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Independent Lens 

Against the backdrop of Eastern European political history, Croatian filmmaker Rajko Grlic tells powerful human stories of love, hope, betrayal

Oct. 26, 2010

Rajko Grlic has been filling movie theaters in Eastern Europe for more than 40 years. As a director, producer, or writer of nearly 50 films, Grlic has earned a reputation in his native Croatia as someone who hasn't flinched from telling honest and real stories-- even when the powers-that-be- preferred that he didn't.

Grlic, the Ohio Eminent Scholar in Film at Ohio University, may not make Hollywood blockbuster films, but in independent film circles, his name carries cachet.

“In the former Yugoslavia and throughout the film world, he is a household name,” says Andrew Horton, a professor of film and video studies at the University of Oklahoma. “He is a wonderful combination of great filmmaker, writer, director, and co-producer, but beyond that, he’s a professor and film festival organizer. I don’t know anyone else who has that combination of talents.”

Courtesy of Rajko Grlic
Courtesy of Rajko Grlic.

Grlic has screened numerous films at the world’s most prestigious festivals and walked away with top prizes. His most recent film, Just Between Us, received rave reviews when it premiered in Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia in March. In 1999, Grlic co-founded the Motovun Film Festival in Croatia, which has thrived as a small festival popular with film students.

The movie-making business can be brutal, but Grlic has managed to survive despite ever- changing political, financial, and artistic hurdles. “I was born in a country (Yugoslavia) and went to school in a country (Czechoslovakia) that doesn’t exist anymore,” Grlic says. In the late 1960s, he studied film at FAMU, a Prague film academy.

It was there that he learned the storytelling style that would characterize his future work. “The Czech cinema has been very good about telling human stories about everyday people as opposed to action heroes,” Horton notes.

Grlic and four of his fellow film school classmates would eventually become known as the Prague School of Yugoslav filmmakers. The moniker came about during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the young directors’ films collected accolades for ushering in a new era of filmmaking in Yugoslavia, telling powerful human stories set against political backdrops.

Courtesy of Rajko Grlic
Courtesy of Rajko Grlic.

“It is quite common in all of his films that people are controlled by historical forces but also have free will in their own actions,” says Ruth Bradley, director of the Athens Center for Film and Video. In February, Bradley curated a retrospective of 10 of Grlic’s films in Athens. She has found that American audiences unfamiliar with specific European historical events can still relate to the personal stories of love or betrayal portrayed in Grlic’s films.

In Just Between Us, the first feature Grlic has filmed in Croatia in 20 years, the intertwined love affairs of two brothers with their wives and mistresses reveal a passionate undercurrent in the lives of middle-class Croatians. Set in the present, allusions are made to the 1990s war, but the film’s emphasis is on complicated relationships among individuals, not nation-states.

His documentaries have sometimes delved into politics more overtly. For Croatia 2000—Who Wants to be a President, Grlic made a feature- length documentary chronicling the campaigns of three candidates for president. “It was a great draw at the box office,” Grlic says. On February 20, his half-hour follow-up film, 10 Years After, screened on Croatian television. The new film examined the president’s legacy on the eve of him relinquishing his office to a democratically elected successor.

Grlic’s relationship with politicians hasn’t always been so congenial. Working under a communist regime had its perils. “Some of my films were taken by police and not shown for a year,” Grlic says. “Six or seven of my documentary films were forbidden for 20 to 30 years.” Censors objected to everything from political and sexual content to, in one case, the portrayal of a policeman who committed suicide.

When the country dissolved into civil war in the early 1990s, Grlic was forced to leave. He taught for a year at New York University as a visiting professor before coming to Ohio University in 1993. He gave up filmmaking for nearly a decade, focusing instead on teaching and multimedia projects. In 1999, inspired by the end of Franjo Tudman’s presidency, he returned to Croatia to film a very brief documentary, “trying to capture the end of an era.” His desire to direct was reignited. “I was sure I was through making films, but you start to shoot again and you get hungry,” he says.

These days, it’s not politics, but money, that creates the biggest hurdles.

Courtesy of Rajko Grlic
Courtesy of Rajko Grlic.

“Once upon a time, in the country of Yugoslavia, 70 to 80 percent of the money was coming in from the Ministry of Culture,” Grlic says. Now, he says, European Union funding— which requires international cooperation—is a must. And because Europe provides more funding opportunities than the United States— and rewards prominent directors who have built a solid reputation—Grlic chooses to make his films abroad.

Getting a film screened in at least one of the seven or eight “A” film festivals is vital for getting picked up for distribution in countries worldwide. Just Between Us opened in July at just such an “A” festival, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic.

Grlic is not immune to the allure of Hollywood, however. “I have 30 to 40 stories, all enormous big-budget films I’d never ever try to make, but sometimes try to play with on paper,” he says.

He’s in the early stages of developing an electronic book and website that reflect a director’s diary, with personal and historic notes, photos, drawings, videos, and music, “so you can try to imagine what the film would be.”

European stories remain closest to his heart, and he relishes his insider advantage. “It’s not enough to come in and look at things from the outside,” he says. “It’s better to come in from your roots, from where you grew up.”

After 18 years in the United States, Grlic is comfortable, but initially argues that he doesn’t know enough about American culture to tell its stories.

He then pauses, chewing the idea over. “To tell a story here as an insider,” he muses, “maybe, one day, it could happen.”

By Susan Dalzell

This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2010 issue of Perspectives magazine.

Editor's Note: In October, Grlic's film "Just Between Us" won "Best Feature" and "Best Actor" awards at the GSIFF New York 2010 International Film Festival. The film also has garnered numerous awards in Europe. Read about them at the official website for "Just Between Us": http://www.justbetweenusmovie.com/en/.

For more information about Grlic, visit http://www.rajkogrlic.com/.