Zvezda Cinema (Beograd)

The Novi Bioskop Zvezda is an abandoned cinema in Belgrade, occupied since November 2014 by young artists who screen movies there to fight the cultural demolition phenomenon and serve as meeting point for the new generation of Serbian filmmakers.

On November 21st 2014, a group of about a hundred students and movie buffs illegally break in the abandoned cinema Zvezda to screen the movie “The disobedient” by Mina Djukic. It’s the starting point of the occupation of this place charged with history, formerly the studio of the Serbian photographer Milan Jovanovic. Built in Art Nouveau style by Milan Antonović, then turned into a movie theater under the name “Koloseum cinema” in 1911, it is renamed Zvezda – “star” in Serbian – at the time of its nationalization under the communist regime in 1945. In 2007, the state company “Beograd Filma”, handling 14 of the 19 cinemas of the city, including the Zvezda, is sold to a Serbian businessman based in London for 9.2 millions euros, even though its value is estimated at 60 millions euros. Though legally bound to maintain the movie theaters in existence, the new owner resells five of the cinemas one year later, which are turned into supermarkets, nightclubs or restaurants. Today the subject of legal proceedings, the owner has abandoned the others movie theaters. While the screening rooms in Belgrade still attracted 4.2 millions audience members in 2004, the privatization puts a dramatic blow to the cultural life of the Serbian capital which was the third city in the world to screen a movie after Paris and Moscow. “It’s a waste for a city with such a rich history to not have a movie theater that is not a multiplex in a shopping mall” deplores Veljko Lopičić, one of the cinema occupants.

From the beginning of the occupation, the group of a little less than ten persons receives the support of Michel Gondry, met at a festival by a member of the team and seduced by the initiative. The director made an animation short film to help the crowd funding campaign launched a few weeks after the start of the occupation to raise the necessary funds to maintain the place.

The early days are nonetheless difficult; the group of friends has to constantly occupy the place to avoid an eviction, and this in the dead of winter in a vast unheated building. Also the initiative is first frown upon, “We had problems because some thought we were communists, others accused us of re-privatizing the building for ourselves, others attacked us for screening LGBT movies, others described us as hooligans or anarchists having entered a private propriety, but it’s wrong, the building was abandoned and it would have fallen down if we had not done something.”

In response to these attacks and suspicions, the group opens its location during open house days to invite inhabitants of Belgrade to discover it. The group does not settle for only occupying the cinema but renews it little by little by making reparations themselves thanks to donations from audience members and with the help of local artisans who offer their services to support the project. The internal organization quickly outgrows the anarchy of the beginnings dictated by the urgency to offer daily events and a continuing programing. The team members, which vary between 5 and 10 persons, all volunteers, come and go to relay each other depending on their occupations and availabilities.  

The place offers from two to three screenings per day and hosts concerts, theater plays or even exhibitions. The programming choice is made by the team “There is no line management between us, we’re all equals, we decide of everything together, we make the programming together, we share obligations” explains Veljko. The audience can also suggest movies on the Facebook page of the cinema. The movies shown partly come from the Yugoslav Film Archive, one of the three greatest in the world, but also from young directors who ask to screen their films. The team, of which some members attend festivals to present their work or as spectators, plan to take these opportunities to find independent movies invisible in Serbia that they could screen in their cinema. The idea is also to create bridges with other countries and to stimulate artistic exchanges with creators from other cities.

The screenings, which attract between 15 and 300 persons, are digital or 35mm, with the intention to also offer screenings in 16mm and 8mm later. Since the beginning of the summer, the projections take place in the open-air area of the building. This area was the key criteria when choosing which cinema to occupy, the Zvezda being the only abandoned movie theater that had kept all its seats and screens, but also to offer such a space outside.

Almost a year after the beginning of the occupation, we visit the Zvezda with Vladimir Gvojić and Veljko Lopičić who take us to discover the 2000m² of the imposing building that they want to transform completely. The former offices will become editing and postproduction rooms, a place to meet and exchange ideas. “We want to create a place for artists who don’t have a workplace, for cinema, but also for experimental art, theater, music” starts Vladimir Gvojić, “There are many artists here, but they’re stuck at home, nothing can develop because there is no place to present their work. We want to be a cultural center which could be the starting point of a new wave of Serbian artists” completes Veljko Lopičić.

Nothing similar exists here, there is no place where you can come, share ideas and make a project out of it because everything is based on money” goes on Veljko. The question of the economic model however needs to be addressed, “In the end we want the place to be self-sufficient.” The team plans to shortly re-launch a crowd funding campaign to take care of new renovation work and pursue the development of the Zvezda.

Veljko concludes, “When you have everything, you get used to luxury, but when bad times come, because you have nothing, you have to do even more and take every opportunities. Here, the idea is to screen movies, gather people around them, share ideas and be able to breath again.”

Translation by Garance Boulet ♥