• Festivals

Vera Mijojlic Brings South East European Movies to the American Audience

The South East European Film Festival founder Vera Mijojlic is a passionate cinephile. After witnessing the disintegration of Yugoslavia, followed by a brutal war of the 1990s, she devoted her energy to building bridges. She founded SEEfest in 2006 and has dedicated her life to highlighting stories from the lesser-known region’s history by presenting multiple points of view, concerns, issues of our time in South East Europe. Over email, she spoke of what makes SEEfest unique. The film festival runs from April 26 to May 3 and is supported by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. 

Vera, can you please introduce yourself?

I was born in Yugoslavia and grew up in the city of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Later my family moved to Belgrade, Serbia, where I got a degree in journalism and started my career as a freelance cultural reporter, and film critic, and dabbled as an assistant on international productions filming on location throughout the country. One most memorable moment was in 1984 at the historic Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo when I worked as location manager for the New York-based Jalbert Productions. I moved to Los Angeles in July 1992.

How did you get interested in films?

Like many cinephiles, I fell in love with movies while watching old classics. First in the small theater of the Yugoslav Kinoteka (Cinematheque) in Sarajevo while I was still in elementary school; then in Belgrade, where I became a staple at the Kinoteka next door to my aunt’s home. It was in Sarajevo’s Kinoteka venue that I received my very first film pass. Then-director Ratomir Jeremic saw me almost every day at the box office when I would bring the coins I saved from my pocket money to buy a ticket for the first show. To my greatest surprise, he handed me a pass one day with a lame excuse that the box office was complaining about the coins. From that moment on I became a full-time believer in movie magic.

Did you have any other passions?

Yes! Books are another lifelong passion. Anything to do with literature, from paper to bound published volumes. I also collected dictionaries; now lost together with all the books I had while I lived in Yugoslavia. I still buy and give books as gifts. No matter how tired I am at night, I would always read before eventually falling asleep. Along with the printed page I am addicted to paper, and even wrote a short story a long time ago about different kinds of paper stock, from the thin, translucent pelure used for carbon copies, to document-quality bank posts. The story was dedicated to my first typewriter, Adler, a heavy-duty WWI relic that my uncle gave me as a gift. All the gifts I got in my life were pretty unusual!

When did you found the SEEfest Film Festival?

I founded SEEfest in 2006, after about three years of working on the project. The initial idea is still the same, to bring to Los Angeles movies from the less-known region of Eastern and Southeastern Europe. SEEfest showcases the diversity and artistic richness of countries big and small of ethnic groups and pockets of little-known communities. The movies we bring through SEEfest transcend borders and divisions and create a free, open space for creative dialog. 

What inspired you to do that?

Having witnessed the disintegration of my country, followed by a brutal war of the 1990s, motivated me to devote my energies to building bridges, not blowing them up.

Do you remember how the first year was?

I do! In 2006 we opened the first festival in the old auditorium of the Goethe Institute in the Miracle Mile. The opening film was the Bulgarian documentary Whose Is This Song? by Adela Peeva, which inspired countless essays, books, and conferences. It tells the story of the region in a beautiful way, through music, but also shows how even music can be a point of dispute in this volatile region. From that opening night on we were firmly on the path of telling stories that shed light on the complexities of the region while giving American audiences enough of a context to better understand the historical baggage that still haunts South and East Europe.

How has it developed after that?

From the get-go, the scope of the festival comprised the region and the complicated geographical locales that are often confusing to outsiders. The programming developed through direct partnerships with the new generation of filmmakers whose movies dusted off the patina from neglected stories of the past and explored many challenges of the post-socialist transition. Our greatest effort and the biggest chunk of time was always devoted to programming. Though we are a volunteer-driven festival, excellence in programming is the hallmark of SEEfest. 

Why is it unique?

