Hanging out with Belgrade’s 'La Haine' Obsessives

How a cult French movie influenced art and music in the Serbian capital.

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10 September 2014, 1:44pm

Photo d'Ivan Shwarz Mihajlovic. Sauf mention contraire, toutes les autres photos sont de l'auteure

(Photo courtesy of Ivan Shwarz Mihajlovic. All others by the author unless stated.)

Belgrade is big into La Haine. Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film about a day in the life of three friends from the Paris projects, set in the aftermath of a riot, might have won awards, launched the career of Vincent Cassel and gained international cult status, but in Serbia's capital its influence runs deeper.

Much like the film, the city is characterised by the grey, high-rise urban grime of its post-communist aesthetic. Throw in La Haine-themed graffiti, hip-hop nights and guys with quotes and pictures of Cassel’s character Vinz tattooed on their backs, and it all adds up to something bordering on obsession.

INKE & SECURITY

(Photo by Marina Ćetković)

Rappers Inke (AKA Vins Beats, or Ivan to his mum) and Security (AKA Vuk) are based in the central neighbourhood of Donji Dorćol. In the basement of their high-rise you’ll find Studio La Haine, a little space their neighbours have allowed them to use. Despite the gentrification going on around them in Dorćol, down here looks as ragged as ever – the only decoration being a single computer (complete with a desktop background featuring La Haine protagonists Vinz, Said and Hubert), microphones, graffiti and walls covered in egg cartons.

La Haine is our favourite movie – that story of the streets and the city has inspired us a lot,” says Security, whose best-known track "Besni" ("Angry") captures the frustration of life in a country still prone to occasional volatility, where youth unemployment hovers around the 50 percent mark.

“We also rap about social and political issues, so automatically the connection [to La Haine] was made. France is a society of different races and religions, but there is a cliché, like here, that all guys from the street are the same – that they’re all hooligans. We want to show that we’re all different, that everyone has his own story. You don’t get the space to express yourself, someone always puts you down.”

The pair also organise Belgrade’s La Haine hip-hop night, bringing together the city’s urban youth. I ask whether the kids who attend feel a kinship with Vinz. “Everyone understands the film in a different way,” says Inke, “but I think the point [of the movie] is that all hatred you pay for with your own head.”

NEMANJA

Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) was built as part of socialist Yugoslavia’s many "work actions" post-WWII. With the arrival of capitalism, it's become Serbia’s corporate centre, mixing modern shopping malls and office buildings with distinctive old Tetris-like socialist housing blocks (blokovi), each identified only by number.

Block 19A resident Nemanja is 29 and works for an insurance company. On his back he has a tattoo that reads: “Jusqu’ici tout va bien” (“So far so good”), taken from La Haine’s opening monologue. “My friend liked the tattoo so much he got the same one. Then another friend asked if he could get the same as well – what can I do?” he laughs.

Local pride here works on a block-by-block basis. And it’s in New Belgrade, Serbia’s most populous municipality, where you’re reminded most of La Haine’s world of banlieues. “I got this sentence tattooed because of the metaphor it carries,” Nemanja explains. “It has a lot of similarities to me personally and the country I live in – and especially my neighbourhood and the people around me. In the film he falls from the rooftop; the years are passing by; so far everything is OK… survival, it’s the philosophy of life. You can’t plan anything because most important is that today or tomorrow everything stays OK.

“The Paris suburbs remind me a lot of my neighbourhood, of New Belgrade, in general. Maybe that’s why I liked the movie when I first saw it as a kid. I guess people in Serbia like it because they’re in the same situation. We’re on the margins of Europe, in the same way as they’re on the margins in those suburbs: Jewish, Arab or black. But in France it’s the marginalised part of society that have those problems. In Serbia, it’s all of us. I mean, it’s one of my favourite movies, but I’m not sure it would be if I were living in Switzerland.”

DEROX

From the top of Lekino Brdo (Leka’s Hill) you can see all the way from Belgrade’s sprawling suburbs to the city centre. On a steep street littered with a few old craft shops and near-collapsed bungalows, you’ll find wall-to-wall graffiti, much of it simple tags or spray-painted images of local football heroes and characters from Scarface and The Godfather. Look hard enough, though, and you’ll find Vinz pointing a gun at the mirror while imitating De Niro’s “You talking to me?” monologue.

“I started drawing graffiti when Belgrade was grey,” says Milan "Derox" Milosavljević, a graduate of Belgrade’s Academy of Applied Arts, and the man responsible for most of the work here. “At the time we didn’t even have advertisements, billboards. I wanted to break that greyness. At first the neighbours protested, but then they realised that graffiti is beautiful, so they asked me to do more.”

Derox now works as a conservator-restorer of books at the National Library of Serbia, but having grown up a Lekino Brdo street kid, he’s another to whom La Haine speaks directly.

“One of my first and most important [pieces] is the graffiti of Vinz,” he says. “I think I counted every time I watched that film up to the 56th time. Every afternoon we’d sit, grab a beer and watch it. We’d learn French words even though we couldn’t understand them. We identified with those guys because everything that happened to them happened to us, too. When you’re on the street, things like guns become normal. We compared everything to them. And the riots in the film could be compared to our October revolution.”

With Kassovitz’s film turning 20 next year, and Serbia – despite its EU candidate status – in an almost perpetual status of transition and economic strife, La Haine is likely to continue to chime with the youth of Belgrade. “I heard a story that a guy murdered in Montenegro had a tattoo of Vinz – not a still from the movie, but of my graffiti,” says Derox. “I did a memorial for him afterwards. We started doing all three characters – Vinz, Said and Hubert – a couple of years ago. We still haven’t finished it, but we will. Soon.”