Resorting to a semi-documentary approach is especially problematic as a number of interviewees, particularly the sociologists, psychologists, or similar schooled experts in the period are likened to “voices of God,” trying to persuade the viewers that these joyrides were revolutionary. Their opinions, however, cannot be questioned by the audience because they are never called into question by the filmmakers. Even the real life police officers chosen presumably to represent “the other” perspective, endorse the Phantom as a liberator and an “urban hero.” Together with the other participants, witnesses, the Phantom’s friends and acquaintances, they retell the whole affair as it was unfolding night after night. Their accounts are then illustrated with fictionalized reconstructions of the events. The revelation of the Phantom’s true identity is delayed to the final quarter of the film, but when an interviewee exposes his real name—Vlada Vasiljević—the point is as anticlimactic as if his name were John Smith in English. That the filmmakers did not know how to capitalize on building suspense around the Phantom’s real identity can perhaps be explained by the fact that both scriptwriters, Jovan Todorović (also the director) and Bogdan Petković (also the producer), are inexperienced debutantes. Nevertheless, these very young filmmakers, still in their twenties, have invested an enviable amount of energy into the project.
This troubled production started in 2006, and it is exemplary of the current lack of fundings and resources that hamstring the Serbian film industry. This is reflected in the scenes of the Phantom’s chases with the police through Belgrade, which come across as very low-budget, rather than Hollywood, to which the authors appear to have aspired. The Internet Movie Database ruthlessly lists numerous mistakes related to the reconstruction of the period, and with the expressive young actor Milutin Milošević in the main role, who does not utter a word throughout the film, this becomes an enervating experience to watch. But the most frustrating problem is the lack of coherent, or even ambiguous, view of the past. While the interviewees in the film rush to condemn the period, the director claimed in an interview elsewhere that those days were “romantic”. Whether one wants to trust the story or its teller is beside the point here, as both come across as equally confused.
This confusion though points towards another aspect of this film. As film theory has already shown, the films that reconstruct the past reveal more about the conditions of the ever evolving present in which they were made, rather than about the history they are describing. This film also speaks volumes about contemporary Belgrade, Serbia, and some of its filmmakers and intelligentsia, rather than about the now long gone seventies with their lulled down social and economic security, and underdeveloped consumerism. This film was directed by a young director, Jovan Todorović, who was trained at the well known Belgrade’s film school (FDU) and taught there by the same eighties filmmakers mentioned above, such as Slobodan Šijan. Šijan also briefly portrayed the Belgrade Phantom incident in his Strangler versus Strangler (Davitelj protiv davitelja) in 1984. This suggests that on one level, and in regards to some filmmakers, little has changed in Serbia in terms of filmmaking styles, or creative thinking, ever since then.
In the seminal anthology on the state of East European filmmaking Before the Wall Came Down: Soviet and East European Filmmakers Working in the West (edited by Graham Petrie and Ruth Dwyer), Gerald Peary wrote in 1989 about this school’s peculiar loyalty to Hollywood and its values, regardless of the fact that many of its teachers had at that time never been in the US at all. While Šijan actually spent some time in the States, Peary singles out Nebojša Pajkić as an example of someone who had not, but who was aggressively pro-American, while both of them were, curiously, politically pro-Ronald Reagan! The results of the training provided by such academics are still in evidence in Serbia, as there are groups of young filmmakers that are blindly loyal to genre, particularly Hollywood style, films. As an example, The Belgrade Phantom is promoted in press releases as an action film. A whole spate of recent films have attempted to mimic the recent Hollywood productions and genres with varying results; see particularly the films made by Dejan Zečević: T.T. Syndrome (T.T. Sindrom, 2002) and The Fourth Man (Četvrti čovek, 2007); and Srdan Golubović: Absolute Hundred (Apsolutnih sto, 2001) and The Trap (Klopka, 2007), and others. And some of their authors still maintain that such filmmaking has political meaning. Just as The Belgrade Phantom, they are obsessed with “urban heroes,” who are, for some inexplicable reason, perceived in Belgrade (and often throughout the Balkans) as morally righteous and immune to the degrading state of the nation that followed the years of strife, wars, and economic transition to capitalism. Although it would be difficult to prove empirically that all that is “urban” must be good, this belief is oddly still very common amongst some of the intellectual elites not just in Serbia, but across ex-Yugoslavia.
So just like in the eighties, a number of filmmakers from the FDU continue to repeat the mantra of “salvation” in “urban,” and “western,” values (in whichever way they perceive or understand these values), in the same manner that once their communist opponents preached their manifesto. Intellectually hidden within this bubble, they can only produce films as bland as The Belgrade Phantom, which cannot provide a nuanced and complex portrait of a truly significant year, and period, in Socialist Yugoslavia’s history. This film did not manage either to criticize or romanticize the era. It did not show how to engage, or what to do with the past, but that maybe, it only wanted to run away from it… in a white Porsche. As long as this is their aspiration, such local filmmakers are not only farther from themselves, but also from the world to which they want to belong to.