Revisiting the Parade

Belgrade’s Pride Parade is scheduled for this Saturday. In anticipation of the event, we reviewed Srdjan Dragojevic’s “smash hit”, The Parade, a Serbian film that echoes contemporary Serbian politics.

In the absence of any moral or ideologically consistent leadership, Serbs are still looking for a way to talk about the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The Parade (2011), a surprise box office hit from veteran Serbian director Srdjan Dragojevic, looks like an attempt to open such a conversation. But the film also has a darker agenda: It quietly celebrates 1990s-style nationalism under the guise of promoting “tolerance”.

The film’s plot is centered around Belgrade’s beleaguered Pride Parade, but is only nominally interested in the lives of gay Serbs beyond limp-wristed jokes. The Parade’s hero is a hard-bitten criminal and former paramilitary leader named Misko “Limun” Draskovic (Nikola Kojo), who, because he is homophobic, is supposed to serve as a symbol of the entire Serbian nation. But it doesn’t seem particularly fair to equate all Serbs with a character written to resemble a notorious war criminal like Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic. If a Hollywood film did the same thing, its director would be accused of “anti-Serbism”.

Limun is a macho, gun-toting criminal-hero, a familiar and glorified trope drawn from the Serbian pop culture of the 1990s, when teenage girls hung posters of gangsters and smugglers on their bedroom walls next to pictures of Johnny Depp.

Those days are over, but Dragojevic and his Socialist Party of Serbia (once headed by Slobodan Milosevic) and their coalition partners in power today insist on a certain level of continuity with the past: “Faces that used to be around a lot in the old days,” as Russian novelist Victor Pelevin put it.

The Parade opens with a lexicon of Balkan ethnic slurs: Serbs are “Chetniks”, Croats are “Ustashe”, Bosniaks are “Balije”, Albanians are “Shiptars”. But Homosexuals are “Pederi”, the only slur used by everyone, which means everyone is awful. Brotherhood and Unity!

The story begins when Limun’s beloved bulldog is shot by some rival criminals in a drive-by. Distraught, the criminal-hero takes his injured dog to a veterinarian named Radmilo (Milos Samolov), who heroically saves the dog’s life. Radmilo happens to be gay. (Radmilo is a “useful” gay, which means we are allowed to “tolerate” him).

Meanwhile, Limun’s fiancee, Biserka (Hristina Popovic) wants Radmilo’s attractive and fashionable boyfriend, Mirko (Goran Jevtić), to plan the couple’s wedding because he has “hip” design sensibilities. Here Dragojevic embraces yet another form of prejudice by exploiting the urban-rural divide. Biserka doesn’t want a wedding with “trumpets or any of that rural primitivism.” She calls people who aren’t from Belgrade “savages”. Like I said, everyone is awful.

The wedding planning doesn’t go very well, and Biserka cuts off communication with her criminal-hero husband-to-be. Once again, Radmilo proves useful by offering to help mend Limun’s broken relationship in exchange for physical protection at the Belgrade Pride Parade, which is under threat from violent ultranationalists.

 Here’s where the real fun begins. The film detours into an unlikely buddy comedy, as Radmilo and Limun take a pink Mini Cooper on a road trip through the former Yugoslavia to try and persuade Limun’s old war buddies (or frenemies, since they all fought on different sides) to serve as pride security. He manages to enlist a Croat named Roko (Goran Navojec); a Bosniak named Halil (Dejan Aćimović); and a Kosovar Albanian named Azem (Toni Mihajlovski).

The film has been praised for being “un-PC”. Mark Adams of Screendaily wrote that The Parade “smartly celebrates” un-PC qualities in order to “turn transgression into comedy.” But there is little smart, funny, or transgressive here. Instead, Dragojevic rehashes cliches so stale — Radmilo effeminately sips his beverages with the requisite stray pinky — that the “jokes” fall painfully flat.

Ne može nam niko ništa

But it’s the portrayal of different nationalities that is the most disturbing (and ultimately discrediting) aspect of The Parade. Many critics have lauded the film for its refreshing depiction of harmony between former enemies. This is a dangerous misreading of the film. The Parade makes a mockery of interethnic “tolerance”, and has a very sadistic take on “brotherhood and unity”.

 Several moments in the film unmask this fact. First, there are two scenes in which all of the men sing “Ne moze nam niko nista” (“No one can do anything to us”). This 1990s anthem by Bosnian Serb Mitar Miric was popular in Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, where it regularly played on state-controlled television. The song embodied a sense of Serb defiance against both the West and its neighbors, with whom it was at war. In The Parade, the song operates as full-fledged fist-pumping apologism, as we watch people victimized by Milosevic’s policies sing along to a wartime affirmation of his power.

 But the film’s most disturbing moment comes when Azem, the Kosovar Albanian character, joins the group in the pink Mini bound for Belgrade. Amid some throwaway banter, we learn that Azem once raped a zebra at the Belgrade zoo.

This is not “un-PC” or “transgressive”. It’s not a friendly, light-hearted jab. It’s racism at its ugliest. Swap Azem for a character of any other race or nationality (including Serbian), at any other point in history, and it’s equally repellent. It’s telling that Azem wasn’t played by an Albanian, but a well-known Macedonian actor, Toni Mihajlovski.

One Western journalist recently wrote that Kosovo was “the only country in the region” where The Parade was considered “too controversial” to be screened in theaters. Well perhaps this is why: The zebra anecdote, so casually inserted into the script, renders all of the film’s pretenses to “tolerance” null.

 The Parade has received only the highest praise from Western film critics, who’ve called it “the pride of Serbia”, “laugh-out-loud funny”, “the next significant contribution to gay culture” and “Serbia’s Brokeback Mountain”. Another critic wrote, “In addition to gay rights, the film affirms the future of the region’s states as mutually respecting, tolerant societies, united not by class consciousness or ethnic blood rivalries but by liberal values.” In reality, The Parade merely instructs us to shift our collective disdain and charges of perversion from gays to another group. What kind of progress is that?

“If Belgrade Pride 2012 happens without violence for the first time in history, I will be proud that I made something important for the society in which I live,” Dragojevic said of The Parade back in early 2012. But Belgrade Pride 2012 was banned on the recommendation of Milosevic’s former spokesman and protege — the leader of Dragojevic’s own party.

The Western media adored the director’s assertion that his film’s success was “bad news for nationalists” because he was saying what he knew they wanted to hear, and knew he could count on their ignorance. Of course, there’s been a lot of good news for nationalists from the 1990s, who control the country again. As with Limun, we’re supposed to believe they’re changed men. Disturbingly, it seems that nearly everyone — in Serbia and the West — has eagerly and uncritically accepted this, and they must feel awfully emboldened. No one can do anything to us. We are stronger than destiny.

Maybe they really have changed. But must Serbia be defined by 1990s characters — in film or in politics — forever? We’ve been given well-calculated, crowd-pleasing content. But there’s also a persistent feeling of anxiety that something may not be quite right. It’s like what Pelevin, the contemporary Russian novelist, wrote recently, “First you try to understand what people will like and then you hand it to them in the form of a lie.”

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