An interview with documentary filmmaker Boris Malagurski
Who in their right mind would actually want to be a colony? That is the question asked in the opening section of The Weight of Chains, the latest film directed by Boris Malagurski. His film demonstrates how the South Slavs emerged from centuries of colonial rule under the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and unified to form an independent Yugoslavia. In sharp analytical detail, Malagurski’s film dissects how Western intervention systematically undermined that independence and helped destroy Yugoslavia, plunging the region into war in the process. This remarkable film reveals how the West subjugated the peoples of the former Yugoslavia and exploited the region through the imposition of free market reforms. In exposing the recent history of the Balkans, the film busts a number of myths. No other film so successfully explains those events while tying them to the wider economic and political trends of these difficult times.
Gregory Elich: What led you to create The Weight of Chains? How did the idea for the film develop?
Boris Malagurski: After I initiated and organized protests against Kosovo’s illegal secession from Serbia in February of 2008 in Vancouver, I was hoping that Canada, a country that has a lot of experience with separatism on its own soil, would not recognize the false state of Kosovo. When Canada, under U.S. pressure, recognized Kosovo as an independent nation, citing the “reality on the ground” as a reason for doing so, I decided to check out what the reality on the ground in Kosovo really was and filmed Kosovo: Can You Imagine?, a documentary about human rights of Serbs and other non-Albanians in the breakaway province. However, this film only analyzed the consequences of failed Western policies towards the Balkans, while I always wanted to get down to the bottom of why the West did what it did. This led me to start researching in 2009 not only why NATO entered Kosovo, but why Yugoslavia broke up — who had an interest in the bloody dissolution of this once prosperous European state and what happened after the breakup. I knew that all these would be tough questions to answer for a 20-year-old film student, but with the help of experts on the topic, I was able to piece the information together and get a more complete picture of why Yugoslavia was killed and how it was colonized by the West.
GE: Your film does a marvelous job in unraveling the factors behind the breakup of Yugoslavia and exposing the interests that benefited from that tragedy. This is an important story that has not received the attention it deserves, and there are patterns that connect with more recent conflicts. But it is not a subject that could ever receive corporate funding. What obstacles or difficulties did you encounter in making this film? It was a very ambitious project to tackle without an ample budget.
BM: At first, I was very worried that we wouldn’t have a big enough budget to complete this film, even considering that everyone in the film team worked for free. Then came one man who would change everything and help us find the funding we needed — and this was Mr. Branislav Grbovic from Perth, Australia. He approached me via e-mail and offered his help in gathering public support for the project, which he did in a highly professional way. Thanks to him, but also many others, we were able to raise enough money to cover the expenses for making the film. Of course, every film can always be better when the budget is even bigger or when the film team includes more people, but I was happy that this project was funded through small donations of many people throughout the world who wanted this story told, who can today proudly say that this is their film as well that this is our film.
GE: In making this film you travelled to several countries, where you interviewed a diverse and interesting array of individuals. Was it difficult to track down or arrange meetings with some of your interviewees? Perhaps the heart of the film could be said to be the family relations of the little sung heroes who lost their lives in protecting those of another ethnic group. At the other end of the spectrum, you intended to interview former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about negotiations at Rambouillet. That apparently didn’t come off.
BM: I must say that I’ve had more than a pleasant experience with almost all those who were contacted for an interview for this film. I had help from Mr. Matt Mintz with arranging interviews in Canada and the U.S., while I arranged all the interviews in the Balkans myself. This largely consisted of contacting lots of people who maybe knew or knew someone who knew the person I was interested in interviewing, and the process took a while, but we haven’t been refused by anyone — except Madeleine Albright. Well, initially, she agreed to the interview, but when the time came to meet up in Washington, DC, she was too busy for an interview. This is a shame because I really wanted to confront her with certain issues that mainstream journalists never tackle, but perhaps she’ll change her mind one day and decide to show she has nothing to hide. As for the family relations of the unsung heroes, I could sense a bit of distrust on their end when I met them, but that feeling quickly faded away as they saw that I really was passionate about telling the truth and they really opened up to me and my camera.
GE: Your passion for telling the truth about what happened in the Balkans comes across strongly in the film. You make striking use of archival footage in presenting this dramatic story. You obtained historical film clips from a variety of sources, and it seems that you had good cooperation from Radio Television Serbia. How did you go about exploring what was available, and choosing which footage to use? What was the process in working with Radio Television Serbia and others?
