personal autoreferential documentaries (Naked Island, Tiha Gudac; Happily Ever After, Tatjana Božić, both in 2014). It appears that the latter “genre” is most often employed precisely by female directors, both in the medium-length (pr. Category: Optimist, 2010; Family Meals, 2012; A Two Way Mirror, Z. Matijević, 2016, etc.) and short film format (Wait a Second, Tanja Golić, 2006; Half-sister, Liljana Šišmanović, 2006; Heritage, Sanja Šamanović, 2016; Mom, Why are You Crying…, V. Spindler, 2017, etc.).
What is more, the feature documentary format exhibits the same thematic, methodological and formal diversity of shorter films. Unsurprisingly, a great number of these films, problematize the female experience: throughout history (Pine and Fir Trees, Sanja Iveković; In War and Revolution, A. Bilankov, 2011); in the sphere of work (Women's Business, Martina Globočnik, 2003; Am I Happy or What?, Vanja Sviličić, 2011; Ana the Square, Jelena Novaković, 2015), in the eye of the media (Distorted Reflections, T. Božić, 2001; Behind the Looking Glass, J. Kaloper, 2011; The Cover Story, Silvana Menđušić, 2014), in the face of (domestic or other forms of) violence (Straight A's, D. Budisavljević, 2005; The Last Time, V. Vorkapić, 2007; The Mark of Cain, Lj. Šišmanović, 2010), in exile (the films of Rada Šešić), in their own bodies, and addressing women’s personal, gender or other identities. Female directors likewise turn their camera towards and interpret (with different levels of involvement and sometimes with a pronounced dose of activism) key phenomena of Croatian contemporary life that equally reflect on all of us, such as ideological divides, social injustice, primitivism of transition societies, Europeanisation and globalisation, immigration crises, the presence of Others and those who are different, as well as everyday occurrences in the public and private spheres.
Equally diverse are the methodological approaches with which female directors with different backgrounds, mostly in film, but often visual arts or activism as well, respond to the thematic challenges posed by historical events or figures, every-day objects, spaces and occurrences, as well as their own intimate life. There is a growing number of hybrid documentaries that askew classical observational or participatory methods, utilizing photography (e.g. The Place I’m Writing You Letters From, Nikolina Bogdanović, 2018), multiple screens (Soske, Rada Šešić, 2002) experimental procedures (e.g. September 3, 2015, Sara Jurinčić, 2018), animation techniques (A Cat Is Always Female, Martina Petrović, Tanja Vujasinović, 2019), and reexamine the purpose and conventions of documentary form (e.g. Sunčice Ane Veldić’s films). All of this signals that Croatian documentaries by female authors, of which this retrospective showcases only a fraction, have evolved into the sphere of (meta)reflexion, diverging considerably from the models inherited from the valuable and important, but predominantly male documentary filmmaking tradition.