Saturday 20 July 2019

Left Field: CHAPTER 12 - The Artists' War

I was lucky to have known the actor Bob Hoskins because he’d married a friend of mine, Linda Banwell. I had been a fan of Bob since seeing the 1978 Dennis Potter BBC series Pennies from Heaven and, two years later, the movie The Long Good Friday. It remains one of the best British gangster films with Bob playing the menacing Kray character.

When I first met him, he’d written a song, ‘Whirligig’, and recorded it with our then nine-year-old Ben singing the chorus. Of course, Renata and I were hoping the recording would be released and make a child star of our son. It was not to be, as the record company wanted Bob to complete a whole album, but he was too busy with his film and theatre career.

It’s often forgotten that Bob was a great stage actor. I saw him at the National Theatre as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls and opposite Antony Sher in Sam Shepard’s two-hander True West at the Donmar Warehouse. Shepard’s play was unforgettable, and not just because of these two great actors. At one point in the evening Bob had to open a door, and it wouldn’t budge. He laughed and turned to the audience. ‘The fucking door won’t open so I’ll have to walk around it.’

In 1986, while working on Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, Bob, Linda and their then two-year-old daughter, Rosa, came on holiday to Krk. We helped find them a villa to rent in our street. I remember them coming by for a barbeque on their first evening there. He was worried that there didn’t seem to be a spare set of sheets. ‘Do you think you can ask the owners for some more? It’s very hot and I sweat a lot. And things might get seriously romantic.’

The next day things got seriously dangerous. I took them out in our small fibreglass boat. Six of us in a three-metre dinghy and no lifebelts, which were unknown in Yugoslavia.

Rosa’s hat fell into the sea and Bob stood up and leaned over to retrieve it. As water poured over the side, we nearly capsized. I didn’t need to shout at him to sit down. We were that close to disaster.

Sitting in Bob and Linda’s kitchen one Saturday evening in 1987, and after a bottle or two of wine, I showed him some Rabuzin images and told him about my idea for a film about the artist. Bob was off to Czechoslovakia to finish directing and acting in The Raggedy Rawney. His next big project was to star in Roger Rabbit. He said he’d be willing to take part in the documentary if it could be made and that he knew a film director who made art movies. He gave me the telephone number for Bill Leeson of Waveband Films.

Yeh, Dave,’ Bob said. ‘Can’t you see it? Me walking across those hills, surrounded by all those fucking flowers. Bloody marvelous. Ring my agent on Monday.’

I did, but his agent was less enthusiastic. He told me that Bob had left a book with him about some Polish artist.

No,’ I corrected him. ‘Yugoslav.’

Geography was never Bob’s strong point,’ he said. The phone went dead.

I contacted Bill and he and his editor, Larry Boulting, visited Rabuzin in Croatia. Together, we made plans for a film about the artist. 

Nothing came of it, but four years later, war broke out in Yugoslavia. While Rabuzin and his wife remained at home in Ključ , Ivan Prpič and most of the Rabuzin family had left Croatia and were living in Lausanne. I wrote a treatment which involved the naïve artist painting his fluffy clouds and mountain-sized flowers while war raged around him. The contrast between his images of a rural idyll and the actuality of what was going on would, I thought, make a strong story.
Bill suggested we go to Chrysalis TV who’d made their reputation with the World Snooker Championships. He’d heard they were looking for a foothold in the arts slots. He was right and they agreed to take us to Anthony Wall and Nigel Finch at BBC Arena.

I was nervous. Although the treatment was mine and Bill had made films before, I had no idea where to start. I had been working from Benjamin Lucitti’s Student Film-maker’s Handbook. With a combination of Lucitti, Bill and Chrysalis, we got funding from Arena to go to Croatia and start filming.

We arrived in Zagreb and recruited a camera crew from Croatian TV. It was the first time I’d been in a war zone and I felt a mixture of fear and excitement. I invited Darko Glavan to be the narrator and we set off for Ključ . The film crew travelled in their van and I drove a hire car with Bill and Darko as passengers. We were playing The Pogues Rum, Sodomy and the Lash at such a high volume we never heard the shelling. Then I saw a soldier waving at us from a bridge across the road. ‘Why’s he doing that?’ I asked.

Darko turned the volume down. ‘Fuck it, David. This is the front line. Turn around.’

We arrived at Ključ a little later than the others and not much further away from the fighting. The Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) were being driven out of their base at Varazdin, ten kilometres east of Ključ .

