You’ve probably never heard of the 1972 film Walter defends Sarajevo, even less watched. Produced in Yugoslavia and set during World War II, the film follows a communist guerrilla leader (codenamed Walter) facing off against occupying Nazi forces.
This may seem obscure, but Walter defends Sarajevo is one of the most watched war films of all time. A new museum dedicated to him has just opened in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and authorities are planning a tourist route, equipped with geolocation, which will visit the places where various scenes from the film were filmed.
To understand why, it helps to know the importance of the film in a particular country: China. Hundreds of millions of Chinese watched Walter defends Sarajevo, among the very rare foreign films screened in the country during the Cultural Revolution. Bosnia and Herzegovina is seeking to capitalize on this history to attract Chinese tourists, whose numbers are already increasing. And negotiations are underway to redo Walter defends Sarajevo with several Chinese film studios, said Jasmin Durakovic, director of the Sarajevo Film Center, where the the museum is housed.
However Walter defends Sarajevo was made half a century ago and depicts a country that no longer exists, the film traces an important history between China and the Balkans and is expected to shape Sino-Balkan relations for years to come.
THE Valter Bran Museum Sarajevowhich opened last weekend, offers rooms representing various scenes, wax statues of characters and multimedia content dedicated to the film. Durakovic said he expects it to be a major attraction for Chinese tourists. “Just after the museum’s first week of operation, we see Chinese tourists arriving,” he said.
There is also a demand for Walter-themed trips, including one 12-day tour in the Balkans (link in Chinese) offered by an operator based in California which includes a day in Sarajevo to visit the sites where Walter was filmed.
The Cult of Valter
In China in the 1970s, Walter defends Sarajevo was for many viewers a window to the unknown outside world. Its story of valiant and successful communist resistance against the tyranny of fascism made it an instant hit, catapulting actor Velimir “Bata” Zivojinovic, who played Walter, to stardom. Walter became the most successful foreign film in China during this decade and the most watched Yugoslav film all time.
One of the first places to screen Walter was Culture Square in Shanghai, the city’s first cinema, where first-run films were shown before they could be seen elsewhere. Later, in cinemas across the country, people queued in droves to see Walter, for which tickets were often sold out. And just last year, a theatrical adaptation of Walterperformed in Mandarin, was presented at the Shanghai Drama Arts Center.
The film proved so popular that a brand of Chinese beer is named after Walter, and the cans were adorned with Zivojinovic’s chiseled face. Iconic lines from the film, including “Do you see this city?” » It’s Walter! » – has become anchored in the collective memory of an entire Chinese generation.
Other Yugoslav films also enjoyed good success in China at the same time, although they did not enjoy the success of Walter. One reason for their success was that they provided a welcome respite from the simplistic, cookie-cutter revolutionary model operas of the Cultural Revolution period, wrote a Chinese critic in 2016 (in Chinese). In the operas, the critic notes, the good guys all look the same (handsome, confident, dressed in a worker’s uniform), “while in Yugoslav films, the ‘good guys’ don’t look like the ‘good guys’ and the ‘good guys’.” bad guys “. have a positive image. These types of non-stereotypical artistic expressions were refreshing to the Chinese people.
Today, Durakovic said, “Bosnia, and in particular Sarajevo, shares very similar feelings and values with China about the events of its past, especially those concerning World War II, but also about the era of socialism, the era of Yugoslavia and (its former president). Josip Broz Tito). Through all of this, the film, and now the museum…connects the people and culture of Bosnia and China.
Last year, Bosnia and Herzegovina removed visa requirements for Chinese tourists, with Mladen Ivanic, a former member of the country’s presidency, predict that the “cult of Valter” would lead to a sharp increase in their already increasing numbers.
A tool of diplomacy
The film also plays an important role in relations between China and Serbia, which was part of the former Yugoslavia but is now a country east of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The influx of Chinese visitors there…doubled in 2018 of the previous year, comes as China invests heavily in what is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Trade between the two nations tripled between 2005 and 2016and last year Beijing and Belgrade signed 3 billion dollars in economic transactions.
For Serbia, the deals represent investments in infrastructure it desperately needs and which it hopes will boost the economy. For China, they represent an important foothold in southeastern Europe and an opportunity to increase its influence and influence in Serbia and other Balkan countries. are likely to become members of the European Union (paywall) in the near future. At the same time, China’s growing influence in Eastern Europe Is the West worried?.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Serbia in 2016 – the first by a Chinese head of state in about three decades – the two countries signed a series of economic agreementsstrengthening China’s presence in the Balkans as it sought to use the region as a strategic incursion into the rest of the European market.
As ties between China and Serbia strengthen, it appears that Walter defends Sarajevo will constitute a practical and proven tool of cultural diplomacy for both countries. In fact, he has played this role before. During his visit, Xi also took time to wax nostalgic about the film. At a lavish state banquet where then-Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić hosted his Chinese counterpart, the movie theme song started playing (link in Chinese).
Xi didn’t waste a second saying, “I remember movies like Walter defends Sarajevo…were once very popular in China. They aroused people’s sense of patriotism and accompanied the youth of our generation.”
As the banquet drew to a close, Xi and Nikolić headed to the table of Julijana Lula Zivojinovic, the widow of the late actor Zivojinovic, who played Walter. She told Xi: “My husband has always loved China, he has always loved the Chinese. »
Tripti Lahiri contributed to this story.