Brothers at Arms

Texas Documentary Tour: Mitko Panov's 'Comrades'

UT film professor Mitko Panov
UT film professor Mitko Panov

In 1982, at the age of 19, Mitko Panov left his native Yugoslavia soon after completing his year of compulsory service in the Yugoslav Federal Army -- the "Army of Peace," as it was called at the time. Among the personal belongings he took with him when he moved to Poland to study film were photos from that halcyon year in the army -- the Macedonian Panov and the other guys in his multiethnic unit clowning for the camera, toasting the New Year, generally enjoying life and one another at a time when they were young and carefree and there was peace and stability in the land.

Panov's film career would later take him to New York (and subsequently to the UT film department), where he, like the rest of us, witnessed the self-destruction of Yugoslavia over years of brutal, unrelenting ethnic warfare. Watching the horrifying media images, Panov couldn't help but wonder about the guys in his old army unit -- the Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Kosovars -- who had bonded like fraternity brothers 15 years back. If still alive, were these former buddies now bloodied and seething with hatred for one another?

This, of course, was a question of intense interest to anyone who followed the Balkan conflagration, including groups like the Rockefeller Foundation, who fund such inquiries. So, beginning in 1996, a year after the Bosnian conflict ended and on the eve of the one about to ignite in Kosovo, Panov traveled to his now-ravaged homeland, carrying only a small digital camera and his old address book, to film Comrades.

The film is a wistful, elegiac "travelogue" through a physically beautiful but economically devastated country that was essentially destroyed by its ethnically diverse inhabitants. What was once an operational federation of six republics was now carved up, its crudely drawn borders -- one actually runs down the middle of a house! -- enforced by foreign peacekeepers. The camera pans the bombed-out, deserted villages with their peculiar-looking rows of roofless houses. (Apparently it was common for advancing aggressors to literally strip houses for parts -- including, incredibly, their roofs -- and then torch them.)

We follow Panov through sparsely populated villages where the permanent inhabitants have been driven out and strangers have taken their place, though few appear to be gainfully employed. The filmmaker recalls being struck by "the silence" in these rural areas, the absence even of ambient noise because the birds and crickets are also gone. Interspersed throughout the film is archival footage of a better, more prosperous time in Yugoslav history, the post-WWII years under Tito's hybrid Socialist regime and the decade following his death before the Eastern Bloc collapsed and economic havoc ensued. And then the rise of nationalism.

Against this Big Picture political backdrop, Panov goes looking for the average guy's story, those of his former army unit of 100. Of the 30 that he was able to locate -- a large part of the film involves the difficult search to find these men, many of whom have fled their homes -- 10 actually appear in the film. Now in their mid-30s, they tell various Chaucer-esque tales of how they've fared in the past 15 years. What we hear is mostly dashed youthful dreams of career and success, philosophical musings about bad choices, wrong turns, and always nostalgia for their days together in the army, "a life uncomplicated by politics." What we don't hear, to Panov's surprise, is any form of postwar acrimony, bitterness, or ethnic hatred. Everyone expresses the same hail-fellow-well-met bonhomie of the pre-war years and speaks dispassionately about the war, seemingly as clueless as we are as to how someone comes to steal his neighbor's roof and burn his house down. As one puts it, "The average citizen doesn't care about politics, only about providing for himself and his family. The rest is concocted somewhere else and imposed upon us and the average man has to accept it all. In the worst-case scenario, he has to go to war and shoot at his neighbor."

Brothers at Arms

Panov wonders whether two former comrades who lived in Bosnia, longtime friends from neighboring villages -- one a Serb, the other a Muslim -- might have a different tale to tell. They don't. One lost 29 relatives in the war, the other a few body parts, yet neither harbors animosity for the other. Mustafa, the Bosnian-Muslim who was hit by a grenade and had reconstructive surgery in Germany before moving back to Sarajevo, says he could not have dreamed that "this ugly war would happen; everything was great and then someone imposed and spread fear so that you felt threatened by me and I by you." Dragan, the Bosnian Serb, whom Panov traces to Montenegro, asks philosophically, "Who killed my parents? Who burned my home? I'm supposed to say it was all their fault, but I can't look at things from one side."

In his voiceover, Panov concludes that the way he himself looked and felt about the world was not much different from his former comrades, no matter what side of the border they were on: "All along, I had been part of something much larger, and in my solitary journey, I was never alone."

Austin Chronicle: You describe your film as a "small, personal project that deals with the most intimate spheres of human experience like memories and friendship ... a family album of sorts, a group portrait of ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances ... [whose] task is not to make moral statements, pass judgments, or analyze what went wrong ... unlike the numerous news reports and discussion panels that try to find some reasonable explanation behind the madness."

Mitko Panov: Right. The film is about me looking for these guys -- I look at each of them as an extension of myself, wondering what my life would have been like if I hadn't left. I wanted to explore the universal stages of life that people of my generation had gone through by the time they reach their mid-30s -- success or failure at the university, jobs, financial struggles, marriage, and family. Of course, these guys had a specific situation that we didn't have -- the war -- that was the only thing that was unique. What I wanted to make a film about, really, was, in general terms, about the passing of time, about changing, coming of age.

AC: So your goal was not to find out how this war happened?

MP: That's correct. I systematically avoided asking them or using any statements from them as to why it happened because I didn't care about any theories of why the war happened. We've heard so many theories, I didn't want to hear 15 more opinions. The war didn't make sense to the people in it either. They can rationalize, but these explanations fail, are unimportant, as we see in the film. That's why I didn't want to ask concrete questions about political opinions, because I thought it was pretty apparent from the way they behaved in front of the camera how they felt. I was proud to see people so healthy and well balanced after everything that had happened. I didn't see bitterness or grudges, I saw only a very positive attitude toward life and reality.

None of them was a religious or ethnic fanatic. I could not see hundreds of years of animosity boiling in their blood -- they were normal people like me and you. They were no better or worse or more bloodthirsty than any of us -- that's my point. Whatever happened there can very easily happen anywhere.

I went into this thinking, I don't understand this war, I don't see any reason for it, and it turned out that nobody wanted it. It just happened. No one cared about what happened to their people 10 or 50 years ago, they care only about the present. This may be a problem, because people will watch this film with a curiosity about what happened, but I will tell you, if you didn't understand what happened before, you'll be even more confused now. end story

Comrades is a joint screening of the Texas Documentary Tour and SXSW Film. The screening times are: Saturday, March 10, 1pm, at the Bad Dog Comedy Theater; Wednesday, March 14, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse; and Saturday, March 17, 1pm, at the Bad Dog, 322-0145.

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