SEEfest is not a one country-festival. SEEfest functions like a repertory theater, with a well-defined profile and mission to always present a diverse range of cinematic stories about an entire, and complicated, region. Combined in a full-scale program of features, documentaries, and short films, these stories are intended to provide a much-needed historical, geographical, artistic, and ethnographic context for American audiences to dive into the rich heritage of the 20-country region. Our palette is multi-pronged, and we hope that audiences walk away from SEEfest films with a deeper understanding and appreciation for what this remote region has to offer on many levels. 

Can you talk about the political challenges in the region that SEEfest covers?

This is a geopolitically significant region, religiously diverse and multi-racial. East and Southeast Europe encompass twenty different countries and numerous statelets, ethnic groups, and minorities. The peoples comprising our focus include Romanians, Slovenians, Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Albanians, Georgians, Kurds, Azerbaijanis, Moldovans, Turks, Armenians, Slovaks, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Sephardi Jews from former Ottoman territories, Hungarians, mixed populations from the Austrian and Italian borderlands, and the Roma people. These are resplendent cultures; yet, rising from the ashes of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Soviet empires, many of these peoples have clashed for centuries.

How does that affect the movies that are selected for SEEfest?

SEEfest creates wide-ranging conversations around internationally acclaimed films, exploring the convergences of culture, identity, politics, history, and the cinematic arts across the multi-ethnic countries of East and Southeast Europe and their diasporas. By promoting the region’s cinematic diversity to a range of audiences in Los Angeles, SEEfest harnesses film and the arts to counter ethnic and political conflict via affirming stories of social justice and overcoming divisions and toxic political climates. 

How do you balance between so many countries? Do you select a certain number of films per territory?

Our programming challenge is always about selecting the most representative films, from as many different countries we cover. With upwards of 50 films per year, we also produce many companion programs such as literary salons, poetry recitals, panels, workshops, and partner with other arts and cultural organizations and academic institutions in Southern California, as well as outside of California.

Can you highlight this year’s lineup?

The 2023 lineup features a slate of Romanian, Turkish, Bosnian, Austrian, Serbian, Ukrainian, and other films from the Eastern and Southeastern regions of Europe that extends from Ukraine in the Northeast to Georgia in the Caucasus in the Southeast. Thematically the topics range from revisiting recent history, examining the legacies of conflict, championing pioneering women’s groups, and strolling the streets of Istanbul with gay men still forced to live in the closet, to an observational documentary about youth in a correctional facility.

Some of the upcoming titles are: from Romania Men of Deeds, a darkly comic and tragic tale of rural life and a small-town policeman who emerges as a reluctant hero; from Georgia, Adamiani, a documentary chronicle of the transformation of the Pankisi Valley from a hotbed of radical Chechen fighters into a tourist destination; from Austria, multiple award winner Sonne, about three teenage Kurdish girls from Vienna who twerk in hijab and sing a pop song, which makes them famous on YouTube. We are also proud to bring to L.A. the new feature animation film The Island by the celebrated Romanian director Anca Damian, a surreal, comedic reinterpretation of the Robinson Crusoe tale, speaking of current affairs through visual poetry and symbolism. And from Ukraine, the world premiere of Dmytro Hreshko’s King Lear: How We Looked for Love During the War, an uplifting tale of staging Shakespeare’s “King Lear” with an entire cast made up of refugees, former teachers, artists, engineers, sales assistants, and housewives. Learning their lines and immersing themselves in the magic of theater gives them a new lease on life and hope for the future. 

How has the HFPA grant helped SEEfest?

The HFPA grant helped us support filmmakers with artist fees and made it possible to provide honorariums and stipends for unemployed recent film graduates from LA area colleges. A portion of the grant was also used for digital marketing and PR for the festival. 

 I appreciate HFPA and Golden Globes’ efforts to continually highlight international cinema, not just during the awards season. As a lifelong devotee of archives and classic films, I am especially grateful that your organization has a strong commitment to supporting film restoration and preserving cinematic treasures for new generations. Thank you!