How Mercep And Crncevic Found Common Ground

Igor Lasic,
Feral Tribune,

Enough time has passed, we have a certain historical distance so that we can make a film cold headedly. Everything else we have seen about Vukovar, by this or that production house, was more or less propagandist in nature, or it was a one-sided story made specifically for various gatherings, events or anniversaries. No one has wrestled with the subject matter in order to tell the story we have cut into here from the beginning to the end, the whole six months of Vukovar, from May 1991 to the fall of the city, from the Ovcara crimes to the trials.

How did you decide to do the Vukovar: The Final Cut documentary, which will premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival in Zagreb in late February?

The idea has originated in Belgrade, by our production house B92, for which I have been doing documentaries for the last fifteen years. It came from a wish to make the first Serb-Croatian documentary co-production fourteen or fifteen years after the Vukovar epic. As opposed to films which have already been made on both sides of the Danube, this is an attempt at an unbiased look at the truth. Enough time has passed, we have a certain historical distance so that we can make a film cold headedly. Everything else we have seen about Vukovar, by this or that production house, was more or less propagandist in nature, or it was a one-sided story made specifically for various gatherings, events or anniversaries.

No one has wrestled with the subject matter in order to tell the story we have cut into here from the beginning to the end, the whole six months of Vukovar, from May 1991 to the fall of the city, from the Ovcara crimes to the trials. The film opens and ends with Ovcara, which is why we are several months late, since we had to wait for the end of the trial to include that part of the material as well, to round up the story.

Just punishments

Shooting of the film coincided with the trial. Have you been able to document the developments directly?

Such an opportunity was certainly exceptionally exciting, because we successively interviewed mothers and wives and relatives of the Ovcara victims. We were able to talk to them in Belgrade and share their emotions, see how they would react to the news that the trial would be held in Belgrade. There was a lot of tension at the trial, because the relatives of the victims and defendants shared the same room and it was very unpleasant until they were separated. We were interested in how the people with the worst experience felt, and that part of the film has an emphasized human angle. There are all kinds of stories here, you have people who lost several of their loved ones in Ovcara, a brother, a boyfriend... Then, you have a story of a pregnant woman who was exhumed in Ovcara, direct testimonies about how she was taken from the hospital in the eighth month of pregnancy. Ovcara is, in fact, a film within a film, which is why we decided to open our film with the trial and end it with a verdict, which was literally delivered to me in the form of an audio file to use it.

Is the Belgrade trial for the crimes committed in Ovcara an announcement of a more systematic implementation of laws in Serbia, or only an exception?

I would personally like to believe it is some kind of a seed of an independent judiciary, the way the judge and the trial chamber dealt with the events. I think it was a very professional trial and that it was not motivated by the need to present Serbia as a more democratic country than it is. But, some other trials are not heading in that direction, you can see that plainly in the trial for the murder of Zoran Djindjic. And while I was shocked by how fast the trial of Slobodan Davidovic, member of the Scorpio group, was announced in Croatia, in Belgrade you already have things obstructing the trial in the same case. However, relatives of the victims in Ovcara were content, well, not exactly content – there is no real satisfaction for them any more – but they themselves said that the trial was fair and that the punishments were just.

When you have someone as Natasa Kandic agreeing with that, Kandic who is otherwise constantly dissatisfied by the way war crimes are treated here, then that is a pretty big guarantee. The general opinion right now is that the trial should serve as a model, all future trials would be judged by this one. I think the viewers of our film will feel this in the closing speech of the judge, who issued not only the sentence, but more of a civilizational warning, that similar things must not happen again and must not go unpunished. Because, you know, a bunch of criminals still walk freely in Belgrade and Zagreb and a lot of other cities of ours.

The scriptwriter and the leader of the journalist crew for the Vukovar: The Final Cut film is Drago Hedl, Feral's editor. How did you meet, how did you get along?

It wasn't much of a dilemma, he already had experience in the production of several war crime-related film projects. As far as B92 was concerned, Drago was not a debutant, he came up as the most logical and best choice, considering what he has done before. I have seen what he has done, but I met him only during the work on this film. Hedl certainly had an autonomy to form his own investigative team, several of the people contributed from Belgrade. He coordinated all of them, suggesting various solutions as a scriptwriter, leading the story as someone who knows his subject well. There was a lot to do, we have worked on the film for fifteen or sixteen months.

The make-up of the team is reminiscent of the old Yugoslav principle of equal measure representation, a subject of criticism in the past, which seems to have served you well?

Of course, it was a completely rational distribution of work, we have counted on our contacts in both Serbia and Croatia at the same time. It was a natural situation, Hedl could more easily obtain something in Croatia, just as it was more easy for our Belgrade contributors in Serbia. That is the only reason which made us opt for it, it was solely professionally motivated, the crew included Marija Molnar, Dragana Karpos, Jasna Jankovic, Filip Svarm and Klara Kranjc. But we encountered quite a few problems in Serbia. As opposed to Croat participants in the war, commanders and defenders of the city, who saw the survival of this epic as great victory ending in recognition of their state and its liberation, here in Serbia there is quite an amount of guilty conscience, unpleasant feeling of having participated in something shameful, even if it's only for the excessive force unleashed on the city. Croatian interviewees for our film are more or less active today or happily retired. The majority of the state authorities involved in the Vukovar story in Serbia ended up in the Hague or are not among the living any more. We could not get in touch with the Vukovar Three – Sljivancanin, Mrksic, Radic – or Slobodan Milosevic...

