A strange thing happened in Belgrade in November of 2014, the kind of thing that can really only occur in a post-socialist country. On the evening of November 21, members of the public, activists, artists, and filmmakers decided to occupy the empty building of the Star Cinema and begin holding regular screenings there.
A day later, the space was cleaned of the junk that had accumulated since the theatre was closed in 2007, and Innocence Unprotected was screened as the inaugural feature.
Now re-christened as Novi Bioskop Zvezda (New Star Cinema), the space quickly became a popular destination for those who sought an experience that couldn’t be found in the city’s many multiplexes that dot Belgrade’s shopping malls.
Novi Bioskop Zvezda is easy to miss, even though it’s located just a brisk walk from Republic Square, at Terazije 40. This is because, true to its underground, non-mainstream vibe, there are no shining marquees over the door. Walking into the cinema is an experience a far cry from the high-gloss, almost antiseptic feel of the modern multiplex.
As you make your way into the actual theatre area, you see shuttered ticket offices, torn carpets, and all the hallmarks of an abandoned place that used to be heavily trafficked by many people.
Let’s not beat around the bush: Novi Bioskop Zvezda is still quite dirty and not a little dusty, at least when the weather doesn’t allow for outdoor screenings. But, at least partially, this ramshackle atmosphere is intentional.
“We often joke that Zvezda is a ‘real cinema’ because it’s open to all, is not a slave to festival and newly released films, you smoke sometimes and it’s not very comfortable,” says Dušan Bursać, a filmmaker and part of the informal group that is keeping the cinema operational.
And yes, you’ve read that right. You can smoke in the Novi Bioskop Zvezda: I certainly did. It was during a screening of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, a seminal anime feature that never got the play it deserved in Serbia.
It’s precisely that kind of picture that gets shown at Novi Bioskop Zvezda. Artsy, old, forgotten, well-known and important, beloved. This Sunday, it’s the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s amazing how diverse a repertoire can be once freed from the constraints of copyright.
“We ‘pull’ movies from our subconscious, in relation to what they could mean in a space like this and for the people that see them,” Mr Bursać says when asked to explain how films are selected for screening.
It’s important to note that New Start Cinema is not just about showing a bunch of cool movies in an old semi-disused theatre. The project, back in 2014, was born out of a genuine concern for the future of both cinema and culture in Serbia.
By 2014, all of the classic cinemas in Belgrade had closed. Most of them were owned by Belgrade Film, a state-owned firm that operated Star and 13 other theatres. The company’s status is unclear even now, following a botched privatisation that saw its new owner, Nikola Đivanović, end up in prison on charges of various economic crimes in relation to Belgrade Film.
Other famous cinemas in Belgrade had closed down by 2014 too. Kozara perished in a fire. Balkan, originally Grand Cinema — the first permanent cinema to ever open in Belgrade — stopped operating in 2010.
For Belgraders, these cinemas were more than just places to watch films. They became a part of the city’s identity, so when they began closing one by one, many people felt that something truly important was being lost.
Explaining the original motives behind the 2014 takeover, Mr Bursać says that what unified the diverse group of people that eventually occupied the cinema was a shared sense of injustice.
“As a young director and a ‘local’ the shutdown of the cult Belgrade movie theatres was painful and [I felt] it was very damaging to the city’s identity,” he says.
One part of the reason why Zvezda is beloved by many in Belgrade is the sense of authenticity and history that it exudes: a kind of reaction against the encroaching commercialisation of cinema represented by the big multiplex chains like the Austrian-owned Cineplexx, which has been operating in Serbia since 2009.
Mr Bursać clarifies, however, that the group running Novi Bioskop Zvezda, does not have an issue with Cineplexx at all.
“We rarely put ourselves in a position of confrontation, and we endeavor to use the public space for appeals and information, never for compromising anyone.” He adds that the art-house vs. commercial and European vs American are “someone else’s narrative” of which they are not “the other side.”
For Mr Bursać, and many who visit Zvezda now, some things should remain gritty.
“Every intelligent person understands that you can’t just wash the environment and understand it in merely economic terms. A city keeps a part of its authenticity in its ‘dirt’ and this is not something that should be torn down, renovated, and privatised,” he explains. “It’s not just the responsibility of the city government, it’s collective responsibility.”
Novi Bioskop Zvezda is just wrapping up its sixth season, despite the Covid-19 outbreak. Mr Bursać tells Emerging Europe that screenings have risen in popularity since the pandemic started, and that the safety measures are respected.
“It should be understood that Zvezda is a space for problem-solving, it’s as space that is never still, and in this context Covid-19 is just a logical course of events, no more dramatic than anything else that happened in the past.”
With Belgrade Film still in legal limbo, it’s likely that this unique space — an essentially illegal cinema right in the middle of Belgrade city centre — will keep screening its eclectic selections for some time to come.
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