For a subject with little currency outside of Serbia and, weirdly, China, the documentary Walter provides an incredibly absorbing 75 minutes. Directed by Andrej Acin, the closing film at this year’s Vancouver Serbian Film Festival concerns the legend of Yugoslav war hero Vladimir Peric Valter, who led the resistance effort to drive the fascists from Sarajevo at the end of the Second World War and died as the city was liberated.
But the documentary also takes an unconventional detour through the history of another legend; Serbian actor Bata Živojinovic´, who appears in the twilight of his life to discuss his signature role as Valter in the massively popular 1972 war film Valter Defends Sarajevo.
Between the stories of these two men, Acin has produced an engaging examination of the nature and power of myth. As described in thoughtful interviews that include the filmmaker Emir Kusturica (Valter Defends Sarajevo provided his first-ever acting role) and Valter’s own sister, we see how the very meaning of Valter morphed and was adapted through the former Yugoslavia’s communist years, the civil war, and even during less seismic upheavals like the arrival of punk and new wave in the early ’80s.
Ultimately, in one way or another, the significance of Valter endures. In an interview with the Straight, festival director Denis Cviticanin promised an emotional experience for anyone born in the former Yugoslavia. “Valter is going to make people cry by minute four, I believe,” he said. “I’ve told everybody that if you don’t cry by minute four, I’ll give you a refund.”
A resident in Canada since 1997, Cviticanin described growing up with “partisan films” like the 1969 Oscar nominee The Battle of Neretva. Valter Defends Sarajevo, however, was the genre’s masterpiece, and Živojinovic´—who is compared by one of the pundits in Walter to Daniel Craig as Bond—is a solid-gold icon of the region’s cinema. He ultimately made more than 300 films.
“He became a legend as well as his character from the film, the real person that the film was based on, and now him,” Cviticanin said. “So it’s three different characters becoming almost one person.” In turn, both Vladimir Peric Valter and Živojinovic´ became monolithically famous in China, where, Cviticanin noted, ”after the Cultural Revolution, they didn’t have any heroes to identify with. At some point in time, Valter became that hero. One can make a parallel between the old Chinese knights that were disappeared by Communists and Valter being very appealing to the broad audiences in China.”
After viewing Walter, one can also understand the appeal to broad audiences anywhere. The Vancouver Serbian Film Festival regularly does very well thanks to the city’s expatriate population, but the film deserves the widest audience it can get. Director Acin will be on hand to take questions after the screening on Friday (March 15).