We stayed in the town at Hotel Varazdin. The first evening there a soldier ran into the lobby shouting that the Serbs were dropping chemical bombs. They weren’t, but we joined a crowd of women and children in the casino basement and spent the evening on the roulette wheel, using a conker I kept as a lucky charm for the ball. That night I smoked my first cigarette since Canford Heath.

The next day at Rabuzin’s house we filmed the artist at work in front of a window. Outside, we’d set up a blue screen so that we could later show scenes of war over his shoulder as he continued to paint his utopian visions. Rabuzin was nervous about the screen, expecting it to attract the interest of the Yugoslav air force.

When filming a family meal, Rabuzin ate his food like a bourgeois, conscious every action was being recorded. But when he was alone, I’d seen him pick up his soup bowl and dispense with the spoon. As the meal continued, we left the camera running and told him we were going outside to smoke. He tucked a napkin under his chin and slurped his soup. The shot was included in our film. I doubt he found it in his heart to forgive me. 

Before we returned to London, we had a chance encounter in Zagreb. We came across the Umjetnicki ka Brigada – the Art Brigade – a group of singers, actors, dancers, directors and artists. They had set up their own unit in the Croatian army. We took photos and interviewed some of them on camera.

When we got back to London, Nigel and Anthony were lukewarm about our Rabuzin footage, but they liked what we showed them of the Brigade and we were given further funds to return to Croatia to bring these two disparate subjects together.

We weren’t happy to go back as the war there was getting worse, but Bill and I knew we didn’t have a complete film with only Rabuzin’s involvement.

We filmed the Art Brigade performing cabaret on the front line near Karlovac and invited Rabuzin to Zagreb while we tried to find a way to link the two themes. Our solution was to use the town’s funicular railway, Zagrebačka uspinjača, which connects the city centre with the
Old Town. 

We put two members of the Art Brigade in the car going up, and Rabuzin was filmed coming down. They passed each other halfway and Rabuzin did a voiceover, reflecting on the role of the artist in war: how the fighting had to be done by those younger than himself. The end result wasn’t Spielberg, but it was a way out of a tricky problem.
Three days before the scheduled broadcast, I was contacted by our executive producer and asked to meet the Head of BBC2, Michael Jackson, in his office. He was unhappy about the film. We had too many dead bodies. ‘Thirteen,’ he said. Could we cut it back to five or six? He asked his assistant to fast forward the film to a sequence of corpses which he then proceeded to count.

I asked him if he’d watched the whole film. He said no. I asked him if he was aware of the context in which we’d shown the dead. He said no. I asked him whether he knew of any wars when people didn’t get killed. He said nothing. I explained that we had panned across a Rabuzin mural on the wall of a school, filming a line of children in front of it. When the camera reached the end, it panned back, this time soldiers replacing the children. The camera returned a third time, showing a row of empty graves, then closed in on the mural as a child turned cartwheels under it. This was then followed by the footage of the dead.

While this was going on, Rabuzin was speaking, ‘When a man looks at something, he just sees half of it. At every moment, half the world is missing to us. So we must turn in order to see the second half. Everything depends on what we see and how long we see it; that’s how long we live. Unfortunately, for most of us, even when we are alive, we live only half a life.’

I said all those involved with the film would disassociate themselves from it if there were any cuts. It was shown complete. I was told later that the BBC had a policy that film-makers can show as many dead bodies as they want if the wars are in Africa or Asia but that, with Europeans, there had to be greater circumspection.

Giles Smith reviewed our film in the Independent. After disparaging comments about the Art Brigade, he continued: ‘Strangely, in a programme so questioning about art and its roles, there was little enquiry into the merits of Rabuzin’s actual work – mostly pictures of skies filled with fluffy clouds and landscapes done up as puffballs. Rabuzin, it was said, “regards himself as a God in the sky of his paintings”. Even so, most of them looked like the kind of get-well card you might buy for someone you didn’t know that closely.’1

After what happened later in Bosnia, I am embarrassed by how strongly pro-Croat the film is but, at that time, they were the victims of urbanicide at Vukovar and other towns and villages. And groups such as the Umjetni ka Brigada had characteristics of the citizens’ militias from the Spanish Civil War.

Not long after the film was made, Zagreb’s liberalism was replaced by the racist nationalism that was never far below the surface in Croatia. Even my old friend, rock’n’roller Darko Glavan, moved to the right. I was to end up working in Mostar, the Herzegovinian town that was to become the worst victim of this revanchist Croat nationalism. My experiences there make it difficult for me today to watch more than a few minutes of the film.