BM: I believe I had around 200 GB of archival footage on my computer before I started any editing. The process started with me writing a script based on research. This included information from various sources, descriptions of comments by the main political actors to the media, depictions of different images and such. Then I attempted to actually find the visuals for all that was written down on paper, and this was a difficult task because I first had to figure out where to look for these images, from which source, and only then start tracking them down. Of course, what would happen sometimes is that I would find what I need, but then find out that the license for the footage was too expensive, such as the case of the interview of Joe Biden on Larry King Live where he said that “all Serbs should be placed in Nazi style concentration camps,” for which CNN asked $18,000 for 30 seconds. On the other hand, cooperation with Radio Television Serbia was more than fruitful and for this I have to thank the director of the program archive of Television Belgrade Mr. Mileta Kečina, who provided all the archival footage that we needed free of charge. This meant a lot to us, especially taking into consideration that almost everyone in the film team was under 25 years of age.
GE: This is a beautifully edited film. It is clear that a lot of time and thought went into its construction, and the way images are handled strongly supports the film’s themes. This is also a briskly paced film, feeling much shorter than its two hours. Would you comment on your approach to editing? What sort of considerations played into your editing decisions?
BM: My main goal was to edit together something that would be interesting to watch even if the audience knows little to nothing about the issue. This meant that I didn’t want to spend too much time on details that weren’t interesting enough to cover and focus on the ‘big issues’, but from a different perspective. It’s very fast paced and this is done for a reason — people nowadays seem to not have the patience to hear all the arguments in a calm fashion, but prefer to be ‘bombarded’ with them and in an entertaining manner. There is also a dose of cynicism and black humor embedded in the film, which would cause some to compare the style with that of Michael Moore. However, I think my job is much harder than Michael Moore’s, as he picks topics which are already attractive for Western audiences, while I attempted to create a spark of interest in Western audiences in the Yugoslav drama, to inspire people to think critically about the Balkans.
GE: It’s a subject that is poorly understood in the West, but one that has had a wider impact than is commonly recognized. Yugoslavia provided the pretext for redefining NATO’s mission as that of an offensive military arm of Western policy, able to operate beyond Western European borders. NATO is now engaged in military operations in Afghanistan and in bombing Libya. Intervention in the Balkans launched the West on the path of permanent warfare. Having divided Yugoslavia into small, weak, easily controlled states, the West imposed its economic vision on the region: privatization of state owned and socially owned enterprises, and IMF demands for laying off workers and slashing of wages, pensions and social services. It is a model that conservative forces are attempting to bring home to the U.S.
Your film has shown in Canada, Australia, and Serbia, and recently had its U.S. premiere in Washington, DC. What has been the reaction to your film in Serbia? These people lived through those events, and now they are in a very different society than before. I would also like to know if getting your film shown in the U.S. and Great Britain has presented special difficulties.
BM: It’s interesting that the Serbian premiere of The Weight of Chains was supposed to be at the Kustendorf Film Festival in Drvengrad. Renowned Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica saw my film, liked it, and included it in the program of his festival. Unfortunately, due to unexplained reasons, the film was suddenly pulled from the program and was never shown there. After the incident, the first showing in Serbia was in my hometown, Subotica. I could barely break through the masses to reach my seat at the theater, people were very interested to see the “banned film” and the premiere was a great success. Viewers were impressed with the large amount of information divulged in the film, and it almost seemed that they wanted more — even those who couldn’t find a free seat and stood through the entire two hours of the film. I was glad that there were such positive reactions from the audiences, and I got the same impressions after film premieres in Belgrade, Novi Sad, and other Serbian cities. Even Eastern Sarajevo in neighboring Republika Srpska greeted the film with standing ovations.
As for showing the film in Western countries, I can’t say that I encountered any difficulties, aside from gaining larger sponsors to show the film to a wider audience. However, I am confident that, as time goes by, more doors will open for this film, as it’s in the American spirit to always ask questions and pursue the truth, regardless of what the government is attempting to sell as a reality.
GE: Finally, is there is anything else about your film that you would like our readers to know?
BM: I think it’s important for everyone to know what happened to Yugoslavia, and, of course, why it happened, as it could very well happen to any country. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that everything that affects one directly, affects all indirectly. The West has had and still has a heavy involvement in Yugoslav affairs, so it’s important for the citizens of Western countries to be aware of what their governments have done and what they’re doing to this day, as we’re all human and we all deserve to live in freedom and prosperity. I believe we should make a fresh start and turn a new page today, in the 21st century.
Gregory Elich is on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute and on the Advisory Board of the Korea Truth Commission. He is the author of the book Strange Liberators: Militarism, Mayhem, and the Pursuit of Profit.