A free and independent press is a must for a free society, and perhaps that’s the biggest lesson to be learned in the post-Donald Trump world of fake news and “alternative facts”.
But, in a large part of the world, a free and independent press is pure fiction – and that includes some countries in emerging Europe. As such, with media freedom increasingly under pressure in the region, the third and final season of Croatian TV drama The Paper (Novine), which debuted on Croatian HRT this year, is as timely as it gets.
Arguably one of the most successful Croatian shows ever – at least with international audiences – The Paper was bought by Netflix in 2018, and the first two seasons are available to stream on the platform.
Directed by Dalibor Matanić, known for Fine Dead Girls and The High Sun (jury prize winner at Cannes), the script was written by Ivica Đikić, a journalist and author himself and former editor-in-chief of Rijeka’s Novi List.
That the show as written by someone in-the-know is obvious from the very first episode which begins with a ripped-from-the-headlines event in which a powerful individual causes a car accident, leaving three young people dead.
It’s that incident that sets the story in motion, as a powerful construction magnate, Mario Kardum (played by Aleksandar Cvejtković), decides to buy the titular Novine, a daily broadsheet from Rijeka described by the characters in the show as “the last semi-serious and independent outlet” in the country.
But why would such a person buy a paper, and why would ministers and bishops politely but firmly suggest to the current owner it’s in his best interest to sell?
Perhaps Kardum’s close ties with a mayor who hopes to become president have something to do with it?
What follows, over the two seasons currently available on Netflix, is the kind of intrigue and drama that will be well-known to those who binge on political thrillers. Shady motives, power plays, and extramarital affairs abound. The direction from Matanić is streamlined and minimalist, recalling the recent glut of Nordic noir hits. It’s a lot of people in a lot of offices lit by a lot of neon lights.
The Paper exists very much in a post-Breaking Bad world, with dialogue that is true-to-life and shots that are long and rather static.
In this area, it’s hard to fault or praise The Paper — on a technical level it mostly looks like any other political intrigue drama you’ve seen over the last 15 years.
Where the show really shines is when it has societal issues on its mind. It’s no secret that in Croatia, along with the rest of the region, editorial independence exists only in small pockets, in outlets that are not read by millions of people. In the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) media freedom rankings for 2020 Croatia is ranked 59th, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58th, Serbia 93rd, and Montenegro 105th.
Series director Matanić does not mince his words when describing the intent behind the show.
“We wanted to explore and understand the events and social shifts that destroyed journalism in our country,” he says.
The frank and realistic depiction of journalism and the kind of pressures and dangers journalists face around the Balkan region has a lot in common with shows such as the The Wire, especially its fifth season set in the fictional Baltimore Sun. For viewers who enjoy a focus on real issues, The Paper will no doubt be a treat.
For those watching outside of the region, the show will offer a very interesting look into power dynamics in Croatia and frankly, the rest of South East Europe. The mix of familiar themes (albeit in an unfamiliar context) is perhaps just the right blend to keep you interested as you ponder on the differences between the East and the West.
Let’s just say, the Balkans have never been much for soft power.
But it’s not just journalism that the show deals with. Critics have also praised The Paper for what could be described as an intentional and systematic skewering of Croatia’s holy cows: the Catholic church, political parties, business magnates. No one is safe from The Paper’s critical eye.
With all the focus on political intrigue, the show could be forgiven for lacking in interpersonal drama: it doesn’t.
Aside from all the affairs (and all the sex that follows), the strong ensemble cast which features well-known regional actors such as Branka Katić and Goran Marković manages to portray turmoil both internal and external in a convincing and engaging manner.
For everyone who likes drama and intrigue, and is interested in the region, The Paper is an absolute must-see.
With the third season finishing its run in Croatia this year, it’s probably just a question of time before it becomes available on Netflix.
In the meantime, get cracking with the first two series.
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