Polite Mercep

You managed to get through to Tomislav Mercep, one of the most controversial protagonists of the Vukovar war on the Croatian side. How well did he cooperate?

Mercep was one of the most polite people we have talked to, he agreed to talk to us without hesitation after he heard it was a Belgrade production. He hasn't set any conditions, I have personally talked to him in Zagreb. The story we were most interested in hearing from him was the disappearance of prominent Serb civilians who haven't been found to this very day under his rule, while he was heading the Vukovar National Guard. We were interested to find out how it is possible for a man to become a master of life and death, without whose authorization not even parliament representatives in Vukovar could move freely or leave the city.

You certainly know that at the same time Vukovar is still a hot issue in Croatia, haunted with suspicion of betrayal by state authorities?

Yes, there are people in the film who kind of hint at that direction, they are more or less bitter people. One of the embittered is Branko Borkovic, who testifies about the last minutes before the surrender of the city. Mile Dedakovic was not ready to talk to us. But there is a significant number of prominent Vukovar defenders in our film. The man who participated in the surrender of Mitnica, Zdravko Komsic, Danijel Rehak, Vesna Bosanac... We even have a part of the story we obtained by accident from the military archive, where doctor Bosanac searches for her mother in the devastated Vukovar in a Yugoslav Army vehicle. Also, a part of the story about Sinisa Glavasevic, what his appeal and voice meant to the citizens of Vukovar. There are a whole lot of small films in there, because, apart from the general picture we managed to convey, you have personal dramas here, recollections and confessions how each of them felt at the time.

Have you met with more rejections on the Serbian side?

Well, some people simply changed their mind, which is also understandable. It did not exactly suit us that roughly at the same time Natasa Kandic revealed that famous tape with footage of executed Bosnjak civilians near Srebrenica. Some of the members of the Serbian paramilitary then changed their minds about our film, they feared what would the reactions be. In some cases we hit the wall by our mere appearance and the image of B92, which is seen as a traitor in Serbia. We were seen as interested solely in investigating our own citizens on behalf of the Hague... At the same time, Hedl experienced some unpleasantness with Branimir Glavas in Croatia, so it all got a bit complicated for a while. Thus, on several occasions daily politics and fresh insight found their way into our film after all.

The beginning of the dialogue

The interest in this subject matter is not the same in the two countries today, is it?

Reactions were various. First of all, Vukovar has a different level of significance for Croatia than for Serbia. After Vukovar, Serbia went through various marvels, from NATO and Kosovo to Montenegro... Events kept piling up and replacing each other fast. That is why we expect greater reaction in Croatia. But we did our best professionally to make a superior attempt at offering some answers to the still open questions, which will hopefully draw some worthwhile attention. A good film eventually always finds its way to the audience, while propaganda always remains propaganda.

There are no author comments in the film, everything is very measured and unbiased, as you once said, like in the BBC documentaries. After all, that is the case with your other films as well, Crime That Changed Serbia or Anatomy of Pain...

That's right, that is my basic principle and stance on making documentaries, but in life as well. In short, it is to give an opportunity to everyone to say what they think and remember, because none of us who makes films is any wiser or more informed than people who lived through the war firsthand. That is way the voice from the off or a narrator comes off as wrong and counterproductive as a way of saying something. With Hedl's blessing, I stuck to the film procedure where only our interviewees could be heard. Only the interviews and the archive footage. Let the viewers come to their own conclusions.

However, it seems that there are at least two very different truths about Vukovar in circulation, on either side of the Danube.

Whenever you mention Martin Spegelj in Serbia, it is still as if you mentioned a name of a certified Nazi criminal. People won't discuss it, they have a firm opinion on him. Croats see some people from Serbia in black and white as well. When you see them opposed or united in this film you just might start seeing them in a different light, with a more objective view. I think that the truth is never solely on one side, and between the Croatian and Serbian truth on the very same city of Vukovar there is a huge abyss. However, I was shocked to find out that notorious Croatian nationalist and chauvinist Tomislav Mercep easily found himself on the same wavelength with Brana Crncevic on what was the war all about. I mean, these two will come to an agreement more easily than someone else... But I was pleasantly surprised that Branko Mladi Jastreb Borkovic and Rade Leskovac can easily find common ground in the business and love of animals, that there are other topics beside the war. That is what we wanted to do with this film, to push the two sides a little bit closer to the dialogue, to make them at least attempt to discuss the matter.


Final Cut contending for the Heart of Sarajevo
On Monday, August 21, the 12th Sarajevo Film Festival (SFF) Documentary selection will screen a B92 production documentary directed by Janko Baljak: “Vukovar – Final Cut”. SFF Documentary selection will present the films that are mostly dealing with the subject of the quest for the truth. More...


Trailer - video clip [RealPlayer]

Serbian paramilitary forces - video clip [RealPlayer]

Đuro Hodak - video clip [RealPlayer]

Krmača - video clip [RealPlayer]