Historical change can be witnessed by observing the use of symbols. The most obvious example is the swastika. Originally it was a Hindu symbol for eternity, but Hitler hijacked it as the sign for Nazism. In the case of the wars in former Yugoslavia, the cross was the symbol to watch. When making our film in Croatia, it was everywhere. Militiamen had rosaries wound around their necks with huge crucifixes hanging from them. It seemed to me a fashion accessory, rather like the GIs in Vietnam and their bandanas.

By the time the war reached Bosnia, the cross had become synonymous with Croat fascism because the first thing the Croatians would do after occupying a former ‘Muslim’ town or village would be to erect a huge wooden cross, often on the site of a destroyed mosque.
Wiser observers than I foresaw all this. Misha Glenny, in his book The Balkans, refers to the Zagreb and Belgrade Springs of the early 1970s when liberal reformers in both the Serb and Croat League of Communists were denounced and driven underground by Tito. This ensured that a future revival of nationalism would be anything but liberal.

In Ted Hughes’ powerful version of Aeschylus’s The Orestia, he writes about the attack on Troy:
But now let them take care
To respect the gods of that city,
So long as they violate nothing sacred, Violate no temple, shrine, priest
Or priestess,
Perhaps these destroyers of a city
Will escape destruction.

The next ten years of my life were going to take me very close to the destroyers of cities. 


1 ‘Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum’, Giles Smith, the Independent, March 7th, 1992: ‘Imagine the scene; you’re in the Croatian army, stationed on the front line, exhausted from skirmishing with the Serbs but enjoying, as best you can in the circumstances, a brief lull in the fighting. Suddenly a truck pulls into the camp and a small group descends, looking suspiciously like actors. They’re actors, and within seconds, they’ve converted the back of the lorry into a makeshift stage-set with a sign in coloured lights above it, reading “Ad hoc Cabaret”. It may have been one of the only consolations to you, as a soldier, that though the war zone was clearly hell, at least it minimised your chances of encountering a street theatre group; now you don’t even have that anymore. Perhaps the only reasonable option is to lay down your arms, put your hands on your head, and set off on the slow trudge to enemy lines. Actually the particular troop of Croatian soldiers shown on Arena responded to the particular troupe of Croatian performers with laughter, applause and much waving of peace signs. They enjoyed the satirical songs (which the programme didn’t bother to translate for non-Slav viewers); they looked appreciatively at the panels on the truck, which were flipped from behind to expose various challengingly abstract pieces of painting; they didn’t even balk at the taped music, in which someone could be heard earnestly playing a home organ and a toy trumpet – or perhaps playing a home organ with a toy trumpet. When Croatia went to war, the artists decided to get involved – some to fight, the rest to do the cabaret, although those doing the cabaret didn’t seem to recognise the distinction. One of the members of the mobile theatre
unit spoke of “fighting with our ammunition, which is art”. You could test your feeling about the wisdom of this by asking yourself the following question: if civil war ever broke out here, would you rather have on your side a) the massed ranks of the Royal Tank Regiment or b) Simon Callow? As Arena got into its stride, you feared a programme burdened with difficult claims about art’s ability to save us from ourselves; or, worse, one which attempted to convince you that a thoughtful piece of mime on the dynamics of violence was a capable match for an airborne assault. To which one possible response would be, if war is futile, what does that make street theatre? Here, though, the best part of the actors and artists and sculptors and the one jazz singer who addressed the camera, pointed out straight away how winning wars wasn’t essentially part of their job description. Weighing the claims of the pen against the sword, many of them had opted for the sword, realising that if they didn’t, someone was going to come in and steal all the pens. “Wearing this uniform,” said a uniformed actor, “standing on the front line, is the only way I can be sure of my future.” The programme doubled as an interview with the painter Ivan Rabuzin, now aged 70, so in no position to join up at the front, but able instead to offer a few sage notions on the impact of unrest on the artist’s vision. Strangely, in a programme so questioning about art and its roles, there was little inquiry into the merits of Rabuzin’s actual work – mostly pictures of skies filled with fluffy clouds and landscapes done up as puffballs. Rabuzin, it was said, “regards himself as a God in the sky of his paintings” . Even so, most of then looked like the kind of get-well card you might buy for someone you didn’t know that closely. For once, it was better to hear from the artist than to look at his art. On the intrusion of war into his daily life, Rabuzin didn’t seem to be making anything grander than an assessment of a personal dilemma when he wondered “Do I now paint a black flower instead of a church?” This was always going to be hard work in a film which included clips of people bombed to death and their families mourning them, for whom the matter of what Rabuzin did or didn’t paint could not, right then, have carried much weight.’

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