A friend of mine recently told me about the time he paid a visit to the old, semi-abandoned Avala film studios in Belgrade.
It apparently took a long time, what with obtaining permissions etc etc. And the funny thing about the whole thing was that the organisation has been declared bankrupt, so we couldn’t understand why so many people had to be consulted for permission to visit the place!
Anyway, what greeted my colleague was a very unusual sight….all around him were huge film sets, some complete, some incomplete, some falling apart. And in odd corners he saw equipment, lighting, camera dollies…the usual filming props. But no actual filming work was going on obviously.
Instead, the place had been taken over by small-time entrepreneurs trying to make a living by selling odds and ends.
It was hard to believe that this was the very studio that buzzed with activity not so many years ago, with highly publicised visits from many top Hollywood actors, such as Sophia Loren, Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida.
Although it was established in around 1946, Avala film studios really gained prominence in the 60s, under the powerful personality of Ratko Drazevic, a former officer of the feared OZNA secret police at the time.
After the Second World War, Yugoslavia brought in a communist government, their leader being chosen as Josip Tito. Tito proclaimed himself president for life, and ruled until his death in 1980. During his time in power, Yugoslavia developed an ambitious film industry that was to become something of a brand internationally.
OZNA stood for the “Department for the Protection of the People” and was created in 1944, it’s mission being defined by Tito as ‘to strike terror in the bones of those who do not like this kind of Yugoslavia’!
Tito declared himself head of the cinematographic movement in Yugoslavia, and planned to make at least 100 films a year, but sadly in reality, only around a dozen were made.
But it was under Drazevic that Avala studios really came to the fore, with the most expensive films ever made in Europe being done there. Even today, some of the battle scenes shot at that time are difficult to emulate.
By 1989, communism was collapsing, and in 1991, tanks were on the streets of Yugoslavia and Avala became sealed off for the next ten years whilst the various warring factions sorted themselves out.
The problems ended in 2000, and with it came the very last film to be made there, called Shadows of Memories.
So what is the future of the once world-famous studios? Well, since Tito’s death in 1980, the place was abandoned, with countless reels of film in cardboard boxes lying on floors, rainwater leaking in through the roofs. Local people soon moved in, setting up their businesses within. Oddly enough, a film set of ancient Rome still stands, looking somewhat incongruous side by side with that of a car mechanic.
This is what can happen if national treasures such as the cinematographical records of a country are put in the hands of an unstable political regime sadly.
A massive sell-off took place early this spring, with the local government ministers hoping to pay off some of the $11 million debt which the studios were saddled with. Once that debt has been paid, Avala studios may well be open to revitalisation by the Serbian film industry.
Maybe there is something here that other countries who have burgeoning film industries can learn…..
all photos courtesy flickr.com