Each aspect of the long-standing career of our prominent thespian Ljiljana Blagojević could be an occasion for a conversation with her.
This year, however, brings memories of 1981, when her role in Do You Remember Dolly Bell opened a door to domestic and international cinema for her. She was in her third year as a student at the Belgrade drama school when director Emir Kusturica entrusted her with the role that was to take her to film festivals. A world career was on the horizon, but Ljiljana declined it. Not regretting anything, she now looks back on her life with a tad of nostalgia and a sense of deep calm.
Do you ever watch a rerun of this film?
"Although I dislike watching myself, I see my early work differently. This film, a masterpiece of Serbian cinema, brought a lot of joy to me and opened up a career opportunity that you can only wish for. The wonderful poetics and the amazing humour evoke in me a feeling of nostalgia for all that is no more. A big country, a solid cinema tradition, as well as my own youth and the first steps that I took in film. Time is like a sieve that reveals to us what is a work of art, and what isn't. It has revealed that Emir Kusturica's directorial debut is a gem of our cinema, and I'm proud of being part of its exceptional cast. Although he was young himself, Emir showcased the broad range of his directing talent in such a way that not even the biggest fault-finders could find a flaw in the film."
Do you reflect on the passage of time now?
"Once we know that everything has a beginning and an end, we ought to enjoy and look forward to each new day and our continued existence."
Let's go back to the film. What did Kusturica say to you – why did he pick you?
"I was a third year acting student when my TA, Bora Stjepanović, brought Emir to our cohort to meet us. I never dreamed that I could get the part. The great director sat down and chatted with us. After a couple of days they asked me to bring all my childhood photos. I did, and that was it. Spring had passed, and I was on a camping trip when a telegram reached me at the camp, asking me to get in touch with Sutjeska Film asap. I went to Sarajevo, and the shooting started that fall. So, there was no screen test, no casting, none of that sort of BS. You know why? When you know what you want and when you hit upon what you have been picturing to yourself, if you're confident, you don't need casting or auditions."
This was a true story that Abdulah Sidran made into a masterpiece of a script. Did you see it that way too?
"I know there are a lot of biographical elements in the script, but it was only with Kusturica that Sidran could write something like that, and Kusturica alone was able to sense the gentle humour and the unusual poetics that we can see in the film."
What are your memories of Sarajevo back in the day?
"I liked it. There was a wonderful spirit among the folks there. Excellent bands, fantastic music, amazing poets and painters… A city full of cafés, smartly dressed girls, and witty guys. I enjoyed the city and its beauty."
The film was awarded a Golden Lion in 1981, at the Venice Film Festival.
"It received an award at Pula before that. I remember I was on my way to Dubrovnik on a ship called Liburnija. I was sitting on the deck, and behind me I could hear a film critic analysing the film and tearing it to pieces. It was only when the film was invited to Venice and got an award that it was reborn. That's us. When you get recognition abroad, that's when we start to appreciate it too."
And that moment at the ceremony in Venice was unreal.
"I received an ovation. Slobodan Aligrudić, Abdulah Sidran, and myself were put up at the best hotel, where the famous film Death in Venice had been shot. Unfortunately, the 20 minute-long applause was recorded only on a tape recorder. There were no TV crews from this region. The audience was on their feet. The newspapers full of headlines. I was compared to the biggest acting names from Italian Neorealist films. They mentioned the film Bitter Rice. It was the birth of a new name in world cinema – Emir Kusturica. That's when I was invited to go abroad, but the terms specified in the contracts were so brutal that signing off on them meant giving up on life and freedom. There was no dilemma – I didn't go. And I never regretted it. My language is my homeland. I dream in it, and only in it could I carve out a career that I've had."
You were 26. What memories do you have of yourself at that age?
"Although I was young and curious, I wasn't fully self-aware. I'm much more confident now, which makes sense, seeing as I've been working on myself. The many recognitions – coming only from the profession, never politics – have helped me get there. The country was bigger than, as was the market and the competition, so the joy of being selected was bigger too. I worked in Sarajevo, Zagreb, Slovenia, Macedonia... For some reason, I worked the least in Serbia. Everything was important to me. The script, the director, the co-star. Everything. I refused to play in films that I thought wouldn't take me forward. Back then, as much as today, I think that you carve out a career out of the parts you refuse rather than the ones you accept. I was able to choose and I did choose. When I look back, I'm content. These are different times. There's less joy, and everything is somehow predictable. What gets shot, and who gets to play. The results in culture are a chip off the old society block. Shooting is a business now, and it used to be art."
Female parts have always been few. Have you felt held back as an actress because of this?
"I've had nice acting roles. My theory is that each role finds its actor. This churning out of TV series is like the newspapers. You read them today, and forget them tomorrow. The newspapers that you keep are rare. Likewise, only a handful of TV series will be remembered. Popularity doesn't mean or guarantee quality. Only time will tell what doesn't have a shelf life. Like the film Do You Remember Dolly Bell."
'Kusturica and I trusted each other'
After Do You Remember Dolly Bell, director Emir Kusturica went on to make a name for himself internationally. Are you proud of starring in his first film?
"I recognized Emir's talent back then. The drama Buffet Titanic, which he directed, was on TV. I saw it, and recognized that poetics of his. From that point onwards, I trusted him although I didn't know him. I trust him still, and I'm grateful to him because what I have now is owing to that film as my acting debut. Many years later, when I received the great lifetime achievement award in acting – the Žanka Stokić Award – Emir gave a speech. I was touched. That speech and his presence at the awards were also, in a way, a recognition of how far we've come since our shared beginnings."
Jasmina Antonijević Milošević